By Alix Cohen
One Out Of Twenty-One Equals Nine
“There was a night when the universe was somehow in beautiful sync at The 46th Street Theater. When I finished the song, there wasn’t a sound. I walked down the steps of the podium, down more steps into the orchestra, all the way out of the theater in absolute, enveloping silence as if the audience was breathing with me. Part of me was responding as Luisa, feeling how they were with me and part of me was responding as me, thinking—Oh God, they’re quiet!? I got to the back of the house, in the lobby, and was crying so hard I couldn’t walk. Charlie Blackwell, our stage manager took me up in his arms. He said, Babe, I hope you know that was BEYOND applause. “It’s so ephemeral.” There are tears in her eyes.
In 1982, Karen Akers played Luisa Contini, wife to Guido Contini (actor Raul Julia), in the original Broadway production of Nine by Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston, directed by Tommy Tune. Nine was based on Federico Fellini’s film, 8 ½ which revolved around the inveterately promiscuous Guido and his (in this case 21) women. It was her first Broadway show. In fact, it was her first acting role. Karen won a Theater World Award for her performance and was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Supporting Actress.
“Luisa had been so betrayed. Tommy wanted me to stand with my feet spread wide apart in a stance of anger. I was hopeless in workshop. Tommy, I can’t do this, I feel so mean. Finally he came up on stage Look, are you afraid they’re not going to love you? he asked. It took my breath away. It stopped my breathing. He knew somehow. So I went for it.
There’s not a single reason I can find
To make me want to keep you one more day.
There isn’t any sort of word that you could say.
There isn’t any sort of price that you could pay.
From On Your Own by Maury Yeston
And that’s how it was staged”
After years in clubs, concert halls, and the subject of two television specials, Karen credits Tommy Tune with opening her up to enjoying an audience. “Tommy used to do these crazy warm-up exercises. He’s 6’6” or five eighteen as he likes to say, and watching him use the space around him…I who had always been sort of contained and protective, I suddenly thought I’ve got arms that go out and I can reach farther. It was like coming into a space that was perfectly comfortable. I was in proportion for the first time.” Karen is 6 feet tall.
Karen Orth Pallavicini’s charming father arrived at a country club dance in Woodstock, New York by way of Breslau, Oxford, and a coffee plantation in Brazil, where he’d been engaged 16 times in order to date without being accompanied by the young ladies’ chaperones. Her seventeen year-old (American born) mother apparently “lost” her top while dancing. The magician on the program stepped in with a cape. “Daddy said he’d seen enough to be very interested.” (Photo above by Richad Termine).
When Karen was fourteen, her father packed up his wife and six children to live in Europe. “He felt we were growing up too quickly.” Goodbye Convent of the Sacred Heart, hello Italian Riviera. “We had no money to speak of.” They traveled by Greek Freighter, comprising eight of the twelve passengers. The Summer of 1960 was spent in a villa on the beach of Alassio; Autumn in a Roman apartment across from The Borghese Gardens. Both homes were arranged through friends of friends. Karen learned Italian from her companions, studying half in Italian, half in French. Though she’d taken French in school, her ear had developed at home by paying rapt attention when her mother and grandmother tried to keep things from her by speaking the language. Her mother also played recordings of Yves Montand and Edith Piaf. The next fall, the family returned to New York when her father couldn’t find enough work.
Karen took piano lessons “reluctantly” as a child. She harmonized with friends and joined the glee club, but didn’t receive a much wanted guitar until her first Christmas at Manhattanville College. Extremely shy, she began to immerse herself in folk songs; long bangs covering eyes lowered to her instrument. “I never trusted singing as a career because it felt so good. Having been raised Catholic, I always assumed that whatever I chose as a career would involve doing for others. This career requires one to be selfish in many ways in order to be any good. You are your instrument, which requires a lot of attention.”
Married at twenty-two to Jim Akers, a lawyer, Karen lived first in Chicago and then Washington D.C. She began to sing in small venues. At The Airplane in Washington, she earned $20 a set for three sets a night. Eventually the couple moved to Manhattan. Karen temped during the day and sang whenever and wherever she could. Then she met Lewis Friedman.
“…Reno Sweeney was the center of the universe during the now legendary cabaret revival of the early seventies. Everybody who was anybody either played its famous Paradise Room or sat in the audience.” Vito Russo.
Lewis Friedman, something over five feet tall in Cuban heels, was the co-owner of Reno Sweeney (with Eliot Hubbard). “I’d always wanted to sing Piaf. Lewis convinced me I could. The Kurt Weill was also his idea.” Friedman helped Karen create her first act. Wanting to include some contemporary songs, he brought her “I Met A Man Today,” by Craig Carnelia which he rearranged from rock to something more in Karen’s style. It was the beginning of a long friendship.
Around 1980, film maker Christian Blackwood saw Karen’s show at Reno’s. He took the only existing tape to Hamburg—“I can’t believe I gave it to him”—and convinced North German Television to produce the special, A Voice From New York with Karen, accompanied by Ellis Chase. It was the first time she performed in front of a camera. She sang in English, French and German. “I did `She’s Always a Woman to Me’ (Billy Joel) in German. Christian introduced me to schnapps chased by beer, which was rather lethal” When they returned, Blackwood brought the tape to a friend at PBS. Presenting Karen Akers appeared later that year, which in turn was produced as her debut album in 1981. Karen played at Les Mouches, Les Mouches on Fire Island “where I once sang to an audience of four,” The Ballroom, Mickey’s, Surabaya, Home, Tramps, The Duplex…When she told Peter Allen he made her want to sing rock n’ roll, he affectionately admonished her with “You’re a chantoozie, and you have to stay a chantoozie.” The nickname stuck.
What Follows Nine or Carnegie Hall is a Ten
Jim Akers was transferred back to Washington D.C. Karen had commuted from Nine every weekend, speaking daily with her young sons. “I missed them like crazy.” She resettled in Washington only to be offered a solo concert at Carnegie Hall. Just weeks before the show, her “unnamed” director abandoned Karen for what he thought was a better offer. She was left with 20 arrangements that suddenly had to be farmed out and an orchestra of 18, on which he’d insisted, to be paid. Mark Hummel who had been only her pianist to that point, took over with such calm she didn’t know whether she could trust it. She could. He was a knight in shining armor. April 1, 1983. The evening sold out. “When I came back on stage to take a bow, the audience was all at the same level. It never occurred to me they were on their feet.” The overwhelming wave of affection took Karen by surprise. It somehow always does.
Juliet Taylor cast Karen “kind of out of the blue” as a celluloid nightclub chanteuse in The Purple Rose of Cairo. “I was taken into his office and we shook hands. Woody (Allen) doesn’t like meeting people. He’s shy. I asked, Have you ever heard me sing? and he said, No, is there a problem? which I just loved. I cracked up. We did everything in basically two takes.”
A role as the mistress in Nora Ephron’s autobiographical film, Heartburn followed. Directed by Mike Nichols, starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, the talent, humor, intelligence, and generosity on set was memorable.
In one fantasy scene, Karen and Jack are in the bedroom, when Meryl comes in dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. “I’m in a Rita Hayworth wig and a lace negligee cut down to my tailbone. Jack crawls down to the end of the bed and says, Honey, I can explain everything. I turn, see her, and scream, Where did you get those shoes?! (the ruby slippers). The camera pans from Meryl to me as I turn green and morph into The Wicked Witch of the West. They built a pneumatic elevator. Meryl put Toto down, threw a bucket of water on me and I melted into the floor.” First Karen had to have a life mask made, an uncomfortable experience under any circumstance. Then, three hours of body paint on and three hours to get it off. In the end, this and most of her other scenes were cut. Every time we saw you with Jack, he became less sympathetic and we couldn’t have that, explained Nichols. “Mike was so gentle with me.”
One night, while she was making dinner for guests, Karen received a call from The Reagan White House asking that she fill in for an ailing Peggy Lee at a State Dinner. The distraction caused her to burn the crust of Meryl Streep’s favorite dessert, a key lime pie. “I had to make a second crust from memory—never a good idea. After bravely trying to cut it with a knife, Meryl said it was her favorite part!” That’s what she remembers. (Karen had already performed at a private dinner for the Regans and would be invited to perform at a State Dinner for the Bushes).
I’d Love To Act Again
Among Karen’s television appearances was the 1987 lesser known role of Cliff Clavin’s mousy (?!) girlfriend on the television show, Cheers. “I worked at The Yarn Barn. We shared a passion for Jeopardy.” Cliff was tactless in trying to make-over his girl so that she could be presented to Sam and the bar with pride. Of course, there’s a Cinderella transformation. She was a guest on Hart to Hart in which she did a dance routine with Robert Wagner and had to sing slightly off key “not easy to do!” And appeared on various talk shows while working at Rainbow and Stars in the ‘90s.
If I called you to work again, would you come? asked Tommy Tune. “Of course, are you nuts?!” Karen was offered the role of Raffaela, dresser and confidante to the fading diva ballerina in the musical version of Grand Hotel—book by Luther Davis; music and lyrics by George Forrest and Robert Wright with additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. After considerable rewriting in Boston, the 1989 show garnered 12 Tony nominations, winning five.
Karen thinks she’s difficult to cast. “I’d love to act again.”
In the mid 80s, Karen and Jim Akers were divorced. The children stayed with her husband. She saw them often. A new love entered her life. She married Kevin Patrick Power in 1993. By then, her sons were at Notre Dame and Amherst. The couple based themselves in Monaco, London and Southern France for Power’s communications businesses. Karen worked less, commuting when necessary.
In 2002, Karen Akers received the Board of Directors Lifetime Achievement Award from The Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs. Other highlights of her career include performances at The Hollywood Bowl, The Pasadena Symphony, The Palao de Musica in Barcelona, Wolf Trap, and Strathmore Hall in Maryland where, losing power for twenty-two minutes during a thunderstorm, Don Rico played and Karen sang a cappella.
Karen Akers sings in English, French, German, Italian, and Russian…so far. “I still know all the words to Moscow Nights.” To say she has an affinity for languages doesn’t do justice to the transcendent power of communication and exceptionally subtle inflection she manages in other than her mother tongue. She attributes what critics call the best elocution in the business to Miss Benson, from Convent of the Sacred Heart, who “…would make us read poetry aloud with a pencil between our teeth” and to her love of words.
I asked whether there was anyone with whom she’d especially like to perform. The unexpected answer: James Taylor. I suspect this can be tracked back to Karen’s love of the simplicity and directness of folk music, to which Taylor’s work owes some, and to their similar lack of artifice. When Edith Piaf was questioned as to why she thought the French took her so to heart, she shrugged “Enfin, c’est le sincerite.” Finally, it’s the sincerity. The same might be said of the extraordinary Ms. Akers.
There are ten recordings and a performance DVD, Karen Akers: On Stage at Wolf Trap, but there’s nothing like being in her presence when this lady takes the stage.
“Dancing on the Ceiling” A Rogers and Hart Songbook
September 14 to October 23
The Oak Room at The Algonquin Hotel
212-840-6800 or www.AlgonquinHotel.com
“an evening of hopeful optimism”
“Akers Sings Porter—Anything Goes!”
November 2 through November 14
The Prince Music Theater, Philadelphia
“We had an awareness of time passing, terrible economics, losing friends-I came up with this show to give a party for Don, Eric, and myself. (Don Rebic, Accompanist and Musical Director, Eric Michael Gillette, Director) Karen hopes to record this show in 2011.
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions—New York
Favorite Place To Eat: At home with friends
Favorite Place To Shop: I hate shopping! If I HAVE to do it, I’ll always choose a small boutique.
Favorite New York Sight: Either of my son’s arrivals in The Big Apple and Manhattan viewed from the water.
Favorite New York Moment: September 19, 1993, getting married to Kevin at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia.
What I Love About New York: The sheer variety and richness of the people, places, and things to do.
What I Hate About New York: The fact that the city has such a hold on me.
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions–Washington D.C.
Favorite Place To Eat: At home with friends
Favorite Place To Shop: I hate shopping! If I HAVE to do it, I’ll always choose a small boutique.
Favorite DC Sight: Flying over the Potomac
Favorite DC Moment: It’s between singing onstage at the Kennedy Center with The Washington Ballet performing to my French songs and roller skating in Rock Creek Park with my family
What I Love About DC: My friends
What I Hate About DC: TheBeltway