By Linda Ronstadt (Simon & Schuster, 2013)
When Carole King published her memoirs last year (titled A Natural Woman, naturally), she completely overlooked the theatrical manifestation of her album collaboration with Maurice Sendak, Really Rosie (which, following its success as a TV special, became a children’s theater staple), though she provide a fascinating three pages about when she played Kate in an Irish production of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs.
Now another eminent songstress of the ’70s and ’80s has published her memoirs, and does not stint in the least on her theatrical exploits.
In her book Simple Dreams, Linda Ronstadt may completely neglect to mention Elvis Costello (four of whose songs she famously recorded in her brief New Wave period), yet devotes whole chapters to her portrayal of Mabel for the New York Public Theater production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.
Such attention to this show is fitting, since it had several manifestations: first in Central Park, then on Broadway (with a promotional stop on Saturday Live), then as a motion picture. There are lots of revealing details in Ronstadt’s behind the scenes account.
• Due to a miscommunication, she at first believed she was being asked to be in HMS Pinafore, and hadn’t even heard Penzance.
• She studied the part of Mabel while coincidentally in London (filming an episode of The Muppet Show), where she stayed at the hotel next to Savoy Theatre where Pirates was first performed a century or so earlier.
• She and producer Joe Papp and co-star Rex Smith bonded over old Spike Jones comedy records.
• She had a fit when a pesky paparazzo photographer with whom she’d had several altercations smugly showed up on an assignment to shoot her alongside Papp and then-mayor Ed Koch.
There are compelling insights into character development and theatrical singing styles. Ronstadt discusses how she and Smith had top subsume their pop vocal techniques for the more nuanced needs of musical theater, and also outlines an embarrassing incident when she and that same co-star had an onstage giggle fit that earned them a chorus of boos.
Pirates isn’t the only musical mentioned in Simple Dreams. In a final chapter which sums up the last 20 years of her career, Ronstadt singles out her contributions to the all-star concept- album version of Randy Newman’s musical Faust as “one of my favorite projects” of the 1990s, when she figures “I had a fully matured voice with a vocal toolbox that was as diverse as it was ever going to be, and I did my best singing.
Ronstadt’s awareness of her craft, and of the varying demands of the numerous different genres she chose to add her voice to, makes for a memoir as appealing to musical theater buffs as to her many pop fans.