BY CARY GINELL
This weekend, the husband-and-wife duo of Kirby and Beverly Ward will be performing Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance, in three concerts at the Rubicon Theatre Company. Although nothing new in the annals of show business, the announcement begs the question: When was the last time you saw a song-and-dance team on stage? They were commonplace during the days of vaudeville and then on variety shows on television, but it seems like the concept has vanished from the entertainment world over the past few decades, so it is not only delightful to see that the art of song and dance is still alive, it is also great to get a chance to witness two superbly experienced professionals doing it – and having the time of their lives in the process. Their act encompasses the classic songs of Broadway’s “Golden Era,” written by composers like George & Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter, although there are some musical twists that will keep audiences on their toes.
Kirby Ward has appeared in 65 theatrical productions and concerts, from the showrooms of Las Vegas to London’s West End. His wife, Beverly, has appeared on Broadway as well as numerous regional productions. Both received rave reviews when they appeared together in Rubicon’s She Loves Me, which Kirby choreographed. I chatted with them by phone while they were in their car, rushing from one place to another (hopefully hands-free).
VCOS: Your act appears to bring back elements of vaudeville that one just doesn’t see anymore.
BEVERLY: We don’t approach it as if it’s vaudeville, although it might feel like that to some people.
KIRBY: It is definitely song-and-dance. It brings back the old style of “sing a song,” “dance a few” – there is a lot of that element.
BEVERLY: I guess the thing that we hope makes it different from vaudeville is that there is no sense of it being old-fashioned. We definitely feel like we put our own contemporary spin on the American Songbook and on the idea of song-and-dance.
VCOS: I mention vaudeville because we see lots of cabaret in solo acts with singing but rarely do we see it combined with dance on a small stage anymore.
BEVERLY: What’s interesting to me is that working in the professional theater world, the kids who are coming out of college and conservatory programs are trained in ways that are not like when Kirby and I first got our start. They can all strongly dance, strongly sing, and have the ability to act, but they haven’t been taught the combination of singing with dance in that comfortable sort of one-follows-the-other style that you associate with vaudeville, M-G-M musicals, or Broadway from the forties and fifties.
VCOS: Tell me how you two met and how this particular partnership developed.
KIRBY: Well, we met many moons ago. We’ve been married thirty-two years. We met in a theater production down in San Diego.
BEVERLY: Kirby’s folks ran a program called San Diego Junior Theater for a long, long time. That program was a floundering, sad, dying program until Kirby’s dad took it over, and during his tenure there, which was seventeen years long, he trained Brian Stokes Mitchell and Casey Nicholaw…
KIRBY: A lot of Broadway people came out there.
BEVERLY: He trained so many people who are working in the industry today – those are just two of the big names – but there are so many people who are blue collar actors on Broadway all the time who trained under Don and Bonnie Ward. So we met through Kirby’s parents because they ran this theater program. Eventually, they ran the Starlight Musical Theatre. That’s the one that used to stop for the airplanes down in San Diego.
VCOS: I remember that. The actors would “freeze-frame” because the airport was nearby and they’d freeze every time they heard the sound of a jet.
BEVERLY: Right. We met when we were doing The Sound of Music for them. Kirby was playing Rolf and I was Luisa. I had a major schoolgirl crush on him and he wasn’t really aware that I existed.
KIRBY: We got married a few years after that. Once we got married, we went on tour with Sugar Babies for six months with Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, so that was our extended honeymoon. After that, we kind of followed in the footsteps of my parents. Before I was born, my parents had a song-and-dance act that was kind of like what Marge and Gower Champion would do. They would go to Vegas and do their act. As a kid, I remember seeing little snippets of what they would do, but they were just Mom and Dad to me. Once I got older, I appreciated it more and followed their model. Bev and I started singing and dancing together and we would work around California doing musical theater. We would get cast together in kind of like the Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds parts in Singing in the Rain and in Strike Up the Band at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
BEVERLY: We’ve been working together almost since we first got married so we are two of the most fortunate people because we’ve been cast opposite each other so many times.
KIRBY: And we enjoy it. I hear so many people say, “How do you like acting opposite your wife?” But we really like it.
VCOS: Is this a symbiotic relationship or is this one of those tug-of-war marriages? What does each of you add to the mix?
BEVERLY: That’s an interesting question.
KIRBY: We bring out different elements of each other’s personality. I think we complement each other well.
BEVERLY: I think that if you had talked to us back when we first starting working together thirty years ago, it was always challenging, but the result was always good and fulfilling, so we kept pursuing it. But I think that if you had spoken to us back then, we would have said that Kirby is shaping Bev as a dancer and maybe Bev is shaping Kirby as a singer. But the reason why that wouldn’t be totally true is because Kirby is a really good musician and hears music in ways that is helpful to me as a writer of music.
KIRBY: And Bev always had the ability as a dancer; she never had any formal training. You can show her something and she will be able to mimic it really well. So I guess I’m kind of the dance side of it and she is the vocal side of it. She’s taught me to be a better singer.
BEVERLY: And he’s helped me be a much better dancer, that’s for sure.
VCOS: What about the acting part? Is there much of an element of that in your show?
BEVERLY: Good singing should always involve good acting, as far as I’m concerned. Hopefully, whatever we’re communicating in each of the songs is always coming from a place of truth in our heart and soul. I think it’s easy to say that we’re not doing lines or playing a character but I think that to really interpret a song meaningfully to an audience, you have to go to the place that the character is in.
VCOS: I’ve seen that you take songs and insert them into different musical settings. How does that affect the acting part?
BEVERLY: The difference between doing a show like Fiddler on the Roof and playing a role like Tevye, you’re looking at song from Tevye’s standpoint. But if you’re doing a cabaret show, you have to make each of those songs meaningful to you; it’s got to be Bev singing her meaning of these songs and Kirby singing his meaning of these songs.
VCOS: The song you perform are chiefly from the Golden Era of musical theatre: Gershwin leading up to Sondheim, but are there contemporary shows, and by that I mean from the last fifteen years or so, that have impressed you and do you include songs from those shows in your act?
BEVERLY: Oh, that’s a really great question. Yes, of course there are shows that have impressed us. The thing for us is that much of what we do is stuff that we’ve been working on for the whole body of our career. We finish Act I with a number that we’ve been doing for twenty years and one of the reasons that we keep doing it is that A, audiences really like it because it’s an old Gershwin tune, and B, because it keeps getting better. The more we do it, the more “finessy” it gets. And that’s really fun.
KIRBY: What we like to do is take music of any period and make it feel new, exciting, and fresh to us. And if that means an older song, like those in the thirties and forties by Berlin and Gershwin, those are timeless songs that deserve to still be heard, but that doesn’t mean you have to hear them like they were done back then. I find it very exciting to spin those songs in a new way. For instance, in our show, I sing “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady, but it bears absolutely no resemblance to My Fair Lady. It’s completely my own spin on it and it’s very contemporary and a whole new way to hear the song.
BEVERLY: And we hope that the composers who are living will forgive us for what we’re doing to their songs and the ones who are dead, they don’t have any say (laughs).
KIRBY: We do “Being Alive” at the end of the show and we do a completely different treatment of that one as well; it’s more of a funk treatment of it. I would love to do it for Sondheim sometime and get his take on it.
BEVERLY: We do a song from Baby, which is about the most contemporary thing we do, aside from songs from shows that I’ve written.
VCOS: How do you gauge whether these experiments work or not?
(both laugh) BEVERLY: We try to listen to the audience v-e-r-y carefully! When we do “Being Alive,” it’s the same kind of feeling that “‘S Wonderful” is. We’ve been doing it for five years now and we’ve made some changes for this particular setting because we haven’t been as thrilled with it as we’d like. We like it, but we want to like it more so we keep working on it.
KIRBY: Stand-up comics do that all the time. Jerry Seinfeld tries out jokes that he would do on his TV show at a club before he went in to do the show.
VCOS: Kirby, tell me about working with Joe Layton. How does he rank with Broadway’s great history of choreographers and what did you learn from him?
KIRBY: Joe was a fascinating guy. I watched him choreograph For the Boys, a movie that I worked on with him. My job on that movie was to meet with Bette Midler and James Caan for five weeks and teach them a vocabulary of song-and-dance steps material so that Joe could walk in and shape the musical numbers. I was impressed with the way Joe was able to walk around stage, and without demonstrating or creating new steps for people, he was able to take what they were able to do and what they brought into the room and shape that into material that they could perform immediately and feel comfortable with. He never said, “Here’s a dance step I want you to do.” That wasn’t his style. He would say, “Show me what you do” and then he would literally create material for them that was completely tailored to what they knew how to do. And he could do it very quickly because of that. In half an hour, that person would have an entire dance routine. I really learned a lot from working with him.
VCOS: Bev, did you have a mentor in your career?
BEVERLY: The thing for me is that if I went through my resumé, show by show, I’d say that I learned from a different person for every show. There was no one person who made that kind of an impact on me. I learn from everyone, which I love. When I did She Loves Me at the Rubicon, I watched George Ball just be so masterful, and he didn’t have a big role, but he brought such gravitas to the stage, and that’s an example for me. So those are the people I seek out at every production. But if I had to list someone as a mentor, it would be Kirby’s folks. They were the people who introduced me to musical theater, introduced me to the notion of being able to perform in any circumstance, in front of any kind of audience, and to just do it. That was all totally invaluable.
KIRBY: Everybody has their own expertise. I think of the things I learned from Mike Ockrent when we did Crazy for You about honesty and truth in a theater piece. You learn different things from different people as you move through this business.
VCOS: Finally, are there any grand goals that you have been planning that have either not gotten off the ground or are something you’ve wanted to do for a long time?
BEVERLY: We started writing musicals together about ten years ago. The first one we did without the rights and are still pursuing them and the second one we wrote has been in a number of festivals now. It’s an adaptation of an Oscar Wilde piece. But none have reached the full production stage.
KIRBY: In our show at the Rubicon, you will hear two songs from our original treatment of the film His Girl Friday, which we continue to try and acquire the rights to. We hope that one day that will work out and we will get it produced.
BEVERLY: We really want to be a part in creating new shows. Performing is great, I love it, and it is very fulfilling, but I think that when you write something, it’s like having a child. You give birth to it and that’s profound, to see actors speak your words and sing your songs out loud, that’s really terrifying and thrilling at the same time.
KIRBY: And that’s a big goal of ours, to get something of our own creation up and running.
Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance, starring Kirby and Beverly Ward, plays for three performances, June 18-19, at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura.