A Conversation with Kaye
Legendary Stage and film Actress Shares Her Memories From The Pirates of Penzance
Shakespeare once famously declared that all the world’s a stage, and that the men and women in it are simply players acting out the scenes of life. Today, I’m excited to share a delightful interview I conducted recently with the beautifully talented Ms. Kaye Ballard in which we discussed her experience in an award-winning production of The Pirates of Penzance at the Minskoff Theater in New York City.
ADRIAN D. HOLMES: Let’s start at the very beginning. You were cast in the early 1980s to perform in Joseph Papp’s adaptation of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance. How did you get involved with the show in the first place?
KAYE BALLARD: First of all, I did the original Cinderella television special with Rodgers and Hammerstein back in 1957. Joe Papp was the stage manager for the show, and often talked with us about the idea of doing Shakespeare in the Park. He achieved his goal, and it was quite successful.
Joe then took on The Pirates, and it also became a big success. In 1982, he asked me if I would audition for the show, and I said, “Yes!”
ADRIAN: What compelled you to say yes?
KAYE: Well, the main reason was because I had never done anything by Gilbert & Sullivan before, so I figured being involved in one of their shows would be a good challenge for me.
ADRIAN: Was it a good challenge?
KAYE: You better believe it! I had two weeks to learn my script, and then I got to perform it with a cast of people that changed almost nightly. The music was fun, but also very difficult due to its speed and the high level of energy it required.
ADRIAN: Looking back, what comes to mind about working with your fellow cast members?
KAYE: I actually have some terrifying memories. You see, when I signed my contract, I signed on for fifty-three weeks, so I stayed in the show for fifty-three weeks; but several of the younger cast members did not hold to as strict a performance regimen as I did. They regularly stayed out later than they probably should have, and often failed to show up on time to rehearsals.
As it turned out, during my stint in The Pirates, I performed with I believe a total of seven Frederics, four Pirate Kings, and an array of other supporting characters. The only actors who were more-or-less permanent were George Rose, who played the Major-General; Tony Azito, who played the policeman; and of course the lovely Maureen McGovern, who played Mabel. Maureen had auditioned at the same time I did, so we worked alongside each other for the entire fifty-three weeks, which was a joy.
ADRIAN: Of all the songs you sang in the show, which one was your personal favorite?
KAYE: My favorite song was the first one I’d sing in the show, “When Frederic Was a Little Lad.”
ADRIAN: Can you think of any memorable gaffes or bloopers from the show?
KAYE: Of course! The funny thing about show biz is that you’ll be in a production for six months and everything goes beautifully — then suddenly, you forget your lines, or the lyrics to a song, so you panic for two weeks straight until you remember everything again and life goes back to normal. That happened to me once while in The Pirates, and I have to say it was terrifying. I said a prayer to God every night before I went out to help me with my lines. Sure enough, I never missed a beat in the really fast song, thank God.
ADRIAN: Of all the talented individuals you worked with in The Pirates of Penzance, who were the ones you most connected with?
KAYE: My list is long. I worked with so many wonderfully talented performers from all over. Like I mentioned earlier, I had a new Frederic every time I turned around; but I still feel my favorite one, and arguably the best one — though again, all of them were very talented — was Robby Benson. Maureen McGovern did a perfect job playing Mabel, and Karla DeVito, who’s now Robby’s wife, did an equally spectacular job. If you get a chance to chat with Robby, Karla, or Maureen, do give them my love. I admire each of them very, very much.
ADRIAN: I definitely will. Are there any other memorable people from the production?
KAYE: Oh, most certainly. George Rose was a good friend of mine. He did a fantastic job playing the Major-General. Of all the Pirate Kings, I’d have to say my favorite was Treat Williams. And of course, I can’t forget the stage manager. She would call out the nightly cast, which terrified me. I liked to call her “Nurse Ratchet.” But you know something? It’s wonderful to work with professional people. I’ve worked with so many people. I mean wonderful, talented people. It’s a thrill. It was a thrill to do The Pirates of Penzance.
ADRIAN: In closing, do you have any final thoughts on the overall legacy of The Pirates? And I’m not just referring to the 1980s version, but also the original 1879 production.
KAYE: Absolutely. You know, in many respects The Pirates of Penzance was almost rap, and yet it has some beautiful melodies. Young people would learn so much if they listened to The Pirates of Penzance. I’ve been working in show business for 75 years now, and of all the shows that I’ve ever been in, a couple of my favorites are The Pirates of Penzance and Golden Apple.
ADRIAN: Thank you, Kaye, for taking the time to talk with me today.
KAYE: Thank you so much for asking me. I’ll be honest, Adrian, I’ve lost almost all hope in your generation. The music and movies that are so popular today are just nothing like what they used to be. I’m glad I’ve met you, because you’ve helped me restore at least a little of my hope in young people. Your mind is sharp, and I’m amazed at how much you already know. You’re young. I only wish great things for you.
ADRIAN: Thank you so much, Kaye. You’re young, too, and I pray you have many more wonderful years ahead of you, too.
KAYE: That’s very kind of you. Thank you!
Adrian D. Holmes is an American musician and composer based in Palm Bay, Florida. Since launching his music career in 2014, he has released several singles featuring electronic classical orchestras. He will release his debut full-length album titled The Pirates of Penzance: Revamped and Revisited in December 2016. Learn more about this project at AdrianDHolmes.com.
Kaye Ballard is an American stage and film actress who currently resides in the state of California. Her career has spanned seven decades, and includes appearances in dozens of stage productions, television shows, and feature-length films. Among her most notable credits are the television show The Mothers-in-Law, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, and Joseph Papp’s Broadway adaptation of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. You can discover more about Kaye by visiting her official website at KayeBallard.com.