In the Moment: An Interview with William V. Madison Author of ‘Madeline Kahn: Being the Music-A Life’ Coming to JCCNV’s Book Fest on 11/10@7:30 pm

A terrific opportunity awaits those of us who enjoy delving deeper to examine the lives of actors that enthralled us over their careers. The upcoming occasion features author William Madison who will be at Book Fest 2015 at the JCCNV. Madison will be discussing his recent biography of Madeline Kahn. The book is entitled Madeline Kahn: Being the Music-A Life.

Madeline Kahn. Photo courtesy og
Madeline Kahn. Photo courtesy of

So, Madeline Kahn. When you read the name Madeline Kahn; conjuring her unique comic and dramatic talents, what comes to mind across her all-too-short, theater, movie, and television career?

A quick sketch of the dynamic work of Kahn might stoke your attention.  She received Tony Award nominations for work in straight plays and musical comedies including: Boom Boom Room (1973), On the Twentieth Century (1978), and Born Yesterday (1989), and won a Tony Award for The Sisters Rosenweig (1993). Each role was very demanding in its own way.

Or, does your mind drift to Kahn’s magnetic, bawdy work in movies such as in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974) or perhaps Paper Moon (1973). Both movies lead to Academy Award nominations.

Or do you recall her last movie role in the drama Judy Berlin (1991) with her last scene a slow, “unsure of what to expect walk” toward Bob Dishy to say “hello” (I’m sorry, I then think of The Third Man and its last scene and the slow determined walk of Alida Valli toward Joseph Cotton with a much different outcome).

And let’s not overlook her work on television like Sesame Street and her own comedy series Oh Madeline in 1983-84And sadly we must remember that she passed away at 57 from ovarian cancer in December 1999.


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Let us get to my interview with biographer William Madison to further whet your appetites to attend his wonderfully written, deeply researched, Madeline Kahn: Being the Music – A Life. He will be at the closing night of the JCCNV Book Fest, on Tuesday, November 10, 2015 at 7: 30 p.m.

William V. Madison. Photo by Catherine Karnow.
William V. Madison. Photo by Catherine Karnow.

David: What can audiences expect at your JCCV Book Fest session? 

William: Certainly I’ll do my best to provide some insights into one of the most popular and beloved actresses of her generation, hailed by critics as “the funniest woman in films,” who worked with many of the greatest talents of her time — everybody from Leonard Bernstein to the Muppets. If my work inspires people to take a fresh look at her work, then so much the better. There are plenty of rewards to be found

Why was it important for you to use the phrase “Being the Music-A Life” in the title? 

Madeline sometimes said that her first ambition was “to be the music.” From her earliest childhood, she didn’t want to perform — least of all for other people, which she described as “an utterly terrible idea,” and her mother’s ambition, not her own. But little Madeline liked the way music made her feel, and so that’s what she wanted to be. The phrasing is so distinctively Madeline’s own — you can practically hear her saying it — and yet it’s thoroughly apt, and you know exactly what she meant by it.

What did you learn about Madeline Kahn that you didn’t know before you started working on this book? 

Quite a number of things! But perhaps the biggest surprise was the importance of music in her career: she had a more extensive classical training than I’d realized, all of her early breaks came to her because she could sing, and she continued to consider operatic engagements in the mid-1980s. And before I began my research, I certainly didn’t understand the complex relationship between Madeline and her mother. Paula Kahn was Madeline’s first music teacher and also an extravagant, emotionally unstable person who demanded that Madeline take responsibility for her. Paula gave Madeline the means but also the need to express herself.

What roles that are on Broadway today do you think she’d have been perfect for and why? 

We don’t often see the same kinds of material on Broadway that we used to — but there are certain classic plays in which she’d have been fascinating to watch. She’d have been a memorable Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, for example, and wonderful in Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark. But by now she’d be 73 years old, and with her experience, her comic timing, and her distinctively vocal approach to character, I think she could be America’s answer to Maggie Smith.

What is Madeline Kahn’s legacy? 

Madeline made several movies that are enduringly funny, to which we can always turn when we need a good laugh. Beyond that, she had a tremendous influence on younger performers, from Broadway to opera. Again and again, I find that the people who appreciate her work best are other singers, actors, and comics. We may or may not see her influence in their work, but they’re carrying her legacy forward.

What do you want audiences to take away after attending your Book Fest session about Madeline Kahn? 

Madeline herself would want them to see that she wasn’t like the bawdy ladies she’s best remembered for playing — nothing at all like Lili von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles, for example. She was highly educated, sophisticated, and sensitive, with talents that seldom got used in movies. I hope the audience will get a better understanding of how seriously she approached her work — and how hard she worked. The more I learned about her, the more I admired her persistence and her absolute dedication to work of the highest quality. Even when the movies aren’t much good, she’s almost always at the top of her game.

If you could invite those who did not “grow up with” Madeline Kahn to your session, say Millennials — what would you say to them?

Madeline fits squarely within a generation that called into question everything that had come before. In politics in the 1960s and 1970s, we saw plenty of challenges to authority — but even in movies, we saw the old order questioned. We may take for granted that Dustin Hoffman could be a leading man, but at the time, it was revolutionary. Most of Madeline’s best-known films are parodies of classics — Westerns, Sherlock Holmes, Hitchcock, Bogart, and of course The Bride of Frankenstein — and she worked with people like Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, and Lily Tomlin, who set out to turn the status quo on its head (or kick it in the pants). By watching Madeline at work, you get a glimpse of an entire generation of creative talent — and you laugh your head off, too.

JCCNV Book Fest Session

William V. Madison’s Madeline Kahn: Being the Music-A Life – on Tuesday, November 10, 2015 at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia – 8900 Little River Turnpike, in Fairfax, VA. Tickets are $12 for adults/$10 for JCCNV members & seniors (65+), and $8 under 30. Purchase your tickets online.

Note:  There will be a screening of Judy Berlin, with Madeline Kahn on November 10, 2015 at 4:45 p.m. Obtain your free tickets here.


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