Conference Call: Ilene Graff and Nikka Graff Lanzarone at Feinstein's/54 Below
One of my favorite TV shows growing up was Mr. Belvedere. I couldn't wait to see what "The Owens'" family was up to, especially the mischief that "Wesley" (played by Brice Buckham) would get into and how "Mr. Belvedere" (played the incomparable Christopher Hewitt) would resolve the issues. That show tackled some wonderful topics, but most of all it entertained me week after week. It's great reliving so many of those episodes today thanks to METV.
The one actress who always stuck with me was Ilene Graff who played Mom, "Marsha Owens." While "Marsha" learned a lot from "Mr. Belvedere," she also taught her kids some great lessons. Ilene was perfectly cast as she was able to show her comedic and dramatic sides.
So you can imagine my excitement, as I was looking through Feinstein's/54 Below's calendar for their summer shows, when I saw that Ilene and her daughter, Broadway's Nikka Graff Lanzarone were doing their first full length show together in Feinstein's/54 Below series "Duo Shows at 54."
From L.A. to New York, from baby ballet to Broadway premieres, this family will highlight songs and stories that show how those experiences have made their relationship stronger, more fun, more interesting, and generationally challenging.
Ilene and Nikka will be at Feinstein's/54 Below on July 20 & 21 at 7pm. Click here for tickets!
Feinstein's/54 Below Show Questions: Joint Answers
1. This July you are performing in Feinstein's/54 Below's Duo Shows at 54. What made you want to be part of this series?
Ilene Graff: Any chance to work with my daughter is a definite "YES!" It was also lovely to be asked by Jennifer Tepper…it was a vote of confidence in what we do, so we're diving in.
Nikka Graff Lanzarone: We've batted around the idea of doing a show together for years, but it always got pushed to the back burner because life kept getting in the way. So when Jen Tepper approached us, we took it as a sign to finally do it!
2. This concert will also be your first full show at Feinstein's/54 Below. What excites about this debut and what makes you nervous?
Ilene Graff: I'm excited to be able to be the beneficiary of Nikka's sharp sense of humor…she's the funny one and I expect she'll help me be funny, too. I'm excited to hear our voices together…although they are very different, we blend beautifully in that way that family does. I'm excited to show her off to some of my friends and fans who might not be aware of how great she is. I'm not nervous or concerned about the show itself. It's really good and we're in great hands with Robbie Rozelle directing us. And with Ben Lanzarone (my husband and Nikka's dad) as our Musical Director, musically it's glorious.
I'm always nervous about whether I've worked hard enough at getting people to the show. I want the room filled so everyone can love on my kid!
Nikka Graff Lanzarone: It's not actually my first full show at 54 - I did a solo concert in 2017 called Hero Worship, which was a total blast, and we did a Graff Family Holiday Show in 2013 or 2014 (now I can't remember, oy vey). We're both excited to refine and combine our very different sensibilities into what will hopefully be a hilarious and touching evening. With Robbie Rozelle directing and co-writing, and my dad Ben putting together glorious arrangements, we can't wait to share this with the audience.
Nervous? Get back to me in a couple weeks!
3. When did you decide to first perform together?
Ilene Graff: We've been singing together for a while. From her earliest childhood we've harmonized in the car, and little Nikka sings on our CD, Baby's Broadway Lullabies. But we didn't really sing together til she was a teenager. I can't remember our first public performance together…it might have been at a birthday or Christmas party…but I've invited Nikka to sing in many of my shows. When she's been available, she's joined me…what a huge pleasure that has always been for me and the audience.
Nikka Graff Lanzarone: It wasn't a decision, really - we've always tried to make room for each other in performances, keeping slots open for a duet here and there at various events. But this is totally different.
4. The concert is a real family affair in that you are mother/daughter and Ilene, your husband & Nikka, your dad, Ben Lanzarone, is the musical arranger. What are the dynamics like in putting a show together as a family? Are you able to keep the roles separate or do things get intertwined?
Ilene Graff: We try very hard to be professional, and we have a lot of respect for what we each bring to the table. I don't tell Ben how to arrange, he doesn't tell me how to hit a note, we don't tell Nikka how to craft great patter. We don't always see eye-to-eye, but things shake out the way they're supposed to. And I haven't had to threaten Nikka with no allowance yet.
Nikka Graff Lanzarone: We try to keep things as separate as possible. It helps that we all bring radically different things to the table and have great respect for one another's strengths. We use each other to lift the show to the highest standards!
5. What is the best part about performing together? What's the most challenging?
Ilene Graff: I just like hanging out with Nikka. I enjoy her company. She's fun, smart, and I adore her. So to add performing to the list of things we do together (eat, shop, walk, get manicures) is golden.
The most challenging part is finding when we can all be in the same city at the same time. Living so far apart from each other limits the number of work sessions we can have in person, but we've found that we can get a lot done using Google Hangouts. When technology is good, it's very good.
Nikka Graff Lanzarone: It's so fun to hear our voices blend - and sometimes creepy (we sound SO similar sometimes!!)!
The challenging thing will be remembering who sings which parts in the duets we've divvied up! We're both very silly about that.
6. What songs in this show are you looking most forward to sharing together with the audience?
Ilene Graff: We've got a smashing "Family Medley," where we pay tribute to the talented members of our family. We're doing songs that are identified with them (and us!), inspired by Nikka's amazing show Hero Worship that she did last year at Feinstein's/54 Below. It's a huge hunk of material including songs from Grease, Chicago, City of Angels, Baby, etc., that I think is super fun. And Nikka's solos are so beautiful…she has a deeply touching version of "What Can You Lose," that gets me every time I hear it.
Nikka Graff Lanzarone: You'll have to come see to find out, right? RIGHT??
7. If you could star in any show (either on Broadway or TV) that had a mother/daughter in the leading role, which show would you like to be part of together?
Ilene Graff: Gypsy, DUH.
Nikka Graff Lanzarone: I mean. Gypsy, obviously, but we're open to suggestions/offers!
Mr. Belvedere Questions: Ilene Only
8. What did you relate to most about "Marsha"? What was one characteristic of hers that you yourself were glad you didn't possess?
Ilene Graff: I was figuring out how to work and be a mom when we were doing the show. "Marsha" was doing the same, except she had three kids and I only had one! We were both spoiled however…she had "Mr. Belvedere" and I also had help at home.
For the sake of comedy always, "Marsha" got deep into things that never appealed to me. She tried uppers (innocently, of course), she got dressed up in silly costumes (I NEVER wear costumes). But she was smart and warm and cared deeply about her family while deciding on a career path that I could never have done. Lawyer? Oy. I haven't got the memory.
9. Can you share with us one of your favorite moments from Mr. Belvedere that you have not talked about in a previous interview?
Ilene Graff: Bringing it back to Nikka, I loved how welcoming eveyone was towards her. She was a little kid when we were doing the show, and they always encouraged me to include her whenever possible. For example, I used to carry her out with me at tapings when we were introduced to the audience. She would get "hair and make-up" like Mom. She got custom-made dresses just because. Other favorite moments lead all the way up to today. I was in the market the other day, and a young man who works there came up to me, asked if he could give me a hug, because I was like a second mom to him when he was growing up. That's pretty sweet.
10. Was there ever a topic you wish Mr. Belvedere tackled that they didn't get a chance to?
Ilene Graff: Although it's made fun of now, we were pioneers in the "special episode" genre. We were the first family show to talk about AIDS, child molestation, body image, gender issues, sexual harassment, drug use, teen pregnancy, etc. I'm proud of what we did, and I'm sure if we'd gone on, we would have gone further into depth on some of them. It would be time for us to handle racial discrimination, income disparity and health care.
11. Who do you keep in touch with from the cast?
Ilene Graff: I keep in touch with everyone. We don't see each other all that often, but we have a deep bond that will never go away. I'm so proud of the kids…they are accomplished, sweet and smart, doing well in their respective fields. I talk to Bob Uecker every once in a while, and within one sentence he has me laughing. We had a wonderful reunion party at our home last summer…30 people from all the departments of the show. It was so great to be all together. Made me miss the day in day out fun we used to have.
12. I know Christopher Hewitt passed away in 2001 and I can't imagine anything happening without him, but with all the reboots happening (Will & Grace, Murphy Brown, etc), has there been any talk of a Mr. Belvedere reboot or reunion special with the remaining cast members?
Ilene Graff: Oh, I wish, Adam. I'd say it's highly unlikely, however.
More on Ilene:
Ilene Graff is a Grammy-nominated recording artist best known to audiences as "Marsha Owens," the mom on the long running ABC comedy Mr. Belvedere. She made her professional Broadway debut years earlier on the musical stage in Promises Promises, the Neil Simon, Bacharach/David hit, where she understudied the leading lady and sang backups from the orchestra pit. She performed the role of "Fran Kubelik" in New York a dozen times before starring in the National Tour.
Ilene went on to play "Sandy" for two-and-a-half years in the original Broadway production of Grease, but her biggest Broadway triumph was creating the role of Cleo in the Cy Coleman, Michael Stewart musical comedy hit I Love My Wife, directed by Tony Award winner Gene Saks. She can be heard on the show’s Original Cast Album. Other theatre credits include: Charley’s Aunt with Charles Grodin, Cabaret as "Sally Bowles," Annie Get Your Gun as "Annie Oakley," and Over Here directed by "Mr. Belvedere" himself, Christopher Hewett. Ilene created the role of "Donna" in the world premiere of composer/arranger/producer husband Ben Lanzarone’s musical, You and Me, with book and lyrics by Lloyd J. Schwartz, winning the The Valley Theatre League’s ADA Award for her performance. She had the thrill of performing the role of "Mama Rose" in a Los Angeles revival of Gypsy as well as entertaining Jerry Herman himself at a performance of Jerry’s Girls.
In addition to playing the role of Bob Uecker’s wife on Mr. Belvedere, Ilene starred in two other series, several pilots, and guest-starred on many episodic TV shows, MOWs and mini-series. She is very proud to have co-starred in the ABC/Walt Disney Company film South Pacific, working with Glenn Close and Harry Connick, Jr. Ilene shared the screen with Rodney Dangerfield in the feature film Ladybugs, and co-stars in the feature film Loving Annabelle, which is a favorite on the festival circuit, as well as the Korean-American smash, My Father, and the upcoming The Things We Carry.
Ilene has co-hosted Variety Club Children’s Charities Telethons for many years, and has sung the National Anthem for the Dodgers, Angels, Clippers and Kings. She’s performed her act throughout south Florida as well as performing in concert for The Actors’ Fund in programs saluting Kander and Ebb, Cy Coleman, Harold Arlen and Jule Styne. Ilene recently headlined at New York’s world famous Birdland, as well as at The Crest Theatre in Delray Beach, Florida, The Magic Castle in Hollywood, and Sterling’s and The Canyon Club in Los Angeles. She’s also enjoyed sold-out engagements at the Metropolitan Room in Manhattan.
Ilene created and teaches a Vocal Performance Workshop called Making the Song Your Own. She and Ben have done master classes around the country, as well as on Crystal Cruises Emerging Artists Voyages, representing the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards.
Ilene's book, co-written with Michele Gendelman and Donna Rosenstein, What The Other Mothers Know, published by HarperCollins, is available from online booksellers everywhere.
Ilene is a native New Yorker who graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in Drama. She and husband Ben Lanzarone met while working in the Broadway production of Grease, where Ben was playing the piano and conducting. Ben serves as Ilene’s Musical Director, arranger, co-producer and accompanist. Their Grammy-nominated CD, Baby’s Broadway Lullabies is a collection of beautiful theatre songs arranged especially for sleepytime and is available on her website, www.ilenegraff.com. Their daughter Nikka Graff Lanzarone, a Musical Theater graduate of the Boston Conservatory, is a Broadway musical theatre performer.
More on Nikka:
Nikka Graff Lanzarone is a Los Angeles native, but she decided somewhere around the age of three that she HAD to move to New York and become a dancer. That decision was cemented at six when she saw Jerome Robbins Broadway, her first Broadway show. Things would NEVER be the same again.
It’s a natural continuation of the family business - Nikka is part of a tight-knit clan of artists and entertainers. Her parents are singer/actress/Grammy nominee Ilene Graff, star of Mr. Belvedere, and composer/arranger/conductor Ben Lanzarone. Screenwriter/director Todd Graff is her uncle, and accomplished author Laurie and Tony Award winner Randy Graff are cousins.
After spending her childhood singing in the prestigious Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (touring the world, which was pretty fun), her high school years at the Hamilton Academy of Music (learning so much original choreography it would make your head spin), and her summers at Stagedoor Manor in the Catskills (doing tons of shows and making the best friends a girl could ask for), there was no turning back. She had devoted her life to theatre and dance.
Nikka attended The Boston Conservatory for college, earned her BFA and moved to NYC immediately upon graduation. Since then, she has been lucky enough to work in town on workshops and shows, all over the country at various regional theatres, Off-Broadway in the revised Seussical at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, and finally land on Broadway (twice!) - as “Marisa” in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and in her ultimate-dream-come-true-beyond-wildest-dreams-dream-role: “Velma Kelly” in Chicago.