“I love this place,” Judy Kaye is saying as she slips into a corner booth at the buzzy French bistro where she suggested we meet for lunch. “The food is great. Plus, it’s close to my physical therapy.”

We’re in midtown Manhattan, and the Broadway legend, dressed smartly in a flowing turquoise tunic and tennis shoes, is just back from a Hawaiian vacation where she celebrated her 75th birthday. Looking at her, it’s almost impossible to believe that milestone: She is, in a word, luminescent. Kaye credits her mother, who lived to be 104, for her wrinkle-free complexion — and her father, who died at 93, for her aches and pains. 

“I had knee replacement surgery last summer and am still recovering,” she says. “I got my mother’s skin and my father’s body.”

Kaye can pinpoint the precise moment in her five-decade-plus career that contributed to her current creaky knee condition. “I did a rendition of The Merry Widow where my character does the cancan,” she says with an impish smile. “I added a flying split at the end. I’m still walking funny 40 years later.”

It doesn’t seem to be slowing her down. But then, perhaps nothing can. The two-time Tony Award–winning actress is currently in the midst of a month-long run of ’Til Death, an off-Broadway premiere produced by Abingdon Theatre; she’s simultaneously preparing for rehearsals for a new Charles Busch romp that’s set to debut at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, before transferring to Manhattan’s Playwrights Horizons. And she’s been offered the chance to reprise her role as Madame Morrible in Wicked

“I wanted to try something new,” she says, raising her eyebrows and taking a sip of her cappuccino. “Though there is a week overlap where I’m meant to rehearse in New Jersey and make it back to Manhattan for an 8 p.m. curtain call. I don’t think it is physically possible to pull off … ” She shrugs. “But I’ve always loved a challenge.”

Yes, she has. It’s a philosophy that has propelled Judy Kaye through an astonishing career that has earned her four Tony nominations (including those for her portrayals of Rosie in 1999’s Mamma Mia! and Florence Foster Jenkins in 2005’s Souvenir) and two wins (for her roles as the opera diva Carlotta Giudicelli in The Phantom of the Opera in 1988 and as Duchess Estonia Dulworth in Nice Work if You Can Get It in 2012). And those are just a few highlights in a storied career that includes opera performances, concerts at Carnegie Hall and the White House, several solo albums and myriad national tours. In her spare time she’s also the audiobook voice of Kinsey Millhone, the hard-edged detective in Sue Grafton’s best-selling Alphabet Mystery series.

I ask her how she manages to do all of it. Her face lights up.

“My husband calls me ‘The Franchise,’” she says. “But honestly, I’m the luckiest girl alive. I get to do what I love for a living.”

Clive Barda
Kaye as Carlotta Giudicelli, the impossible diva, in the original cast of The Phantom of the Opera in 1988. She won a Tony for the role.


“She Could Belt the Paint Off the Walls”

Kaye’s love affair with musical theater can be traced back to UCLA, where Kaye enrolled as an opera student in 1967. The daughter of a dentist and a homemaker, the 17-year-old Phoenix native didn’t consider majoring in theater until her classmate John Rubinstein — who himself would go on to an acclaimed Tony- and Emmy-winning acting career — asked her to sing in an undergraduate revue he was directing. But the opera department wouldn’t allow it; Kaye had already been cast as an opera-singing elephant in another production. She shakes her head at the memory. “I had to wear a pink leotard and sing arias while standing on my head,” she says.

Rubinstein, 77, doesn’t remember the pink elephant. But he vividly recalls the first moment he heard Kaye sing.

“She could belt the paint off the walls, and then transition to a soprano that would make you cry, it was so beautiful,” he says. “She blew everyone away with her voice — and she was cute as a button. It was a winning combination.”

Even then Kaye was known for her three-octave range, which allowed her to shift from mezzo to soprano with graceful ease. And while she couldn’t perform in Rubinstein’s revue, she volunteered to manage the spotlight. “She climbed to the top of a circular metal staircase and kept the stage light trained on the lead singer throughout the entire show,” Rubinstein says. “She just wanted to be part of the show.”

She loved it. All of it. And her moment in the spotlight turned out to be a pivotal moment in Kaye’s academic life, one that literally set the stage for her entire career.

James Leynse
Kaye (left) and Charles Busch in the off-Broadway play Ibsens Ghost, her most recent stage outing 

“Juuuuuddeee,” her opera teacher said to her afterward in a deep Italian accent, “do what makes you happy!”

Kaye took the advice. She enrolled in a class where UCLA alum Carol Burnett visited, and she became hooked on acting. She transferred to The Acting Specialization, a sort of conservatory within the theater department. “I found my love of musical theater,” she says, “and I’ve never looked back.”

Kaye enjoyed all of her classes at UCLA, but she couldn’t resist the pull of off-campus auditions. She was soon cast as Lucy in the Los Angeles company of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, which earned her an Actor’s Equity card. The musical was a smash, running for two years. 

“One night, there was a knock on the dressing room door,” she says, still delighted by the memory. “It was Groucho Marx. Another night, another knock. This time, it was Gregory Peck.”

Back on campus, Kaye was chosen to compete for the Hugh O’Brian Acting Award, a $500 grant endowed by the actor (best known as television’s Wyatt Earp) and given to two outstanding acting students each year. Her then-boyfriend suggested she sing a Porgy and Bess song for the competition.

“I loved the song, but it was describing the rape scene, and totally inappropriate,” she says with a cringe. “After I finished, Walter Matthau, one of the judges, looked at me and asked, ‘Why?’”

Another in a long line of so many fundamental lessons learned. 

“UCLA put me on my path,” she says. She’s a bit sanguine about never having finished. “I need to go back and finish my degree,” she says. “I’m still a second-quarter junior.”

A Star Is Born

Kaye left Los Angeles in 1973 to go on the road as Rizzo in the national tour of Grease, which would eventually bring her to New York for her Broadway debut in 1977. “The theater district was my ideal college campus,” she says. “I’d see friends at auditions and in shows.”

Including her old UCLA pal John Rubinstein, who was then starring in Pippin. Once again, Kaye’s voice proved her entrée to extraordinary opportunities, including having legendary director and producer Hal Prince cast her as Madeline Kahn’s understudy in the 1978 musical On the Twentieth Century

One day, early in the musical’s run, an agitated production manager met Kaye at the stage door: Kahn was not feeling well. It was the moment every rising actress dreams of — the chance for a headline reading “Understudy replaces famous lead and a star is born!”  Kaye recalls, “I had to borrow [actress] Imogene Coca’s false eyelashes because I didn’t have any. I didn’t even have time to be nervous.”

Only nine weeks in, Kahn left the show, and Kaye finished the Broadway run as its leading lady. Reviewing her performance after she stepped into the role post-Kahn, no less an authority than the New York Times declared, “Bang, boom, overnight [Kaye] is a star.”

The musical earned five Tony Awards in 1979. Although Kaye was not eligible (she hadn’t originated the role), she went on to open the musical in Los Angeles, starring opposite Rock Hudson. Her performance led to the first of what would be five Drama Desk Award nominations.

“My husband calls me ‘The Franchise,’” she says. “But honestly, I’m the luckiest girl alive. I get to do what I love for a living.”

“And the Winner Is …”

Lunch has arrived — Kaye has ordered ever-trendy salmon avocado toast — and the Broadway legend is regaling me with stories of her “bus and truck” days, when tour sets were stripped down and packed onto 18-wheelers with “Let’s get this show on the road!” written on the side. The cast followed in buses, riding city to city, staying in hotels and even bunking up with fellow castmates to save money.

Telling the story, she throws her head back, tossing her shoulder-length auburn red hair as she laughs, her brown eyes sparkling. Her vibe is reminiscent of her role model Carol Burnett: down to earth, relatable, the kind of person who instantly makes you want to be her best friend. Kaye’s dentist father was a singing waiter in the Catskills; she thinks she got her voice, her love of slapstick, from him. Vitality seems to course through her, acting like some sort of youth serum. “Eight shows a week is not to be sniffed at,” she says. “It’s like training for a triathlon.”

Kaye was having an unfamiliar career lull in 1987 when she was offered to reprise the role of Twentieth Century’s Lily on the road. She was 35, and the tour was particularly grueling: 36 shows in 18 cities. But something told her to do it. Kaye’s grandmother, who had died the summer before, had always hoped that her starry-eyed granddaughter would find a partner, but Kaye had given up on that. “I had my dog and gay friends,” she says. “I thought I was set.”

Then, on the first day of rehearsal, she met fellow actor David Green. “We were both Jews, with similar upbringings and senses of humor,” she says. “A little raunchy and a lot silly. I got his references, and vice versa. It was beshert [preordained].” When the tour went to Denver six weeks later, the couple booked two tickets on a 19-seater plane to fly over the Rocky Mountains to Phoenix, Arizona. “I wanted him to see my hometown,” she says. “We were above the clouds when he blurted, ‘Will you —’ and before he could finish the sentence, I said, ‘Yes!’”

They returned to New York, where Hal Prince cast Kaye in another life-changing role: Carlotta Giudicelli in The Phantom of the Opera, which earned Kaye her first Tony. In her acceptance speech, she quoted what her rabbi had said at her wedding: “Oh, how loooooong I have waited for this moment!” She was 37 and had been working for two decades since first being cast as Charlie Brown’s Lucy while still at UCLA. “To be recognized on that stage, in front of so many peers I’d come up and performed with, was both thrilling and humbling,” she says. “I felt then as I do now: Getting to do this work is the reward.”

Watch a clip of Judy Kaye winning her first Tony Award, for Phantom of the Opera in 1988:

As she was finishing her three-year Phantom run, her agent called and said, “Now what?’” Kaye had just turned 40; the insinuation was that there were not as many offers for women her age. “That really pissed me off,” she says.

She fired him.

Her next agent, Robert Malcolm, found her next role, as Emma Goldman in Ragtime. She starred alongside Broadway heavyweights Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald in what would become another smash. (She even got to share the stage with John Rubinstein. “We were both in tears, thinking about how cool that was,” Rubinstein says.) 

Malcolm then insisted that Kaye consider doing the New York transfer of the London smash hit Mamma Mia!, based on the songs of the Swedish pop supergroup ABBA. “I almost turned it down,” she says. “But then my actress friends of a certain age said, ‘Dont be an asshole. This is the perimenopausal cash cow!’”

Kaye played the wisecracking feminist Rosie, one of three middle-aged women friends who, in a hilarious scene, throws out her back doing a hip thrust while singing “Dancing Queen” into a hairdryer. Debuting at the Winter Garden Theatre on October 18, 2001, it was the first major show to open in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy. “This was the musical everyone needed at that moment,” Kaye says. “For the final song, we all came out in unitards and got the audience to dance with us.”

That role earned Kaye another Tony nomination, as did her next part, as Souvenir’s Florence Foster Jenkins, the wealthy socialite who couldn’t sing but whose act became a cult hit in the 1930s. As Jason Zinoman wrote in his review in The New York Times, “It takes a really good singer to sing as badly as Judy Kaye does in Souvenir.”  Her fourth nomination, and second Tony, would come from the aptly titled Nice Work If You Can Get It.  In her acceptance speech, Kaye thanked Malcolm, her agent, whom she said takes care of her like a “momma cat.” 

“She’s very easy to take care of!” Malcolm says with a laugh when I remind him of the speech. “I have worked with a lot of divas in my lifetime. She makes few demands and is the hardest-working and most brilliantly talented person in the business.”

In that same speech, Kaye got emotional thanking her father, who had died the week before at the age of 93. (Her mother lived until 104.) She appears wistful talking about her parents, who could have never foreseen the career of the operatic girl who entered UCLA in 1967. “A lot of people in the theater talk about how their parents abused or neglected them, and that made them great artists,” she says quietly. “My parents were my greatest support. They loved and supported me — and I turned out all right.”

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times Redux
Kaye (right) as Rosie in the original cast of Mamma Mia!, the first Broadway show to open after 9/11. This was the musical everyone needed at that moment, she says. 

The Next Act

It’s love of the work that keeps Kaye constantly looking for new challenges —including playing Mary, a woman dying of ovarian cancer, in ’Til Death, the play by Elizabeth Coplan that had its world premiere last November off-Broadway. When director Chad Austin saw Judy Kaye’s name on a list of potential actresses, he was … intrigued. 

“I saw her in Souvenir, where she played an impossible woman who you have empathy for and fall in love with,” he says. “I was looking for those qualities for Mary.”

I had gone to see Kaye in ’Til Death a few days before our lunch. Her understated, loving performance of a woman who chooses assisted suicide after learning her cancer treatment is no longer working is deeply moving. For a woman who has made a name for herself playing over-the-top, theatrical divas, the role is literally a dramatic departure. I ask her why she would do something so radically different at this point in her career.

Erin Patrice O'Brien
Kaye on the set of Ibsens Ghost. She practically begged playwright Busch to cast her: I told him I would mop the stage for him.

“I said yes because no one ever asks me to speak words,” she says with a touch of humor. Then she gets serious. “I also said yes because it scared me.”

She had also just lost her mother, and while she considers herself lucky to have had her for so long, the character gave her a chance to process her grief. Malcolm says her decision to take on the role was also strategic. “Judy wants to show the world,” he says, “what else she is capable of.”

While in rehearsals for Til Death, Kaye received another offer that she felt she couldn’t refuse: to be part of the Charles Busch ensemble in his new comedy Ibsen’s Ghost: An Irresponsible Biographical Fantasy.

“I told him I’d mop the stage for him,” Kaye says of the writer, director and actor whose hilarious Vampire Lesbians of Sodom was one of the longest-running plays in off-Broadway history. This new work, set in Oslo in 1906, just after Ibsen’s death, has Busch playing the Norwegian playwright’s widow. All the other actors in the ensemble are Busch veterans, as is Carl Andress, his longtime director and collaborator. At the tender age of 75, Kaye is the new kid on the block. Still doing the things that scare her.

In an interview for Playbill last December, Kaye recalled an instructor at UCLA who changed everything for her. “I was put together with a voice teacher by the name of Erv Windward,” she said. “His credo was ‘Don’t make a problem out of anything.’ He was speaking of things vocal … But his teaching has helped me throughout my life, onstage and off.” 

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Summer 2024 issue.