Whether you pronounce it “lez-lee” as her mother did, or “less-lee,” as her father said it, speaking the name Leslie Uggams brings to mind ample talent demonstrated across a broad swath of entertainment history.
In “Classic Uggams,” the seemingly ageless star will reflect on her past, celebrate her present and consider her future in story and song for Bay Area Cabaret on Sunday at the Venetian Room.
“I was supposedly named after the Bette Davis character in ‘The Letter’ by my sister,” says Uggams, who was born in 1943. Before her first decade was done, she already had made her television debut playing the niece of Ethel Waters on “Beulah” and was opening for headline acts at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
“I started off working with Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington at 9,” she recalls. “Then on to working with Elvis and Tom Jones and Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis and Dean Martin. People like that. Then I got into theater and worked with Richard Kiley, James Earl Jones. Just extraordinary people.“
Uggams got a major career break when Lena Horne declined to star in the Broadway musical “Hallelujah, Baby!” by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. “It actually was written with her in mind,” says Uggams. “It wasn’t handed to me. I had to audition and finally, I guess I passed muster.” Her performance won a Tony Award.
The two trail-blazing African-American performers maintained a casual, social relationship. “I knew Lena. She pinned me as a Delta when I was just married. So we had a little history.”
That history added a chapter when Uggams portrayed Horne a few years ago in a stage biography that is now headed to Broadway. “We’ve been trying to get it there. It’s called ‘Stormy Weather.’ We did it at the Pasadena Playhouse and at the Prince Theater in Philadelphia and sold out and got great reviews, so we shall see.”
Another artist Uggams met early in life was Marvin Hamlisch, who reopened the Venetian Room for Bay Area Cabaret in 2010. “We were schoolmates at the Professional Children’s School,” she says. “Over the years we would run into each other and go, ‘Oh my god, PCS!’ He was writing when we were going to school and I was singing the songs at school. From the time we were kids he just loved music. It still shocks me that he’s no longer with us.”
IF YOU GO
Presented by Bay Area Cabaret
Where: Venetian Room, Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason St., S.F.
When: 5 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $45 to $50
Contact: (415) 392-4400, www.bayareacabaret.org