I’m sitting with Broadway diva, Ann Crumb, in her parents’ home in Media, Pennsylvania. This isn’t just any home. Beside me is Ann’s father, George Crumb, the famous composer of modern music, and the winner of two CHECK Grammy Awards. On the other side of the room is George’s wife, Liz, who’s just finished carrying a basket of laundry up from the basement. In front of me three, no four, large dogs playfully run circles around one another.
There’s no pretension in this house of celebrity. Ann, dressed in a pair of jeans with her long hair arranged like the young Katherine Hepburn’s, is completely relaxed.
“Now, now,” she says to one of the dogs, “Stop it. No! I said No!” A huge dog sniffs my trouser leg. “Nice dog,” I say, glancing down at my notes which spell out in Western Union code: A Crumb, Broadway debut, 1987, Broadway companies of Chess, Aspects of Love, Les Miserables and Anna Karenina (Best Actress Tony nomination). Toured in the title role in Evita; roles in ‘As the World Turns,’ ‘The Guiding Light,’ ‘Another World,’ and ‘Law and Order.’
Then there are her recordings, “A Broadway Diva Sings” with the Harry Allen orchestra, and her numerous collaborations and recordings with her father, such as her role as lead soprano when she appeared with Dad at the Kimmel Center in the fall of 2009 on occasional of his 80th birthday.
Given the George Crumb legacy, I ask Ann if it was easy for her to break into show business.
“I never mentioned my father because, you know, you didn’t want to say, ‘I’m somebody’s daughter,’ she tells me. “But people in the theater world didn’t know Dad’s work, but now they do. Now that I’ve established my own career, I tell everybody.”
That career, by the way, includes a singing voice that The New York Times once described as one that “can harden in a moment from molten to hard steel.”
In Andrew Lloyd Weber’s ‘Aspects of Love,’ Crumb sang the part of sexy French actress Rose Vibert, whose romantic entanglements cover a 17-year period. Up to that point Crumb hadn’t sung jazz but that changed when she met producer Robert W. Schachner, who got her to record “A Broadway Diva Sings” in the Florida Keys. Today, Crumb is easily one of the best female jazz vocalists in the business, no small accomplishment from one who came relatively late to the world of singing.
“Growing up, I heard all those great singers, but it was different sounds. I didn’t sing, I was really a ‘straight’ actress. Then when I finally heard the CD of ‘Evita’—the show was just closing on Broadway—I wanted to play her dramatically, so I said I’ve got to study singing so I can play her.”
Study, she did. She arranged to be mentored by internationally acclaimed American voice teacher Bill Shuman, but says it was a while before she got into the swing of singing. “I was too shy about it. I still have a terrible problem with shyness. I still think of myself as an actress, not a singer.”
I reminded her that she didn’t seem all that shy when I saw her perform her father’s work at the Kimmel.
“That’s because I’m an actress,” she explained, laughing, correcting one of the dogs again.
Crumb’s recent performance as Maria Callas in Terrance McNally’s ‘Master Class’ at the Media Theater caused Howard Shapiro of ‘The Philadelphia Inquirer’ to write, “You can call Ann Crumb, simply, Divine. She must be channeling La Divina, who died in 1977. Ann Crumb’s Maria Callas is direct, demonstrative, devastating.”
Ann Crumb, in fact, is a little like a “democratic grassroots” version of Callas. She’s played in big theaters before huge audiences, and she’s done hometown-style performances where recognized Divas don’t normally tread.
At the time of this interview, Crumb was memorizing Callas’ lines for ‘Master Class,’ and recounted, with some hilarity, how she once forgot the words “I’ll Cry for You Argentina,” when she starred in ‘Evita.’ She admitted to forgetting lines when she sings.
“With singing, even if it’s something I’ve done for a year, all of a sudden I’ll go, ‘Oh, I forget the words to it.’ It’s a horrible feeling when you go completely blank because the music keeps going. It’s not like a play where you can kinda say, ‘I’ll take a walk around the block,’—no, you have to ride, you have to make up lyrics that ride if you can,” she says, talking quickly like a fire that keeps building.
The night she forgot the lines to ‘Don’t Cry for me Argentina,’ she says she was standing there on the balcony with the whole cast looking at her. The fatal mistake occurred when she substituted the word ‘hard’ for ‘strange’ during the song’s opening line, “It won’t be easy, you’ll think it rather strange.” The second she uttered the word ‘hard’ she says she forgot the rest of the song. “I then made all the lines after that up as the cast below is looking up at me not believing that I’d forgotten all the words.”
These days Crumb divides her time between Media and New York City. “She likes it in Media best,” Liz jokes, the family’s West Virginia accent still very much in evidence, “but it’s only because of the free meals.” A little later in the afternoon, when a family friend popped in to say hello (and to make everyone present a large Caesar salad), Crumb chatted about subletting her beautiful New York apartment—a former church with Gothic arches and glass stained windows—and her memories of living in Boulder, Colorado with her parents, a place the Crumb family insists is one of the best small towns in America. Having lived in Boulder myself, getting the Diva to open up about her life there was easy. She told me where to find wild horses in the foothills of Boulder’s Rocky Mountains, as well as her impressions of the infamous JonBenet Ramsey house: “It’s a beautiful mini-mansion, really quite spectacular with big fences and gardens, but it keeps getting sold. It’s like the people get in there and something chases them out.”
In between singing and acting gigs, Crumb loves hanging out with her dogs. In Media, she gets to romp with them in the Crumbs’ spacious backyard.
“I’ve always had a special love for dogs. I think I was a daschund in a past life, I certainly have the nose for one,” she laughs, explaining how she once arranged a 53 dog lift from 10 Kill shelters in Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana. This particular mission, she says, was conducted during an ice storm, and involved transport trucks with one truck going into a ditch and an unheated van filled with puppies.
As coordinator of this vast enterprise, she had to arrange for the transfer of dogs and puppies into other vans and trucks in a Chicago parking lot, and then supervise the release of 40 excited dogs, after the long journey east, into her parents’ house. The ever resilient Crumb happened to have a concert the same night that the first transport of puppies arrived in Media.
“While they were running around the house, I literally ran in the bathroom, threw on some makeup, threw on a gown and walked out, sang at the concert, left, and came back. And when I got back the truck had arrived with all the big dogs. They were flying around the yard; it was pouring buckets of rain. But it really worked out well. They all have homes now.”
Nine of the digs were placed in Pennsylvania, and the rest found homes in New Hampshire.
“I always say I’m never going to work again,” she tells me, flipping her hair back so that I can see her face is anything but daschund-like. “It’s a huge and expensive job just to get a job with auditions and training.”
She’s obviously talking about finding work after Master Class.
“There’s an old saying in the theater that there are these cycles. There’s one cycle where you are desperate to get a job, then you hear that you got the job, so you have a few exciting days where you say, ‘I got the job!’ but then either the job fails, the show bombs or you’re killed in the press. Then you’re really upset and have to stick it out till the show’s over. If not that, you get bored and say, ‘Boy, I wish I had a different job.’ The next thing you know you’re out of work and you’re saying, ‘I’ve got to find a job!’”
The saving grace in all of this, she says, are those first few days of jubilation after being hired. “That feeling is unbelievable!”