Kathy Najimy has been a Burt Bacharach fan for a long time – and it’s all because of her childhood friend, Steve Gunderson.
“Steve and I have been friends since we were 14,” said Najimy, who’s
busy directing the show she and Gunderson created, “Back to Bacharach
and David,” for its Southern California debut at the Music Box @ Fonda
“I remember Steve plunking away at Bacharach on his little piano like
Schroeder from ‘Peanuts,'” Najimy said. “He was a huge fan.”
“Back to Bacharach and David” isn’t exactly new – it premiered
off-Broadway in 1993. “It did really well,” Najimy recalled. “We
discovered then that there are a lot of Bacharach fans out there.”
Najimy is a familiar face on TV (“Veronica’s Closet”) and in the
multiplex (“Sister Act 1”), but she owns a longer résumé in theater,
where she got her start.
What prompted Najimy and Gunderson to resurrect the show here – and make significant changes – was Bacharach himself.
“The story is that his wife, for some reason, made him come and see it.
Normally I’m told he avoids revues of his music like the plague. But he
saw a production of our show and he completely freaked out. He couldn’t
believe the arrangements, how good they sounded.”
Najimy heaps praise on her co-creator, saying Gunderson’s profound
knowledge of Bacharach and his music is what makes the revue work so
“Steve knows every single note Burt Bacharach has hummed in his sleep.
The texture and intricacy and the difficulty of Burt’s music are
captured in Steve’s arrangements. And Steve put songs in this show that
Burt hasn’t seen in any other show.”
In 2008, shortly after Bacharach saw “Back to Bacharach and David,”
Gunderson and Najimy found themselves sitting at the songwriter’s BMI
office; they were there at Bacharach’s invitation. “He said, ‘Why don’t
you do it again in L.A.?’ We said, ‘Absolutely!'”
Najimy and Gunderson snared the funding for a new production and started
auditioning. They ended up with four serious talents: TV and Broadway
actress Susan Mosher (“Hairspray,” “Without a Trace”), “American Idol”
contestant Tom Lowe, musical and film actress Tressa Thomas and
“American Idol” and Broadway star Diana DeGarmo.
“We really wanted to put a new coat of paint on it, and to do that we
needed some major voices,” Najimy said. “What we ended up with was four
terrific performers who span an age range from 21 to 51. That’s a whole
lot of life experience – when a 21-year-old sings of love and loss, it’s
a lot different than when a 51-year-old sings about it.”
The revamped show includes two songs not previously featured. One of
them is “What’s New Pussycat,” which features a sexy DeGarmo.
“She does it in full leather as a rock anthem,” Najimy said. “It’s really something to see.”
DeGarmo was surprised when Najimy called to see if she was interested in
performing in a Bacharach revue. Since coming close to winning
“American Idol” in 2004 at the tender age of 16 (she came second), the
singer moved to Nashville to pursue her interest in country music and
her songwriting aspirations. She has also left her mark in musical
theater with a well-received turn as Penny Pingleton in the Broadway
production of “Grease.”
“I’d heard about the show and I’d met Kathy a few years back at a
Christmas party for a mutual friend,” DeGarmo said. “She said then,
‘You’d be perfect for my show.’ I wasn’t able to be a part of it at that
DeGarmo acknowledges that she didn’t have much knowledge of Bacharach
when she joined the revue and was surprised to discover the number of
his songs that she already knew and loved.
“You hear his songs everywhere. You look through his songbook and say,
‘Wait, he wrote that? And that?’ Everyone in the audience knows these
songs too, and they sing the words along with us.” In the 1960s and ’70s
Bacharach penned 48 Top Ten hits, many of them with lyricist Hal David.
Despite her admiration, DeGarmo admitted that learning some of Bacharach’s songs was a challenge.
“I had to step out of my comfort zone. Country music is a little more
straightforward than Burt’s songs. But I love the challenge of singing
something that’s not that easy. His songs throw curveballs at you while
you’re singing and while you’re listening. Good music is timeless,
whether it’s a country song, rock, or R&B.”
Najimy warns that “Back to Bacharach and David” isn’t a “Mamma Mia”-stylebook musical but a traditional revue.
“There’s no through-line, but you get familiar with the characters that are singing and their relationships with each other.
“That’s what I like about Diana. As a character, she’s memorable. She’s
got such a personality. She’s this brilliant singer and she’s not afraid
of doing the edgy, crazy sexy stuff. It takes on a life of its own –
and she sells it.”