Amy Matheny: You are remounting your (one woman) show, Before I Disappear.
Alexandra Billings: I like that word 'remounting.'
AM: You had previously performed Before I Disappear in Chicago and are taking it to New York. Tell me what the show is about for people who missed it a few years ago and tell me how it is changing now that you are remounting.
AB: ... Well it's about my life. It's about my life in a nutshell. There is a lot of stuff that is left out.
AM: For people who don't have a clue who you are, except that you sound insane, who are you?
AB: That did sound kind of egotistical I sound like Meryl Streep. 'It's about my life.' (Laughing) Like everyone knows who I am. It's ... you know it's really hard to sort of explain. It's not necessarily a story about being transgendered or having AIDS or getting through drug addiction. It's not really a story about those things. It's really a love story. It really is. Chrisanne is in it a lot—who is my partner in life.
AM: Whom you have known for 20 …
AB: 27 years. She had a birthday today. She is 44. Older than me. It really is a love story and it's about two people who lose their way and find themselves and then find each other in the end. That's really what it's about.
AM: And how is it changing because I am sure that you might look at something you wrote three or four years ago and go, 'What the hell was I thinking when I wrote that? I've always wanted to change that part.'
AB: (laughing) That's EXACTLY what I was thinking. You know that because you're a writer.
AM: I'm not a writer. I just talk a lot.
AB: Yeah. You do talk a lot.
AM: What did you want to change about the show?
AB: In the interim of the show ending five years ago and now, both of my parents have passed away and I'm older now. I'm 41 years old. I keep saying 41 even though I'm not. I'll be 41 in March. But you have to say that when you are older. Cause Cher always says, 'I'm 75' when she is 74.
AM: You mean 104.
AB: I did a Cher joke! So, for me it was about adding stuff that has happened to me the last five years. I have made it more current. We did (the show) in Boston and we got this terrible review!
AM: It's a wonderful show. They don't know what they are talking about.
AB: But we got pretty good reviews here in Chicago. The critics were really, really ... I don't know who paid them off … but they were really nice.
AM: Probably the man sitting to your left.
AB: Ralph Lampkin.
Ralph Lampkin: Hello everyone.
AB: Ahhhh! Such a nice booming voice! An Ethel Merman voice! So we got this really cruddy review. And it destroyed me.
AM: Seriously? You really read these things?
AB: I don't ever.
AM: So someone shoved it under your nose?
AB: No. I mistakenly … it's one of those papers you pass by and I went, Oh, look!
AM: It was a headline!?!
AB: No no no. I am not Meryl Streep. It was a tiny little thing and it had a theatre review and I went, Oh! I wonder whose it is and it was me! And I was like low voice 'They hate me.' They said the show was trite and that I was self-aggrandizing and that I grandstanded. And I said I am never doing this again.
AM: Well you kind of get to make some noise and be a little self-aggrandizing. I cannot imagine too many other transgendered performers doing a show about their life with as much talent and skill as you.
AB: Awww, Amy! Thank you.
AM: I'm serious. I would think some self-aggrandizing might be ...
AB: Apropos? (laughing)
AM: Not that you have ever been quiet (about who you are). But I'm just saying.
AB: What does that mean? I did not want the show to be that. I didn't want to get onstage and say, 'I am great!'
AM: Because you do that in your cabaret every Sunday.
AB: (laughing) That's exactly right. You can come see me every Sunday at the Gentry for that. My show, 'I Am Great, And You're Not.'
AM: She can sing really sad songs to make you cry and then she will insult you to your face.
AB: I don't do that. I merely tell the truth.
AM: And it's ugly!
AB: The truth is not pretty. Neither is comedy. And neither are you or I at this moment.
AM: But what is the difference, as we talk about cabaret and Ralph is here and Ralph has helped so many performers in cabaret find a voice, with what you are doing in Before I Disappear and what you do share with your audience in your cabaret performances? Do they feel different? ... What do you think Ralph? When you met (Alex), watching her perform her cabaret…
RL: Actually we've known each other 22 years.
AB: Tell her how we met.
RL: There is not enough time. She used to come over to my house and I would play her the big Broadway numbers that I thought she could do, when she was in her other life prior to Alexandra Billings.
AM: Those were the X-files years.
AB: (loud laughing)
RL: The experimentation years and the dancing years, which she doesn't do anymore.
AM: But some of us have seen the video.
AB: And don't want to see them again.
RL: For me cabaret is, you have to find songs that really are a part of yourself, your life. They have to be realistic so the person sitting right in front of you can get what you are saying. As opposed to some other music that is just to sell records. BID (Before I Disappear) is such an exquisite work because she is such a great writer and it talks about the difference she had in her own mind (about herself) as opposed to what her mother and father thought, and to what her friends thought, to school, to Chrisanne, to growing into this person she is now.
AB: Those are really good points. Because the difference in doing a theatrical piece that has songs and doing a nightclub act, I think is just that. When you are doing the songs you are telling the story. And in Before I Disappear, it is about the monologues.
AM: You are singing in Disappear?
AB: Yeah. I wrote the music and Chrisanne wrote the lyrics and Bill (Underwood) is fixing it. Bill fixes everything.
AM: Ralph, you have really helped forge some paths for people who love cabaret in Chicago. I know people say that New York is THE cabaret town, but I think we are fast gaining on them. You have an exciting project you are doing with Vicki Quade of Late Nite Catechism fame at the new Crossroads Theatre in Naperville.
RL: Vicki and I got together a few weeks ago and talked about a cabaret series and I called up who I think are about 10 of the best cabaret artists in town. That is Spider Saloff and Nan Mason and, of course, Alexandra. Plus 3girls3 which is Patty Morabito, Mary Monica Thomas, Gail Becker, and then Daryl Nitz. It's going to be an eclectic series March 5-June 11.
AM: Now I know that you both have been trying to get Alex's live album out. But when looking at representing someone like Alex, there are so many options.
RL: Well the New York production of Before I Disappear will have seven shows only. Then we come back in June for the Pride series and then hopefully in September we can record the live album and before the end of the year we would like to go back to New York to play some of the bigger clubs (with Alex's cabaret show). And hopefully we will realize 'the dream.' We both know what that is. I won't say, but hopefully that will happen.
AB: singing ala Merman 'I had a dream.'
Lampkin Music Group, with Bailiwick Arts Center, announces the return of the critically acclaimed one woman show Before I Disappear by Alexandra Billings, at the Bailiwick Arts Center, 1229 W. Belmont. Performances are Feb. 28-March 1 at 7 p.m., and Sunday, March 2 at 5. Tickets are $25; (773) 883-1090 or www.bailiwick.org .
The play features book and music by Alexandra Billings; lyrics by Chrisanne Blankenship; directed and developed by Mary Beidler Gearen; assistant direction by Margo E. Eccles; production manager Rusty Hernandez; musical direction by Mr. William Underwood; produced by Lampkin Music Group and Bailiwick Arts Center.
The New York run is at the Grand Theater at the Producer's Club 358 W. 44th St., April 23-27 with shows at 7:30 p.m. and two matinees at 3 p.m. April 26-27; (212) 206-1515.
Lampkin and Vicki Quade are producing cabaret acts at Crossroads in Naperville, $25, (630) 428-4730: March 5 Spider Saloff; March 19 Alexandra Billings; April 2 - 3girls3, Patty Morabito, MaryMonica Thomas and Gail Becker; April 16 Daryl Nitz; April 30 Showbiz Kids from Hell; May 14 Alanda Coon; May 28 Nan Mason; June 11 MaryMonica Thomas.
Lampkin Music Group will produce the entertainment for the 2003 Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame Awards March 28 at the Knickerbocker Hotel. Honoring CBS legend Mike Wallace and WGN/Tribune Legend Rick Kogan and Jay Bushinski. Hosted by Mary Ann Childers and Jay Levine form WDBM Radio/TV. Tickets $85; (312) 527-3656.
See the front page, left side directory of www.WindyCityMediaGroup.com for comprehensive listings of theater openings and productions now on stage