A Parade to Broadway

Albany native becomes a leading lady in new musical

Steve Barnes, (Albany Times-Union)

January 10, 1999—Three years ago, actress Carolee Carmello got a call from one of Broadway's leading directors asking her to participate in a staged reading of a new musical that might soon be headed for the Great White Way.

The director was the legendary Harold Prince, and the role was choice — the female lead. But Carmello was reluctant to leave her month-old daughter, Zoe, for the first time. And Prince's past success with productions like Cabaret notwithstanding, the nascent show in question in early 1996 didn't sound likely to become a hit: It was a musical about a Jewish man lynched in Atlanta 85 years ago after being accused of murdering a 13-year-old girl.

Carmello went to the reading anyway. That's the way a life in the theater works. Her husband, Gregg Edelman, himself a Tony-nominated Broadway actor, would be there for their baby. And Carmello knew that important musicals have been made from equally unsunny premises, such as a killer barber and cannibalism (Sweeney Todd), a noble ex-con hounded for decades by a cruel police inspector (Les Miserables), the founding of a Great Plains state (Oklahoma!).

"Actors do readings all the time (of shows) that never go anywhere," says Carmello, who boasts a solid resume of musical theater experience, on and off Broadway. "I hoped this one would."

Last month, it did. The musical, titled Parade and directed by Prince, opened on Broadway, at a theater in Manhattan's Lincoln Center. The based-on-fact book is by Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy), with ragtime-to-riches-ballads music by newcomer Jason Robert Brown. Carmello plays the part of Lucille Frank, whose husband, Leo, is the doomed murder suspect. Although the couple's marriage has its tempests and distances, the nightmarish situation helps strengthen their bond.

Plum part

Lucille is Carmello's most visible role — a plum of a part that, regardless of whether Parade becomes a hit, seems sure to push Carmello further up the ranks of sought-after leading ladies for Broadway musicals.

Many critics praised Parade in reviews that ranged from outright raves to positive notices with a few reservations. The reception of Carmello's performance was wholly positive — the Associated Press called it a "triumph" — even from the otherwise-dismissive New York Times reviewer, who said, basically, that Carmello was the only part of Parade worth watching.

"That review reminded me of when I used to run track in high school," says Carmello, who graduated from Albany High in 1979. "There would be times when I would do well personally and the team would lose. You're glad you won your event, but you feel lousy for everybody."

The Albany native is speaking by telephone from her home in Teaneck, N.J., where she, Edelman and Zoe have lived since the baby was born. After years of Manhattan apartments and hotels while on tour, Edelman, especially, wanted a house and a yard, a place of permanence.

Time to talk

Carmello is sitting in their home on a Monday, her sole day off in an eight-show-a-week schedule. With Zoe settled down for a long winter's nap, Carmello has time to talk. Edelman is in Sweden, she says, among a group of Broadway actors singing in a revue of show tunes with a symphony orchestra. Carmello has performed with Edelman in the annual show, which its producers hope eventually will tour Europe, but this year she was committed to Parade.

She plans to stay with the production as long as it marches on; Lincoln Center has posted a closing date of March 28, although Parade could be extended if ticket sales surge.

That seems unlikely. Carmello describes attendance as "mediocre." Musicals can survive negative reviews if they appeal widely to audiences — the current stage version of the movie Footloose, for example, has done so. And deep-pocketed commercial producers willing to lose money in the first few months can advertise on television to lure crowds who don't read reviews.

But Parade, a musical whose subject attracts a sophisticated audience that reads The New York Times, suffered a double slam from the Times, from both its daily and Sunday critics. And Parade is a co-production of the not-for-profit Lincoln Center, which has limited financial resources, and a recently bankrupt production company called Livent Inc.

"We may not last," Carmello says. "I hope the show will run, of course, but if it doesn't, I hope that it will still be important."

She has been in too many different productions, of varying merits, to believe that quality guarantees initial success. Case in point: the American Movie Classics television series Remember WENN, of which she was a cast member for three seasons. The program, with heaps of critical praise and even more integrity, will be remembered fondly despite its low ratings.

The long view

And so Carmello takes the long view about Parade, too: Sweeney Todd was not a hit when it opened 20 years ago, she reminds herself; in 1957, West Side Story lost the major awards and most of its audiences to The Music Man. Today, of course, Sweeney Todd and West Side Story" are musicals that matter, shows that will still be performed in another century.

"I hope that [Parade] will be looked back on with that sort of respect," says Carmello. "I hope it will have historical importance."

Carmello did not plan to be an actress. Her parents, Bill and Judy Carmello, who still live in Albany, wanted her to be a lawyer. She was studious, academically talented enough to be named management student of the year at the University at Albany, from which she earned a business administration degree in 1983.

Carmello was so uninterested in theater in high school that she wasn't inspired by even John Velie, a legendary drama teacher at Albany High for 30 years. Velie mentored talents such as actress Charlayne Woodard (Class of '72) and, from a few years earlier, John McTiernan, who went on to become a director of action films including the Die Hard series and The Hunt for Red October.

Velie, retired since 1994, refuses to take credit for Woodard or McTiernan, anyway. "A town like Albany doesn't nurture its artists," says Velie, who follows the careers of most of his successful former students. "If they live here, they have to have the talent and determination to sustain themselves, and if they've got it, they'll make it no matter where they came from. [Carmello] obviously had it."

Back and forth

After a few roles in community-theater productions during college turned her on to theater, Carmello spent the 1983 summer, following UAlbany graduation, at the Lake George Dinner Theatre and moved to New York City that fall. Whereupon she promptly returned to Albany, to appear in a production of Raggedy Ann and Andy at the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts at The Egg (now called the New York State Theatre Institute, or NYSTI, and located at Russell Sage College in Troy).

The Raggedy Ann production, which eventually played on Broadway itself, was directed by Patricia Birch, who auditioned Carmello at the recommendation of Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder, founder and producing artistic director of NYSTI. As a college student, Carmello had worked as an administrative intern at ESIPA with Snyder.

Snyder says Birch needed to be convinced to audition and then cast Carmello. "I really had to twist her arm," Snyder says. "We were laughing about that (recently). I reminded her of it. I said, 'I told you. Look where she is now.'

Where Carmello is now, of course, is the female lead in Parade. The show's choreographer: Patricia Birch.

Snyder, who watched Carmello perform earlier this year in 1776 and plans soon to see Parade, says she expected her former intern to go on to star in Broadway musicals.

"Her singing voice was always marvelous," recalls Snyder. "But it was more than that. She has such an incredible range that she can play anyone, anything. She'll be successful for as long as she wants to work in this field."

Another generation

Carmello suspects her daughter, Zoe, will have the urge and talent to perform when she grows up. The youngster ought to, if she inherited her parents' theater drive and skills. Zoe already mimics moments from The Wizard of Oz as she toddles around the house, mom reports, following the yellow-brick road and pretending to be sad when Scarecrow leaves.

Zoe's parents, proud but also professional in their assessment, judge the girl a good actress.

"If that's what she wants to do, we don't want to steer her away," Carmello says. "It can be really wonderful...But sometimes you do great shows that don't go anywhere — maybe that's what's going to happen (with Parade) — and sometimes you do something that turns out to last three years. I know better than anyone how hard the life can be. I'd be thrilled if Zoe wanted to be an architect."

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Fans of TV Programs Conduct Cyberbattle to Fight Cancellations

Michael Pritchard, (The Press of Atlantic City)

March 28, 1999—The day Emma Redmer heard the news, she was devastated.

"I cried," she said, remembering the dark day. "I just cried."

But not for long. Soon, Redmer took action. She began firing off e-mails, writing letters and contacting newspapers. Using the Internet, she marshaled the forces of everyone she could find who, like her, couldn't accept the news.

You just don't cancel Redmer's favorite TV show without her having something to say about it.

Redmer, 19, of North Cape May, and a student at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, is a die-hard fan of American Movie Classic's original show Remember WENN. The show is set at a fictional radio station, in the late 1930s. AMC canceled the show in September, though it continues to air in reruns.

According to Redmer, it is the best show on television.

"It's kind of an old-fashioned show," Redmer said. "Each episode is produced like a stage play. There aren't a whole lot of shows I watch on television. Most of the other shows I watch are cartoons."

In years past, Redmer would have had to meekly accept the cancellation. All TV fans have had to deal with the untimely end of a favorite show from time to time. The best you could do was write a letter to the network in protest.

But thanks to the Internet, fans no longer take the cancellations lying down. The Internet provides a forum for fans of TV shows where they can find each other and rally together. Newsgroups and posting boards allow fans from around the country to discuss the shows.

Erecting a "fan shrine"

Fans themselves can create their own Web pages, called "fan shrines," dedicated to shows or individual TV stars. Redmer, for example, has her own home page dedicated to the show and is listed on another page of fans fighting to save it.

Cancel the show, and all these fans are in instant contact with the network through e-mail.

The phenomenon is hardly unique to Remember WENN. This television season, campaigns are under way to save canceled shows like Fox's Brimstone and ABC's Cupid. Even a show like CBS's The Nanny, which is ending a long run and will have a series finale, has generated a write-in campaign to save it.

Most of the time, the campaigns don't work. AMC, for example, has no intention of bringing back Remember WENN.

"While Remember WENN has been a tremendous success on many levels, it has not generated the kind of audience required to make the show viable," said Marc Juris, vice president of original programming for AMC.

"It's a done deal," said Dina White, a spokesperson for the channel. "We're sorry some fans are upset, but Remember WENN was canceled to make room for a new show, The Lot. They are similar types of shows. The Lot is set on an old-time movie lot."

For networks, the bottom line is audience numbers. Thousands of fans may petition to bring a show back, but it takes millions of fans to make a show successful in the ratings.

Even if a write-in campaign works, it is no guarantee the show will survive.

Sometimes networks react

CBS canceled the highly-rated Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman because it didn't draw enough younger viewers (18-49) favorable to advertisers. After fans launched a write-in campaign, the network agreed to make some special TV movies of the show, but did not renew weekly episodes.

This season, CBS also brought back the canceled series The Magnificent Seven, based loosely on the 1960 movie, after fans launched an aggressive write-in campaign. In the end, ratings didn't improve and the network canceled the show again.

Another write-in success was the UPN show The Sentinel about a cop with psychic abilities. The struggling network brought the show back after fans wrote in. The ratings haven't improved, but since the show is on the weakest of six broadcast networks, it continues to hold on.

Fans of The Magnificent Seven and The Sentinel have said they felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment in getting the shows revived. It is a sense of power writing a single letter to the network can't achieve.

There is no question that the Internet allows fans to voice their opinions to the networks. But most of the time, that opinion is ignored. Just ask fans of the syndicated show Forever Knight who have been lobbying for several years to bring the show back. The best they have been able to achieve is a showing of its reruns on the Sci-Fi Channel.

Redmer and her Remember WENN allies know they are playing a long shot.

"All we can do is try," she said. "The best possible scenario would be to have them make a TV movie on the show. The next best thing would be for it to be picked up by another network. I've written to Turner Classic Movies, and I'm also thinking Pax might be an option. If enough of us bug them, they might."

Several shows have been saved by being picked up by other networks. The syndicated sci-fi show Babylon Five, with its loyal, but small fan following, managed to squeeze out an extra season on TNT after it was originally canceled. The canceled Fox show Sliders now airs on the Sci-Fi Channel.

Other times a network may decide to pick up a quality show discarded by another network. The CBS show JAG was canceled by NBC and picked up by CBS. This season it has surged in the ratings and is consistently in the Top 20 shows.

Usually, however, cancellation means a show just disappears.

When a former hit show slips in the ratings, such as The Nanny or NBC's Mad About You, the series is allowed to end with a finale that wraps up loose ends.

But most of the time, a canceled show just ends abruptly.

"The worst part is that the last episode was a cliff-hanger," Redmer said. "There were actually three cliff-hanger story lines. That's frustrating. Right now I'm boycotting AMC. Everything but the Remember WENN reruns."

At the very least, the network knows how she feels.

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