To discover the true power of her voice, Penny Fuller had to nearly lose it
By Christina Campodonico
Bicoastal stage and screen actress Penny Fuller is a seasoned pro.
In 1963, when the leading lady of Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” (Elizabeth Ashley) couldn’t go on because of a severe back spasm, Fuller filled in, making her Broadway debut opposite Robert Redford.
In the 1970 musical “Applause” (the musical version of “All About Eve”), she held her own against film star Lauren Bacall’s Margo Channing and earned a Tony nomination for her portrayal of that character’s nemesis, the sweet and sinister ingénue Eve Harrington.
In the 1990s, Fuller made her mark on the Los Angeles theater landscape, becoming an inaugural member of Melrose’s Matrix Theatre Company, the classical theater company Antaeus, and L.A. theater impresario Gordon Davidson’s Mark Taper Forum Repertory Company.
And since singing as Sally Bowles in 1966’s “Cabaret,” Fuller has had a soft spot for the performance style of the same name — she’s been doing a cabaret-style show with veteran Broadway actress and friend Anita Gillette, called “Sin Twisters,” since 2014. She even taught courses in the mid-2000s at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center with composer/lyricist Barry Kleinbort on “How to Perform a Song.”
But it took decades for Fuller, who won an Emmy for her role in 1982’s “The Elephant Man,” to recognize the power of her own singing voice.
“I wasn’t really a singer. I was kind of a singer,” says Fuller about her early years on Broadway. “In fact, chorus people are the real singers, or were in those days. ‘And ‘I’m just a girl who can’t say no,’” continues Fuller, referencing a tune sung by the character Ado Annie in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”
“That kind of character didn’t have to sing as well. And that was the kind of singer that I was at that point.”
Now starring in the musical “13 Things About Ed Carpolotti,” playing this month at The Broad Stage, Fuller has found more confidence in her singing chops since her early days on Broadway. The New York Times agrees, saying, “Penny Fuller does a beautiful job” in the one-woman show, in which she plays a grief-stricken widow saddled with debt by her late husband. (Fuller also played a major role in turning “13 Things” into a musical, convincing Kleinbort that the Jeffrey Hatcher play on which it’s based, “Three Viewings,” could be translated into song.)
Even so, it took Fuller, now 76, almost losing her voice for her to finally recognize its strength. She had just been cast in composer and lyricist William “Bill” Finn’s 1998 Off-Broadway production of “A New Brain” when “something snapped in my neck and I lost the top half of my voice. I could go la, la, la, la [going up the scales, then in a whisper] la, la, la, la.”
Fuller then recounts the repercussions with the gusto of a committed actress as we sit and chat in The Broad Stage’s Santa Monica offices:
“The show was to start rehearsal in April and this was November. So I went to the doctor. I said it felt like a twist. He said, ‘No, you only think it felt like a twinge.’ He made me cry. He was so mean. And I said, ‘But I have to be able to sing.’ And he said, ‘Well, go to your vocal coach.’ So I went to this woman and she used to say — I don’t know if you can use this — ‘Think big tits!’ …
“So I did that for a while, and she said, ‘Listen, I’m going to send you to my student. She’s a vocal therapist, but she also was a Broadway singer.’ So she sent me to this woman named Jackie Presti, and I went in and Jackie was pregnant and she said, ‘We’ll begin to work.’ …
“Anyway, I’d cry and she’d say, ‘Stop it! Just keep singing.’ And one day, with her help, I thought, ‘I think I feel a difference.’”
Soon after, Fuller sang for Finn at a rehearsal with her renewed voice.
“I did it and they loved it, and I opened the show. The first night after the first preview I thought, ‘I did it,’” recalls Fuller. “I didn’t know I was that strong, that I could overcome something and that I could work that hard. I got [my voice] back, and I’ve never left Jackie Presti’s side. And her daughter just went to college, the baby that she had. I’ve never left. She’s made me into somebody who can sing.”
Fuller still thinks of herself as more of an actress than a singer, but she now embraces that side of her artistry.
“I had a wonderful teacher here in Los Angeles, Milton Katselas, and he kept saying, ‘You have to stamp your passport as a singer,’” says Fuller. “And I’d say, ‘No, I’m an actress who sings.’ And he’d say, ‘You have to stamp your passport as a singer.’ I think I can do it now.”
Penny Fuller performs “13 Things about Ed Carpolotti” at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Jan. 29 at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $45. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.com for venue information.