As the starring lead in the most successful live music revue in history, Tammy Nelson is thrilled to be on the stage at Club Fugazi in North Beach. Five nights a week she plays a wide range of colorful characters for Beach Blanket Babylon, the show created by the late Steve Silver over 36 years ago.
But the role of her life didn’t happen easily or overnight. Before assuming the major lead last summer, Nelson worked as an understudy for 17 years, backing up the original longtime lead, Val Diamond. It’s been a long road and many years of patient waiting to become the number-one diva in the longest-running musical show in the world, but Nelson is comfortable in the role after nearly two decades preparing for her time in the spotlight.
Getting the understudy role in 1993 was the first step, but it wasn’t anything close to a slam dunk. “It was by far the hardest audition I’ve ever experienced,” Nelson said. “Everyone brought their own props, and they were so prepared, I figured I had no shot. It was a cattle call and I got a callback the same day. Steve conducted the interviews and it was very surreal. I was a little intimidated because I had never seen the show. They contacted me one to two days later to tell me I had the job. And now I’ve been doing it for 18 years. It’s amazing. Beach Blanket Babylon is the perfect show for me, and I love it. It’s always different and a challenge, which is one of the reasons why I love it!”
On July 11, 2009, Nelson took the stage as the lead for the first time, and she hasn’t had much time to reflect since. “It just all came together,” she said. “They had to build some new hardware for me so that I could wear the big hats and the various costumes. They designed some bracing specifically for me and it worked perfectly. I had an outstanding working relationship with Val for many years. I had been filling in for her at least once each week for a long time, so I wasn’t completely new to the role.”
When asked about the difference between being an understudy and playing the principal role, Nelson said, “I would say the physical requirements of the job are tremendously different. I used to do one show a week on average, and now I’m doing seven. It was a huge transition. There’s also a lot more stress on my singing voice now for obvious reasons. When I started it was tough, but I told myself it can’t be this challenging forever. I figure if I kept doing it, I would eventually get better, and I believe I have.”
Due to the constant tweaking and altering of the show that is required to keep it up to date, Nelson has had to adapt to a much more frenetic pace since she took center stage. “The show has changed across the board within the last six months, so I have to be quicker on my feet and more willing to role with the changes. They’re always changing and adjusting things, while adding new bits based on current affairs. They’re always looking at the entertainment value of everything that happens on the stage.” Within the past year, several new characters have been added: Lady Gaga, Tiger Woods, Taylor Swift, Michael Phelps, John Edwards, Octomom, Jon and Kate Plus Eight, and Kanye West, among others.
Nelson plays several well-known characters for Beach Blanket Babylon, including Miss Italy, French Streetwalker, Jewish Mother, Cowgirl, Fannie Mae in the Les Miserables number, and she wears the spectacular San Francisco skyline hat during the show’s finale.
With all of the show’s costume changes, enormous hats and props, do things ever go sideways on stage? “Sure, it’s live theater,” Nelson said. “So you’re going to have unanticipated stuff happening all the time. The woman playing Barbra Streisand one night fell off the stage. I was playing the Jewish Mother while I went over to pick her up, and people thought it was part of the show. The hats, some of the costumes – things can go wrong, but the show must always go on.”
Recently Nelson has noticed a definite resurgence in live theater among young people, and she credits a lot of that interest to Glee, the hot network TV show that’s captured the imagination of many fledgling actors who can dance and croon. “When I was their age, we loved the show Fame. Glee has caused a comeback, and now more kids want to get into live stage shows. They’re not getting music and theater classes in the high schools, so hopefully Beach Blanket Babylon and the scholarship program that we sponsor will help these developing actors.”
Nelson started her own career performing in shows with the San Jose Civic Light Opera, the West Valley Light Opera and the Saratoga Drama Group. But she cites her years performing live stage shows at two melodrama/vaudeville houses, San Jose’s Big Lil’s Cabaret and Campbell’s Gaslighter Theatre, as key. There she learned how to think on her feet while developing improvisational skills to adapt when the other actors and the crowd took things in a different direction. “Big Lil’s taught me how to roll with the show. I’ve now reached the point where I’m more comfortable with the uncertainty of a show like Beach Blanket Babylon. A live show is very special because it’s not predictable, and it can change in a second.”
When she’s not on stage at Club Fugazi, Nelson wears another hat: she wows audiences throughout the Bay Area with her singing voice, with sold-out shows in San Jose and San Francisco. Her self-produced CD can be sampled and purchased at www.cdbaby.com/cd/tammynelson.
What will Nelson be doing in five years? While no one can predict the future, she’s sure of one thing: she wants to play the lead in Beach Blanket Babylon as long as she can. “I’ll do this role as long as the opportunity exists. I’m in a groove, and I’m in the most successful musical revue ever produced, so I’m very pleased and looking forward to growing and developing as a performer. This is the best place to be because I enjoy the work and everyone involved with it.”
Beach Blanket Babylon: Club Fugazi, 678 Green Street (at Powell); Wednesday–Thursday 8 p.m., Friday 6:30 p.m., Saturday 6:30 p.m. & 9:30 p.m.; Sunday 2 p.m. & 5 p.m. Special performance Tuesday, June 29, 8 p.m. includes Q & A session with cast members immediately following the show; tickets $25–80 at 415-421-4222, www.beachblanketbabylon.com
Ed Attanasio is a writer/standup comic who performed with Tammy Nelson at Big Lil’s Cabaret back in the early nineties and was in the same fraternity with the late Steve Silver, creator of Beach Blanket Babylon. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org