Now and again, you come across something that feels so different you have to learn more. I feel that way about “Bernhardt on Broadway,” a one-woman musical running through June in and about Detroit that focuses on the Divine Sarah Bernhardt.
The play is set in the late 1890s when Bernhardt was at the height of her career. Metro Detroit native Carol Dunitz, who wrote the music, script, and lyrics for the show, read nearly 100 books as well as countless articles before starting work on “Bernhardt on Broadway.” As background, Dr. Dunitz has a B.A. in Theatre and English from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in Speech Communication and Theatre from Wayne State University. Dunitz is a speaker, writer, producer and consultant. And she likes costumes. A lot.
Bernhardt, according to Dunitz, performed around Metro Detroit, most notably at the Detroit Opera House, the Light Guard Armory and The Whitney Theater in Ann Arbor. So she too knew of our fine city and its environs — giving even more credability to our claim of being a top entertainment spot to perform.
Dunitz’s extensive research on Bernhardt ensures the audience gains a thorough understanding of this eccentric star and what motivated her to persist against all odds. And if there’s any town that needs a little motivation…well, you know the city I’m talking about. And if you’re interested in learning more about the Divine Ms. B, read on.
Q: How do you think modern audiences will respond to the fabulous Ms. Bernhardt? Your comparison to Lady Gaga seems pretty dead on as far as her style and sense of drama.
A: My first performance of “Bernhardt on Broadway” was at Maxims in Chicago in October 2010. I have had many opportunities to see how audiences respond to Madame Sarah. Generally, people know she was a great actress but not much more about her. It is an incredible opportunity to introduce my audiences to the actress who 100 years ago today was the most famous woman in the world.
Sarah Bernhardt was the world’s first superstar. She was the first celebrity to endorse products. She was the first actor to star in a full-length silent film. She was an amazing self-promoter who was known the world over before the advent of airplanes and telephones. Lady Gaga, Madonna and every other celebrity of today stands on the shoulders of Sarah Bernhardt. Bernhardt knew better than anyone how to get the attention of the media and used that talent over and over again to her advantage. Whether posing nude as a young woman, spreading rumors of playing croquet with human skulls or having photos taken of herself studying her parts in a coffin, Bernhardt created sensationalism wherever she went and that included tours in Europe, Russia, Australia, South America, and Canada as well as nine extended tours of the United States.
Q: Why take on this much of a challenge at this point in your career?
A: I have been writing music since I was latency age. I have talked about writing and producing musicals since I was 11 or 12 years old. It has been a dream all my life. Why am I doing this now and not sooner? Life gets in the way. I got married soon after I got my Ph.D. in Speech Communication and Theatre — and had four wonderful daughters. I always believed that if you have children you have the responsibility to put them first when they are growing up. As it turned out, I divorced when they were small and had the challenge of establishing a career that would enable me to provide them with the kind of life and opportunities my parents gave me. They are now in their twenties — and it is finally my turn.
Q: What is your favorite thing about performing in and around Metro Detroit?
A: I have lived in Ann Arbor almost all of my adult life — but I grew up in Detroit and the northwest suburbs. I hope that my performances will give me the opportunity to reconnect with people I have not seen in years. That would be really be fun.
I am also doing something in metro Detroit that I have not done in other places — primarily because it is so close to where I live, so accessible. I am performing in more intimate settings, traveling from town to town — much the same way performers did in the 19th century. I think this is going to be a great experience!
Friday, March 23, First Presbyterian Church of Royal Oak 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 24, Hagopian World of Rugs, Birmingham 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 31, Scarab Club, Detroit 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, April 1, Scarab Club, Detroit 2 p.m.
Friday, April 20, KordaZone Theatre, Windsor 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, April 21, Fischer Hall, Frankenmuth 7:30 p.m.
Monday, June 18, Old Troy Church at Troy Museum & Historic Village 2 p.m.