Hard to believe, but Liz Callaway, Broadway and cabaret singing star, used to suffer from crippling shyness and stage fright.
Back home in Chicago, Liz and her sister, Anne Hampton Callaway, would gather in the living room while their mother, a professional voice coach, played the piano.
“When my mom would say ‘Come on and sing, Liz,’ I would stand and turn in the other direction,” Callaway says. “I loved to sing, as long as no one was looking at me.”
Anne, the elder sibling, was always ready to vocalize “at the drop of a hat,” she adds.
During high school, Callaway explains, “I was in some choruses, because there’s safety in numbers, of course. In the fall of my sophomore year, my parents got divorced. And that really was a rough time.
“I was in a show, and the kids that I was working with said ‘Hey, we heard you’re going through a rough time. Do you want to hang out with us? Can we help you?’ And I suddenly fell in love with the theater, and musical theater in particular, because of the family aspects of it. The team camaraderie. I loved being with a group like that. And that’s really why I got into theater, the social aspect. More than just ‘I want to sing!’”
Callaway went on to perform in Follies, Baby, Miss Saigon, Cats (she spent five years singing “Memory” on Broadway), Evita and Sunday in the Park With George, among others. She is a Tony and Drama Desk nominee.
She won an Emmy in 1990 for her PBS children’s television show, Ready To Go.
Callaway is in Savannah this week as a judge for the 19th American Traditions Vocal Competition, in which 31 singers from around the country compete for cash prizes and a prestigious title. The rounds are held nightly at the Lutheran Church of the Ascension on Wright Square, with the finals scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 28 at the Lucas Theatre.
Along with fellow celebrity judge Amanda McBroom, Callaway will perform in concert at the church Jan. 27.
Her early shyness aside, Callaway has a sweet, friendly voice, the kind that makes you feel as if she’s singing directly to you. It’s the sort of voice that lends itself to heart–of–gold characters in animated musicals: That’s her singing in Anastasia, The Swan Princess, The Return of Jafar, Aladdin & the King of Thieves and The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride.
“When I perform,” Callaway says, “at the end of a concert I want people to feel like they also had dinner with me. I feel very connected to my audiences. And that’s just the kind of person I am; I call myself the anti–diva.”
The anti–diva often performs together with big sister Anne, who is of course a well–known cabaret singer in her own right. They tour with two separate concert performances: Sibling Revelry, a celebration of musical theater, and the 1960s/70s celebration Boom!, in which they duet on the music of their Illinois childhood.
“Our voices are completely different, and we’re very different in personality,” Callaway says. “So when we sing together, something just happens, this crazy sister blend.”
Callaway had been doing musical theater for many years before moving into concert performances. “When I started doing Sibling Revelry with Anne,” she says, “the first place we did it was Rainbow & Stars in New York. A beautiful room, kind of small. And I remember saying to Anne, ‘Wait — I have to look at their faces? They’re right there!’ That just was terrifying to me.
“Whereas in a Broadway theater, you have a spotlight on you, and it’s black. I used to love that, because I felt safe.”
She lives just outside New York City with her husband, Dan Foster. Their son attends Kenmore College. Callaway is also a member of the United States Tennis Association, and competes under the name Liz C. Foster. “So many people who I play tennis with have no idea what I do for a living,” Callaway explains. “I love my work, but at the end of the day I like having my non–work life. My normal life. I think that’s very healthy for me.”
Callaway admits that her stint as in Cats – she played the sad and tattered Grizabella, whose one song, “Memory,” was the show’s biggest hit — put her humble nature to the test.
“I always felt guilty at the end of the show,” she recalls. “Because the dancers were so unbelievable, and they worked so hard, and the audience was appreciative ... but at the very end, I came out and of course I’d get all the cheers and accolades.
“I’d be thinking ‘Wait a minute ... they’ve been killing themselves for two hours ...”
American Traditions Competition
Where: Lutheran Church of the Ascension, 120 Bull St.
Quarterfinals: At 5 and 8 p.m. Jan. 25; tickets $35 (good for both performances)
Semi–finals: At 5 and 8 p.m. Jan. 26; tickets $50 (good for both performances)
Liz Callaway and Amanda McBroom
When: At 8 p.m. Jan. 27
Where: Lutheran Church of the Ascension
Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.
When: At 8 p.m. Jan. 28
Tickets: $50, $65
All tickets at scadboxoffice.com