DIVAS IN THE HOUSE: Given the high volume of cold tablets and cough medicine consumed backstage at New York's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Dec. 11, it might have been more appropriate for WKTU New York to host its landmark "Three Divas On Broadway" show at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital.
"I feel like hell," Chaka Khan said as she climbed the narrow, creaking backstage steps to her dressing room early that afternoon. "But you know, darling, all that matters is looking fierce and hitting the high notes once you step onstage--and I will, even if it kills me."
As Khan sipped tea and fantasized about a vacation in London, fellow diva Donna Summer was tucked a few feet away in her tiny quarters, wrestling with the fact that lingering flu symptoms and doctor's orders to rest her vocal chords would keep her from performing a full set that night.
"I guess three years of constant touring have finally caught up with me," she said, solemnly fingering the petals of a rose from a bouquet on her dressing-room table. "But it feels great to still be wanted and appreciated after all of these years."
Only Gloria Estefan, the third diva on the evening's bill, was feeling fit--save for the exhaustion that comes with hitting the promotional ground running. On her first day back in the States after several months on tour in Europe, she found herself between two television crews, dueling over which would get her attention first. "It's all in a day's work," she said with a good-natured sigh as she freshened her lipstick before facing the cameras. "It's been so hectic that I haven't even had a chance to talk to Chaka or Donna about the show yet. But we've each been at this for so long, I'm confident that it'll come together just fine."
And it did. In fact, the rabidly appreciative audience saw nary a sign of physical ailment once the curtain rose on a stellar, dance-charged show that drew its conceptual inspiration from the opera world's famed 3 Tenors. The absence of a Summer set was certainly missed, though it hardly hurt what proved to be a richly diverse and satisfying musical event.
WKTU air personality and evening host RuPaul--who was also battling the flu--warmed up the room with a scant Bob Mackie gown (that looked like it was lifted right out of Cher's closet) and his springy new Rhino single, "A Little Bit Of Love." What a pleasure it was to see him dig into substantial material that showed off his fine baritone voice. He has long deserved better than the novelty trappings of his past recordings.
The main event was a study in contrasts. Khan whipped through an earthy set that slotted new jams like "Never Miss The Water" next to classics like "Ain't Nobody." She kept the vibe raw and funky at all times, breaking into air guitar solos at whim and blowing jazzy heat into her readings of "My Funny Valentine" and "Sweet Thing."
Estefan swung to the polar opposite of Khan, craftily condensing her flashy two-hour stage show into a 30-minute whirlwind that managed to hit every high point of her long and sterling career. A lesser talent would have been swallowed whole by the mammoth backing band, which seemed to cover every inch of the stage, but Estefan rose above it all with astonishing ease--playfully tweaking the crowd and breathlessly jiggling her lean and muscular body. Her hushed, intimate rendition of the single "I'm Not Giving You Up" was a highlight that had us wishing more people would focus on the Afro-Cuban arrangements that make her current album, "Destiny," so unique.
Sparks flew during the brief moments when the trio appeared onstage together. They tiptoed through "I'm Every Woman" and "Turn The Beat Around" with visibly nervous energy and convincingly sisterly support. Particularly striking was the palpable chemistry between Khan and Estefan, whose vocal trade-offs hinted that a studio reunion at a later date might be a dandy idea.
Ironically, the evening's biggest jolt of excitement was not provided by one of the divas. It came via the artist formerly known as Prince, who unexpectedly joined the trio midway through "Turn The Beat Around." Without uttering a syllable or lowering his dark ornate shades, he nearly upstaged the singers when he picked up a guitar and cranked out a few fluid funk licks. His shy smile at the crowd's noisy reception was as charming as the kneeling bow of respect he offered Estefan, Summer, and Khan.
With the show successfully completed and the divas resuming their paths, word is running rampant that WKTU's honchos are plotting a sequel for the spring. Among the names being bandied about is Diana Ross. It's a nifty idea, though we're not sure that Khan is ready to relinquish her slot just yet.
"I think this would make for an excellent tour," she says, her voice spiked with adrenaline. "As a rule, I don't like to do shows where there a lot of chicks on the bill. More times than not, it leads to some sort of drama--and it's usually started by the men surrounding the chicks, if ya know what I mean. But this feels like something bigger. It feels like an event . . . like something special that people are going to talk about for a long time to come."
Once that long-desired vacation is behind her, Khan will resume promoting "Epiphany," her recently issued greatest-hits collection on Reprise. From there, she'll put the finishing touches to her first album of all-new material in three years. "It's going to blow people out," she says with a sly grin. "Revisiting the old jams has been fun, but it gets old after a while. I'm just hitting my stride as an artist."
Also plotting a new phase in her career is Summer, who is enjoying a budding pop hit with "Whenever There Is Love," a duet with Bruce Roberts from the Universal soundtrack to "Daylight." While mulling over offers to cut a new album, she's actively pursuing her dream of returning to the theater by writing a musical with pop tunesmith Michael Omartian and several others. She's tight-lipped about the piece, beyond revealing that she will tackle its leading role and that it will likely go into workshop production with the Tennessee Repertory Company this spring.
"It's a little nerve-racking," she says, settling back into her dressing room. "The hard part is being accepted and respected for doing more than what the public has come to expect from you. I love doing the dance stuff, and I always will. But I have to do more than that. I have to spread my wings and see how far I can fly."
Estefan agrees that diversity has been the key to remaining interested in making music. "I would lose my mind if all I made was the same record over and over again," she says, noting that this summer will bring her first full-out club collection on Epic. The set will feature the house-remixed singles that rendered her Billboard's No. 1 dance artist of the year, along with several new cuts. "The clubs have always been my base--I still love to go dancing when I can find the time. It's kinda cool to walk into a club and hear one of your own songs among all of the great stuff that's out there."