Dee Dee Does Billie Holiday

Dee Dee Does Billie Holiday
Dee Dee Bridgewater as Billie Holiday in "Lady Day" at the Little Shubert Theatre.
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)

“Young people take note of this woman’s life, this woman’s bravery, so you can stand up and not be afraid to speak in your own voice. Children, stand tall and dare to be a Billie Holiday.”

So wrote singer Dee Dee Bridgewater in a liner note to “Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee” (DDB Records/Emarcy), her Grammy-winning 2010 CD whose title began with Holiday’s given name. On that CD, though Bridgewater flecked a lyric or two with Holiday’s timbre or phrasing, her singing was never imitative, and often reflective of musical liberties Holiday never took.

Now Bridgewater again dares — to be the Billie Holiday, that is: She is currently portraying Holiday in the debut New York run of “Lady Day,” a musical written and directed by Stephen Stahl, at Times Square’s Little Shubert Theatre. (There are plans to move the production to Broadway.)

It’s a role Bridgewater returns to after a long hiatus, having earned critical acclaim in a production in Paris in 1986, and a Laurence Olivier Award nomination the following year in London. (My Wall Street Journal colleague Pia Catton devoted a recent column to the story of the show’s 25-year odyssey to New York City, which included Bridgewater optioning the play herself.)

When I spent some time with Bridgewater in New Orleans in May, during the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, she said that she was excited to be returning to the New York stage, and to the challenge of being Billie each night.

“I think this is role I’ll keep growing into,” she said. “Because there’s always more to discover about Billie as a musician and as a woman, just like there’s always more to discover about who I am as a musician and a woman.”

She had reflected on her first stint in “Lady Day” when I interviewed her for a Wall Street Journal piece connected to that 2010 CD. “I was possessed,” she said. “I would take my first step onto the stage and could feel her take over.”

Bridgewater can do a dead-on impersonation of Holiday — she briefly eased in and out of Holiday’s drawn-out phrasing and playful intonation over the phone for me — but that was never the point. The last thing she intended was caricature.

By the time she was cast as Holiday, Bridgewater had developed a deepened appreciation of Holiday’s rhythmic and expressive gifts as a singer. And she sought something beyond the tragic storyline. She had easy access to good sources: She’d debuted in 1970 with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band, which included her then-husband Cecil Bridgewater, and performed throughout that decade with jazz standard-bearers including Max Roach and Sonny Rollins. Through musicians such as trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, she heard firsthand recollections. She acquired cassettes documenting private moments.

“I learned that Billie was a very funny woman, with a dry sense of humor,” she recalled, “who loved to talk dirty and would cook for her fellow musicians.”