Tales of Taylor: Ann Talman's musical memoir at Feinstein's

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday May 9, 2023
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Ann Talman in a recent photo; Elizabeth Taylor and Ann Talman <br>in 'Little Foxes' on Broadway, 1981. (photo: Martha Swope)
Ann Talman in a recent photo; Elizabeth Taylor and Ann Talman
in 'Little Foxes' on Broadway, 1981. (photo: Martha Swope)

Ann Talman first met Elizabeth Taylor in January 1981.

The writer-performer, who brings her musical reminiscences of La Liz, "The Shadow of Her Smile," to Feinstein's at the Nikko on Friday, May 12, was 22 at the time, but the Hollywood legend's name had played like a refrain in her ear since childhood.

Talman bore a striking resemblance to the young Taylor and, for better or worse, was frequently reminded of it by strangers.

After a series of auditions for a Taylor-headlined production of Lillian Hellman's "Little Foxes," including two command performances in the playwright's own Park Avenue apartment, Talman, a native of West Virginia who had just recently moved to New York, was cast as the 50-year-old leading lady's daughter.

"When Elizabeth arrived for the first read-through," recalled Talman in a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter, "she came up and gave me a huge hug. She kissed my cheek and then whispered in my ear, 'Oh my God, I feel like I'm looking at myself in 'National Velvet.''"

Spending time together nearly every day of the play's nearly two-year journey from Fort Lauderdale's Parker Playhouse to the Kennedy Center, to Broadway and finally the West End, the pair formed a unique friendship that would last for decades. ("Little Foxes" was both women's Broadway debut).

"It felt like destiny," said Talman. "There was something very eerie about it all."

Ann Talman and Elizabeth Taylor in a 1981 press photo for 'Little Foxes'  

Mother figure
"My mother, who I didn't have a very good relationship with, had died in a terrible car accident two years earlier," Talman recalled. "People had been telling me I looked like Elizabeth and now my mother was gone, and I was playing Elizabeth's daughter.

"Years later, Elizabeth and I talked about her having a sense that I was motherless. From day one, she just took me under her wing in this maternal fashion that lasted until the day she died and, I think, still exists for me in many ways."

Talman's touching and surprisingly funny tribute includes plenty of show business anecdotes, Taylor verbatims delivered in a pitch-perfect vocal impression, and a carefully curated selection of songs with thematic ties to the stories, including "Send in The Clowns," "Ship in A Bottle," and a particularly resonant "That's What Friends Are For," accompanying a look back Taylor's pioneering work on behalf of AIDS research.

Added Talman, "It means a lot to me that I'm doing my show in San Francisco on Mother's Day weekend."

Brother's keeper
Following her Broadway debut alongside Taylor, Talman pursued a successful acting career in theater, film, and television (including a guest spot on "Seinfeld" that led to a romance with Michael Richards), but her love of performing often took a backseat to her dedication to a brother, Woody, eight years her senior.

"He was so bright and handsome and hilarious," explained Talman. "He also had cerebral palsy and was a nonverbal quadriplegic. When my mother died, I knew that I was immediately going to take on her role in his life. And then my father got Alzheimer's disease about six years later."

"In my twenties and thirties," she noted, with a remarkable absence of rue, "When most of my contemporaries were focused on worrying about their careers, I was taking care of my brother and father."

"From the moment I have memory," recalled Talman, "I adored my brother, and I loved being his sister. I just took on the role and ran with it, which might not have been everybody's story. But it was mine. And even taking chunks of time off from work to help care for him, I managed to have a successful career. But I knew that he needed me and that I would be there for him."

In addition to regularly winning featured roles, Talman dug into her own story to write her first one-woman show, "Woody's Order," about her relationship with her brother, which has enjoyed multiple productions and been the subject of an award-winning short documentary film.

"In 2018, he took his last breath in my arms," Talman remembered. "And then I realized that I still have some time left for me."

a new chapter
After her brother's death, Talman began work on a book-length memoir and began to craft her Taylor show.

"I just dedicated myself to my writing and my singing," she said. "It was the first time in my life I had a chance to just focus on what I wanted to do. After my mother died, I couldn't go to graduate school, so I decided that now it was time to do my own self-study program in cabaret."

With the arrival of the pandemic, the show took on a new dimension, providing a release from grieving and an outlet for productive social interaction as Talman worked with her director, Lina Koutrakos and music director, Alex Rybeck, via Zoom. Once again, her relationship with Elizabeth Taylor helped lift Talman out of a difficult time.

Ann Talman  

Following its premiere at Manhattan's 54 Below last year, "The Shadow of Her Smile" went on to win Mac and Bistro awards, high honors for New York cabaret performers.

Talman has performed the show in Chicago and Southern California and will take it to Florida, Arizona and possibly London in the year to come. She has also committed herself to do a performance on Taylor's birthday each year.

"People are going to come because they're curious about Elizabeth," Talman said. "But I hope the show also takes them to places they didn't expect to go."
In its portrait of Taylor and of Talman herself, it's first and foremost about generosity of spirit.

Ann Talman's 'The Shadow of Her Smile,' May 12, 8pm at Feinstein's at the Nikko. 222 Mason St. $59. (866) 663-1063. www.feinsteinssf.com

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