As the starring lead in the most successful live music revue in the history of mankind, Tammy Nelson is tickled to be on the stage at Club Fugazi in North Beach five nights a week playing a wide range of colorful characters for Beach Blanket Babylon, the show that was created by the late Steve Silver in San Francisco over 36 years ago.
But, the role of her life didn’t happen easily or overnight, Nelson said, because she worked as an understudy backing up the original long-time lead, Val Diamond, for 17 years before assuming the major lead in BBB last summer. It’s been a long road and many years of patient waiting to be the number one diva in the longest running show in the world, but Nelson is comfortable in the role after nearly two decades preparing for her time in the spotlight.
Getting the understudy role in 1993 was the first step, but it wasn’t anything even close to a slam dunk, Nelson said. “It was by far the hardest audition I’ve ever experienced. Everyone brought their own props and they were so prepared, I figured I had no shot. It was a cattle call and I got a callback the same day. Steve conducted the interviews and it was very surreal. I was a little intimidated, because I had never seen the show. They contacted me 1-2 days later to tell me I had the job. And now I’ve been doing it for 18 years. It’s amazing. Beach Blanket Babylon is the perfect show for me and I love it. It’s always different and a challenge, which is one of the reasons why I love it!”
On July 11 ‘09, Tammy took the stage at BBB as the lead for the first time. And she hasn’t had much time to reflect since. “It just all came together,” Nelson said. “They had to build some new hardware for me, so that I could wear the big hats and the various costumes. They designed some bracing specifically for me and it worked perfectly. I had an outstanding working relationship with Val for many years. I had been filling in for her at least once each week for a long time, so I wasn’t completely new to the role.”
Nelson has had to adapt to a more frenetic re-worked show, she explained. “The show is on steroids now compared to what it was. The show has changed across the board within the last six months, so I have to be quicker on my feet and more willing to role with the changes.”
Nelson has recently noticed a definite resurgence in live theater amongst young people and she can credit a lot of that interest to Glee, the hot network TV show that’s captured the imagination of many fledgling actors who can dance and croon, she said.
“When I was their age, we loved the show Fame. Glee has caused a comeback and now more kids want to get into live stage shows. They’re not getting music and theater classes in the high schools, so hopefully BBB and the scholarship program that we sponsor will help these developing actors.”
Nelson plays several very well-known characters for BBB, including Miss Italy, French Streetwalker, Jewish Mother, Cow Girl, Fannie Mae in the “Les Miserables” number and wears the spectacular San Francisco Skyline Hat during the show’s finale.
With all of the show’s costume changes, enormous hats and props, do things ever go sideways on stage? “Sure, it’s live theater,” Nelson said. “So you’re going to have unanticipated stuff happening all the time. The woman playing Barbra Streisand one night fell off the stage. I was playing the Jewish Mother while I went over to pick her up and people thought it was part of the show. The hats, some of the costumes—things can go wrong, but the show must always go on.”
Nelson is always ready for the constant tweaking and altering of the show, she said. “They’re always changing and adjusting things, while adding new bits based on current affairs. They’re always looking at the entertainment value of everything that happens on the stage.” Within the past year, BBB has added several new characters, such as Lady Gaga, Tiger Woods, Taylor Swift, Michael Phelps, John Edwards, Octomom, Jon and Kate Plus Eight and Kanye West, just to list a few.
What is the biggest difference between being an understudy and playing the principal role? “I would say the physical requirements of the job are tremendously different. I used to do one show a week on average, and now I’m doing seven. It was a huge transition. There’s also a lot more stress on my singing voice now for obvious reasons. When I started it was tough, but I told myself it can’t be this challenging forever. I figure if I kept doing it, I would eventually get better and I believe I have.”
Nelson started her career performing in shows with the San Jose Civic Light Opera, the West Valley Light Opera and the Saratoga Drama Group. But Tammy cites her years on doing live stage shows for two melodrama/vaudeville houses, at Big Lil’s Cabaret in San Jose and Campbell’s Gaslighter Theatre, as where she learned how to think on her feet while developing improvisational skills to adapt when the other actors and the crowd take things in a different direction.
“Big Lil’s taught me how to roll with the show. I’ve now reached the point where I’m more comfortable with the uncertainty of a show like BBB. A live show is very special, because it’s not predictable and it can change in a second.”
Nelson has also wowed people throughout the Bay Area with her singing voice during sold our shows in San Jose and San Francisco. Her self-produced CD can be sampled and purchased at www.cdbaby.com/cd/tammynelson.
What will Nelson be doing in five years, for example? No one can read the future, but Tammy’s sure of one thing—she wants to play the lead in BBB as long as she can. “I’ll do this role as long as the opportunity exists. I’m in a groove and I’m in the most successful musical revue ever produced, so I’m very pleased and looking forward to growing and developing as a performer. This is the best place to be, because I enjoy the work and everyone involved with it.”