A Dusty Road to Springfield
GALO: It’s a very distinctive look, much of the time.
KHS: Very much.
GALO: She had a real elegance about her too — her evening wear, for instance. Early on, they were calling her the blue-eyed soul singer. She had a black sound.
KHS: She did. We deal with that in the play. The transference of what that was for her… She started with the Lana Sisters, an all-girl singing trio with harmonies, and then, when she was 19-years-old, she did The Springfields with her brother, which was also a folk based trio… (Note: Dusty Springfield joined her older brother’s group, The Springfields, eventually separating from them to cut her first hit single, “I Only Want to Be With You,” when The Exciters became interested in her.) I think what’s great about our story [is that] we fictionalized a lot of the characters and the story, but there’s a lot of facts based in what we tell and the journey we take people on, and that’s one of them. There’s something about that wonderful R&B sound that spoke to her and pulled her in. She did the Murray the K shows in NYC with Marguerite of the Vandellas, who she became very, very close friends with. And there were a lot of people, little Stevie Wonder… I can’t remember everybody on the bill. She spent quite a lot of time with them. They did several shows a day. They were all sort of there, all day in the theatre, doing these rotating shows. There was a famous story I read somewhere…about how Dusty did not come out of her room and she was throwing crockery around… that was sort of her thing, to smash plates before she went on stage to sooth her nerves.
GALO: The material is so rich. She’s part of her brother’s group, and all of a sudden, she gets this incredible offer.
KHS: She decided to go solo. She was only 23-years-old and then she started to host Ready, Steady, Go and then she had her own TV series — it was called Dusty and she had Tom Jones on, she had a duet with Jimi Hendrix, she played a guitar and sang a folk song in Portuguese. There are actually reissues on the BBC. It lasted for quite a few episodes, but you can see all these amazing videos of just her singing.
GALO: You said it was the sound of her voice that inspired you. You started this by putting songs together? How did you begin?
KHS: I decided on her…it was obviously her voice, the way she looked, the way she carried herself. That sound. I was very inspired by it. I really wanted to know more about this woman. As soon as I started to read, I was like, “oh my god.” I started to do some research on her before I started to write. And as soon as I started, it was more than I expected. The story is so…awe-inspiring.
GALO: Riveting. The other performers she helped, for instance. I had the feeling while watching the play that you had done a considerable amount of research about some of the best things about her life to include.
KHS: I was like “oh, my, god,” and with the music, it was a perfect marriage. And so, I knew I could sing — nobody is going to be Dusty Springfield again reincarnated, but I knew I had a very similar sound quality to my voice, and a similar belief about looking at the world and music and what it meant to me. I felt like giving myself the gift to explore my talents and what I could contribute to this story and to bringing it to an audience today. I have to say, I’ve been doing this for seven years. It started with just me singing her songs at open mike nights at the Gardenia in Los Angeles. I’d come home from work and start writing monologues just to get it out of my head. That’s really very grass roots, the genesis of how I started to piece together this show. And I gave myself deadlines — I had the great fortune of being offered a grant. I was one of two people who won — a small $6,700 grant. (Note: In 2006 Smith received an arts grant from the University of Southern California for the project.)
GALO: But that’s a great springboard to continuing your faith in the project. You knew how challenging it was going to be.
KHS: Honestly, I was naïve in a way — I didn’t know how incredibly challenging and rewarding too [it would be] because of the incredible people that have come into my life because of this project; it has been miraculous, the gifted and talented team that I have around me now…every little baby step I took, led to another step and I never gave up…well, there’s been quite a few times I gave up, but I just kept going.
GALO: That’s what you have to do. In your own persona, there’s a certain strength you project. Dusty was really out there, singing for the people. There’s that segment you have, where she was thrown out of South Africa and her not wanting to sing for a segregated audience. You must have been inspired. Another key question, this is where I see a lot of the challenge. As you continued to work on it, did you have ambivalence about developing the story version versus the song version — did you feel yourself torn?
KHS: Yes. It’s incredibly challenging to tell a person’s life story in 90 minutes. [Laughter].
GALO: You’re a co-writer on this.
KHS: Yeah, and it really did start naively in a lot of ways. As I said, I started writing monologues…this monologue will go with this one and this part of the story will go with this song.
GALO: There were so many interesting things in her life that I wanted it to go on as a dramatic moment but you were smart in incorporating the dramatic incidents in her songs. It must have been a real challenge, what to include and not to include to keep it moving.
KHS: Absolutely. We did our best to place the songs in a way to drive the narrative forward to the next part of her life; sometimes I feel it’s a play with music but I think it’s a musical format because the songs do drive the narrative and we planned it that way. I hope the people feel moved because that’s what music is for — to move you, to inspire you…it takes you to a place where words can’t. What’s challenging about Dusty is that she has such monster hits, and you have so many people that love her, that are obsessed with her, and then you have so many who don’t know who she is; a broad spectrum in that way. I think there’s a lot of people in England that see her as more of an icon — with our audience here, there’s quite a few major fans [of hits like] “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” The Look of Love,” “I Only Want to Be With You.”
GALO: They’re waiting for those.
KHS: Yes, exactly. Waiting for those hand gestures, waiting to see if you’re going to talk about the lesbianism, the cuttings, are you going to go there, and the flip side of that — it’s hard to be well rounded with all that but I want to introduce the people to her who only know her through “Son of a Preacher Man.”
GALO: The song showing up in Pulp Fiction so many years later. It’s shocking to remember how many may not remember her, but your show with all those great songs will create a new audience for her. That would be a wonderful thing. Did any of the original cast open in New York with you?
KHS: They’re all new — the original was a one woman show and it only had two backup singers and they never spoke. It was an hour and 15 minutes. Just me moving through a rock ‘n’ roll band on stage…then we decided to write a screenplay on Dusty’s life and it was a finalist in the Sundance Writers Lab two years in a row, and this became a musical; a one woman musical was not where we wanted to land in New York. We didn’t want it to be a big splashy musical because we didn’t have the budget for that. We had to keep it contained. We were going to add more songs and that’s when we decided to have five in the cast so Dusty could have people she could interact with, a lot of the narrative had to do with the love in her life.
GALO: Well, you can be very proud of all the work. It shows.
KHS: Thank you.
(“Forever Dusty” is currently playing at New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, New York, NY. For more information, visit http://www.foreverdusty.com or call 212-239-6200.)