Kathy Najimy: Sister Act

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com April 15 2009 12:00 AM ET

If you see Kathy Najimy walking down the street, don't walk on by. Instead, make a beeline to her new stage show, Back to Bacharach and David, a comedic tribute to the classic songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, including Top 40 hits "Walk on By," "Don't Make Me Over," and "I Say a Little Prayer." Najimy, who originally conceived the revue with musical arranger — and longtime gay friend — Steve Gunderson for a 1992 New York run, directs its Los Angeles premiere, which opens April 19 at Hollywood's Music Box Theatre @ Fonda. Having put a spell on many a 'mo with her scene-stealing roles in Hocus Pocus, Soapdish, Sister Act, and NBC's Veronica's Closet, the outspoken 52-year-old feminist and gay rights activist tells us why anyone who had a heart will love Back to Bacharach and David's sexy queer twists.

Advocate.com: How did you and collaborator Steve Gunderson meet?
Kathy Najimy: We met in drama class when we were 14 years old in the eighth grade, and we became fast friends. Steve was the star of the school, and he was in all the plays. I never got cast until he insisted that they give me a line. We also started this thing called Drama Club, where we met every Saturday night with other drama freaks from other schools. We'd do improv, lip-synching, and go out to dinner in character. We sort of made our own thing happen creatively, which is a theme that I continued throughout my career.

Did you two always want to put on a show together when you grew up?
Yeah, but I never really had big aspirations. I remember my first audition when somebody asked, "So, you wanna be a big star?" And I thought, No, not really. But I loved performing, and I think my success is just a byproduct of my drive to create.

Can you pinpoint the beginning of your Bacharach and David obsession?
It was actually when we were 14, which was 1971. I would go over to Steve's house, and he would be sitting on the floor with his legs crossed and this tiny piano in front of him like Schroeder from "Peanuts." He would be pounding out Bacharach songs and he would make me listen. It became my favorite music. I wasn't really much of a singer, but he would put me in a trio, and we'd go to a bar and sing Bacharach songs. Or we'd find ourselves performing at the Veterans Club or at a mall somewhere. So I've literally been doing this for almost 40 years.

BURT BACHARACH ALBUM XLRG | ADVOCATE.COM

We all know you can sing from the Sister Act films. Why aren't you performing in the show?
That's so nice, but I can't sing like these kids can sing. These are superstar singers. For each one of them, you and I would go, "What are you doing Saturday night? Let's go see their concert." I'm just there to add a little tongue in cheek, a little bit of funny, and a couple of times to make you cry. I'm excited to go every night, sit in the back with a Diet Coke, and listen to these songs.

Did you give the songs any queer interpretations?
A lot. Our gorgeous singer Tom Lowe sings "Anyone Who Had a Heart," but we don't change the pronouns; so he sings, "Anyone who had a heart would take me in his arms and love me too." I think it's appropriate for Tom to sing that. And Diana DeGarmo sings "What's New Pussycat?" as a very strong, androgynous, bisexual rock singer wearing a sexy leather dominatrix catsuit. I have an aversion to revues and tributes because they always seem very cruise ship-y to me. I'm interested in the music and the lyrics, but I'm also interested in skewing things while at the same time honoring them.

How has Back to Bacharach and David changed since you first staged the show off-Broadway in 1992?
The biggest difference is that we have more resources now than we did in New York. Burt did not see our run off-Broadway. In fact, he historically has not loved or supported any Bacharach-David musicals or revues. Then he saw a production of our show in Solana Beach, Calif., in 2006 and freaked out, loved the arrangements, and really wanted to meet the arrangers. Steve was actually in that production, so he met Steve, and his enthusiasm was so flattering and surprising. With his and Hal David's support, we got a whole new set of producers, and we're putting it on again.

With former contestants Diana DeGarmo and Tom Lowe in the cast, I'm guessing you're a big American Idol fan.
I really am. How often do you get to hear great singers that don't already have 10 records out? It's like we've already auditioned them because we got to hear them every week. I already knew Diana DeGarmo was cute, funny, and had one of the best voices I'd ever heard, so she's always been my top choice for the show.

There was a bit of controversy surrounding Lowe during the sixth season of Idol when he didn't make the top 24. Do you think his being openly gay affected his advancement in the competition because of the show's allegedly conservative producers?
Well, I'm not going to argue with that. After Tom walked into our audition and sang some obscure song, I asked, "How do you know that song?" He said, "My boyfriend found it." That was the first thing he said to me, so I was like, "Fantastic!" [Laughs] That's certainly not why he was cast, but someone who's authentic in all parts of his or her life is much better at almost everything than somebody who's not. It's hard to be a great artist if you don't live comfortably in your own skin.

BURT BACHARACH AND HAL DAVID XLRG (BACHARACHONLINE) | ADVOCATE.COM

I actually became a fan of Bacharach and David thanks to their frequent inclusion on Idol, plus the soundtrack for My Best Friend's Wedding, which sounds even gayer when I say it out loud.
You must be young. Some of our cast members hadn't heard any of these songs, but this material is timeless. It flows from generation to generation because these songs are still so relevant when contemporary artists sing them. It's sexy, funny, and hip forever.

Tell me about your experience being a part of Marc Shaiman's Prop. 8: The Musical for FunnyOrDie.com.
There were some big stars, but there was a sense of no hierarchy and no egos. Nobody cared what they had to sing or what their part was, and everyone was in the hallway doing their own hair and makeup. And John C. Reilly, man? Seriously, that dude was in a Tennessee Williams play: He was so in character, making sure everyone was doing what they were supposed to be doing. [Laughs] There was something quietly unanimous about it all, and it was very moving, especially for someone like me who's so passionate about marrying entertainment with politics.

I read that you were originally approached to host GSN's new version of The Newlywed Game, but Carnie Wilson ultimately took the gig. Did that decision have anything to do with the show's policy on gay couples or its sponsor eHarmony's previous gay exclusion?
The producers told me, "We've modernized the show: There will be couples with kids from previous marriages, there will be couples of different races... I said, "Then of course you're going to have same-sex couples." And they said, "Well, no, because then we would have to honor all civil unions and common-law marriages." And I said, "No, I'm saying two people of the same sex who are legally married, like a lesbian couple from Connecticut. They do exist in this country in different states. There's no way I could be the host of this unless that was in place." So they said, "Let us look into it." They finally came back and said, "We talked to [GSN parent company] Sony, and they promised they would do that, but it'll take some time. We'll just get through the first season, and by the second season it'll be in place." I said, "I totally hear you, but I cannot be involved in a project where gay people aren't welcome." The next day I got an e-mail that Sony had said, "OK, yes." The twist to the story is that I ended up not taking the job [for other reasons], but the good news is that Sony changed the rules for The Newlywed Game! So everyone should encourage married gay couples to audition and write letters of support to Sony. And I think it'll make them keep their word.

KATHY NAJIMY X100 (PUBLICITY) | ADVOCATE.COM

You voice matriarch Peggy Hill on King of the Hill, which Fox has canceled after 13 seasons. What's it like to say goodbye to Peggy?
Oh, my God, it's so sad. Of course, I'll really miss it. But at the same time, I have to be so grateful that I had a job for 13 years that was 15 minutes away from my house. I worked maybe six hours a week, and I got to do a great character with the best writing on TV, so there's nothing to complain about.

You also voiced Axiom resident Mary in Pixar's Oscar-nominated WALL-E. Should they make a sequel of that, or leave a masterpiece alone?
Sequel!

You sure that's not just your bank account talking?
No. Trust me, it's not a bank account situation.

Do you think it's finally safe to dust off the controversial TV pilot you wrote with The Vagina Monologues' Eve Ensler in the '90s?
The logline for that script was something like, "Performance artist living in a New York loft with her HIV-positive drag-queen brother and her radical biker lesbian next-door neighbor." We put a Post-it on it that said, "Warning: If you make this, you're crazy." [Laughs] But you're right, the timing is kind of right, isn't it? That would be considered mild now on Showtime.