Home » Karla Burns

Karla Burns

Karla Burns (Dolly Levi) graduated from Wichita State University with a dual degree in Theatre Performance and Music Education.  She has appeared at some of the most distinguished venues in the world, including the Paris Opera and the Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain.  She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in Porgy and Bess, performed at the Cairo Opera in Show Boat and at Carnegie Hall in Trio, a jazz opera.  She has appeared on Broadway in classical and musical theatre.  To her credit, she has performed in two Broadway productions of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors including Lincoln Center and Shakespeare in the Park.  

Karla also has appeared on Broadway in Measure for Measure with Kevin Kline and Blair Underwood.  The 1982-83 Broadway revival of Show Boat earned her a Drama Desk award and a Tony nomination.  The Opera North/Royal Shakespeare Company production of Show Boat marked her West End and United Kingdom debut for which she won the 1991 Olivier Award for Best Supporting Performance in a Musical for her portrayal as Queenie.  Some of her operatic repertoire includes Blitztein’s Regina, performed at Chautauqua Opera, Falstaff, Die Fledermaus, and The Mikado.

Some of her musical credits include South Pacific, Nunsense, Ain’t Misbehavin’, A…My Name is Alice, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and A Cabin in the Sky. Mama in A Raisin in the Sun, Berenice in The Member of the Wedding and Calpurnia in To Kill A Mockingbird are just a few from Karla’s extensive list of dramatic roles.  Some of Karla’s television credits include One of a Kind, The Comedy of Errors, The Parade with Geraldine Page and the U.K. series Wogan. She can be heard on recordings of Songs of New York (RCA), Jerome Kern Revisited, Volume II  (Ben Bagley), the critically acclaimed Show Boat (EMI) and Kiss Me, Kate (EMI).

Karla also tours a one woman show based on the biography of Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel titled Hi Hat, Hattie.  She is next up as Jeannette in The Full Monty.

Karla got the opportunity to record Show Boat years ago after having done a different production on Broadway starring Donald O’Connor. It was the biggest recording of that show that had ever been done. It was done by BMI and was nominated for a Grammy. It won the Gramophone Award and it was really a fine production with people like Frederica von Stade and Teresa Stratas, the opera singers, and Jerry Hadley.

It was a power packed production and was voted by Time Magazine in 1998 as one of the best recordings of the decade. To take the role of Queenie, which Karla had done on Broadway, her first show on Broadway, and have the chance to cross the water, Show Boat was icing on the cake.After doing that, all sorts of opportunities seem to happen for Karla.

When Karla starts preparing to take on the persona of another character, her work begins before she shows up at the first rehearsal. Dolly Levi is no exception to that rule. She had a wonderful period prior to starting rehearsals knowing that she was going to be taking on this role.

Music Theater for Young People in Wichita did a junior version of the show a few years ago. Karla was the music director on that and developed an interest in the show then.

Then and there she felt that Dolly Levi was an incredible role that she would like to take that on some day. That day came!

Years before, Karla was lucky enough to also sit in on a recording session in New York in which Jerry Herman himself was playing some of the music that he had written.

It was an amazing moment. That interest in playing Dolly actually goes further back to that moment.

When she found out that she was going to have the chance to play this part, her first thought was, “Karla Burns, The Matchmaker…How will I do?” When the board was discussing their current season, they decided that they would like to see Karla play Dolly.

She had done other work at The Forum. However, for the last year and a half, Karla has not been able to do any work due to a major surgery that she had.

After saying yes, she began to look deeper into the part and also at the iconic women in whose shoes she would be following, Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, to name two, and try to learn more extensively what these ladies were doing so that she could do the best she could.

This production was a way of welcoming her back to the human race and to also say, “Hello, Karla!”

Karla jumped right in. Her first goal was to learn her lines. She began by looking at the Barbra Streisand film. She found Barbra unique in the role, obviously different from the other ladies who have taken on this role.

Karla even listened to the extra pieces of music that were added specifically for Barbra.

One of the obvious things that separates Barbra from the other Dollys is that she is a completely different voice type than a Carol Channing or a Pearl Bailey, for example.

Watching Barbra and video clips of other Dollys also convinced Karla that she did not have to be one way or another. They are each convincing enough in what they do. Karla’s all time favorite of the Dollys she researched is Carol Channing. Also, to get the opportunity to hear any of the Pearl Bailey performance sits well in Karla’s heart as a fellow African-American. Karla, unfortunately, never saw Pearl Bailey or Carol Channing perform it live on stage. Her only frame of reference is through You Tube.

Karla’s director, Rick Bumgardner, also helped her in her on line research.

She had no idea prior that Phyllis Diller and Ginger Rogers and Joanne Worley had also played the role. Wow, the variety of women who have come into play! As Rick was looking at costumes and researching various aspects of different productions to figure out what he desired the show to look like, he found,by googling, a production that was happening in the UK.

He asked Karla to come and look at his findings.

He was desiring her to see the costumes for her feedback. Karla found much more! The woman who was playing Dolly in the UK was someone that Karla had done Show Boat with in 1991 in the West End of London.  As of this interview, Karla had not contacted her to say “Hello.”

It was interesting to see a fellow player being Dolly and also to see that it is still being performed all over the world.

Dolly is Dolly and what a great legacy she truly is. Dolly is a strong character in every way.   

 This is the largest role that Karla has taken on in the last seven years. This has really been an important hump for Karla to cross over for several reasons; she didn’t know whether or not she would be able to take on this iconic role. She had to find stamina and whether or not she was really capable of pulling the role off and doing the role, in general. It would entail a long rehearsal process that would continuously ask her if she was capable of  playing this role over and over again. How would she make sure that she is technically singing well enough to do this? That has truly been one of the biggest surprises to her.

It is an inspiration and a joy to know that she can once again do what she did before … even after a major surgery.

She continued to look on line to learn more about Carol Channing and Pearl Bailey. Karla cried a lot. To see these incredible women do this part left Karla with a feeling that she had to be pretty special to approach this woman. Dolly is not a normal entity, and so Karla tried to look and find ways to make Dolly a part of her and vice versa.

Karla, by her own definition, is a little round woman.

She loves the lyric in It Takes a Woman in which Horace says, “It takes a husky woman.” That one lyric made her stop and say, “It’s OK that I’m not tall and thin.” She has the machinery going in her head about what it takes to be a matchmaker and what it takes to be her kind of Dolly.

Karla Burns and Huron Breaux star in Hello Dolly! at Wichita’s Forum Theatre.

Karla thinks that when she opened her mouth after the Ephraim speech leading into Before The Parade Passes By at her first rehearsal, she had an epiphany. She has never been known as a “soft” singer. The whole speech of Dolly asking Ephraim to let her go is done very softly and very tenderly. That is the way Karla interpreted it, just letting him know that it was time for her to move forward.

She can’t recall what it reminded her of at that moment, but when she got to Before the Parade Passes By, this was the first rehearsal she really had, she said the speech because she really needed to know where she was going. She opened her mouth to sing and her own voice made her cry.

She found something tender in her heart for what she was saying: for musical theater, for Dolly Levi, for the idea of exploring her possibilities.    

Dolly Levi has to have a reason to find Horace Vandergelder the RIGHT man for HER.

Karla looks and sees this person and asks herself what about him appeals to her. The person who happens to be playing opposite Karla is actually a dear friend of hers, Huron Breaux. He also happens to be extremely handsome. Some reviews have even referred to him as a hunky Horace.

The person that Horace Vandergelder is has to invoke in Karla what makes him interesting to her. What is it about him that makes her desire to sweep him off his feet to last a whole lifetime long? Because he is a friend, Karla finds it harder to play those aspects of Dolly.

Karla has, however,figured out that Dolly is a lot like Karla! They are both insistent and consistent. Karla makes sure that she does what is required of her but her goal is to get Horace to notice Dolly as audiences are noticing Karla. By the end, all is achieved.

Karla just doesn’t stop. Karla feels that way about all aspects of her life.

When Karla had her surgery in 2007, removing a goiter in her thyroid that weighed nine pounds and ten ounces, she couldn’t talk for several months.

She was told that she would probably never sing again. But with persistence and being consistent, and with

her drive, watch out! Her vocal therapy took her a hundred miles from her home every other day. She would drive from Wichita to Lawrence and back again after therapy! In addition to that, she was undergoing physical therapy in Wichita.

She had fallen and hurt her thumb and was dealing with that.

She had to do speech therapy before she could even begin vocal therapy!

Some days, she would find herself in the doctor’s office and her therapist’s office eight or nine times a week. She was persistent. She had tenacity and drive.

Dolly and Karla both drive the point that what is in front of them may look like they are doing it for someone else, but there is a method to their madness. The end result was being able to sing again and act Dolly has been an incredible reward for Karla.Rick Bumgarnerhas had the most impact on Karla with this production.

Rick has been one of Karla’s “bestest” friends long before Dolly came along. They have known each other more than thirty years. He believed she could do this and has seen her go through most of her life’s journey.

He is the reason she went to Broadway in the first place. She couldn’t drive through all of college. He drove her everywhere. He drove her to her first audition outside of Wichita, in Oklahoma City.

He has been right

there with her through the trials and tribulations of her surgery. There are so many milestones in her life and Rick has been there every time. He went to London to see her do Show Boat. Wherever she has appeared here in this county, he goes to support her.

He’s not just her friend. As a director, he does his research well.

If he sees or reads something on line that he wants Karla to know about, he lets her know so that she can be as informed as he is.

He has a method called “power blocking.” He blocks an entire scene before it is put on stage. Karla always wonders if she is going to survive the power blocking. She has worked with him on several productions so obviously she trusts him. She trusts him to tell her the truth.

Not just because they are friends, but rather because she has a wonderful eye in directing.

In addition to directing in Wichita, he has directed in Kansas City, and Connecticut, where he went to school and got his Graduate’s Degree.

Again, she trusts him, he has helped her bring a lot of life to her characters.

When it comes to Hello, Dolly, Karla’s heroes are Carol Channing , Pearl Bailey, and Jerry Herman.

To have sat in a room and hear him play his own music on the piano, she thought to herself what a gift to the world this man is. She is glad that she has had the chance to experience him and Carol Channing, even to

experience Barbra Streisand on film and Pearl Bailey on video clips. To experience an all African-American cast strut across the stage just makes Karla so very proud.

Karla wishes that she had seen Pearl Bailey play Dolly. She wishes the same about Carol Channing.

She has watched the You Tube clip over and over from The Tony Awards in 1967 in which Carol introduces Pearl Bailey.

Carol refers to Pearl Bailey’s production of Dolly as akin to a nice dress. Although it looked fine when she had it, now, someone else was wearing it. It was the same dress but now it is something completely different.

That was another key to Karla taking on this role.

First you have Carol Channing looking gorgeous on stage with that bright blonde hair, then along comes Pearl Bailey who is tall and thin and brown and now there is

Karla Burns. They are all so very different but they are all so alike. They can ALL wear the same dress. It just fits them all a little bit different.

Karla is proud to be Dolly in this rich legacy.

She would really like to have experienced being Dolly at the day and time that Hello, Dolly takes place and to have the incredible clothes and to experience the machinery in Dolly’s head that never stops working. Karla admires Dolly’s drive. The hurdle with playing Dolly is to hit every mark in every scene and every actor on stage. She is surrounded by a stellar cast. Audiences expect Dolly to be wonderful. It is even more wonderful when everyone surrounding her is on an equal par. It is great when Minnie Fay and Irene Molloy and Cornelius and Barnaby rise to the task at hand.

What wonderful songs they have. They have to be on their toes. Then, of course, there is Horace. These are all branches on the tree striving for the same goal. She is very proud of this company. Going into this production, some of the cast did not know Karla and vice versa.Karla has a full body of work to back her up including Broadway and London. Her first Broadway show, Show Boat, she received a Tony nomination. She had gone to a cattle call and they lost her phone number! They traced her back to Wichita to find her.

She was found and a new Queenie was born. That show, starring Donald O’Connor, continued on the road. The cast also boasted Lonette McKee. The show began with Sheryl Woods. Bruce Hubbard played Joe. This production came out of Houston Grand Opera with John Maynard conducting. After the show opened, Karla kept hearing, “Karla, you could possibly get a Drama Desk nomination…Karla, you could possibly get a Tony Award nomination!” She kept asking herself, “How can this be? I’m just a kid from Kansas.”

THIS ‘Dorothy Gale’ was totally over the rainbow. 

This production has only instilled in Karla an intense desire to play Dolly again. She feels she is now strong enough and now has the ability to get the job done.

She would like to stick with Dolly. Karla thinks she is pretty fabulous. Dolly has been a gift to Karla in every wayin her life.

Hello, Dolly was created out of a magnificent play. She is thankful that Jerry Herman brought MUSIC to The Matchmaker.  

When working on a new show, Karla begins by watching what she eats.

Hello, Dolly is the hardest role she has done in a while. She has done other things and very huge roles. She has a one woman show about Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel. That show consists of fourteen songs and eighty pages of dialogue. She hasn’t done it for a few years due to the fact that she went through a major surgery as stated earlier. That took her out of performing completely for a while.

Part of getting ready to do something that is really this difficult is preparing herself by the way she eats.

She also exercises her body. She is a very mobile person despite the fact that she is short and round.

She doesn’t want anyone to look at “Dolly” and say “Dolly’s tired.” Dolly is never tired of pursuing for others or herself. Karla has to have a sense of ease about the way she approaches any role. She never wants it to look like it’s tedious.

She desires any actress who is contemplating joining the numerous women who have played Dolly to know that it is not an easy role to take on. Acting wise and singing wise, any actress needs to make sure that she warms up her body and voice in a way that she knows she can approach the role.

It’s a role that calls for the actress to utilize a larger range than it looks like.

She has to make sure that she actually knows what she is doing when she is doing five to eight performances a week as Dolly.

She has to know that her stamina is very important. It is also important that she knows how to approach that.

Study the role and learn the lines as they are written. An actress taking on Dolly should make sure that she totally understand who she is playing.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Look into what it is to say the words that Dolly is actually saying. The actors playing these roles will find life in what they say and will also find life in themselves by attempting to play these characters they are playing.

The advice that Karla offers those reading this desiring a career in the business is Be Prepared. There are many who can act and sing. Part of what has made Karla the kind of performer that she is is that she has

listened to those in the know and especially in positions of power and educated herself in what they had to offer. She has been lucky enough to have mentors like Eileen Heckart and Hal Holbrook. She was also lucky enough to become friends with Hugh Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. They sat at Karla’s table at the Drama Desk Awards.

After that, Jessica remembered Karla and spoke to her every time their paths crossed which was often.

Karla’s advice is for everyone to educate themselves and learn what the “greats” have done so that one can exercise their gifts.

Karla will take from her run as Dolly a sense of joy and commitment and a sense of pride that someone else believed she could do it and the idea that one really needs to know themselves and the business, the art of acting and singing, in order to play this role. She has it in spades!

This production just finished its run at The Theater Company at the Forum Theater in Wichita, Kansas on April 7th, 2013.