Many people search for their passion and what makes them happy for years before truly finding a job that truly suits them. But singer-actress Pia Zadora, who’s set to make her musical comeback this summer at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts in her hometown of Las Vegas, grew up with a passion for music. Zadora found early success as a child star on Broadway in the 1960s, and later received accolades for her solo music career and albums
Zadora recently took the time to speak over the phone about why she decided to launch her comeback at the Smith Center. The singer-actress also spoke about why she enjoys performing live for audiences so much and her working relationships with such legendary singers as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.
Question (Q): You’re launching your comeback with a set of shows in Las Vegas this summer at the new Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Why did you decide to start performing again, particularly at the Smith Center?
Pia Zadora (PZ): Well, I actually moved to Las Vegas because I married a detective from Las Vegas. We moved here, and he’s working here on the force. My youngest kid just turned 15, and I just felt like it was time for me to have some fun.
Living in Las Vegas inspired me, because we moved here about a year ago. I would drive up the strip every day, driving my kid to school in carpools, and see the names of all my friends on the marquees. I would go see their shows, and sometimes they would ask me to come up on stage and do a number with them.
I started thinking; maybe I should get up there and start doing this again. This is kind of where I started, and there’s that old adage-it’s not where you started, it’s where you finished. I just felt like it was time for me to do it.
Q: You’ll be singing such songs as “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “Come Rain or Shine,” “All of Me,” “Young at Heart” and “The Man That Got Away.” How did you decide which songs to include in your performance?
PZ: Well, my manager put together a team, and we worked together. There was Walter Painter, a director, choreographer and multiple Emmy winner. A lot of the songs that were incorporated were ones that I had done with Frank Sinatra, and felt very close to. They were part of my story that I wanted to tell.
Q: The show will be accompanied by legendary Frank Sinatra pianist and musical conductor Vinnie Falcone and his orchestra. What has it been like working with Vinnie as you prepare for the show?
PZ: Well, I’ve worked with Vinnie when I toured with Frank Sinatra, and he did all my albums with the London Philharmonic in the 1980s. So I’ve worked with him forever, and it’s like family, getting back and doing it with him. Only this time, we’re at different places in our lives
Before, when I sang the standards, I was really young. I was the young kid on the block, singing with Sinatra and those great seasoned performers. I really didn’t have a great understanding of what the songs meant. Vocally, I sang them and gave them my best. They suited me vocally, but now the songs have more meaning.
These songs are timeless, and now all the pop stars are singing them. They’re songs that everybody can relate to. We’re both, Vinnie and I, in a place musically where we can get down to the bottom of things, in terms of understanding musically and lyrically.
Of course, I had the best teacher of them all, Frank, because he took me on the road with him. He became my mentor and taught me how to sing these songs. Every night before I went on stage, he would call me over, take my hands in his, look me straight in the eye and give me a three-word pep talk. He’d say, “Don’t screw up.” Boy, I couldn’t, I didn’t (laugh). So you learn work ethic, you learn perfection from the greats and you learn to apply it.
Cabarets, basically what I love, I’m doing now. It’s getting to know a person in an intimate setting through performance art and music. For me, that is so much fun. It’s like doing my own little story show, with these songs enhancing my story, and having fun, that I never had the guts to do.
It’s a really fun, fulfilling process, being able to perform in my own backyard. That’s the great part; Las Vegas is like a little wonderland. The Smith Center is a beautiful enhancement of the cultural community. Now there are concerts and ballets and philharmonics and Broadway shows and jazz cabarets in this beautiful little jewel box. So it’s a wonderful place to launch my show.
Q: Like you said, you have appeared and performed with such singers as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Neil Sedaka. What has it been like, singing and performing with them, and is there one particular singer that you’ve enjoyed performing the most?
PZ: It’s hard to pick, but I love Tony Bennett. He is just a sweet, fun guy. I love his voice, and I think he’s sexy. I love what he does to his songs. So I would have to say that Tony was my favorite. He’s so spontaneous.
I was performing at a Broadway venue in New York, and he came to see the show. I introduced him. Vinnie had worked with him; he’s worked with all those people-Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.-and knew his music. I asked Tony, would you like to come up on stage and sing a song with me? He jumped up on stage, and he was very excited. I love his spontaneity and guts and his sexy voice.
Q: Speaking of Broadway, you started your career on Broadway, in such performances as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Henry, Sweet Henry.” Do you have any interest in returning to Broadway?
PZ: I’m a New York girl, born and raised in Forest Hills and Long Island. I started on Broadway when I was really young. The last show I did was in 1995, when I did a six-month stint in the musical “Crazy For You.”
It would be fun to do short-term, if the right thing came along. Not short-term, maybe six months or a year, maybe to do a revival of some fabulous show. I would definitely consider it!
Q: You launched your concert career with appearances at Carnegie Hall, The Philadelphia Academy of Music, The Kennedy Center, Radio City Music Hall, and The London Palladium, as well as with symphonies throughout the United States and Canada. What is it about performing live in concert that you enjoy so much?
PZ: It’s the excitement of the audience, and the connection with the audience. You don’t know how it’s going to be. There’s the fear and the adrenaline of the unknown. I started this show in some venues before Las Vegas, to tune it up and figure out what to do and what not to do.
When I went out there after 15 years of hiatus, it was exhilarating. But I had felt like someone had shot me out of a cannon, and I had landed on the edge of a cliff. All of a sudden, I caught my breath, and connected with the people in the audience.
It’s scary, anything can happen. There’s that thrill, that excitement of connecting with people in a spontaneous matter. There’s nothing like live performing.
Then with Carnegie Hall, Andy Warhol was there, and he took a portrait of me. Everyone in town was there. The Kennedy Center and the Palladium in London, those were really exciting times for me.
Q: Besides singing, you’re also known for acting in films and on television. Do you have any interest in returning to acting?
PZ: Well, it would depend. I love what I’m doing right here. It would have to be something I love doing. Like with “Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult,” in which I was singing in the Academy Award scene. It would have to be comic fun kind of stuff.
You know, I was nominated for a Grammy in 1984 for Best Female Rock Singer. I was rocking out, and had lots of albums out in Europe. I love singing, and singing is basically where I started.
I come from a family of singers. My grandmother was an opera singer in Poland. My mother sang with Frank Sinatra 45 years ago. My aunt was in the New York City opera. They started me singing when I was a baby. I love it, and it makes me happy.
Q: Out of all the mediums you’ve appeared in, including singing, acting in films and on television and in theater, do you have one particular medium over the other?
PZ: Yeah, I think its live performing and I think its singing. Movies are fulfilling at the end when you see the product you’ve created. Well, it depends if the product is good. (laughs) But it’s basically sitting around and waiting. There’s no live interaction, there’s no energy, there’s no excitement and all that good stuff that we thrive on. It makes us happy, it makes us crazy. (laughs)