Carol Burnett’s influence spans generations, and the comedy queen will soon receive the highly regarded Sondheim Award, recognizing her enduring impact on the performing arts.
Editor’s Note: The Sondheim Award Gala was originally scheduled to be held on April 6. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, it has been rescheduled for June 29. We have updated the below text to reflect that change.
Her famed sketch comedy, The Carol Burnett Show, established itself in the homes and hearts of Americans for over a decade in the ’60s and ’70s. Today, Carol Burnett is still going strong with a number of projects on the horizon.
If you’re a fan of the American icon, mark your calendar: On June 29, she will be honored with Signature Theatre’s Sondheim Award at a gala hosted at the Embassy of Italy in DC.
The annual event honors those who have contributed to American musical theater, as well as the works of composer Stephen Sondheim, in meaningful ways. We called Burnett to talk about the award, but the conversation naturally took a turn toward reflection on her life, career and what lies ahead. // Embassy of Italy: 3000 Whitehaven St. NW, Washington, DC; sigtheatre.org; individual tickets begin at $1,200
Receiving the Sondheim Award: “I’m really gobsmacked by this honor. I adore Steve [Sondheim]. I adore his work. I’ve done quite a bit of his stuff, and even on my show we did a tribute to his music.”
The Carol Burnett Show Fun Fact: “A lot of people don’t realize how much music we did on the show, because when we went into syndication, they cut out all the musical numbers. So a lot of people, unless they get the DVDs, they were raised on the syndicated show. They don’t know about all of the music we did, a lot of spoof takeoffs from musicals and some original stuff. I’m really proud of it.”
Broadway Memories: “I started out wanting to be in musical comedies on Broadway. I got sidetracked by television. I worked in New York to try to get into a musical theater comedy. As luck would have it, my first big break on Broadway was Once Upon A Mattress. At that time, I was doubling: I was doing the Broadway show and The Garry Moore Show. But, hey, I was young and there were times when I didn’t have a day off because we would do eight shows a week with Mattress. And then I’d go right to work on Garry’s show on Monday. Mattress is about a princess being able to feel the pea beneath 20 mattresses and she can’t fall asleep. Well, one Sunday matinee, I fell asleep in front of the audience. I passed out. I remember the stage managers screaming from the wing, ‘Carol! Carol!’ And that’s when the producers changed the schedule and gave us Sundays off.”
On Mentorship: “My mentor was Garry Moore. He was the kindest and he had this big musical comedy television show. His name was in the show title, and I was a second banana from the show, along with Durward Kirby. I remember sitting around the table on a Monday, we would be reading the script for that week’s show. And inevitably, if Garry had a punchline or a joke or something, he would say, ‘Give this line to Carol,’ or, ‘Give it to Durward.’ That was who he was. He wanted everybody to shine. That imprinted on me. When I got my show, I would wind up in the sketch supporting others. That was what I wanted to do. It makes the show better. And we were a family.”
Looking Ahead: “I go around the country every so often and I do 90 minutes of Q&As. This year, I’m going all around. It keeps me on my toes because there are no planned questions. People raise their hands like we did on my show. I always say it keeps the old gray matter ticking. And then a film has been optioned from one of my books called Carrie and Me that I wrote about my daughter. We’re finding the writers for that right now.”