“She was angelic looking, talking, and behaving. I auditioned several hundred young people for the part, and she was just perfect. I love Annie” — Filmmaker Miloš Forman on casting HAIR.
etflix’s prison dramady Orange is the New Black is no guiltier (sorry, couldn’t resist) than other shows of saving the jaw-dropping surprises for its season finale. But the biggest bombshell, capping off 13 episodes of lockdowns, drug smuggling, betrayals, suicide, and unlikely romances, occurs at a Christmas pageant of all places. And the “perp” is Litchfield’s least likely offender: the mute inmate Norma Romano who, in a very un-Norma moment, opens her mouth and lets out a devastatingly soulful verse of “I Saw the Light,” leaving cons and corrections officers speechless.
Although the show is inspired by real events in the life of memoirist Piper Kerman, Norma's performance may be the truest case of art imitating life on the show--after all, Annie Golden, the actress who plays Norma, has been bringing down the house with her voice for decades.
“Annie is just magical” said Tony, Grammy, and Emmy-winning (and Oscar-nominated) composer Marc Shaiman, who has known Golden since casting her in his first off-Broadway musical, Dementoes.
“She can't help but be mesmerizing.”
Whether “walking the boards” on Broadway or captivating a crowd of malcontent punk rockers and Bowery junkies from the bandstand at CBGB (often on the same night), Golden has traversed genre and art form with mind-blowing ease and remained totally relevant wherever she goes. She has landed featured roles in television and film, racked up numerous stage credits in Broadway musicals like Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, Leader of the Pack, On the Town, and The Full Monty, to name just a few.
“I was the illegitimate child of the legitimate theater,” laughed Golden when she spoke to us recently.
“I had no training. I came from downtown rock and roll and when I came in and auditioned for the Broadway revival of HAIR I had no eyebrows – kind of a Bowie-esque glimmer kid. And it was hard representing the flower power era when we were stone cold punks.”
But it was that exact moxie that caught the eyes and ears of Czech New Wave wünderkind and Oscar-winning director Milos Forman when he walked through the doors at 315 Bowery and watched Golden’s Brooklyn band of brothers The Shirts electrify the crowd at CBGB. Still coasting on the success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Forman was besotted by Golden and intent on casting her as one of four leads in the motion picture production of HAIR he was slated to direct.
“The important thing for me was that whoever played the part of Jeannie in HAIR also sings,” Milos Forman recently told us.
“She was angelic looking, talking, and behaving. She was such a sweet little girl and was our little angel. I auditioned several hundred young people for the part, and she was just perfect. I love Annie.”
Annie Golden was Brooklyn born and bred. She inherited her father, Patrick’s, love of music and her mother, Joan’s, mental toughness to excel in a competitive environment.
“My mother was an athlete, was a varsity basketball champion at John Jay High School, and my father was a drummer, sketch artist, and big band singer. They met at the Armory on 14th Street and 8th Avenue, just down the block from Prospect Park where they had courted.” Golden said.
“If I wrote a memoir it would be like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. My brother died at 28 in 1986, so I’m the oldest of 6 and now we’re 5. My father died when he was 52 and my mother died in 1974, at the age of 42, when her youngest child was three, and never saw me do anything. Both of my parents were really young.”
However serendipitously her career has played out, perhaps Golden’s seminal life event was meeting Bob Racioppo, Ronnie Ardito, Norman Shwiry, and Artie Lamonica, her future bandmates in The Shirts.
“The boys grew up together in Sunset Park, went to Catholic School at St. Michaels, and I grew up in Park Slope – 13th street and 7th Ave — and rehearsed out of a storefront at 53rd Street and 7th Avenue.”
In a sense, The Shirts’ musical evolution mirrored the likes of The Clash, X, The Heartbreakers, even KISS - baby boomers who absorbed the best of ‘60s girl groups, Motown, STAX, The Beatles, and Hendrix, but hadn’t yet developed their own musical identity until after Woodstock.
What set The Shirts apart from run-of-the-mill Brooklyn bar bands was their ambition, especially when it came to practice and writing original songs.
“We moved from the storefront to a loft and eventually ended up having a house and shutting ourselves off from the world,” Shirts co-founder Artie Lamonica told us.
“It was kind of like a big indoctrination into playing, writing songs and arranging. Those were really fun times for us, because we were learning everything there was about the music.”
It was either the early rumbles of a Punk ethos or Brooklyn street attitude that made The Shirts ripe for the musical rebellion happening across the East River in Lower Manhattan.
“In those days, everybody had flannel shirts, blue jeans, boots, and hippy-dippy peasant dresses,” said Golden
“But we loved the rock aesthetic - the down and dirty ass-kicking music of The Rolling Stones; we liked the idea of Mad Dogs and Englishmen - wailing females in the choir and wailing guys who sang like chicks - all colors meshed, boundaries blurred. There was something Punk about that. And when we found out there was scene happening on the Bowery, so did The Ramones, who were coming from Austin Street in Queens.
Whether or not they knew it at the time, The Shirts were going to be part of something historical - an invasion of sorts spearheaded two years earlier by The New York Dolls, The Heartbreakers, and Patti Smith, who cut their teeth at venues like the dilapidated Mercer Arts Center and Le Jardin discothèque.
D-Day for The Shirts was an afternoon in April 1974 when they loaded their gear into three cars and crossed Manhattan Bridge to audition for CBGB’s owner, Hillel “Hilly” Kristal, who booked the band. CBGB was an alternative universe to the mainstream, where hungry bands, like them, could showcase original material.
“One of our first shows at CBGB was with Television. They were so cerebral, pining, poetic, angst ridden, and raw,” Golden said.
“I liked that Tom Verlaine’s girlfriend was bringing him water between songs and then that very girl, Patti Smith, fronted the next band. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I dig that.’”
The Bowery in those days was Manhattan’s “skid row”. Neglected garbage mingled freely with the blighted neighborhood’s many hookers, pimps, homeless junkies, drug dealers, and would-be rock ‘n’ rollers. The ubiquitous crowd of bikers, especially at the nascent CBGB, guaranteed violence.
“We could be at the club at the graveyard shift with Willie De Ville, The Tuff Darts, and Robert Gordon, and somebody would come inwith a bloody nose saying, ‘I just got jumped and they took my guitar,’ and we’d spill out in the street saying, ‘We’re going to get those motherfuckers.’ It was not peace, love, and happiness. If you went down East 3rd - which is now an atrium with sweet little benches and little boutiques - it was dangerous then.”
When other venues, like Max’s Kansas City, opened up and bands could play a circuit of Manhattan clubs, the press caught wind and began exploiting the “scene” just below Houston Street. Soon, record labels began combing the downtown area, looking to sign bands as they had done a decade earlier with guitar strumming folk-singers in Greenwich Village.
“At first we played CBGB, and the then gigs got better, the PA got better, and the stage got bigger,” Lamonica said.
“Bands started to think of themselves as having a music career, as opposed to just playing. It all kind of culminated with bands getting record deals, major record deals.”
Though The Shirts were friends with Talking Heads and Dead Boys, there were scenesters who regarded them condescendingly as a “bridge and tunnel band,” and not a bon a fide “downtown band.” That, however, didn’t stop the group from finding its greatest champion in the scene’s progenitor – the godfather of underground rock, Hilly Kristal, who elected to manage the band.
“Hilly was like 'The Fog,' he was a wonderful guy, but was really hard to interpret,” remembers Lamonica.
“We had band meetings and he’d say softly, ‘I was talking to Capitol records,’ and there’d be a pause. We’d excitedly say, ‘yeah?’ and then he’d yell, ‘Merv, will you make sure the beer delivery arrives immediately,’ launching into CBGB business. Then he’d look back at us and say, ‘He really likes you.’ And we’d all say, ‘Who likes us?’
“With Hilly it was an adventure because he was not your typical, shifty manager. But because he was Hilly, we got a record deal and we may not have gotten one if he wasn’t our manager.”
Kristal got The Shirts a three-record deal with Capitol Records. They learned to navigate the big leagues while, for the first time, recording in 24-track studios, booking shows in other cities, and touring abroad. One of their memorable singles, the harmonically complex, key-jumping “Tell Me Your Plans,” (performed on the UK’s Top of The Pops) was loosely based on Kristal.
“Dad loved them,” said Lisa Burgman Kristal, Hilly’s daughter, who worked for her dad in the club's heyday, also serving as house photographer and ultimately CBGB archivist.
“The Shirts were the first band he managed, and there were no ifs, ands, or buts about it, he loved them and just supported everybody with what they wanted to do. The two girls that stood out in those days were Debbie Harry of Blondie and Annie Golden. It was also clear that The Shirts needed Annie and Annie needed The Shirts.”
But despite the whirlwind of recording and touring, Golden was on a collision course with some other career opportunities. First, in 1977, she was cast in the Broadway revival of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical , and then the film version which began shooting while she prepared to make her Broadway debut at the Biltmore Theatre. And however difficult it was to walk the tight-rope of balancing two worlds, she gladly pulled it off because she loved The Shirts (and still does).
“I took a hit from certain factions at CBGB — suddenly there were reviews in the press which read ‘Annie Golden’s Broadway proclivities,’” said Golden.
“But I was given this gift by being chosen and wasn’t going to ruin it by not being prepared, or absorbing everything like a sponge. Because I had the benefit of being the choice of [HAIR creators, original producers, and director] Jim Rado, Gerry Ragney, Galt MacDermot, Michael Butler, and Tom O’Horgan, I was getting this education of a lifetime.”
"She wasn't just a singer, she was quite a character and made an impression," HAIR composer Galt MacDermot told us.
Principal photography for the feature film HAIR began in September, 1977 . Golden was cast in the role of the pregnant free-spirit flower child Jeannie Ryan, who runs with long-hairs Hud, Woof, Berger, and a Vietnam-bound Army inductee named Claude.
“Annie was the heart and soul of that group of hippies, she did her character beautifully and she really made the movie,” Treat Williams, who played the lead role, Berger, recently told us.
“We started in the fall of ’78, so we shot Central Park until the leaves left the park - close to 8 or 9 months with shutdown periods. We did some scenes where we were freezing - New York wet cold coming off the Hudson - and Milos, who wore us out with 20-30 takes until we stopped acting. I remember him shouting at us, ‘No … no … It’s not natural enough.’
“We had some very good musicians among us in the cast. I was starring on Broadway in Grease. Donnie Dacus (who played Woof) was an extraordinary guitarist who ended up in the band Chicago, and Annie, of course, was in The Shirts. I think about the film and those people all the time.”
Even before HAIR was released to critical acclaim and commercial success, a struggling composer named Marc Shaiman asked Golden to play a rock and roll poetess called "Spike Heel," who turns tricks for dope in his musical Dementoes. Shaiman, who had been the audition pianist for the Hair revival in 1977, remembered Golden and had tracked her down where she was working a day job.
“At that time, I was certainly traveling in a world where people were trying to straddle pop/rock and theater - a tribe of misfits who were a little too rock ‘n’ roll for theater and too theatrical for rock and roll. So, that’s how we fell into each other’s world,” Shaiman told us.
“One distinct memory I have of the show Dementoes is of me and the director Ted Pappas watching her performance through a little curtain on the side of the stage. Annie was just singing her guts out on a song called ‘Let me Out,’ and the two of us were just parting the curtain and looking at each other with a look on our faces — it would look great in a movie — as to suggest, ‘Can you believe what is going on out there? That voice, performance style, I can’t believe the energy coming from her, isn’t she just unreal?’”
Golden and Shaiman ended up working together again in a theatrical version of the music of ‘60s girl-group songwriter Ellie Greenwich, called Leader of The Pack — Shaiman as vocal arranger. Like the stage production of Hair, which was originally put on by Joseph Papp at the Public Theater, Leader of the Pack was a smash hit downtown before moving to Broadway.
“We got to do Leader of the Pack at the Bottom Line (which was when it was great) and were together with a whole band of people, including [pop legend] Darlene Love, all so in love with each other and the music. That ended up being a place where Annie and I really bonded.”
The late Ellie Greenwich was equally enchanted by Golden, who teamed her up with producer Jimmy Iovine to record the Supremes-esque mash-up “Hang up the Phone” for the Sixteen Candles soundtrack. The song was never released as a single, but played in heavy rotation on MTV. And Golden performed it with Paul Schaffer’s band on Late Night with David Letterman. It was a glorious time, though later overshadowed by sorrow when Golden’s brother Patrick took ill and died at 28.
The last few decades have been filled with a dizzying array of work. She has had roles on hit television shows Cheers and Miami Vice, played “Squeaky" Fromme in the musical collaboration of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins. She was the voice of Marina in The Pebble and the Penguin- music was written by Barry Manilow . In 2009 she appeared in the film I Love You Phillip Morris, and in 2011 co-starred with Peter Scolari in The Nutcracker and I. She was also invited to join Sutton Foster in the Roundabout theatre's production of Violet, directed by Leigh Silverman beginning this April on Broadway .
Music is still her bedrock. She performs a revue of songs from her stage career along with originals, called Annie Golden's Velvet Prison. In addition to the occasional Shirts reunion, she has performed as part of the duo, Golden Carillo with Frank Carillo, and recently formed Ann's Band: Family and Friends, with her younger brother on drums. And there’s musical theater.
“Her background just blows my mind,” said newcomer composer/playwright Joe Iconis, who wrote the role of "Mrs. Werring" in his recently debuted rock musical, The Black Suits, with Golden in mind.
“It’s as if Annie’s just a civilian who has wandered off the street. She has a rock and roll spirit and is willing to go balls-to-the-wall in every situation. She’s not afraid to make "mistakes" or afraid to put herself in emotional peril, whether she is playing a suburban busybody or a rock star or a sad, lonely, Midwestern mother, or a mute prisoner.”
The irony that an actress widely-known for her voice (Steve Buscemi once told her he’d pay to hear her sing the phone book) would be chosen to play the role of Norma on Jenji Kohan’s latest opus: Orange is the New Black (now in production for its second season) is not at all lost on Golden.
“Every time you’re given a job, you’re given a gift, and if you’re flexible you never know what’s going to happen,” mused Golden
“What I love about the show is that it is edgy, profound, funny, intense, and truthful, about how human beings find themselves trapped in a situation (and part of you wouldn’t have it any other way),but somehow they find their humanity within it. The show is profound, and we were just trying to make … I don’t care if it’s politically incorrect - It’s tribal, it’s cliques, it’s clans, it’s the beige barracks, it’s the Latina quarters, it’s the ghetto bunk.
“All we can do in life is control how we react to things and that's all we can control. If you want to be a ‘sad sack’ and say, ‘I’m a woman, I don’t have any control, I’m a woman in a marriage, I’m a woman in society, I’m a woman in this industry.’ You know what? Tell your story walkin’. Turn it around or don’t. Be here now, or sit on your bunk crying. You just have to make the most with the hand you’re dealt, and these women are doing that. That’s how these women are doing it in prison. It’s resilience.”