Vocal Girl Makes Good

Linda Eder sounds bored. If what her publicist says is true, Eder would probably rather be out riding one of her horses than yakking long-distance with another journalist about her career as a fabulous Broadway star. Perhaps in the hope of speeding up the interview, Eder quickly mentions her upcoming Phoenix concert performances at the Orpheum. She sounds like a woman who's in a hurry to get outside and feed a lump of sugar to something.

Eder's rugged speaking voice belies her elegant stage presence and crystalline singing style. The accent is a craggy hybrid of Manhattan, where she lives now, and Minnesota, where she was raised, and sounds nothing like the refined instrument that has won her kudos as the star of Broadway's Jekyll & Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Both were written by Eder's husband, pop tunesmith Frank Wildhorn (he wrote Whitney Houston's "Where Do Broken Hearts Go?"), who also composed the critically beleaguered flop The Civil War.

Eder was born in Tucson, although she "didn't live there long enough to acquire an affinity for it." Her family later settled in Brainerd, Minnesota, where Eder abandoned plans to be a painter after a song she wrote and sang won her the title of Miss Brainerd in a beauty pageant.

As a young woman, Eder toured the cocktail circuit as part of a cabaret duo, then landed a spot on Star Search in 1988, where she creamed her competition for 12 straight weeks. While rubbing elbows with Ed McMahon, Eder met Wildhorn, who'd just begun work on Jekyll & Hyde. The production toured the country for years, playing to packed houses while Wildhorn worked out the kinks. Jekyll & Hyde finally landed on Broadway, where Eder's portrayal of Lucy, the whore, grabbed rave reviews.

She's since played Carnegie Hall (she'd decided, as a child, that she wouldn't set foot inside the legendary venue until she was hired to perform there) and released a string of solo albums, each of them casting Eder as a sentimental East Coast gal trapped in contemporary times but yearning for old-fashioned romance. Needless to say, standards and Wildhorn tunes abound.

"I'm not that unique a singer," she insists. "I don't have a totally unique kind of voice, so I need to have my own songs to create my own identity. Having Frank write for me means I can say, 'Here's what I need. Here's what I want to sound like.' Which I think makes me a more interesting singer."

Less interesting singers tend to cite more mundane influences -- Streisand, Holiday, Vaughan -- than does Eder, who was inspired by a rarefied sound. "When I was little, we lived next to a lady who sang with Eileen Farrell, and she had an old LP of Eileen doing Puccini arias. I fell in love with it and tried to sing like an opera singer from then on."

Eder has yet to be compared to the largely forgotten Farrell. Usually it's Judy Garland or Ella Fitzgerald or Barbra Streisand, a disparate list that amuses Eder. "Comparing singers is really just a lazy way of writing about someone," she says. "If they compare me to someone I don't like, I laugh. A lot."

Lazy writers don't bother Eder; the teeming throngs of her adoring international fan club more than compensate for the bitchy things critics have written about her. (Several thousand of these rabid fans refer to themselves as "Jekkies," as in Jekyll & Hyde, and saw the show three and four hundred times while Eder was in it.) Most of the criticism is aimed at Wildhorn, anyhow. Wags have opined that Eder shouldn't be "wasting her talents on Wildhorn's music," while others have called Wildhorn her "ticket to Hyde."

"It's because theater critics hate pop music," Eder says, groaning. "Frank comes from the pop world, and New York critics resist that sound all the time."

Eder is philosophical about -- and more than a little bored by -- her husband's lousy reputation among critics. "Musical theater is not opera or ballet," she says with a sigh, "where there's a set of rules that you have to follow or you won't be accepted. Musical theater is entertainment, not high art."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela