There’s more to Florence Henderson than Carol Brady.
Over the course of her 60-year career in show business, the television legend has appeared on Broadway, toured the country in several Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, performed countless concerts, and competed on “Dancing With the Stars” in 2010.
Hers is a life worth talking –– and singing –– about, and that’s exactly what she’ll be doing when she performs her one-woman show, “All the Lives of Me” at Princeton’s McCarter Theater on Saturday, April 14.
“It really is about my life,” Henderson says. “It’s very autobiographical, I hope it will be very entertaining. There’s a lot of great music in it, a lot of funny stories, and some that are touching. I hope people laugh a lot and enjoy the music and just have a really fun evening.”
She developed the show about two years ago, collaborating with her conductor, four-time Emmy winner Glen Roven.
“I wanted to do something like this for a long time,” she says. “I had done many acts over the years, and I thought, ‘I really want to connect with the audience in this way.’ So we started writing it, and a one-woman show is always a work in progress because your life is always changing.”
Talking about her life, particularly her childhood, didn’t always come easily for Henderson. For years, she turned down offers to write her autobiography because she didn’t want to discuss her difficult childhood. But she finally shared that story in her book, “Life Is Not a Stage,” which was published last September. In addition to recounting tales from show biz, she went deeply into her childhood, writing about her father’s alcoholism and her mother leaving the family when Florence was 12.
“I had been asked for years to write an autobiography,” she says. “My husband used to encourage me to and I said no, because you have to reveal too much. If you’re going to write an autobiography, you have to be truthful and really share your life with people. And I thought, if I can just really be honest and share some of the challenges I’ve faced in my life, and some of the good things, perhaps I can inspire someone else.”
Henderson was born in Dale, Indiana, on February 14, 1934, the youngest of 10 children. Her father was a tobacco farmer, and her mother was a homemaker who did some work, such as housekeeping, to bring in some extra money. She was sent to St. Francis Academy in Owensboro Kentucky, then attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City in 1951. She majored in drama but left school after one year when she landed her first Broadway role — one line in a show titled “Wish You Were Here.”
She soon found herself at an audition that she talks about in the show and wrote about in her book. Following the audition, a man sitting in the seats, whom she couldn’t see, asked if she could come back and sing for his partner. She asked who his partners were, and when the man replied “Oscar Hammerstein,” she realized she was talking to Richard Rodgers.
That audition led to her working regularly with the legendary team. She played Laurey in a 1953 revival of “Oklahoma!” (which marked the show’s 10th anniversary), performed in “South Pacific” at Lincoln Center, and starred in touring companies of “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music.”
“It was amazing,” Henderson says. “They really mentored me from the first time I met them. And getting to know two such incredibly talented people was such a highlight for me. Oh my gosh, they were wonderful, and geniuses.” Some of the team’s songs have made their way into “All the Lives of Me.” Henderson doesn’t give many details about the show because she wants to surprise her audiences, but a promotional clip on YouTube shows her singing staples like “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” from “Oklahoma!” and “I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy” from “South Pacific.”
She and Roven created a structure for “All the Lives of Me,” but because it’s a one-woman show, Henderson says there’s opportunity for spontaneity at every performance. “I love when things happen that I don’t expect or something from the audience happens,” she says. “For me, it’s really the most exciting kind of performing when you’re performing live, because the audience really becomes part of the show, and that’s the thing that I love.”
Something fans can expect is for Henderson to share memories of “The Brady Bunch.” She starred on the sitcom as Carol Brady for five years, from 1969 to 1974.
“It’s never been off the air in this country, and it’s in over 122 countries around the world, and I’m just as amazed as everyone else,” she says of the show’s enduring popularity. “It’s interesting because I think it represents what everyone would like to have. Some people have it, but a lot of people do not. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, I get mail from Russia, from Poland, from India, from Asia. I get mail from all over, and it resonates with people.”
Another reason for its popularity, she says, is that it’s family-friendly.
“What I hear from a lot of young parents is that there are very few shows they’ll let their kids watch,” she says. “And it’s true, on network television, and cable’s even worse, they just take away kids’ innocence so young now and there’s so much stimulation, so much information.”
The show was so popular that it spawned several made-for-television movies and short-lived spinoff series featuring the original cast members. One of those, “The Brady Bunch Variety Hour,” complete with sketches, musical numbers, and guest stars, has earned a reputation as one of the strangest prime time shows ever.
“It was great fun to do, however, I was the only real musical performer,” Henderson says, laughing at the mention of the show. “So we spent hours trying to teach the kids. Maureen (McCormick, who played Marcia) could sing and Barry (Williams, who played Greg) was very good. But Chris Knight (who played Peter) will be the first to tell you, he couldn’t walk in time. But anyway, it was a lot of fun, a lot of hard work.”
Actors often complain about being defined by their television roles, but you won’t hear Henderson complaining about Mrs. Brady. “I don’t because I firmly believe — and if you read my book you’ll see — you have to cherish your past,” she says. “If you did it, it’s part of you. I would be foolish to ignore that or go, ‘I wish I’d never done it, I hate it.’ I receive so much affection from people, and respect and admiration for playing Carol Brady. I could be remembered for being a terrible bitch or a nasty person, so I don’t mind.”
When it’s suggested that if anyone dared called Mrs. Brady a bitch, there’d be a line of people from across the country ready to take them on, Henderson laughs and says, “I hope so. I played her as the mother everyone wishes they had, including me.”
She says she still gets E-mails and letters from fans, and that she answers all of them, signing every picture herself. “I don’t have any rubber stamps, and I don’t charge people for pictures.”
Her upcoming plans include promoting the paperback of “Life is Not a Stage,” singing “God Bless America” for the 16th straight year at the Indianapolis 500, and performing everywhere from Los Angeles to Australia. At 78, she shows no signs of slowing down, calling herself the female George Burns, with whom she performed on his 98th birthday.
“I can’t even keep track of everything I do,” she says. “But I’m always so busy and I’m so grateful for everything.”
Florence Henderson’s “All the Lives of Me,” McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. One-woman show “All the Lives of Me.” Saturday, April 14, 8 p.m. $42-$64. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.