One Monday last December, Broadway performer Rena Strober was singing at Rao’s, the legendary East Harlem Italian restaurant, as she did most Monday nights. When a customer, Albert Circelli, made a crack about her rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” another patron, Louis “Lump Lump” Barone, told him to cool it. The confrontation escalated, and Circelli ended up dead, shot in the back by Barone. Now Strober is opening Spaghetti and Matzo Balls, a one-woman cabaret show at Don’t Tell Mama about Rao’s and her bizarre fifteen minutes of fame. She spoke with Alicia Zuckerman.
Why did you decide to do this show?
Because of what happened, I think people got the wrong sense of Rao’s. I wanted to give people the idea of it being like someone’s living room. I talk about people I’ve met there, like Bill Clinton and Billy Joel and Frankie Pellegrino, the owner. I don’t talk about that night as much as people want me to, I’m sure.
What do you sing?
Irving Berlin, Billy Joel, Tom Waits, some stuff from My Fair Lady, from Sesame Street. It’s eclectic.
Have you sung “Don’t Rain on My Parade” since that night?
I sang it once in a class to see if I could. It’s a little difficult. It’s amazing how the lyrics of a song can mean one thing on Monday and on Tuesday something completely different: “One shot, one gunshot and bam! Hey, Mr. Arnstein, here I am.” I was gonna use it as my finale to say I can sing this song again, but the show became less about having to get over that incident and more about already having moved on.
Have you been back to Rao’s?
I actually went back the next night, because I wanted Frankie to know that I wasn’t afraid. The thing is, it had nothing to do with me. From what I was told, they were arguing about something before I sang.
Have you sung there again?
I didn’t want to, but a month or two later I was visiting, and people were saying, “Please, just one song,” and it’s hard to say no when you do it for a living, so I did a Les Miz song, “I Dreamed a Dream.”
You went on the road with Les Miz after the shooting?
Unfortunately, everyone dies in Les Miz, so it was a little hard. But I decided to do what I love, and not stick around to capitalize on it. That would be the worst thing I could have done.
Don’t you worry that people will think you’re capitalizing on it now?
All the time. I’m a little bit regretting that I used the word Rao’s in my publicity. [After that night] Frankie said to me, “Rena, you’re talented enough to become famous and not infamous.” He requested that I not even talk about it. He basically said, “I’d be really disappointed if you used it.”
How are you dealing with that?
I’m trying to let people know that the show is about Rao’s but not about that night—and emphasize the Jewish aspect, because a lot of the show is having fun with the idea that being Jewish and being Italian are so similar and being a nice Jewish girl at a very Italian restaurant and how crazy that is. It’s just fun. It’s not a night of “Let me have this melodramatic evening.”
What would you say to “Lump Lump” Barone if you could?
[Long pause] I’ve asked myself that. I don’t even know if I could speak to him. I mean, he took a life, and no voice is worth defending to that extent.