SLICING UP “WAITRESS”: AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH STARS JESSIE MUELLER, CHRISTOPHER FITZGERALD AND JENNA USHKOWITZ

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SARA BAREILLES HAS BAKED A SMASH.

The Tony and Grammy nominated singer/songwriter’s debut musical, Waitress, opened this past March to rave reviews and instant box office success. Based on the 2007 indie film of the same name, Waitress is predicted to recoup its costs as soon as October. As Forbes points out, “For a new musical that isn’t Hamilton, that’s pretty spectacular.”

Waitress tells the story of Jenna, a waitress in a small Southern town, who yearns to leave her abusive marriage. Also working at the pie diner are her best friends, Dawn and Becky. When Jenna becomes accidentally pregnant, she meets the handsome (and also married) Dr. Pomatter. As she seeks a path to freedom, she sets her sights on a local pie contest as her golden ticket to a new life. Meanwhile, Becky and Dawn look for love in all of the most unexpected places.

Jessie-MuellerI spoke with Tony nominated actors Jessie Mueller (Jenna) and Christopher Fitzgerald (Dawn’s love interest, Ogie), as well as Glee star Jenna Ushkowitz, who has just joined the show as Dawn (following a leave of absence by original cast member Kimiko Glenn). We chatted everything Waitress including their favorite pies, working with Sara Bareilles, their creative processes, inspirations, and more.

NAGORSKI: How did you first get involved with Waitress?

MUELLER: I had a lunch with Diane Paulus and we discussed the project, and then I did a reading in December of 2014.

Jenna-UshkowitzUSHKOWITZ: Kimiko Glenn, who originated the role of Dawn, took a leave of absence. They called me on a Thursday and said, “We’d love for you to come in to meet everybody on Friday to do some of the Dawn stuff.” I went in and did it for a couple of hours and then left. That same evening, I found out that I was going to be joining the cast for a little while. It was all really quick and then I started rehearsals the next day!

FITZGERALD: The producer, Barry Weissler, called me. He and I had a couple of meetings about what we could find to do together. We had talked about a couple of things and then he said, “I’m doing this project. Do you know the movie Waitress?” I told him, “I think I’ve seen it. I’m not sure.” And he said, “Well, here, take a look at it. Somebody get me the DVD!” So he gave me the DVD and then explained, “There’s the small part of Ogie, the poet, who is a very eccentric guy. I’m not sure if it will interest you but take a look and see what it does.”

Christopher-FitzgeraldI asked him, “Well, who’s doing the score?” And he told me, “I think Sara Bareilles.” And when he said that, I was like, “A-HA! She’s cool! That would be interesting.” So I went home and I watched the movie. Eddie Jemison, who plays Ogie, is hilarious. He’s so good. But I couldn’t quite see how some of it was going to be musicalized, especially that character, but I figured why not give it a shot?

Then, they had a reading at their apartment, and there were maybe five of us. So in terms of when actors started to be involved, I’ve been involved since the very beginning. And nobody in that reading (other than me) is still a part of the project. There are all sorts of reasons why that is. We read through the screenplay essentially, and then Sara just sat at a piano and played and sang the songs. It was so incredible! When that reading ended, I was like, “I really want to be a part of this. I’ve got to make sure that I put some effort into continuing to let the people who are making decisions know that I want to be a part of it.”

I met Diane Paulus, our director, at that stage. And then we started doing several more readings, which is generally the process for new musicals. You have to do a lot of readings because you’re just trying to synthesize so many things – story, story with songs, who’s singing, why they need to sing, songs are cut and added, etc. There’s a lot of that kind of process. Through those readings, I was able to start a dialogue with Diane, Jessie Nelson (who adapted the screenplay) and Sara about the thoughts I had. It just became more of a collaborative experience and then we went into rehearsal, and now here we are!

Jessie, you’ve also been with the show since its early days. How has Jenna (and/or your interpretation of her) evolved throughout the process, from the early readings to the A.R.T. run to now on Broadway?

MUELLER: I think (and hope!) she’s grown deeper, and become like more of a second skin. Getting to spend time with a character helps. When I start working on someone, it feels disconnected. But I’ve learned for my own process that it is just that: a process. It takes time. I think in the beginning, I was a bit puzzled by her and by her decisions and choices – a bit like the audience experiences her. But in spending more time inside her, I came to know the complexity of her experience. I don’t judge her anymore. I think I did in the beginning.

Part of what makes you each so captivating on stage is how fully immersed in your characters you get. How do you choose your roles?

FITZGERALD: As an actor, you spend so much time hearing “no.” I’ve heard that word endless amounts of times. Hearing it so many thousands of times, you almost start to have a relationship with that word and that experience. But this was one of those experiences where I was like, “I think I have a handle on who this guy is and this would be really fun to physicalize.” In readings, when you’re reading it, you’re really working on the material. But I was like, “If I could get on my feet, I think I could have a lot of fun with this song.” So I don’t know about choosing stuff, it kind of chooses you, weirdly, you know?

The characters that I’ve played on Broadway, like Boq (Wicked), Igor (Young Frankenstein), Og (Finian’s Rainbow), are all of these weird little creatures. I basically am Broadway’s creature guy. I play all of the weird, non-human characters. So this time around, as Ogie, it’s nice that I get to actually play a man … but he’s also unlike any other man.

USHKOWITZ: Like I say for anything in my life, if it scares me a little bit, that’s always a good sign. If there’s a bit of a challenge, no matter what that is, I’m intrigued. I haven’t done a Broadway show and that rigorous schedule in eight years, so I definitely had to get back into a groove. I enjoy finding characters that are different from what I’ve done before. But it’s also important to make sure that I can relate to them and that my heart’s in it. Otherwise it’s kind of pointless.

MUELLER: I gravitate toward roles that I connect with. There was something about Jenna, and especially the music, that I related to. When I first heard “Everything Changes,” I cried. I’ve never had a child, but there was something that struck a chord. The healing of that song, the transformation, the yearning for renewal, the breakthrough – I found it so powerful. I like pieces that illuminate what it’s like to be a human being on this earth: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

How influential was the film when you were working on creating your characters? What/who else helped you find them?

MUELLER: Very! I came back to the film when we were working on the show out of town. It’s where Adrienne Shelly’s vision started. I think what Kerri Russell brought to the film was beautiful. I’ve since become a huge fan of The Americans and I always think of Dr. Pomatter’s line, “I could find the whole meaning of life in those sad eyes.” She has this amazing life that lives in her eyes. Well, you can’t really access that in a large Broadway house, but it was very influential to me. Jenna’s sadness lies very deep within her.

I also watched waitresses all the time. I searched for photos of people and waitresses at diners, especially those in small towns, or highway truck stops. There’s a fantastic book I got called Counter Culture by Candacy A. Taylor. And I found myself listening to a lot of country/folk music. There’s a Kacey Musgraves song called “Merry Go Round” that I got obsessed with for a while.

USHKOWITZ: I saw Kimiko’s performance right when the show first opened. She was wonderful and I wanted to keep the integrity of what she worked on. Especially during the rehearsal process with the girls, I wanted to make sure that we were keeping with the vision of what everybody had created. But obviously, Kimiko and I are so different, so it was also important to keep that and then wash away the rest.

I loved, loved, loved the movie when I saw it years ago, but I have not seen it since because it is very different. Dawn’s character is the biggest rewrite from the screenplay to the book for the musical, so I didn’t want to confuse the two. Therefore, I haven’t watched it again. Once I leave the show, I’ll probably go back and watch it again just because it’s so good.

Because Dawn is so particular, I look to people and to friends who are introverts to help bring her to life. I’m also an introvert and kind of OCD myself, so I tried to bring little bits and pieces of all these people that I knew and my own imagination to who I thought Dawn would be. I wanted to make her as human as possible because I think she is the easiest to be misconstrued as a caricature. And she’s not! She’s a real person. So that was really important to me when we were working in the few short weeks of rehearsal.

FITZGERALD: To me, the film was always the Bible of the piece. It’s where I felt like I always returned to in order to find the characters and their humanity. Adrienne wrote, starred in, and directed it, so that was always a constant reminder to allow her vision to inform you somehow. Those people crafted those characters first.

I’ve had a little experience doing that before. When I was playing Igor in Young Frankenstein, I felt the same way. How do you follow Marty Feldman? He’s perfect. He isIgor. There will never be anybody but Marty Feldman in that part. That was an iconic movie and each performance is iconic in it. All you can really do is try to tap into that and try to steal some of the joy, spirit and whatever that essence that makes it so incredible is. You want to try to borrow it and use it to your advantage.

For Waitress, some people didn’t want to watch the movie and didn’t want to have that experience. But I did and I definitely watched Eddie a lot. I think the main thing that I stole from him was that Ogie is a guy who is positive all the way down to the fiber of his being. He makes only positive choices and that’s really fun to play! It’s really fun to play someone who’s naively positive and who doesn’t see the wall in front of them that we all have. That really helped inform his song (“Never Ever Getting Rid of Me”) and the whole character’s journey.

Ogie is just like, “You are the one and I couldn’t know it more. This is too right. You know it and I know it.” He has that spark that made me realize that that’s where his drive comes from. It’s really fun to come into a show and have that energy, especially when all of the other characters are in the midst of the thickness of conflict. Everyone else is dealing with so much and making crazy, horrible choices because they’re in a lot of pain. Almost everybody in this show is in some way. So here I get to come in and just be like, “This is a joyous day!” And Ogie really believes that.

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Christopher, you’ve won Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for your performance. Do you think it’s this overwhelmingly positive outlook Ogie has on life that makes him such a scene-stealer?

FITZGERALD: Absolutely! That outlook informs everything. Have you ever seen those videos of birds doing big, crazy sex dances to try to get their mate excited? But in reality, they’re just these little, tiny birds that are showing off because of the stuff around them? They always make me laugh and they remind me of Ogie. They make me think of just how funny it is that there’s this person who’s a complete dweeb and nerdy weirdo, but who just doesn’t give a shit. It’s so satisfying to see somebody like that! We kind of all wish to be like that.

So yes, I think that positive drive is really what makes everyone go, “Wait, what’s happening? Who is this guy?” And then Sara wrote this crazy song that I feel like could almost be a stalker song. It’s kind of weird. We don’t have a lot of time to set it up. But he’s so positive and loving that you know it comes from an earnest place and that it’s not crazy. I feel like at the end of the song, if Dawn said, “You know, I really can’t do this,” Ogie would say, “Okay, I get it.” He’d put on a little performance and be like, “Now I’m very sad. I will try again but I get it.”

Waitress is the first Broadway musical to come from an all-female creative team. How (if at all) did this impact the overall creative process/experience of building the show?

MUELLER: I think we probably developed a shorthand that most of us weren’t even aware of. There was lots of talk of gyno appointments, babies, love, affairs, a woman’s experience, etc. It was very easy to go there and I think that’s because of the personalities that were in the room.

USHKOWITZ: Going into this show knowing that is awesome! You walk in already feeling inspired and empowered. I think all around women are raising the bar in society and in today’s world, so I’m thrilled and honored to be a part of that as well. It should be that way and yes, we should have all women creative teams! It shouldn’t be out of the norm. But I wasn’t looking at it any differently than I do going into any other project.

FITZGERALD: I think to tell a story about women, it’s probably good to have women tell the story. That sensibility was important to what the story’s really about. However, it was just a normal Broadway creative process with all of its challenges and all of its celebratory moments. It wasn’t really that different to me. I’ve worked with a lot of female directors and there’s no real difference to me. It’s the same kind of process.

The show explores themes such as motherhood and self-empowerment, and has resonated with all sorts of audiences, regardless of age, gender, etc. What do you think it is about Waitress that makes it so universally appealing and crowd-pleasing?

USHKOWITZ: I think what is really cool about it is you have these three ladies and each one of them goes through a beautiful arc in the story. Each one is vibing off each other’s energy. For example, Dawn and Ogie’s scene forces Jenna to go call Dr. Pomatter and face him. Each one sort of feeds off the other and inspires the other to grow and to change. It’s a really beautiful story of empowerment. It shows the importance of leaning on, supporting, and learning from each other. And the music, obviously, is really beautiful.

FITZGERALD: I feel like the strokes with which these characters have been created make them very real. You don’t usually see a comic musical with these kinds of damaged people. Characters have flaws, but there’s a difference between, for example, Harold Hill’s flaws (in The Music Man) and Jenna’s. It’s just deeper. The stakes are inherently higher when you’re in an abusive relationship and are stuck in a small town and are in a lot of pain. I don’t know if people see themselves, but they feel like these are maybe characters that they really can understand or connect with. The show doesn’t do a lot of pandering. It just shows these characters’ lives.

Also, I feel like you don’t see enough stories about women. This show has complicated relationships between women, and friendships that are not fabulous. They’re in a diner. I think it’s those kinds of themes that we all gravitate to, and because of those dynamics, people are attracted to the show. It’s really interesting. It really seems to be striking a chord in particular with young women.

I also think it’s Sara and the way her music speaks to people. When you’re listening to Sara’s music, whether it’s a song like “Gravity” or really any one of her albums, it’s like you enjoy the ache of her music. It’s as though it’s actually pleasurable to feel the kind of pain that she sings about. Do you know what I mean? When you put it on, it just gets inside you. Even if it’s a song about a break-up or heartache or whatever, it’s delicious to your soul somehow. When Jessie sings her 11 o’clock number, “She Used To Be Mine,” it’s just an amazing moment. It’s an incredible song about someone at their wit’s end, but the way the melody is and those lyrics are just make the song so satisfyingly painful. That’s the way I feel.

MUELLER: The show taps into a part of the human experience everyone can relate to – doubt, pain, suffering, life choices. I think to see someone honestly acknowledge their mistakes and their pain is a very powerful thing. Something we don’t often feel safe enough to do in life. But when we can sit in a theater and engage with characters and watch them go through it, we can safely relate. I had an acting teacher who used to talk about that. The power of theater is we can learn lessons without the collateral damage of actually having to go through it ourselves. And I think the show is really well balanced. There are laugh-out-loud moments and moments of extreme joy and healing. It’s got a little bit of everything. Each side makes the other more potent.

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What is something about yourself, either personal or professional, that playing these characters has taught each of you?

FITZGERALD: I had a lot of fun really working on this and taking charge of how I felt like my first number could go. It was fun to have that confidence. It taught me a lot about taking that moment and collaborating with Diane and (choreographer) Lorin Latarro. It also started as something so different than where it got to, so it taught me to be really open to new things and to have faith. And I really did! I was like, “We’re going to get there, but I don’t know how.” I learned a lot doing that. That was cool.

MUELLER: Playing Jenna has taught me to own your feelings and your thoughts. The good, bad, and the ugly. I’m still learning that one everyday … and then having to re-learn it. And to stand up for yourself.

USHKOWITZ: I’m an introvert at heart. Dawn has taught me to branch out to be open to new experiences and also to love myself. Dawn’s really happy in her ways and that allows her to hope and dream. I think that’s really valuable too. You need to know what you enjoy and how to live your life so that you’re happy.

Christopher, how is your chemistry on stage different with Jenna than it was with Kimiko? And to both you and Jenna, how does that chemistry inform your performances?

FITZGERALD: It’s really not so different in terms of the way that the story comes off. I’ve also played opposite a few understudies, so I’ve played it now with maybe four different Dawns – the same way that Kimiko and Jenna have also played opposite different Ogies. What’s kind of remarkable, though, is how the story is still told. It’s really fun! Dawn is basically the straight man through that first act number. She’s just like, “What’s happening?” It’s so fun how that turn happens. I’m having a great time with Jenna. She’s got a big laugh and a really fun spirit. We get along very well and we’ve become good pals.

USHKOWITZ: Christopher is a comedic genius. Our chemistry is vibrant and it’s like a little Ping-Pong game in that we really do vibe off of one another. I also would say he’s like a teddy bear, so it’s a very cuddly relationship. He’s very charming. I actually met him 20 minutes before our first performance together because he was on vacation when I was in rehearsal. So it was really important to listen to each other because we were literally getting to know each other on stage for the first time. That was a really great learning experience for me and I’m lucky to continue to do that every day. It was really special and definitely very cute.

In your opinions, why are Ogie and Dawn a perfect couple?

USHKOWITZ: I think they push each other. They both have created these beautiful lives for themselves that make them very fulfilled. Realizing then that there can be other people that can also fulfill you in ways that you can’t do for yourself is really sweet. I think that the two of them are like peas in a pod that way. And accepting each other for who they really are – like when they dress up as Betsy Ross and Paul Revere – is really cute.

FITZGERALD: They’re so mix-matched but so perfect for each other. Dawn is essentially kind of a “no” person. She’s sort of afraid, quiet, and reserved and he’s just the opposite. That’s why it’s so satisfying to watch those two forces come together.

What’s your personal favorite song in the show and why?

MUELLER: It really changes every night and they all feel so different. I wouldn’t say I have a favorite.

USHKOWITZ: My favorite song to listen to is definitely “She Used To Be Mine.” I think Jessie gives a spectacular performance and I feel like that song is the culmination of the show. It just really gives you an idea of who she is and what we’re dealing with. But I also really love “Everything Changes.” I really enjoy singing that with the girls. It’s just all so beautiful.

FITZGERALD: I’ve got to give it up to my buddy Nick Cordero and his song, “You Will Still Be Mine.” But they’re all good! They really are. I like to put on the CD in my car sometimes, just because I love all of the songs from the very beginning to the end. I really just think this is a remarkable score!

What are your favorite things to do to relax on a no-show day?

MUELLER: Get out of the city and go somewhere green!

USHKOWITZ: I just finished watching Stranger Things. I like to binge-watch TV shows just because on no-show days, I try not to talk. I’ll either go get a massage and then watch either The Bachelor, Bachelor in Paradise or Netflix.

FITZGERALD: It depends. Sometimes I like to take a nap, sometimes I like getting outside and sitting in the park and zoning out. Seeing friends. It’s always different for me.

This show doesn’t knock me out in the same way that it does someone like Jessie. She’s on stage the whole time. The emotional gamut that she runs is large and that really takes a toll on an actor in the long run. Because it’s not that you don’t feel those things. You do. You have to go there if you’re going to put over a scene where you’re about to be physically abused. And the fear of that is something that as an actor, you have to kind of tap into. So that takes its toll. It’s not necessarily always a fun place to be.

But that’s the most fun thing about playing Ogie: he’s nothing but positivity and joy. It’s falling in love with somebody and expressing that, and then letting that continue and that’s it. It doesn’t really take any other kind of turn. So it’s just fun to be here. And the cast and crew are a great group of people.

Jessie, one of the many things that I found so powerful and impressive about your performance at this year’s Tony Awards was how you were able to so quickly emotionally transition from the bubbly “Opening Up” to the vulnerable and heavy “She Used To Be Mine.” As an actor, how do you mentally prepare for the rollercoaster journey that your character goes on every night?

MUELLER: HA! I think that might have been sheer panic or exhaustion on the night of the Tonys. And there was a beautiful moment when I finished my costume change, and walked out on the stage, and saw and heard Sara, and it all hit me – how special the moment was. How far we’d come and what we’d all built together. During the show I really have to take it one moment at a time. It’s death for me if I think about where I have to get to or the emotion of a moment. If I open up and let go, it’s much better. I’m still learning how to do that. I have to continually remind myself there’s something bigger happening than all of us. But it also takes all of us. Every moment takes me to the next, every character, that’s what makes it possible.

How would you each describe the experience of working with Sara Bareilles and what’s been the best part about getting to sing her music?

FITZGERALD: Sara is awesome. She’s got a great sense of humor and all we do is kid around with each other and make fun of each other. She’s unbelievably talented and is unafraid to think about, speak about and give out stuff that is challenging and interesting. It was really fun to collaborate with her. We came up with some other ideas together and she was open to any and all of them. She’s fierce and is also very clear about what she wants and what she needs. That’s also really satisfying. She’s just incredible.

MUELLER: Sara really was awesome. She was so open, available, and extremely thoughtful and supportive when it came to the score. If something wasn’t fitting in my voice or wasn’t serving the bigger picture, she was open to changing it. She wanted the score to be comfortable for us to sing. That being said, she’s brilliant and has an incredible vocal instrument. I think this is one of the most challenging scores I’ve ever sung. She set the bar high!

USHKOWITZ: I actually didn’t work with Sara. She came and saw the show after I joined and she really enjoyed the performance. When I was learning the material, they were like, “Don’t worry! Just sing the stuff and feel it and be honest with it.” Looking over videos and things that I’ve seen of Sara working with the original cast, like when they were working on the album, she always encouraged them to “Let this be your version.” She’d say, “This is your story and your version. I’ve done mine!” She put hers on a concept album and it’s beautiful to listen to. But we’re all different so I think that’s the biggest thing I took away. That it was okay to make her my Dawn. To not try and replicate what had been done – because you can’t.

Vocally, how does singing this type of pop-infused score differ from your more traditional and classical musical theater work?

USHKOWITZ: That’s exactly what it is. It’s pop. It’s a bit more laid back and emotionally driven. And Sara’s songs, I will say, are not easy to sing. It’s not like we’re singing some easy pop song that’s done in a recording studio. Her stuff is tough. It’s beautiful and intricate and that’s why I think it does so well. In musical theater, you’re trained a certain way. So to be able to bring in this contemporary sound and have that live feel with our studio mics and everything makes it become sort of like a pop concert as well.

FITZGERALD: To me, it is a little easier to sing. The way that Sara voiced the characters is just such strong writing. And there’s not much difference when it’s good writing.

MUELLER: It’s really fun and was a departure for me. There’s a little more freedom. And sometimes that’s scary, but it also encourages me to really put my heart and soul into it. Of course I’m conscious of what I sound like but it’s not my main concern when singing pop scores. It’s fun to put some guts behind it and hopefully give audiences something they don’t always hear in musical theater.

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What are your personal favorite kinds of pie(s), both to eat and to bake?

MUELLER: Chocolate cream pie from Bakers Square, or banana or coconut cream. I’m not good at baking those, so if I were baking, it would be a fruit pie – maybe strawberry rhubarb.

FITZGERALD: I really love a banana cream pie. Some people hate the idea of banana in anything and it makes them gag. I love it. I also really like a good, high-quality chocolate cream pie. My mom’s apple pie was always simple and so well done. So, I also just love a very well made, fresh, hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream. I mean, come on!

USHKOWITZ: Well, I have to be honest, I’m not a pie baker. I will make a healthy pie out of spaghetti squash, but that’s about it and that’s kind of boring. I like quiche, which Jenna also does make for the diner. I’m a big fan of eating quiche, but if I had to choose a sweet one, I’d go with a classic apple pie à la Mode.

Jenna, one of the many projects you’ve taken on since Glee ended is your podcast, Infinite Positivities. Can you please tell me a little bit about what inspired you to host this and what some of the most rewarding aspects of working on it have been so far?

download (1)USHKOWITZ: Well, after I wrote my book Choosing Glee in 2013, I got a really great response from people and I started to realize that not everybody had this viewpoint and perspective on positivity. It really opened my eyes to understanding how to condition yourself to make happiness a choice. The podcast is sort of an extension of my book. I take topics based off of the chapters in my book and I discuss real life issues with really cool and inspiring people. The way I like to find my guests are people who seem like they live their lives whole-heartedly and sort of have been through tough times but came out the other side successfully. I can show my listeners that it’s not always easy and either way, you’re going to come out stronger. So, that was sort of the inspiration.

The most rewarding thing is having these amazing, inspiring, successful people on and learning that they’re just human beings. We all feel and we all mess up and we all fail. We’re ambitious and we try and I think that the most beautiful thing is just being aware of all of these things and showing people a different perspective on life.

Who of your Glee co-stars are you still in the closest contact with? And have any come to see you in this show yet?

USHKOWITZ: Well, none of them have come to see me because I’m only in my second week of the show, but I know Darren (Criss) is going to come. He said he wanted to come and Lea (Michele) wanted to come. I talk to Darren, Lea and Becca (Tobin) a lot. I was actually speaking with Kevin (McHale) just this morning. Then of course, Harry (Shum Jr.), Naya (Rivera), Diana (Agron), and Amber (Riley). It’s hard to say. We all speak a lot. We stay in really close contact. We’re all family so sometimes we’ll go months without talking at all and then sometimes we’ll talk everyday.

Jessie, can you please describe what the recording of charity single “What The World Needs Now Is Love” with Broadway For Orlando was like?

MUELLER: It was one of the coolest afternoons I’ve had in a long time. It felt like such a blessing to have something to do in the face of what felt like helplessness. And what a room! I felt like I was watching from the outside and wondering who the heck had let me in there. I was in a Carole King/Sara Bareilles sandwich for most of the session. My heart was very big that day.

Christopher, a few months ago, I interviewed Shoshana Bean, and she told me that she credits her involvement in Wicked with why she gets to travel the world singing today. So I’ll ask you the same question that I asked her then: How has being such an integral part of such a blockbuster musical shaped your career?

FITZGERALD: Well, nobody wants to hear me travel the world and sing like Shoshana. If I sang like Shoshana, I think I would say what she said. It’s interesting. I come out at the stage door after the show and half the people are like, “Oh, my god! I loved you in Wicked! I love Wicked!” It’s crazy that there are still fans from that time.

The only thing I can say really is that it was amazing to watch the power of something that could affect that many people. It was like, “We’re just singing songs and telling a story. It’s nothing more special than that!” And yet it is that special, and it’s just remarkable! People still have such an affinity for it. The fact that right now there are like five different Boqs around the world tonight that are going to say lines that I said first, and do little bits that I did, that just blows my mind sometimes. I’m like, “Really? They’re going to do that little book thing that I did and they’re wearing the same costume that I wore?” It’s totally surreal!

And yet if I walked over there right now, the people at the theater would be like, “Can I help you?” or “Who are you?” They even have a sign that says something like, “If you were in Wicked previously, you may not come backstage. You have to come back with somebody.” Because there are so many of us now!

Waitress1487rOh wow. If you were in charge of casting, who would you like to see play Boq in the upcoming Wicked film adaptation?

FITZGERALD: Aside from you, you mean? I don’t know! Who could play Boq? Joseph Gordon Levitt, maybe? I don’t know. It’d be one of these actors that I don’t know because they’re so young now. Maybe Michael from Stranger Things. My wife and I just finished that show and we loved it. It was so fun and exciting. That’s my hip answer because it’s pretty current. But already Stranger Things is becoming old hat, I guess. It’s so sad how quickly these things move.

Do any of you have any plans to release your own solo albums? What would they sound like?

MUELLER: I’d love to someday, when I have something to say. I just don’t know what that is right now. So I also don’t know what it would sound like.

USHKOWITZ: That’s a really good question! If you were to ask me even before Waitress, it would definitely be along the lines of a Vanessa Carlton/Sara Bareilles/Ingrid Michaelson/Regina Spektor/Florence and the Machine feel. But as of right now, no. I’m really enjoying this acting route at the moment. I’m not closed off to it, but that’s not something that I’m dying to pursue at the moment either.

FITZGERALD: Maybe! It would be called like, The One Syllable Names or The Creatures. I did a Feinstein’s show before it closed about three years ago (before it became 54 Below). I did it with my friend David Turner. It was a mixture of all sorts of fun songs. It’s a really fun thing to do because you get clear about what really moves you. It was a combination of some songs from my childhood and some songs that were older and also some new ones. So it’s really eclectic and weird, but fun.

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CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE TICKETS TO WAITRESS, NOW PLAYING AT BROADWAY’S BROOK ATKINSON THEATRE. AND CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE THE WAITRESS ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST RECORDING.

Originally published on PopBytes

INTERVIEW: TALKING “GREY GARDENS” AND MORE WITH RACHEL YORK

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LAST SUMMER, THE HAMPTONS WERE ABUZZ ABOUT THE RETURN OF BIG AND LITTLE EDIE. 

Rachel YorkOf course, the real Beale ladies passed away several years ago. Yet the duo was reincarnated on the stage in a bold and innovative new production of the musical Grey Gardens, based on the famous documentary of the same name. After bringing Gardens back to the place where it was originally set, the cautionary tale of the reclusive aunt and first cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis received such an acclaimed response that this production has now transferred to Los Angeles for a limited run.

Now playing at the Ahmanson Theater through August 14, Grey Gardens stars Betty Buckley and Rachel York as the mother and daughter whose complex and often-dysfunctional relationship is at the center of this riches-to-rags story. I spoke with York about her transformation into Little Edie, why Grey Gardens remains such a fascinating story that stands the test of time, her vast career highlights, and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: What initially made you want to do Grey Gardens?

Rachel YorkRACHEL YORK: I was not that familiar with the material as I had never seen the documentary or the musical when I was offered the role, but I knew I would be playing two very challenging roles with intricate character work – which is my forte. I became an actress because I love delving deeply into character and psychology. Unfortunately, these kinds of roles don’t come along everyday. After I saw the documentary, I turned down a role that paid me substantially more money in order to do the Bay Street Production in Sag Harbor. That’s a tough choice when you have a family to support, but it was the right one for me.

Speaking of the Bay Street Production, this iteration of Gardens is inspired by that production that you did last year in the Hamptons itself. How did actually putting on the show in the same place where it’s set impact your performance?

The production at Bay Street was an “event” in the Hamptons. People were very excited to see it for obvious reasons. We had a lot to live up to. For me, living and working in the Hamptons was incredibly informative. We visited the actual house of Grey Gardens. It has been restored to perfection. I was able to picture being raised in this beautiful house while also imagining its decline. I recited lines from the documentary that Little Edie spoke in that very house. It was exciting and eerie at the same time.

Now that the show has come to LA, have you found new value and/or creative liberty since you’re not actually in the Beales’ space anymore? And what other ways is the show different this second time around?

Little EdieIt has been a wonderful advantage to revisit the play and the documentary a year later. Betty and I viewed a screening of the documentary at the Ahmanson during rehearsals, which was surprisingly enlightening. There were several small details we couldn’t see on a small screen. We were able to view it the way it was intended 40 years ago. We had put the production up in basically two weeks the first time around at Bay Street. Betty and I were both overloaded with information on the Beales. That year away from the material has allowed us to view these characters with a fresh eye. I feel the second time around I am able to present more of Little Edie’s subtleties.

Michael Wilson has created a whole new production at the Ahmanson with projections and a live camera feed. We have more to work with at the Ahmanson. The challenge for Michael was bringing the same kind of wonderful intimacy that we had at the 300-seat Bay Street Theater. We have a bigger and more expensive set now. This allows us to see the outside of the house along with the porch screen door that Little Edie enjoyed prancing in and out of. And I am told by people who have seen both productions that Michael somehow was able to maintain that feeling of intimacy, even though it is such a big production.

How does portraying Little Edie stretch acting muscles for you that your previous roles haven’t?

These roles don’t come along everyday. I suppose the only thing that has come close to this was my portrayal of Lucille Ball in the CBS miniseries, Lucy. The stakes are just as high. Many are obsessed with Little Edie and her idiosyncrasies. It’s important that I create that illusion for people. I want them to feel they are seeing the real thing. I want them to truly empathize with Big and Little Edie. As I said before, I enjoy this type of intricate character work. I have more control over the final product on stage. When I arrived at the set of Lucy, I knew more about Lucille Ball than any one on the set, but choices were already made that I had no control over. I have control on the stage, but I need to be in top form. This show is the most challenging work I have faced because of its size, depth and vocal diversity. I can’t afford to get sick or even be under the weather. The mountain I climb every night can be incredibly intimidating.

So how is your process different when playing a real person like Lucille or Little Edie versus when you’re creating a fictional character? 

With real people, there is usually quite a bit of source material to draw from. When I am creating a fictional character, I just use clues in the script, my imagination and my own person experience and empathy to find my character and her truth.

Betty BuckleyWhat are the most rewarding aspects of working with a theater icon like Betty Buckley?

She’s a fantastic actress. She knows her craft. There’s nothing more exciting than working with an actor who knows their craft. Betty also has great presence, experience and passion for acting and the characters she plays. We are both honored to shine a truthful light on these bohemian-spirited womenBetty Buckley

Now that you’ve seen the documentary, have you also seen the film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore? If so, did it help you discover your interpretation of Little Edie in any way(s)?

I thought the film with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange was incredibly well done. I didn’t study their interpretation, but I drew from the same source materials they did, I’m sure.

What do you think it is about the story of Grey Gardens that makes so many people want to explore it across such distinctly unique artistic mediums?

Betty Buckley and Rachel York

These two ladies were fascinating, colorful characters and there is a mystery about this story that leaves everyone perplexed and saddened.

And what is it about this mother and daughter pair that still makes their struggles so relevant and poignant in 2016?

I think it’s a story that tugs at some of our deepest fears. It’s difficult for people to fathom how this could have happened to these women and we feel truly sad for them in the end. There is a mystery to this story and the play leaves us analyzing and asking many questions

Prior to this production, you co-starred in the Broadway comedy, Disaster! What was the most fun part of getting to perform in such an outrageous, over-the-top musical every night? 

It was pure fun working with such a skilled group of comedic actors. It was the perfect job! We all had such a blast every night. The music and time period transported me back to the happiness I felt as a kid in the 70’s.

Disaster was comprised of so many terrific songs from that decade. Which did you enjoy singing the most? And how do you plan on celebrating the upcoming release of the cast recording? 

“I Will Survive” was my favorite. I’m excited to hear the recording! But I haven’t made any plans to celebrate as of yet.

As an actress, do you typically try to balance the types of projects you choose across different genres? If so, which have you found to be your favorite? 

In most instances, the projects have found me. I’m fortunate to have played a variety of different characters throughout my career, whether is be comedy or drama. I like to mix it up. My favorite always seems to be the character I’m playing at any given time. There are so many the past that are my “favorite” that I can’t select one. Right now my favorite is Little Edie.

In addition to your theater work, you have a vast career as a concert soloist, having performed with such esteemed acts as the New York Pops, the National Symphony, the Los Angeles philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, to name a few. What type of artistic itch does performing in this capacity scratch for you that playing a character in a musical does not?

Singing with a huge orchestra is glorious, but acting is my passion.

You received a Drama Desk Award for your co-starring turn in Victor/Victoria alongside the legendary Julie Andrews. What was the best advice that Julie gave you that you’ve carried with you ever since? 

Always decorate with creams, whites and taupes. They make every room appear larger, cleaner and fresh.

Catch Rachel York in Grey Gardens, now playing at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles through August 14. Click HERE to purchase tickets.

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Originally published on PopBytes

5 REASONS NOT TO MISS “THE ROSE TATTOO” AT WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL

wtf-2016-heroesThis year, the legendary and revered Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts is opening its 62nd season with a production of Tennessee Williams’ classic The Rose Tattoo. Winner of the 1951 Tony Award for Best Play, this dark comedy is directed by Obie Award-winner Trip Cullman and is playing on the Festival’s Main Stage now through July 17th.

Here are our top five reasons not to miss this production of The Rose Tattoo:

1 MARISA TOMEI’S ITALIAN HOMECOMING

Marisa TomeiThe last time that Marisa Tomei tapped into her Italian background to bring a character to life, she won an Academy Award. This time around, the My Cousin Vinny star plays Serafina, a Sicilian immigrant in Louisiana who can’t seem to get back on her feet after the death of her husband. A recluse in her own home, she can barely get dressed and spends years drowning in memories instead of trying to create new ones.

Because she’s the only local seamstress, Serafina is on the receiving end of the anger and frustration of neighboring women because she doesn’t bother to fill orders in any sort of timely fashion. As a ferociously devout Catholic, her go-to source for advice, clarity, and purpose, is an old figurine of the Virgin Mary. Her religion also acts as the lens through which sees people – like the village idiot, who she claims must have shaken hands with the devil because of her crooked nails. Then there’s her teenage daughter’s sailor boyfriend. As soon as Serafina meets him, she makes him get on his knees in front of the Virgin Mary figurine to swear to not take advantage of her child’s innocence and return her home with her virginity intact.

Complete with a thick Italian accent, Tomei portrays Serafina as a frantic, emotionally unraveling woman, who at the same time is loud, in-your-face, energetic and full of sassy zingers. This makes her clashes with the townspeople and her overbearing relationship with her daughter hilarious to watch. What Tomei so impressively does is use Serafina’s pain to create a fiercely comical character whose outrageous, highly entertaining, and ultimately heartwarming roller-coaster journey is nothing short of a comedic master class.

2 CONSTANCE SHULMAN’S SCENE-STEALING PERFORMANCE

As Yoga Jones in Orange Is The New Black, Constance Shulman gives off a very mellow, calm, and peaceful presence. In The Rose Tattoo, however, she gets to show off a whole new side of herself. As The Strega, Shulman is outlandish, crazy, and above all, a huge gossip. Physically, she’s disheveled and looks like a cross between a witch from Macbeth and a pirate from a Tim Burton film. Whether she’s chasing the goat or giving foul-mouthed recaps of the goings on she’s seen about town, Shulman steals every scene she’s in with her ridiculous antics and biting banter.

3 THE CHEMISTRY BETWEEN MARISA TOMEI AND CHRISTOPHER ABBOTT

Christopher Abbott and Marisa TomeiIn Act II, the grieving Serafina decides to give love another chance when she meets the handsome, younger Alvaro Mangiacavallo (whose last name literally means “eat a horse”). Alvaro, immediately smitten by the widow, goes to extreme lengths to convince Serafina to open her heart again. He even gets a rose tattoo on his chest like the one that her dead husband had. To Serafina, Alvaro has the same body as her ex (but with a “clown face”), and she takes this as a sign from the Virgin Mary to allow him into her bed. The affair that ensues becomes an increasingly over-the-top, uproarious series of dramas and misgivings. Tomei and Abbott carry the comedy beautifully, while also having palpable sexual tension and chemistry. It’s impossible not to root for them.

4 LINDSAY MENDEZ’ VOICE

Stage veteran Lindsay Mendez sings various Italian songs to set an array of tones throughout the show. Mendez – whose impressive credits include Significant Other,Wicked, Dogfight, Godspell, Grease andEveryday Rapture – has a soaring and evocative voice that adds texture and depth to whatever Serafina is feeling at the moment of her next scene. Her emotional, soulful delivery of this music is worth the price of admission alone, and it powerfully ties the play together in a simultaneously stunning and intelligent way.

5 THE SET (+ GOAT!)

Mark Wendland’s meticulous scenic design brilliantly transforms the stage into a genuine Southern coastal town. Extending through the orchestra of the theater is a wooden catwalk that immediately morphs the venue into a boardwalk. The way that Serafina’s house is anchored on its side allows audience members to clearly see her when she goes inside without sacrificing the feeling that they are surrounded by the beach.

The stage is covered in sand, and Serafina’s waterfront property is adorned by dozens of pink flamingos. The flamingos aren’t real, but the show does feature a live animal. A goat makes several appearances on stage, acting as a symbol of Serafina’s intense sexual feelings – whether it is when she remembers her husband or thinking about the temptation of Alvaro.

The Rose Tattoo

Wrapped in the backdrop of the set is Lucy Mackinnon’s projection design of a beach. Throughout the show, the waves constantly crash against the shore, making the audience forget they’re even inside. As the days turn into nights, the beach gets darker and the clear blue water turns into a black abyss with glowing foam washing up in front of it. This produces a truly transcendent effect, which will make you want to drive straight from Williamstown to Cape Cod.


Click HERE to purchase your tickets to The Rose Tattoo, now playing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, MA through July 17th.

Originally published on PopBytes

INTERVIEW: CHATTING WITH “RENAISSANCE” MAN CHEYENNE JACKSON

CHEYENNE JACKSON HAS FOUND HIS CALLING.

Cheyenne-Jackson-CD-Cover-RenaissanceThe 40-year-old Broadway veteran, best known for his originating roles in shows like Xanadu and All Shook Up, is returning to his musical roots. On his new album, Renaissance, Jackson masterfully channels the classic crooners, jazz artists, and rock-and-roll stars of the 1950s and 60s. Paying homage to the music he was raised on, he has put his own twist on the greatest hits of the era. With this record, Jackson has passionately revived the American songbook with his stunning range and signature, soulful baritone voice.

Taking a break from filming the upcoming sixth season of American Horror Story, Jackson chatted with me about his new album, returning to Broadway, his thoughts on this year’s Tony Awards, being gay in the entertainment industry, and more.

What does the album’s title, Renaissance, signify to you?

Funny, nobody’s asked me that! I’ve definitely gone through a renaissance, or a rebirth if you will, over the last 4 years. These songs in particular are ones that I’ve toured for a while now. Everything has kind of culminated in this group of songs that have meant so much to me. Plus, my music teachers always called me a “Renaissance man,” and I just liked the idea of doing something old but also something new.

The album is adapted and expanded from your tour, “Music of the Mad Men Era.” Why does music from this time period resonate with you and what made you decide to record your own album interpreting these classics?

Strangely, this is the music that I grew up listening to. I was a 12-year-old in rural Northern Idaho who listened to Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald. For some reason, that’s the type of music that I was drawn to. I loved the feel of it. I loved the sound of it and it just seemed very natural to me.

As I’ve gotten older and as I’ve sung a lot of different things in a lot of different styles and genres, if I really get quiet and listen to what I like to do the best and what moves me the most, it’s this style of music. It’s the American songbook and it’s jazz in particular.

So for the last few years, touring this kind of music in clubs and in big performing arts centers just made sense. It made sense to want to record these songs. Most of them are ones I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of times. But because they’re such great, classic songs, as you get older and have more experience, the songs themselves morph and change and take on deeper meanings. That’s kind of how it all happened.

This era had so many incredible songs to choose from. How did you curate which ones were included on the record?

It was a really natural process. Like I said, having done a lot of these songs for years and years, I definitely don’t sing them the same as I did 4 years ago. I love that idea that it’s ever changing and morphing and that it can mean one thing one day and something else the next. When it came time to choose, I definitely wanted to pick songs that meant the most to me, and that would work within this linear story I’m trying to tell on the album.

All but one of the songs are ones that I’ve performed in concert before. “A Song For You” is the only one that’s a brand new song for me, but everything else is something I’ve done many, many times. I just tried to pick the best versions because some of these songs on the album are just maybe piano and drums, but in concert I do them with a full orchestra. And vice versa. So I really wanted to focus it.

In addition to all of the covers, the album also includes an original song that you wrote, “Red Wine Is Good For My Heart.” What’s the story behind that song? What inspired you to write it?

Thank you for asking because that is a very personal song to me. My grandma died a few years back due to complications from alcoholism. And, you know, I am an alcoholic and I’ve been sober for 3 years. It’s a huge part of my story. I wrote this song at my friend Michael Feinstein’s house a few years back and I was kind of struggling with the bridge. He came downstairs and I was like, “Sit down and write this song with me!” So we finished it up.

My grandma’s favorite thing to say was, “Well red wine is good for my heart!” She clung to that, but it was ultimately the thing that killed her. I also just wanted to honor her life and her relationship with her man of 30 years. It’s a deeply personal issue for me as well, so I wanted to mark that in some way.

Do you do you plan on going back on the road with another tour to celebrate the album?

Yes! Right now, I’m shooting season 6 of American Horror Story – which I don’t think they’ve announced yet so you may be getting an exclusive there. But yeah, once we’re done shooting this season, then I’m going to have some time to tour a bit. But right now we’re in the thick of it.

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Speaking of American Horror Story, what can you tease about this new season and/or about your character?

Literally zero! Wild horses couldn’t drag it out of me. We are absolutely sworn to secrecy.

What’s your favorite part about working with Lady Gaga? I know she’s coming back for the new season as well.

I would say my favorite thing is her passion. She’s one of those people that is so passionate about whatever it happens to be at that moment – whether she’s talking about jazz or if she’s talking about a film she loves. While we were shooting last season, she was obsessed with the documentary series, The Jinx. She was obsessed with Robert Durst and that whole story.

It’s just fun to be around somebody who is so committed to whatever they’re doing. So many people have so many things going on and so they become a little bit scattered. The thing about her is that she’s always all in. That’s cool to be around. It’s inspiring.

Vocally, how does singing the style of music on Renaissance differ from when you’re singing musical theater or the type of pop found on your previous solo album? And moving forward, do you plan to continue releasing records that are more along these lines?

I do and here’s why. I’ve really been searching my heart and my soul over the last several years because I just wanted to find my sound. What is it and what do I want to do? So if I really clear away everything else and just get quiet and listen to what it is that moves me, all I have to do is look back to what it was as a kid – and that’s this style of music. It’s the American songbook. It’s great melodies. It’s jazz.

I think for a long time, I resisted it, because maybe I thought it was a little bit nerdy. I just wanted to be a cool, edgy singer/songwriter. And honestly, even though I can write pop music and I’m pretty good at it, it’s not the thing that I’m supposed to be doing. What I know now is that this is the music that I’m meant to be singing. It’s the most natural fit. My voice has always been really old-fashioned. As a 15-year-old kid, my high school choir teacher was like, “What is happening with you with sound?” I had an old-fashioned, jazzy type sound. The phrasing, the intonation and the vibrato – all of it just naturally lent itself towards that. And I fought it for years! I wanted to be George Michael! I wanted to really try. Even though I can sing that stuff and I love it, if I really get honest, this is the stuff that I love more than anything else. And I guess I’m kind of coming out.

Honestly, I was talking to my husband about this last year when I was planning this album, and I was like, “I guess I have to just accept and come out with the fact that this is what I do.” It was kind of a breakthrough for me. It’s freeing actually.

You’re really establishing your artistic identity.

Yeah, exactly! And it only took me to 40. Whatever.

Recently, you reunited with your former co-star Kerry Butler to sing “Suddenly” from Xanadu (in full-costume!) as part of a charity benefit performance. If you could revisit and revive any character in your career, whom would you want to play again?

Good question! Well being able to do a little bit from Xanadu again was definitely towards the top of the list. That show was so important to me and to my career. As for who I’d like to revive? Danny from 30 Rock was a very fun character. He was so in-your-face clueless about life. I think it would be a fun thing to see what he’s doing now. And to see if he’s mastered saying the word, “about.”

The last time that you and I chatted, you mentioned that you wanted to make your New York stage return with an original musical as opposed to a revival. Do you still feel that way? And do you have any idea when your fans might be able to expect to see you on Broadway again?

I do still feel that way, for sure! More than ever, actually. Given the last two years on Broadway, and especially this last year, there’s just been so much incredible new material. I’ve got to say, when I saw Hamilton, I had heard so much about it and it was so hyped up. With something like that, you think, “There’s no fucking way this is going to live up to what people are saying.” And happily, it just exploded my expectations and exploded my brain. It shows what the power of musical theater can actually do. So yeah, more than ever I definitely want it to be something new. I have had a couple of offers to come back in the last couple of years for certain revivals, and it just hasn’t been the right fit. It has to be something that I just immediately say, “Yes!”

So yeah, I really don’t know. I don’t have anything on the immediate horizon. There are talks about some things that are a couple of years out. But I definitely try to come back every 6 months or so and do something. For example, doing The Secret Garden in concert at Lincoln Center recently was really fun.

That was incredible, by the way. I had such a great time at the show.

Thank you! I did too. For Ramin (Karimloo) and I, it was such a highlight. And Sierra (Boggess)! You know, I love Broadway and I totally do want to come back. It just has to be the right thing.

You just wrapped filming the movie adaptation of Hello Again alongside the likes of Audra McDonald and Martha Plimpton. What was that process like and how do you think this film will stand out from other contemporary movie musicals?

Another good question! Honestly, I don’t know how it’s going to stack up. This is the first movie musical that I’ve done and it was challenging in that we sang live.

Oh wow!

Yeah! We had little inner-ear things and we were singing to just a piano track. So we’re doing the scenes and we’re actually literally doing the song in the moment live. Which was cool from an acting perspective, but it was definitely challenging. I don’t know how it’s going to come across. I think it’s going to be cool.

It’s very experimental in terms of the scope and it’s very sexy. I mean, that’s what the whole movie is about – each person’s sexual connection and then that person with the next person with the next person with the next person. I had a really good time. Audra and I both did things on camera that we’ve never done before! You’ll see when it comes out. But we definitely just had to kind of go, “Okay, are we doing this? All right lets do it! 1, 2, 3, Go for it!” But yeah, it was a really fun cast. Martha Plimpton is fabulous and really good people. I’m anxious to see it and to see how it all comes across.

As an out gay man in the industry, what were your thoughts on the recent controversial interview that The Real O’Neals star Noah Galvin gave to Vulture about the glass closet in Hollywood?

Listen, I mean, everybody has their own experiences. He’s clearly sorry about what he said and redacted it and has gotten in trouble. I think he probably just got a little excited and I don’t believe in judging.

First of all, I don’t believe in outing anybody. And when people do decide to come out, it’s nobody’s business how they do it. I’ve been out for a long time now and I’ve watched these guys come out younger and younger and it’s very cool. I actually just saw Colton Haynes a couple of days ago and we chatted about this. It’s a new world and the industry is changing, and I think it’s because of these new, younger actors. So we need to lift each other up. We need to support each other in however we choose to come out because we’re all together. We’re all on the same team. Tearing each other down and speaking ill of each other’s experiences is not going to help anybody. It’s not going to help the process. So I’m glad that Noah apologized and kind of took back what he said, because I thought it was really ill conceived.

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How do you plan on celebrating Pride this year?

Well, we just had Pride in LA. So we kind of bopped around a bit and then we went to my niece’s birthday party. Then, I’m singing for Pride in P-town on the 4th of July. I’m doing a big concert at Town Hall.

That’ll be fun!

Yeah! That’s always a very Pride-filled weekend.

What was your personal highlight from the Tony Awards this year? Were there any specific performances that really resonated with you?

Oh god, yes! Cynthia Erivo from The Color Purple. It was insane! Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see The Color Purple on stage. I’ve seen her perform “I’m Here” a couple of different times on talk shows and such, but holy crap! Insanity. Just insanity.

I thought the Tony’s this year were the best they’ve been in a decade. They were so exciting and there were so many good live performances. I also really loved Carmen Cusack’s number from Bright Star. I thought that was really strong. And I loved Jessie Mueller in Waitress. That was really, really powerful. So were so many of my friends, like the She Loves Me cast. And obviously Hamilton.

But the thing that pops into my mind immediately is Cynthia Erivo. That’s just how you do it. In fact, I watched that performance about 10 times. As soon as it was done, I just kept rewinding it and rewinding it and rewinding it.

I get to a point sometimes where I think I’ve got it figured out. I’m like, “Okay, I know how to interpret a song. I know how to really sing it from my gut. I know how to make these words my own.” And then you watch something like that and you realize, “Holy shit! I have so far to go. There’s so much more I could do!” That’s what I love about watching my peers. You can’t help but watch something like that and think, “Man! How does that happen?”

Thank you so much, Cheyenne! Is there anything else that you want to talk about that we didn’t discuss?

I think that’s good. This was really great! Thank you so much.

Originally published on PopBytes

INTERVIEW: DIANA DEGARMO ON “THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES” AND RETURNING TO “AMERICAN IDOL”

The Marvelous WonderettesDIANA DEGARMO IS COMING BACK FOR SECONDS.

DSC_7619-848x1280In 2004, she placed runner-up on the third season of American Idol. Twelve years later, she joined her fellow past contestants (including her husband, season five finalist Ace Young) to bid adieu to the series at its epic send-off live finale.

But if she had any reservations about returning to the Idol stage after so many years, DeGarmo didn’t need to seek guidance farther than Suzy Simpson, the character she currently plays Off-Broadway in The Marvelous Wonderettes. With a first act set at a 1950s high school prom, the jukebox musical’s second act finds the characters coming back for their ten-year reunion. And for The Wonderettes, this reunion means getting back up on stage to perform for and with their peers all over again. Sound familiar?

As the 29-year-old Georgia native continues her limited run (through the end of next month) in the beloved show, she and I chatted about the Wonderettes, reliving her days on Idol, and much more.

What attracted you to playing Suzy Simpson, and how do you feel she differs from other roles you’ve played in the past?

Well, first and foremost, I loved the music. My mother is a big music fan and a big part of my childhood was listening to the music of her childhood. So it’s fun to go back and sing songs that I’ve known my whole life. And to sing them on stage in New York City is every performer’s dream!

Also, to be involved with a female ensemble-type show is really fun. Suzy is a great character. I do feel that she has a lot of similarities to other roles I’ve played. But at the same time, there are a few other surprises in the show that I don’t want to give away but that definitely make her a unique character for me.

You mentioned growing up with the music. Which specific artists from this era shaped and influenced your own musical upbringing?

Oh, golly. I definitely remember lots of Aretha Franklin happening around my house. Also “Stupid Cupid” was a big song that I loved growing up. It was really funny when I found out that was going to be a Suzy song. I was like, “Oh, I already know the words to this one!”

My mom had all of the greatest hits CDs of the ’50s and ’60s. But then it was fun too because the show introduced me to a lot of songs I didn’t know. Now I just love songs like “Allegheny Moon” and “Secret Love,” which Christina Bianco just kills every night.

In the show, you get to sing some of the biggest hits from the 1950s and 60s, including “Leader of the Pack,” “Son Of A Preacher Man,” “It’s My Party,” and “You Don’t Own Me.” What’s your personal favorite song to perform each night?

I think my favorite may be “Respect” from Act II. That’s a song that I have always loved singing. I do it personally in my shows just because it’s a great feel-good song for anyone who hears it. It’s got a good meaning to it. And for my character, it’s a big moment in the arc of her storyline.

In the first act, I also love “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me.” I think that’s the only male song in the show, but of course sung by females. I love singing it and I love seeing the people that are fans of the music of the time. They kind of clutch their pearls or they squeeze their sweetie. This was a special song for them because it was a song for lovers back in the day. I love being able to help bring back those memories.

Between Hair, Hairspray, and now The Marvelous Wonderettes, it seems like you’re very interested in exploring American life in the 1950s and 1960s through your work.

There’s definitely a theme happening!

What is it about this period of time that keeps drawing you back to it?

I think I especially love the innocence of the ’50s and ’60s and just how everything was kind of a pure thought. There were no undertones to lyrics. Everything was just what it was. As a 2016 woman, there are some times when you look back at the lyrics to songs and you go, “Oh my God!” You know? They make your head hurt!

This was a time of purity where we sang what we felt and there were no crazy sexual innuendos. There was nothing promiscuous. Even just saying “Stupid Cupid” was a big deal because you said “stupid” in a song. Now, it’s hard to find a song that’s not overtly sexy and sexual. So for me as a singer, I appreciate the melodies of the music a lot. You can actually sing with the music. You don’t need a computer as accompaniment. You can just sing the song and the melodies are gorgeous and it’s a fun time. It makes people feel good. Yes, every single decade has always had its pros and cons, but I thoroughly enjoy remembering the good times of the ’50s and the ’60s.

You play one of the four song leaders who are called upon last-minute to save the senior prom after the glee club boys, who were supposed to perform, got suspended. Going back to your own high school days, were you more of a well-behaved Wonderette or a rebellious glee club member?

Oh golly! I was definitely a square. I’m still a square. I’m not a very good rule breaker. I like to have fun and I’m always down for an adventure, but if there’s any sort of rule breaking, I can’t do it because I’m not a good liar. Even though I’m an actor, I’m not a good liar. And I was on Idol while I was in high school, so the whole second half of it is kind of a blur. But I was definitely a part of the glee club and our choir back in the day and would have, I think, been thrilled to perform at my prom. And I probably would have been a little nauseous at the same time! Our prom was definitely not as glamorous as the Marvelous Wonderettes’ prom is.

Act two of the show finds the Wonderettes returning to Springfield High for their 10-year-reunion. As an actress, how does your approach to playing Suzy change when you’re playing her as a teenager versus as an adult?

The great thing is that the music that is in Act II actually helps us all tell our characters’ stories very well. There are some physical attributes that Suzy acquires in the second act, which definitely help put me in the right mindset. A lot can happen in ten years to anyone. I think Suzy is still a very bubbly and happy person, but she has had a very interesting decade and you find her in kind of a rough spot of her life. But she’s still the same young and hopeful person that she is in Act I. It’s kind of fun to see that everything is still going to be okay for her beDiana DeGarmocause I’m actually at the same age that Suzy is in Act II.

What do you think that showing these characters at such different stages of their lives adds to the overall themes and messages that the audience leaves with?

I would have to say the show overall could be a hopeful reminder that there’s always something good, no matter what. Yes, there can be chaotic moments in life, like with the prom or with our reunion, and you see that the girls have all kind of gone through something. But everything is going to be okay. And you can sing your way through it!

I think that’s kind of the overall idea of it – that it’s all going to be all right as long as you have your friends to lean on and to stand with. You see these four girls go through a crazy kind of scenario in the first half, and then they have to relive it in the second half all over again – but ten years later. I think that especially as females, we need our tribes. We need female friends to hang onto and to help lift us up when it’s our time of need and sometimes we kind of forget that. We get a little too independent. I’m an independent woman. I love my husband and he’s my best friend, but I definitely need my girlfriends sometimes. They understand better than anyone else.

You wrap up your run in The Marvelous Wonderettes on July 31. Do you currently have plans to stay in New York after that to do any more Broadway or Off-Broadway work?

I have some other things on the cook top that are currently boiling away, so I don’t want to reveal anything just yet. Hopefully there will be some news to report in the next couple of months. But I’m definitely going to try and stay in the city as long as I can! It’s so great to be up here for the summer. I live back in Nashville now and I love being there. It’s great to have kind of a touchstone back to the way I grew up, so it’s lovely to go back there. But New York is definitely alive and thriving, especially in the summer. Ace and I are having a blast being up here and we’ll see how long we can stay.

That’s awesome! You’ve also been a part of various musicals’ national tours, including 9 To 5 and Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. What have you found to be the biggest differences between traveling with shows versus staying put in the same venue? Do the types of audiences vary a lot and does the location where you’re performing ever impact how you play your part?

Well, the hardest part, which is also the very exciting part, is that the venue is constantly changing when you’re on the road. So sometimes you can’t get comfortable. We’re very fortunate here. Doing The Marvelous Wonderettes at the Kirk Theatre, we know where everything is, we know how the sound works, and there are no surprises in the show anymore. There’s no, “Oh where did that come from?” or “We can’t use that that scenery piece” or “We have to change this.”

When you’re on the road, the show is a constantly evolving creature. It does keep you on your toes in a way, which is exciting, but sometimes it can get a little exhausting. I need a break! I just want to do the show and not think about, “Where is this going to come in from tonight?” or “When is that going to happen?”

I love being in New York. This city is a wonderful, great supporter of theater and I feel very fortunate to be back here for the summer. But being on the road was great too. I love getting a chance to take shows to people that may not ever get a chance to come to New York City. I love bringing them Broadway shows, and showing up in the theater and telling them a great story and entertaining them for a few hours. I’m a Gemini, and so I have two different sides. Half of me loves being on the road but half of me loves being here as well.

You’ve played the role of Fern/Vylette in a couple of industry readings of the musical adaptation of Jawbreaker. What’s the status of that show? And do you plan to continue being involved with it once it lands on Broadway?

I would love to be a part of it! I currently don’t know what the status is either. They don’t tell the actors those things. I wish I knew! I loved being a part of Jawbreaker. I’ve been with it for a few years, which is crazy to think, and the music is so infectious. The character of Fern/Vylette is so wonderful. It’s so fun to play a complete polar opposite human being in the same show. At the end of the day, it’s a great story about how you really have to be true to yourself and that beauty is only skin deep.

I think it’s got a great story – especially for today’s social media generation, where we see how everything looks so pretty and perfect online. But the reality is, it’s not. Life is not perfect. None of us are and I think that show highlights that. Particularly for high-schoolers.

It kind of reminds us that we’re all just human beings. I love that and I hope to see that it comes to Broadway one day. I’ve got my fingers, toes, legs, arms, everything crossed to be a part of it again. We shall see!

You have a movie, After The Sun Fell, coming out later this summer. What can you tell us about that film?

It was really quite a cool experience. We filmed in Lewiston, New York, just north of Buffalo. Lewiston itself is just this cute little picturesque town. I felt like the whole town was a movie set, but it wasn’t. We shot in a very historical building, this beautiful home. It’s a great small ensemble piece, but it’s a dark comedy, which I had never done before. I’m usually kind of in the more in-your-face comedy, so to try and do something more situational was really great. Everyone that I worked on the film with was so talented.

It was our lead actress’, Joanna Bayless, first film and she’s a theater actress, so she and I got to bond really well because I’ve been there. When it’s your first film, you’re like, “Wait, how does this work?” and “What’s happening?” I’ve been fortunate to do some other film work in the past, and so we got to buddy up. I loved that she always had her script on set with her. I was like, “See! That’s what us theater kids do. We come with the whole thing!” She is absolutely magnificent. The story is a play that has been transferred to film and I think it’s going to be a really, really cool new story not just for myself as an actor, but also for the indie film community.

As an artist, do you find acting or singing more creatively stimulating?

It depends on the day. It really does. Again, I’m a Gemini. I equally love both. I love the challenge of finding a character that no one would expect me to play, because when you meet me you’re like, “Oh, you can’t be mean or you can’t do this.” They may try to put you in a box and I love breaking that box wide open and saying, “Yeah, that was me on stage!” or “That was me in that show!” It’s fun surprising people.

I love going into music and singing stuff that’s from my heart. Living in Nashville has been a wonderful outlet for that. I’ve been getting a chance to really sing what I grew up singing, which is country music. I know most people know me for pop because I have sung it for a few years, but my heart lies in country music. And I love being able to sit down and just sing a song that really speaks to my heart.

Back in April, you performed on the American Idol series finale. What was going through your head during that performance, knowing it would be the last time you and any of the other previous contestants would ever be up on that stage?

It was really just like one big party! It really was just like a big family reunion the whole week we were there, which was really fun. We had a great time. I think the reality of the situation didn’t really hit anyone until the beginning of the live show when we all came out and sang “One Voice.” That specific performance number was kind of Nigel Lythgoe’s baby. It was his dream and vision to see everyone come out and sing that song. Everyone was kind of laughing and joking up until right before we started the show and then everyone kind of looked at each other and thought, “Holy cow, this is real! This is really happening!” It was very nostalgic but, at the same time, it was a little like if a party met a funeral.

We were all having a great time but then everyone got very somber. We were able to revel in the moment and it was a great show to be a part of and a great show to watch. And, I had fun getting up there and singing alongside my fellow artists and friends. Of course getting to share the stage with my husband and then some other friends from other seasons, we just all had one heck of a time.

Ace and I jumped on a plane right after the show and took a red eye here to do a reading back in New York so we didn’t get to party the night away with everybody. As they say, the show must go on! But it was wonderful and it was definitely a experience that, just like Idol itself, I will cherish forever.

Now that Idol is totally over, are you able to look back and pick a single performance of yours that you consider to be your favorite from your time on the show?

Because my season was back in the day, I’ve been very lucky to have had a wonderful career post-Idol. For me, Idolwas 12 years ago, so I was able to go back to the finale with a completely different mindset than some of these other kids whose seasons were like 2-3 years ago. I felt like a mother hen at the finale.

As for my favorite performances, I have two that I really loved. One would be when I performed for disco week in the top three. Meeting Donna Summer, who I’ve always looked up to as a vocalist, is still one of the most monumental and life-changing moments I’ve ever had. I remember asking her, “How do you keep your voice healthy? You still have such a gorgeous voice and you could sing the paint off the walls!” And she told me her trick was pineapple and Coca-Cola. I thought that was the coolest thing ever!

Then, I also loved when I performed for Latin week with Miami Sound Machine. Gloria Estefan was our mentor that week. She and Donna Summer are two very strong, iconic singers. As a young female performer, to get to sing her song that she made popular, and to perform it with Miami Sound Machine while on stage wearing a dress that Simon Cowell told me I “looked like a car wash” in – those are just permanently synched into my brain and into my personal life.

I’m sure! You haven’t released any original music since 2012. Do you have plans to return to the studio to work on your solo material?

Yes! I’ve toyed with stuff over the past few years, but when I’m in the studio, I like to focus on one thing at a time. I’m not a good multi-tasker. Right now I’m focusing on doing the show. So I’m being pulled in and out of the studio, but luckily Ace and I are building a studio at our home in Nashville. But I do have an album in the works. Hopefully it’ll be done as soon as we get back. There’s definitely lots of exploration that has happened over the last couple of years and songs have started creating themselves. I definitely feel there is another solo album coming your way. Hopefully sooner rather than later but the songs are there. I just need to get my butt in the studio to record them.

Will this album have more of that country feel you mentioned?

Yes, for sure. Definitely more of a country feel. It’s just continuing the music that I really want to sing. I’ve been really lucky because the past few EPs I’ve done have been more along the lines of who I am.

My first album, even though I love it and I support it because my name is on it, wasn’t entirely me. It was a baby of the record label that I was just happy to be a singer on. There are some songs on there that I love singing, but it wasn’t truly what represented me. I think that still, even many years later, I’m still trying to show the world who I am. But I guess that’s the whole part of the human experience, right?

Earlier this month, you and your husband, Ace Young, celebrated your three-year wedding anniversary. Congratulations! How did you two celebrate?

Thank you! We celebrated with a two-show day. We’ve had this tradition for several years now. We made a point to see as many shows as we could, so that weekend we went and saw The Robber Bridegroom and An Act of God. Then we saw American Psycho on its closing night. We want to see everything! It was a wonderful way to celebrate all weekend long because we don’t live here and I get so jealous that some shows close before we get a chance to see them. We’re always hearing friends talk about things and so we had a long list of shows we wanted to see. We loved each of those three shows. And Bright Star! Oh my gosh. Don’t even get me started on that.

Oh, I loved Bright Star!

I felt all the feels.

Yes, me too. Well, thank you so much, Diana. Is there anything you want to discuss that we didn’t cover?

I think the best thing for The Marvelous Wonderettes is that it’s a great show for anyone to come to. We take you on a trip down memory lane and we can give you a great lesson in some damn good music!

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Click here to purchase tickets to The Marvelous Wonderettes.

Originally published on PopBytes