TALKING “THE AGE OF INNOCENCE” WITH STAR SIERRA BOGGESS

SIERRA BOGGESS IS SINGING A NEW TUNE.

After catapulting to Broadway fame in 2007 as the titular character in The Little Mermaid, Boggess has spent the past decade cementing herself as a contemporary musical theater icon. Having originated roles in shows like Love Never DiesIt Shoulda Been You, and School of Rock, as well as appearing in Les MisérablesThe Secret Garden and several incarnations of The Phantom of the Opera, the soprano has become one of the most sought after vocalists of her generation. Even her role in Master Class had her singing throughout most of that production, despite the fact that the show was not a musical.

But just like Ariel, Boggess is now navigating a new challenge – not using her singing voice. In The Age of Innocence, adapted from the classic novel by Edith Wharton, she is showing off her acting range by performing in a straight play. As the free-spirited Countess Ellen Olenska, Boggess is playing a woman who has fled her unhappy marriage in Europe and returned home to New York in 1870. What ensues is a scandalous love triangle that explores class, the morals of society, and the power of human attraction.

I spoke with Boggess about working on The Age of Innocence, her passion for animal activism, returning to Broadway, her solo music, and much more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: Growing up, who or what were some of your biggest influences that made you want to pursue a career in theater?

SIERRA BOGGESS: Barbra Streisand! I have to always start with Barbra Streisand. She was my first role model in the theater. After I saw the film version of Hello Dolly, she continued to be a huge inspiration in my life forever. Julie Andrews made me want to do this as well.

As I grew up, on the spiritual side, I was influenced by people like Wayne Dyer, Marianne Williamson and Brené Brown – people who have helped me think about life. That sort of thinking helps me as an artist even more, instead of just in my small artist circle, if that makes sense.

You tend to perform in musicals over straight plays. Why did The Age of Innocence seem like the perfect fit for your latest theatrical endeavor?

When the project came up, I read the play and was immediately in love with it. I had never read the novel or seen the film before, but I understood the character of Ellen right away. I was really, really excited to try and sink my teeth into it!

The other thing was that the director of this production is Doug Hughes. I had just seen Junk at Lincoln Center, which he directed, and I was like, “Who directed this? This is so incredible!” All of a sudden, I saw that he was directing The Age of Innocence and I wanted to work with him so badly.

Douglas McGrath is the playwright for this – he adapted it for the stage. He is also extraordinary. It was just a whole experience of “I want to work with these people!” and I really wanted to play this part. Luckily, they cast me, so I feel happy!

Countess Ellen Olenska is often regarded as a fierce and independent woman who was far ahead of her time. As an actor, how do you think this character differs from your previous stage roles? What have been some highlights of bringing her to life?

Well, one thing is that she doesn’t sing everything, so that’s a major difference! I try to find myself and tell my truth in whatever character I’m playing. I haven’t even been thinking about how she is different because I think a lot of the characters I’ve played are actually quite fierce in their own ways.

What I love about bringing Ellen to life is that she is trying her best. She’s not coming into this world trying to be difficult. She’s just doing the best that she can with the tools that she’s been given, and that’s not good enough for the people that believe in New York society in 1870. She’s just bringing herself to the table and always trying to be accepted by being truthful and by being herself.

I think one of the most heartbreaking lines that she says is, “Does no one here want to know the truth?” That’s what’s been fascinating to play because it’s incredibly vulnerable. She’s a woman in this time, she is alone, she is thinking things that other people don’t think and doing things that other people don’t do. It’s not to be like, “Look at me, I dare to be different!” It’s more that she’s just trying to be her most honest and authentic self. I love that about her.

How much are you relying on the novel to find your interpretation of Ellen? Will this production explore your character in ways beyond what is known of her from the source material?

It does! Edith Wharton wrote so beautifully, but Doug McGrath has really smartly added some things into the play so that you are never confused about what someone is thinking or feeling. He pays such homage to her work and I think the viewers are going to be thrilled. It feels almost seamless. For example, you see how the love between my character and Newland happens – how almost accidental it is just because they’re being their authentic selves.

I was relying on the novel before I started rehearsal, just to help myself with research. What was great about that is Edith Wharton describes 1870 very vividly, so you know exactly what’s going on and what is expected of a person in society. That was very helpful. It’s been really interesting to do research about that time, especially since I’ve lived in New York for 15 years. Researching what New York was like then has just been so cool.

Edith Wharton became the first woman to ever receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction when she won for The Age of Innocence in 1921. Prior to signing onto this show, were you a fan of hers? What do you think it is about her work that has made it so timeless and such a staple of American literature?

Isn’t that so cool? I think it’s the honesty of how she speaks about that time that she was living in. In a way, it makes you feel sorry for her, because she was just so aware– if that makes sense.

I think she maybe feels herself in Ellen a little bit – where she can see that something doesn’t feel right and is wondering why no one is talking about what’s actually going on. There’s a great line that she wrote that’s also in our play, and it’s something like, “Knowing things makes people think that you don’t have to talk about what’s going on.” It’s basically saying that if we know something is happening, we don’t have to talk about it. But that actually creates loneliness!

To me, that’s what makes her so interesting. She’s commenting on her own society at the time when she’s living in it. Plus, the way she describes things and her use of language is just stunning. I mean, it’s got to be that.

Although it’s set during the Gilded Age, The Age of Innocence is still very relevant to contemporary audiences. Is there a primary takeaway that you hope audiences leave with after seeing this show?

Doug Hughes talked to us a bit about this when we started. He’s calling this sort of a memory play. It’s Newland’s memory of what this time was. I think that’s why it’s relevant, because people still have these types of pulls today. It’s called The Age of Innocence, but it’s almost like it’s about integrity. It forces us to ask if we are choosing things based on being right or on being kind? Do we do things based on our integrity, based on what our gut is telling us to do, or are we just freely doing what we want because it feels good for us? The play really makes us ask and wrestle with those questions. I hope people walk away thinking about that.

What I keep coming back to is the underlying river of integrity, and how deep and passionate love makes us feel invincible – but also crazy and psycho. If we can ground it in integrity, then we can sort of get our answers of what we’re supposed to do. I feel like I’ll become a better person just having done this play.

Do you have plans to remain involved with this play beyond its world premiere in Hartford? Are there plans for future regional productions and/or to bring it to Broadway?

Yes, there are! I don’t know what I’m allowed to say, but yes, there is definitely one other production happening that we know of.

On your website, you describe yourself as “an avid yogi, vegetarian, and animal rights activist.” What are some ways that you encourage people to help with animal rights activism and what is it about this cause that makes it so important to you?

I think that we’re their voices. There is nothing better on this planet than animals. They are all beings of love. I’ve even brought my cats with me to Hartford! Actually, a lot of the actors and people involved with the play also brought their cats and dogs. I think that’s so important! As actors, a lot of us have animals. They are always there to remind you that the present moment is all there is.

There’s nothing that breaks my heart more than people who abuse animals. All this stuff goes on, like trophy hunting. I love the Humane Society and think that they’re really great. They tend to always talk about the good things that they’re doing, as opposed to always inundating us with “look how bad people are abusing” or whatever. That positivity is very important to me.

Bernadette Peters on Broadway has come up with Broadway Barks. I love that somuch – being able to raise money, help animals, and promote an “adopt don’t shop” message, and stuff like that.

I hope to eventually have a platform big enough that I can make real changes for these amazing creatures that we have. I really believe that as humans, we’re supposed to take care of and protect them.

You created your “I Am Enough!” initiative as a way to engage with and help your fans/followers embrace their full potentials. Can you please elaborate a bit about what this initiative consists of and what your goals for it are?

When I was doing The Little Mermaid, I was getting a lot of mail from people. This was the start of fan mail for me, 10 years ago. It was funny because it wasn’t just, “Hey, I love you, can I get an autograph?” It was, “Here’s my life story.” People talked to me about all sorts of stuff – some were suicidal, some were dealing with self-harm, eating disorders, all kinds of stuff.

I realized people were writing to me because I was representing Ariel, a character who believes they were born in the wrong body or the wrong time. That realization was very deep for me. I think people often didn’t even realize that’s what they were connecting with. The same can be said about my Phantom of the Opera character, Christine Daaé. People were relating to this girl who is representing someone who loves the unlovable.

What I realized is I can’t write everyone back and fix everything that they were talking about. But what I cando is write simply, “You are enough! It’s unbelievable how enough you are.” To me, the idea that we are put on this planet is enough. It’s what we do with that trusting of our enough-ness that makes us go on many different journeys. I encourage everyone to start from the place of “I am enough! And now I can answer my questions of what I should do or who I am.”

As I was writing back, “Hey, whatever your name is, you are enough. Love, Sierra,” that in itself was enough. Now, it’s turned into this huge movement! I feel like it’s my responsibility to keep reminding people, as much as they need to, that we can start from that place. I think that will help us with a lot of different self-harm or disorders or things like that. It doesn’t necessarily fix anything, and those thoughts will often come because at the end of the day, we are human and self-doubt is there. But if I can help remind people of that, then that, to me, is good.

What’s amazing is when I’ve toured, even in places like Australia and Japan, I will start to say “You are enough!” and people in the audience will start saying it with me. I think it’s just incredible to see that message have that kind of reach all over the world. I love being associated with that as much as I love being associated with characters that I’ve played.

Last spring, I interviewed your friend and frequent collaborator, Ramin Karimloo. He mentioned that part of why he loves working with you is that the two of you have a shorthand and a real trust with one another. He said that in particular, working on The Secret Garden at Lincoln Center with you was a real highlight. From your perspective, what do you think it is that makes you such a captivating pair on stage? And what’s been your favorite collaboration with him so far?

It’s exactly what he said. We do have a shorthand and we do trust each other. We know how each other works, we know the things we each struggle with and the things we’re really good at. But at the core of it is trust. The first time that we met, there was an instant onstage chemistry within just minutes of meeting each other. That is very unique, I think. There was also something where we just got each other right away. That meeting was to do Love Never Dies in London, so I will always love and be sentimental about that, since it was our first collaboration.

Another favorite was the 25th anniversary of Phantom at Royal Albert Hall. I feel like we almost left our artistic souls on that stage with each other for a while. I felt like I was hungover after that experience. I wassofulfilled doing that with him. We just really trusted each other for that show. I’m glad that it was filmed because if ever in my life, I want to reflect on that time, then I will be able to. That was a very special night for us. It’s so cool that it was preserved.

Speaking of The Secret Gardenit’s been confirmed that Warren Carlyle will be directing and choreographing the first Broadway revival of the show later this year. Do you plan to be a part of that production in any way? If not, what type of show and/or role would you like to tackle next on the Great White Way? 

Well, I would love for The Age of Innocence to come to Broadway. I think that this is a play that people are ready for, especially in this time that we’re in. I really, really hope that we do get a chance to do this on Broadway. It would be nice to do another play on Broadway. The last time I did a play was Master Class, but that almost doesn’t feel like a play because I sang so much in it!

With The Secret Garden, I love that show. I make no secret about that. It’s one of my favorite scores. The revival will be a different production and different team than the one Ramin and I did at Lincoln Center, so I don’t know. I would be thrilled to be involved in that production, but regardless, I’m going to be thrilled because that score will get to be revived!

This year, there are multitudes of celebrations of Andrew Lloyd Webber – including (but not limited to) the release of his memoir and new retrospective album to the debut of a new musical revue to television specials and more. Having appeared in multiple iterations of The Phantom of the Opera and originating roles in both Love Never Dies and School of Rock, you’re often referred to as a muse of the iconic composer. What is it about your work together that keeps drawing you back to one another? And how are you planning to celebrate his landmark 70th birthday?

Well, I’m doing this play at the time of his actual birthday, but I will definitely be celebrating!

About us working together, I just love the way that he writes. I mean we alldo! His music is accessible to all of us. There’s also something about the Phantom score that I just never feel done with. He’s very special and I feel really lucky to have the relationship I have with him.

I’m thrilled that this year is celebrating so many aspects of his life. As long as I’m available to celebrate him, then I will be there. If I’m unavailable, I’ll still be celebrating. I’ll always just celebrate him!

And what a cool year for him! There are also the Alan Jay Lerner and Leonard Bernstein centennials, so there are a lot of big things happening this year.

In 2013, you released your debut solo album, Awakening: Live at 54 Below. Do you have any plans for a follow-up solo record?

I do, yes! I’m always talking with a friend of mine, who wants to produce it. It’s just figuring out the timing, but I definitely want to make another album. We’re always talking about it, and just trying to find the time.

As a child, you played the flute and were a competitive figure skater. If you weren’t a theater performer today, would you still be pursuing one of these passions or would you be doing something else?

I really did want to go to the Olympics. For a long time, I couldn’t even watch the ice skating portion of the Olympics because it was just too painful. It hurt so badly. But skating was such an expensive sport that we just couldn’t afford it anymore. I remember that being a huge heartbreak for me when I was younger, but yes, figure skating is what I would have definitely still pursued.

Springtime often sees the debuts of numerous new shows on Broadway and this year is no exception. Purely from the standpoint of a fan, what new show(s) are you most looking forward to seeing over the next few months?

Oh, well I’ve got to go see Carousel! That’s not a new show, but I have to see the new revival. My friend Lindsay Mendez is playing Carrie Pipperidge. I’m also really excited about Frozen!

Another show that opened this season that I really love is The Band’s Visit. It’s so powerful and I just loved it. It’s incredible! The woman who’s the lead in it, Katrina Lenk, is so amazing. Everybody in that show is. It’s so different than anything that I’ve seen, so I loved that. I recommend that show for all people.

What are some dream roles on your musical theater bucket list that you’d love to play?

It’s funny because with whatever role that comes up, I’m like, “Oh, that’s my dream! I didn’t know this was my dream!”

I think I want to do some revivals now, because that’s the stuff that I love and that made me want to do theater. I would really love to do Sweet Charity. I would actually also love to do Camelot, because I love that score so much. That score is just really incredible and I think that maybe people forget that. It’s due for a revival. But I’m up for whatever!

Thanks so much, Sierra! Is there anything else that you would like to talk about that we didn’t discuss?

I have to say that The Age of Innocence is really beautifully done. I can’t say enough about our director, Doug Hughes. I can’t think of anyone better to direct this piece. He is an absolute dream come true. He’s everything that I had heard about him and had dreamed about working with. What he’s done with this piece is really incredible.

And I also want to say how incredible the cast that I’m working with is. We just finished our first week of rehearsals, and are beginning to put it on stage here in Connecticut. We did a week of rehearsals last week in New York, and this is now the end of our second week. It’s one of those casts where we are all so lucky that we’re getting to work with each other. I’m really thrilled about that. They’re all such incredible actors, and specifically incredible play actors. They’re such a great team of people. I feel really honored to be among them.


 

CLICK HERE to purchase tickets for The Age of Innocence, playing at Hartford Stage in Connecticut from April 5 through May 6.


Originally published on PopBytes

TALKING “THE BAND’S VISIT” WITH STAR KATRINA LENK

KATRINA LENK IS QUICKLY CEMENTING HERSELF AS ONE OF BROADWAY’S PREMIER LEADING LADIES.

Katrina LenkDirectly following her scene-stealing role in last year’s critically acclaimed play, Indecent, Lenk is back on Broadway this season with The Band’s Visit. Based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same, the musical is composed by David Yazbek (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and features a book by Itamar Moses. It tells the story of an Egyptian Police Band who, after a mix-up at the border, are sent to a remote village in the middle of the Israeli desert. As these travelers get to know the locals that they’re stranded with overnight, what results is a beautiful character study about the deeply human ways that music, longing and laughter can connect us all.

Prior to its Broadway opening last November, The Band’s Visit debuted Off-Broadway. That production was decorated in accolades. Highlights included winning the 2017 Obie Award for Musical Theatre, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, the Outer Critics Circle Awards for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical, the Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Director, Outstanding Lyrics and Outstanding Music, and the Lucille Lortel Awards for Outstanding Musical and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical (for Lenk). Now, as this year’s Tony Awards season is gearing up, there is a lot of buzz for both the Broadway production and specifically for Lenk.

Lenk and I spoke about working onThe Band’s Visit, how traveling to Israel impacted her creative journey, the night that the Clinton family saw the show, her musical theater bucket list, and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: How influential was the original Israeli film in your creative process? What did you take away or choose to leave behind from it while discovering your interpretation of your character, Dina?

KATRINA LENK: Eran Kolirin’s film is extraordinary. I didn’t know of it beforehand, so when the audition came in, I watched it to get an idea of tone, style, dialect, etc., and became immediately enamored with it and with Ronit Elkabetz (the actress who played Dina). I only watched it one other time (maybe during callbacks); otherwise, there’d be the great temptation of just duplicating what I loved so much. There are several points in our show where we pay homage to the film, which makes me very happy.

What other forms of Israeli and/or Egyptian pop culture did you study in preparation for taking on this role?

This is still an ongoing process, which is marvelously delightful to my nerdy self. I’ve been watching Israeli films (there are so many available on Amazon!), obsessing over Israeli TV shows like Foudaand Srugim, reading Israeli fiction (particularly Etgar Keret), listening to Israeli talk radio, Israeli singers (like Yael Naim and Idan Raichel) and learning what Hebrew I can. I also watched the Egyptian movie, River of Love, other Omar Sharif films, (again, thank you internet!), and have been learning about Oum Khulthoum and Arabic music. My brilliant castmate, George Abud, has been teaching me some Oum Khulthoum and Farid songs, and about the form and traditions of classical Arabic music. It just keeps going and going – what a pleasure!

Have you ever personally been to Israel? If so, how did this trip influence your approach to the show?

American Airlines sponsored a trip to Israel with some of the cast and creative team just before we started rehearsals, which was an incredible privilege. I was already geeking out about the place, so to get to go there, stand on the sand in the Negev desert, feel the sun, the heat, the wind, eat that food, and be among the people, hanging out, sharing music and stories with them – what a gift!  It was an experience, and from experience comes deeper understanding, deeper empathy, and deeper respect. It made me fall even more in love. I hope that I have a deeper and richer well to pull from and to create from because of this trip – even though saying that makes me acutely aware that I don’t really know anything, truly. But I hope every little bit of information I gather adds to the well, somehow.

One of your solos, “Omar Sharif,” has been widely heralded as the musical’s biggest showstopper. The New York Daily Newseven recently wrote,“The greatest singer on Broadway today is Katrina Lenk, and the greatest song written for the stage in decades is ‘Omar Sharif’”. What do you think it is about this song that has made it resonate with critics and audiences at such a grand scale? 

Oh man! I don’t know that I agree with one half of that statement, but the other half—yes, indeed, I think “Omar Sharif” is an exquisite song. Yazbek. Yazbek. Yazbek. Yazbek. The song has a deceptive simplicity and such a pleasing, swirling melody. It sounds familiar somehow, but then goes some place unexpected. Even now after singing it many times, I’m still delighted and surprised by the little shifts happening in it. I’m thrilled people are responding to it. I’m thrilled I get to sing it. “Thrilled” isn’t a good enough word. I also salute our brilliant orchestrator, Jamshied Sharifi, who made these songs come alive so beautifully, using Arabic instruments like the oud and darbuka, and our soulful and ridiculously talented musicians. And Andrea Grody, our musical director, whose sensitivity and keen ear make all of this come together.

The cast recording recently became available via Ghostlight Records. What was it like translating Yazbek’s music and lyrics from the stage to the studio? And did these recording sessions impact how you perform on stage?

We are all so happy to get to share this beautiful music with people! It was quite exciting to get to record these songs, to get to hear all the music, all the parts and all the voices up close and in my ears. Witnessing everyone working together in the studio on something they all love is … well, it got me in the ol’ cockles. It was a wonderful thing to be a part of. It all happened very quickly right after we opened, and now seems so long ago. I’d say they don’t necessarily impact how I perform on stage. But every once in a while, a tiny thought will pop in my head that says, “There are people in the audience who might know this song!” And how amazing is THAT?

How have both the show and your character evolved from the Off-Broadway production to the version now playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre?

Well, it’s a bit difficult to talk about a show while you’re inside of it, but people who saw both productions have said it’s like a fully bloomed version of the small blossom that was Off-Broadway. The set has expanded and the band has expanded. We’ve tightened up and clarified things. The story and the world is both bigger and more specific.

The Band's Visit

You were also part of the original Off-Broadway and Broadway casts of the play, Indecent, which closed just three months before The Band’s Visit opened. What was it like working on these two vastly different productions back-to-back?

Getting to work was AMAZING. Getting to work again was INCREDIBLE. Getting to work on two shows in a row that you love was HEAD EXPLODING, WHAT THE HELL AM I DREAMING?!

What has been the highlight of your experience acting opposite Tony Shalhoub (who plays your love interest) in the show?

I can safely say that every moment acting opposite Tony Shalhoub is a highlight. He is generous and funny and disciplined and truthful and present and vulnerable and still is searching and wondering and playing. Plus, he drinks my whiskey. We’re friends for life.

Recently, Hillary, Bill and Chelsea Clinton came to see the show. Did you know that they would be in the audience that night? What words did you exchange to one another backstage afterwards?

I think I blacked out! Words came out of my mouth but I don’t what they were. Hillary was saying something warm and funny and then Bill was making a joke about Chet Baker, and I was smiling so hard that I couldn’t see. Thank god there are photos – otherwise, did it even happen? I don’t know.

As an independent musician, you tackle all sorts of genres as a violist, vocalist, songwriter,arranger, and producer. How would you define yourself as a solo artist?

Crazy!

You’ve guest-starred on numerous television shows, including Will & GraceElementaryThe Good Fight, and recent Golden Globe-winner, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. As an actor, is the stage or the screen your preferred medium and why?  

I like them each for their own qualities. Both mediums scare and challenge me. I like the process of theater, the group discovery effort of rehearsal, and the parameters and immediacy of a live performance. On screen, I relish the careful attention to detail, subtlety, reality and the kind of expansiveness that can happen. And I realize as I’m saying this that all of those qualities are also what I like about doing The Band’s Visit. It feels a lot like acting for the camera while also on stage.

On your days off, what’s something you love to do to recharge before another 8-show week?

Usually, I spend the day catching up on all the chores I haven’t done. You know – romance and glamour. I also do love going see friend’s shows when I can. It’s a great pleasure watching people I love do what they love.

Having already originated two Broadway roles in the span of just two years, what are some other items on your theatrical bucket list that you hope to check off?

Bucket list?! Oh dear. I don’t have a list. I love creating things and telling stories so I just want to create more things and tell more stories … and I guess I need a bucket!


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to see The Band’s Visit, now playing on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City. And CLICK HERE to purchase the cast recording, now available via Ghostlight Records.

The Band's Visit

Originally published on PopBytes

GETTING “OBSESSED” WITH LENA HALL

IF YOU’RE NOT OBSESSED WITH LENA HALL YET, 2018 IS GOING TO CHANGE THAT.

Lena Hall Obsessed: HedwigKnown for effortlessly blending the worlds of Broadway and rock-and-roll, Hall is kicking off this year with a groundbreaking and hugely ambitious creative endeavor. The first Friday of each month in 2018 will mark the release of a new EP in her Obsessed series on all digital and streaming platforms. Each of these EPs will pay homage to a different musical act/artist that has shaped Hall into the extraordinary performer that she is today. And what’s more, the 37-year-old will release a music video every single week of the year to accompany all 54 songs that will appear across the span of the 12 Obsessed EPs.

This month, Hall launched Obsessed with a tribute to Hedwig And The Angry Inch, the landmark rock musical for which she won a Tony Award and received a Grammy Award nomination. I spoke with the theater icon about her creative process, the various musicians she’s covering, her upcoming tour, her new film and television roles, returning to Broadway, and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: How did you come up with the Obsessed series and what made you decide to release these EPs on an unprecedented, monthly basis? 

LENA HALL: I did a show at the Café Carlyle (in NYC) with Michael C. Hall called “Obsessed – Radiohead.” It was such a hit that I wanted to make it a series of concerts that highlighted one artist per concert. I decided that an album series was a good way to tie in the “Obsessed” concert idea and give fans around the world access to the shows in some way.

Around the same time, I did a series of videos for Complex.com called “Stripped,” where I released one video per week for 20 weeks. This was a way to give fans content and the feeling that I was singing live for them in their living room. Kurt Deutsch of Ghostlight/SKB Records came to me and offered to do a formal release for my next Obsessed album, which was announced as Hedwig.

After a meeting with Kurt and Kevin Gore, we all decided to combine the ideas of the Obsessed albums and concerts and the “Stripped” videos to make it a yearlong series. We concluded that a good way to keep people interested in the series was to do one artist per month, with the EP coming out at the beginning of the month and the sister videos coming out every week that month in support of it. Each EP (except for Hedwig) matched the month it’s released. Some EPs have four songs and some have five depending on how many Fridays are in each month.

Are all of these EPs meant to be standalone pieces or is there a larger narrative linking them to one another?

There is no larger narrative other than these are all artists I love and want to introduce to a brand new fanbase. These albums and videos are a love letter to each of these artists and bands. My personal favorites! This is just the first 12. I hope to do multiple seasons of this series!

Are you recording straight covers of the songs you’re featuring or are you reinterpreting them somehow? What does that creative process consist of?

It depends on the song. Some songs are very close, where the only difference is my own vocal interpretation. Others have been reimagined. I wanted to focus on what made the song stick out to me. The lyrics, or the chord progressions or simply the way it was sung. Sometimes I cover a song the artist covered. A cover of a cover. In this case, I did that to illustrate how someone else’s genius interpretation of a song made it iconic.

Why was Hedwig the natural choice to launch this series with? How did your experience playing the show’s titular character on its national tour (in addition to reprising your Tony-winning performance as Yitzhak) impact your approach to these beloved songs?   

We started with Hedwig because it has had the biggest impact on my life. From the first time that I saw the show and heard the album to playing Yitzhak and winning a Tony Award to finally playing Hedwig! There is no show on Earth that has had such an impact on my life. The original Off-Broadway cast recording was something I listened to, on repeat, trying to sing along wishing the songs were in my key!

The artists you’re covering include such varying acts as Elton John, Nirvana, Pink, David Bowie, and Radiohead (to name just a few). How did you go about selecting the musicians you’ll be paying homage to?

These are all artists that are markers of different stages in my life. They bring up strong memories of experiences that have shaped me into the person I am today.

Once you’ve selected the artist(s) you’ll be focusing on for each EP, how do you go about narrowing down the songs in their respective discographies to decide which ones you’ll be recording? 

I selected a few hits but also wanted to cover some of the songs that spoke to me that were more B-sides, the songs I listened to on repeat that rarely got airplay. It will hopefully inspire the listener to dig deeper into each artist’s catalogue.

Which of the series’ upcoming EPs do you think your fans will be most surprised to hear? 

I’m not sure. I think the artists themselves are a very eclectic bunch. Each one will be a surprise to someone, except for maybe Hedwig. I don’t think anyone is surprised by that choice!

You’ve also created performance music videos for all 54 songs in this series. As a performer, what role do these videos play in your Obsessed journey?

I wanted a way for fans who can’t get to my live shows to have some kind of connection to me.

Vocally and creatively, what have been the biggest challenges in the recording of this series? 

Recording the entire series in 8 days! That was the biggest challenge. To give you an idea of what that meant, we recorded from 11 A.M. – 7 P.M. for 8 consecutive days and we did about 3 takes per song, give or take. That means I sang a total of about 162 songs in 8 days. At the same time, we filmed the entire recording session for the YouTube videos.

When do you plan to release full details about your upcoming tour in support of Obsessed? And what can your fans expect from these live shows, beginning with your Rockwood Music Hall Stage show in New York at the end of January? 

We should have a full concert schedule out soon! For now, I am planning to do one show at the end of every month to celebrate that month’s artist and tease the next artist. I will also take fan requests to play some favorites from the past Obsessed albums. Hopefully, I will be able to tour most of the U.S. and Canada, as well as Europe (schedule permitting).

If another performer were to release an Obsessed: Lena Hall EP in the future, what would be on it? How do you think this musician could best capture your essence and artistry within a handful of covers? 

I’m hoping I will have some original solo material in the near future for them to cover! I would be interested to see how someone like me would influence a new artist.

Do you have any plans to return to the Broadway stage anytime soon? If not, what type of production/role would entice you to come back? 

I hope to return to Broadway very soon! Whatever it is, I will be 100% passionate about the project and I will put my heart and soul into it every single night!

Becks (which hits theaters and VOD February 9) marks the first movie in which you’re playing a leading role. What are you most excited about for when your fans see this film? 

I am excited for fans to see me in a much more intimate setting. The film is more up close and personal. I love this movie and all it stands for as well as the soundtrack. Hopefully people will relate deeply with the character I play and with the themes. We are very proud of it already winning at the L.A. Film Festival and getting such critical praise prior to the release!

Later this year, you’ll also be making your debut as a television series regular on the new TNT dystopian thriller Snowpiercer, alongside Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs. What can you tease about your character, Sayori? And how will the series differ from/build upon the world introduced in the acclaimed 2013 film of the same name that it’s based on?

I can’t say much about the project because I want something to be a surprise. But I will say that, to me, Sayori is the most interesting character on the show and is the type of role I have been dying to play. The TV show will focus more on the class wars that occur within the train.

Thank you so much, Lena! I can’t wait for the remainder of the Obsessed EPs and to see you on both the big and small screens this year. Is there anything else that you’d like to add that we didn’t talk about? 

Nothing to add other than I am looking forward to getting everyone’s feedback on all my projects in 2018! Thank you!

Originally published on PopBytes

INTERVIEW WITH “MISS SAIGON” STAR EVA NOBLEZADA

EVA NOBLEZADA IS A GIRL NO MORE.

When she was just 17, Noblezada landed the coveted role of Kim in Miss Saigon after a casting director heard her sing at the 2013 National High School Musical Theatre Awards (a.k.a the Jimmy Awards). Less than five years later, the now 21-year-old star is in the midst of wrapping up her truly sensational and Tony-nominated run in the Broadway revival of the musical (which closes January 14).

As if that’s not enough, Noblezada is also kicking off her 2018 with the final performances of her acclaimed solo concert, “Girl No More.” For the Filipino/Mexican-American singer, alternating between a Broadway stage and an intimate concert venue (NYC’s Green Room 42) have culminated in her dreams of becoming both a musical theater actor and a solo musician coming true.

I chatted with Noblezada as she reflected on her time in Saigon, what to expect from her solo concerts, her recent marriage, what she plans to do next, and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: Miss Saigon closes this month. Looking back at the show’s Broadway run, was there a specific performance that was your favorite?

EVA NOBLEZADA: No favorites. Just a lot of happy memories on and offstage. Opening night was special. Having my family and fiancé (at the time) in the audience and seeing their faces during bows was a heartfelt and incredible moment. I’ll never forget it! But doing the show day to day – even when it did seem like a grind – is just special in general. We have so many laughs!

What are your plans after the show closes? Where and when can your fans come to see you next?

I can’t say, as I’m not too sure. All I know is I’m excited about the little break I get. I’m excited to get away and revitalize myself!

Before the revival came to Broadway, you starred in the West End production of Saigon. What did you find to be the biggest differences between your experiences with this show in London and in New York?

I find the audiences different. Good different! In England, stage door sometimes isn’t a thing! So that was a change here, having gates and large crowds! Other than that, I find it’s really similar.

Since its 1989 debut, Miss Saigon has been revered as a contemporary musical theater classic. What do you think it is about this show that has captivated so many millions of people worldwide for the past nearly three decades?

Miss Saigon is a timeless story. It can be put in any backdrop of culture or setting and it’d still be beautiful. Also, you listen to the incredible music and that alone is a show! It breaks people’s hearts and transforms the environment with romance and passion … and lots of belting.

You also played a short run as Éponine in the West End production of Les Misérables. What is it about the music of Claude-Michel Schönberg that continues to draw you to his musicals?

Eight months isn’t too short! Well what’s not to love? His music in inspiring. Not to mention, I’ve wanted to play Eponine since I was a little girl.

In May 2016, you made your Carnegie Hall debut by performing “The Movie In My Mind” alongside Lea Salonga, who originated the role of Kim. How influential was Salonga when you were discovering your own interpretation of this iconic and complex character? And what’s the best advice that she ever gave you?

What a day to remember! I never saw Lea. I wasn’t even born! And I didn’t want to watch her Kim in fear that I would unconsciously take things from her brilliant performance. I started with a fresh page. No pre-conceptions. Nothing. Just the music, script and incredible cast next to me to help guide my young Kim through the ropes. Lea is legendary. Not only her voice but in character. What’s amazing about Lea is that she knows exactly how it is to be thrust into this role. Sometimes I have questions and just text her and she’s so honest. She really is an inspiration and idol.

You got married this past November. Congratulations! What has been the biggest highlight of newlywed life so far?

Thank you! I’m the luckiest woman alive! Just having him in my life. Even though a lot of the relationship is long distance. Our time together, even if not physically, is special and gets better every day. He’s an incredible, incredible person.

What was the defining moment in your life when you realized you wanted to pursue being a stage actor as a career?

I can’t say defining, but as a young girl I never shut up. I was always singing and wanting to perform for people!

Miss Saigon marked your Broadway debut, for which you received a Tony Award nomination. What did this type of industry recognition mean to you?

The Tonys was a crazy time. I learned so much more than I thought possible. The recognition for the show was more important for me. The day of course was special. Honestly, I wasn’t harnessing energy in winning. I was there to enjoy a day that I never thought possible in celebration of an amazing cast and the mini career I had made for myself.

On your nights off from Miss Saigon, you’ve been performing your solo concert, “Girl No More,” at The Green Room 42. Where does this concert’s name come from?

It is cheesy! But I just thought, “Hey, there are a lot that people don’t know about me.” It kind of stuck out.

What aspects of yourself as a performer are you able to display in this concert format that fans of yours might not have seen in Saigon?

Everything! I’m a character in Saigon. I’m playing a role that isn’t Eva. At my concert, I’m Eva. I’m myself. I sing whatever I want to sing and say whatever I want to say. They’re two different freedoms I can express on the Broadway stage and on a small stage. Both are important and both I’m in love with.

In “Girl No More” (which has been extended regularly since its fall 2017 debut), you sing quite a wide range of music. You cover artists like Frank Sinatra and Amy Winehouse and sing the signature songs of musical theater characters such as Elphaba, Sally Bowles, and Yentl, to name a few. How did you go about curating the set list for this show?

I had SO much fun putting together this set list. It was so easy too! I sat down with my brilliant Musical Director, Rodney, and continued to add song after song that I remember singing in my closet as a teenager. And every time I get to sing it, it fills me with so much joy!

Has “Girl No More” inspired you to want to release your own solo music? If so, what would that sound like and when can your fans expect to be able to hear/purchase it?

Yes and no. When I do release my own music, it’ll be when I have the time to. I am desperate to start a new chapter in my life.

Who are some of your biggest influences as both a solo vocalist and a musical theater performer?

Sutton Foster. My family. Amy Winehouse. And whoever I work with!

There have been long-gestating rumors that a film adaptation of Miss Saigon is in the works. Aside from yourself, who are some actors that you would like to see play Kim on screen?

I don’t care who it is. I will say this – there are too many beautiful Asian actors that don’t need a “name” to be in it. It needs to be someone who can tell the story honestly, as her own, and sing the shit out of it.

What are your musical theater dream roles?

Off the top of my head? Jeez. I would love to do something like Chicago – or play a man or something.

Thank you so much, Eva! I was so blown away by your performance in Saigon and I truly can’t wait to see what you do next. Is there anything that you’d like to add that we didn’t discuss?

Thanks so much for taking the time! I would like to add, for anyone out there who is aspiring to be an actor/performer, being on Broadway will not define you. Know exactly who the hell you are. Your biggest strength will be filtering the bullshit (this includes people) who will want to shape you and change you into someone you’re not. Know who you are. Don’t be afraid to say no. Stop comparing yourself to everyone else. Take care of your body. Put people in your life who really love/tough love you. And come see Saigon!


Miss SaigonCLICK HERE to purchase tickets to see Eva Noblezada in Miss Saigon, now through January 14 only!

And CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Eva’s solo concert, “Girl No More.”

Originally published on PopBytes

TALKING “CRUEL INTENTIONS: THE MUSICAL” WITH STAR LAUREN ZAKRIN

Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical Experience

Lauren ZakrinLAUREN ZAKRIN IS READY TO SHOW YOU HER DARK SIDE.

Fresh off playing the titular character’s understudy in Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, the Michigan-raised actress’ newest project is taking her deep into a corrupt world of secrets, seduction, and deception. As the dangerous and manipulative Kathryn Merteuil in Cruel Intentions: The Musical, Zakrin is transforming from an ingénue to a villain.

After two sold out runs in Los Angeles, Cruel Intentions: The Musical has arrived in New York City for a limited engagement (through February 19, 2018). Opening December 11th, the show is based on the 1999 cult-classic motion picture of the same name. Created by Jordan RossLindsey Rosin and the film’s director, Roger Kumble, this stage adaptation features a compilation of throwback hits, including some of the best-known tracks from the movie’s legendary soundtrack – including Counting Crows’ “Colorblind” and The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.”

I spoke with Zakrin about getting to be a “bad guy” for the first time, her connection to the show’s source material, performing some of the biggest songs of the ‘90s, her musical theater dream roles, and more.

Cruel Intentions: The Musical

ALEX NAGORSKI: Growing up, were you a fan of the movie? What’s your first or favorite memory about the effect it had on you?

LAUREN ZAKRIN: I was absolutely a fan! And I hate to admit it, but I was on Team Kathryn. I don’t know what it says about me as a person, but the darkness and the power of her character fascinated me. I think I might have been a little young for it, so the movie felt like this dirty little secret that I hadn’t quite figured out yet.

Cruel Intentions: The MusicalAside from the movie itself, where/who else are you drawing inspiration from to shape your interpretation of Kathryn?

I think it would be easy to point the finger and say that I am drawing inspiration from girls who were unkind to me in high school, and of course I do. But it’s much more juicy to find the Kathryn that already lives within me. Even if she has never come out before, I think we all have a little Kathryn Merteuil inside, whether or not we would like to admit it.

Have you had an opportunity to meet and/or speak with Sarah Michelle Gellar (who played Kathryn in the film) about this role?

Unfortunately, I have not met Queen SMG. However, I have heard that she attended the show while it was running in LA! Everyone says she was lovely, and very supportive. If I do get to meet her, my inner Buffy-obsessed pre-teen self will probably freak out.

Kathryn and her stepbrother Sebastian have – to put it mildly – quite an unconventional relationship. How have you and your co-star Constantine Rousouli found the balance between passion and revenge that these two characters force one another to endure?

Cruel Intentions: The MusicalConstantine and I were fortunate enough to walk into the process already knowing each other. Nine years ago, we toured together in Legally Blonde, my very first job! It has been helpful to have a bit of history and trust in the bag when diving into a relationship as complicated as Kathryn and Sebastian’s. Everything else between our characters just seems to be falling into place. There is a natural flirtation and playfulness between us. We know how to poke fun at each other. And we also know when the other one needs support. Constantine has also already been on the Cruel Intentions ride for a couple of years now, and it’s been wonderful to have him holding my hand and guiding me through the world! It doesn’t hurt that he is devilishly handsome, either.

As an actor, how does getting to play a villain differ from some of your previous characters in musicals such as Wicked and Grease?

Kathryn is my very first villain, my first “mean girl.”  In the beginning, I was intimidated by her darkness, but now … I LOVE IT. I find it very therapeutic to expose all of the facets of her to an audience.

The film was based on the novel Dangerous Liaisons (which was also turned into a movie). What do you think it is about this story that has allowed it to live on in so many incarnations and mediums?

Everyone is capable of darkness. I think telling a story that exposes the ugliness of human nature, the selfishness, the jealously, the desire and the cruelty not only forces us to address the unkindnesses in the world around us and why they are happening, but to also acknowledge our own thoughts and actions. It forces us to address our own capabilities towards good and evil. Everyone has dirty little secrets and fantasies, and perhaps everyone has done a thing or two that they aren’t proud of … but pretending otherwise isn’t helpful, nor is slapping a quick label on it. We must address it and examine it, and find the why. I think these stories allow us to take the look that we might be too afraid to do on our own.

The musical is filled with some of the biggest hits of the 90’s – including songs by artists like Britney Spears, No Doubt, R.E.M., Christina Aguilera and Jewel. As a performer, how do you go about re-contextualizing these iconic songs within a musical theater narrative?

As a performer, you must strive to make each song as story driven as possible. Of course, when these songs drop in the show, the audience loves it. There is a lot of laughter and hooting and singing along, which is exactly how it should be. But as the storytellers, we have to try to resist falling into the trap of the joke. The song’s nostalgia is the joke, but the performance of it is not. That’s the only way to maintain the integrity of the story itself, while weaving in these fun 90’s hits.

The show takes place at renowned downtown Manhattan venue (le) Poisson Rouge, complete with bar and table service. How does performing in this type of nightlife environment contrast from being on stage in a more traditional theater?

Cruel Intentions: The MusicalAfter doing The Great Comet of 1812 in a tent in the Meatpacking District, I have found that I really thrive in a more interactive environment. I think we have this wonderful opportunity to push the boundaries and change the shape of how theater can be done or seen. Cruel Intentions is meant to be a dirty, wicked little party, so it fits perfectly into Le Poisson Rouge’s rock-and-roll world. It’s the perfect place to have a drink in your hand and be singing along to Ace of Base.

You made your Broadway debut in 2014 as Sherrie in Rock of Ages, a musical about the 1980s. Now that Cruel Intentions has taken you to the following decade, do you have more fun reliving and exploring the ‘80s or ‘90s through your work? 

was a child of the 90s, so revisiting them still brings me a little bit of shame when I have to look at some of my fashion and music choices. Doing something like Rock of Ages really let me feel like I was diving into another world that I got to learn about and explore.

You’ve been very vocal on social media about the absurdity, cruelty and chaos that defines our current presidential administration. Is it your hope that stepping into the nostalgia-tinged 90’s world of this immersive musical experience will provide audience members with a temporary pass for true escapism? Or are there larger lessons/takeaways that you’re hoping the audience leaves with?

I think we absolutely have an opportunity to comment on the current climate, and to point at things that may or may not have changed socially and politically. There are moments for escapism, but it is always a shame when the opportunity is missed to create change.  As I mentioned, I hope this story, at the very least, allows people to honestly observe, address, and examine the unkindnesses and cruelties within them and in the world around them.

I was fortunate enough to catch your phenomenal turn as Natasha in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 this past summer opposite Oak Onaodowan and Ingrid Michaelson. What were your thoughts/feelings on the show’s abrupt and controversial closing?

Thank you for your kind words! All I can say is that Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 has been the most rewarding and beautiful experience of my professional life, and I miss it every day!

In addition to Cruel Intentions, you’ve been a part of several other movie-to-musical adaptations – including Legally BlondeCatch Me If You Can, and Flashdance. In your experience, what are both the most rewarding and challenging aspects of bringing such beloved films to life on stage?

It is always helpful to begin a project that already has a built-in fan base. However, there can be some challenges in navigating how to maintain the things that people love about the movie while keeping the stage adaptation fresh and relevant. While we want to stay true to all of the iconic moments people are dying to see, it is important to know when change is necessary to best tell the story today. It is also important to avoid the trap of replicating or imitating a performance. The characters need to remain truthful in our bodies, and our interpretations of them grounded in honesty.

What is your musical theater dream role?

Natasha in The Great Comet of 1812. Christine in Phantom of the Opera. Clara in The Light in the Piazza. Marilyn Monroe. Or better yet, something new and all my own!

CLICK HERE to purchase tickets for Cruel Intentions: The Musical, playing now through February 19, 2018 at (le) Poisson Rouge in New York City.

Originally published on PopBytes