INTERVIEW: TALKING SAPPY SONGS WITH ALAN CUMMING

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Alan Cumming isn’t just one of the busiest artists in Hollywood. He’s also one of the most versatile.

Highlights from the past year alone have found the 51-year-old Scotsman co-hosting the Tony Awards, reprising his own Tony Award-winning role as the Emcee in the Broadway revival of Cabaret, garnering his third Emmy and second Golden Globe nominations for his co-starring role on CBS’ The Good Wife, publishing a New York Times bestselling memoir, and touring the country with his latest live musical act, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs. And he’s far from slowing down.

Hitting stores this Friday, Cumming’s second solo album will preserve this critically adored live show. Gearing up for a concert celebration at New York’s Carnegie Hall next week, Cumming chatted with me about his music, books, creative process, what’s in store for The Good Wife, and much more.

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ALEX NAGORSKI: Firstly, what’s your definition of a “sappy song” and how did you curate the track-list for this record?

ALAN CUMMING: I suppose a sappy song for me is a song that gets me emotional. There needs to be a story in it or it needs to have something that I can connect with and that can really make me feel. So that was really why I chose these songs. The year that I was doing Cabaret on Broadway again, my friends and I would play a lot of different music in my dressing room. A lot of the songs I sing on this album and in this concert are songs that I heard for the first time then. Many of the songs are by artists that I never thought I would like or are songs that one could be a little snippy about. But actually, there’s something about them that really resonates with me. All of the songs are songs that I really like, but I also feel that I add something new to them with my interpretations. Otherwise there’s no point in me just singing a nice song. Anyone could do that and there are plenty of people who can do it a lot better than I can.

As a musician, how do you feel you’ve evolved between this album and your previous release, I Bought A Blue Car Today?

I think I’ve found my voice a little bit more. I got better at adjusting songs and I know which songs are more suited to me. Over these years of performing, I’ve grown to understand my musical aptitude a bit better. I think I’ve zoned in on what I’m good at.

One of my personal favorites on the album is “Someone Like The Edge of Firework,” which you had previously released as a standalone single. What inspired you to mash up the songs that make this one up?

Years ago, I was in a club and the DJ played all three of those songs (Adele’s “Someone Like You, Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory” and Katy Perry’s “Firework”) consecutively. I remember thinking that they all kind of sounded the same. They’re all the fucking same! I loved the idea of that and I really like all those songs. I realized that just because so much of our culture is repetitive, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just the way it is. And I actually like it! I love the reaction that song gets when I do it. Everybody freaks out, so I of course really enjoy that. And it’s just nice singing all those songs because it does makes you think, “Wow, they are all the same. They’re all the same structure.”

If you had to only sing one song every day for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

Oh my God! That’s like Survivor with my album. One song?! That would be horrible! There’s a song that I made up that I sing to my dog when it’s lunch time. I’d probably sing that because it’s fun and would also be useful. As for off the album? Gosh, this is Sophie’s Choice. I don’t know! Maybe “Somewhere Only We Know,” originally by Keane. I’m pretty sure I might do that one.

Next week, you’ll be celebrating the release of the album with a concert at Carnegie Hall, where you’ll be joined by friends like Kristin Chenoweth, Darren Criss, and Ricki Lake. How do you think performing these songs on such a large, iconic stage will be different than performing them in an intimate venue like the Café Carlyle where the album was recorded?

Well, I mean obviously there are some technical differences when it’s a bigger space like that, and you’ve got to bolt up the show a bit. But, you know, I’ve been touring Sappy Songs since the Café Carlyle residency. I’ve mostly been touring on weekends (because of shooting The Good Wife) all over America. And over the holidays, I was actually in Australia doing a concert there too. So I have been at much bigger venues with it already. It was kind of funny going back to the Carlyle to record the album this past December. Suddenly being back there, where it’s like 100 seats, it’s kind of a shock to your system just in terms of the acoustics and the amount of people in the room. But what I realized is that it doesn’t really matter what the number of people or the size of the venue are. It’s actually just about making a connection with people. You can do that in a huge venue and luckily I’m not worried about that. I kind of realized over the last six months doing it in so many different theaters that are so many different sizes that it’s just about me committing and being prepared to be vulnerable and open. That’s what does it, not the size of the venue.

At this concert, will you be exclusively performing music from the new record, or do you plan on adding in some oldies or surprises as well?

There will be a couple of surprises! There will certainly be a few because the show will be divided into two halves. I’ve obviously also got some guests joining me, so I’m going to be singing a little bit of stuff with them as well. So yes, some of my greatest hits will be appearing! Basically, it’ll be Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs but with a couple of little changes here and there.

You’ve already accomplished so much in your career. You’ve acted on screen and on stage. You’ve published a memoir and a novel. You’ve had your own photo exhibition and award-winning fragrance. You even have your own line of kitchen products at Fish’s Eddy, and the list goes on and on. With the release of this new album, what creative itch does making music scratch for you that these other forms of artistic expression don’t?

It’s not really like that for me. I think it’s all the same. Everything I do is all the same. I’m just telling stories and I’m just trying to express myself as a person. I’m an actor and I play other people all the time but a lot of my work is also about me. I put a lot of my personality and my life into the books and this record and into my work. I view myself as a storyteller and I use many different forms to tell those stories. In a way, I think this record is kind of the purest form of that because I’m sharing a lot of stuff and quite intimate things about my own life and my own experiences in it. It’s kind of the perfect fusion to be an actor and tell other people’s stories and then also have an outlet to tell my own stories at the same time. This record and this version of this show includes so much of what I’ve been doing in my work for a long, long time. So it scratches a lot of itches, if you will.

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One of the things that I thought made Not My Father’s Son such a captivating read was how brutally honest and vulnerable you were when describing your journey of discovering your own self-worth. Has the reaction from readers to such a personal story been similar or different than what you imagined it’d be when you were writing it?

The reactions were actually hugely surprising to me. I’m still nervous about it because you’re really putting yourself out there with something like that. I was nervous about how my mom and my brother were going to be affected. But what I didn’t bargain for was the really incredible response from people who said, “Your book has enabled me to deal with things in my family or talk to one of my parents” or “It’s actually inspired me to be honest in telling my story.” I know for sure that you can come out with something and never say, “I think I’ve really inspired a lot of people to do things in their lives that they were otherwise too scared to do.” So that has been truly amazing. I didn’t really envision that but I don’t know how I could have. It’s been really overwhelming in an amazing way and that’s been a really beautiful thing about it.

That’s incredible. You’re also working on a third book at the moment. What can you tell me about that?

Yeah! I’m not quite sure what I’m going to call it yet but it’s a book of stories and photographs I’ve taken over the years. In a way, it’s another memoir-ish type of book, in that it’s all things about my life and stuff that’s happened to me. But this time, it’s done in a way either inspired by a photo or there was a photo taken at the time I’m talking about or that is connected to it in some way. Because of that format, I’m actually getting to tell far more stories. It’s got a lighter tone than my last book. It’s full of little stories and fun montages and photos I’ve taken in New York City, as well as longer stories about certain things. I’m really looking forward to seeing how it all comes together. The book will be coming out in September.

I can’t wait to read it! Eli Gold, your character on The Good Wife, recently revealed a major secret to Alicia (Julianna Margulies) that viewers have watched him keep for years. How will the ramifications of this confession continue to play out in the coming episodes and is there anything else you can tease that fans can look forward to in the rest of this season?

Well, she’s obviously hurt. It’s funny because the night that we recorded the album was the same night that that episode aired. I told the audience what happens and even said in the show, “Tomorrow I could be the most hated man in America.” It’s interesting because people were wondering why Eli would tell her that now. What he told her about happened so long ago that maybe people had forgotten about it. So what’s been lovely is that Eli has been getting sympathy from a lot of viewers as well now that he’s finally come clean. I find that really fascinating. In terms of what happens, Alicia’s of course not going to just go back to normal straightaway. It takes a little while. But there will be a rapprochement. They do become friends again. Thank god!

Phew! What attracted you to Florent, the upcoming Showtime dark comedy about New York restaurateur, Florent Morellet, which you’ll be starring in?

I hope I’m going to be starring in it! It’s still kind of in the early, early stages but I’m very hopeful that this is going to be something that is in my future. In a fun way, Florent the man and Florent the restaurant are this kind of gateway to New York over the decades. He opened his restaurant in the 1980’s and the Meatpacking District has changed so radically since then. So has New York actually. His story of being a gay man during that time obviously was a rocky road and with various tragedies and triumphs. He is an incredible force of nature. I don’t know if you’ve ever met him but he’s just a bundle of energy and a kind of supernova. And so I just thought it was really great focusing on how one person and one restaurant could be so important to such a big city. I actually used to go there to eat. When I first moved to New York, I lived in the West Village a couple of blocks away from there, and I would go frequently. It was when the Meatpacking District literally had blood in the streets.

Oh wow. Speaking of New York, is there any chance that we’ll see you on Broadway again any time soon?

I hope so! I don’t have any concrete plans right now but I’m always trying to come back to the theater. I’ve got some things I’m talking about, but it won’t be for a while. Maybe I’ll do something in 2017, but I’ve got too many other plans for this year.

You’ve played so many diverse characters throughout your career. Out of them all, is there one that you think is the most similar to you personally?

I don’t know! I mean, I don’t really play characters who are like me. I think a lot of the bigger characters I’ve played, the more extravagant people, are what people tend to think I’m maybe like. That’s not true. I once did a movie where I played a taxi driver who was a nice, lovely guy, and he kind of sounded and looked like me, but he wasn’t me at all. In a funny way, I suppose Florent might be the closest. He’s someone who came to New York and has a great lust for life and has a real eclectic taste in people and things.

I know you’re an O.B.E. (Office of the British Empire), but if hypothetically, you were running for President in 2016, what would your campaign slogan be?

Holy shit! That’s a good question. It would be, “Shut Up, Stupid People!!” Definitely with two exclamation points.

Thanks so much for chatting, Alan!

Thank you! Nice talking to you.

Originally published on PopBytes

EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH THE VIEW HOST MICHELLE COLLINS

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 1.06.23 PMIf 2015 was the year of Amy Schumer, then 2016 has Michelle Collins written all over it.

Last week, New York’s reigning queen of stand-up kicked off the year with Magic Mich XXL, her brilliant and hilarious one-woman show at the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in lower Manhattan. For Collins, who is also one of the hosts of ABC’s The View, this performance was more than just a homecoming after years of performing in Los Angeles. It was the launch of a monthly residency that is just one of the many reasons that the Florida-raised 34-year-old is destined to become comedy’s next great superstar.

I caught up with Collins about her return to New York, her stand-up routine, The View, getting lap dances from Tyson Beckford, her upcoming appearances on various TV shows, and everything from Les Misérables to The Bachelor to Vanderpump Rules.

ALEX: Last week you performed in front of a sold-out crowd at UCB. Is this the beginning of more live stand-up shows from you in 2016? And if so, do you plan on taking your show on the road or maintaining more of a New York residency?

MICHELLE: Well, when I lived in LA, I did a monthly show at the UCB Theater there called “LOLS Angeles.” It was really fun. I enjoyed it and I performed a bunch. It’s taken me a little bit to get resettled in New York, but now I’m planning on doing a show every month at UCB! I already have a February date set up. I would love to take it on the road. I get tweets from people in places like Toronto and Austin that say, “Come here and perform!” I’d love to, but I have to make sure that I get my act together and get it organized first. Once that happens, I would love to.

What do you find to be the biggest differences between audiences in New York and LA?

The thing about UCB is that the people who go there go to laugh and just have fun. There’s no drink minimum. It’s different than your average comedy club where you have tourists and stuff. It’s a very welcoming crowd to perform for. Honestly, I don’t think there’s much of a difference between New York and LA audiences. The people here are less unemployed than the one’s in LA. That’s the main difference. They’re all great! I mean, I had such a good time there. And the show here was so much fun. It just got me back into the groove of doing those kind of shows.

As a comedienne, how do you feel that your humor is different when you’re appearing on day time TV versus when you’re doing your stand-up?

Oh, you’re a wonderful interviewer, Alex.

Well, thank you!

You were at the show, so hopefully you kind of saw the difference which was that when I’m given an hour, or ten minutes, or twenty to just be myself, it is a little different. I describe my stand-up as live spiraling. A lot of it isn’t written. In fact, none of it’s really written. I kind of go in knowing some of the stories I’m going to tell but I also let the energy of the room carry me through. Which is a lot of fun because I myself then don’t know what’s going to happen or where it’s going to go.

On daytime TV, you’re obviously a little bit more limited. I think any comedian would say that. Especially on a show like The View, where you have other people there too. It does change the vibe a little bit. It’s like a brunch versus just “me me me.” I also can’t curse on TV, which, as an educated lady of refined taste, hurts me deeply. I haven’t made a cursing mistake yet, but I’ve said things I didn’t know you’d get bleeped for. Like I didn’t know that “camel toe” was a bleep-able offense.

Camel toe? Really? How does that get bleeped but something like “bitch” doesn’t?

I think because it’s very visual. That really makes you think of camel feet.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 1.06.45 PMDuring the show last night, you spoke a little bit about your musical theater background.

Yeah. Or lack of a background.

When you performed “It’s All Over” from Dreamgirls in its entirety, I turned to my boyfriend and said, “She can really sing!”

I literally love to sing. I always have, Alex. I always have. I hope he agreed with you.

He did!

Good! I like him already.

How did you transition from theater to comedy?

There was no transition! I never actually made it in musical theater.

 So there’s no chance we’ll see you on Broadway one day?

Oh my gosh, are you kidding? I would love that! I always say that my dream role would be Jean Valjean or Javert. People are always like, “Um, those are male parts.” But that’s my voice! I would make people cry. If I was Jean Valjean, people would literally openly weep in the theater. I love Les Miz, it’s my favorite. I would either have to be one of those characters or Mama Morton in Chicago. There are very limited parts for a curvy, baritoned lady like myself.

In terms of fellow comics, who inspired you the most growing up?

Growing up, my parents were really into comedies. My father was actually a part-time stand-up comic when I was little, so we always had stand-up playing in the house. I would say Joan Rivers was the main inspiration in my life. We watched a lot of George Carlin. Back in the 80s, Ellen had an HBO special that I remember thinking was the funniest thing I had ever seen. It probably still is. But out of all the stand-up, the one thing I wasn’t allowed to watch was Eddie Murphy Raw. For whatever reason, my parents would not let me watch that and I was furious. I was like, “what could he possibly say in it?”

So obviously that was the one you watched the most because it was the forbidden one!

Yes! Whenever they’d leave the house, I would watch that and Harmony Korine movies like Kids. I’d be like, “I’m sooooo edgy” and “I can’t handle how edgy I am right now.” I would say all those for sure really inspired me. And then there were a lot of wonderful female comedians in the 80s like Rita Rudner and Elaine Boosler. You don’t hear a lot about those ladies anymore but they’re really funny.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 1.07.14 PMWhen you’re working on your stand-up, are there any specific topics that you always make sure to include? In other words, is there anything that you have to make sure to cover because it’s signature Michelle Collins?

I always talk about my hair because it’s a topic of conversation for everybody, obviously. Height needs to come up. I’m 6’1”. My height is actually the second most searched thing after you put my name into Google.

Really?!

Yeah, the height comes up second. A lot of people seem to be curious about it — and maybe a little aroused? I like to begin with a little self-deprecation, but in a creative way, not in a classic Cathy comic strip way. And I really try to get a song in. You know, just in case there any bookers in the crowd, so they know of my many gifts. But my stand-up is for the most part stories that happen to me. So yeah, my height and the size of my feet come up a lot. I’ve really made my ankle boots – my anky-bees – into a linchpin of my stand-up. It’s such a sad little life. I’m so sorry, Alex. Please go on.

What advice would you give to a struggling or aspiring comic about what defines success in this business?

I feel like I’m not even in a place to say it because I’m not a road comic. You know what I mean? I think a lot of people want to tour the country doing it, but I haven’t ever done that. My advice would really just be to put yourself out there as much as you can. I’m very lucky that I have a theater like UCB that gives me the opportunity to perform. So I’d say to just put yourself out there as much as possible. And I honestly think the Internet is the best way. That’s kind of how I started, actually. Blogging and writing. The great thing about the Internet is that it refreshes itself so often that there’s always something new to talk and be funny about.

Speaking of the Internet, as the Managing Editor of VH1’s Best Week Ever website, you received two Webby Awards for Best Celebrity/Fan Blog in 2008. Then In 2009, you won the ECNY Award for Best Female Standup Comedian in New York, and in 2010, you won Logo’s NewNowNext Award for Breakout Comic.

I’m actually presenting at the NewNowNext Awards this year, by the way! They’re on February 1st. And I’m also doing stand-up on Logo on January 30th as part of Bianca Del Rio’s Comedy Cabaret.

That’s so exciting! I’m setting my DVR as soon as this is over. Between being on The View and having all of these aforementioned accolades under your belt already, what do you personally consider to be your biggest career achievement and/or highlight to date?

It has to be The View obviously, right? I mean, listen. As a comedian, just to sit next to Whoopi Goldberg on a daily basis, it’s like, are you kidding me?! I truly don’t understand how it happened. I feel so, so lucky every day. I know it’s so annoying when people say that and I feel annoyed at myself for saying it. But it’s true! I can’t lie about it and I don’t want to be too cool for it. It’s a really, really fun thing that I’m lucky enough to do. I would say that’s pretty big. And on a personal level, The Bachelor After Show is a highlight just because I’m such a Bachelor super fan. I’m actually going to be on it January 25th! I love a good Chris Harrison moment, you know I do.

Who do you predict is going to win this season?

I don’t even know their names! How can I possibly predict a smear of peach colored foundation? I don’t know who they are or where they came from. I know one’s from Russia. There’s really only one star, her name is Lace. She is clearly a producer plant. She’ll probably last another maybe two or three weeks for fun.

What do you find to be both the most rewarding and most challenging parts of being a host on The View?

My favorite thing to do is the celebrity interviews. I love when people come on because they’re always so happy to be there. I think for me, actually, it ties into the most challenging part, which is sitting at a table with someone like, for example, Toni Colette, and then not spending the whole time we have together telling her how much I love Muriel’s Wedding. You know what I mean? I have to reign myself in. I want them to know, “you are making a difference!” and “this stuff is incredible!” So that’s been really hard for me to just through gritted teeth be like, “when’s your next project coming out?” instead of bringing up all of these incredible things they’ve already done that have impacted and resonated with me personally.

As for rewarding, I’ll tell you something. It’s been really fun being back in New York, which is my favorite city in the country by far. Just having people randomly say to me, “I love you on the show!” is so wild. Like how do you know who I am?! It’s just a very weird thing to happen. It’s really, really a fun show to be a part of. I genuinely mean it.

What’s been your favorite episode so far?

Well, I did once get a lap dance from Tyson Beckford.

 Oh, well, that sounds like it would probably be anyone’s favorite episode!

Right? He gave me a lap dance and I think that in that very same episode, Billy Crystal also gave me a lap dance. I literally felt Billy’s crystals. And Tyson is, I mean forget about it. Sometimes certain actors come on and I’m so intimidated that I turn into a Gwen Stefani Harajuku girl. The woman that you saw at my stand-up show was not the version they get on The View. They get sort of a wilting flower, who is all sweet and shy. It’s like I turn into Hatsumomo from Memoirs of A Geisha.

You had done various guest spots on the show before you joined the panel full-time. How did you find out that you were selected as a permanent host?

They actually told me in person. I was doing the show after a red eye from LA to New York and I was exhausted. They called me to the office afterwards and told me. I was so dead tired that I was worried that I was having a fever dream. I hadn’t slept in probably 24 hours and the only thing I could keep saying was, “That’s awesome! Thank you, that’s so awesome!” I mean, I could not have come off any stupider. They were probably thinking they hired some idiot who can’t even form a full sentence. It was like Guantanamo levels of exhaustion for me.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 1.07.01 PMTonight, you’ll be making your Bravo clubhouse debut on Watch What Happens Live alongside Jax from Vanderpump Rules. So I’ve gotta ask, are you Team Jax or Team James?

Oof. That’s a hard one. It’s funny because a friend of mine, Lara, has a podcast called “Pumped Podcast“, which I’ve been a guest on, and they only talk about Vanderpump Rules. I’m friends with Ariana and Tom on Twitter, and Ariana especially is just so nice. But Lara has met James and she says he’s hysterically funny in person and that you don’t really get to see that side of him on the show. So I don’t know! But I’m going to say I’m Team Jax because at least he’s honest about his own shadiness, and there’s definitely something charming and to be said about that.

To wrap up, if you had won the Powerball lottery, what would you have done with the money?

I would probably have bought Fox from Rupert Murdoch. He’s getting married now anyway, so he doesn’t have time to run a network. I’d have just given myself like a solid three-hour block of programming, probably after MasterChef Junior. It’d be like when Robert DeNiro gave himself a talk show in Casino. And then I’d become America’s sweetheart, and I mean, what else is there?

I think that’s a great plan.

I love you for that.

Well, thank you so much Michelle. I really appreciate it and I can’t wait to catch your next UCB show!

Oh my gosh, thank you! I’m really glad you had a good time at the show.

Originally published on PopBytes

SCHOOL OF ROCK: THE EPIC COMEBACK OF ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER

There was a time when Andrew Lloyd Webber was unstoppable.

The prolific musical theater composer is, after all, responsible for some of the most beloved and commercially successful shows of all time – including (but not limited to) Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Sunset Boulevard. Yet despite his impressive, divergent, and cherished repertoire, it’s been quite a number of years since Webber has achieved the kind of critical and box office success that was once synonymous with his name. His more recent efforts, such as The Woman In White and the long-gestating Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies, had fans and critics speculating whether Webber had lost his creative touch. They feared that he would never recapture the magic of his earlier work.

But now Webber is proving them wrong. With his School of Rock, he has created a new triumphant blockbuster that showcases the talent that made him so beloved. With a masterfully (and infectiously catchy) rock-infused score, this new musical finds Webber brilliantly contemporizing the sound that made him into a living legend. Once again, he has become the role model for any aspiring composer, performer or impresario.

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Now playing on Broadway, School of Rock is based on the 2003 Jack Black film of the same name. Directed by Laurence Connor (Les Miserables) and with a book by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, the comical musical tells the story of Dewey, a struggling musician who secretly takes on his roommate’s identity to accept a position as a substitute teacher at an elite private elementary school. At first, he is simply interested in collecting a paycheck, but then Dewey discovers the astounding musical talent of the kids in his classroom. Enlisting the help of these students, Dewey forms a new rock group to help him exact revenge against his former band members who kicked him out – by showing them up at a local Battle of the Bands competition.

With this new goal in mind, Dewey teaches his students all about the rock greats. He encourages them to listen to artists like Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin to hone their understanding of their individual skills, making that their homework assignment. As the students respond to Dewey’s teaching methods, they visibly mature, awakening their senses of self-expression and building their self-confidence. While their parents aren’t always on board, the kids realize that through hard work and music, no dream is unobtainable.

A true star is born in Alex Brightman, who plays Dewey with ferocious stamina and meticulous comedic timing. His humor instincts are, unsurprisingly, very reminiscent of Black’s, but in a far more likeable and less doofy way. Vocally, he’s a powerhouse who can somehow manage to jump around the whole stage while seamlessly turning his screaming into impressive riffs and stretched out notes. His voice is the perfect marriage between a classically trained performer and a gritty rock star, and he can go from one end of that spectrum to the other with what sounds like effortless conviction. Brightman’s commanding blend of these two genres makes him the ideal candidate to tackle Webber’s score; it also makes his frenetic and dedicated performance one of the very best this Broadway season.

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Not surprisingly, Webber has found a contemporary muse in Sierra Boggess. Collaborating on their third musical together, the immensely talented soprano has a long history of playing Phantom of the Operaleading lady Christine Daaé. Not only did she originate the role in the West End production of Love Never Dies, Boggess also played the character in Phantom on Broadway on several occasions, originated the role in the Las Vegas production, and starred in the show’s 25th anniversary concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, resulting in the greatest recording of the musical to date.

This time around, Boggess plays Principal Rosalie Mullins, whose journey in the show transforms her from an uptight, rule-enforcing type-A authority figure to someone who literally lets her hair down and channels her inner Stevie Nicks in the name of rock. Although Webber’s score doesn’t call for Boggess to belt her face off in the way she was born to do (seriously, listen to her sing “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid), her big solo, “Where Did The Rock Go,” is a powerful ballad that beautifully juxtaposes the energetic rock numbers the show is primarily consisted of.

“Obviously you’re in really good hands if you’re doing a show written by him. I feel very lucky — he started my career, really, with Phantom in Las Vegas and then continued on with many different versions of Phantom,” Boggess told AMNY. “I feel like how he writes is where I want to sing. And at this point, he knows me very well and he knows my voice and he wanted to be able to showcase many different parts of my voice. And he knows me as a funny person, too, and he wanted to showcase that stuff. So, it was very nice coming into this production with him where we weren’t doing the show where someone’s going to die or it’s terribly sad.”

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While Brightman and Boggess are tremendous forces to be reckoned with, the real highlights of the show are the children. Playing all of their instruments live on stage throughout the entire production, these young actors and actresses are already scene-stealers. They also sing and dance, while performing with enough virtuosity to be regarded as musical prodigies with their respective instruments.

For 12-year-old School of Rock super fan Brandon Niederhauer, getting a chance to play lead guitarist Zach is a dream come true. “Zach was obviously my favorite character and that’s what got me into playing guitar, and the movie came out the year I was born,” he told Newsweek. “And now a couple of years later, I tried out for School of Rock the musical and I got it, and I don’t know what’s more ironic than that?”

While School of Rock is the perfect show for children, it’s certainly not just a show for kids. Adults will undoubtedly enjoy it just as much, if not more, than the young audience members. It ticks off all the boxes to be a smash, and anyone in attendance will leave with a smile on their face, regardless of their age. It’s a heartwarming story that is performed and put together with exorbitant talent from top to bottom, making for a show that will surely become a Broadway staple for many years to come.

School of Rock is playing now at NYC’s Winter Garden Theatre. Click here to purchase tickets.

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Originally published on PopBytes

FIVE MUST-SEE SHOWS ON THE NYC THEATER SCENE THIS FALL

Can’t score a ticket to Hamilton? Need something to hold you over until WaitressThe Crucible and American Psycho open in the spring?

Below, check out a list of five of the most exciting new shows and revivals on the New York theater scene this fall.

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ALLEGIANCE

STARRING: George Takei, Lea Salonga, Telly Leung, Katie Rose Clarke, Michael K. Lee
WHERE: Longacre Theatre (220 West 48th Street)
WHEN: Now playing

STORY

After Pearl Harbor is attacked, a Californian Japanese-American family is sentenced to forced internment at a Wyoming camp. While there, all of the families who have been relocated are required to a fill out an infamous loyalty questionnaire as a way of ensuring their allegiance to the United States instead of Japan. On this questionnaire, internees must designate whether or not they are willing to enlist. For Sammy Kimura (Telly Leung), the decision is a no-brainer: of course he will join the American troops. But for others, like Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), burning draft cards and publicly denouncing the country that imprisoned his family sends a much louder message. So when Sammy’s sister, Kei (Lea Salonga), falls in love with Frankie, he must learn how to navigate battle terrains not just while at war, but at home as well.

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT

Inspired by Takei’s own life, this multi-generational family saga chronicles what happens when a man is torn between his love for his country and his love for his family. With his father refusing to put on a U.S. military uniform out of principle, and with his sister starting a new life with the man he sees as the antithesis of what he stands for, Sammy struggles to balance his beliefs and responsibilities. A fascinating character study that forces its audience to think about what patriotism means to them, Allegiance is a thought-provoking, unique look at a dark chapter in American history that must not be forgotten.

STANDOUT SCENE

As always, Salonga is a vocal titan. Her big solo, “Higher,” acts as the biggest show-stopper of the production. After finding herself caught between Frankie and Sammy, Kei must decide how to give both of these men the love and support that they need. She sings about pushing herself to new levels to be who she needs to be for them. Coupled with Jay Kuo’s music and lyrics, the song showcases not just Salonga’s powerful instrument, but how war harshly impacts more than just those on the battlefield.

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DAMES AT SEA

STARRING: Eloise Kropp, Lesli Margherita, John Bolton, Mara Devi, Danny Gardner, Cary Tedder
WHERE: The Helen Hayes Theatre (240 West 44th Street)
WHEN: Now playing

STORY

A charming and nostalgic ode to the golden era of movie musicals, Dames at Sea opens with black and white credits presented on a projection screen, immediately transporting its audience back several decades. When a young small-town woman steps off the bus in New York City to pursue her goal of becoming a Broadway star, she meets a cast of characters who can all help make her dreams come true. But when the show she plans on making her big debut in loses its venue, it’ll be up to her and her friends to find a new location and perfect the show before the curtain call – all in the matter of one very busy day.

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT

Aside from being the show that once launched the career of the great Bernadette Peters,   is not your typical tap musical. While it does pay homage to the days of Cole Porter and Fred Astaire, the show acts almost like a lighthearted parody of the musicals of that time. Full of self-aware humor and comical jabs at how sensationalized the plot is, this production acts as a refreshing, laugh-out-loud contemporary companion to the shows from the era it’s set in.

STANDOUT SCENE

Any scene with Lesli Margherita is worth the full admission price. As a diva living in fear of being replaced by a fresh-faced unknown, Margherita is terrifically over the top. She shamelessly seduces the men around her to get what she wants and then tosses them aside when they’ve fulfilled her wishes. The hilarious choices she brings to her character make her the “villain” you root for, even if it’s just to make sure that she doesn’t leave the stage. With a booming voice and dance skills that would make any ingénue shake in her tap shoes, Margherita is a bonafide scene-stealer whose magnificent work in this show will undoubtedly be recognized by Tony voters.

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FIRST DAUGHTER SUITE

STARRING: Caissie Levy, Alison Fraser, Betsy Morgan, Rachel Bay Jones, Mary Testa, Barbara Walsh, Theresa McCarthy, Isabel Santiago, Carly Tamer
WHERE: The Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street)
WHEN: Now through November 22 only!

STORY

Presented in four separate parts, First Daughter Suite is an exploration of the wives and daughters of various American Presidents. Directed by Kirsten Sanderson and written by Michael John LaChiusa, this new musical delves into the relationships these women have with one another and with how they’re perceived by the American people. Featuring Julie Eisenhower, Pat, Tricia and Hannah Nixon, Amy and Rosalynn Carter, Susan and Betty Ford, Patti Davis, Nancy Reagan, Anita Castelo, and Barbara, Laura and Robin Bush, First Daughter Suite is an original look at the deeply private lives of these highly public figures.

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT

The Public has been churning out hit after hit. Last year, their show Fun Home (read my review here) went on to Broadway and won five Tony Awards, including Best New Musical. This year, of course, is all about Hamilton. After its initial sold-out run at The Public, the show has gone on to be a certified box office juggernaut since its Broadway debut. With the accolades already piling up (including a McArthur “Genius Grant” for creator and star Lin Manuel Miranda), Hamilton is all but sure to sweep the Tonys come June. So how can The Public follow up two smash successes like this?

With First Daughter Suite, they continue to encourage innovative new musical theater. The show also features a vast cast of immensely talented women. Theater buffs will be delighted to hear them all sing in the intimate venue. With essentially no dialogue, the show transitions from song to song, giving each actor an opportunity to individually shine. And when they’re not performing their solos, they break off into layers of harmonies and belt-off contests which amount to pure ear candy. It’s worth catching First Daughter Suite for the singing alone – but if you can’t check it out live, don’t miss the recently announced cast recording when it hits stores in 2016.

STANDOUT SCENE

In the closing vignette, Barbara Bush (Mary Testa) is commemorating Robin (Theresa McCarthy), her daughter who died at the age of four from pediatric leukemia. As she stands watching the Atlantic waters crash against the Maine shore on a cold October day in 2005, she’s visited by Robin’s spirit, and the audience quickly learns that the two of them have this reunion on this same day every year – the anniversary of Robin’s death. When Laura (Rachel Bay Jones) arrives and beckons Barbara inside, the sharp contrast between her relationship with her daughter-in-law and deceased daughter underscores how even with time, the pain and impact of losing a child is something that no parent can ever forget.

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FOOL FOR LOVE

STARRING: Sam Rockwell, Nina Arianda, Tom Pelphrey, Gordon Joseph Weiss
WHERE: Samuel J Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street)
WHEN: Now through December 13 only!

STORY

A pair of ex-lovers (Rockwell and Arianda) find themselves in a small motel in the Mojave Desert. There, they passionately rip each other to shreds, revealing their darkest and most shocking secrets. As they continue to pick at the scabs of the relationship they once had, will what’s underneath reveal that they do – and can – still love one another?

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT

Written by Sam Shepard with his signature gritty and fiery flair, Fool For Love is a brutally honest and often dirty look at what it means to be drawn to someone who brings out the worst in you. It’s a multi-layered, complex drama that unpacks the many definitions of “love” and tests its limits in merciless ways. Although you won’t leave the theater feeling uplifted, the punch in the gut feeling you depart with is a testament to the work’s resounding power, unapologetic dialogue, and the committed performances of the actors.

STANDOUT SCENE

Without giving too much away, a pivotal reveal is when one of the characters discloses the truth surrounding the death of the other one’s mother. In a show chock-full of jaw-on-your-floor moments, this one certainly takes the cake. It’s so shattering that it will send a chill down the audience’s spines, resulting in the type of visceral reaction only truly excellent theater is capable of. And as the aftermath of this reveal begins to have its full ripple effect, the vulnerability and tension that comes out of it culminates in the show’s explosive finale.

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ON YOUR FEET

STARRING: Ana Villafane, Josh Segarra, Andrea Burns, Alma Cuervo
WHERE: Marquis Theatre (1535 Broadway)
WHEN: Now playing

STORY

Set to the duo’s biggest hits, On Your Feet is a biographical show about the lives of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. We meet Gloria (Ana Villafane) as a teenager and follow her on her journey to international superstardom. Along the way, she and Emilio (Josh Segarra) fall in love, stand up to music industry executives who claim the world isn’t ready for their sound, and craft smashes like “Conga,” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “1-2-3,” and “Turn The Beat Around.”

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT

You don’t need to be a Gloria Estefan fan to enjoy On Your Feet – but you’ll certainly be one after you leave the theater. Directed by Jerry Mitchell and featuring sizzling choreography by Sergio Trujillo, the show acts as a high-energy concert of sorts, interlaced with an inspiring and touching story told in between the classic numbers. Featuring a detailed look at fame, family, and assimilation, On Your Feet is the type of feel-good production that so many jukebox musicals strive to achieve but rarely actually do.

STANDOUT SCENE

After the tour bus accident that almost took her life, Gloria must learn how to walk before she can conga again. As she is in the process of rehabilitation, she and Emilio have their only real argument of the show. He wants her to make her comeback performance at the American Music Awards, while she’s afraid that she might not be ready and that people will only pity her. Together, they overcome the difficulties they’re faced with. And when Gloria eventually returns to the stage, it’s a soaring, moving, and triumphant moment – not just for them but also for those witnessing their story unfold.

Originally published on PopBytes

ANNALEIGH ASHFORD RETURNS TO BROADWAY IN “SYLVIA”

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Annaleigh Ashford is redefining what it means to be a funny girl on Broadway.

It’s no coincidence that the Great White Way’s last true laugh-out-loud play was You Can’t Take It With You, in which Ashford was featured. In a show full of heavyweights like James Earl Jones, Rose Byrne and Elizabeth Ashley, Ashford was not just the most hilarious actor on stage, but she also took home the show’s sole Tony Award. Only 29 at the time, Ashford’s win already felt overdue, thanks to her standout and consistently side-splitting performances in Kinky Boots, Wicked, Hair, andLegally Blonde, and the Off-Broadway productions of Rent and Dogfight.

Now, Ashford is back on Broadway with Sylvia, A.R. Gurney’s endearing and comedic exploration of the relationships between dogs and their human masters. In her first starring role, the triple threat comedienne plays the titular character of Sylvia, a stray dog that gets adopted by a middle-aged New York couple after a chance encounter in Central Park.

UntitledTo prepare for the role, Ashford took her own dog – a toy Australian shepherd named Gracie – to obedience, agility, and sheep herding classes. Instead of just dropping Gracie off, Ashford stuck around and diligently observed and studied the canines. She also immersed herself in nine books—both non-fiction and fiction– about dog psychology. And from the first moment that she leads her body on stage with her nose, it’s instantly clear that this homework more than paid off.

Ashford wears knee-pads and patches of fur to add to the illusion that she’s man’s best friend as she jumps up and down off chairs and sofas, rolls around the stage, and sprints through the aisles of the theater. But her costume is not what transforms her into an animal. It’s the nuanced and dedicated physicality she brings to the part that makes those watching really forget that they’re not actually baring witness to a talking dog. She’s so committed, in fact, that when an audience member’s cell phone interrupts mid-performance, she reacts as any dog would to an unexpected high-pitched sound – by “barking” (or yelling “Hey hey hey!” as it’s represented in the show) until the ringing stops.

“We don’t have that many highly physical female clowns,” Sylvia director Daniel Sullivan told NPR. “I mean, she is really extraordinary in her ability to keep a thing very true and honest and, at the same time, much larger than life, physically.”

When Sylvia debuted on the New York theater scene in an Off-Broadway theater in 1995, it was Sarah Jessica Parker who originated the title role. Now, twenty years later, her husband Matthew Broderick is co-starring in the show’s Broadway premiere. As Greg, the man who takes Sylvia home to his less than enthused wife, Broderick is at his best. As Kate, Julie White excels at playing the skeptical and confused wife who just wants to come home at the end of the day without finding bite marks in her favorite shoes and books – and her marriage.

But no matter who else is on stage, this is truly the Annaleigh Ashford show. Even seasoned stage veterans and Tony-winners like Broderick and White sometimes struggle to maintain a straight face and not burst out laughing at the comedic gold Ashford churns out line after line and movement after movement.

While Greg and Sylvia become more and more dependent on each other, attached at the hips as it were, her presence in his life illuminates who he needs to be in order to become the happiest possible version of himself. This means that maybe the job where he’s been for years but constantly feels put down by his boss is no longer the right fit for him. However, this also means that his wife of 22 years might start to feel jealous that Greg is calling Sylvia “sweetheart” and saying “I love you” much more frequently than he does to her. What ensues is a complex and ultimately heartwarming look at the importance of being honest and willing to compromise with the ones we love.

“By the end, there’s a sense that I’m perceived as the other woman,” Ashford said to USA Today. “From Sylvia’s point of view, this is the man I love. I treat him like my dad in a lot of ways, but he’s also the great love of my life.”

While Kate doesn’t initially take too kindly to Sylvia’s addition into her and Greg’s lives, it becomes increasingly apparent to her that the kinship her husband feels with this dog is unlike any he has felt before. With their kids off at college, Kate enjoys a reawakened professional drive as an English teacher. But for her husband, that same rejuvenated sense of purpose derives from his relationship with their dog. Despite her initial reluctance, she comes to see that, for Greg, Sylvia is not only a pet but also a source of inspiration. And thanks to this dog, her husband is more fulfilled than ever.

UnknownGurney’s decision to make Sylvia have the ability to talk is genius. This tactic not only lends itself to constant hilarity, but also allows the show to paint a very real, multi-layered picture of what humans and dogs expect from one another. The conversations that Sylvia has with both Greg and Kate brilliantly illustrate who these characters are, what they’re thinking, where they are in their lives, how they feel about one another, and what they need to achieve to feel accomplished both as individuals and as a couple heading into the later years of their lives.

The audience members who have doggy bags under their seats to take home to their pooches from their pre-theater dinners can relate all too well to Gurney’s touching ode to the significance of the deep bonds between people and dogs. And for those audience members who have never understood the appeal or entertained the notion of owning a pet,Sylvia shines a light on not just how beautifully symbiotic such companionships can be, but also how much caring for another creature can bring out the qualities within yourself you may need to enhance your own life.

Although Sylvia’s limited run only goes through January, Ashford’s fans can look forward to catching the actress in her popular role as Betty DiMello on the upcoming fourth season of Showtime’s Master of Sex. And on November 13th, her acclaimed cabaret act, Lost In The Stars, will be released via Broadway Records as her first solo album recording.

With this show, Ashford has upped her A-game to a whole new level, and she certainly shows no signs of slowing down. She masters a role that could have very easily fallen flat or not resonated even a little bit as funny or poignant in the hands – or in this case, paws – of a less skilled actress. It’ll be exciting to see if this terrific performance lands her back-to-back Tony Awards, and her first in the Best Actress category (time to start watching out for that record, Audra McDonald!).

Whether or not you’re a dog lover, Sylvia will charm and amuse you, and you’re likely to find yourself barking its praises all the way home.

Click here to fetch tickets to the show, now playing at Broadway’s Cort Theatre through January 24, 2016.

Originally published on PopBytes