TALKING “ALADDIN” WITH BROADWAY STAR TELLY LEUNG

TELLY LEUNG IS DISCOVERING A WHOLE NEW WORLD.

This summer, the acclaimed Broadway veteran took over playing the titular character in Aladdin, Disney’s blockbuster stage adaptation of their 1992 animated classic. With a theater career that spans nearly two decades, the revered actor is tackling his largest role yet. And coming off two back-to-back shows (Allegiance and In Transit), Leung is proving himself to be one of the busiest and hardest working performers on Broadway today.

I caught up with Leung about what getting to play Aladdin means to him, how Broadway has evolved since his 2002 stage debut, how Carol Channing changed his life, defying the Trump administration’s anti-LGBTQ agenda, and much more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: Were you a fan of the animated movie growing up? What memories do you have associated with watching it as a kid?

TELLY LEUNG: Like everyone of my generation, I fell in love with the animated film in 1992. I remember falling in love with the music (and having it stuck in my head for weeks!) and I remember the amazing, a-hundred-miles-a-minute performance by Robin Williams. It was a tour-de-force. As I was watching the movie as an adult, I realized there were so many jokes I actually MISSED as a kid that I now understand as an adult. The movie is timeless.

What does getting to play the titular character in Aladdin mean to you?

It’s an absolute blast. I’m having the time of my life with this stellar company, and YES – it IS as much fun as it looks! Every night! That being said, it’s also a daunting responsibility to play a character that is so beloved by so many for generations. It was a wonderful challenge to meet the demands of this role, and the expectations of this classic Disney prince – but to also find that special thing that I can contribute to it as an artist.

You made your Broadway debut in 2002 in Flower Drum Song. Now, Aladdin marks your seventh show on the Great White Way. How do you decide which roles to take and/or which shows to participate in? And how do you think Broadway as a whole has evolved since your first curtain call 15 years ago?

The honest truth is I don’t get to choose as much as one might think. Yes, I’ve had a wonderfully blessed (and lucky) career on Broadway the last 15 years, but it’s because I’m constantly auditioning and putting myself out there for opportunities. One’s Playbill bio only lists the shows I’ve done, but it doesn’t list all the shows I auditioned for and DIDN’T get. In many ways, the wonderful opportunities that I got on Broadway all happened for very specific and different reasons – and, in some ways, the show chose ME at that moment in my life, and I just said, “Yes.”

As for the evolution of Broadway in the last 15 years, I think the doors of possibility have been blown wide open! Every season, I am blown away by something that, on paper, doesn’t look or sound like a Broadway show or I say to myself, “How are they going to do THAT on Broadway?” and I am constantly blown away (and pleasantly surprised) when I’m proven wrong. I recently had that mind-blowing experience seeing Indecent on Broadway. The use of staging, musicians, stagecraft, etc. to tell this very difficult-to-tell story with a tough subject matter was so innovating and surprising – and it created a very satisfying and moving evening of theater.

Your career has given you the opportunities to perform in Broadway’s smallest and biggest venues. How does doing an intimate show like Godspell compare to the experience of a huge show like Aladdin?

Telly LeungI love performing at intimate houses like Circle in the Square, where the audience is only inches away from you. It’s initially very challenging and scary for actors because there’s nowhere to hide! You are constantly being watched by someone in the audience when you’re performing in the round (like Godspell) or in three-quarter thrust (like In Transit). But, once you embrace the nature of the space, it’s actually quite freeing to perform in a space and accept the fact that everyone in the audience will be seeing a slightly different show from their vantage point. Performing in a big proscenium house like the New Amsterdam is a challenge to actors because one has to fill the space with size – but to play the size with TRUTH. Luckily, I’ve had some great training at Carnegie Mellon University that taught me to do just that! That’s not to say that simplicity isn’t an actor’s friend in these large spaces. One of my favorite moments to perform is Aladdin’s solo, “Proud of Your Boy,” and it’s my challenge every night to get all 1,700 people in that massive theater to take an intimate look at my character and what drives him to be the kind of man that would make his mother proud. In that moment, I try to get the New Amsterdam to feel more like Circle in the Square.

The inclusion of “Proud of Your Boy” is just one of the notable differences between the original film and this musical. For those who have not yet seen the show, how do you think this look at Aladdin gives audiences a more intricate and fleshed out understanding of the character?

“Proud of Your Boy” is a song that was cut from the original film when the animators realized they didn’t have enough time to delve deep into Aladdin’s character. Aladdin’s mom was an integral part of the original animated film, but they had to cut her character due to time constraints. Now that we are in the theater, and Aladdin has been reconceived from an animated film to a theatrical piece, we have 2.5 hours in the theater to delve deeper into his character motivations. In our play, we’ve raised the stakes for Aladdin – and his mother has just passed several months prior to the beginning of the play. Before she passes, he promises her that he will give up his dishonest life as a liar and thief – and make something of himself that will make mom proud. This song ends up being Aladdin’s character spine and drives all the actions in the play.

Given the large amount of families and children who attend, what type of pressure does it add to know that Aladdin is the first Broadway show many audience members are seeing?

While the show is family-friendly and we know we’re welcoming plenty of children to their first Broadway show, Aladdin is such a beloved story around the world (and has been for centuries!) that we get lots of adults who are seeing their first Broadway show with us too. It’s awesome to have so many young audience members experiencing their first Broadway show in Agrabah. As a Broadway performer, we do eight shows a week – and sometimes we get tired or we aren’t in the mood (we’re human, after all). But I always remind myself at places backstage that there’s someone in audience that is experiencing their first Broadway show, and they’ve chosen US to give them a magical experience for the next 2.5 hours. It’s an honor I cannot (and do not) take lightly, and it’s my job to give every audience 100% of myself every night.

If you could take a ride on a magic carpet to anywhere in the world, where would you want to go and why?

I’ve always wanted to visit India.

Recently, Disney announced the primary cast for their upcoming new adaptation of Aladdin. What are your thoughts on the company’s recent initiative of remaking their animated classics into live-action movies?

I’m super excited to see these live-action movies! I think Disney did a wonderful job with Beauty and the Beast, and I’m thrilled that a whole new generation of moviegoers will get to experience these stories in a new and fresh way. Hopefully, it’ll make them go back to revisit the original animated source material!

You had a very strict Chinese upbringing, in which your parents wanted you to become a doctor or lawyer instead of an actor. What was the defining moment that made you realize that your dreams meant taking a different path in life than what was expected of you?

I remember exactly where I was when this “a-ha!” moment came to me. It was the day I took my SATs, and I rewarded myself by taking myself to see a matinee after the exam. I had saved up my allowance money, and I went to the TKTS booth, where I got my half-price ticket to see Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly. As I was hearing her sing “Before The Parade Passes By” at the end of act one, I felt like she was singing right to me. She was telling me, through song, to not let life pass me by. She was telling me to dig deep and ask myself if I really wanted to go to college and study medicine or law – or if I wanted a life in the theater. I was in the presence of a living legend – Carol Channing – who dedicated her life to Broadway. The answer was clear.

Telly LeungYou recently got married to your partner of nearly 13 years. Congratulations! You announced the wedding via Instagram, writing “LOVE makes America GREAT.” You’ve also previously spoken publicly about how the election of Donald Trump inspired you and James to tie the knot. Can you please elaborate on why that was? And at a time when the current U.S. administration is attempting to strip rights from the LGBTQ community, how do you think people should fight back to defend both themselves and their loved ones?

Jimmy and I have been together for years, and though we support marriage equality, we never thought we needed our relationship recognized by any government or religious institution. We are part of the LGBTQ generation that never even thought marriage was a possibility, so we had resigned ourselves to defining our own relationship. However, we both watched the election results in November with shock and anxiety. Never before have I feared for my inalienable rights as an LGBTQ person, as a person of color, and as a son of immigrants. Never before have I felt like my rights were in danger.

On a personal level, we wanted to get married and make sure we protected our union under the law. With Trump in the White House, we didn’t know if he and his cronies would try and take marriage equality away during his 4 years in office, and if we’d ever get those rights back. Jimmy and I wanted to know that as we grow old together, we had all the rights and benefits of being spouses.

On a political level, we also wanted to make a statement. We knew that there was going to be a political fight ahead against this administration and their agenda to eradicate all the progress made for the LGBTQ community, and the ring on my finger is not just a symbol of my love for my husband, but it’s also to signify my resistance to this hateful administration’s anti-LGBTQ agenda.

Do you still keep in touch with any of your former Glee co-stars? Have any come to see you in Aladdin yet?

Yes! We keep in touch. I love my band of brothers! Titus (Makin Jr.) has come to see Aladdin. I hope all my Warbler brothers get to visit me in Agrabah at some point!

Who are some current musical theater performers who inspire you the most?

Mandy Gonzalez. Initially, I was just a fan. We’ve started to collaborate on many concerts together – and I’m lucky to consider her a friend. Not only do I admire her talent as a Broadway performer, but I also love the way she balances her life on Broadway with a concerts and TV, all the while being an amazing mom and an extraordinary human being. Wow.

What is your musical theater dream role?

This is always a tough question! Aladdin is pretty close to a “dream role!”

CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to see Telly Leung in Aladdin on Broadway.

And CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to “Show/Swap,” a one-night-only benefit that Telly is producing. Taking place on Sunday, August 20 (8:00PM at Yotel), “Show/Swap” will feature the cast of Aladdin singing the songs of Boublil & Schönberg, and the cast of Miss Saigon singing the songs of Alan Menken.

Originally published on PopBytes

REVIEW: BERKSHIRE THEATRE GROUP’S “CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD”

THE NEED FOR HUMAN CONNECTION IS UNIVERSAL. HOW THAT CONNECTION IS ACCOMPLISHED, HOWEVER, IS NOT.

Now playing at Berkshire Theatre Group (in Stockbridge, MA), Children of a Lesser God examines some of the various ways that people seek that connection. Originally written in 1979 by Mark Medoff (who won a Tony and Olivier Award upon its publication), the play beautifully showcases the relationship between a speech therapist and his deaf student.

Sarah Norman (Lauren Ridloff; Wonderstruck, former Miss Deaf America) was born deaf. Growing up, she thought that there was something wrong with her. As she got older, she realized that the world she lives in is not necessarily the same one that the other people around her inhabit. Now a grown 26-year-old woman, Sarah does not feel the need to succumb to the communicative demands of the hearing world. Instead, she embraces sign language as her primary method of interacting with others.

Enter James Leeds (Joshua Jackson; Dawson’s CreekThe Affair). Specializing in teaching deaf students how to speak out loud, James emphasizes tools such as lip reading to help his students communicate more freely with the hearing. His ultimate goal is to educate his students how to overcome their fears and trust themselves enough to use their voices as a comfortable form of conversation.

For James, taking on Sarah as a student presents an interesting challenge. How can he teach someone something that they not only don’t want, but strongly feel that they don’t need to learn? An unconventional teacher from the moment he’s introduced, James quickly goes from being frustrated with Sarah to admiring and ultimately falling in love with her.

Children of a Lesser GodAs their connection continues to deepen, James is forced to call into question his firmly held notion that Sarah must adhere to the standards of the hearing world in order to succeed within it. How can he rightfully claim that she must change how she interacts with her hearing counterparts? How can he argue that she must conform in order to be heard? After all, the way she’s communicated her whole life has resulted in the two of them developing the most intimate relationship he’s ever had. Their incandescent love for and understanding of one another evolved naturally without Sarah ever having to audibly speak a single word.

The ensuing result is a fascinating dichotomy and exploration of human boundaries. Does James put pressure on Sarah to use her voice out of his love and caring for her? Or is it cruel for him to ask and expect her to relinquish her lifelong beliefs to appease him? And despite their passion, can Sarah hold onto her fierce independence while romantically involved with someone who will never fully understand her experience?

The role of Sarah has previously won actresses Phyllis Frelich a Tony Award and Marlee Matlin an Academy Award (for the 1986 film adaptation). Yet Ridloff manages to define her Sarah in simultaneously assertive, comical and heartwarming ways that make this standout performance unique and unforgettable. Her vulnerable interpretation of the character is nuanced and brilliant. Not a moment passes by that Ridloff is unable to relay every thought that Sarah has through her perfectly expressive and daring work. The window she provides into Sarah’s mind and soul allows for a rich and layered understanding of her character that is a real feat to accomplish for any actor in a singular setting.

Children of a Lesser God

Likewise, Jackson’s portrayal of James is a true tour-de-force. His command of sign language is spot-on, and watching James’ journey unfold while he audibly interprets Sarah’s side of each conversation for audience members unfamiliar with ASL, makes for a gripping performance that could easily rebrand the seasoned screen actor as a powerhouse stage presence. Producer Hal Luftig has already expressed interest in extending this production’s life after its initial Berkshires run is over. If a Broadway transfer is indeed in its future, don’t be surprised to find Jackson and Ridloff’s names on upcoming Tony ballots. Both actors give mesmerizing, fully committed and high caliber performances that demand to be seen.

Under the masterful direction of Tony winner Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun, Hairspray Live, The Wiz! Live), this triumphant production of Children of a Lesser God is as poignant as it is marvelously executed. Even its minimal set provides a crucial sense of intimacy that allows the play to skillfully examine language and love in moving and thought-provoking ways. Now playing through July 22, Children of a Lesser God will deeply resonate with audience members long after the final curtain drops.


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Children of a Lesser God, now through July 22 only at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Originally published on PopBytes

TALKING ‘ANASTASIA’ AND MORE WITH RAMIN KARIMLOO!

RAMIN KARIMLOO IS WITHOUT A DOUBT THE BEST MALE SINGER ON BROADWAY.

The 38-year-old actor has an incomparable talent that has made anything he does the “must-see” musical event of whatever season it falls in. After attending a production of The Phantom of the Opera when he was 12, Karimloo discovered his passion for musical theater. In 2007, his journey came full circle when he played The Phantom in the iconic show’s West End production. He then went on to be hand-picked by Andrew Lloyd Webber to originate the role of The Phantom in Love Never Dies, the composer’s sequel to his original classic.

Amongst his illustrious stage credits, Karimloo is best known for his Tony-nominated starring turn in the 2014 revival of Les Miserables. His unprecedented, gritty, and raw take on his character became instantly unforgettable as he redefined and reinvented who Jean Valjean was.

Now, fresh off his West End run in the U.K. premiere of Murder Ballad, Karimloo has returned to Broadway. Starring as Gleb in Anastasia, the actor is going from playing a hero to a villain. I spoke with him about this latest venture, his solo music, being an Iranian-born actor in the age of Trump, and much more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: You have two children, Hadley and Jaiden. Are they fans of the movie Anastasia? If so, how much “cool cred” did doing this show give you at home?

RAMIN KARIMLOO: To be honest, we didn’t grow up with the film and it’s not something we’ve seen. They’ve seen the show and loved it though. I’m lucky to have already accumulated “cool cred” with them thus far.

Gleb is not a character featured in the movie. Did you find this to be freeing or more of a challenge when bringing him to life for this adaptation?

I guess since I didn’t watch the film it was even more freeing as you say. Thing is, it’s Terrance McNally’s book that I wanted to play in. So I sort of just used my imagination based off what Terrance wrote and then used some historical references that I felt helped me. What I really wanted to do is just find the guy within the uniform and play around with the conflict he has to deal with – father, job and heart.

How do Gleb’s feelings for Anya conflict with his duties as a general for the Bolsheviks?

Whether its feelings specifically for Anya or what Anya represents for him, it serves as a major conflict. Gleb believes in his cause and “a new Russia” but well … he’s progressive … a bit. He’s trying to figure things out. And something he says in the song “Neva Flows” says a lot of how they feel of how things actually went down with the Romanovs: “My Mother said he died of shame.” It wasn’t supposed to have gone down like it did.

One of the central themes of this show is the importance of family. Gleb’s father was one of the Bolsheviks who assassinated the Romanovs. How did who Gleb’s father was shape who he is?

Well his father was in the military of, by nature, a stoic and strong culture. With Gleb following in his father’s military footsteps, he was of course very much shaped by his father and environment.

You also played Gleb in the 2015 workshop of this show. How have both the show and your character evolved from then until now?

When I signed onto the Broadway production, “Still” was written, which I was very pleased about. What we found in the workshop were the stakes that were created by his attraction to Anya. That put many things into question for Gleb and what he stood for – or what he thought he stood for. Like I said, he believes in his cause. But he also believe it’s better for Russia, for the people and for their futures.

In the show’s Playbill is a postcard that reads, “Tell us about your dreams & what you’d like to achieve on your journey below.” Underneath that text is a header that says, “On my journey I will …” followed by a blank space for each audience member to fill in their answer(s). If you were filling out this postcard, what would yours say?

Either “win” or “learn.”

You led the world premiere of Prince of Broadway when it debuted in Japan. Now that it’s coming to Broadway this fall, do you have any future plans to join the cast of that show when your run in Anastasia is over?

After Anastasia, I’m planning to take some much needed time in England with my family. But I had a blast doing Prince of Broadway in Japan. What a great experience! I’m happy to hang onto that memory.

You’ve coined the term “broadgrass” to identify the genre of your solo music. Can you please elaborate a bit about what this means? 

Really that term was a throwaway remark I made one day and it stuck.  We are at a point now that we just play and perform what we want to perform.  It’s amazing the following our concerts have created. It’s a group of friends every time coming along to join in. It was really a development of a live sound that organically found its feet from our love of the theater songs from shows I’m known for to songs I’ve written and of course to covers I love. I love the “grassroots” sound that comes from country, folk and bluegrass. So it was a way to coin a live sound the still incorporated our passion for theater songs. Broadway to bluegrass is broadgrass. We just love to play and sing songs that tell great stories. There’s a wide scope for songs like that.

What can your fans expect from your upcoming solo concerts at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York on July 23 and 24

I guess I would direct folks to my previous answer. More of that. We did a tour earlier this year and whenever that happens, more songs get added to our set list. So there are songs we’ve never done at BB King’s and this gives us a chance to do them.  More theater songs and of course some of the fan favorites!

You’ve collaborated several times with Sierra Boggess on projects ranging from The Phantom of The Opera to Love Never Dies to The Secret Garden. Why do you think you two work so well together and what’s a favorite memory you have from any of these productions together?

I always love working with friends. She’s been a family friend for a long time now. So when you have friends like that, there’s a shorthand that goes with that.  A trust.  She’s a lot of fun to work with. I really loved doing The Secret Garden with Sierra. That was a big discovery for me and to work on that show and book at the Lincoln Center was a real treat.

As an Iranian-Canadian actor, what are thoughts on the current administration’s attempted ban against Iranian citizens? And how do you think Americans can show the rest of the world that the prejudices of this administration do not reflect the views of this country as a whole?

You know, I have spent 15 minutes writing this answer then deleting. Then writing and deleting again.  I’ll just say its fear-mongering bullshit, and I think it’s important to accept everyone, no matter their beliefs or where they come from.

Ramin KarimlooAs a seasoned stage actor, do you have a preference when it comes to working on a revival of a classic or working on a new musical? If so, why?

I’m not fussed. Both can be exciting. A great show is a great show. It can be great to revisit a role or revive a hit from before. And it’s so exciting to create something from scratch. But you can approach anything from a blank sheet and have fun with your imagination and create.

For years now, you’ve alternated between performing on the West End and on Broadway. What do you find to be the biggest differences between working in these two iconic theater communities?

They both have their charms. England is home, obviously, but I do like being able to swap back and forth. I’m very grateful that has been happening. There’s a great sense of community for theater over here. There’s so much history in London and a great buzz in the West End as well. Support is great on both sides of the Atlantic.

What’s your musical theater dream role? 

I’m not sure! Maybe it hasn’t been written for me yet. But that being said, everything I have done so far has turned out to be a fantastic opportunity and ride. So I don’t really think about what’s a dream role. I wouldn’t want to just pin one. I just want to keep playing.



CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Anastasia, now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York.

Originally published on PopBytes

CHATTING WITH WITH ALYSSA MAY GOLD, CREATOR OF OFF-BROADWAY’S ALL-FEMALE “JULIUS CAESAR”

 JULIUS CAESAR HAS RISEN.

Julius CaesarThe classic Shakespeare play has reemerged as a topic of national debate. Due to the Public Theater’s new staging of the play, in which the Caesar character suggests a physical similarity to the current U.S. President, corporate sponsors have dropped their support for the production and pro-Trump protests have continuously interrupted the show. “Stop leftist violence!” and “New York Public Theater is ISIS!” proclaimed alt-right journalist Laura Loomer, who rushed onto the stage during the June 16th performance. She was taken away by security and was booed by the audience all the way out, but this hasn’t prevented similar disruptive instances to continue occurring during this year’s annual and iconic Shakespeare In The Park program.

For those who are familiar with the play, the fury and backlash that the Public Theater has endured hardly makes sense. After all, Julius Caesar is a play that warns against violent uprisings. It deftly illustrates how this approach is never to be condoned and clearly condemns bloodshed as a method to voice discontent. Yet the fact that this discourse has once again sparked such fervent conversation on a mainstream scale only further cements Shakespeare’s work as timeless, topical, and necessary.

Alyssa May Gold

Downtown from Central Park, another production of Julius Caesar is tackling the contemporary world through its unique interpretation of the text. Now playing at the Access Theater, Julius Caesar features an entirely female cast and sets the world of the play within the walls of an all-girls high school. I spoke with Alyssa May Gold, who plays Brutus and conceived the idea of this production, about the play’s enduring legacy, modern relevance, and much more.

NAGORSKI: How did the idea to set Julius Caesar in a modern-day all-girls high school come to you?

This all started for me with the idea of teenage Brutus. The first time I saw this play I was so fascinated by the way Brutus thinks, and the logic he uses to try to understand his feelings, and what’s right and what’s wrong and if something is wrong, what is his responsibility is to do something about it? It reminded me of what it felt like to be a teenager and try to figure out what my own personal beliefs were and what my responsibility was as an adult in the world. I started to build the world of this production from there and there were plenty of iterations before I realized that by making them all teenage girls, by going all the way to the opposite end of the spectrum as far away from Roman Senators in togas as possible, we could tap into the universality of the play’s message.

What is it about this play that lends itself so well to this current adaptation and setting?

Shakespeare was a master of using language to explore epic, heightened emotions and teenagers are the masters of feeling epic, heightened emotions so it felt natural to marry the two and allow the teenage experience the weight of Shakespeare’s words. Julius Caesar specifically works so well because most of the themes at the heart of the story are similar to those that we contend with as we come of age— finding a self-identity in the face of peer pressure, feeling isolated or jealous or betrayed, discovering the power you do have and navigating how to use it.

Growing up, did you attend an all-girls high school? If so, how did that experience inform this adaptation? If not, what type of research did you have to do to get a firm understanding of what those experiences are like?

Because the play is so expertly crafted, we didn’t want to do anything that was going to force the concept onto it. We wanted to allow the text to inform the world we’re creating so we actually went the opposite route and focused our research on ancient Rome, the events leading up to and following Caesar’s assassination, and the real people involved in it. I didn’t attend an all-girls high school but most of the parallels we found between this story and our high school experiences felt universally true to that time in everyone’s lives when all feelings are magnified to extremes.

What (if any) aspects of the original text had to be modified for this production?

The only major change we made was to the pronouns and we also turned almost every instance of “man” into “girl.” It gives me chills every time I hear Madeline Wolf, who plays Cassius, say “Girls at some times are masters of their fates” or our Antony, Violeta Picayo say “So are they all, all honorable girls.” Usually women in an audience are asked to do a quick translation every time “man” is used to stand in for “all of humanity” and it’s thrilling to upend that convention.

In the show, you play Brutus. Aside from the character now being female, how is your interpretation of Brutus different than what audiences might expect from the character?

Because my Brutus already looks so different from what people expect, I’ve tried to let the character as Shakespeare wrote him guide my interpretation. She’s still a deeply conflicted person who is attempting to do the right thing, who thinks of herself as very logical person but whose feelings (and actions) belie her stoic resolve. It’s been so exciting being in rehearsal with everyone and seeing how seamlessly we mesh with our characters—it’s a real testament to how wonderfully Shakespeare wrote about humankind. He wasn’t writing about men specifically, he was writing about all humans and how we relate to each other and the world around us and it’s been a real treat to get to tap into that.

How influential was the movie Mean Girls when you were bringing this idea to life? Where else did you draw inspiration from?

I picked up the play already aware of its strong connections to The Social Network and then definitely had the moment reading it when I realized “OH of course! It’s also Mean Girls!” but other than that there wasn’t a whole lot the movies could do to help because we’re relying solely on Shakespeare’s words to capture how these situations manifest emotionally in the world of a school. That’s been a really wonderful group effort in the room this past month and the stories people have brought in from their own high school days are chilling enough we haven’t had to look much beyond that for inspiration.

The show will be playing off-Broadway at the Access Theater through July 8th. What are your plans for it after this initial run ends?

I would love to give it another life and am doing everything I can to facilitate that but I would still strongly recommend coming to see it in the next three weeks. There’s a unique energy to the first time a company gets together to tell a story in a certain way and whatever happens after, the next three weeks are definitely going to be wild.

What have been some of your personal favorite recent Shakespeare adaptations, both on stage and on film?

The two plays from the Donmar Trilogy that I saw, Henry IV and The Tempest, are at the top of the list. I could talk forever about what it meant to see women play those roles but the most important piece of it for me was they were ultimately also excellent productions of those plays.

These don’t count as recent anymore (yikes!) but I also love all the teen rom-coms based on Shakespeare’s plays like She’s the Man, 10 Things I Hate About You, and the lesser known but just as classic Get Over It.

What is the primary takeaway that you are hoping audiences will leave this show with?

My biggest hope is that this production will speak to everyone, and in doing so, show how much we are all struggling with the exact same things. Adult or teenager, politician or high school student, everyone has a relationship to power and the struggle to understand how to use it when you have a lot of it or how to get more if you feel like you have none. The more people recognize how much we’re all in the same boat, the more opportunities there are to connect with each other and struggle together. I always want people who feel alone to know that they’re not.

What do you find to be the parallels between the almost warning call of this play and the political climate of today’s world?

The political parallel that I would encourage audiences of any production to hold onto is the power the people of Rome have in this play. Brutus spends all of Act 2 and most of the post-assassination scene working out how he’s going to spin this coup to the people. I would argue the one undeniable mistake Brutus makes is letting Antony speak at the funeral. The people’s allegiance turns on a dime three times over the course of the just the first half of the play—from Pompey to Caesar, Caesar to Brutus, and then Brutus to Antony, and their democracy is still destroyed at the end because they just follow whoever sounds the best in the moment. It’s a real lesson on how you have to be informed and make your own decisions and not be fooled by rhetoric or get swept up in group-think. You have to think for yourself and hold onto your beliefs. And if you’re 18 or older, vote. What you should get from this play is that you have power – use it.

How has the controversy surrounding the Public Theater’s current run of Julius Caesar impacted your production? What are your thoughts on how it has been received?

I think the play is a really human exploration of how people relate to power. There are a million ways to reimagine both the historical events of the ides of March, 44BC and Shakespeare’s interpretation of them and freedom of speech and expression are paramount to the ability to do that. I hope we always protect everyone’s right to both and keep each other safe in the process.


Julius Caesar

CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Julius Caesar, now playing at the Access Theater in New York City through July 8.

Originally published on PopBytes

CHATTING WITH ‘ROMY AND MICHELE’S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION’ MUSICAL COMPOSERS GWENDOLYN SANFORD & BRANDON JAY

Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion

IT’S BEEN TWENTY YEARS SINCE ROMY AND MICHELE BECAME POP CULTURE ICONS.

Since its release in 1997, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion has remained a cult classic. This summer, the outrageous film comedy about a pair of best friends who take a road trip to their ten-year high school reunion is coming to Seattle in the form of a brand new musical.

This stage adaptation boasts a book by the film’s original screenwriter, Robin Schiff, and music and lyrics by Orange Is The New Black composers Gwendolyn Sanford and Brandon Jay. With sights set on the West End and Broadway, Sanford and Jay spoke with me about bringing the movie to life, writing music from the perspectives of these zany and beloved characters, how the musical expands on the film, and more.

Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion

NAGORSKI: What makes Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion the perfect candidate for a movie to musical adaptation?

SANFORD: The story has a lot of heart. The characters are super relatable. They’re archetypes we’re familiar with and yet our main characters are so quirky and fun. They live in their own form of reality – to musicalize the world from their perspectives can be quite fantastical. It lends itself well to the stage.

JAY: It’s so perfect that we are making our world premiere on the 20th anniversary of the release of the movie. It’s a fun uplifting story with positive female role models about being yourself and standing up to bullies.

The movie has a few iconic music sequences, including the unforgettable dance to “Time After Time.” How much did the ‘80s and ‘90s soundtrack of the film influence the score of the musical?

SANFORD: The genre style came so naturally to the two of us. The ‘80s and ‘90s soundtrack of the film is much like the soundtrack to our lives. But in approaching each song, the focus was always story and character first. Story and character decide the tone. And we would write. And rewrite. It wasn’t until later that we would reference particular songs, more for orchestration ideas than anything else.

JAY: We used the soundtrack as a jumping off point, but we went even further into 1980’s/90’s musical references like Eurythmics, The Cars, INXS, Til Tuesday, Psychedelic Furs, Joe Jackson, Billy Idol to name a handful. Together with our amazing orchestrator, Keith Harrison, we’ve chosen synth and drums sounds that match the particular style we want to emulate.

How faithful is the stage version to its movie counterpart? Are there any characters or plot points that are being cut and/or expanded for the musical?

SANFORD: I feel like everything has expanded. And yet, we were very mindful to keep the story focused on Romy and Michele’s friendship.

JAY: We did make a few cuts and lost a couple minor characters, but we think fans of the movie will be surprised how much they enjoy it. It’s not the film, of course… but it’s the same story they love.

Were you fans of the movie before becoming involved with this show? If so, what is it about it do you think that has allowed it to stand the test of time so well?

SANFORD: Oh, big fan! You know, there aren’t many films about female friendships. Women have very close, meaningful, emotional relationships with one another – and it’s completely platonic. We support each other in ways that aren’t often represented in films. Too many films portray women at odds with each other. This is a love story about two best friends. It’s timeless.

JAY: As well as the fact that it’s a story that everyone can relate to. Whether you were an outsider, a cool kid, a drama geek, a jock or whatever your school social status, everyone can relate to the high school experience. And the absurdity of the movie! The offbeat comedy helps make it one of those movies you can watch again and again for fun.

The show will be enjoying its world premiere in Seattle this summer. What are the plans for it after this run ends? Will there be any more out-of-town runs or workshops? And when do you plan/hope to bring it to Broadway?

SANFORD: I think every musical hopes to be on Broadway someday.

JAY: The movie has a huge following in the UK and we think they would love the musical there.

SANFORD: We’re still discovering what it all means. There’s a bunch of possibilities. The first thing is to get it to the fans in Seattle.

Romy and Michele’s High School ReunionWhat do stars Cortney Wolfson and Stephanie Renee Wall each respectively bring to the roles of Romy and Michele?

SANFORD: One of the main concerns we had as a creative team was finding actresses who could fill the shoes of Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino.

JAY: Those are some pretty big shoes!

SANFORD: But both Stephanie and Cortney have managed to make the roles their own without doing an impression. The emotion is real for both of them and the choices they are making support the story. They’re both delightful to watch.

Did either of you attend your 10-year high school reunions? If so, how did those experiences inform your creative approaches to working on this show?

SANFORD: I didn’t go to my 10-year reunion. It was a casual get together at the beach, if I remember correctly. I remember feeling ambivalent about it. And then I heard so-and-so had had four kids already and I remember thinking “Whoa. How is that possible? High School seems like yesterday.” I think that line made it into a song.

JAY: I went to both my 10 and 20-year reunions. It seemed like people were trying to impress each other more at the 10 than the 20. As a strange coincidence, we had a Romy and Michele work session at the same hotel that my reunion was held a few weeks later.

The film has such an avid cult following. What type of pressure does this add when developing a new adaptation of it?

SANFORD: Instead of focusing on that, I worked very closely with the creator, Robin Schiff. If she is happy, I trust the fans will be.

JAY: Plus, we’re such big fans of the movie! And we feel really confidant theatergoers will enjoy the songs and get caught up in the story whether they’re familiar with the movie or not.

One of the things the movie is best known for is its signature and unique humor. Was it a challenge to inject this same tone into the show’s lyrics?

SANFORD: Some of the funniest lines in the movie were turned into lyrics. Some lines we discovered were funnier in dialogue.

JAY: My favorite part was looking for new humor to bring to the songs. But the material had to be at the same level as the existing jokes.

SANFORD: I had a blast acting out the characters and improvising new bits. Sometimes I’d dance around auditioning lyrics for Robin. She would either shake her head no or clap her hands with a big smile on her face. Both Robin and our producer Barry Kemp are very funny and have been with these characters since their debut in a play Robin wrote thirty years ago called Ladies Room. So they know when lines are working. And have been a big support throughout the process.

Romy and Michele’s High School ReunionWhat is it about Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion that makes it the new show that the world needs right now?

JAY: Politics are so heavy all over the world right now, and people are looking for an escape. We could all use a good laugh. This show is a wacky good time and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Plus bullying has become such a hot button topic as well as self-image and we tackle both of those head on.

SANFORD: It’s also a reminder of how different the world was 20 years ago, before the giant Tech Boom. The Internet was just being born. There were no smart phones. There wasn’t even DVR! People had to take you for your word. There wasn’t a way people could fact check whether you invented this or that. There was no LinkedIn. There was no Facebook.

You also serve as resident composers of the Netflix series, Orange Is The New Black. When the show returns next month, it will be tackling uncharted territories by having the prisoners in charge of running the prison. How does this shift in the story impact the music that will accompany it?

SANFORD: There’s always a power struggle. And it needs underscore!

JAY: There’s one episode where we got to do a totally different genre of music, so that was a fun challenge.

Previously, you’ve also composed the score for Weeds. As musicians, what have you found to be the biggest differences between composing music for television versus theater?

SANFORD: In scoring to picture, you’re main objective is to support the action and emotion that’s already there on the screen. In creating a musical, your job is much bigger. By writing lyrics, you’re creating the action and emotion within the song. There’s a journey that takes place within a number that moves the story forward. And you’re collaborating with the rest of the creative team in a larger way.

JAY: We do have luxury of time and perspective, which you don’t get nearly as much of when working on a television series because it’s a fast turn around.

SANFORD: Yeah. Theatre is more of a long game. In TV, you get a week and that’s it. Film, perhaps a few weeks or months, depending. We’ve been working on Romy and Michele on and off for the last eight years. That’s a lot time for do-overs.

You have also recorded several albums of children’s music under the moniker, Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang. Do you have plans to release any more albums for kids under this name?

SANFORD: I don’t know. The last album we recorded was when I was pregnant with my first child. And a lot of the energy I used to write children’s songs has been diverted into spending time raising her. And now we have another little one. There’s a lot going on in our family right now!

JAY: We’ll probably pick it up again once they move out.

SANFORD: That’s right. Although, I might skip the pigtails and knee socks at that point.

Gwendolyn Sanford and Brandon Jay You’re not just partners when writing music. The two of you are married in real life. Working on so many projects together, how are you able to separate your business and personal lives?

SANFORD: It’s helpful to have our partner Scott Doherty with us on Orange Is The New Black. If we ever need to step out for personal reasons or other projects, he’s capable of holding down the fort. We work-shopped the musical in NY for four weeks and he was able to do a couple episodes on his own. He’s been a great support.

JAY: We’ve learned to keep regular business hours as much as we can. We stop working at 6 P.M. and have family dinner. After bath and bedtime, one of us might sneak into the studio and finish up any loose ends.

SANFORD: A lot of Romy and Michele songs were recorded in the middle of the night.

JAY: And we have date night every Friday where we mostly talk about work and kids.

SANFORD: Or sometimes we don’t talk at all.

Thank you so much, Gwendolyn and Brandon! Is there anything else that either of you would like to add that we didn’t discuss?

SANFORD: It’s worth seeing the musical just for the shoes!

JAY: Prince would approve … of the shoes, at least.


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, playing The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, WA from June 8 – July 2.

Originally published on PopBytes