INTERVIEW WITH “MISS SAIGON” STAR EVA NOBLEZADA

EVA NOBLEZADA IS A GIRL NO MORE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your musical theater dream roles?

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

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

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


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

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

Originally published on PopBytes

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

Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical Experience

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

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

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

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

Cruel Intentions: The Musical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your musical theater dream role?

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

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

Originally published on PopBytes

INTERVIEW WITH FEARLESS “HAMILTON” STAR MANDY GONZALEZ

MANDY GONZALEZ IS FEARLESSLY MAKING HER DREAMS COME TRUE. 

16 years after her Broadway debut as Idina Menzel’s standby in Aida, the renowned stage actress has just released her first solo recording, Fearless. Best known for originating the role of Nina in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning smash In The Heights, Gonzalez’ illustrious Broadway highlights also include WickedLennon, and Dance of the Vampires. Today, she’s starring in a little show you may have heard of called Hamilton, where she’s once more tackling Miranda’s prolific work.

While Gonzalez’ stage credits could already act as a list of lifetime achievements, the 39-year-old performer has always had a goal of putting together an album of original music. Released on October 20 via Arts Music, Fearless is that record. The collection of songs on the album combine Gonzalez’ signature musical theater sound with pop and R&B to form a genre defying, highly personal, daring, and brilliant debut.

I spoke with Gonzalez about the release of Fearless, collaborating with Lin-Manuel again (both on stage and on her album), her journey as a performer, her new concert residency at NYC’s Café Carlyle, the debate about diversity on Broadway, and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: What does being fearless mean to you?

MANDY GONAZALEZ: It means a lot of things. Lin-Manuel Miranda asked me that same question when I told him about my album and how I wanted to call it Fearless. I started this thing called the #FearlessSquad earlier in the year. It’s a hashtag that started because I felt very overwhelmed looking at social media every day. I wanted to create something that was a place of belonging. I wanted it to be something people could rely on to have a squad that would stand behind them if they were going through anything in their lives.

I posted #FearlessSquad with a picture of some people from my fearless squad in it. Within hours, thousands of people were asking me how they could be part of the squad. That day, they also named me the “#FearlessSquad mother.” It’s like I have a new child of my own because I felt like I could take that on!

We’re there to support each other’s dreams. We talk about everything – good and bad times. But I know that I wouldn’t be anywhere without my squad behind me. I wanted the people that didn’t have a squad to be part of mine. That’s really how Fearless started.

I’ve been doing a lot of concerts in New York City, and when I was approached by [executive producers] Sandy Jacobs and Lou D’Ambrosio to make an album, I felt ready to do it. I got in touch with [producer] Bill Sherman and I said, “This is what I want to do. I started this #FearlessSquad and I want to make an album that provides inspiration for them to feel like they can do anything.” He said “that’s amazing” and “let’s call Lin to create the title track.” So I said, “Okay!”

I was also thinking about how my parents met as pen pals. My father was drafted for the Vietnam War when he was 18. My father is Mexican-American and grew up as a migrant worker following the crop all through the United States. My mother grew up as a Jewish girl in the Valley. She wanted to join the Peace Corps, but her parents said “no,” and so she decided that she was going to write to soldiers that didn’t have anybody to write to. And my dad was one of them.

Oh, wow!

Yeah, they met and they fell in love through letters! When my father came home, he wasn’t really welcomed in a lot of places. That happens a lot during war or hard times. He was welcomed home but he felt like he had changed. He destroyed everything after the war except for my mother’s address. So he got in a car and he showed up on her doorstep. My mom kept every single letter that my father sent her. I didn’t learn about this story until I was about eight-years-old. She told me that the letters were at the very top of her closet in boxes. There were about three big boxes in her closet, but she warned me that I should never read or look at them because they were private. But of course because I’m super nosy and I’m the youngest child, I read every single letter. I got to learn about their love, their differences, and how they came together fearlessly. I told Lin that story and within two weeks, he wrote this incredible song, “Fearless.”

That’s an amazing story.

Thank you! I think so.

You made your Broadway debut in 2001. Why is now the perfect time to release your first solo recording?

Well, you have a lot of goals when you start in this business. One of my goals was always to make an album and to make something for people to listen to. I’ve always wanted to provide a voice for those that needed one at certain times. But I think that I got busy, you know? I was doing a lot of Broadway shows. I kind of went from Broadway show to Broadway show, and when you’re in that kind of world, you’re playing so many different characters and you don’t really think about having your own voice. At least, I didn’t at that time.

I’ve always wanted to have an album so I could do concerts outside of shows. And I love concerts! I love putting them together. I love the intimacy of the audience and just being able to be myself. Through the years, I’ve been doing that in New York City. I did In The Heights, then I did Wicked, and then I took a step away to have a child. I decided that’s what I wanted to do for a good amount of time and I didn’t know what would happen when I left.

I had to step away and really have my dedication be to my family because that’s what I wanted and that’s what worked for me. It was interesting because when I was in Wicked, I felt like I was at the top of my game. But for some reason, it wasn’t enough because I wanted something else. I wanted to have a family and a personal life. I wasn’t ready to go back to work for a while. I didn’t want to leave my kid. I was so happy to have a child and I was so lucky that it happened for my husband and me. But there was something missing. I didn’t know what that was. I talked to my mom about it, and she was like, “Well, you have to sing! You have to go and perform.”

So I got a job doing concerts, singing with symphonies and things like that. When I left my kid for the first time, I cried on the plane. I was really sad. Then I got on stage and started to sing and I felt like I was home. So I think my journey has provided me with a very strong voice to know who I am and to be ready to make an album for people to hear who I am. I had to find myself before that happened.

As I was doing concerts and life was happening (my daughter is now five and we’re busy!), I got a call from [director] Thomas Kail, who asked “Hey, do you want to come and do Hamilton?” And I immediately was like, “Yes!” So I came here and I’m in the same place where I was a decade ago – in the same theater where I performed In The Heights, with people that became my family, and in the same dressing room. But I’m a different person. I’ve had all these different experiences. So while I’m in Hamilton, on Monday nights I’m doing concerts because that’s what I love to do as well. And as all that was happening, I had somebody say, “Do you want to make an album?” I finally felt ready to say yes and this is what I want to do, this is who I want to work with, and these are the songs. But it took me all that time to really be ready for that. Long story short!

Why do you think that you and Lin have collaborated so frequently over the years? What is it about his songwriting that draws you to his music so often?

I think Lin writes from the heart and I sing from the heart. I remember hearing the songs he wrote for Nina in In The Heights for the first time and I cried because they were so, so beautiful. I felt like he was speaking only to me. Sometimes when you listen to Lin’s music, you feel like he’s just talking to you. That’s part of his magic.

I also think that he knows me as both a singer and a person. He’s chosen me to be this vessel for his writing, which is a beautiful thing. It’s hard for me to give myself props but I think that I can translate it like nobody else. I don’t think about the notes. I think about the story and I think about the emotion. And I think that’s how he writes. When he writes, he’s not thinking, “Oh, now she’s gonna hit this note.” No. It’s about what this person is going through and what they want to say. When he wrote the song “Fearless,” I was like, “Wow! He did it again!”

Speaking of Lin, one of the songs on the album is a new version of your signature In The Heights song, “Breathe.” How is this version of the song different from the one that your fans already know? And what inspired you to reinterpret it?

When I sat down with Bill, I said that I wanted to do an interpretation of this song as I am now. I did In The Heights 10 years ago and I’ve grown up since. I wanted to lower the key. I wanted it to come from my perspective. In a little bit of ways, it’s now as if I’m singing it to my own daughter.

That’s the great thing about beautiful songs. They stay with you. The beautiful thing about concerts and making music is that they grow with you. A beautiful song is a beautiful song. But you change. I’m not the young girl coming home from college anymore. I have those same wants and those same desires, but it comes from a different and wiser perspective.

In addition to Lin, the record features original songs from some of the most recognizable names in the industry, such as Jennifer Nettles and Tom Kitt. How did it feel to have such A-list talent write music for your first album? What was the creative process like working with them on constructing these songs?

It felt great! When you’re making an album, you have to be fearless and you have to just go for it. My way of doing that was collaborating with people that I admire. I would write to them and say, “I’m doing this album, will you write a song? And this is what I’m thinking.” Sometimes you worry about just asking that question. Sometimes when you do, you don’t even know what the possibilities could be. So I took a chance and I was fearless. And they all said yes! That was an incredible thing.

I chose all of these writers because they all write right from the heart. They write about the human condition so beautifully and they don’t sugarcoat things. For instance, I’m such a huge fan of Jennifer Nettles’ work. Her songs make you feel like she’s singing just to you or like her songs are just for you. That’s why I knew I had to sing the song she wrote, “Life Is Sweet,” with Christopher Jackson. I knew that he knew what it’s like to lose something and have to go on. It was incredible.

In The Heights is set to be adapted into a film soon. Aside from yourself, are there any actors that you would like to see play the role of Nina on screen?

Oh, well, I don’t think myself. I don’t look like I’m in college anymore! I really like Auli’i Cravalho from Moana. She’s really beautiful and so talented. I think she would be good.

I just love In The Heights because I think that it will bring work to so many Latinos in the industry, as it did for Broadway. It employs a lot of Latinos and it allows people to see us in the light that we should be seen in: as just people. So I would like to see somebody like that – someone who is good in their heart – to play Nina.

What can fans expect from your residency at NYC’s Café Carlyle (now through November 4)?

Oh, I’m so excited! They can just expect a good time and lots of incredible dresses. They can expect songs from the album and an incredible band. They can expect to get dressed up and if they can’t get to the Café Carlyle, we will be posting what it’s like at the shows on social media so they can feel like they’re there with me!

You also recently worked with Postmodern Jukebox and Tony DeSare on a cover of “Despacito.”How did this collaboration come about and do you plan to continue recording with them?

I do! I love Scott Bradlee. I’ve been a fan of Postmodern Jukebox for a long time. I worked with Tony DeSare this past July 4th when we did a concert with the Philadelphia Pops. It was amazing. Boyz II Men, Mary J. Blige, and Paula Abdul were in the concert. It was like all of my childhood dreams coming true. It was the best concert ever!

When Tony DeSare and I met, I was like, “We should really do something together.” And he agreed. So I said, “I’d like to take a Spanish song and put a different twist on it – maybe with an old school vibe, kind of like Postmodern Jukebox?” And he was said, “Okay, well why don’t I just call Postmodern Jukebox?” And I said, “Oh! You know them?” It turns out that he and Scott Bradlee have been friends for a long time.

Then Tony had the great idea about doing “Despacito”. Plus, it was the number one hit of the summer, and it had Justin Bieber, Luis Fonsi, and Daddy Yankee. We wanted to pay tribute to that in our own way. So Tony and I put a little spin on it, which was awesome!

What’s the most rewarding part of being a part of the juggernaut that is Hamilton?

Being back with my family. I’m in a place where I feel welcomed. I also love doing a show that is so needed right now all over the country. It’s so important. One of my favorite things to do is #EduHam, where we bring in 11th graders from all over the New York City public school system. They pay $10 and they come to see a matinee performance. They all see it together. One of my favorite things is performing for them, but they also get to write their own pieces before they see the show. They come in at like 10:00 AM and they cheer on their fellow classmates. The stuff that these students do is just mind-blowing and is so inspiring for the next generation of writers.

Hamilton has done some incredible things and has set the bar to new levels all the way around. Not just artistically, but what it is doing socially too. It’s so important. I’m very proud to be a part of it.

The current administration is threatening some of the most basic and fundamental rights of American citizens, including (but not limited to) women’s rights, having a free press and the right to peacefully protest. What can audience members of Hamilton learn from the show that can be applied to the fight against tyranny in today’s White House?

For me, the show is an inspiring thing to be a part of every night and to watch. It shows how people from different places and with different views can come together to create an incredible nation. It also shows that there have always been times of turmoil in our country. It’s never been an even thing, but we get through it because we’re strong.

As an actress, how is the role of Angelica Schuyler different from some of the other characters you’ve played on stage?

I relate to Angelica so well now because of where I am in my own life. I’m a mother and I know what it takes to sacrifice. I don’t even have to think about that word. I know what it means. I didn’t know that until I became a mother.

When I came here, I knew that I would have an incredible relationship with the women that play my sisters. And we do! We have a lot of fun, Lexi [Lawson], Joanna [Jones] and I. I’m the youngest in my own family so it’s been fun to be like the big sister here, and hopefully be the one that people turn to for advice and different things like that. Through this show, I’ve learned that I’m a lot more of a leader than sometimes I used to think I was.

There has been a lot of discussion and debate about diversity in theater lately, including the casting controversies surrounding Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and North Shore Music Theatre’s Evita. As a member of the theater community, what are your thoughts on the conversations happening about diversity on stage? And as a Latina, what type of impact(s) has being an actor of color had on your career?

Being Latina is a part of everything that I am and every character that I play because it’s a part of me. I think that it’s important to start having these discussions. When the talking begins is when a little bit of the hate settles because that’s when change starts to happen. A show like Hamilton has opened up so many doors, but I have to pay tribute to the people that opened the doors first – like Priscilla Lopez, Chita Rivera, and all of the people before us. So I think that doors will continue to open. It’s very important for us to tell our stories. It’s important to have more writers, more people behind the scenes, and more directors that are also telling these stories.

I also think it’s very important to reach out to audiences – all different kinds of and diverse audiences. That’s something that Viva Broadway is doing with the Broadway League. It’s very important because they’re reaching out to all different kinds of communities to come to the theater. Having audiences come to see shows is how theater sustains and how it grows.

So I don’t think that you can ignore a whole demographic of people. I definitely know that the Broadway League recognizes that. Luis Miranda [Lin-Manuel’s father] is actually on the board of Viva Broadway. It’s important to be aware of that work that’s happening. It’s also very important to stand behind it and ask, “If I’m not happy with the way that things are, how can I help?”

What is your musical theater dream role?

I think I’m living it now! I think just to be me, singing and doing concerts.


CLICK HERE to purchase Mandy Gonzalez’ debut album, Fearless.

CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to her residency at Café Carlyle,
now through November 4th in New York City.

CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to catch her in Hamilton on Broadway—good luck!

Originally published on PopBytes

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