TALKING “SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD” WITH SHOSHANA BEAN

Shoshana BeanSHOSHANA BEAN HAS RETURNED TO HER THEATER ROOTS.

Since taking over for original star Idina Menzel in the Broadway production of Wicked, Bean has been delighting fans across the globe as an acclaimed independent artist. Her phenomenal four solo albums include last year’s exceptional Spectrum, which debuted at #1 on the iTunes and Billboard Jazz Charts. As a result, Bean headlined a sold-out concert at The Apollo, one of New York’s most emblematic musical institutions.

But one month before her Apollo show, Bean made a rare return to the New York stage as an actress (for the first time in 12 years!). From June 27-30, 2018, the vocal powerhouse starred in a revival of composer Jason Robert Brown’s first musical, Songs For A New World. Playing as part of New York City Center’s Encores! series, this revered production has been preserved in the form of a glorious new cast recording that’s available now from Ghostlight Records.

I spoke with Bean about Songs For A New World, her February concert residency in L.A., the upcoming all-female Jesus Christ Superstar concept album, her next solo record, memories of Wicked and much more.


ALEX NAGORSKI: Songs For A New World marked the first time you performed in a musical on a New York stage since Wicked in 2006. Why was this the perfect production with which to make your grand return?

SHOSHANA BEAN: Two reasons. First, this show has been with me, like most of us, for 20+ years. I first discovered it when I was right out of college and it was super impactful. This show has a lot of personal meaning for me. Second, Jason Robert Brown is a dear friend. He’s one of my favorite people to collaborate with and one of my favorite composers. It seemed like the perfect opportunity!

It was also a quick commitment. I think part of my resistance to coming back to the New York stage has been the tying down of it all – the lack of freedom and the lack of ability to simultaneously keep doing my own thing. This was a short commitment and music that I loved. Plus, Jason is both a human being and a composer that I would walk on hot coals for.

In your opinion, what is it about JRB’s work that has made him into such a contemporary musical theater legend?

His ability to be a classic writer while still being modern and contemporary is the first thing that grabbed me back in the day. It felt like singing pop music in the musical theater genre. I think the second and most important thing about his writing is his storytelling ability. He just makes it so easy! There’s no guess work and there’s no trying to spin something into gold. It’s just all there. It’s a full meal deal and it’s meaty and it’s good.

I’ve been singing “Stars And The Moon” for almost 20 years. When he first heard me singing it, he was like, “she’s 20 years too young.” In the decades since, the evolution of my relationship with that song just proves that there’s no end to what you can discover in his music. No matter how many times you’ve sung it, no matter how much you believe that you understand what story you’re telling, it just consistently evolves. That’s my favorite thing about his writing – the story he allows me to continue to tell.

Speaking of “Stars And The Moon,” this is arguably his most iconic song. Not only has it become a cabaret standard, it’s also been recorded by the likes of Audra McDonald, Betty Buckley and Sutton Foster. What do you think makes this such a standout number in both Songs For A New World and JRB’s catalog at large? And what was your creative process like to make your interpretation so unique? 

Songs For A New WorldWhether it’s in a relationship, in work or any decision you make in your life, there are questions of, “Am I making a decision that allows me to dream and see with my heart and spirit? Am I making a logical, smart decision based on illusion? Am I doing this based on what I think I’m supposed to do or what I think I want and need?” I think we all struggle with those decisions every day. “Am I making decisions for money or am I making decisions for my heart’s happiness? Am I making decisions for my parents or am I making decisions because of my authentic choices?”

Jason articulated these feelings in a very specific way. The song deals with a woman who chose a dream of wealth and celebrity that she thought would fulfill her, but then it ultimately didn’t. I think we all are looking at our choices in different ways every day. We’re analyzing selling out versus “When I get to the end of my days, I’m going to look back and know that I may have done things the harder and more impoverished ways, but god I don’t regret it! I wouldn’t change a thing. I know I didn’t miss out. I wrung out every drop of the juice that I had in this life.” I think because of that, the songs speaks to everyone, no matter what age.

The creative process was the past 20 years of continuing to get to know and sing this song. For me, the creative process is always just living life. The more you live, the more experience you bring to the table. The way you communicate becomes more honest, vulnerable and authentic.

With Jason’s music, every time I sing it, I hear and discover something new. When it comes to his music, the lyrics do the work for you. Therefore, my goal always is to show up as vulnerable and available as possible, and as connected to the lyrics and to the audience as possible. The purest, most powerful access to his stuff is when you’re willing to be completely transparent. That’s really the only requirement with his writing – to show up like a human and bare your soul and tell the story.

Songs For A New World played a very limited run. What was it like preserving this short experience in the studio when recording the album for Ghostlight Records?

Not enough time! It was all very much under the gun as far as time was concerned, so we had to rush through it. We had barely a two-week process together! It wasn’t until that Saturday, which were the last shows of that run, when we are all like, “Oh, now we’re finally getting into our groove.”

Coming back to record was like, “Yay, we get to sink our teeth in again!” But it’s never enough time. I’ll reiterate that Jason’s music is so complex. Also, he’ll be the first to say, “I wrote this when I was 18 years old, I didn’t know how to write in a woman’s comfortable place,” and I’d be like, “Why would you write ‘The Flagmaker, 1775’ in this key? It’s a nightmare!” He’d just laugh and say, “I was young!”

I think we just all could have used more time together to enjoy the process. Anytime you’re together with a magical group of people – and I do think this cast had a magical vibe and blend – it just always feels too short.

Do you have any desire to return to Broadway? If so, what type of show and/or role would be most enticing to you?

That varies. I think the bottom line is that it’s just a moment-by-moment decision. I actually just went to New York to do a first reading of a beautiful new piece by Harvey Fierstein and Alan Menken. The character is really different for me. It’s a part that you probably would be surprised by. But this piece literally got inside my heart and spoke to me so clearly. So it really is a case-by-case basis! This role may have come to me at another time in my life and I might have been like, “This just doesn’t feel right.”

I’m realizing that as we are living, breathing, evolving creatures, things change. There are pieces that used to really get under my skin and I’d be like, “oh my god, I’d give anything to do this!” Then you come back to them later and you’re like, “I don’t feel that I have anything to bring to this anymore.” I’m so grateful to have reached a point where I only do things that light my heart up. The people that I work with and the audiences deserve that. So I make decisions based on that, if that makes sense.

Every Tuesday in February, you’re performing your show, “Standards at the Standard” in West Hollywood. What can your fans expect from this series of intimate concerts?

Shoshana BeanMostly that it’s all improv and on-the-fly! It’s not the same set every week. Basically, I will choose songs, give my band the key and we will show up and see what happens. I’ve always been so intent on making sure everything is prepared and perfect. But what I’ve realized and learned, especially in the past year or so, is that some of the most beautiful things happen in the unexpected space. I wanted to create a safe environment to let that happen. I think it’s also exciting for an audience to know that we don’t know what’s happening and to watch what comes out of that. Some of the shows might be complete train wrecks but some of them could be beautiful! I have the greatest musicians who I can have those kinds of musical conversations with.

By “standards,” we mean the classic American songbook – but I think that songbook is expanding as time goes by. There will be Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson songs that will become standards. These will be the songs that our kids are singing and looking back on as part of the classic songbook. I’m expanding the definition of “standard” to include artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan. These are now the new classics.

In case fans can’t come see you in Los Angeles, where can they catch you next? Do you have any further tour plans for 2019?

We’re working on a couple of cities. I’ll probably keep doing spot dates but I’ve got to start writing the next record, so I’m trying to keep myself home as much as possible.

You’re also currently finishing up working on the all-female Jesus Christ Superstar concept album, which is slated to be released in June. What inspired you and Morgan James to put this project together?

I cannot take any credit. This was all Morgan. I had nothing to do with it except for to say yes. She’s so creative. She put together an incredible cast and it’s a great idea. I’m super excited about it! Morgan was right on the money with this one.

When she initially had the idea, the timing was really right because the tide was starting to turn as far as what women will and won’t take anymore as far as pay, opportunity or treatment. This was the perfect vehicle to be empowered with and to bring people together in the way that she – and us all as a cast –did. It was such a powerful thing and I’m so glad that it’s being preserved for all time on this recording.

To hear women sing this stuff is so amazing. We didn’t change any keys and we didn’t alter it to suit a woman’s voice by any means. We had to limbo around what’s already written, which was super challenging.

On this recording, Cynthia Erivo is singing the part of Mary Magdalene. You two have collaborated many times recently, including on your viral “I Did Something Bad” cover and your co-headling holiday concert at the Apollo. Why do you think you two work so well together and do you have any other upcoming projects together?

A myriad of reasons! She challenges me to raise the bar all the time in every way. She shows me myself knowingly and unknowingly. She has no problem being like, “You’re being crazy!” She feels me, supports me and makes me feel better about myself. We have a very special connection on soul and spiritual levels. For example, we never discuss what we’re wearing. When we show up to do press or whatever else together, we’re always in a similar color scheme or in some kind of similar outfit. We are so connected.

My favorite thing about us singing together is that most people cannot tell who’s singing what part. Sometimes she’ll even look at me and be like, “Who was top and who was on bottom?” We love how well our voices blend and I think that’s because we listen in the same way. We’re both musical in a very similar way and we are open to connect with each other on stage. There are a lot of people who you can sing and sound good with, but to actually look at the person you’re on stage with and know that you’re being seen as you are seeing them is a rare gift. That’s one of the great things that we are able to do together.

And yes, we have plenty of things coming down the pike together!

Last year, you released your album, Spectrum. It seems that you’ve really refined your identity as a solo artist by creating a perfect blend of your musical theater roots and your passion for jazz and soul music. How did you marry these influences to create such a simultaneously distinctive and timeless sound?

Shoshana BeanIt wasn’t easy! I won’t lie, it was a long and deductive process. I was looking to make sure I could please everybody, which is a very tall task. People have discovered me in so many ways and all of those people want more of that specific thing. So people who know me because of Postmodern Jukebox are like “do more with them” and people who found me because of Broadway are like, “do more musical theater!”

It just always feels like this tug of war, as if I’m straddling all these fences and trying to please all these people. But at the same time, I’m trying to stay authentic to what my artistic heart wants to do, what I want to say and where I want to go next. It’s a challenge! Initially, this project came out of the desire to please everyone, and then, whittling down what would be inauthentic. A full jazz album wouldn’t fly because I’m not a jazz artist. A full Broadway album wouldn’t fly because I have so much more to say than just that. So we just took the ingredients from all of these things and made our own recipe of chili, you know what I mean? It was a really terrifying process to go outside my comfort zone and ask those questions.

What are your plans for a Spectrum follow-up?

I’m starting to work on the writing. I start my first writing session tonight, actually! We never know if the songs that we’re writing right now are actually going to make it on the album. I haven’t written a song since “Remember The Day,” which was like a year and a half ago, so I’m excited to see what happens.

You’ve also been churning out many covers lately, like “In My Blood,” “Shallow,” “This Is Me” and “Mine Again”. How do you decide what songs to put your own spin on and do you have plans to eventually release a full covers album?

No, not anymore. I feel like Spectrum was largely a covers album. There are certain songs that really speak to me that make me feel like, “Oh, this belongs on my album because I wish I would have written it” or whatever. I don’t intend to really do that anymore. It doesn’t fulfill me in the way that my own stuff does. And if the numbers show, as far as Spectrum was concerned, they weren’t the most popular or favorite songs either. So I think it really has to be something special for me to now feel like, “Oh yeah, this is going on my record because it feels like I wanted to say this.”

On Friday, the Wicked cast recording will be rereleased to celebrate the musical’s 15thanniversary. Looking back, how did it feel the first time you stepped out on stage as Elphaba? And did you know at the time that Wicked would become such a long-lasting global blockbuster?

Shoshana BeanWe knew it was a hit at that point but I don’t think I had thought that far ahead. I certainly couldn’t have predicted this. Right when I took over was when YouTube started to happen and social media like MySpace was just ramping up. I think the accessibility that allowed is part of the show’s wild success. Before with Broadway shows, if you couldn’t watch performances on David Letterman or Rosie O’Donnell or if you couldn’t fly to New York or see the national tour or buy the soundtrack, you were shit out of luck. There wasn’t a way to access or be knowledgeable about what was going on. YouTube and social media completely changed that and Wicked was right at that breaking point. I largely credit that timing with what I’ve been able to do with my solo career and I largely credit that timing with how massive that show got. But no is the short answer. I don’t think anyone could have predicted how big it became.

Let’s just say that the first time I went out was unexpected because I was standing by for Idina Menzel. I had a planned week to go on for the first time because she was leaving to film Enchanted. A couple days before that was supposed to happen, she went out sick. Of course, in that instance, you don’t get a ton of warning and I was on! I think I just felt adrenaline, excitement, fear and a complete awareness of the moment. You can’t step one inch to the left incorrectly or someone could get hurt in that show. There’s really an importance for exactness so it takes you out of thinking about anything else. So, I think it was probably just a feeling of terror.

Also, can you imagine standing by for Idina Menzel and all those people came to see her and they find out that someone they never heard of is going on instead? They’d think, “This is the worst day of my life!” At that point, she was down to her final months in the show and people were flying in from all over the world to make sure they saw her in it. There was certainly an element of fear that I was going to piss these people off and disappoint them.

That must have been so scary!

Oh yeah, the pressure was insane! I had no previous reputation, so there was nobody to let down – except for, obviously, the people wanting to see Idina.

I think that same idea of expectation was what caused the fear I felt when I showed up for Songs For A New World. When I got on stage, I was like, “Holy shit, why am I wracked with fear and anxiety?” And it was only then that I realized I haven’t been on a New York stage in 12 years, like you mentioned in your first question.

I’ve been doing my own thing for so long and what I realized is I’ve created a situation where there’s no one to compare me to. But theater is different. When you get on stage, it feels like there’s some kind of expectation or that there are constraints or boundaries. This was dipping my toe back in, putting myself in the hot seat and being able to be judged by however many seats are in that house. It’s a bigger stage than what I’m doing on my own and it’s scarier, for sure.

Both personally and professionally, what are some of your biggest goals and dreams for 2019?

My personal goals include what I say yes to and how I take care of myself and my boundaries.

Professionally, my biggest goal is getting this next album written! I want this to be a completely new and deep level of songwriting for me. I really want it to be the best thing that I’ve done up to this point. I’d love to maybe even get it recorded, depending on how quickly I can do this writing process. You kind of know when you’ve got the album – when everything you’ve written is cohesive and makes sense and you’re saying the things that you want to say. In a perfect world, I would love to have the next album recorded by the end of this year.

I’m really enjoying what Spectrum opened up for me in terms of opportunities and experiences. I want to keep writing that way, stay in that lane and keep making records like that.

If you were running for President in 2020, what would your campaign slogan be?

United We Stand!

Originally published on PopBytes

TALKING “BE MORE CHILL” WITH STAR WILL ROLAND

Be More ChillWHAT IF YOU COULD TAKE A PILL THAT GAVE YOU WHAT YOU WANTED MOST IN LIFE?

This is the question at the heart of Be More Chill, a hotly anticipated musical with music and lyrics by Joe Iconis that will debut at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre in February. The show stars Dear Evan Hansen alumnus Will Roland as Jeremy, a social outcast whose dreams of high school popularity start coming true after he takes a pill called a SQUIP (a “super quantum unit intel processor”), which implants a computer into his brain to dictate what he says and does.

The regional Be More Chill world premiere cast recording (released in 2015) has already amassed over 200 million streams to become of the most streamed cast albums of all time. In 2017, the show’s status as a viral sensation prior to its inaugural Broadway bow had Tumblr rank it as the #2 most talked-about musical on its platform (only behind Hamilton).

Though Roland was not part of the world premiere cast, he took on the central role of Jeremy this past summer when Be More Chill played its acclaimed Off-Broadway run. During that production’s rehearsal process, Iconis wrote “Loser Geek Whatever,” a brand new anthem to close out the first act. Now, Ghostlight Records has released the breakout showstopper as the musical’s lead single in advance of its Broadway arrival.

To celebrate the single’s release, I spoke with Roland about bringing Be More Chill to Broadway, what makes “Loser Geek Whatever” such a standout number, his own high school experience, his journey with Dear Evan Hansen and much more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: Why was Be More Chill the perfect project for you following the blockbuster success of Dear Evan Hansen?

WILL ROLAND: There is a lot about Be More Chill that’s really appealing to me personally. It’s another story about a young person. I’m very attracted to those stories because I think young people are very interesting in their lives. Also, I have a very long relationship with a lot of the creative team, especially Joe Iconis. In addition to all that, I have always loved sci-fi, fantasy, and anything that can push boundaries. I love magical realism. Anything outside of our normal world is very appealing to me as an artist. So the opportunity to do a piece that does all those things and to be the leading man in it was beyond exciting. It was truly the perfect thing that fell into my lap at the perfect moment!

What makes “Loser Geek Whatever” the perfect song to introduce people to this story and its music?

“Loser Geek Whatever” gives you a great idea of who our leading man is and what he’s struggling with during the course of our story. It is a new song that was written during the Off-Broadway run, so I’m very excited to say that I’m the only person who’s performed it onstage. It’s very emblematic of what the show sounds like. It has a sort of retro-futurist pop/punk sound, but it also has really thoughtful lyrics. I think it’s a great representation of what our show is about.

This show has a really enormous fan base and whenever I talk about “Loser Geek Whatever,” I talk about how the song is not only about Jeremy, but it’s also about me – Will Roland, the actor. It’s also about all of these incredible young people who have internet-ed Be More Chill into its success. It’s about a lot of things at once and so I’m really excited we got to release that single in advance of the Broadway run!

Be More ChillHow do you think the addition of this song as the Act One closer enhances the show?

One of the things that was tricky about this show was that it left us asking a few questions. One of these was, “why is Jeremy making the decisions that he’s making?” We were very eager to peek inside his head. What we’ve seen so far in the show are a lot of moments where he’s been bullied and dunked on by the world – but they’re all, for the most part, kind of comical and they all sort of happen to him. So I think one of the things that’s really valuable about this song is that it gives us a look inside his head. We learn that all of these things that we see happening to him are not just little occurrences. They’re actually making him feel profoundly lonely and dissatisfied.

I talk a lot about how the word “bully” is kind of reductive. It’s a word that we use to describe “things that happen to kids.” But the bullying that occurs to Jeremy has a real effect on him and he’s really profoundly unhappy. This song is where we get to watch him make the decision to do something that he doesn’t like, which is to leave behind his one real friend in order to hopefully make a change in his life.

The “Loser Geek Whatever” single also includes instrumental and acoustic versions of the track. What was it like to peel back the layers of such a big song and record such an intimate rendition?

The release of the instrumental version to me is very funny because it’s exactly what I was singing along to in the studio – so that’s a great gift to our karaoke enthusiasts out there! The acoustic version was a really fun thing to get to put together. It was just Joe Iconis and I at the piano. We played around with a bunch of different vocalisms and textures. In the end, we decided to sing it a whole step higher than it is in the show and on the other recording.

This song is very powerful. It’s very huge and it feels like a Van Halen song. But for the acoustic version, we wanted to really point out the lyrics and point out the longing and trouble that’s present in there. We wanted to strip away a lot of the artifice and the yelling. I do a lot of yelling in this song! It was really hard to pull that back and make it into something that’s just a little bit more stripped-down, bare bones and vulnerable.

As a performer, what are the most rewarding and challenging parts of tackling Joe Iconis’ score? 

The best thing about the score is that it is the most intelligent and literate lyrics that I’ve ever been handed in my whole life! I’m a musical theater performer who believes it is all about the lyrics. I don’t go in for big vocal fireworks and lots of riffing and things like that. Joe’s writing is musically very interesting and very challenging – but it’s really about these incredible lyrics that he’s writing.

In terms of the score and the musical elements of it, it’s definitely a challenge for me. I spend a lot of time hydrating and sleeping. I’m not talking during the day because it really is a marathon in terms of styles, range and volume. I’m doing a lot of really gentle falsetto-y stuff during the show. So if I’m out drinking and partying, that’s going to be the first thing that I won’t have at the matinee the next day. I’m very conscious of preservation in that way.

The other thing that’s so fun about Joe’s music is that it switches grooves so often. The show has a unifying sound but it definitely doesn’t all sound the same. There are a variety of styles that I think are really honestly and truthfully represented.

Be More Chill

What are some of the biggest differences between the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions?

We restructured the second act when we were in rehearsals Off-Broadway. We reordered it so that the sequence of events was more exciting for audience members. There has also been a real focus on making sure that the audience understands that all of the characters on stage are having a similar struggle to what we watch Jeremy having very articulately in the rest of the show. Both for Off-Broadway and for Broadway, we’re giving moments to everyone in the company so that you understand that all of the young people and the father–all of the people in the show–are having their own tiny Be More Chill off in the wings while we’re watching Jeremy’s story on stage. That’s one of the big focuses.

We’ve also been talking a lot about how the role of artificial intelligence and computers has really increased in our lives, especially in the years since this show was originally written. We wanted to make sure that our show had a point of view about what those machines can do and are doing in our world, and what is our responsibility as the people who create and control them.

When the show begins, Jeremy is an underdog at his New Jersey high school. When you were growing up, was the hierarchal structure of your high school as rigid as it is in Be More Chill? If so, how did that inform your understanding of your character?

Well, I was very lucky. I went to a high school that was very small and it had a lot of ways of valuing a lot of people. I was very involved in theater starting very early on, from sixth grade until I graduated. It was the kind of school where everybody went to the play. So I think the fact that I was on stage playing the romantic lead in a show changed the way that people thought about me. I’m very lucky to say that I didn’t have a super hard time in high school.

It also was this sort of tricky thing where I felt very confident and sometimes was not entirely kind to my classmates. You could say I was something of a bully. And that was something I had to learn to grow out of, which I did thankfully! I’m lucky to say that a lot of what I’m doing as Jeremy is me drawing from experiences that I saw among my friends and among my classmates and then internalizing them with some of my own experiences. But I’m happy to say that I had a much easier time than Jeremy’s having in high school.

Be More ChillJeremy’s journey from being bullied to becoming the bully to landing on and accepting his authentic self is quite a vast character arc. Why do you think his is such an important story to tell?

I think that our notions of what leads look like in musicals these days, or in all forms of art, is changing. I think a lot about how those kids on Stranger Things are like the heroes of America at this moment. There are a lot of “losers,” “geeks” and whatever rapidly permeating the mainstream of our culture. They’re no longer relegated to, “the FBI agent hands the case to the computer nerd and he puts it in the machine and it spits out a photo.” I feel like we’re seeing more diversity of body types and ages and all sorts of stuff.

So in terms of Jeremy’s journey, I think it’s the kind of story that we get to tell when we allow more diverse stories onto the stage. We’ve always loved underdogs on stage and in literature. But to watch this guy’s life get super-charged, or upgraded as we say in the show, is the beauty of sci-fi. The beauty of sci-fi is that we say, “What would happen if we have this blah blah blah that we don’t have in the world?” This is one version of how one kid would use it.

If we were to pop this SQUIP into the head of any other musical theater character, we’d get a totally different tale. That’s the beauty of the genre. I think the success of our show comes from the idea that we get to see someone do something where they step entirely outside of themselves at the drop of a hat.

Be More ChillIs there a primary takeaway you’re hoping audiences have after seeing the show?

The finale of our show is a song called “Voices in My Head” and it is about both literal and figurative voices that one experiences – whether those are a super computer in your brain, actual voices in your head, voices of actual people in your life or voices of things like doubt or your conscience. Both the song and the show are about how our lives are filled with voices, people and urges telling us what to do and what to think. Those never really quite go away. But hopefully we can listen to the good voices within ourselves and use them to cope. It’s more a show about learning to deal with the world than it is about fixing the problems in your life. You’re never going to fix them and they aren’t going to go away! They just get easier to deal with. I think that’s a very realistic message for 2018 wrapped up in a very fantastical show.

How influential was Ned Vizzini’s novel during your creative process? How does the show expand on its source material?

I read the novel, as did a lot of our cast and creative team, leading up to the process. I would say that on the whole, our show takes a brighter and more fantastical view of the world than the novel does. But what the novel affords us is this very interesting question, which is, “what if happiness came in a pill?” I think that when the late, great Ned Vizzini was writing it, he was very specifically commenting on his experiences taking Adderall, Ritalin and various drugs that are prescribed to teenagers.

Though those questions and notions are in there, I think our show is more about the broader question of technology in our lives. There are things that Ned couldn’t necessarily have predicted when the book came out in 2004 – like map surveillance by Google and Amazon, etc. Our show makes the world a little bit larger. The novel is great and I love reading it, but it sort of doesn’t have an ending. Meanwhile, our show has this big, spectacular world-threatening climax that is entirely the invention of our stage adapters. It’s a lot of fun!

Be More ChillSince a world premiere cast recording of the show from 2015 already exists, do you feel a sense of pressure to remain faithful to Will Connolly’s interpretation of Jeremy? Or do you feel freedom to discover the character on your own?

I definitely feel like once I learned that I would be playing this role, I very much stopped listening to the cast recording so that I could feel that the choices I was making were my own. I returned immediately to the text and pretended as if there were no cast recording. But I also had already listened to that cast recording many, many times because I was an original Be More Chill fan! And so, there are many elements of Will’s performance that I just couldn’t help but incorporate into my own. Even if I were endeavoring to make it different and make it mine, it’s just the way that theater works. It’s inherent in the same way that if I went and played Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast next week, I would be paying certain homage to Jerry Orbach – even if it had been years since I really observed that specific performance. These things imprint on us! So it’s a little bit of both.

Even before the show has officially opened, you’re already getting Tony Awards buzz. Does that impact your creative process at all? What would that kind of recognition mean to you?

I would love for Be More Chill and for everyone in it to win every Tony Award possible! I think that would be the greatest thing ever. But I also know that these awards are a very challenging thing for us to incorporate into our process and let into our world. Though we obviously are going to be campaigning hard and hoping that we clean up, at the same time, we have a job to do and we can’t let little gold statues affect that.

Dear Evan Hansen is currently celebrating two years on Broadway. Looking back, how would you sum up the experience of being such an integral part of the show all the way from its regional to Off-Broadway to eventually Broadway productions?

Dear Evan Hansen was an incredible experience in my life. I spent just about four years working on the show between readings, workshops, out of town, Off-Broadway and Broadway. It taught me an incredible amount about our industry and producing. We had a really spectacular team. That show continues to have a really spectacular team from onstage to the creative team, the producing team, the marketing team, all that stuff. I really learned a lot by getting to watch this show have its meteoric rise.

I also learned a lot about what is important in the development of a show. When I started out, the first draft that we read was like three hours long and it was actually very satirical. It was definitely very heartfelt but there was a lot of it that was laughing at us and the way that we’re addicted to the internet. As the show’s development went on, it became clear that we wanted to take a more honest and earnest look at that aspect of our lives.

We also learned that my character, Jared, remained the voice of skepticism as all this ridiculous stuff started to happen. That had a huge effect on the shape of my role. It was less time spent torturing Evan. I actually had a song that was just six minutes of torturing Evan at the beginning of the show that got cut. Jared became the traditional Shakespearean clown in that he looks at the audience or at Evan, and says, “This is ridiculous! What the hell is going on here?” And in the end, he also calls Evan out on his world before it all falls apart. So it was fascinating to get to go on that ride and inhabit all of those roles over so many years through so many drafts and incarnations. It was so great to watch those writers and that creative team decide what they wanted the show to be.

There are film versions of both Dear Evan Hansen and Be More Chill currently in development.

Hollywood is coming for all my jobs!

Aside from yourself, who would you like to see play your characters in each of these movies?

I hadn’t even thought of that! I hadn’t thought to dream cast the roles. I do think that any of those Stranger Things kids would be excellent in Be More Chill. In terms of Dear Evan Hansen, I don’t know! I haven’t thought too much about it. I would love to make a cameo as Jared’s dad. That would be very fun. I could just yell upstairs to him while he’s up there with Evan. I think that would be a delightful moment that we’d all enjoy at the cinema.

Congratulations on your recent engagement! How’s juggling wedding planning with opening a new Broadway musical going?

Thank you so much! It’s very, very cool. If we’re being honest, wedding planning is going on the back burner a little bit. I have a little sister who’s also engaged and she’s going to be getting married in the fall. So that’s going to happen first. Our wedding will probably be some point after I leave Be More Chill. But we’re definitely checking out venues and thinking about invitations and the guest list and things like that. It’s insane! It’s the craziest process in the world. It’s an industry designed to confound people and I think it’s meant to test their love. I think it’s meant to be like, “You sure you want to do this? It’s challenging!” But we’re having a lot of fun with it. We’ve been together for a long time and she’s very much a part of this community.

What are some of your musical theater dream roles?

Oh man! I always love to say for this question that my musical theater dream role hasn’t been written yet. But the truth is there are a few I love. One of my favorite musicals ever is 1776 and I would love to play John Adams. I’ve been talking for a long time about how in the year 2026, it’ll be 250 years since the founding of our country and I’m sure that there will be some high-profile Broadway revival of 1776. I would be perfectly appropriate to play John Adams at that point in my life!

Thanks so much, Will! It was so great to chat with you and I cannot wait to see Be More Chill. Is there anything else you’d like to add that we didn’t discuss?

Thank you, Alex! It’s truly been a pleasure. We’ve got the 11thAnnual Joe Iconis Christmas Spectacular coming up from December 14-16. It’s totally sold out but people should try and come anyway! It’s totally raucous and irreverent Christmas lunacy. It’s the longest show you’ll ever see at 54 Below. It’s a real, full-fledged book musical so you’ll really get your money’s worth! It’s very, very fun.


CLICK HERE to download or stream “Loser Geek Whatever.” And CLICK HERE to purchase tickets for Be More Chill, coming to Broadway in February 2019!

Originally published on PopBytes

TALKING “MISS YOU LIKE HELL” WITH DAPHNE RUBIN-VEGA

Daphne Rubin-VegaDaphne Rubin-Vega solidified herself as musical theater royalty from the moment she made her Broadway debut.

The year was 1996 and the Panama City native was cast as a teenage, HIV-positive exotic dancer and drug addict in a new musical called Rent. As Mimi Marquez, Rubin-Vega came out swinging with her first solo, “Out Tonight,” and hasn’t stopped since. Most recently, the two-time Tony Award nominee starred in the premiere of the acclaimed new musical, Miss You Like Hell.

Now available from Ghostlight Records, the Miss You Like Hell original cast recording immortalizes the debut production that ran at The Public in New York this past spring. With music and lyrics by singer/songwriter Erin McKeown, Miss You Like Hell tells the story of a teenage girl who embarks on a cross-country road trip with her mom, Beatriz, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico.

As the flawed Beatriz, Daphne Rubin-Vega delivered a passionate and unforgettable performance. Now preserved on the musical’s cast recording, Rubin-Vega’s interpretation of her character is as urgent as it is powerful. She spoke with me about Miss You Like Hell and exploring what Americana means to different people, reflected on Rent, teased what she’s working on next and much more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: In these terrifying political times that we are living in, why do you think these characters and their stories are so important to tell?

DAPHNE RUBIN-VEGA: Because they’re just simple stories about human beings! It’s not a politicized story, it’s a human story. The times have politicized and objectified immigrants to distort our perceptions. But Miss You Like Hell is a pallet of songs that tell a story of a specific journey. In that story, stuff happens that deals with immigration so the flower of politics starts to bud – but the story in itself is not political. There are beautiful songs that you can actually relate to, no matter how old you are. Even my kid, who is at that age where nothing I do is cool, refers to these songs when it comes to actually discussing relationships and how to articulate what feels like teenage madness.

So I don’t know if I’ve answered your question or not, but to me the show just addresses humanity. And that humanity happens to be Mexican and half Mexican respectively. That makes me very happy.

When Beatriz and Olivia embark on their road trip, it’s the first time they’re spending time together after years of being estranged. The journey they then travel together is just as emotional as it is sprawling. What does the narrative tool of having their reunion come in the form of a road trip add to the complicated dynamics of their relationship?

It’s pretty epic! It’s everything from The Odyssey to Jack Kerouac to all kinds of stuff in between. The road trip allows us to illustrate other human beings, meet people and take advantage of the kindness of strangers, literally and narratively.

There’s something very beautiful, broad and complicated about this particular stretch of land mass that we call the United States of America. I think (book writer) Quiara Alegría Hudes and Erin McKeown really wanted to wrap their whole bodies, minds, hearts and spirits around what Americana is to people today. In particular, to people who might look like me.

As a performer, how do Erin McKeown’s music and lyrics differ from other musicals you’ve done?

Erin and Quiara are poets. This is Erin’s first musical. She comes from a world where she tells stories. I don’t usually use the word “folk” because I don’t think of myself as referring to folk music. But Erin comes from the world of folk music in the sense of people telling stories about their lives. She’s a minstrel. I compare her to Ani Difranco because she’s such a fierce bad ass female and has a very individual voice and people know who she is when she sings. Someone like Joan Jett. But Joan Jett is full of rock and roll and Erin has elements of Joni Mitchell in her. Actually, she has elements of a whole bunch of references I can’t even really be clear about because they’re new to me as well. It’s really exciting to work with two poets and one amazing musician that knows how to harness other amazing musicians.

Miss You Like HellMiss You Like Hell has been frequently compared to Tony-winner The Band’s Visit for both its poignant subject matter and intimate presentation. What are your thoughts on these comparisons and how else might you describe the show?

You know, it’s hard to describe something that you’re in. The audience was surrounding us. It was not theater in the round, but theater sort of in the three-quarter and it was a blue stage with birds. It was like being inside of a Matisse painting. It was very abstract expressionist that way.

It was a series of stories and little chapters of our lives that led up to the songs and narrative where we encountered people who sat as silent witnesses of our experiences. It was done very minimally. We picked up, put down stools and pretended that they were cars. We moved props around. I think we encouraged people to use their imaginations to be in the scene. I don’t know if that describes it adequately. The colors were very vibrant. I was there so busy trying to be in the world that it’s hard to step out of it and actually describe it all of these months later.

Now that Miss You Like Hell has wrapped up its run at The Public in New York, what are some of your fondest memories of performing the show each night?

Theater is a mind-altering drug/technology. It totally shakes my spirit when I get to stand up and look out and see black, but feel complete and total engagement with an audience. I don’t just mean because an audience sees and hears you with their eyes and ears. There’s a level of soul listening that occurs. That’s why I do it.

I remember thinking, “if I have something to say badly enough, somebody’s going to need to hear it.” That was my takeaway with Miss You Like Hell. Those who heard it loudest were too busy listening to speak back or comment. They gave back with their hearts enthusiastically. That was extremely gratifying.

But it was painful too because of some of the ways that people would respond. I have to tell you this story – we had an audience of the children of farmworkers from the tristate area and thereabouts. They came to see the show and one kid was talking about how the song “Tamales” was so evocative for him in a way that he even had trouble articulating to me. That song was so difficult for him to hear because his mother used to make tamales until his big brother was killed. Because tamales were his brother’s favorite food, his mother doesn’t make them anymore. Whenever she tries now, he can see on her face that it isn’t the same. It was just these kind of simple, yet innocently profound soul stories that would come out when people listened to this music.

And it wasn’t just kids of farmworkers. It was Jewish moms! So many mothers would come up to me and say, “You’re just like my mother” and I’d be like, “Yes I am your mother.” You know what I mean? It didn’t matter if they were black, white, brown, blue or pink.

I love what I do. When I get to be on stage and mean what I say from the core of my being, it’s the biggest blessing and privilege.

What are the future plans for the show? Will there be a Broadway transfer? Do you plan on staying involved with the production as it continues to evolve?

I’m sure I’ll probably dip my toe in some capacity going forward. There are definitely other iterations starting up, like one that’s coming to Boston. I always felt, even from the beginning of its birth, that Miss You Like Hell would probably have a bigger life going forward. I think it will live on with other people. Its biggest life has yet to be seen.

Last week, you and the cast performed a special concert at Joe’s Pub to celebrate the release of the cast recording. Proceeds from this event benefited Madre, an organization helping migrant families. How did you and the cast discover Madre and what about their mission resonates the most with you?

I’ve known Madre for as long as I’ve been a madre! My sister-in-law has worked with Madre for decades. She introduced me to them a long time ago when I wanted to do service and the first thing was donating. It was a lot of donating of gently used things like sports equipment and books. Then came materials like saline solution and Tampax. There’s a lot stuff needed that we wouldn’t even consider!

There was a time that Madre was in peril of losing its status so I’m happy that we’re helping them out. I live in Chelsea (Manhattan) and Madre’s headquarters were practically across the street. I’ve been going over there with bags of stuff for quite a while now. In fact, I had to stop doing that because it was getting out of hand. My kid was like, “Mom, where’s my hoodie?” and I’d be like, “Someone less fortunate is wearing it in Nicaragua. You need to shut up!”

There have been an increased number of conversations about diversity in theater over the past couple of years. Being originally from Panama, how has being an actor of color impacted your career? Have you noticed any significant efforts to improve the inclusion ratio since your stage debut?

Yes and yes, absolutely. Inclusion and diversity are very bright topics right now. That tends to get messy because everyone’s like, “Well what about me? What about me?” “Well, I’m not talking about you.” “Well I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about me and people who are like me,” and so that can be a bit distressing because I feel like before there’s a “them,” there’s an “us.” So the inclusion hopefully will get to a point where we won’t have to have this conversation and it has nothing to do with doing the politically correct thing, but to do what’s right for a project and give everybody an opportunity. Until we get to that point, we have to be messy and sometimes hire people that we really don’t want to hire. That’s a fact. So that’s tough and exciting to see.

In my experience, I palpably remember being told that I shouldn’t be an actor because I don’t look like an actor. To which today, there’s a very simple answer. It’s like, “Well that’s because there’s not a whole lot of actors you see that look like me! That doesn’t mean they don’t exist!”

My dad was a Bronx born Jew who went to Ivy League school. He really felt he could tell me with great authority that the playing field is not level and that I had to do better and try harder. Now that I’m older, I’m like, “Oh damn, papa. I know what you mean!”

RentWe’re not too far from the 25thanniversary of Rent. Looking back nearly a quarter of a century later, how would you say being part of the original cast of one of the most beloved musicals of all time has shaped you both personally and professionally?

I wear the mantle like a schmatta. It gives me enormous pleasure to see work that is out there now and know that it’s been informed by Jonathan Larson’s work. To see the Pasek and Pauls, the Lin-Manuel Mirandas, the Tom Kitts and the on and on that have benefited from being inspired one way or the other by Jonathan’s work or Rent directly. That gives me the feeling that I belong to a very special mob that helped shape that. Not a day passes by that I don’t think of Rent or see or hear from someone. It gives me great pride.

In January, Fox will be airing Rent as their next live television musical production. What are you hoping to see from this production? And since casting hasn’t been announced yet, who are some people you would like to see take on the role of Mimi?

Oh wow. That’s loaded and I’m not gonna go even near that one! The fact that Rent is being aired live on Fox blows my mind. I’m speechless. It’s not that I didn’t see that coming. It’s like in a world where this shit is happening, Fox lies! Like are they going to have AIDS or diabetes? I’m kidding, I’m kidding.

I’m really thrilled that this is happening. I’m sure that whomever they pick, they’ll have made their decisions based on their best political strategies. I hope that they do it with their hearts, too. But I have no idea who they’re gonna pick to play Mimi.

You’ve got two solo albums under your belt. Do you plan to release any more solo recordings?

Yes, actually I do! I’ve been working on a project for years now. It’s a series of autobiographical stories and songs interwoven with frequently unanswered questions. I’m gonna start putting that out there very soon. It might start with just the stories, but it’ll definitely morph into songs.

You were a recurring guest star on the cult-favorite TV show, Smash. What were the biggest highlights of working on that series? And are you surprised by how fervent its fan base remains years after its cancelation?  

Yeah, that makes me happy! We had a lot of good times. I mean Anjelica Huston, what a great girlfriend to have. I love Anjelica Huston – her sense of humor, her flare.

One day I showed up on set and everyone had that face of doom. It was like, “Okay what’s going on?” You’d hear the walkie talkies blare from everyone’s shoulders and it was like, “What’s going on?” Apparently it was the day that we were shooting with Liza, but she wasn’t gonna show up. It was an early call and people who were like, “Come on! You all should know better than to try to get Liza Minnelli in the room before X o’clock!” Everyone was standing around waiting. There’s a lot of gossip about how much fun we had behind the scenes.

Where can your fans catch you next?

On Wednesday, Gimlet Media released the (scripted podcast) The Horror of Dolores Roach starring me, Bobby Cannavale and Margaret Cho. It’s a really amazing cast. I’m really proud of that. It’s a horror story based on Sweeney Todd.

Tales of the CityI’m also working on Tales of the City based on the stories of Armistead Maupin. It’s a Netflix series starring Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis and Ellen Page. Laura and Olympia are reprising their roles from the 1990’s Tales of the City miniseries. This is a continuation of that story. I am playing the mother of a transgender son, born female. It’s the story of these people’s lives. His mom is really supportive of her son … but it’s for all these strange reasons, like, “He’s the son I never had!”

I’m also working on a new web series called Tuesday Nights that’s being produced by Shiva Kalaiselvan. It’s very, very interesting. It’s a story about a woman who’s going through the end of her relationship and coming into her life after a divorce. It’s six episodes. In my episode, I’m signing the divorce papers and toasting to my freedom. But in each episode, the main character is played by a different woman. So it’s basically one woman’s story but played by six very diversely different females from all walks of life. The point of it is to illustrate how a common thread of experience looks on different bodies.

As far as my music, I’m working on the next thing. I’ll let you know when I’m ready. Overall, I’m working on a bunch of projects that make me really happy.

That’s kind of the dream, right?

Well, it actually connects to being an actor of color or of the ethnic persuasion. I’ve been asked, “How do you take all these juicy roles that are so politically charged somehow?” This was five or seven years ago and it was a big revelation. I realized that when I inhabit a role, suddenly it feels like it’s become political – especially if it’s on a Broadway stage. It becomes very politically charged because someone like me is in it. I don’t know if that’s personal. Yeah, I have very strong views, but I think it’s just because of the way I look or behave myself. But I’m just being me!

What are some bucket list roles you’d love to play some day?  

They are in the process of being written as I speak! One is sort of a shorthand Mata Hari of the western world. She’s what Mata Hari would look like today after a long struggle with the resistance. That’s one musical theater project that I’m working on, which I’m very excited about it. I’m working with Aaron Mark, who also wrote Empanada Loca and The Horror of Dolores Roach. We’re working together on a bunch of projects and that’s one of them. Good sleuthing!


CLICK HERE to purchase the Miss You Like Hell original cast recording from Ghostlight Records, available now digitally and physically on November 16.

Originally published on PopBytes

INTERVIEW WITH BARRINGTON STAGE COMPANY’S JULIANNE BOYD

Julianne BoydNEARLY TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, NOT-FOR-PROFIT THEATRE COMPANY BARRINGTON STAGE COMPANY WAS CREATED IN THE BUCOLIC BERKSHIRE MOUNTAINS OF WESTERN MASSACHUSSETTS.

Now the fastest growing arts venue in Berkshire County, BSC was co-founded by Julianne Boyd “with a three-fold mission: to produce top-notch, compelling work; to develop new plays and musicals; and to find fresh, bold ways of bringing new audiences into the theatre, especially young people.”

Each year, BSC attracts nearly 60,000 patrons to its Pittsfield venues. Some of the most revered work that made its debuts at BSC include the Tony Award winning The 25thAnnual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the acclaimed revival of On The Town that transferred to Broadway in 2014, and the timely play, American Son, now open on the Great White Way.

This week, BSC wraps up its twenty-fourth season with The Glass Menagerie, playing now through Sunday (October 21). Boyd – who serves double duty as BSC’s Artistic Director and director of The Glass Menagerie– reflected on this year’s offerings, teased what’s in store for next year’s milestone quadranscentennial anniversary, discussed her own creative process and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: Looking back at this past season, what were some of the biggest personal highlights for you?

JULIANNE BOYD: Productions of The Cake and The Chinese Lady, as well as our wildly popular production of West Side Story, choreographed by Robert LaFosse.

Which production(s) marked the boldest detour(s) from BSC’s typical offerings?

Probably The Chinese Lady– it was a new play by Lloyd Suh directed by Ralph Peña. It had a very specific aesthetic that was different from any other plays we’ve ever done. The subject matter – that of the first female Chinese immigrant to come to the US –  intrigued our audiences.

You’re wrapping up the season with a new production of the classic The Glass Menagerie. Why is this the perfect play to conclude the season with?

It’s a great American classic that we perform not only for our usual Berkshires/New York/Boston audience, but also for 200 high school students. This play is a great way to introduce serious theater to young people.

The Glass Menagerie

How do you decide which productions you want to direct versus which ones you want to outsource other directors for?

If I have a strong gut reaction to a play, I seriously consider directing it. Then it has to fit into my schedule and allow me time to support the other productions in the season as well.

The Royal Family of Broadway was the first of three world premieres that debuted this season. When I interviewed Will Swenson about the production, he said that he was drawn to it because of the chance to work on something new. From both a curating and directing standpoint, do you prefer working on and presenting new works or revivals? Why or why not?

I love them both but am committed to finding the best new plays and musicals we possibly can. We must look forward in theater – and support writers working today and the ideas that feel they must write about. I love the sense of urgency that many writers have today. It’s tremendously exciting.

This year’s shows tackled lots of very topical issues – including women’s rights (in Typhoid Mary and A Doll’s House, Part 2), gay marriage (in The Cake), immigration (in The Chinese Lady), and racism (in Well Intentioned White People). Did you select these shows as part of a larger narrative structure to comment on what’s going on in the political climate of this country?

Yes, I love producing, and sometimes directing, plays that deal wirh social issues. I love introducing topical issues in dramatic form, getting our audiences involved with those issues and then having lively discussions with them after a performance.

Laura Benanti hit it out of the park when she headlined the 24thAnnual Gala (read my review here). Would you consider this event a success?

A huge success! She is a spectcular performer, multi-talented with wonderful stories, both hilarious and touching. Our audience loved her.

What can you tell me about the plans to celebrate BSC’s landmark 25thanniversary next year?

Ah! Just planning it now. I can’t say too much other than I know we are doing a classic musical and a world premiere musical – and probably the winner of the Burman New Play Contest.

During my interview with A Doll’s House, Part 2 director Joe Calarco, he mentioned that “BSC is like a second artistic home for me” and that “Julie trusts me and always is there to support my vision of a piece.” What’s the process for how you attract/select the talent that is represented across BSC’s stages each summer?

I can’t say specifically. We’ve worked with Pat McCorkle, our casting director, for years. Once the actors and directors and designers are at Barrington Stage, we try to do everything we can to make it feel like their home. We support them (with parties, get-togethers, wonderful housing), listen to any concerns they have and deal with them immediately so they can concentrate on their work at hand and do the very best work they are capable of.

Manhattan Theatre Club will be next to put on The Cake, opening in February 2019. What do you think is it about this play that keeps the demand for productions of it to continue increasing?

The unbelievablly real characters Bekah Brunstetter has created. There are no villains in this piece. Bekah has given a big heart and soul to Della, the lead, who is a character you want to dislike but can’t. Ultimately, you understand why she feels the way she does but don’t agree with her. If only the rest of the country could be as open …

What makes beloved shows like The Glass Menagerie and West Side Story stand the tests of time and stay relevant for contemporary audiences?

The writing is brilliant and the characters are as vivid now as when they were written. We can still identify with these characters and follow their journeys as if they happened yesterday.

Barrington Stage CompanyWhat else can you tease to me about your 2019 season?

A hilarious musical about fracking!

Is there anything else that you’d like to add that we didn’t discuss?

We are thrilled that American Son, a play we commissioned and premiered, is now on Broadway. As The New York Times pointed out this past Sunday, regional theater is really the birthing place of many exciting new plays. Eighteen of the thirty-two new plays and musicals we’ve produced have moved on to New York or around the country!

 

Originally published on PopBytes

INTERVIEW WITH “HAMILTON” AND “SCHOOL GIRLS” STAR JOANNA JONES

Joanna JonesJOANNA JONES IS ACTING AS THE “NEW GIRL” IN MULTIPLE WAYS.

As Peggy in the Broadway production of Hamilton, Jones is part of the iconic Schuyler sisters trio. But now that her first year co-starring in the Broadway juggernaut has ended, she is taking a temporary break from the show to expand her repertoire elsewhere (fret not, she’ll return to Hamilton after Christmas).

Currently, Jones is starring in School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play as newly transferred student Ericka Baofo. Written by Jocelyn Bioh, the poignant production has come to Los Angeles after an acclaimed Off-Broadway run. Now playing in Los Angeles through September 30 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, the daring high school drama marks Jones’ non-musical stage debut.

She and I spoke about the differences between performing in plays and musicals, the universal themes of the teenage girl experience, her aspirations as a solo recording artist, the cultural impact of Hamilton, her favorite memories from her various high-profile television appearances and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: Why was School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play the perfect follow-up project for you after Hamilton?

JOANNA JONES: Well, I’ve been doing musical theater for so long now. It’s kind of every musical theater person’s dream that they get to do a straight play at least once. It doesn’t always happen! So the opportunity to do one was something I had been wanting for a really long time.

When this play presented itself, it was something I definitely could not pass up. On top of that, I had just heard such amazing things about it because of its Off-Broadway run last year. It had gotten the most amazing reviews.

A lot of my Hamilton friends actually had seen the show and were like, “That play’s amazing!” They already knew that the playwright was awesome because her boyfriend, Austin Smith, was in Hamilton as well. I was just hearing the most wonderful things about it everywhere I turned.

I was getting to a point where my first year with Hamilton was coming close to an end and I was deciding what I wanted to do next. I’m actually going to go back into Hamilton after this show, but they were gracious enough to give me the time off to work on this project because it’s something I really wanted to do.

I hadn’t seen the show before accepting the role but reading the script made me realize how perfect this piece could be for me on a personal level. And career-wise, I liked that this could be the show to prove that I can do things other than just musicals.

Since this was your first non-musical stage venture, what were the biggest challenges of performing in a straight play?

One challenge that I’m finding is that we don’t have microphones. I’ve spent the last two decades using a microphone and singing in some really large theaters. Plays are done in a little bit of smaller venues and there’s no microphone, so you have to find a way to use your breath support to project your voice and fill the whole space. A lot of my co-actors have mentioned that even the theater we’re in now, the Kirk Douglas Theatre, changes how the sound and the vibrations travel through the room. So that aspect has been very interesting and exciting.

On an acting level, this piece deals with some very uncomfortable subject matter, so it’s certainly a challenge to keep that feeling fresh and honest when you’re doing it eight times a week. It’s so important to deal with the emotional subject matter and continue to keep it truthful to yourself because every night is a new audience that has not seen this before. Of course, that’s the same in a musical, but it’s different to delve into subject matter like this and express it through scene work rather than a song.

It’s also been challenging being new to a play when a lot of the other actresses were already in the show before. I kind of felt like I had some catching up to do because they had already built this thing amongst themselves. But it was also a very open environment creatively when myself and a couple of the newer actresses came in. We were able to mold something that has elements of the former production but was still something that was new to all of us.

How is Ericka a new and/or different type of character for you to play on stage?

I’ve never had to play a character that was specifically biracial for a reason. I get cast in things either as an ethnically ambiguous person or as a black girl. But being biracial is very important and specific to this story. Ericka is half white and half black. I’ve never been in a show where that subject matter is highlighted.

It’s really interesting because it’s not actually something that gets talked about a lot – that idea of what it feels like to be from both worlds and be both ethnicities. So I think being cast because of who I actually am in real life is something that makes playing this character different for me.

How much – if at all – did working on this show remind you of your own high school experiences?

It’s kind of eerily similar, actually. We moved a lot when I was growing up and I went to several different schools, so I had the “new girl” experience multiple times. I remember how it felt to be lost and vulnerable and enter into an environment that was already established. Like, the social relationships were already established and I’d have to figure my way into them. I’d try to fit into groups that really didn’t feel right to me and then tried other groups and so on.

Schools always have the “cool” group and the “dorky” group. I would try to fit into the “cool” group sometimes but I always felt like I wasn’t enough – like I wasn’t living up to it or I didn’t have enough money to fit into that group. Maybe it was just that I could feel more like myself in the “dorky” group.

All that to say is that I don’t think I ever experienced the level of meanness that’s portrayed in this specific play but I definitely experienced the feeling of not fitting into a group – especially when it’s the “cool” group and a specific person is in charge. There’s a hierarchy situation. I’ve definitely experienced the terror that goes into being a new girl and the weird hormones involved in teenage social hierarchy.

There were some dark times being the new girl back then. I’m definitely calling upon those memories in the play.

Although it’s set at an exclusive boarding school in Ghana, the play explores many universal themes. How do you think that having the show take place in Africa underlines both the similarities and differences that teenage girls face around the globe?

That’s a good question. My co-star, MaameYaa Boafo, who plays the mean girl, actually addressed something similar to that the other day and I liked what she said. She said that even though it’s set in Africa, the feelings that we have at that age are all kind of the same in a way. The feeling of wanting to belong and fit in, or the feeling that if you are insecure, can sometimes lead to a coping mechanism of putting other people down. That’s kind of a universal thing. At that age, you don’t really know who you are and you’re trying to figure that out. Sometimes that brings out the worst in people.

How much did Mean Girls– both the film and the musical – impact your approach to taking on the role of Ericka?

I love that movie! Again, I’ve been fortunate enough not to experience the level of cruelty both in that movie or in this play. But Lindsay Lohan’s approach to really having no idea how to fit into a completely new country definitely helped. Just like the level of discomfort and uncertainty that goes into not only going to a new school but also moving to a new country and culture. When you do that, you’re afraid to offend or say the wrong thing and you’re not sure what’s customary for people. So Mean Girls definitely informed Ericka in that way.

Is there a key takeaway that you hope audiences have after seeing the show?

Yes! I mean, the play is really about colorism and challenging the ideas of what we believe is beautiful. My hope would be that audiences take away something that challenges their minds, their spirits and their collective awareness. I hope that people that have felt not beautiful will be comforted and then change their perspective as well. I want them to have hope that they are beautiful and that while beauty is everywhere, it’s just a social construction. Everyone is beautiful no matter what age or what skin color they have or whatever else. I just hope that it challenges people’s view of what we prescribe to as beautiful around the world.

When I interviewed your Hamilton co-star, Mandy Gonzalez, she told me that “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.” Do you agree with that statement? Why or why not?

Yeah, I agree with Mandy 100%! Lin-Manuel Miranda and a lot of the actors that they put in are people who have strong opinions and are activists, world shakers and world changers. They’re people who have a voice. So it’s wonderful that Hamilton can be used as a platform for social change and justice in the world.

Of course, the whole idea that Hamilton is cast multi-ethnically in a colorblind way on purpose is a message in itself. I think it’s really wonderful for people to come to the show and see George Washington, the President of the United States, as a black man. My hope is that people don’t even think twice when they come. They’re just watching a show and they just accept that immediately without any hesitation. The focus isn’t the color of the actors’ skin. The focus is on watching the story of our country being formed. The idea that people watching aren’t even thinking about color is just really exciting.

It doesn’t matter if you’re black, Asian, Latino, white, anything. That’s huge! We’ve never seen something like that on this level before. So I agree with Mandy wholeheartedly because this show is having huge impacts on American culture and society. It’s reaching everywhere. It’s a really wonderful and special thing that’s been created.

Tell me a little bit about Why Mona, your musical side project with producer Unlike Pluto. You’ve released covers of many iconic songs, like “Go Your Own Way,” “We Will Rock You” and “Stayin’ Alive.” How do you decide which songs you want to put your own spin on and are there plans for a full album?

I think in the beginning we wanted to pick songs that people would never think of covering. Like one of our very first ones was “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls. That’s not a song that a lot of people think to cover. There are other songs that naturally lend themselves to being covered – like beautiful pop songs that could easily be turned into like a slow, acoustic jam. But we didn’t want to be too obvious.

We wanted to pick songs we both loved but also songs that would be difficult to cover because you would have to completely deconstruct and rebuild a new sound. Our goal is to reinvent classics in ways that no one would ever think of hearing those songs.

We’ve been releasing a song every month at this point and we plan to keep going. Right now, we’re focusing on licensing to get the songs placed on TV shows and movie trailers and stuff like that. But I definitely wouldn’t rule out the idea of an album in the future! Our next release is going to be “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone. We’re finishing that up now and it will hopefully come out next month.

People often ask me what our sound is but I don’t really know how to describe it honestly. It’s jazzy at times but it’s also grungy ‘90s-ish. It’s really fun!

You have such a beautiful and unique singing voice. Who were some of your most formative musical inspirations growing up? And do you have plans on releasing any solo recordings?

Thank you! My dad is a musician and he exposed us to a lot of different types of music. I think maybe that’s why I have an eclectic sound. I grew up listening to Christian music and gospel, as well as rock music like U2 and the Dire Straits. We also listened to a lot of world music, piano music, Brazilian jazz, Keiko Matsui, Cliff Richard – just a super strange assortment.

When I got older and started to do musical theater, the voices that have drawn me have been more like Barbara Streisand. I love the way that she tells stories through her voice and tone. Lana Del Ray is my favorite contemporary artist. I adore the way that she writes and her vintage sound. I like to pull from a lot of different styles in order to create whatever sound comes out. Amy Winehouse is up there on my list as well. I also like jazz artists – Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. Those were hugely influential for me. So it’s a little bit of everything.

And yes, I do have plans as a solo artist! I’ve lived in New York for a year now, but while I’m based in LA for this play, I’ve been working on a lot of my own stuff. There are contractual things happening that mean I can’t release those things right now but I absolutely plan on pursuing a recording artist career. That’s definitely on the top of my list!

Now that I’ve found my bearings in New York City, I’ll continue to record solo stuff. I’m actually doing a little concert in October at the Green Room 42 where I’ll be singing the songs of artists that have inspired me and my sound. Hopefully I’ll be doing more stuff like that – live gigs and recording. But yes, I do plan to release my own solo things in the near future.

In 2010, you performed as part a capella group The Backbeats on reality show The Sing-Off. How did that experience shape you as a musical artist?

That was a very exciting time for me! I was in school at UCLA and I was studying musical theater at that time, so I think the opportunity to perform on television singing pop songs was very exciting and appealing to me. It was like another classroom where I was learning what it’s like to be in the music industry. I was so young back then. It was a growing experience because I had to learn to refuse to be afraid. There was really no time to be afraid! The camera was on and you’re in a competition, so it was very, “go sing your song! It’s now or never!”

It definitely gave me some confidence and some balls. I love doing a cappella because I respond so well to harmonies and arrangements. That’s the beauty of harmony in arrangements –using the voice as an instrument. Your voice is the trumpet, your voice is the bass, your voice is the drum. The voice is such an incredible instrument.

A lot of the Backbeats are still some of my best friends to this day. So on a personal level, it was a wonderful experience to go through. I made lifelong friends. It was just so exciting because it showed me what types of possibilities my future music career could have.

What’s your fondest memory of being in the ensemble of NBC’s Hairspray Live! In 2016?

Oh man, there are so many of them! But I would have to say the wonderful camaraderie. Everyone was literally so incredibly excited to be there every single day. Every day was like a happiness party.

Maybe my fondest memory was that I got to play with the original Dynamites from Broadway – Shayna Steele, Judine Somerville and Kamilah Marshall. I would always slip away and hang out with them. They’re some of the fiercest singers I’ve ever heard.

It was also fun to be a dancer in that show because I don’t get to do that very often. It was really fun to work on something with an ensemble and do partner dancing. It was fun being on set as well, literally running from one set to another in between scenes.

And of course, I loved working with like Ephraim Sykes, Ariana Grande, Kristin Chenoweth and Harvey Fierstein. Everyone was just so nice and excited to be there. I couldn’t really pinpoint one specific memory. The experience as a whole was incredible.

What are some musical dream roles that you’d like to tackle after Hamilton?

As far as my musical theater tastes go, I’m kind of an old school girl. My real dream role that I don’t really tell anybody is that I can’t wait to become an appropriate age to play Mrs. Lovett it in a revival of Sweeney Todd. That’s my favorite show! Sondheim’s music is just the most stunning music I have ever heard.

It remains to be seen musical theater-wise what I would want to do next. But I do tend to gravitate more towards the classics. I would also love to do something where I had to really sing soprano because I haven’t had to do something like that in so long. I love that world as well.


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets for School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, now playing through September 30 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles.

Originally published on PopBytes