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

CONCERT REVIEW: AUDRA MCDONALD AT NYC’S CARNEGIE HALL

Audra McDonald doesn’t need to sing a single note to get a standing ovation.

Audra McDonaldCarnegie Hall04.29.2015The second she walked onto the Carnegie Hall stage for a one-night-only concert last Wednesday (04.29), she was greeted with the same type of rapturous applause typically reserved for the end of an evening of phenomenal performances. This entrance alone was a testament to the star she has become: a living legend whose accolades not only are unprecedented, but one who is the envy of any aspiring Broadway actor.

McDonald, 44, is the recipient of two Grammy Awards and a record six Tony Awards. She’s also the first—and only—person to have won Tonys in all four acting categories. Most recently, she took home the prestigious award for her jaw-dropping transformation into Billie Holiday in last year’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (which I reviewed here). But for her solo show, unofficially titled “Songs from My Living Room,” McDonald wasn’t trying to be anyone but herself.

Having curated a set list that consisted of everything from musical theater standards to contemporary compositions and lesser-known favorites, McDonald tied her song selections together by recounting how she grew up in Fresno, California, dreaming of one day becoming a Broadway performer. Citing idols and influences like Chita Rivera, Barbara Cook, and Judy Garland, she took her audience on a deeply personal journey through some of the songs that have inspired, impacted, and shaped her illustrious career thus far.

Accompanied by her music director Andy Einhorn on the piano, McDonald opened her show with “Sing Happy,” the first of four Kander & Ebb pieces she performed. A celebration of the uplifting power that music can have, this song perfectly introduced the theme of singing as an emotional outlet, something that McDonald would continue to underline in various ways throughout the night. Her other Kander & Ebb selections included “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” from The Rink, and an interpretation of Cabaret’s “Maybe This Time” so heartfelt that it would make you want to start a petition for her to play Sally Bowles.

But of all the Kander & Ebb she chose, it was McDonald’s rendition of “Go Back Home” from The Scottsboro Boys that packed the hardest punch. Before singing the song, she talked about how once in between Lady Day performances, she walked over to Covenant House (a charity benefiting homeless children in New York) to make a donation. While she waited there, a teenage boy with only a trash bag full of belongings walked in, unsure of what to expect. She watched as the same workers who only moments prior had joked around and flirted with her went into superhero mode and welcomed the boy, offering him food, shelter and, above all, a sense of safety and belonging.

McDonald was so overwhelmed with emotion upon seeing this that she is now is a member of the Covenant House board. She dedicated the hopeful and gorgeous “Go Back Home” to the children (or “my kids” as she now calls them) the organization helps – including those who were in attendance at the concert.

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As much as she loves classics and revivals, McDonald emphasized how important it is for musical theater to continue to evolve and remain current. Thus, she spotlighted the music of some very recent and rising composers who have particularly resonated with her.

These songs included “No One Else,” a haunting ballad from Dave Malloy’s War and Peace-inspired 2012 electropop opera, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, and a children’s lullaby by Shaina Taub called “The Tale of Bear and Otter,” which was divided into chapters to feel like a real bedtime story. The true standout of this newer material, however, was Kate Miller-Heidke’s “The Facebook Song,” a breakup song that McDonald believed to perfectly encapsulate “heartbreak in the 21st century” and that allowed her to dare to drop a number of F-bombs in Carnegie Hall.

But McDonald didn’t only pay tribute to up-and-coming composers. The crowd went wild at the end of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Mister Snow,” the Carousel staple that produced her first Tony win back in 1994. She slowed things down for Kurt Weill’s “It Never Was You” and picked them up for a revamped version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Not Talk About Love” that featured a new hilarious verse (with additional lyrics by Larry Dachslager) about all things Audra – including her undying love for Chipotle, manipulating her voice to sound like Billie Holiday, and advocating for marriage equality.

And speaking of custom-written lyrics, McDonald called upon the prolific Stephen Schwartz (who also was in attendance) to tweak “Proud Lady” from The Baker’s Wife, making the song from Genevieve’s rather than Dominique’s perspective. This revised version of the song showcased McDonald’s stunning lyric soprano voice in ways that were nothing short of triumphant.

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Before going into “How Could I Ever Know” from The Secret Garden, McDonald took a moment to reflect on a very difficult chapter in her life. She spoke about how, when she was still a student at Juilliard, she survived a suicide attempt. Not long after, she booked her first Broadway role as Ayah in The Secret Garden, and she officially transitioned from focusing on opera to musical theater. While “How Could I Ever Know” was never a song she sang in the show (it’s performed by characters Lily and Archibald), it was one that she would listen to from the sidelines. It helped her find a new purpose in life and emerge from the darkness she felt in her past.

When it came time for “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” McDonald applauded NBC for resurrecting the lost and incredibly difficult art of putting on live televised musicals. She told the audience that she never expected she’d be cast as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, and was so grateful to the network for giving her the chance to play such an iconic role.

She joked that she liked to tell people that she was “from the really sunny side of the Alps.” She also told an amusing story about how her nerves were calmed about performing for so many millions of people live when she received a text message from her daughter asking a question about the laundry moments before stepping in front of the camera. And just as it sounded during that telecast, her rendition was a true show-stopping tour de force.

Other highlights throughout the evening included the Depression-era “My Buddy,” which McDonald sang in honor of a World War II veteran she heard singing the song outside of (you guessed it) a Chipotle while she was in Cambridge, Massachusetts working on Porgy and Bess; and “Rainbow High” from Evita, which she performed for the first time since starring in the show as Eva Peron at age 16 back in Fresno.

She also sang “Make Someone Happy” from Do Re Mi because the song’s lyrics about finding fulfillment through bringing joy to someone else falls in line with some of the best advice she’s ever received; paid homage to Betty Buckley with The Mystery of Edwin Drood’s “The Writing on the Wall;” and impressively showed off just how high she can sing with “Vanilla Ice Cream” from She Loves Me.

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McDonald wrapped up her encore with a sensational take on “Over the Rainbow.” Before she started to sing it, she spoke to the audience about how original singer Judy Garland’s funeral in 1969 helped inspire the Stonewall riots. That turned into a brief discussion about why she’s such a vocal champion for marriage equality. She talked about how, as an African-American, there are so many experiences she’s had that she wouldn’t have been able to have had she been born earlier. And that it was thanks to the civil rights leaders who stepped up to fight for what was right that she’s been given the chance to accomplish all that she has. Why then, she asked rhetorically, would she not support another part of the population who was being discriminated against?

Listening to McDonald speak about this, especially knowing that hearings on this topic were taking place in the Supreme Court at that exact time, the audience knew they were witnessing a truly monumental moment. Naturally, then, her “Over The Rainbow” shined with new meaning and beautiful encouragement.

McDonald will next be seen in the Meryl Streep film, Ricki and the Flash, and the upcoming HBO special presentation of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. There was a lot of speculation about what her next Broadway foray would be. Would it be in a revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play ‘night, Mother, opposite Oprah Winfrey in her Great White Way debut? Or a revival of Kiss of the Spider Woman alongside Alan Cumming? Or a new musical adaptation of the film Corinna, Corinna written for her by composer Alan Menken?

As it turns out, McDonald’s next project will be Shuffle Along, a new musical (set to open in 2016) that explores the origin of the nearly forgotten 1921 all-black musical of the same name. Helming the show alongside director George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover, McDonald may need to begin preparing room on her shelf for a seventh Tony Award.

After all, if her concert at Carnegie Hall was any indication, hers is a voice we’ll all be clamoring to hear for years and years to come.

Originally published on PopBytes