TALKING “THE BAND’S VISIT” WITH STAR KATRINA LENK

KATRINA LENK IS QUICKLY CEMENTING HERSELF AS ONE OF BROADWAY’S PREMIER LEADING LADIES.

Katrina LenkDirectly following her scene-stealing role in last year’s critically acclaimed play, Indecent, Lenk is back on Broadway this season with The Band’s Visit. Based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same, the musical is composed by David Yazbek (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and features a book by Itamar Moses. It tells the story of an Egyptian Police Band who, after a mix-up at the border, are sent to a remote village in the middle of the Israeli desert. As these travelers get to know the locals that they’re stranded with overnight, what results is a beautiful character study about the deeply human ways that music, longing and laughter can connect us all.

Prior to its Broadway opening last November, The Band’s Visit debuted Off-Broadway. That production was decorated in accolades. Highlights included winning the 2017 Obie Award for Musical Theatre, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, the Outer Critics Circle Awards for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical, the Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Director, Outstanding Lyrics and Outstanding Music, and the Lucille Lortel Awards for Outstanding Musical and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical (for Lenk). Now, as this year’s Tony Awards season is gearing up, there is a lot of buzz for both the Broadway production and specifically for Lenk.

Lenk and I spoke about working onThe Band’s Visit, how traveling to Israel impacted her creative journey, the night that the Clinton family saw the show, her musical theater bucket list, and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: How influential was the original Israeli film in your creative process? What did you take away or choose to leave behind from it while discovering your interpretation of your character, Dina?

KATRINA LENK: Eran Kolirin’s film is extraordinary. I didn’t know of it beforehand, so when the audition came in, I watched it to get an idea of tone, style, dialect, etc., and became immediately enamored with it and with Ronit Elkabetz (the actress who played Dina). I only watched it one other time (maybe during callbacks); otherwise, there’d be the great temptation of just duplicating what I loved so much. There are several points in our show where we pay homage to the film, which makes me very happy.

What other forms of Israeli and/or Egyptian pop culture did you study in preparation for taking on this role?

This is still an ongoing process, which is marvelously delightful to my nerdy self. I’ve been watching Israeli films (there are so many available on Amazon!), obsessing over Israeli TV shows like Foudaand Srugim, reading Israeli fiction (particularly Etgar Keret), listening to Israeli talk radio, Israeli singers (like Yael Naim and Idan Raichel) and learning what Hebrew I can. I also watched the Egyptian movie, River of Love, other Omar Sharif films, (again, thank you internet!), and have been learning about Oum Khulthoum and Arabic music. My brilliant castmate, George Abud, has been teaching me some Oum Khulthoum and Farid songs, and about the form and traditions of classical Arabic music. It just keeps going and going – what a pleasure!

Have you ever personally been to Israel? If so, how did this trip influence your approach to the show?

American Airlines sponsored a trip to Israel with some of the cast and creative team just before we started rehearsals, which was an incredible privilege. I was already geeking out about the place, so to get to go there, stand on the sand in the Negev desert, feel the sun, the heat, the wind, eat that food, and be among the people, hanging out, sharing music and stories with them – what a gift!  It was an experience, and from experience comes deeper understanding, deeper empathy, and deeper respect. It made me fall even more in love. I hope that I have a deeper and richer well to pull from and to create from because of this trip – even though saying that makes me acutely aware that I don’t really know anything, truly. But I hope every little bit of information I gather adds to the well, somehow.

One of your solos, “Omar Sharif,” has been widely heralded as the musical’s biggest showstopper. The New York Daily Newseven recently wrote,“The greatest singer on Broadway today is Katrina Lenk, and the greatest song written for the stage in decades is ‘Omar Sharif’”. What do you think it is about this song that has made it resonate with critics and audiences at such a grand scale? 

Oh man! I don’t know that I agree with one half of that statement, but the other half—yes, indeed, I think “Omar Sharif” is an exquisite song. Yazbek. Yazbek. Yazbek. Yazbek. The song has a deceptive simplicity and such a pleasing, swirling melody. It sounds familiar somehow, but then goes some place unexpected. Even now after singing it many times, I’m still delighted and surprised by the little shifts happening in it. I’m thrilled people are responding to it. I’m thrilled I get to sing it. “Thrilled” isn’t a good enough word. I also salute our brilliant orchestrator, Jamshied Sharifi, who made these songs come alive so beautifully, using Arabic instruments like the oud and darbuka, and our soulful and ridiculously talented musicians. And Andrea Grody, our musical director, whose sensitivity and keen ear make all of this come together.

The cast recording recently became available via Ghostlight Records. What was it like translating Yazbek’s music and lyrics from the stage to the studio? And did these recording sessions impact how you perform on stage?

We are all so happy to get to share this beautiful music with people! It was quite exciting to get to record these songs, to get to hear all the music, all the parts and all the voices up close and in my ears. Witnessing everyone working together in the studio on something they all love is … well, it got me in the ol’ cockles. It was a wonderful thing to be a part of. It all happened very quickly right after we opened, and now seems so long ago. I’d say they don’t necessarily impact how I perform on stage. But every once in a while, a tiny thought will pop in my head that says, “There are people in the audience who might know this song!” And how amazing is THAT?

How have both the show and your character evolved from the Off-Broadway production to the version now playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre?

Well, it’s a bit difficult to talk about a show while you’re inside of it, but people who saw both productions have said it’s like a fully bloomed version of the small blossom that was Off-Broadway. The set has expanded and the band has expanded. We’ve tightened up and clarified things. The story and the world is both bigger and more specific.

The Band's Visit

You were also part of the original Off-Broadway and Broadway casts of the play, Indecent, which closed just three months before The Band’s Visit opened. What was it like working on these two vastly different productions back-to-back?

Getting to work was AMAZING. Getting to work again was INCREDIBLE. Getting to work on two shows in a row that you love was HEAD EXPLODING, WHAT THE HELL AM I DREAMING?!

What has been the highlight of your experience acting opposite Tony Shalhoub (who plays your love interest) in the show?

I can safely say that every moment acting opposite Tony Shalhoub is a highlight. He is generous and funny and disciplined and truthful and present and vulnerable and still is searching and wondering and playing. Plus, he drinks my whiskey. We’re friends for life.

Recently, Hillary, Bill and Chelsea Clinton came to see the show. Did you know that they would be in the audience that night? What words did you exchange to one another backstage afterwards?

I think I blacked out! Words came out of my mouth but I don’t what they were. Hillary was saying something warm and funny and then Bill was making a joke about Chet Baker, and I was smiling so hard that I couldn’t see. Thank god there are photos – otherwise, did it even happen? I don’t know.

As an independent musician, you tackle all sorts of genres as a violist, vocalist, songwriter,arranger, and producer. How would you define yourself as a solo artist?

Crazy!

You’ve guest-starred on numerous television shows, including Will & GraceElementaryThe Good Fight, and recent Golden Globe-winner, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. As an actor, is the stage or the screen your preferred medium and why?  

I like them each for their own qualities. Both mediums scare and challenge me. I like the process of theater, the group discovery effort of rehearsal, and the parameters and immediacy of a live performance. On screen, I relish the careful attention to detail, subtlety, reality and the kind of expansiveness that can happen. And I realize as I’m saying this that all of those qualities are also what I like about doing The Band’s Visit. It feels a lot like acting for the camera while also on stage.

On your days off, what’s something you love to do to recharge before another 8-show week?

Usually, I spend the day catching up on all the chores I haven’t done. You know – romance and glamour. I also do love going see friend’s shows when I can. It’s a great pleasure watching people I love do what they love.

Having already originated two Broadway roles in the span of just two years, what are some other items on your theatrical bucket list that you hope to check off?

Bucket list?! Oh dear. I don’t have a list. I love creating things and telling stories so I just want to create more things and tell more stories … and I guess I need a bucket!


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to see The Band’s Visit, now playing on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City. And CLICK HERE to purchase the cast recording, now available via Ghostlight Records.

The Band's Visit

Originally published on PopBytes

GETTING “OBSESSED” WITH LENA HALL

IF YOU’RE NOT OBSESSED WITH LENA HALL YET, 2018 IS GOING TO CHANGE THAT.

Lena Hall Obsessed: HedwigKnown for effortlessly blending the worlds of Broadway and rock-and-roll, Hall is kicking off this year with a groundbreaking and hugely ambitious creative endeavor. The first Friday of each month in 2018 will mark the release of a new EP in her Obsessed series on all digital and streaming platforms. Each of these EPs will pay homage to a different musical act/artist that has shaped Hall into the extraordinary performer that she is today. And what’s more, the 37-year-old will release a music video every single week of the year to accompany all 54 songs that will appear across the span of the 12 Obsessed EPs.

This month, Hall launched Obsessed with a tribute to Hedwig And The Angry Inch, the landmark rock musical for which she won a Tony Award and received a Grammy Award nomination. I spoke with the theater icon about her creative process, the various musicians she’s covering, her upcoming tour, her new film and television roles, returning to Broadway, and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: How did you come up with the Obsessed series and what made you decide to release these EPs on an unprecedented, monthly basis? 

LENA HALL: I did a show at the Café Carlyle (in NYC) with Michael C. Hall called “Obsessed – Radiohead.” It was such a hit that I wanted to make it a series of concerts that highlighted one artist per concert. I decided that an album series was a good way to tie in the “Obsessed” concert idea and give fans around the world access to the shows in some way.

Around the same time, I did a series of videos for Complex.com called “Stripped,” where I released one video per week for 20 weeks. This was a way to give fans content and the feeling that I was singing live for them in their living room. Kurt Deutsch of Ghostlight/SKB Records came to me and offered to do a formal release for my next Obsessed album, which was announced as Hedwig.

After a meeting with Kurt and Kevin Gore, we all decided to combine the ideas of the Obsessed albums and concerts and the “Stripped” videos to make it a yearlong series. We concluded that a good way to keep people interested in the series was to do one artist per month, with the EP coming out at the beginning of the month and the sister videos coming out every week that month in support of it. Each EP (except for Hedwig) matched the month it’s released. Some EPs have four songs and some have five depending on how many Fridays are in each month.

Are all of these EPs meant to be standalone pieces or is there a larger narrative linking them to one another?

There is no larger narrative other than these are all artists I love and want to introduce to a brand new fanbase. These albums and videos are a love letter to each of these artists and bands. My personal favorites! This is just the first 12. I hope to do multiple seasons of this series!

Are you recording straight covers of the songs you’re featuring or are you reinterpreting them somehow? What does that creative process consist of?

It depends on the song. Some songs are very close, where the only difference is my own vocal interpretation. Others have been reimagined. I wanted to focus on what made the song stick out to me. The lyrics, or the chord progressions or simply the way it was sung. Sometimes I cover a song the artist covered. A cover of a cover. In this case, I did that to illustrate how someone else’s genius interpretation of a song made it iconic.

Why was Hedwig the natural choice to launch this series with? How did your experience playing the show’s titular character on its national tour (in addition to reprising your Tony-winning performance as Yitzhak) impact your approach to these beloved songs?   

We started with Hedwig because it has had the biggest impact on my life. From the first time that I saw the show and heard the album to playing Yitzhak and winning a Tony Award to finally playing Hedwig! There is no show on Earth that has had such an impact on my life. The original Off-Broadway cast recording was something I listened to, on repeat, trying to sing along wishing the songs were in my key!

The artists you’re covering include such varying acts as Elton John, Nirvana, Pink, David Bowie, and Radiohead (to name just a few). How did you go about selecting the musicians you’ll be paying homage to?

These are all artists that are markers of different stages in my life. They bring up strong memories of experiences that have shaped me into the person I am today.

Once you’ve selected the artist(s) you’ll be focusing on for each EP, how do you go about narrowing down the songs in their respective discographies to decide which ones you’ll be recording? 

I selected a few hits but also wanted to cover some of the songs that spoke to me that were more B-sides, the songs I listened to on repeat that rarely got airplay. It will hopefully inspire the listener to dig deeper into each artist’s catalogue.

Which of the series’ upcoming EPs do you think your fans will be most surprised to hear? 

I’m not sure. I think the artists themselves are a very eclectic bunch. Each one will be a surprise to someone, except for maybe Hedwig. I don’t think anyone is surprised by that choice!

You’ve also created performance music videos for all 54 songs in this series. As a performer, what role do these videos play in your Obsessed journey?

I wanted a way for fans who can’t get to my live shows to have some kind of connection to me.

Vocally and creatively, what have been the biggest challenges in the recording of this series? 

Recording the entire series in 8 days! That was the biggest challenge. To give you an idea of what that meant, we recorded from 11 A.M. – 7 P.M. for 8 consecutive days and we did about 3 takes per song, give or take. That means I sang a total of about 162 songs in 8 days. At the same time, we filmed the entire recording session for the YouTube videos.

When do you plan to release full details about your upcoming tour in support of Obsessed? And what can your fans expect from these live shows, beginning with your Rockwood Music Hall Stage show in New York at the end of January? 

We should have a full concert schedule out soon! For now, I am planning to do one show at the end of every month to celebrate that month’s artist and tease the next artist. I will also take fan requests to play some favorites from the past Obsessed albums. Hopefully, I will be able to tour most of the U.S. and Canada, as well as Europe (schedule permitting).

If another performer were to release an Obsessed: Lena Hall EP in the future, what would be on it? How do you think this musician could best capture your essence and artistry within a handful of covers? 

I’m hoping I will have some original solo material in the near future for them to cover! I would be interested to see how someone like me would influence a new artist.

Do you have any plans to return to the Broadway stage anytime soon? If not, what type of production/role would entice you to come back? 

I hope to return to Broadway very soon! Whatever it is, I will be 100% passionate about the project and I will put my heart and soul into it every single night!

Becks (which hits theaters and VOD February 9) marks the first movie in which you’re playing a leading role. What are you most excited about for when your fans see this film? 

I am excited for fans to see me in a much more intimate setting. The film is more up close and personal. I love this movie and all it stands for as well as the soundtrack. Hopefully people will relate deeply with the character I play and with the themes. We are very proud of it already winning at the L.A. Film Festival and getting such critical praise prior to the release!

Later this year, you’ll also be making your debut as a television series regular on the new TNT dystopian thriller Snowpiercer, alongside Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs. What can you tease about your character, Sayori? And how will the series differ from/build upon the world introduced in the acclaimed 2013 film of the same name that it’s based on?

I can’t say much about the project because I want something to be a surprise. But I will say that, to me, Sayori is the most interesting character on the show and is the type of role I have been dying to play. The TV show will focus more on the class wars that occur within the train.

Thank you so much, Lena! I can’t wait for the remainder of the Obsessed EPs and to see you on both the big and small screens this year. Is there anything else that you’d like to add that we didn’t talk about? 

Nothing to add other than I am looking forward to getting everyone’s feedback on all my projects in 2018! Thank you!

Originally published on PopBytes

INTERVIEW WITH “MISS SAIGON” STAR EVA NOBLEZADA

EVA NOBLEZADA IS A GIRL NO MORE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your musical theater dream roles?

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

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

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


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

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

Originally published on PopBytes

INTERVIEW WITH FEARLESS “HAMILTON” STAR MANDY GONZALEZ

MANDY GONZALEZ IS FEARLESSLY MAKING HER DREAMS COME TRUE. 

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

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

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

ALEX NAGORSKI: What does being fearless mean to you?

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, wow!

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

That’s an amazing story.

Thank you! I think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your musical theater dream role?

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


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

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

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

Originally published on PopBytes

TALKING “ALADDIN” WITH BROADWAY STAR TELLY LEUNG

TELLY LEUNG IS DISCOVERING A WHOLE NEW WORLD.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve always wanted to visit India.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your musical theater dream role?

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

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

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

Originally published on PopBytes