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

TALKING “NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812” WITH STAR GRACE MCLEAN

Grace McLean

THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE IS CONQUERING BROADWAY.

Later this season, audiences will be invited to journey to the past with the opening of Anastasia, a story based on the 1997 animated film about the last surviving Romanov. But for those looking to explore this era of history through a grittier, sexier, and more unconventional lens, they need not look further than the Imperial Theater.

Now playing there, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is a breathtaking and electrifying new musical inspired by a 70-page portion of Leo Tolstoy’s seminal literary masterpiece, War and Peace. Taking a page from more than just Tolstoy, however, this innovative production blends various musical genres, creates a distinct and remarkable ambiance, and demands that its audiences have a theatrical experience unlike any other.

Written by Dave Malloy, The Great Comet tells the story of Natasha (Denée Benton), a young woman who begins an affair with a hedonistic rebel while her fiancée is off at war. When Natasha comes to Moscow, she and her cousin stay with Marya (Grace McLean), a grand dame who commands who’s who within her aristocratic circle. Meanwhile, a man named Pierre (Josh Groban) seeks answers for the existential crisis he faces while he watches Natasha’s new romance flourish.

McLean spoke with me about this ambitious and unique show, its journey to Broadway, interacting with audiences in unprecedented ways, and much more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: As Natasha’s godmother and one of Pierre’s oldest friends, Marya provides a central link between the two titular characters. How do you think her relationship with each of them informs and/or defines the journey they each take during the show?

GRACE MCLEAN: Marya is called a “dragon woman” in the book, and I think this tells us a lot about who she is and what she expects of people. She’s strong-willed and fierce, she loves hard, and she despises laziness of mind, heart, and intention. She loves Natasha because she sees this same fierceness in her, and she loves Pierre because of his lack of pretension. At the point in the story when our show takes place, it is ultimately the clash of ferocities between Marya and Natasha that pushes Natasha over the edge. As for Pierre, I think Marya is there to pull him out of the stupor he’s found himself in and to give him a real call to action – something he feels he’s lost touch with at the start of our play.

You’ve been with this show for several years now, from Off-Broadway to the out-of-town run (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) to Broadway. In your opinion, how has the show evolved throughout its various incarnations?

It has been a real gift and a luxury to be able to work on this show in its various incarnations because although the story itself is largely unchanged, we’ve gotten to play with refinements and details in our storytelling. I think now, at The Imperial, we’ve achieved our greatest clarity in the storytelling because we’ve been able to experiment with ways to achieve both intimacy and a sense of grandness in the staging.

You provide much of the show’s comedic relief. What do you think it is about Marya’s personality and delivery that provides so much humor to otherwise serious and/or complex scenes?

First of all, thank you! I don’t think I approached Marya thinking of her as a funny character, but I think there is something about her severity which, in certain circumstances, comes off as comical simply because she’s in juxtaposition to other very tender and delicate moments. Of course, this severity becomes quite unfunny – or at least I hope it does – when circumstances get out of control. Marya doesn’t like being out of control.

How helpful was the original Tolstoy text when it came to fleshing out Marya and landing on your interpretation of who she is? Who/what else inspired your understanding of her?

It was definitely helpful to have an understanding of Marya within the text of War and Peace, to find out who she likes and why, how she operates within this decadent society, the kind of mother figure she is. Natasha’s mother is very different from Marya, her whole family is really, and I think Natasha needs an authority figure who delights in, fans, and hopefully shapes her fiery nature.

Also, in terms of inspiration, I think a lot about love in this play. There are a lot of different types of love flying around in our show. When I, Grace, can latch on to that, then I start to know what to do with my character. So for me, I’m thinking about deepening Marya’s love for Natasha because that says something about how she’s treated in the first act versus the second act, when Marya is still acting from a place of love – but of love betrayed.

The show’s set is quite possibly the most interesting I’ve ever seen. Without giving too much away, I can say that immediately upon stepping into the theater, the audience is fully transported to Imperial Russia. What do you think this unconventional staging adds to the experience of the show?

I think the audience is asked to step into the world of the play from the moment they step into the Imperial, even before the “set” is seen. It is a total experience, not one that the audience is necessarily asked to be an active part of, but this is what I love about the design- it’s that even in the audience’s passivity, an inescapable and palpable tone has been set to prime them for the story.

As an actress, what advantages and obstacles does performing on such a radically different and unique set present?

I don’t think in terms of disadvantages, so I’ll just talk a bit about the things it has taught me. I’ve had to really become aware of my whole body. Because the audience is all around, I think about finding ways to include everyone. There’s also an interesting game to play between giving something to someone a mile away, and sharing a little secret with someone else right next to you. This all requires great particularity and intention, because people can really see the fake or the phoned in when it’s up close.

The show allows for (and encourages) a good deal of actor interaction with the audience. What has been the most memorable encounter (either good or bad) you’ve had during a scene in which you engage directly with audience members?

Early on, during the off-Broadway run in the tent downtown, we got a lot of good lessons about unruly audiences. There was one night when a woman I was sitting with during “Pierre & Anatole” would not stop shaking her shaker. She was drunk and loud and talking to her friends. I took the shaker from her and she demanded I give it back, but of course I didn’t and kept watching the scene. She grabbed another shaker from one of her friends and shook it in my face. At this point I stood up and tried to take it from her again but she hung on very tight like she wanted to wrestle. Oy! This was a poor decision on my part because it just made both of us look like assholes. So lesson learned! Never get angry at the crazy because then you look crazy too.

Marya is a very fabulous woman who clearly has a penchant for fashion. What are some of your favorite costumes that you get to wear?

I love all of my costumes! They are so beautiful! But truly, my favorite piece is the little jacket I wear to the opera with the fox trimmed sleeves and neck. I want it for my life.

The show is filled with so many high-energy and visually spectacular musical numbers. Do you have a favorite to perform each night?

I wish I could watch them! But one of my favorite moments in the show happens in the middle of the opera right before Anatole makes his big entrance. We all have opera glasses and have been moving in slow motion before we all point our glasses at Natasha and sway in this slow eerie manner as the lights dazzle around her and slowly turn red. Basically, Natasha is getting high and I think this is the moment in the show when the audience feels it too, and can feel the palpable anticipation of something really different about to enter the world of the play.

The music combines so many genres – such as traditional Russian folk music, indie rock, and EDM just to name a few. Stylistically, how does singing this type of “electropop opera” differ from performing a more traditional musical theater score?

I have so much fun singing this music because it uses a lot of my range, not just in terms of notes on the page but stylistically. I get to use many sides of my voice, the rough, pretty, operatic, screlt, choral. And honestly because of the workout my voice is getting and the care required to be able to do all of those things, I’ve never felt healthier.

When you’re not performing in the show, you’re working on your own original music. Your band, Grace McLean & Them Apples, headlined Lincoln Center’s American Songbook in 2015 and 2016, and even toured Pakistan as U.S. State Department musical ambassadors. How do you find the balance between your acting career and being a singer/songwriter?

I find it necessary! I love that I have the opportunity to use my creative impulses critically in my own work because this allows me to approach the show with a fresh and present mind. Honestly, if I haven’t thought about or made other work before I go to the show, it’s harder for me to concentrate on the task at hand. Also, each informs the other. Performing my own music with my band in front of a very real, very present crowd prepared me to be able to perform in a show like this where the audience is very much a part of each moment. There is no fourth wall in a concert, nor is there one at The Great Comet. And I’m writing my own first full-length musical right now, so being inside of one gives me that extra perspective about how to approach character and storytelling, and about how to acknowledge my audience.

What do you find to be more creatively fulfilling – playing a character on stage or expressing yourself through your own original music?

Both are useful in different ways- writing is an outlet for my obsessions, and performing a role is an opportunity to learn about someone else’s.

What is your Broadway dream role?

Fanny Brice in Funny Girl!


Click HERE to purchase tickets to Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, playing now at the Imperial Theater in New York City.

Click HERE to purchase The Great Comet: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of this acclaimed musical.

PHOTOS | CHAD BATKA

 Originally published on PopBytes

SLICING UP “WAITRESS”: AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH STARS JESSIE MUELLER, CHRISTOPHER FITZGERALD AND JENNA USHKOWITZ

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SARA BAREILLES HAS BAKED A SMASH.

The Tony and Grammy nominated singer/songwriter’s debut musical, Waitress, opened this past March to rave reviews and instant box office success. Based on the 2007 indie film of the same name, Waitress is predicted to recoup its costs as soon as October. As Forbes points out, “For a new musical that isn’t Hamilton, that’s pretty spectacular.”

Waitress tells the story of Jenna, a waitress in a small Southern town, who yearns to leave her abusive marriage. Also working at the pie diner are her best friends, Dawn and Becky. When Jenna becomes accidentally pregnant, she meets the handsome (and also married) Dr. Pomatter. As she seeks a path to freedom, she sets her sights on a local pie contest as her golden ticket to a new life. Meanwhile, Becky and Dawn look for love in all of the most unexpected places.

Jessie-MuellerI spoke with Tony nominated actors Jessie Mueller (Jenna) and Christopher Fitzgerald (Dawn’s love interest, Ogie), as well as Glee star Jenna Ushkowitz, who has just joined the show as Dawn (following a leave of absence by original cast member Kimiko Glenn). We chatted everything Waitress including their favorite pies, working with Sara Bareilles, their creative processes, inspirations, and more.

NAGORSKI: How did you first get involved with Waitress?

MUELLER: I had a lunch with Diane Paulus and we discussed the project, and then I did a reading in December of 2014.

Jenna-UshkowitzUSHKOWITZ: Kimiko Glenn, who originated the role of Dawn, took a leave of absence. They called me on a Thursday and said, “We’d love for you to come in to meet everybody on Friday to do some of the Dawn stuff.” I went in and did it for a couple of hours and then left. That same evening, I found out that I was going to be joining the cast for a little while. It was all really quick and then I started rehearsals the next day!

FITZGERALD: The producer, Barry Weissler, called me. He and I had a couple of meetings about what we could find to do together. We had talked about a couple of things and then he said, “I’m doing this project. Do you know the movie Waitress?” I told him, “I think I’ve seen it. I’m not sure.” And he said, “Well, here, take a look at it. Somebody get me the DVD!” So he gave me the DVD and then explained, “There’s the small part of Ogie, the poet, who is a very eccentric guy. I’m not sure if it will interest you but take a look and see what it does.”

Christopher-FitzgeraldI asked him, “Well, who’s doing the score?” And he told me, “I think Sara Bareilles.” And when he said that, I was like, “A-HA! She’s cool! That would be interesting.” So I went home and I watched the movie. Eddie Jemison, who plays Ogie, is hilarious. He’s so good. But I couldn’t quite see how some of it was going to be musicalized, especially that character, but I figured why not give it a shot?

Then, they had a reading at their apartment, and there were maybe five of us. So in terms of when actors started to be involved, I’ve been involved since the very beginning. And nobody in that reading (other than me) is still a part of the project. There are all sorts of reasons why that is. We read through the screenplay essentially, and then Sara just sat at a piano and played and sang the songs. It was so incredible! When that reading ended, I was like, “I really want to be a part of this. I’ve got to make sure that I put some effort into continuing to let the people who are making decisions know that I want to be a part of it.”

I met Diane Paulus, our director, at that stage. And then we started doing several more readings, which is generally the process for new musicals. You have to do a lot of readings because you’re just trying to synthesize so many things – story, story with songs, who’s singing, why they need to sing, songs are cut and added, etc. There’s a lot of that kind of process. Through those readings, I was able to start a dialogue with Diane, Jessie Nelson (who adapted the screenplay) and Sara about the thoughts I had. It just became more of a collaborative experience and then we went into rehearsal, and now here we are!

Jessie, you’ve also been with the show since its early days. How has Jenna (and/or your interpretation of her) evolved throughout the process, from the early readings to the A.R.T. run to now on Broadway?

MUELLER: I think (and hope!) she’s grown deeper, and become like more of a second skin. Getting to spend time with a character helps. When I start working on someone, it feels disconnected. But I’ve learned for my own process that it is just that: a process. It takes time. I think in the beginning, I was a bit puzzled by her and by her decisions and choices – a bit like the audience experiences her. But in spending more time inside her, I came to know the complexity of her experience. I don’t judge her anymore. I think I did in the beginning.

Part of what makes you each so captivating on stage is how fully immersed in your characters you get. How do you choose your roles?

FITZGERALD: As an actor, you spend so much time hearing “no.” I’ve heard that word endless amounts of times. Hearing it so many thousands of times, you almost start to have a relationship with that word and that experience. But this was one of those experiences where I was like, “I think I have a handle on who this guy is and this would be really fun to physicalize.” In readings, when you’re reading it, you’re really working on the material. But I was like, “If I could get on my feet, I think I could have a lot of fun with this song.” So I don’t know about choosing stuff, it kind of chooses you, weirdly, you know?

The characters that I’ve played on Broadway, like Boq (Wicked), Igor (Young Frankenstein), Og (Finian’s Rainbow), are all of these weird little creatures. I basically am Broadway’s creature guy. I play all of the weird, non-human characters. So this time around, as Ogie, it’s nice that I get to actually play a man … but he’s also unlike any other man.

USHKOWITZ: Like I say for anything in my life, if it scares me a little bit, that’s always a good sign. If there’s a bit of a challenge, no matter what that is, I’m intrigued. I haven’t done a Broadway show and that rigorous schedule in eight years, so I definitely had to get back into a groove. I enjoy finding characters that are different from what I’ve done before. But it’s also important to make sure that I can relate to them and that my heart’s in it. Otherwise it’s kind of pointless.

MUELLER: I gravitate toward roles that I connect with. There was something about Jenna, and especially the music, that I related to. When I first heard “Everything Changes,” I cried. I’ve never had a child, but there was something that struck a chord. The healing of that song, the transformation, the yearning for renewal, the breakthrough – I found it so powerful. I like pieces that illuminate what it’s like to be a human being on this earth: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

How influential was the film when you were working on creating your characters? What/who else helped you find them?

MUELLER: Very! I came back to the film when we were working on the show out of town. It’s where Adrienne Shelly’s vision started. I think what Kerri Russell brought to the film was beautiful. I’ve since become a huge fan of The Americans and I always think of Dr. Pomatter’s line, “I could find the whole meaning of life in those sad eyes.” She has this amazing life that lives in her eyes. Well, you can’t really access that in a large Broadway house, but it was very influential to me. Jenna’s sadness lies very deep within her.

I also watched waitresses all the time. I searched for photos of people and waitresses at diners, especially those in small towns, or highway truck stops. There’s a fantastic book I got called Counter Culture by Candacy A. Taylor. And I found myself listening to a lot of country/folk music. There’s a Kacey Musgraves song called “Merry Go Round” that I got obsessed with for a while.

USHKOWITZ: I saw Kimiko’s performance right when the show first opened. She was wonderful and I wanted to keep the integrity of what she worked on. Especially during the rehearsal process with the girls, I wanted to make sure that we were keeping with the vision of what everybody had created. But obviously, Kimiko and I are so different, so it was also important to keep that and then wash away the rest.

I loved, loved, loved the movie when I saw it years ago, but I have not seen it since because it is very different. Dawn’s character is the biggest rewrite from the screenplay to the book for the musical, so I didn’t want to confuse the two. Therefore, I haven’t watched it again. Once I leave the show, I’ll probably go back and watch it again just because it’s so good.

Because Dawn is so particular, I look to people and to friends who are introverts to help bring her to life. I’m also an introvert and kind of OCD myself, so I tried to bring little bits and pieces of all these people that I knew and my own imagination to who I thought Dawn would be. I wanted to make her as human as possible because I think she is the easiest to be misconstrued as a caricature. And she’s not! She’s a real person. So that was really important to me when we were working in the few short weeks of rehearsal.

FITZGERALD: To me, the film was always the Bible of the piece. It’s where I felt like I always returned to in order to find the characters and their humanity. Adrienne wrote, starred in, and directed it, so that was always a constant reminder to allow her vision to inform you somehow. Those people crafted those characters first.

I’ve had a little experience doing that before. When I was playing Igor in Young Frankenstein, I felt the same way. How do you follow Marty Feldman? He’s perfect. He isIgor. There will never be anybody but Marty Feldman in that part. That was an iconic movie and each performance is iconic in it. All you can really do is try to tap into that and try to steal some of the joy, spirit and whatever that essence that makes it so incredible is. You want to try to borrow it and use it to your advantage.

For Waitress, some people didn’t want to watch the movie and didn’t want to have that experience. But I did and I definitely watched Eddie a lot. I think the main thing that I stole from him was that Ogie is a guy who is positive all the way down to the fiber of his being. He makes only positive choices and that’s really fun to play! It’s really fun to play someone who’s naively positive and who doesn’t see the wall in front of them that we all have. That really helped inform his song (“Never Ever Getting Rid of Me”) and the whole character’s journey.

Ogie is just like, “You are the one and I couldn’t know it more. This is too right. You know it and I know it.” He has that spark that made me realize that that’s where his drive comes from. It’s really fun to come into a show and have that energy, especially when all of the other characters are in the midst of the thickness of conflict. Everyone else is dealing with so much and making crazy, horrible choices because they’re in a lot of pain. Almost everybody in this show is in some way. So here I get to come in and just be like, “This is a joyous day!” And Ogie really believes that.

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Christopher, you’ve won Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for your performance. Do you think it’s this overwhelmingly positive outlook Ogie has on life that makes him such a scene-stealer?

FITZGERALD: Absolutely! That outlook informs everything. Have you ever seen those videos of birds doing big, crazy sex dances to try to get their mate excited? But in reality, they’re just these little, tiny birds that are showing off because of the stuff around them? They always make me laugh and they remind me of Ogie. They make me think of just how funny it is that there’s this person who’s a complete dweeb and nerdy weirdo, but who just doesn’t give a shit. It’s so satisfying to see somebody like that! We kind of all wish to be like that.

So yes, I think that positive drive is really what makes everyone go, “Wait, what’s happening? Who is this guy?” And then Sara wrote this crazy song that I feel like could almost be a stalker song. It’s kind of weird. We don’t have a lot of time to set it up. But he’s so positive and loving that you know it comes from an earnest place and that it’s not crazy. I feel like at the end of the song, if Dawn said, “You know, I really can’t do this,” Ogie would say, “Okay, I get it.” He’d put on a little performance and be like, “Now I’m very sad. I will try again but I get it.”

Waitress is the first Broadway musical to come from an all-female creative team. How (if at all) did this impact the overall creative process/experience of building the show?

MUELLER: I think we probably developed a shorthand that most of us weren’t even aware of. There was lots of talk of gyno appointments, babies, love, affairs, a woman’s experience, etc. It was very easy to go there and I think that’s because of the personalities that were in the room.

USHKOWITZ: Going into this show knowing that is awesome! You walk in already feeling inspired and empowered. I think all around women are raising the bar in society and in today’s world, so I’m thrilled and honored to be a part of that as well. It should be that way and yes, we should have all women creative teams! It shouldn’t be out of the norm. But I wasn’t looking at it any differently than I do going into any other project.

FITZGERALD: I think to tell a story about women, it’s probably good to have women tell the story. That sensibility was important to what the story’s really about. However, it was just a normal Broadway creative process with all of its challenges and all of its celebratory moments. It wasn’t really that different to me. I’ve worked with a lot of female directors and there’s no real difference to me. It’s the same kind of process.

The show explores themes such as motherhood and self-empowerment, and has resonated with all sorts of audiences, regardless of age, gender, etc. What do you think it is about Waitress that makes it so universally appealing and crowd-pleasing?

USHKOWITZ: I think what is really cool about it is you have these three ladies and each one of them goes through a beautiful arc in the story. Each one is vibing off each other’s energy. For example, Dawn and Ogie’s scene forces Jenna to go call Dr. Pomatter and face him. Each one sort of feeds off the other and inspires the other to grow and to change. It’s a really beautiful story of empowerment. It shows the importance of leaning on, supporting, and learning from each other. And the music, obviously, is really beautiful.

FITZGERALD: I feel like the strokes with which these characters have been created make them very real. You don’t usually see a comic musical with these kinds of damaged people. Characters have flaws, but there’s a difference between, for example, Harold Hill’s flaws (in The Music Man) and Jenna’s. It’s just deeper. The stakes are inherently higher when you’re in an abusive relationship and are stuck in a small town and are in a lot of pain. I don’t know if people see themselves, but they feel like these are maybe characters that they really can understand or connect with. The show doesn’t do a lot of pandering. It just shows these characters’ lives.

Also, I feel like you don’t see enough stories about women. This show has complicated relationships between women, and friendships that are not fabulous. They’re in a diner. I think it’s those kinds of themes that we all gravitate to, and because of those dynamics, people are attracted to the show. It’s really interesting. It really seems to be striking a chord in particular with young women.

I also think it’s Sara and the way her music speaks to people. When you’re listening to Sara’s music, whether it’s a song like “Gravity” or really any one of her albums, it’s like you enjoy the ache of her music. It’s as though it’s actually pleasurable to feel the kind of pain that she sings about. Do you know what I mean? When you put it on, it just gets inside you. Even if it’s a song about a break-up or heartache or whatever, it’s delicious to your soul somehow. When Jessie sings her 11 o’clock number, “She Used To Be Mine,” it’s just an amazing moment. It’s an incredible song about someone at their wit’s end, but the way the melody is and those lyrics are just make the song so satisfyingly painful. That’s the way I feel.

MUELLER: The show taps into a part of the human experience everyone can relate to – doubt, pain, suffering, life choices. I think to see someone honestly acknowledge their mistakes and their pain is a very powerful thing. Something we don’t often feel safe enough to do in life. But when we can sit in a theater and engage with characters and watch them go through it, we can safely relate. I had an acting teacher who used to talk about that. The power of theater is we can learn lessons without the collateral damage of actually having to go through it ourselves. And I think the show is really well balanced. There are laugh-out-loud moments and moments of extreme joy and healing. It’s got a little bit of everything. Each side makes the other more potent.

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What is something about yourself, either personal or professional, that playing these characters has taught each of you?

FITZGERALD: I had a lot of fun really working on this and taking charge of how I felt like my first number could go. It was fun to have that confidence. It taught me a lot about taking that moment and collaborating with Diane and (choreographer) Lorin Latarro. It also started as something so different than where it got to, so it taught me to be really open to new things and to have faith. And I really did! I was like, “We’re going to get there, but I don’t know how.” I learned a lot doing that. That was cool.

MUELLER: Playing Jenna has taught me to own your feelings and your thoughts. The good, bad, and the ugly. I’m still learning that one everyday … and then having to re-learn it. And to stand up for yourself.

USHKOWITZ: I’m an introvert at heart. Dawn has taught me to branch out to be open to new experiences and also to love myself. Dawn’s really happy in her ways and that allows her to hope and dream. I think that’s really valuable too. You need to know what you enjoy and how to live your life so that you’re happy.

Christopher, how is your chemistry on stage different with Jenna than it was with Kimiko? And to both you and Jenna, how does that chemistry inform your performances?

FITZGERALD: It’s really not so different in terms of the way that the story comes off. I’ve also played opposite a few understudies, so I’ve played it now with maybe four different Dawns – the same way that Kimiko and Jenna have also played opposite different Ogies. What’s kind of remarkable, though, is how the story is still told. It’s really fun! Dawn is basically the straight man through that first act number. She’s just like, “What’s happening?” It’s so fun how that turn happens. I’m having a great time with Jenna. She’s got a big laugh and a really fun spirit. We get along very well and we’ve become good pals.

USHKOWITZ: Christopher is a comedic genius. Our chemistry is vibrant and it’s like a little Ping-Pong game in that we really do vibe off of one another. I also would say he’s like a teddy bear, so it’s a very cuddly relationship. He’s very charming. I actually met him 20 minutes before our first performance together because he was on vacation when I was in rehearsal. So it was really important to listen to each other because we were literally getting to know each other on stage for the first time. That was a really great learning experience for me and I’m lucky to continue to do that every day. It was really special and definitely very cute.

In your opinions, why are Ogie and Dawn a perfect couple?

USHKOWITZ: I think they push each other. They both have created these beautiful lives for themselves that make them very fulfilled. Realizing then that there can be other people that can also fulfill you in ways that you can’t do for yourself is really sweet. I think that the two of them are like peas in a pod that way. And accepting each other for who they really are – like when they dress up as Betsy Ross and Paul Revere – is really cute.

FITZGERALD: They’re so mix-matched but so perfect for each other. Dawn is essentially kind of a “no” person. She’s sort of afraid, quiet, and reserved and he’s just the opposite. That’s why it’s so satisfying to watch those two forces come together.

What’s your personal favorite song in the show and why?

MUELLER: It really changes every night and they all feel so different. I wouldn’t say I have a favorite.

USHKOWITZ: My favorite song to listen to is definitely “She Used To Be Mine.” I think Jessie gives a spectacular performance and I feel like that song is the culmination of the show. It just really gives you an idea of who she is and what we’re dealing with. But I also really love “Everything Changes.” I really enjoy singing that with the girls. It’s just all so beautiful.

FITZGERALD: I’ve got to give it up to my buddy Nick Cordero and his song, “You Will Still Be Mine.” But they’re all good! They really are. I like to put on the CD in my car sometimes, just because I love all of the songs from the very beginning to the end. I really just think this is a remarkable score!

What are your favorite things to do to relax on a no-show day?

MUELLER: Get out of the city and go somewhere green!

USHKOWITZ: I just finished watching Stranger Things. I like to binge-watch TV shows just because on no-show days, I try not to talk. I’ll either go get a massage and then watch either The Bachelor, Bachelor in Paradise or Netflix.

FITZGERALD: It depends. Sometimes I like to take a nap, sometimes I like getting outside and sitting in the park and zoning out. Seeing friends. It’s always different for me.

This show doesn’t knock me out in the same way that it does someone like Jessie. She’s on stage the whole time. The emotional gamut that she runs is large and that really takes a toll on an actor in the long run. Because it’s not that you don’t feel those things. You do. You have to go there if you’re going to put over a scene where you’re about to be physically abused. And the fear of that is something that as an actor, you have to kind of tap into. So that takes its toll. It’s not necessarily always a fun place to be.

But that’s the most fun thing about playing Ogie: he’s nothing but positivity and joy. It’s falling in love with somebody and expressing that, and then letting that continue and that’s it. It doesn’t really take any other kind of turn. So it’s just fun to be here. And the cast and crew are a great group of people.

Jessie, one of the many things that I found so powerful and impressive about your performance at this year’s Tony Awards was how you were able to so quickly emotionally transition from the bubbly “Opening Up” to the vulnerable and heavy “She Used To Be Mine.” As an actor, how do you mentally prepare for the rollercoaster journey that your character goes on every night?

MUELLER: HA! I think that might have been sheer panic or exhaustion on the night of the Tonys. And there was a beautiful moment when I finished my costume change, and walked out on the stage, and saw and heard Sara, and it all hit me – how special the moment was. How far we’d come and what we’d all built together. During the show I really have to take it one moment at a time. It’s death for me if I think about where I have to get to or the emotion of a moment. If I open up and let go, it’s much better. I’m still learning how to do that. I have to continually remind myself there’s something bigger happening than all of us. But it also takes all of us. Every moment takes me to the next, every character, that’s what makes it possible.

How would you each describe the experience of working with Sara Bareilles and what’s been the best part about getting to sing her music?

FITZGERALD: Sara is awesome. She’s got a great sense of humor and all we do is kid around with each other and make fun of each other. She’s unbelievably talented and is unafraid to think about, speak about and give out stuff that is challenging and interesting. It was really fun to collaborate with her. We came up with some other ideas together and she was open to any and all of them. She’s fierce and is also very clear about what she wants and what she needs. That’s also really satisfying. She’s just incredible.

MUELLER: Sara really was awesome. She was so open, available, and extremely thoughtful and supportive when it came to the score. If something wasn’t fitting in my voice or wasn’t serving the bigger picture, she was open to changing it. She wanted the score to be comfortable for us to sing. That being said, she’s brilliant and has an incredible vocal instrument. I think this is one of the most challenging scores I’ve ever sung. She set the bar high!

USHKOWITZ: I actually didn’t work with Sara. She came and saw the show after I joined and she really enjoyed the performance. When I was learning the material, they were like, “Don’t worry! Just sing the stuff and feel it and be honest with it.” Looking over videos and things that I’ve seen of Sara working with the original cast, like when they were working on the album, she always encouraged them to “Let this be your version.” She’d say, “This is your story and your version. I’ve done mine!” She put hers on a concept album and it’s beautiful to listen to. But we’re all different so I think that’s the biggest thing I took away. That it was okay to make her my Dawn. To not try and replicate what had been done – because you can’t.

Vocally, how does singing this type of pop-infused score differ from your more traditional and classical musical theater work?

USHKOWITZ: That’s exactly what it is. It’s pop. It’s a bit more laid back and emotionally driven. And Sara’s songs, I will say, are not easy to sing. It’s not like we’re singing some easy pop song that’s done in a recording studio. Her stuff is tough. It’s beautiful and intricate and that’s why I think it does so well. In musical theater, you’re trained a certain way. So to be able to bring in this contemporary sound and have that live feel with our studio mics and everything makes it become sort of like a pop concert as well.

FITZGERALD: To me, it is a little easier to sing. The way that Sara voiced the characters is just such strong writing. And there’s not much difference when it’s good writing.

MUELLER: It’s really fun and was a departure for me. There’s a little more freedom. And sometimes that’s scary, but it also encourages me to really put my heart and soul into it. Of course I’m conscious of what I sound like but it’s not my main concern when singing pop scores. It’s fun to put some guts behind it and hopefully give audiences something they don’t always hear in musical theater.

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What are your personal favorite kinds of pie(s), both to eat and to bake?

MUELLER: Chocolate cream pie from Bakers Square, or banana or coconut cream. I’m not good at baking those, so if I were baking, it would be a fruit pie – maybe strawberry rhubarb.

FITZGERALD: I really love a banana cream pie. Some people hate the idea of banana in anything and it makes them gag. I love it. I also really like a good, high-quality chocolate cream pie. My mom’s apple pie was always simple and so well done. So, I also just love a very well made, fresh, hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream. I mean, come on!

USHKOWITZ: Well, I have to be honest, I’m not a pie baker. I will make a healthy pie out of spaghetti squash, but that’s about it and that’s kind of boring. I like quiche, which Jenna also does make for the diner. I’m a big fan of eating quiche, but if I had to choose a sweet one, I’d go with a classic apple pie à la Mode.

Jenna, one of the many projects you’ve taken on since Glee ended is your podcast, Infinite Positivities. Can you please tell me a little bit about what inspired you to host this and what some of the most rewarding aspects of working on it have been so far?

download (1)USHKOWITZ: Well, after I wrote my book Choosing Glee in 2013, I got a really great response from people and I started to realize that not everybody had this viewpoint and perspective on positivity. It really opened my eyes to understanding how to condition yourself to make happiness a choice. The podcast is sort of an extension of my book. I take topics based off of the chapters in my book and I discuss real life issues with really cool and inspiring people. The way I like to find my guests are people who seem like they live their lives whole-heartedly and sort of have been through tough times but came out the other side successfully. I can show my listeners that it’s not always easy and either way, you’re going to come out stronger. So, that was sort of the inspiration.

The most rewarding thing is having these amazing, inspiring, successful people on and learning that they’re just human beings. We all feel and we all mess up and we all fail. We’re ambitious and we try and I think that the most beautiful thing is just being aware of all of these things and showing people a different perspective on life.

Who of your Glee co-stars are you still in the closest contact with? And have any come to see you in this show yet?

USHKOWITZ: Well, none of them have come to see me because I’m only in my second week of the show, but I know Darren (Criss) is going to come. He said he wanted to come and Lea (Michele) wanted to come. I talk to Darren, Lea and Becca (Tobin) a lot. I was actually speaking with Kevin (McHale) just this morning. Then of course, Harry (Shum Jr.), Naya (Rivera), Diana (Agron), and Amber (Riley). It’s hard to say. We all speak a lot. We stay in really close contact. We’re all family so sometimes we’ll go months without talking at all and then sometimes we’ll talk everyday.

Jessie, can you please describe what the recording of charity single “What The World Needs Now Is Love” with Broadway For Orlando was like?

MUELLER: It was one of the coolest afternoons I’ve had in a long time. It felt like such a blessing to have something to do in the face of what felt like helplessness. And what a room! I felt like I was watching from the outside and wondering who the heck had let me in there. I was in a Carole King/Sara Bareilles sandwich for most of the session. My heart was very big that day.

Christopher, a few months ago, I interviewed Shoshana Bean, and she told me that she credits her involvement in Wicked with why she gets to travel the world singing today. So I’ll ask you the same question that I asked her then: How has being such an integral part of such a blockbuster musical shaped your career?

FITZGERALD: Well, nobody wants to hear me travel the world and sing like Shoshana. If I sang like Shoshana, I think I would say what she said. It’s interesting. I come out at the stage door after the show and half the people are like, “Oh, my god! I loved you in Wicked! I love Wicked!” It’s crazy that there are still fans from that time.

The only thing I can say really is that it was amazing to watch the power of something that could affect that many people. It was like, “We’re just singing songs and telling a story. It’s nothing more special than that!” And yet it is that special, and it’s just remarkable! People still have such an affinity for it. The fact that right now there are like five different Boqs around the world tonight that are going to say lines that I said first, and do little bits that I did, that just blows my mind sometimes. I’m like, “Really? They’re going to do that little book thing that I did and they’re wearing the same costume that I wore?” It’s totally surreal!

And yet if I walked over there right now, the people at the theater would be like, “Can I help you?” or “Who are you?” They even have a sign that says something like, “If you were in Wicked previously, you may not come backstage. You have to come back with somebody.” Because there are so many of us now!

Waitress1487rOh wow. If you were in charge of casting, who would you like to see play Boq in the upcoming Wicked film adaptation?

FITZGERALD: Aside from you, you mean? I don’t know! Who could play Boq? Joseph Gordon Levitt, maybe? I don’t know. It’d be one of these actors that I don’t know because they’re so young now. Maybe Michael from Stranger Things. My wife and I just finished that show and we loved it. It was so fun and exciting. That’s my hip answer because it’s pretty current. But already Stranger Things is becoming old hat, I guess. It’s so sad how quickly these things move.

Do any of you have any plans to release your own solo albums? What would they sound like?

MUELLER: I’d love to someday, when I have something to say. I just don’t know what that is right now. So I also don’t know what it would sound like.

USHKOWITZ: That’s a really good question! If you were to ask me even before Waitress, it would definitely be along the lines of a Vanessa Carlton/Sara Bareilles/Ingrid Michaelson/Regina Spektor/Florence and the Machine feel. But as of right now, no. I’m really enjoying this acting route at the moment. I’m not closed off to it, but that’s not something that I’m dying to pursue at the moment either.

FITZGERALD: Maybe! It would be called like, The One Syllable Names or The Creatures. I did a Feinstein’s show before it closed about three years ago (before it became 54 Below). I did it with my friend David Turner. It was a mixture of all sorts of fun songs. It’s a really fun thing to do because you get clear about what really moves you. It was a combination of some songs from my childhood and some songs that were older and also some new ones. So it’s really eclectic and weird, but fun.

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Originally published on PopBytes