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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I interviewed your Hamilton co-star, Mandy Gonzalez, she told me that “Hamilton has done some incredible things and has set the bar to new levels all the way around. Not just artistically, but what it is doing socially too. It’s so important. I’m very proud to be a part of it.” Do you agree with that statement? Why or why not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Originally published on PopBytes

REVIEW: “SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL” ON BROADWAY

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

IT MAY SOON OFFICIALLY BE FALL, BUT SUMMER IS REIGNING SUPREME ON BROADWAY.

Based on the life of the groundbreaking recording artist, Summer: The Donna Musical traces the Queen of Disco’s meteoric rise to fame and the legacy she left behind. Structured as Donna Summer’s final concert, this jukebox musical is a highly entertaining explosion of flashing lights, energetic choreography, fabulous costumes—and, of course, 22 of the greatest hits in Summer’s legendary discography.

The show presents Donna at three stages in her lush career. As Duckling Donna, Storm Lever makes a scene-stealing Broadway debut. Performing such early gems from Summer’s repertoire as “I Remember Yesterday” and “On My Honor,” Lever brings an exuberant charm to the youngest of the three Donnas. Her unique rasp and soaring voice make her sound like a musical theater version of popstar Camila Cabello, and her superb acting underlines what an oversight it was to have her be the only Donna not to land a Tony nomination this past season. Regardless, Summer will act as a launching pad for a very big career for Lever.

After back-to-back runs in shows like Hamilton and A Bronx TaleAriana DeBose solidifies her standing as one of the most in-demand performers currently on Broadway. As Disco Donna, she plays Summer at the height of her career. Of the three Donnas represented, hers is the most prominently featured and the one with the biggest character arc.

Unsurprisingly, DeBose is up for the challenge and she does the best job of mimicking Summer’s voice. Her sultry rendition of “Love To Love You Baby,” feisty take on “Bad Girls” and soaring high notes in “Heaven Knows” are all custom-made dance-in-your-seats numbers. But it’s her dynamic “Faster And Faster To Nowhere” and “Hot Stuff” that best showcase her vocal transformation into the First Lady of Love.

As Diva Donna, Tony Award-winner LaChanze (The Color Purple) plays Summer in the third act of her career, while also serving as the show’s narrator. She reflects on her career and the adversities she faced battling sexism, racism and the record industry as a whole. This narrative framework of Summer’s final concert allows all three Donnas to shine as various chapters in her life are highlighted throughout the intermission-free, 100-minute production.

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

When LaChanze performs songs like “I Feel Love” and “She Works Hard For The Money,” it’s not hard to imagine just how much fun a Donna Summer concert would have really been. With her sparkly outfits, swarms of back-up dancers and string of hits, Summer was truly a pioneer of not just disco but also dance music at large. The way that LaChanze manages to capture and remind audiences of that is as great a tribute as any artist could hope for.

But the biggest standouts are when all three Donnas sing together. Their voices perfectly complement one another, and the ecstatic rush the audience gets from watching these three powerhouses trade harmonies and verses becomes a nearly transcendent experience. It’s no surprise that classics like “MacArthur Park” and “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” are highlights, but the added element of watching all three Donnas bring these songs to life at once generates an unparalleled level of enrapturing energy. When all three close the show with “Last Dance,” there’s hardly anyone in the theater not on their feet dancing and clapping along.

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

Summer: The Donna Summer MusicalIn an age of productions that honor the legacies of primarily white musicians, it’s great to see a celebration of the work of such an iconic woman of color. In fact, this fall the stories and songs of artists such as Cher, The Go Gos, Carole King, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller will be featured on New York stages. Summer is the only jukebox musical you can currently a buy a ticket to that pays homage to a non-white musical talent. Clearly, despite its efforts, Broadway still has a long ay to go when it comes to diversity.

Another refreshing element of Summer is its willingness to touch on some of the tough challenges Summer faced. Albeit briefly, the show illustrates the impact of being molested as a child, witnessing a crime, starting a new life in Germany, struggling to balance career and family, and telling a controversial joke about the LGBT community. The rode to fame isn’t all glamorous, and Summer can be as poignant at times as it is eye-opening.

But, above all, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is an effusive musical biography that even those unfamiliar with Summer’s music and personal history will smile through from start to finish.


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, now playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City. And CLICK HERE to purchase the original cast recording, now available!

Originally published on PopBytes

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