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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CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE TICKETS TO WAITRESS, NOW PLAYING AT BROADWAY’S BROOK ATKINSON THEATRE. AND CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE THE WAITRESS ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST RECORDING.

Originally published on PopBytes

INTERVIEW: TALKING SAPPY SONGS WITH ALAN CUMMING

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Alan Cumming isn’t just one of the busiest artists in Hollywood. He’s also one of the most versatile.

Highlights from the past year alone have found the 51-year-old Scotsman co-hosting the Tony Awards, reprising his own Tony Award-winning role as the Emcee in the Broadway revival of Cabaret, garnering his third Emmy and second Golden Globe nominations for his co-starring role on CBS’ The Good Wife, publishing a New York Times bestselling memoir, and touring the country with his latest live musical act, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs. And he’s far from slowing down.

Hitting stores this Friday, Cumming’s second solo album will preserve this critically adored live show. Gearing up for a concert celebration at New York’s Carnegie Hall next week, Cumming chatted with me about his music, books, creative process, what’s in store for The Good Wife, and much more.

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ALEX NAGORSKI: Firstly, what’s your definition of a “sappy song” and how did you curate the track-list for this record?

ALAN CUMMING: I suppose a sappy song for me is a song that gets me emotional. There needs to be a story in it or it needs to have something that I can connect with and that can really make me feel. So that was really why I chose these songs. The year that I was doing Cabaret on Broadway again, my friends and I would play a lot of different music in my dressing room. A lot of the songs I sing on this album and in this concert are songs that I heard for the first time then. Many of the songs are by artists that I never thought I would like or are songs that one could be a little snippy about. But actually, there’s something about them that really resonates with me. All of the songs are songs that I really like, but I also feel that I add something new to them with my interpretations. Otherwise there’s no point in me just singing a nice song. Anyone could do that and there are plenty of people who can do it a lot better than I can.

As a musician, how do you feel you’ve evolved between this album and your previous release, I Bought A Blue Car Today?

I think I’ve found my voice a little bit more. I got better at adjusting songs and I know which songs are more suited to me. Over these years of performing, I’ve grown to understand my musical aptitude a bit better. I think I’ve zoned in on what I’m good at.

One of my personal favorites on the album is “Someone Like The Edge of Firework,” which you had previously released as a standalone single. What inspired you to mash up the songs that make this one up?

Years ago, I was in a club and the DJ played all three of those songs (Adele’s “Someone Like You, Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory” and Katy Perry’s “Firework”) consecutively. I remember thinking that they all kind of sounded the same. They’re all the fucking same! I loved the idea of that and I really like all those songs. I realized that just because so much of our culture is repetitive, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just the way it is. And I actually like it! I love the reaction that song gets when I do it. Everybody freaks out, so I of course really enjoy that. And it’s just nice singing all those songs because it does makes you think, “Wow, they are all the same. They’re all the same structure.”

If you had to only sing one song every day for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

Oh my God! That’s like Survivor with my album. One song?! That would be horrible! There’s a song that I made up that I sing to my dog when it’s lunch time. I’d probably sing that because it’s fun and would also be useful. As for off the album? Gosh, this is Sophie’s Choice. I don’t know! Maybe “Somewhere Only We Know,” originally by Keane. I’m pretty sure I might do that one.

Next week, you’ll be celebrating the release of the album with a concert at Carnegie Hall, where you’ll be joined by friends like Kristin Chenoweth, Darren Criss, and Ricki Lake. How do you think performing these songs on such a large, iconic stage will be different than performing them in an intimate venue like the Café Carlyle where the album was recorded?

Well, I mean obviously there are some technical differences when it’s a bigger space like that, and you’ve got to bolt up the show a bit. But, you know, I’ve been touring Sappy Songs since the Café Carlyle residency. I’ve mostly been touring on weekends (because of shooting The Good Wife) all over America. And over the holidays, I was actually in Australia doing a concert there too. So I have been at much bigger venues with it already. It was kind of funny going back to the Carlyle to record the album this past December. Suddenly being back there, where it’s like 100 seats, it’s kind of a shock to your system just in terms of the acoustics and the amount of people in the room. But what I realized is that it doesn’t really matter what the number of people or the size of the venue are. It’s actually just about making a connection with people. You can do that in a huge venue and luckily I’m not worried about that. I kind of realized over the last six months doing it in so many different theaters that are so many different sizes that it’s just about me committing and being prepared to be vulnerable and open. That’s what does it, not the size of the venue.

At this concert, will you be exclusively performing music from the new record, or do you plan on adding in some oldies or surprises as well?

There will be a couple of surprises! There will certainly be a few because the show will be divided into two halves. I’ve obviously also got some guests joining me, so I’m going to be singing a little bit of stuff with them as well. So yes, some of my greatest hits will be appearing! Basically, it’ll be Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs but with a couple of little changes here and there.

You’ve already accomplished so much in your career. You’ve acted on screen and on stage. You’ve published a memoir and a novel. You’ve had your own photo exhibition and award-winning fragrance. You even have your own line of kitchen products at Fish’s Eddy, and the list goes on and on. With the release of this new album, what creative itch does making music scratch for you that these other forms of artistic expression don’t?

It’s not really like that for me. I think it’s all the same. Everything I do is all the same. I’m just telling stories and I’m just trying to express myself as a person. I’m an actor and I play other people all the time but a lot of my work is also about me. I put a lot of my personality and my life into the books and this record and into my work. I view myself as a storyteller and I use many different forms to tell those stories. In a way, I think this record is kind of the purest form of that because I’m sharing a lot of stuff and quite intimate things about my own life and my own experiences in it. It’s kind of the perfect fusion to be an actor and tell other people’s stories and then also have an outlet to tell my own stories at the same time. This record and this version of this show includes so much of what I’ve been doing in my work for a long, long time. So it scratches a lot of itches, if you will.

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One of the things that I thought made Not My Father’s Son such a captivating read was how brutally honest and vulnerable you were when describing your journey of discovering your own self-worth. Has the reaction from readers to such a personal story been similar or different than what you imagined it’d be when you were writing it?

The reactions were actually hugely surprising to me. I’m still nervous about it because you’re really putting yourself out there with something like that. I was nervous about how my mom and my brother were going to be affected. But what I didn’t bargain for was the really incredible response from people who said, “Your book has enabled me to deal with things in my family or talk to one of my parents” or “It’s actually inspired me to be honest in telling my story.” I know for sure that you can come out with something and never say, “I think I’ve really inspired a lot of people to do things in their lives that they were otherwise too scared to do.” So that has been truly amazing. I didn’t really envision that but I don’t know how I could have. It’s been really overwhelming in an amazing way and that’s been a really beautiful thing about it.

That’s incredible. You’re also working on a third book at the moment. What can you tell me about that?

Yeah! I’m not quite sure what I’m going to call it yet but it’s a book of stories and photographs I’ve taken over the years. In a way, it’s another memoir-ish type of book, in that it’s all things about my life and stuff that’s happened to me. But this time, it’s done in a way either inspired by a photo or there was a photo taken at the time I’m talking about or that is connected to it in some way. Because of that format, I’m actually getting to tell far more stories. It’s got a lighter tone than my last book. It’s full of little stories and fun montages and photos I’ve taken in New York City, as well as longer stories about certain things. I’m really looking forward to seeing how it all comes together. The book will be coming out in September.

I can’t wait to read it! Eli Gold, your character on The Good Wife, recently revealed a major secret to Alicia (Julianna Margulies) that viewers have watched him keep for years. How will the ramifications of this confession continue to play out in the coming episodes and is there anything else you can tease that fans can look forward to in the rest of this season?

Well, she’s obviously hurt. It’s funny because the night that we recorded the album was the same night that that episode aired. I told the audience what happens and even said in the show, “Tomorrow I could be the most hated man in America.” It’s interesting because people were wondering why Eli would tell her that now. What he told her about happened so long ago that maybe people had forgotten about it. So what’s been lovely is that Eli has been getting sympathy from a lot of viewers as well now that he’s finally come clean. I find that really fascinating. In terms of what happens, Alicia’s of course not going to just go back to normal straightaway. It takes a little while. But there will be a rapprochement. They do become friends again. Thank god!

Phew! What attracted you to Florent, the upcoming Showtime dark comedy about New York restaurateur, Florent Morellet, which you’ll be starring in?

I hope I’m going to be starring in it! It’s still kind of in the early, early stages but I’m very hopeful that this is going to be something that is in my future. In a fun way, Florent the man and Florent the restaurant are this kind of gateway to New York over the decades. He opened his restaurant in the 1980’s and the Meatpacking District has changed so radically since then. So has New York actually. His story of being a gay man during that time obviously was a rocky road and with various tragedies and triumphs. He is an incredible force of nature. I don’t know if you’ve ever met him but he’s just a bundle of energy and a kind of supernova. And so I just thought it was really great focusing on how one person and one restaurant could be so important to such a big city. I actually used to go there to eat. When I first moved to New York, I lived in the West Village a couple of blocks away from there, and I would go frequently. It was when the Meatpacking District literally had blood in the streets.

Oh wow. Speaking of New York, is there any chance that we’ll see you on Broadway again any time soon?

I hope so! I don’t have any concrete plans right now but I’m always trying to come back to the theater. I’ve got some things I’m talking about, but it won’t be for a while. Maybe I’ll do something in 2017, but I’ve got too many other plans for this year.

You’ve played so many diverse characters throughout your career. Out of them all, is there one that you think is the most similar to you personally?

I don’t know! I mean, I don’t really play characters who are like me. I think a lot of the bigger characters I’ve played, the more extravagant people, are what people tend to think I’m maybe like. That’s not true. I once did a movie where I played a taxi driver who was a nice, lovely guy, and he kind of sounded and looked like me, but he wasn’t me at all. In a funny way, I suppose Florent might be the closest. He’s someone who came to New York and has a great lust for life and has a real eclectic taste in people and things.

I know you’re an O.B.E. (Office of the British Empire), but if hypothetically, you were running for President in 2016, what would your campaign slogan be?

Holy shit! That’s a good question. It would be, “Shut Up, Stupid People!!” Definitely with two exclamation points.

Thanks so much for chatting, Alan!

Thank you! Nice talking to you.

Originally published on PopBytes

INGRID MICHAELSON CELEBRATES “LIGHTS OUT” IN NYC

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She’s been performing for nearly a decade, but 2014 is shaping up to be Ingrid Michaelson’s biggest year yet.

On Wednesday, the 34-year-old played to a sold-out crowd of approximately 5,500 adoring fans at New York’s iconic Central Park SummerStage. It was the singer / songwriter’s largest headlining show to date, and Michaelson was very visibly moved by the turnout when she stepped onto the stage to commemorate the milestone.

But the size of the venue wasn’t the only reason that the flame-haired native Staten Islander was celebrating that night. “Girls Chase Boys,” the lead single off her new album Lights Out (iTunes), had just sold a coveted 500,000 copies. And her band surprised her by presenting her with a plaque lauding the achievement right before she broke into the song.

With an accompanying viral music video that pays homage to Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible,” “Girls Chase Boys” is Michaelson’s highest-charting single since her breakout “The Way I Am” peaked at #37 in 2007. The upbeat track can be found not only on the Billboard Pop Songs top 40 chart, but also in a Target ad, movie trailers, and an upcoming episode of The Voice. Not too shabby for someone who was discovered on MySpace and doesn’t have the support of a major record label (Michaelson still records under the Cabin 24 Records banner–a label she started so that she can keep full artistic control and rights to her music).

It’s not just the growing list of accolades that makes “Girls Chase Boys” a defining turning point in Michaelson’s repertoire. Upon its release, the song signaled an artistic evolution that found the singer straying away from her indie rock roots to exploring her pop sensibilities in ways she never has before. It became instantly clear that she’s now more inspired by artists like Sia and Lana Del Rey, who have managed to blend their unique styles with contemporary pop to form layered and distinct new sounds, than by musicians like Regina Spektor or the late Elliott Smith, whose influences were very apparent in her earlier work.

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When it came time to work on Lights Out, Michaelson decided to take a slightly different creative approach than with her previous albums. This time around, she chose to invite various other artists and producers to lend their talents to the record–including BusbeeA Great Big WorldKatie Herzig,Mat Kearney, and Trent Dabbs. This allowed her to turn it into a passion project that resembled a musical family affair.

“The first half of 2012 was pretty rough in terms of just my own health and my family’s health, and there was just a lot of darkness,” Michaelson recently told Yahoo! Entertainment, explaining what inspired her to switch gears and ditch her solo act. “When you have a really hard time it changes you in a lot of ways, and when I came out of it, I just wanted to do things differently. I had this change of heart and I wanted to embrace the idea of making a very collaborative record.”

During the recording of the album, Michaelson’s mother was battling cancer, her dog died, and she herself was diagnosed with Graves’ disease. As a result, the album is lyrically rather dark, despite its sonically poppier sound. “A lot of what I wrote about in the past was just straight up love and I have no problem admitting that,” she explained to The Wall Street Journal. In contrast, Lights Out is “more about coming to terms with losing people and your mortality.”

It’s fitting, then, that when Lights Out was released on April 5th, Michaelson performed an intimate concert at the gorgeous chapel in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. With a tiny audience that included celebrity pals Taylor Swift and Mariska Hargitay, the exclusive event quickly underlined just what an emotional and raw record Michaelson had created. Performing many of the tracks for a live audience for the first time, the chanteuse masterfully introduced her sixth record–which would go on to debut at #1 on iTunes and #5 on the Billboard 200.

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In May, when the official Lights Out tour first hit New York, Michaelson told another sold-out crowd at Terminal 5 that she had just learned the day before that her mother was finally cancer free. Two songs later, she helped an audience member propose to his girlfriend, further amplifying the celebration of life that the night had turned into. It was there that Lights Out became the work of someone who had emerged from a period of profound devastation, rather than that of someone still trying to work through it.

So when this week’s Central Park concert rolled around, Michaelson was ready to pull out all of the stops to make it her splashiest gig yet. All of a sudden, these songs of harrowing despair took on a new meaning of survival, and the singer was determined to show what that meant to her.

She brought her husband Greg Laswell (also a musician) to the stage to perform their Lights Out duet,“Wonderful Unknown,” a beautiful exploration of what new spouses have to look forward to together. “We make bread on Sundays and the little ones are climbing up the walls,” the duo lovingly crooned while Michaelson played piano and Laswell stood by her side. “Oh, nothing lasts forever but the sound of love astounds me every time that it calls.”

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And Laswell wasn’t the only guest performer joining Michaelson throughout the setlist. During “Over You,” Glee star Darren Criss sang the male part that usually belongs to A Great Big World. Irish folk-rockers Storyman came on stage for their collaboration, “You Got Me,” and singer/songwriter Eric Hutchinson assisted Michaelson on a rowdy cover of current MAGIC! summer hit, “Rude.” But nothing was more surprising than when former Journey lead vocalist Steve Augeri joined Michaelson during her encore for an energetic and unforgettable performance of the classic “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

While the night consisted primarily of cuts from Lights Out, the songstress also treated her fans to some of the most beloved tracks in her back catalogue–including “The Chain,” “Parachute,” “Soldier,” “Blood Brothers,” and a stirring medley of “Maybe” and “Everybody.” Additional highlights included one of Michaelson’s favorite songs to cover, “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You,” the always adorable “You And I,” and a gorgeously stripped down rendition of “The Way I Am.”

For her last song before the encore, Michaelson played Lights Out closer “Everyone Is Gonna Love Me Now.” A ballad that builds to a cinematic crescendo, the song feels like it’s specifically written for audience participation. After teaching the crowd how to sing their part, the voices started to slowly trickle in before it felt like everyone there was fully participating. While this made for a similarly poignant moment at the Green-Wood Chapel, it packed an even mightier punch to see and hear a group of people so large come together and release whatever inhibitions they had to form a united chorus and appreciate Michaelson’s extraordinary talent.

To wrap up the show, Michaelson sang “Afterlife,” the second single from Lights Out and the one for which she recently shot a music video. She prefaced the song by telling the audience that she has a tendency to neurotically worry about the past and the future, but has a difficult time living in the present. Yet that was all about to change.

“Living like you’re dying isn’t living at all, give me your cold hands, put them on my heart,” she triumphantly sang. “Raise a glass to everyone who thinks they’ll never make it through this life, to live a brand new start!”

To Michaelson, “Afterlife” is about living in the moment and appreciating being alive. It’s a theme that was there throughout the whole show, but it was no more evident than during that last song. Joined on stage by all the guest performers from the evening, Michaelson had a lot to celebrate. It was the culmination of what proved to be the most critically and commercially successful point of her career thus far. No artist–and no audience–can ask for much more than that.

Ingrid Michaelson and Alex Nagorski

Originally published on PopBytes