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

INTERVIEW WITH FEARLESS “HAMILTON” STAR MANDY GONZALEZ

MANDY GONZALEZ IS FEARLESSLY MAKING HER DREAMS COME TRUE. 

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

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

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

ALEX NAGORSKI: What does being fearless mean to you?

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, wow!

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

That’s an amazing story.

Thank you! I think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your musical theater dream role?

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


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

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

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

Originally published on PopBytes

INTERVIEW: CHATTING WITH “RENAISSANCE” MAN CHEYENNE JACKSON

CHEYENNE JACKSON HAS FOUND HIS CALLING.

Cheyenne-Jackson-CD-Cover-RenaissanceThe 40-year-old Broadway veteran, best known for his originating roles in shows like Xanadu and All Shook Up, is returning to his musical roots. On his new album, Renaissance, Jackson masterfully channels the classic crooners, jazz artists, and rock-and-roll stars of the 1950s and 60s. Paying homage to the music he was raised on, he has put his own twist on the greatest hits of the era. With this record, Jackson has passionately revived the American songbook with his stunning range and signature, soulful baritone voice.

Taking a break from filming the upcoming sixth season of American Horror Story, Jackson chatted with me about his new album, returning to Broadway, his thoughts on this year’s Tony Awards, being gay in the entertainment industry, and more.

What does the album’s title, Renaissance, signify to you?

Funny, nobody’s asked me that! I’ve definitely gone through a renaissance, or a rebirth if you will, over the last 4 years. These songs in particular are ones that I’ve toured for a while now. Everything has kind of culminated in this group of songs that have meant so much to me. Plus, my music teachers always called me a “Renaissance man,” and I just liked the idea of doing something old but also something new.

The album is adapted and expanded from your tour, “Music of the Mad Men Era.” Why does music from this time period resonate with you and what made you decide to record your own album interpreting these classics?

Strangely, this is the music that I grew up listening to. I was a 12-year-old in rural Northern Idaho who listened to Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald. For some reason, that’s the type of music that I was drawn to. I loved the feel of it. I loved the sound of it and it just seemed very natural to me.

As I’ve gotten older and as I’ve sung a lot of different things in a lot of different styles and genres, if I really get quiet and listen to what I like to do the best and what moves me the most, it’s this style of music. It’s the American songbook and it’s jazz in particular.

So for the last few years, touring this kind of music in clubs and in big performing arts centers just made sense. It made sense to want to record these songs. Most of them are ones I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of times. But because they’re such great, classic songs, as you get older and have more experience, the songs themselves morph and change and take on deeper meanings. That’s kind of how it all happened.

This era had so many incredible songs to choose from. How did you curate which ones were included on the record?

It was a really natural process. Like I said, having done a lot of these songs for years and years, I definitely don’t sing them the same as I did 4 years ago. I love that idea that it’s ever changing and morphing and that it can mean one thing one day and something else the next. When it came time to choose, I definitely wanted to pick songs that meant the most to me, and that would work within this linear story I’m trying to tell on the album.

All but one of the songs are ones that I’ve performed in concert before. “A Song For You” is the only one that’s a brand new song for me, but everything else is something I’ve done many, many times. I just tried to pick the best versions because some of these songs on the album are just maybe piano and drums, but in concert I do them with a full orchestra. And vice versa. So I really wanted to focus it.

In addition to all of the covers, the album also includes an original song that you wrote, “Red Wine Is Good For My Heart.” What’s the story behind that song? What inspired you to write it?

Thank you for asking because that is a very personal song to me. My grandma died a few years back due to complications from alcoholism. And, you know, I am an alcoholic and I’ve been sober for 3 years. It’s a huge part of my story. I wrote this song at my friend Michael Feinstein’s house a few years back and I was kind of struggling with the bridge. He came downstairs and I was like, “Sit down and write this song with me!” So we finished it up.

My grandma’s favorite thing to say was, “Well red wine is good for my heart!” She clung to that, but it was ultimately the thing that killed her. I also just wanted to honor her life and her relationship with her man of 30 years. It’s a deeply personal issue for me as well, so I wanted to mark that in some way.

Do you do you plan on going back on the road with another tour to celebrate the album?

Yes! Right now, I’m shooting season 6 of American Horror Story – which I don’t think they’ve announced yet so you may be getting an exclusive there. But yeah, once we’re done shooting this season, then I’m going to have some time to tour a bit. But right now we’re in the thick of it.

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Speaking of American Horror Story, what can you tease about this new season and/or about your character?

Literally zero! Wild horses couldn’t drag it out of me. We are absolutely sworn to secrecy.

What’s your favorite part about working with Lady Gaga? I know she’s coming back for the new season as well.

I would say my favorite thing is her passion. She’s one of those people that is so passionate about whatever it happens to be at that moment – whether she’s talking about jazz or if she’s talking about a film she loves. While we were shooting last season, she was obsessed with the documentary series, The Jinx. She was obsessed with Robert Durst and that whole story.

It’s just fun to be around somebody who is so committed to whatever they’re doing. So many people have so many things going on and so they become a little bit scattered. The thing about her is that she’s always all in. That’s cool to be around. It’s inspiring.

Vocally, how does singing the style of music on Renaissance differ from when you’re singing musical theater or the type of pop found on your previous solo album? And moving forward, do you plan to continue releasing records that are more along these lines?

I do and here’s why. I’ve really been searching my heart and my soul over the last several years because I just wanted to find my sound. What is it and what do I want to do? So if I really clear away everything else and just get quiet and listen to what it is that moves me, all I have to do is look back to what it was as a kid – and that’s this style of music. It’s the American songbook. It’s great melodies. It’s jazz.

I think for a long time, I resisted it, because maybe I thought it was a little bit nerdy. I just wanted to be a cool, edgy singer/songwriter. And honestly, even though I can write pop music and I’m pretty good at it, it’s not the thing that I’m supposed to be doing. What I know now is that this is the music that I’m meant to be singing. It’s the most natural fit. My voice has always been really old-fashioned. As a 15-year-old kid, my high school choir teacher was like, “What is happening with you with sound?” I had an old-fashioned, jazzy type sound. The phrasing, the intonation and the vibrato – all of it just naturally lent itself towards that. And I fought it for years! I wanted to be George Michael! I wanted to really try. Even though I can sing that stuff and I love it, if I really get honest, this is the stuff that I love more than anything else. And I guess I’m kind of coming out.

Honestly, I was talking to my husband about this last year when I was planning this album, and I was like, “I guess I have to just accept and come out with the fact that this is what I do.” It was kind of a breakthrough for me. It’s freeing actually.

You’re really establishing your artistic identity.

Yeah, exactly! And it only took me to 40. Whatever.

Recently, you reunited with your former co-star Kerry Butler to sing “Suddenly” from Xanadu (in full-costume!) as part of a charity benefit performance. If you could revisit and revive any character in your career, whom would you want to play again?

Good question! Well being able to do a little bit from Xanadu again was definitely towards the top of the list. That show was so important to me and to my career. As for who I’d like to revive? Danny from 30 Rock was a very fun character. He was so in-your-face clueless about life. I think it would be a fun thing to see what he’s doing now. And to see if he’s mastered saying the word, “about.”

The last time that you and I chatted, you mentioned that you wanted to make your New York stage return with an original musical as opposed to a revival. Do you still feel that way? And do you have any idea when your fans might be able to expect to see you on Broadway again?

I do still feel that way, for sure! More than ever, actually. Given the last two years on Broadway, and especially this last year, there’s just been so much incredible new material. I’ve got to say, when I saw Hamilton, I had heard so much about it and it was so hyped up. With something like that, you think, “There’s no fucking way this is going to live up to what people are saying.” And happily, it just exploded my expectations and exploded my brain. It shows what the power of musical theater can actually do. So yeah, more than ever I definitely want it to be something new. I have had a couple of offers to come back in the last couple of years for certain revivals, and it just hasn’t been the right fit. It has to be something that I just immediately say, “Yes!”

So yeah, I really don’t know. I don’t have anything on the immediate horizon. There are talks about some things that are a couple of years out. But I definitely try to come back every 6 months or so and do something. For example, doing The Secret Garden in concert at Lincoln Center recently was really fun.

That was incredible, by the way. I had such a great time at the show.

Thank you! I did too. For Ramin (Karimloo) and I, it was such a highlight. And Sierra (Boggess)! You know, I love Broadway and I totally do want to come back. It just has to be the right thing.

You just wrapped filming the movie adaptation of Hello Again alongside the likes of Audra McDonald and Martha Plimpton. What was that process like and how do you think this film will stand out from other contemporary movie musicals?

Another good question! Honestly, I don’t know how it’s going to stack up. This is the first movie musical that I’ve done and it was challenging in that we sang live.

Oh wow!

Yeah! We had little inner-ear things and we were singing to just a piano track. So we’re doing the scenes and we’re actually literally doing the song in the moment live. Which was cool from an acting perspective, but it was definitely challenging. I don’t know how it’s going to come across. I think it’s going to be cool.

It’s very experimental in terms of the scope and it’s very sexy. I mean, that’s what the whole movie is about – each person’s sexual connection and then that person with the next person with the next person with the next person. I had a really good time. Audra and I both did things on camera that we’ve never done before! You’ll see when it comes out. But we definitely just had to kind of go, “Okay, are we doing this? All right lets do it! 1, 2, 3, Go for it!” But yeah, it was a really fun cast. Martha Plimpton is fabulous and really good people. I’m anxious to see it and to see how it all comes across.

As an out gay man in the industry, what were your thoughts on the recent controversial interview that The Real O’Neals star Noah Galvin gave to Vulture about the glass closet in Hollywood?

Listen, I mean, everybody has their own experiences. He’s clearly sorry about what he said and redacted it and has gotten in trouble. I think he probably just got a little excited and I don’t believe in judging.

First of all, I don’t believe in outing anybody. And when people do decide to come out, it’s nobody’s business how they do it. I’ve been out for a long time now and I’ve watched these guys come out younger and younger and it’s very cool. I actually just saw Colton Haynes a couple of days ago and we chatted about this. It’s a new world and the industry is changing, and I think it’s because of these new, younger actors. So we need to lift each other up. We need to support each other in however we choose to come out because we’re all together. We’re all on the same team. Tearing each other down and speaking ill of each other’s experiences is not going to help anybody. It’s not going to help the process. So I’m glad that Noah apologized and kind of took back what he said, because I thought it was really ill conceived.

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How do you plan on celebrating Pride this year?

Well, we just had Pride in LA. So we kind of bopped around a bit and then we went to my niece’s birthday party. Then, I’m singing for Pride in P-town on the 4th of July. I’m doing a big concert at Town Hall.

That’ll be fun!

Yeah! That’s always a very Pride-filled weekend.

What was your personal highlight from the Tony Awards this year? Were there any specific performances that really resonated with you?

Oh god, yes! Cynthia Erivo from The Color Purple. It was insane! Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see The Color Purple on stage. I’ve seen her perform “I’m Here” a couple of different times on talk shows and such, but holy crap! Insanity. Just insanity.

I thought the Tony’s this year were the best they’ve been in a decade. They were so exciting and there were so many good live performances. I also really loved Carmen Cusack’s number from Bright Star. I thought that was really strong. And I loved Jessie Mueller in Waitress. That was really, really powerful. So were so many of my friends, like the She Loves Me cast. And obviously Hamilton.

But the thing that pops into my mind immediately is Cynthia Erivo. That’s just how you do it. In fact, I watched that performance about 10 times. As soon as it was done, I just kept rewinding it and rewinding it and rewinding it.

I get to a point sometimes where I think I’ve got it figured out. I’m like, “Okay, I know how to interpret a song. I know how to really sing it from my gut. I know how to make these words my own.” And then you watch something like that and you realize, “Holy shit! I have so far to go. There’s so much more I could do!” That’s what I love about watching my peers. You can’t help but watch something like that and think, “Man! How does that happen?”

Thank you so much, Cheyenne! Is there anything else that you want to talk about that we didn’t discuss?

I think that’s good. This was really great! Thank you so much.

Originally published on PopBytes

EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH “A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER” WRITER ROBERT FREEDMAN

When A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder opened on Broadway in 2013, it immediately took the theater world by storm.

Set in England at the beginning of the 20th century, the hilarious and uproarious musical comedy tells the story of an heir to a hefty family fortune who decides to kill off the eight distant relatives who stand between him and his inheritance. But can he get away with his plan, especially with both a fiancée and a mistress to answer to?

Robert FreedmanFollowing its acclaimed and decorated Broadway run, Gentleman’s Guide is currently embarking on its first national tour. To celebrate, I chatted with Robert Freedman, who won the Tony Award for writing the show’s book.

ALEX NAGORSKI: How and when did you first get involved in theater? And did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?

ROBERT FREEDMAN: My parents took me and my sister to the theater all the time when we were growing up, mostly at the Music Center, so I developed an appreciation very young. I saw Angela Lansbury in Mame at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion when I was very young and I was enthralled. I never imagined I would know her and work with her some day! As a teen, I would go to the Ahmanson and the Taper and get student rush tickets for $2.50 and sit in the last row of the balcony and be thrilled. Writing just naturally evolved for me. I always enjoyed writing book reports and such in elementary school. In fifth grade, I started my own (short-lived) underground newspaper. As a teenager, I started writing musicals, mostly parodies using my book and lyrics to the tunes of famous theatre composers. I think most of all I just really wanted to be in show business, and the thing that I could do best was write, so that was my way in.

As a writer, who are some of your biggest inspirations?

It won’t surprise anyone when I say Stephen Sondheim is my biggest inspiration. I was also greatly inspired by Moss Hart’s memoir Act One. There are others, but the list is too long.

Gentleman’s Guide is based on the 1907 novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. How did you first come across this book and at what point did you realize you wanted to adapt it into a stage musical?

Steven Lutvak, my collaborator, saw a film based on the novel (Kind Hearts and Coronets), and asked me to write it with him.  I immediately jumped at the chance.

Speaking of Lutvak, he wrote the music for the show and the two of you co-authored the lyrics together. What was the collaborative process like? Did you work on the songs and the book at the same time or did you take on everything piece by piece?

The collaborative process was fascinating, sometimes difficult, and always fun. Particularly when writing lyrics together, which we did in person, in the same room, we enjoyed cracking each other up. Now, when we hear laughter from the audience, it’s particularly sweet to have connected with people in that way. The process began with the story, specifically the plot. From that, we found places that it felt natural for the characters to sing – but always to advance the story, not for sheer entertainment alone. The next step is to decide two things: the dramatic action of the scene, and the style of music, or song, we intuitively feel is right for the moment. The next step is to come up with a “hook,” a phrase, a line, a few words or a sentence, that ends up being the title or an important part of the lyric. Steve would then go to the piano, sometimes immediately, out of inspiration, or later after he’d had time to think about it, and come up with music for that hook. Once we’d decided we had the right musical style for the story we want to tell with the song, Steve would write out a so-called “dummy” lyric, nonsense words that help me understand the rhythm of the song, and what syllables are emphasized. Then we write the real lyric, perhaps just an A-section, then go back and forth until the song is completed. Since I was writing the book, and co-writing the lyrics, once the plot was pretty much set, I set about weaving the book into and out of, and sometimes inside, the songs as we went along.  It was a natural process.

For a show that takes place so long ago, Gentleman’s Guide is surprisingly topical today. For instance, the way it tackles the dispute between the 1% and the 99% is certainly a hot button issue during this election year. Is there a specific message, idea or lesson that you hope audiences take away with them when they leave the theater?

I could spout off on a lot of meaningful things that the show offers, including a commentary on the great disparity between the haves and the have-nots, which is so perfectly embodied by the British class system and so relevant in today’s America, and the hypocrisy of society, then and now, but most of all, we were attempting to entertain in a smart, stylish way.

Are there any tweaks or differences from the Broadway production that diehard fans can anticipate in the tour staging?

Yes! There are minor tweaks that most may not notice. There are improvements in the staging of a couple of musical numbers, “A Warning to the Audience” and “Poor Monty.”  Darko (the director), in his wisdom, advised the actors not to try to copy the Broadway performances, but to make them their own, and they have, and it’s been exciting to see.  It’s the same exact show as it was on Broadway, and not, at the same time.

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What are the most exciting and rewarding aspects of taking this show on the road?

To be able to share our work with so many people is a great thrill, as you can imagine. The audience response in every city has been tremendously gratifying. And for the cast, it’s a great way to see the country, and to connect with people who live in the cities we’re playing.

In 2014, you took home the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. And the show itself won four Tonys, including Best Musical. How did you celebrate?

Robert FreedmanIt was a long, wonderful night! Immediately after the broadcast, we were ushered to the press room, which included photos and video interviews.  Then it was off to the ball, like Cinderella, at the Plaza Hotel, which was glamorous and exciting.  Then we went to the Gentleman’s Guide party, thrown by our producer, Joey Parnes, at the skating rink at Rockefeller Center (an outdoor restaurant in spring and summer), where there was a DJ and dancing and general carrying-on.  But it still wasn’t over.  We then went to the exclusive Tony after-party thrown by our PR maven Rick Miramontez at the Carlyle Hotel, where all the Tony winners and nominees and theatre cognoscenti converge. We didn’t get home until 6:30 A.M.! I was so lucky to have my wife, my son, my sister and brother-in-law, and a dear friend to help me celebrate that night.

As a writer, do you find that being a Tony Award winner puts more pressure on you to replicate and/or build upon the success of Gentleman’s Guide?

I don’t think of it that way. I may never have a career high as thrilling as Gentleman’s Guide again, and I’m perfectly fine with that. In many ways, I’m glad this didn’t happen for me when I was in my 20’s, because it would have been a really hard thing to live up to and replicate. What this success has done is given me more opportunity to work on the kinds of projects, and with the kinds of people, that really excite me.

I see! So are there any new shows you’re working on now? If so, what can you tell me about them?

I can tell you that I’m writing a new musical with Scott Frankel (Grey Gardens), and I’m cooking up another one for Darko to direct, and I’m writing a film, produced and directed by Robert Redford.

When you were writing the book for Gentleman’s Guide, did you always picture the same actor to play every character in the D’Ysquith Family? If so, did you ever worry about finding someone with the stamina to play so many different roles in the same night?

Yes, we always pictured the same actor playing all the D’Ysquiths. We discussed several actors in the process of writing, but when Darko Tresnjak suggested Jefferson Mays we immediately flipped and knew he was the best possible choice even before we started working with him. He’s a genius. But because he’s not known for musicals, he wasn’t on our radar.

In addition to your theater work, you’ve also written quite a few television screenplays, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. How is your creative process different when writing for television versus for the stage?

The process is actually pretty much the same. Writing for the stage has been a bit more gratifying for a couple of reasons. One, there is a live audience and you get an instant response to what you’ve written, and often indications of what you should or shouldn’t change during the process. In addition, you have so much more control of you work. In film and long-form television, once the writer has delivered the script, he or she is considered dispensable, and is rarely allowed to stay involved in the process of filmmaking. In the theater, or at least in our case, Steve and I can truthfully say that what we wrote is exactly what you see on stage. Part of that is the respect for writers in the theatre, and part of that is the respect that Darko Tresnjak and Joey Parnes had for our work.

You’ve had such a vast career in the entertainment industry so far. What project do you consider your crowning achievement to date?

Gentleman’s Guide, without question, probably for the reasons stated above.

If you could have written any show that’s currently on Broadway, what would it be and why?

Hamilton. Because it’s brilliant and the writing is fearless. The beauty of it is that only Lin Manuel Miranda could have written it. I read the same book about Alexander Hamilton when it was first published, and it never occurred to me to make a musical out of it (and I’m a Founding Fathers junkie). The same way it may not have occurred to someone else to make a musical out of Israel Rank.  I bow to his genius without wishing I had written it myself, because I couldn’t have.

Thanks so much, Robert! Is there anything you’d like to add or discuss that we didn’t cover?

Just that I am filled with gratitude for the love we are getting from audiences. There’s no feeling like it, and I am so blessed.

A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder is playing in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre through May 1st. Click HERE to purchase tickets and to check out where the tour is heading next …

Originally Published on PopBytes