TALKING “CRUEL INTENTIONS: THE MUSICAL” WITH STAR LAUREN ZAKRIN

Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical Experience

Lauren ZakrinLAUREN ZAKRIN IS READY TO SHOW YOU HER DARK SIDE.

Fresh off playing the titular character’s understudy in Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, the Michigan-raised actress’ newest project is taking her deep into a corrupt world of secrets, seduction, and deception. As the dangerous and manipulative Kathryn Merteuil in Cruel Intentions: The Musical, Zakrin is transforming from an ingénue to a villain.

After two sold out runs in Los Angeles, Cruel Intentions: The Musical has arrived in New York City for a limited engagement (through February 19, 2018). Opening December 11th, the show is based on the 1999 cult-classic motion picture of the same name. Created by Jordan RossLindsey Rosin and the film’s director, Roger Kumble, this stage adaptation features a compilation of throwback hits, including some of the best-known tracks from the movie’s legendary soundtrack – including Counting Crows’ “Colorblind” and The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.”

I spoke with Zakrin about getting to be a “bad guy” for the first time, her connection to the show’s source material, performing some of the biggest songs of the ‘90s, her musical theater dream roles, and more.

Cruel Intentions: The Musical

ALEX NAGORSKI: Growing up, were you a fan of the movie? What’s your first or favorite memory about the effect it had on you?

LAUREN ZAKRIN: I was absolutely a fan! And I hate to admit it, but I was on Team Kathryn. I don’t know what it says about me as a person, but the darkness and the power of her character fascinated me. I think I might have been a little young for it, so the movie felt like this dirty little secret that I hadn’t quite figured out yet.

Cruel Intentions: The MusicalAside from the movie itself, where/who else are you drawing inspiration from to shape your interpretation of Kathryn?

I think it would be easy to point the finger and say that I am drawing inspiration from girls who were unkind to me in high school, and of course I do. But it’s much more juicy to find the Kathryn that already lives within me. Even if she has never come out before, I think we all have a little Kathryn Merteuil inside, whether or not we would like to admit it.

Have you had an opportunity to meet and/or speak with Sarah Michelle Gellar (who played Kathryn in the film) about this role?

Unfortunately, I have not met Queen SMG. However, I have heard that she attended the show while it was running in LA! Everyone says she was lovely, and very supportive. If I do get to meet her, my inner Buffy-obsessed pre-teen self will probably freak out.

Kathryn and her stepbrother Sebastian have – to put it mildly – quite an unconventional relationship. How have you and your co-star Constantine Rousouli found the balance between passion and revenge that these two characters force one another to endure?

Cruel Intentions: The MusicalConstantine and I were fortunate enough to walk into the process already knowing each other. Nine years ago, we toured together in Legally Blonde, my very first job! It has been helpful to have a bit of history and trust in the bag when diving into a relationship as complicated as Kathryn and Sebastian’s. Everything else between our characters just seems to be falling into place. There is a natural flirtation and playfulness between us. We know how to poke fun at each other. And we also know when the other one needs support. Constantine has also already been on the Cruel Intentions ride for a couple of years now, and it’s been wonderful to have him holding my hand and guiding me through the world! It doesn’t hurt that he is devilishly handsome, either.

As an actor, how does getting to play a villain differ from some of your previous characters in musicals such as Wicked and Grease?

Kathryn is my very first villain, my first “mean girl.”  In the beginning, I was intimidated by her darkness, but now … I LOVE IT. I find it very therapeutic to expose all of the facets of her to an audience.

The film was based on the novel Dangerous Liaisons (which was also turned into a movie). What do you think it is about this story that has allowed it to live on in so many incarnations and mediums?

Everyone is capable of darkness. I think telling a story that exposes the ugliness of human nature, the selfishness, the jealously, the desire and the cruelty not only forces us to address the unkindnesses in the world around us and why they are happening, but to also acknowledge our own thoughts and actions. It forces us to address our own capabilities towards good and evil. Everyone has dirty little secrets and fantasies, and perhaps everyone has done a thing or two that they aren’t proud of … but pretending otherwise isn’t helpful, nor is slapping a quick label on it. We must address it and examine it, and find the why. I think these stories allow us to take the look that we might be too afraid to do on our own.

The musical is filled with some of the biggest hits of the 90’s – including songs by artists like Britney Spears, No Doubt, R.E.M., Christina Aguilera and Jewel. As a performer, how do you go about re-contextualizing these iconic songs within a musical theater narrative?

As a performer, you must strive to make each song as story driven as possible. Of course, when these songs drop in the show, the audience loves it. There is a lot of laughter and hooting and singing along, which is exactly how it should be. But as the storytellers, we have to try to resist falling into the trap of the joke. The song’s nostalgia is the joke, but the performance of it is not. That’s the only way to maintain the integrity of the story itself, while weaving in these fun 90’s hits.

The show takes place at renowned downtown Manhattan venue (le) Poisson Rouge, complete with bar and table service. How does performing in this type of nightlife environment contrast from being on stage in a more traditional theater?

Cruel Intentions: The MusicalAfter doing The Great Comet of 1812 in a tent in the Meatpacking District, I have found that I really thrive in a more interactive environment. I think we have this wonderful opportunity to push the boundaries and change the shape of how theater can be done or seen. Cruel Intentions is meant to be a dirty, wicked little party, so it fits perfectly into Le Poisson Rouge’s rock-and-roll world. It’s the perfect place to have a drink in your hand and be singing along to Ace of Base.

You made your Broadway debut in 2014 as Sherrie in Rock of Ages, a musical about the 1980s. Now that Cruel Intentions has taken you to the following decade, do you have more fun reliving and exploring the ‘80s or ‘90s through your work? 

was a child of the 90s, so revisiting them still brings me a little bit of shame when I have to look at some of my fashion and music choices. Doing something like Rock of Ages really let me feel like I was diving into another world that I got to learn about and explore.

You’ve been very vocal on social media about the absurdity, cruelty and chaos that defines our current presidential administration. Is it your hope that stepping into the nostalgia-tinged 90’s world of this immersive musical experience will provide audience members with a temporary pass for true escapism? Or are there larger lessons/takeaways that you’re hoping the audience leaves with?

I think we absolutely have an opportunity to comment on the current climate, and to point at things that may or may not have changed socially and politically. There are moments for escapism, but it is always a shame when the opportunity is missed to create change.  As I mentioned, I hope this story, at the very least, allows people to honestly observe, address, and examine the unkindnesses and cruelties within them and in the world around them.

I was fortunate enough to catch your phenomenal turn as Natasha in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 this past summer opposite Oak Onaodowan and Ingrid Michaelson. What were your thoughts/feelings on the show’s abrupt and controversial closing?

Thank you for your kind words! All I can say is that Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 has been the most rewarding and beautiful experience of my professional life, and I miss it every day!

In addition to Cruel Intentions, you’ve been a part of several other movie-to-musical adaptations – including Legally BlondeCatch Me If You Can, and Flashdance. In your experience, what are both the most rewarding and challenging aspects of bringing such beloved films to life on stage?

It is always helpful to begin a project that already has a built-in fan base. However, there can be some challenges in navigating how to maintain the things that people love about the movie while keeping the stage adaptation fresh and relevant. While we want to stay true to all of the iconic moments people are dying to see, it is important to know when change is necessary to best tell the story today. It is also important to avoid the trap of replicating or imitating a performance. The characters need to remain truthful in our bodies, and our interpretations of them grounded in honesty.

What is your musical theater dream role?

Natasha in The Great Comet of 1812. Christine in Phantom of the Opera. Clara in The Light in the Piazza. Marilyn Monroe. Or better yet, something new and all my own!

CLICK HERE to purchase tickets for Cruel Intentions: The Musical, playing now through February 19, 2018 at (le) Poisson Rouge in New York City.

Originally published on PopBytes

MARILYN STRIPPED BARE

A review of My Week With Marilyn
by ALEX NAGORSKI

It’s no wonder that Marilyn Monroe is one of the most famous women of all time. She wasn’t just the star of such classics as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot. Monroe was an international symbol of femininity, sexuality and the American dream.

But as is the case with so many stars, the public Marilyn Monroe was very different from her tortured, fragile private persona. Her life followed the classic script about the Hollywood starlet whose life becomes overrun by fame, substance dependency and loneliness.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t skeptical when I first heard that a film about Monroe’s life was in the works. We’ve all seen Valley of the Dolls. We all watched as Britney Spears was forcibly removed from her home as a result of her mental instability. By now, we all understand that Hollywood has a reputation for building up its key players only to smirk as they crash and burn. So how was Monroe’s story going to be told without torturing a cliché or exploiting her legacy?

Simple. Instead of crafting a full biopic of the tragic star, My Week With Marilyn paints an honest portrait of Monroe by focusing (as the title states) on merely one week of her short life. By honing in on her daily struggles, the film provides the audience with pieces of a puzzle which, when put together, helps them understand this deeply troubled woman as a whole.

While Monroe is obviously the focal point of the film, My Week With Marilyn is equally the story of Colin Clark (played with fervor by Eddie Redmayne), an assistant on the 1956 British set of Monroe and Laurence Olivier’s co-starring vehicle, The Prince and the Showgirl. During the shooting of this film, Monroe’s then husband, Arthur Miller, left England to go work in America, resulting in her very brief affair with Clark.

To Monroe, Clark represents a type of innocence. He’s a boy who idolizes her for her celebrity status yet is also able to protect her from it by seeing past her façade. He hasn’t been corrupted by the pressures and politics of Hollywood and provides an alternate reality: one in which she can be free from the “Marilyn Monroe” mask she’s burdened with wearing. It’s a fantasy to which Monroe, self-aware as she is insecure, can briefly escape. Yet, despite Clark’s best efforts, she knows that it’s not one where she can stay.

As a result, Clark becomes Monroe’s puppet of sorts. He attempts to soothe her insecurities by providing her a level of attention that he witnessed Miller failing to give her. When she’s lonely, Clark is at her beck and call. He tells her that she’s the world’s greatest actress. He confesses how much he loves her. He tells her the truth about The Prince and the Showgirl, explaining that it isn’t the movie that’s going to launch her as the serious actress she so longs to be. He convinces her that he understands who she really is at the core. But to Monroe, Clark is nothing more than a hologram – a pretty illusion that acts as a projection of what she desires. Someone to fill the void until her real savior shows up.

It’s impossible, however, to continue writing about this cinematic achievement without discussing its extraordinary lead actress, Michelle Williams. The amount of rawness and passion that Williams brings to the role provides for such a razor-sharp foray into Monroe’s psyche that it’s hard to watch her and not feel intrusive. To not feel like you’re trespassing on a stranger’s innermost private moments.

As she did last year in the devastatingly gorgeous Blue Valentine, Williams demonstrates a firm grasp of her character, conveying an unsurpassed degree of truth. Even in a year of exceptionally strong female performances–Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia and Ellen Barkin in Another Happy Day–Williams soars above her awards season competition. She does so by channeling this real-life woman with such authenticity that even Monroe’s friends and companions are singing her praises.

Williams doesn’t even appear on screen until well into the film. Instead, director Simon Curtis brilliantly sets up Monroe’s arrival in England by showing the hype surrounding it, paving the path for the events to come. And it’s not until nearly half of the movie has gone by that Williams explicitly struggles with over-medicating or feelings of solitude.

Yet, even when she is first presented as the bubbly Marilyn we all know, Williams masterfully displays a subtle vulnerability that suggests we’re only seeing the surface of this incredibly complex character. She masters Monroe to such a degree that even her smallest facial expressions reveal to the audience that this was a woman in the midst of unraveling.

It’s interesting to think of Williams playing this despondent role. After all, Marilyn Monroe was a much deeper and more elaborate character than any part Monroe herself ever played. And where Williams shines brightest is by showing the juxtaposition of the real-life woman and the hollow character she tries to make into a believable person.

Another reason why My Week With Marilyn succeeds so well is that it is an actor’s movie. And I don’t just mean because of the phenomenal performances from Williams, Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench and Emma Watson. Similar to The Artist, one aspect of My Week with Marilyn I found to be especially fascinating was the narrative it employed about the tensions between “old” and “new” Hollywood – or rather classical vs. modern methods of acting.

In the movie, Olivier is portrayed as a classically trained actor struggling to adjust to a post-Stanislavski climate. Monroe, on the other hand, is the quintessential manifestation of the contemporary actress. She even has an acting coach on set to walk her through her beats and objectives as she attempts to understand Elsie, her seemingly one-dimensional The Prince and the Showgirl character.

During a particularly memorable moment of the film, Olivier becomes increasingly frustrated with Monroe with each failed take of a scene. Monroe is not able to understand her character’s motives, let alone agree with them. Therefore, she can’t bring herself to shoot the scene because it defies the idea of truth she believes acting is all about.

“Can’t you just be sexy? Isn’t that what you do?” Olivier barks at her in a fury. It is clear that Olivier, as both the director and co-star of The Prince and the Showgirl, is far less concerned with Monroe’s craft than he is with her spectacle.

To a woman who wishes nothing more than to be taken seriously, this is the cruelest directive to be given. It is made obvious that, even among her peers, Monroe was seen as nothing more than a toy to be objectified at the public’s disposal. Her happiness and health were irrelevant as long as she could remain the blonde bombshell who seductively pouted her lips and winked at the screen.

What makes the movie even sadder is that every viewer knows about Monroe’s eventual lethal overdose. A standard biopic would have documented all the specifics of Monroe’s downward spiral. My Week With Marilyn takes a different approach—and packs a more concentrated punch. Williams’ stellar performance, Curtis’ direction and Adrian Hodge’s script showcase just how depressed, misunderstood and frail a person Monroe really was. The result is a truly heartbreaking, beautiful, original piece of art that should be on every Academy voter’s radar this season.

My Week With Marilyn is playing in select cities now.

Originally published on PopBytes