FRENCHIE DAVIS TAKES “THE VIEW UPSTAIRS”

FRENCHIE DAVIS IS NOT AFRAID TO GET PERSONAL.

The View UpstairsIn The View UpStairs, a provocative new off-Broadway musical set in 1970’s New Orleans, Davis plays the owner of the gay bar where the show takes place. Directed by Scott Ebersold and with music, book and lyrics by Max Vernon, The View UpStairs tells a poignant tale that not only examines the past, but explores how the lessons learned then can guide us in the fight for equality that still persists today.

Frenchie DavisDavis herself is bisexual and has deep family connections to The Big Easy. In her quest to bring The View UpStairs to life, she felt inspired by her own history to inform who her character is and why this story is so important for contemporary audiences. We spoke in detail about this journey, the role of art in today’s world, her days as a contestant on both American Idol and The Voice, and much more.

NAGORSKI: What has been the most exciting part about returning to the New Year theater scene?

DAVIS: The most exciting part of all of this, I think, has been being able to bring the character, Henri, to life and being able to be a part of telling this story.

The View UpStairs is inspired by one of the most significant yet all-but-ignored attacks against the LGBTQ community. As an LGBT woman yourself, you’ve been a vocal advocate for the community throughout your career. Is this what attracted you to this show?

Partially. I was attracted to this show because I thought the storytelling was witty and beautiful.  I believed that this is such an important piece of our history and was really honored to have been considered for it.

The View UpStairsHow does Henri differ from other characters you’ve played on stage?

Well, she’s this no-nonsense, leather-wearing black motorcycle lesbian running a gay bar in the South in the 70s. Let’s start there! But underneath all of that tough exterior, she’s vulnerable and she loves very deeply the community of people who frequent the lounge.

What do you think audience members can learn from The View UpStairs about the fight for equality today?

So much of the dialogue in the show reminds me that even though it may often feel like we haven’t progressed at all, we have actually come a long way. We have a loooooooong way to go, but we have progressed and we should never take for granted the sacrifices those before us have made to ensure that progress.

The View UpStairs takes place in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Have you ever been to New Orleans? If so, how did that experience inform your interpretation of your character/this show?

Yes, I travel to New Orleans often actually. I have family there and it is a place of such rich history. It’s the birthplace of jazz! It’s the only place where slaves were allowed to maintain and practice many of the cultural traditions they carried with them from West Africa. My grandmother got her doctorate in pharmacy in New Orleans! It was the closest city to her hometown where a black woman would have even been allowed to obtain a degree in any medical field.

So I carry all of that with me in bringing Henri to life. Yes, on the surface, the upstairs lounge is a shitty hole-in-the-wall gay bar. But for Henri, it’s a home. It’s a place she takes a tremendous amount of pride in. She’s a black lesbian in the south in the 70s, and yet here she is, running this business and using it as a safe haven for her LGBT brothers and sisters. These are the types of things that helped me to interpret the character of Henri and the show in its entirety.

As a vocalist, what are the most challenging aspects of singing Max Vernon’s score?

Belting F sharps!

Fashion plays a large part in this show as well. Do you have a favorite costume or look that you get to wear?

Well, Henri’s wardrobe is nothing like the stuff I like to wear. Although I have become a fan of the skinny black Levi 512s she wears. I can’t breathe! But I look good!

The show spans two generations of queer history. Who are some historic figures that have influenced you in your personal life?

Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Hattie McDaniel, and Bessie Smith to name a few.

 The View UpStairs runs through May 21. Do you already have a sense of where your fans can catch you next after this show wraps?

Probably singing at Pride festivals and doing my cabaret act at various performance spaces across the country.

Simply speaking as a theater fan, what’s your favorite show currently playing on Broadway?

That’s impossible to answer! I love so many of them. All for different reasons.

You’ve been a part of several iconic musicals, including RentDreamgirls and Cinderella. What is your musical theater dream role?

Oh my god, Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show!

As someone who competed on both American Idol and The Voice, which show do you think shaped who you are as a performer more?

Neither of them shaped me as a performer. I was on TV for five minutes. I’ve been doing professional theater for fifteen years.

In 2012, you released your debut solo single, “Love’s Got A Hold On Me,” which went on to peak at #12 on the Billboard Dance Chart. Do you have any plans to release any other new solo music anytime soon? If so, do you plan to continue releasing dance music or are there other genres you’d like to tackle as well?

Well, I will always continue to do dance music. But I would love to do some ‘30s jazz/songbook stuff, as well as some soulful pop stuff. I also love trap music!

You’ve got two new movies coming out this year – We Are Family and Snapshots. As an actress, do you feel more drawn to the stage or to the screen? Why?

We Are Family! Oh my god, I filmed that like 7 years ago! I love both but theater is my first love. It’s what made me want to be a performer in the first place.

As a nation, we are going through some horribly dark, terrifying and divided times. What do you think the role of art is (or should be) as a form of making people feel safer and bringing them together? In other words, do you believe that art has a duty beyond escapism?

Art has always had a duty beyond escapism. I think that it is my responsibility as an artist, particularly as a queer artist of color, to use whatever platform I have to be a voice for justice and equality.

What’s your favorite thing to do to unwind after a show?

I love to come home after a show and listen to my ‘30s/’40s Jazz music playlist while engaging in herbal refreshments or alcohol drinking. Or both!


Click HERE to purchase your tickets for The View UpStairs, now playing at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre in New York City through May 21st.


Originally published on PopBytes

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

Grace McLean

THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE IS CONQUERING BROADWAY.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your Broadway dream role?

Fanny Brice in Funny Girl!


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

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

PHOTOS | CHAD BATKA

 Originally published on PopBytes

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