TALKING “THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY” WITH STAR WILL SWENSON

WILL SWENSON HASN’T TAKEN A BREAK IN YEARS.

After back-to-back runs in Broadway shows like Les MisérablesWaitress, and Disaster, off-Broadway shows like Little Miss SunshinePericles and Jerry Springer – The Opera, and films such as The Greatest Showman and the upcoming The Kitchen, the 44-year-old Tony Award nominee (Hair, 2009) is truly an unstoppable force.

Following his Berkshire Theatre Award win for Best Lead Actor in 2016’s The Pirates of Penzance, Swenson has returned to the Berkshires this summer to star in the world premiere production of the new musical, The Royal Family of Broadway. With a book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn (the acclaimed creative team behind The 25thAnnual Putnam County Spelling Bee)The Royal Family has been playing to sold-out audiences and critical acclaim at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

I spoke with Swenson about The Royal Family, the difference between working on revivals versus brand new musicals, the role of art in today’s political climate, filming The Kitchen, and more.

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ALEX NAGORSKI:What initially attracted you to The Royal Family of Broadway?

WILL SWENSON: A bunch of things! First and foremost, it’s just a great role. When I read it, I was like, “Oh, I could do a lot with this!” Plus, I’d seen the revival of the play it’s based on (The Royal Family by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber), so I was pretty familiar with the story. I knew it was a good play and I liked the part a ton. Then, of course, Bill Finn’s music is always spectacular. Getting the chance to work with him is great.

Also, John Rando is just one of the best directors in the business. I’d worked with him just recently and a few times prior. I think this is my fourth project with him. It was just a perfect storm of very appealing things to work with.

What are some of the ways that you find Tony to be a different type of character for you to play than the previous roles in your career thus far?

Hopefully, they’re all pretty different from one another. It does get frustrating as an actor sometimes when you get pigeonholed. People can be like, “Oh, he’s the guy that does this or that.” So I try to spread it around and play different people in diverse types of projects.

Tony is just a wacky, self-centered, full-of-life character. The Royal Family is a period piece so it has some high language and great songs. So just looking at something new to do was very appealing.

What does it mean for you to get to introduce this brand new music by William Finn, who wrote such contemporary classics as Falsettos, to the world through this show?

Well, my favorite kind of show to do is one that’s brand new. When you do revivals or shows that have been widely done, there’s often a preconceived idea of what the show should be or who the characters are. Even down to the moment, like, “This is when typically the actor does this because it’s the way it’s always been done.” Therefore, sometimes you can feel a little bit like a puppet and like you’re walking in somebody else’s shoes.

But doing something new is really thrilling because you’re creating it. It’s legitimate creation and you get to tread new ground and call the shots. Doing something new is just my favorite. In the rehearsal room, you’re discovering things for the very first time and going, “Oh, this works, this doesn’t work.” It’s just a lot more fun for me.

The Royal Family is set in the 1920s and is loosely based on the legendary Barrymore family. What was your creative process like discovering the world of this show?

I YouTubed a ton and read a bunch on the Barrymores – particularly John Barrymore, who it seems like my character is based on. He was this amazing, larger than life archetype of an actor – down to the drunkenness, the carousing, the heightened personality, and the arrogant speech on camera. So I watched as much footage as I could of interviews with John Barrymore, as well as a lot of his actual work. It was like a treasure trove of stuff to use. Some of the stuff I found in his movies was just like, “Oh, that’s going in the show!”

Also, Lionel Barrymore wrote a book about his family and his siblings, in which he told all kinds of wonderful stories. That was great stuff for the backstory and to understand what the family dynamic was. That’s kind of what I did to prepare for this role.

As far as the rehearsal room, it was much more fast and furious. We whipped the show up in only three weeks – which is a crazy, small amount of time to mount a new musical. That’d be a really quick amount of time to whip up a musical that’s well known and already written! We were cutting songs, adding songs, adding dialogue, rewriting stuff – it was just all in a super short amount of time.

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You and your wife (6-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald) have a long history of performing in the Berkshires, including shows at places like Barrington Stage Company, the Williamstown Theatre Festival and Tanglewood, to name a few. What is it about this area that keeps bringing you both back here?

It’s the combo of doing great art and the beauty of the area. There are so many amazing forums up here for performance. We love to go hike and kayak during the day and then work on some new and fun projects at night. We love to go hike up on Mount Greylock and over at Williamstown. I like to mountain bike up to Vermont. We go to various cafes and eat gigantic pancakes. We just love being up here in the summer.

While I’ve been up here, I’ve been going back and forth to New York to shoot a movie I just finished. I’ve missed a couple of shows but I’m done now. So because of this movie, my memory of this summer will be driving back and forth between Pittsfield and New York City.

What’s the movie?

It’s called The Kitchen and it’s starring Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss. It’s about the Irish Mob in the ’70s. I play an Italian hit man. It was pretty fun!

The Royal Family wraps up on July 7. What are the rest of your plans for this summer and where can your fans catch you next?

I’ve got a couple of concerts that I’m singing at in Provincetown at the end of July. My wife has a bunch of concerts too. I’m going to hit the road with her and watch our baby during that time. I have not spent nearly enough time with them during the run of The Royal Family because they couldn’t always come up here. So I’m going to be a dad, do a few concerts and then go be a roadie for my wife.

What are the plans for The Royal Family after the final curtain drops this weekend? And if it does indeed come to Broadway, do you plan to reprise your role?

If there are future plans for it, I definitely want to stay involved. There most likely will be. Because it’s a new show, I imagine there will probably be a workshop of some kind to try to nail down the things that we wanted to continue working on. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if someone wants to take it to Broadway!

This musical comedy is very much a feel-good show. In these horrifying times we’re living in, do you consider the role of an artist to be to entertain, educate and/or distract audiences?

Hopefully, it’s all of it. I’ve said before in interviews that I feel like history remembers civilizations for two things: their wars and their art. As an artist, that’s the beauty we leave behind in this world. Hopefully what we do makes people question their places in the world and question their decisions and thought processes.

Some art forms are much more escapist. Sometimes it’s nice to forget about the world and just go into a room and enjoy it and laugh for a couple of hours. Other times, it makes you ask yourself hard questions. Hopefully, we can do all of that with our storytelling, which I think is such a noble and a beautiful art form.

You recently tweeted that you “used to feel so inspired and lucky” whenever you saw the Statue of Liberty, but that now seeing it “just makes me feel sad and embarrassed.” As both a performer and a father, how do you hold onto hope in such a toxic political climate?

Man, it is tough. I’ll tell you what – a buddy of mine did a little blog on his website about why we shouldn’t lose hope. And he basically wrote that the reason is because there’s no other option. Because we’re alive. There’s a scary, murky end to all of us, and that’s death. But we get up each day and try to be good people and to try to make a difference because that’s just what you do. That’s part of life. There are challenges, setbacks, hard times and good times. But surrendering is just not an option.

We try – speaking for my wife and hopefully my kids as well – to make our lives as productive and positive as we can. We try to make a difference where we can. Hopefully, those ripples will travel far enough that it can make a difference and we can help make the world a better place.

That’s very inspiring. On a lighter topic, congratulations on your recent Obie Award win for Jerry Springer – The Opera! What were some of the highlights of playing Satan?

Thank you! It was so great on so many levels. I mean, I’d never played Satan before. He’s just such a terrific character. And to do it in such a bizarre setting with such a twist on how the character is portrayed in the context of The Jerry Springer Show was a total ball. And through the medium of opera! That just added an extra cool facet to the delivery of it. That show was directed by John Rando as well. It was just a ball! That was a great company and a really, really fun project.

You’ve played a lot of “bad guys” on Broadway, such as Earl in Waitress and Javert in Les Misérables. What type of creative itch does playing these types of villainous roles scratch versus playing the hero of a story?

Generally, I think they’re more complex. If I was given the choice to play the “bad guy” versus the “good guy,” I think I would generally choose the antagonist.  Playing somebody troubled is a lot more fun than playing somebody who has all of their stuff figured out. Discovering how the “bad guy” gets to that point and how they justify their actions or why they probably think they’re the “good guy” because they’ve lost track of their values or motives … I just like it a lot.

You mentioned that you’ll be doing some solo concerts soon. Do you have any plans to release any solo music?

Probably not but you never know. I just really love the theater. It’s not my number one passion to be like, “Will Swenson sings you this song.” I like hiding behind my characters a little more. But when things come up, I surely enjoy them and they’re a good way to take a vacation with my kids.

What are some of your musical theater dream roles and/or collaborators?

Well, as I mentioned, new stuff is really my favorite so I don’t have a huge, long list of “Oh, I want to play that” or “I want to play him.” What really turns me on the most is creating something new.

I suppose if there was one that comes to mind, it’d be Sweeney Todd. I’d like to do that one someday. Of course, Sondheim is someone that I would love to get to work with, but I haven’t been able to thus far. I’m a fan of so, so many great musical theater composers and am lucky enough to have been able to work with a lot of them.

As someone who has appeared everywhere from the stage to films to television, what do you feel is the most important thing that live theater can achieve for an audience that these other mediums do not?

Well, theater is my favorite performance medium. I enjoy working in TV and film as well, but there’s just that intangible thing in the room in a theater where we’re all connected. It’s this living kind of organism of storytelling that doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s communal.

I was watching Oskar Eustis give this speech the other day and he said, “When you go to a movie theater and you walk in and you’re the only person there, you’re thrilled! You sit by yourself and you’re totally excited to be the only person in the movie theater. But if you walked into a stage performance and you’re the only person in the theater, or if there’s not a full house, your heart sinks because whether you know it or not, you’re going to have a communal experience.” You know?

The shows that are sold out, that are hard to get a ticket to, there’s something exciting about being one of those select few that get to see it. The fact that it’s so alive and it varies from night to night is just thrilling. Other acting art forms, like film and television, are wonderful and are accomplishing many other things – but they’re very set and they’re the same way forever once the project is finished. So there’s just that extra thing about theater that binds people together. It’s so beautifully communal. I just love it!


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to The Royal Family of Broadway, now playing through July 7 at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Originally published on PopBytes

SLICING UP “WAITRESS”: AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH STARS JESSIE MUELLER, CHRISTOPHER FITZGERALD AND JENNA USHKOWITZ

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SARA BAREILLES HAS BAKED A SMASH.

The Tony and Grammy nominated singer/songwriter’s debut musical, Waitress, opened this past March to rave reviews and instant box office success. Based on the 2007 indie film of the same name, Waitress is predicted to recoup its costs as soon as October. As Forbes points out, “For a new musical that isn’t Hamilton, that’s pretty spectacular.”

Waitress tells the story of Jenna, a waitress in a small Southern town, who yearns to leave her abusive marriage. Also working at the pie diner are her best friends, Dawn and Becky. When Jenna becomes accidentally pregnant, she meets the handsome (and also married) Dr. Pomatter. As she seeks a path to freedom, she sets her sights on a local pie contest as her golden ticket to a new life. Meanwhile, Becky and Dawn look for love in all of the most unexpected places.

Jessie-MuellerI spoke with Tony nominated actors Jessie Mueller (Jenna) and Christopher Fitzgerald (Dawn’s love interest, Ogie), as well as Glee star Jenna Ushkowitz, who has just joined the show as Dawn (following a leave of absence by original cast member Kimiko Glenn). We chatted everything Waitress including their favorite pies, working with Sara Bareilles, their creative processes, inspirations, and more.

NAGORSKI: How did you first get involved with Waitress?

MUELLER: I had a lunch with Diane Paulus and we discussed the project, and then I did a reading in December of 2014.

Jenna-UshkowitzUSHKOWITZ: Kimiko Glenn, who originated the role of Dawn, took a leave of absence. They called me on a Thursday and said, “We’d love for you to come in to meet everybody on Friday to do some of the Dawn stuff.” I went in and did it for a couple of hours and then left. That same evening, I found out that I was going to be joining the cast for a little while. It was all really quick and then I started rehearsals the next day!

FITZGERALD: The producer, Barry Weissler, called me. He and I had a couple of meetings about what we could find to do together. We had talked about a couple of things and then he said, “I’m doing this project. Do you know the movie Waitress?” I told him, “I think I’ve seen it. I’m not sure.” And he said, “Well, here, take a look at it. Somebody get me the DVD!” So he gave me the DVD and then explained, “There’s the small part of Ogie, the poet, who is a very eccentric guy. I’m not sure if it will interest you but take a look and see what it does.”

Christopher-FitzgeraldI asked him, “Well, who’s doing the score?” And he told me, “I think Sara Bareilles.” And when he said that, I was like, “A-HA! She’s cool! That would be interesting.” So I went home and I watched the movie. Eddie Jemison, who plays Ogie, is hilarious. He’s so good. But I couldn’t quite see how some of it was going to be musicalized, especially that character, but I figured why not give it a shot?

Then, they had a reading at their apartment, and there were maybe five of us. So in terms of when actors started to be involved, I’ve been involved since the very beginning. And nobody in that reading (other than me) is still a part of the project. There are all sorts of reasons why that is. We read through the screenplay essentially, and then Sara just sat at a piano and played and sang the songs. It was so incredible! When that reading ended, I was like, “I really want to be a part of this. I’ve got to make sure that I put some effort into continuing to let the people who are making decisions know that I want to be a part of it.”

I met Diane Paulus, our director, at that stage. And then we started doing several more readings, which is generally the process for new musicals. You have to do a lot of readings because you’re just trying to synthesize so many things – story, story with songs, who’s singing, why they need to sing, songs are cut and added, etc. There’s a lot of that kind of process. Through those readings, I was able to start a dialogue with Diane, Jessie Nelson (who adapted the screenplay) and Sara about the thoughts I had. It just became more of a collaborative experience and then we went into rehearsal, and now here we are!

Jessie, you’ve also been with the show since its early days. How has Jenna (and/or your interpretation of her) evolved throughout the process, from the early readings to the A.R.T. run to now on Broadway?

MUELLER: I think (and hope!) she’s grown deeper, and become like more of a second skin. Getting to spend time with a character helps. When I start working on someone, it feels disconnected. But I’ve learned for my own process that it is just that: a process. It takes time. I think in the beginning, I was a bit puzzled by her and by her decisions and choices – a bit like the audience experiences her. But in spending more time inside her, I came to know the complexity of her experience. I don’t judge her anymore. I think I did in the beginning.

Part of what makes you each so captivating on stage is how fully immersed in your characters you get. How do you choose your roles?

FITZGERALD: As an actor, you spend so much time hearing “no.” I’ve heard that word endless amounts of times. Hearing it so many thousands of times, you almost start to have a relationship with that word and that experience. But this was one of those experiences where I was like, “I think I have a handle on who this guy is and this would be really fun to physicalize.” In readings, when you’re reading it, you’re really working on the material. But I was like, “If I could get on my feet, I think I could have a lot of fun with this song.” So I don’t know about choosing stuff, it kind of chooses you, weirdly, you know?

The characters that I’ve played on Broadway, like Boq (Wicked), Igor (Young Frankenstein), Og (Finian’s Rainbow), are all of these weird little creatures. I basically am Broadway’s creature guy. I play all of the weird, non-human characters. So this time around, as Ogie, it’s nice that I get to actually play a man … but he’s also unlike any other man.

USHKOWITZ: Like I say for anything in my life, if it scares me a little bit, that’s always a good sign. If there’s a bit of a challenge, no matter what that is, I’m intrigued. I haven’t done a Broadway show and that rigorous schedule in eight years, so I definitely had to get back into a groove. I enjoy finding characters that are different from what I’ve done before. But it’s also important to make sure that I can relate to them and that my heart’s in it. Otherwise it’s kind of pointless.

MUELLER: I gravitate toward roles that I connect with. There was something about Jenna, and especially the music, that I related to. When I first heard “Everything Changes,” I cried. I’ve never had a child, but there was something that struck a chord. The healing of that song, the transformation, the yearning for renewal, the breakthrough – I found it so powerful. I like pieces that illuminate what it’s like to be a human being on this earth: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

How influential was the film when you were working on creating your characters? What/who else helped you find them?

MUELLER: Very! I came back to the film when we were working on the show out of town. It’s where Adrienne Shelly’s vision started. I think what Kerri Russell brought to the film was beautiful. I’ve since become a huge fan of The Americans and I always think of Dr. Pomatter’s line, “I could find the whole meaning of life in those sad eyes.” She has this amazing life that lives in her eyes. Well, you can’t really access that in a large Broadway house, but it was very influential to me. Jenna’s sadness lies very deep within her.

I also watched waitresses all the time. I searched for photos of people and waitresses at diners, especially those in small towns, or highway truck stops. There’s a fantastic book I got called Counter Culture by Candacy A. Taylor. And I found myself listening to a lot of country/folk music. There’s a Kacey Musgraves song called “Merry Go Round” that I got obsessed with for a while.

USHKOWITZ: I saw Kimiko’s performance right when the show first opened. She was wonderful and I wanted to keep the integrity of what she worked on. Especially during the rehearsal process with the girls, I wanted to make sure that we were keeping with the vision of what everybody had created. But obviously, Kimiko and I are so different, so it was also important to keep that and then wash away the rest.

I loved, loved, loved the movie when I saw it years ago, but I have not seen it since because it is very different. Dawn’s character is the biggest rewrite from the screenplay to the book for the musical, so I didn’t want to confuse the two. Therefore, I haven’t watched it again. Once I leave the show, I’ll probably go back and watch it again just because it’s so good.

Because Dawn is so particular, I look to people and to friends who are introverts to help bring her to life. I’m also an introvert and kind of OCD myself, so I tried to bring little bits and pieces of all these people that I knew and my own imagination to who I thought Dawn would be. I wanted to make her as human as possible because I think she is the easiest to be misconstrued as a caricature. And she’s not! She’s a real person. So that was really important to me when we were working in the few short weeks of rehearsal.

FITZGERALD: To me, the film was always the Bible of the piece. It’s where I felt like I always returned to in order to find the characters and their humanity. Adrienne wrote, starred in, and directed it, so that was always a constant reminder to allow her vision to inform you somehow. Those people crafted those characters first.

I’ve had a little experience doing that before. When I was playing Igor in Young Frankenstein, I felt the same way. How do you follow Marty Feldman? He’s perfect. He isIgor. There will never be anybody but Marty Feldman in that part. That was an iconic movie and each performance is iconic in it. All you can really do is try to tap into that and try to steal some of the joy, spirit and whatever that essence that makes it so incredible is. You want to try to borrow it and use it to your advantage.

For Waitress, some people didn’t want to watch the movie and didn’t want to have that experience. But I did and I definitely watched Eddie a lot. I think the main thing that I stole from him was that Ogie is a guy who is positive all the way down to the fiber of his being. He makes only positive choices and that’s really fun to play! It’s really fun to play someone who’s naively positive and who doesn’t see the wall in front of them that we all have. That really helped inform his song (“Never Ever Getting Rid of Me”) and the whole character’s journey.

Ogie is just like, “You are the one and I couldn’t know it more. This is too right. You know it and I know it.” He has that spark that made me realize that that’s where his drive comes from. It’s really fun to come into a show and have that energy, especially when all of the other characters are in the midst of the thickness of conflict. Everyone else is dealing with so much and making crazy, horrible choices because they’re in a lot of pain. Almost everybody in this show is in some way. So here I get to come in and just be like, “This is a joyous day!” And Ogie really believes that.

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Christopher, you’ve won Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for your performance. Do you think it’s this overwhelmingly positive outlook Ogie has on life that makes him such a scene-stealer?

FITZGERALD: Absolutely! That outlook informs everything. Have you ever seen those videos of birds doing big, crazy sex dances to try to get their mate excited? But in reality, they’re just these little, tiny birds that are showing off because of the stuff around them? They always make me laugh and they remind me of Ogie. They make me think of just how funny it is that there’s this person who’s a complete dweeb and nerdy weirdo, but who just doesn’t give a shit. It’s so satisfying to see somebody like that! We kind of all wish to be like that.

So yes, I think that positive drive is really what makes everyone go, “Wait, what’s happening? Who is this guy?” And then Sara wrote this crazy song that I feel like could almost be a stalker song. It’s kind of weird. We don’t have a lot of time to set it up. But he’s so positive and loving that you know it comes from an earnest place and that it’s not crazy. I feel like at the end of the song, if Dawn said, “You know, I really can’t do this,” Ogie would say, “Okay, I get it.” He’d put on a little performance and be like, “Now I’m very sad. I will try again but I get it.”

Waitress is the first Broadway musical to come from an all-female creative team. How (if at all) did this impact the overall creative process/experience of building the show?

MUELLER: I think we probably developed a shorthand that most of us weren’t even aware of. There was lots of talk of gyno appointments, babies, love, affairs, a woman’s experience, etc. It was very easy to go there and I think that’s because of the personalities that were in the room.

USHKOWITZ: Going into this show knowing that is awesome! You walk in already feeling inspired and empowered. I think all around women are raising the bar in society and in today’s world, so I’m thrilled and honored to be a part of that as well. It should be that way and yes, we should have all women creative teams! It shouldn’t be out of the norm. But I wasn’t looking at it any differently than I do going into any other project.

FITZGERALD: I think to tell a story about women, it’s probably good to have women tell the story. That sensibility was important to what the story’s really about. However, it was just a normal Broadway creative process with all of its challenges and all of its celebratory moments. It wasn’t really that different to me. I’ve worked with a lot of female directors and there’s no real difference to me. It’s the same kind of process.

The show explores themes such as motherhood and self-empowerment, and has resonated with all sorts of audiences, regardless of age, gender, etc. What do you think it is about Waitress that makes it so universally appealing and crowd-pleasing?

USHKOWITZ: I think what is really cool about it is you have these three ladies and each one of them goes through a beautiful arc in the story. Each one is vibing off each other’s energy. For example, Dawn and Ogie’s scene forces Jenna to go call Dr. Pomatter and face him. Each one sort of feeds off the other and inspires the other to grow and to change. It’s a really beautiful story of empowerment. It shows the importance of leaning on, supporting, and learning from each other. And the music, obviously, is really beautiful.

FITZGERALD: I feel like the strokes with which these characters have been created make them very real. You don’t usually see a comic musical with these kinds of damaged people. Characters have flaws, but there’s a difference between, for example, Harold Hill’s flaws (in The Music Man) and Jenna’s. It’s just deeper. The stakes are inherently higher when you’re in an abusive relationship and are stuck in a small town and are in a lot of pain. I don’t know if people see themselves, but they feel like these are maybe characters that they really can understand or connect with. The show doesn’t do a lot of pandering. It just shows these characters’ lives.

Also, I feel like you don’t see enough stories about women. This show has complicated relationships between women, and friendships that are not fabulous. They’re in a diner. I think it’s those kinds of themes that we all gravitate to, and because of those dynamics, people are attracted to the show. It’s really interesting. It really seems to be striking a chord in particular with young women.

I also think it’s Sara and the way her music speaks to people. When you’re listening to Sara’s music, whether it’s a song like “Gravity” or really any one of her albums, it’s like you enjoy the ache of her music. It’s as though it’s actually pleasurable to feel the kind of pain that she sings about. Do you know what I mean? When you put it on, it just gets inside you. Even if it’s a song about a break-up or heartache or whatever, it’s delicious to your soul somehow. When Jessie sings her 11 o’clock number, “She Used To Be Mine,” it’s just an amazing moment. It’s an incredible song about someone at their wit’s end, but the way the melody is and those lyrics are just make the song so satisfyingly painful. That’s the way I feel.

MUELLER: The show taps into a part of the human experience everyone can relate to – doubt, pain, suffering, life choices. I think to see someone honestly acknowledge their mistakes and their pain is a very powerful thing. Something we don’t often feel safe enough to do in life. But when we can sit in a theater and engage with characters and watch them go through it, we can safely relate. I had an acting teacher who used to talk about that. The power of theater is we can learn lessons without the collateral damage of actually having to go through it ourselves. And I think the show is really well balanced. There are laugh-out-loud moments and moments of extreme joy and healing. It’s got a little bit of everything. Each side makes the other more potent.

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What is something about yourself, either personal or professional, that playing these characters has taught each of you?

FITZGERALD: I had a lot of fun really working on this and taking charge of how I felt like my first number could go. It was fun to have that confidence. It taught me a lot about taking that moment and collaborating with Diane and (choreographer) Lorin Latarro. It also started as something so different than where it got to, so it taught me to be really open to new things and to have faith. And I really did! I was like, “We’re going to get there, but I don’t know how.” I learned a lot doing that. That was cool.

MUELLER: Playing Jenna has taught me to own your feelings and your thoughts. The good, bad, and the ugly. I’m still learning that one everyday … and then having to re-learn it. And to stand up for yourself.

USHKOWITZ: I’m an introvert at heart. Dawn has taught me to branch out to be open to new experiences and also to love myself. Dawn’s really happy in her ways and that allows her to hope and dream. I think that’s really valuable too. You need to know what you enjoy and how to live your life so that you’re happy.

Christopher, how is your chemistry on stage different with Jenna than it was with Kimiko? And to both you and Jenna, how does that chemistry inform your performances?

FITZGERALD: It’s really not so different in terms of the way that the story comes off. I’ve also played opposite a few understudies, so I’ve played it now with maybe four different Dawns – the same way that Kimiko and Jenna have also played opposite different Ogies. What’s kind of remarkable, though, is how the story is still told. It’s really fun! Dawn is basically the straight man through that first act number. She’s just like, “What’s happening?” It’s so fun how that turn happens. I’m having a great time with Jenna. She’s got a big laugh and a really fun spirit. We get along very well and we’ve become good pals.

USHKOWITZ: Christopher is a comedic genius. Our chemistry is vibrant and it’s like a little Ping-Pong game in that we really do vibe off of one another. I also would say he’s like a teddy bear, so it’s a very cuddly relationship. He’s very charming. I actually met him 20 minutes before our first performance together because he was on vacation when I was in rehearsal. So it was really important to listen to each other because we were literally getting to know each other on stage for the first time. That was a really great learning experience for me and I’m lucky to continue to do that every day. It was really special and definitely very cute.

In your opinions, why are Ogie and Dawn a perfect couple?

USHKOWITZ: I think they push each other. They both have created these beautiful lives for themselves that make them very fulfilled. Realizing then that there can be other people that can also fulfill you in ways that you can’t do for yourself is really sweet. I think that the two of them are like peas in a pod that way. And accepting each other for who they really are – like when they dress up as Betsy Ross and Paul Revere – is really cute.

FITZGERALD: They’re so mix-matched but so perfect for each other. Dawn is essentially kind of a “no” person. She’s sort of afraid, quiet, and reserved and he’s just the opposite. That’s why it’s so satisfying to watch those two forces come together.

What’s your personal favorite song in the show and why?

MUELLER: It really changes every night and they all feel so different. I wouldn’t say I have a favorite.

USHKOWITZ: My favorite song to listen to is definitely “She Used To Be Mine.” I think Jessie gives a spectacular performance and I feel like that song is the culmination of the show. It just really gives you an idea of who she is and what we’re dealing with. But I also really love “Everything Changes.” I really enjoy singing that with the girls. It’s just all so beautiful.

FITZGERALD: I’ve got to give it up to my buddy Nick Cordero and his song, “You Will Still Be Mine.” But they’re all good! They really are. I like to put on the CD in my car sometimes, just because I love all of the songs from the very beginning to the end. I really just think this is a remarkable score!

What are your favorite things to do to relax on a no-show day?

MUELLER: Get out of the city and go somewhere green!

USHKOWITZ: I just finished watching Stranger Things. I like to binge-watch TV shows just because on no-show days, I try not to talk. I’ll either go get a massage and then watch either The Bachelor, Bachelor in Paradise or Netflix.

FITZGERALD: It depends. Sometimes I like to take a nap, sometimes I like getting outside and sitting in the park and zoning out. Seeing friends. It’s always different for me.

This show doesn’t knock me out in the same way that it does someone like Jessie. She’s on stage the whole time. The emotional gamut that she runs is large and that really takes a toll on an actor in the long run. Because it’s not that you don’t feel those things. You do. You have to go there if you’re going to put over a scene where you’re about to be physically abused. And the fear of that is something that as an actor, you have to kind of tap into. So that takes its toll. It’s not necessarily always a fun place to be.

But that’s the most fun thing about playing Ogie: he’s nothing but positivity and joy. It’s falling in love with somebody and expressing that, and then letting that continue and that’s it. It doesn’t really take any other kind of turn. So it’s just fun to be here. And the cast and crew are a great group of people.

Jessie, one of the many things that I found so powerful and impressive about your performance at this year’s Tony Awards was how you were able to so quickly emotionally transition from the bubbly “Opening Up” to the vulnerable and heavy “She Used To Be Mine.” As an actor, how do you mentally prepare for the rollercoaster journey that your character goes on every night?

MUELLER: HA! I think that might have been sheer panic or exhaustion on the night of the Tonys. And there was a beautiful moment when I finished my costume change, and walked out on the stage, and saw and heard Sara, and it all hit me – how special the moment was. How far we’d come and what we’d all built together. During the show I really have to take it one moment at a time. It’s death for me if I think about where I have to get to or the emotion of a moment. If I open up and let go, it’s much better. I’m still learning how to do that. I have to continually remind myself there’s something bigger happening than all of us. But it also takes all of us. Every moment takes me to the next, every character, that’s what makes it possible.

How would you each describe the experience of working with Sara Bareilles and what’s been the best part about getting to sing her music?

FITZGERALD: Sara is awesome. She’s got a great sense of humor and all we do is kid around with each other and make fun of each other. She’s unbelievably talented and is unafraid to think about, speak about and give out stuff that is challenging and interesting. It was really fun to collaborate with her. We came up with some other ideas together and she was open to any and all of them. She’s fierce and is also very clear about what she wants and what she needs. That’s also really satisfying. She’s just incredible.

MUELLER: Sara really was awesome. She was so open, available, and extremely thoughtful and supportive when it came to the score. If something wasn’t fitting in my voice or wasn’t serving the bigger picture, she was open to changing it. She wanted the score to be comfortable for us to sing. That being said, she’s brilliant and has an incredible vocal instrument. I think this is one of the most challenging scores I’ve ever sung. She set the bar high!

USHKOWITZ: I actually didn’t work with Sara. She came and saw the show after I joined and she really enjoyed the performance. When I was learning the material, they were like, “Don’t worry! Just sing the stuff and feel it and be honest with it.” Looking over videos and things that I’ve seen of Sara working with the original cast, like when they were working on the album, she always encouraged them to “Let this be your version.” She’d say, “This is your story and your version. I’ve done mine!” She put hers on a concept album and it’s beautiful to listen to. But we’re all different so I think that’s the biggest thing I took away. That it was okay to make her my Dawn. To not try and replicate what had been done – because you can’t.

Vocally, how does singing this type of pop-infused score differ from your more traditional and classical musical theater work?

USHKOWITZ: That’s exactly what it is. It’s pop. It’s a bit more laid back and emotionally driven. And Sara’s songs, I will say, are not easy to sing. It’s not like we’re singing some easy pop song that’s done in a recording studio. Her stuff is tough. It’s beautiful and intricate and that’s why I think it does so well. In musical theater, you’re trained a certain way. So to be able to bring in this contemporary sound and have that live feel with our studio mics and everything makes it become sort of like a pop concert as well.

FITZGERALD: To me, it is a little easier to sing. The way that Sara voiced the characters is just such strong writing. And there’s not much difference when it’s good writing.

MUELLER: It’s really fun and was a departure for me. There’s a little more freedom. And sometimes that’s scary, but it also encourages me to really put my heart and soul into it. Of course I’m conscious of what I sound like but it’s not my main concern when singing pop scores. It’s fun to put some guts behind it and hopefully give audiences something they don’t always hear in musical theater.

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What are your personal favorite kinds of pie(s), both to eat and to bake?

MUELLER: Chocolate cream pie from Bakers Square, or banana or coconut cream. I’m not good at baking those, so if I were baking, it would be a fruit pie – maybe strawberry rhubarb.

FITZGERALD: I really love a banana cream pie. Some people hate the idea of banana in anything and it makes them gag. I love it. I also really like a good, high-quality chocolate cream pie. My mom’s apple pie was always simple and so well done. So, I also just love a very well made, fresh, hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream. I mean, come on!

USHKOWITZ: Well, I have to be honest, I’m not a pie baker. I will make a healthy pie out of spaghetti squash, but that’s about it and that’s kind of boring. I like quiche, which Jenna also does make for the diner. I’m a big fan of eating quiche, but if I had to choose a sweet one, I’d go with a classic apple pie à la Mode.

Jenna, one of the many projects you’ve taken on since Glee ended is your podcast, Infinite Positivities. Can you please tell me a little bit about what inspired you to host this and what some of the most rewarding aspects of working on it have been so far?

download (1)USHKOWITZ: Well, after I wrote my book Choosing Glee in 2013, I got a really great response from people and I started to realize that not everybody had this viewpoint and perspective on positivity. It really opened my eyes to understanding how to condition yourself to make happiness a choice. The podcast is sort of an extension of my book. I take topics based off of the chapters in my book and I discuss real life issues with really cool and inspiring people. The way I like to find my guests are people who seem like they live their lives whole-heartedly and sort of have been through tough times but came out the other side successfully. I can show my listeners that it’s not always easy and either way, you’re going to come out stronger. So, that was sort of the inspiration.

The most rewarding thing is having these amazing, inspiring, successful people on and learning that they’re just human beings. We all feel and we all mess up and we all fail. We’re ambitious and we try and I think that the most beautiful thing is just being aware of all of these things and showing people a different perspective on life.

Who of your Glee co-stars are you still in the closest contact with? And have any come to see you in this show yet?

USHKOWITZ: Well, none of them have come to see me because I’m only in my second week of the show, but I know Darren (Criss) is going to come. He said he wanted to come and Lea (Michele) wanted to come. I talk to Darren, Lea and Becca (Tobin) a lot. I was actually speaking with Kevin (McHale) just this morning. Then of course, Harry (Shum Jr.), Naya (Rivera), Diana (Agron), and Amber (Riley). It’s hard to say. We all speak a lot. We stay in really close contact. We’re all family so sometimes we’ll go months without talking at all and then sometimes we’ll talk everyday.

Jessie, can you please describe what the recording of charity single “What The World Needs Now Is Love” with Broadway For Orlando was like?

MUELLER: It was one of the coolest afternoons I’ve had in a long time. It felt like such a blessing to have something to do in the face of what felt like helplessness. And what a room! I felt like I was watching from the outside and wondering who the heck had let me in there. I was in a Carole King/Sara Bareilles sandwich for most of the session. My heart was very big that day.

Christopher, a few months ago, I interviewed Shoshana Bean, and she told me that she credits her involvement in Wicked with why she gets to travel the world singing today. So I’ll ask you the same question that I asked her then: How has being such an integral part of such a blockbuster musical shaped your career?

FITZGERALD: Well, nobody wants to hear me travel the world and sing like Shoshana. If I sang like Shoshana, I think I would say what she said. It’s interesting. I come out at the stage door after the show and half the people are like, “Oh, my god! I loved you in Wicked! I love Wicked!” It’s crazy that there are still fans from that time.

The only thing I can say really is that it was amazing to watch the power of something that could affect that many people. It was like, “We’re just singing songs and telling a story. It’s nothing more special than that!” And yet it is that special, and it’s just remarkable! People still have such an affinity for it. The fact that right now there are like five different Boqs around the world tonight that are going to say lines that I said first, and do little bits that I did, that just blows my mind sometimes. I’m like, “Really? They’re going to do that little book thing that I did and they’re wearing the same costume that I wore?” It’s totally surreal!

And yet if I walked over there right now, the people at the theater would be like, “Can I help you?” or “Who are you?” They even have a sign that says something like, “If you were in Wicked previously, you may not come backstage. You have to come back with somebody.” Because there are so many of us now!

Waitress1487rOh wow. If you were in charge of casting, who would you like to see play Boq in the upcoming Wicked film adaptation?

FITZGERALD: Aside from you, you mean? I don’t know! Who could play Boq? Joseph Gordon Levitt, maybe? I don’t know. It’d be one of these actors that I don’t know because they’re so young now. Maybe Michael from Stranger Things. My wife and I just finished that show and we loved it. It was so fun and exciting. That’s my hip answer because it’s pretty current. But already Stranger Things is becoming old hat, I guess. It’s so sad how quickly these things move.

Do any of you have any plans to release your own solo albums? What would they sound like?

MUELLER: I’d love to someday, when I have something to say. I just don’t know what that is right now. So I also don’t know what it would sound like.

USHKOWITZ: That’s a really good question! If you were to ask me even before Waitress, it would definitely be along the lines of a Vanessa Carlton/Sara Bareilles/Ingrid Michaelson/Regina Spektor/Florence and the Machine feel. But as of right now, no. I’m really enjoying this acting route at the moment. I’m not closed off to it, but that’s not something that I’m dying to pursue at the moment either.

FITZGERALD: Maybe! It would be called like, The One Syllable Names or The Creatures. I did a Feinstein’s show before it closed about three years ago (before it became 54 Below). I did it with my friend David Turner. It was a mixture of all sorts of fun songs. It’s a really fun thing to do because you get clear about what really moves you. It was a combination of some songs from my childhood and some songs that were older and also some new ones. So it’s really eclectic and weird, but fun.

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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

THE UNSTOPPABLE SARA BAREILLES: HER NEW BOOK, ALBUM, AND BROADWAY MUSICAL

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Sara Bareilles is conquering the entertainment industry one medium at a time.

Since the 2013 release of her Grammy Award nominated album,The Blessed Unrest, the singer/songwriter has been hard at work on not just a new record, but also a book and a Broadway musical. And you thought you had a busy year.

Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song Published last month by Simon & Schuster, Bareilles’ debut book, Sounds Like Me: My Life (so far) in Song, is an autobiographical collection of essays woven together by various pivotal songs in her repertoire. Filled with candor, plenty of humor, and soul-searching, the book chronicles defining chapters in her life – such as her first earth-shattering breakup, her time abroad living in Italy, and the struggles of both finding inspiration and staying authentic to her artistic identity when crafting her music.

In addition to shedding light on the genesis of songs such as “Gravity” and “Love Song,” Bareilles pulls back the curtain on some of the personal obstacles she’s had to overcome. For instance, the poignant chapter, “Beautiful Girl,” finds Bareilles writing an array of letters to her younger self to guide her through the body image issues she’s been facing since childhood. While it’s clear that nobody gave her the prolific advice she’s now giving her former self, these moving letters illustrate just how far she’s come, allowing her to revisit (and sometimes still combat) these self-sabotaging feelings with a fresh perspective. The way in which she describes those inner demons and what her journey has taught her about how to face them is nothing short of courageous and inspirational.

Another standout essay is “She Used To Be Mine,” in which Bareilles discusses how she became involved with writing a musical, how that creative process differed from what she was used to, and how she tackled the new and exciting challenges that presented. She reflects on her lifelong affinity for musical theater and how shows like The Sound of Music, Les Misérables, West Side Story, Little Shop of Horrors and The Mystery of Edwin Drood shaped her songwriting style long before she ever set out to create her own musical.

“I developed a way of listening to music because of those shows, and because of that, I learned a particular way of writing that would show up down the line,” Bareilles writes. “The focus was acutely on the storytelling, bringing the audience along on a character’s journey, sharing their emotional evolution, all delivered with some unforgettable melodies. I experienced the power of deepening a dramatic moment with a song”

She continues, “I also learned that I was not a true soprano, no matter how hard I clenched my butt cheeks. I tried to sing the part of Christine in The Phantom of the Opera dozens of times, melodramatically staring myself down in my nightgown in my bedroom mirror, and tragically falling short of the high E she sings at the end of the title song until I actually gave myself a headache one time and had to sit down for a few minutes. In spite of my injuries, the seeds were sown deep and true, and my love for the genre has never faded.”

1516-waitress-vertThat love and classic influence is very much apparent in the music and lyrics of Waitress. Based on the 2007 indie film of the same name, the show features some of the strongest work of Bareilles’ vast career thus far. Masterfully blending contemporary musical theater with the signature piano-pop sound that she’s known for, Bareilles has composed an evocative, original, and unforgettable score.

In advance of its inaugural Broadway bow at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on March 25, 2016, Waitress played an acclaimed and completely sold-out limited trial run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts this past summer.

Like this year’s Tony Award Best Musical winner, Fun HomeWaitress comes from an all-female creative team. Directed by Tony Award winner Diane Paulus (Pippin; Hair) and starring the immeasurably talented Tony Award winning actress Jessie Mueller (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), the show tells the story of Jenna, an unhappily married waitress in the South who learns that she’s pregnant. Now that she’ll be responsible for two lives instead of just her own, Jenna must decide if she has what it takes to start a new life for her and her child or if she will continue meekly accepting the bleak fate she’s grown to know. And throughout, she consistently bakes incredible new pies as a form of self-expression.

While putting Waitress together, Bareilles became so enamored with the project that before the inevitable cast recording hits shelves next year, she’ll be releasing a concept album of songs from the show. In stores this Friday, What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress gives fans a taste of what they can expect from the musical when it makes its eagerly awaited arrival on the Great White Way.

In a press statement about the album, Bareilles explained, “I fell more deeply in love with the writing of the musical Waitress than I had ever imagined. It proved impossible for me to imagine handing over the songs to the show before selfishly finding a way to sing them myself. This is a deliciously self-indulgent project and I’m sorry, I’m not sorry.”

Sara-Bareilles-Whats-Inside-426x426Yet while the record is comprised entirely of selections from Waitress, there are several songs that Bareilles deliberately did not include on the track list. This way, there would still be some surprises left for audience members when the show opens (looking at you, “Take It From An Old Man”). And instead of recording these songs in the exact style that they are performed on stage, her approach was to treat these as she would any other songs she’s written. Produced by Neal Avron (who collaborated with Bareilles on her second album, Kaleidoscope Heart), the tracks on the album act more as pop interpretations of what the show has to offer, rather than as a direct reflection of how they’ll be presented in the musical.

The album’s lead single, “She Used To Be Mine,” is a gorgeous power ballad that Jenna sings during a monumental turning point. She’s at a crossroads and yearns to reconnect with the strong, free-spirited woman she used to be. She remembers what it was like to learn and grow from mistakes instead of be bogged down by them. Through the song, she reignites the flame inside of herself to grant her the courage to pick one of the paths she sees before her. It’s an empowering track that not only paints a detailed portrait of one of the musical’s central conflicts, but it’s also the type of instant classic that will make it a staple in all of Bareilles’ future concert set lists alongside “Love Song” and “Brave.”

Other highlights on the album include “When He Sees Me,” a quirky song with big and brassy vocals that one of Jenna’s two closest friends sings about unearthing the confidence to go on her first real date. “Door Number Three” is a bouncy and hopeful ode to the possibilities of what can happen when one takes unexpected risks. “Bad Idea,” one of the two songs featuring Jason Mraz, is a comical and sexually charged duet about not being able to resist someone despite the best logic advising against it. And “Lulu’s Pie Song” is a powerful lullaby that acts as the show’s finale and a tribute to Jenna’s child.

Corey Mach, a cast member of the A.R.T. production, exclusively told me that “working with Sara on Waitress was a dream. She was constantly involved from day one, adding new orchestrations, arrangements, and even songs daily. She is a remarkable human and a brilliant songwriter.”

Mach also happens to be the founder of Broadway Sings, a revered concert series that spotlights a pop artist and creates brand new arrangements of their song catalog in the vein of musical theater. Performed by a mixed troupe of up-and-coming and well-established Broadway stars, these concerts are backed by a full jazz band and give a unique twist to the popular music they perform. Artists that have been featured include Adele, Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Pink, Amy Winehouse, and Justin Timberlake, with Billy Joel being the next up on the roster. So naturally – and just in time for Friday’s release of What’s Inside– Broadway Sings dedicated their latest concert to Bareilles earlier this week.

“Sara’s music is inherently theatrical,” Mach told me. “I think a huge reason the Broadway community is so open to welcoming her is because they are genuinely intrigued by the thought of her lyrics being sung by actors. Her songs tell beautiful stories, and so do great musicals; it’s a perfect combination. That’s a huge reason why I chose to honor Sara for my ninth concert in the series.”

True to promise, the concert featured exciting renditions of Bareilles’ greatest hits and deeper album cuts. These included Jessica Keenan Wynn’s show stopping, sultry big band take on “King of Anything”, the Louis Armstrong-meets-Michael Bublé swagger of Ben Thompson’s “Little Black Dress,” Ben Platt’s soulful “Many The Miles,” and Natalie Weiss’ belting master class on “Stay.” Comprised of a sold-out crowd that would roar with applause and chant “Get It Girl!” anytime a performed reached a key change, the Broadway Sings event showcased just how much Bareilles’ work is both complimented and has already been embraced by the vibrant theater community. Not a bad welcome.

So now that Bareilles is a New York Times bestselling author, has her fifth full studio album under her belt, and is garnering early buzz for a Tony nomination, does she plan to appear on a Broadway stage herself?

“I certainly have dreams of being on a Broadway stage someday, if they’ll have me. I think I want to stay really open to whatever possibilities present themselves. My role in this show as composer and being behind the scenes has been so delicious in such a surprising way,” Bareilles said to Glamour. “I thought I would have a much harder time relinquishing the role to someone else because I fell in love with our lead character so much. I love this woman, Jenna. She resonates with me, and I really identify with her,”

“But then getting to work with someone like Jessie Mueller and watching her and how masterful she is at creating a character, I feel like I have a lot to learn before I would be ready to take on something like this. But again, never say never—I certainly have those dreams, and I hope that it happens at some point, whether it’s in this show or something else. I hope I get to see those stage lights at some point,” she concluded.

With a new album, book, and musical, it’s clear that Bareilles has ripped a page from Jenna’s recipe book by baking all of these passion projects to perfection. We already can’t wait for whatever she serves next.


Click here to order the new album, What’s Inside: Songs From Waitress
Click here to order Sara Bareilles’ book, Sounds Like Me: My Life (so far) in Song
Click here to purchase tickets to Waitress on Broadway

Originally published on PopBytes