REVIEW: LAURA BENANTI HEADLINES BARRINGTON STAGE COMPANY’S ANNUAL GALA

Laura BenantiEvery summer, Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts hosts a gala.

This hotly ticketed event raises funds for two of the renowned theater company’s most important programs, the Playwright Mentoring Project and the New Works Initiative. They focus on providing an artistic home for participants and lifting up the voices of under-served youth across Berkshire County. Shows that have been introduced to the world as a result of these programs include the eagerly anticipated American Son, which will have its Broadway premiere this fall; its all-star cast boasts the likes of Kerry WashingtonSteven Pasquale and Jeremy Jordan.

On July 23, BSC’s 24th Annual Gala was headlined by the extraordinarily talented Tony Award winner (and 5-time nominee) Laura Benanti. Along with her musical director Todd Almond, Benanti brought her marvelously audacious one-woman show, Tales From Soprano Isle, to the Berkshires for one exceptional night only.

Benanti opened her set with “She Loves Me in 15 Minutes,” a condensed version of the beloved musical that interspersed the show’s biggest numbers with a hilarious SparkNotes-like summary of the plot. As she sang the musical’s biggest highlights (including ones that her character didn’t perform in the acclaimed 2016 Broadway revival that she starred in), the soprano wasted no time in introducing the audience to the pitch perfect high notes that have catapulted her into a musical theater superstar. While “Vanilla Ice Cream” marked the medley’s showstopper, Benanti’s entire performance showcased her two major strengths: a big voice and an equally big sense of humor.

In fact, Benanti is as brilliant a comedienne as she is a vocalist. Of course, this is no secret to those who have seen her scintillating appearances as Melania Trump on Late Night with Stephen Colbert– a recurring role that has generated a stream of viral sensations since 2016. Not since Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin has a comedic impersonation of a political figure penetrated the cultural zeitgeist on such a massive scale while remaining so consistently spot-on.

“I’m not going to assume what your political leanings are,” Benanti told her audience while getting ready to perform as Melania. “Assume!” cried out someone from an orchestra seat. “You know what they say about assumptions,” she swiftly replied with a smile. “I don’t get paid.”

“Regardless of your political beliefs, I think we can all agree that Melania never expected to be First Lady of the United States,” Benanti continued. “Gold toilets? Yes. But the White House?” Then, it was as though she flipped a switch that instantaneously transformed her accent and Blue Steel pout into her now signature impression of the Obama birther conspiracy theory propagator.

As Melania, Benanti performed a rendition of “Send in the Clowns” that—yes, there’s no other way of saying it– brought the house down. This time plagiarizing Sondheim’s melody and refrain, her Melania retooled the lyrics to apply them to herself – including zingers about self-imprisonment, wealth, and Kellyanne Conway. Benanti’s comedic instincts, timing and writing seamlessly came together in this standout song – as clearly evidenced by the rapturous applause and fervent whistle blowing that immediately followed its final note.

Always quick on her feet, Benanti is at her best when playing off the energy of a live audience. Whether it’s saying, “God bless you” to a sneezing audience member in the middle of a song or finding a clever way to incorporate someone else’s ringing cell phone into her performance, her constant adlibbing adeptly demonstrated her ability to command the stage.

Taking the audience on a musical journey through her illustrious career, Benanti not only underlined her impeccable skills as a raconteur, but she also provided rare insights into what it was like behind the scenes when she was working on some of the best-known shows of the past two decades.

She recalled her Broadway debut in the 1998 production of The Sound of Music, when at only 18, she played Maria von Trapp’s understudy. When the show’s star went on a two-week vacation, Benanti was finally ready to take center stage as the world’s favorite former nun. Yet despite all of her confidence and excitement, nothing had prepared her for her first panic attack. It occurred a mere seconds before she was to run out on stage with her arms stretched out wide (àla the iconic Julie Andrews pose) for the opening number on her first night.

Benanti then sang “The Sound of Music” exactly as she did during that harrowing inaugural performance – with her arms locked above her head, profusely shaking, mock wiping sweat from her armpits, stammering her words while keeping her face lit with a full deer-in-headlights expression. Watching Benanti reclaim what was truly a traumatic experience into a master class of physical comedy was as inspiring as it was hysterical.

Similarly, Benanti shared two amazing stories about her frequent collaborator and Broadway legend, Patti LuPone. In the first, Benanti was playing the role of Louise (for which she won a Tony Award) opposite LuPone in Gypsy. When they first met, Benanti was nearly starving herself for her role. LuPone asked her to get drinks after rehearsal, and – like any young actor spending one-on-one time with PATTI LUPONE would do – Benanti ordered the same as her co-star: two double vodkas with lime. The next morning, she couldn’t remember anything beyond the first 45 minutes of her night out and woke up fully clothed in her apartment shower with the water pouring down on her. “What happened to you?” asked her alarmed then husband when he found her. “Patti LuPone,” Benanti deadpanned.

In her second LuPone story, Benanti took us back to the 2010 production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. At one point in the musical, she was to descend to the audience in a harness attached to the ceiling. During one performance, she broke her pelvis executing this stunt and passed out. When she came to, LuPone was holding a bag of ice on her crotch. “What happened?” Benanti asked her co-star. “Doll, you broke your vagina!”

But the night wasn’t entirely full of laughs. Before announcing her final song (and quipping, “Oh, you’ll be fine” to the cumulative groans from the audience that the show was ending), Benanti told a heartwarming story about her mother. She recalled how as a little girl, the moment that made her realize that her mother had an individual identity aside from “mom” was when she caught her singing Kander and Ebb’s “A Quiet Thing” on their staircase.

This scene in Benanti’s youth also opened her eyes to the enormous sacrifice that her mother made. She set her passion for performing aside to raise her and her sister. Today, Benanti and her mother Linda regularly tour their mother-daughter concerts all around the country.

Laura BenantiIn a tribute to both her mother and to her year-and-a-half old daughter, Benanti closed her set with a stunning acapella take on “A Quiet Thing.” As she sat without a microphone and with her legs dangling from the edge of the stage, Benanti filled the theater from wall to wall with her gorgeous voice. It was easily the cherry on top of an already unforgettable evening.

To call the Annual Gala a success for Barrington Stage Company would be a massive understatement. This year, they raised a record-breaking $140,000 ($100,000 of which will go towards the Playwright Mentoring Project).

“Thank you for supporting live theater,” Benanti told the crowd. She expressed that in these times wherein so many people are dismissed as “other,” the unparalleled sense of community, empathy and understanding live theater can provide is of the utmost importance.

And with that she took a final bow … along with the giant bouquet of flowers off of the piano.


With her exquisite voice, humor, and storytelling, Laura Benanti puts on a must-see show. Don’t miss Tales from Soprano Isle, touring across the United States this summer!

Originally published on PopBytes

TALKING “A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2” WITH DIRECTOR JOE CALARCO

IT’S SAID THAT WHEN ONE DOOR CLOSES, ANOTHER ONE OPENS.

At the end of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic, A Doll’s House, protagonist Nora Helmer decides to (spoiler alert!) leave her husband and children to start a new life. This game-changing examination of gender roles and 19th century marriage was bold, controversial, shocking, and liberating in ways that were never seen on stage before the time of the play’s publication.

The lingering question of where Nora’s journey took her next is now being answered in the new play, A Doll’s House, Part 2. Picking up fifteen years after Nora closed the door of the Helmer house and on her old life, this new play written by Lucas Hnath finds Nora returning to her previous home to finalize her divorce. What ensues is yet another brilliant and poignant exploration of identity and society that expand upon both the world and ideas that Ibsen presented over a century ago.

Now playing through July 28 at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, A Doll’s House, Part 2 is directed by Joe Calarco. I chatted with the director about the show, the timelessness of Nora’s story, the impact of the #MeToo movement on this production, and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: A Doll’s House features one of the most iconic endings of all time. What is it about Nora’s story that makes her such a fascinating character to continue exploring beyond the groundbreaking source material?

JOE CALARCO: Well, Ibsen’s original play was incredibly controversial. When it first premiered in 1879, many were appalled by it, finding it an attack on the institution of marriage. It was forbidden to be performed in London. For the German premiere, the actress playing Nora refused to play the last scene, saying she could not imagine a mother leaving her children. So Ibsen wrote an alternate ending for that production – though he felt doing so was “an abomination.”

The play opens with the stakes already incredibly high. Nora knocks on a door – the same one she walked out of fifteen years prior. Now a successful writer, she has evolved a great deal since the last time she stepped foot in the Helmer house. How challenging is it to maintain this same level of tension throughout the duration of the entire show?

Honestly, that tension is so beautifully written into the play by Lucas Hnath that it wasn’t a challenge at all. The play is a series of two person-sparring sessions between different characters. The tension is there because of the loaded 15-year history all the characters are bringing into those interactions.

What does Obie Award winner Laila Robins bring to her interpretation of Nora that audiences may be surprised by?

I’ve known Laila for a long time. I first saw her in Albee’s Tiny Alice at Second Stage in New York years ago and became determined to work with her. We ended up workshopping the musical Picnic At Hanging Rock by Daniel Zaitchik at Lincoln Center and at the O’Neill Music Theater Conference but we had never done a full production together. The minute I read this play I thought, “Laila has to play this part.” She is always surprising to me. She makes choices most actors don’t think of, so those who know her work will just revel in getting to see her rip into a character that demands so much from any actress playing her, and boy does she meet those demands. If you don’t know her work, then you will have the great joy and thrill of seeing one of the best actresses we have just killing it. She’s as good as it gets.

A Doll's House, Part 2

Although it’s set in the late 19th century, the play remains very topical to contemporary audiences. What is it about this story that makes it so timeless?

It was way ahead of its time when first written in terms of showing a complicated three-dimensional woman who has a clear understanding of self on stage. The box she’s put into in her marriage is suffocating her and she makes a decision she has to make in order to survive – a decision that was considered unforgivable by many when it first premiered well over a hundred years ago. Watching audiences during previews and seeing some people gasp or look shocked at things Nora says is a sad reminder that times have not changed as much as some would like to think they have.

How has this production been influenced and/or shaped by the #MeToo movement?

To me, context is everything in the theater. What is happening in the world allows or forces an audience to hear things differently. The first use of the “me too” phrase was in 2006 by Tarana Burke as part of a campaign to unite and support women of color who had experienced sexual abuse. The phrase did not become widely known about until (surprise surprise) a white woman appropriated the phrase and used it as a hashtag on social media in October of 2017 to draw attention to sexual assault and harassment. The original Broadway production of the play closed in September right before the hashtag became widely used on social media.

I think hearing the play in the current environment ignites an audience in a very immediate way and in different ways, depending on who they are and their feelings about the movement. On opening night when Nora yells, “I don’t need a fucking savior!” some people cheered and I could see others a bit more cold to it, maybe threatened by it. That’s what good theater does— startles, provokes and creates the opportunity for conversation.

Often times, sequels to beloved classics by different authors tend to not be embraced the same way that the original stories are. Why do you think Lucas Hnath’s play has become such a hit?

It’s a damn good play even if you haven’t read the original! It stands on its own as a really good play. But anyone who knows Ibsen’s original has wondered what happened to Nora after she slammed that door and this play allows you to engage with that question.

Is there a specific scene that you’re most excited for audiences to see? If so, which one and why?

Every scene is a tour de force. Each one is almost a three act play unto itself in terms of how they’re structured so I love them all. But I find the Emmy scene the most surprising because I think an audience has its own ideas of how Nora’s absence will have impacted her children. And Nora wonders too, of course. So in that moment when Emmy first appears, the audience is in the exact same place as Nora is – and where Emmy is in her life isn’t at all where Nora expected her to be and I think most audiences have the same response.

What are some of the key takeaways that you hope audience members have after seeing this production?

I know they will be knocked out by the performances and I hope they leave talking about the play and discussing how far we’ve come or not come as a culture in terms of how we view women.

When you were laying out your directorial vision for this production, did you approach it more as a brand new and standalone piece? Or was it more similar to working on a revival since the characters and their backstories are already so well known?

I think the play stands alone as a great piece of writing, but of course our knowledge of Ibsen’s play informs so much of how you view the characters. We read parts of Ibsen’s play in the early days of rehearsal and that was fascinating— to see who Nora was and who she has become— or as Hnath has Nora say about who she was in the marriage “That’s not me. That was a thing I was doing because if I didn’t do it, then you wouldn’t have listened to me about anything that was important to me.”

As the recipient of several Helen Hayes Awards, the Barrymore Award, and the Lucille Lortel Award, along with numerous nominations, what would you consider your signature touch as a director? 

I think I provide a safe rehearsal space for actors to take risks so I hope the plays and musicals I direct always have very raw, honest performances in them. I’m fortunate enough to work with designers who share the same aesthetic as I do and we always challenge each other to up our game. I think visually my shows are always very striking without getting in the way of the performances— the design is always there to support the actors.

How will this production be both similar to and different from last year’s Broadway production?

I actually didn’t see the Broadway production, which I’m happy for. I didn’t have any images to influence me or to have to fight against. I feel very strongly as a member of the directors union, SDC— I sit on the Executive Board— that a director’s work is their work and it should not be replicated without permission. It is a director’s job to bring their own vision to a piece. The script itself demands certain things, but I think our production is even more spare visually than the Broadway production, allowing the actors to carry the play. I think, like on Broadway, the audience will see four master actors tear into a great play.

You’ve worked on many shows at Barrington Stage Company, including Ragtime and The Burnt Part Boys. What is about this specific theater company that makes you keep wanting to work on more projects here in the Berkshires?

Julie [Boyd, Artistic Director of BSC] has always been so supportive of me. BSC is like a second artistic home for me. I’ve gotten to work on new work here both as a director and as a writer and I’ve gotten to re-examine existing work like Ragtimeand Breaking the Code. Julie trusts me and always is there to support my vision of a piece. That’s a gift.

The show has its final bow on July 28. What’s next on your plate? And what are some dream projects you hope to work on in the near future?

I get a little bit of a break, which I’m looking forward to because this is my third show in a row since April and I’m looking forward to letting my brain recharge. I’m a writer as well as a director and I have a new play I’m looking to finish. I’m Director of New Works and Resident Director at Signature Theatre outside of D.C. and I’m directing two shows there next season – the first being Heisenberg starting rehearsals in August. I also write a world premiere one-act play each year for Signature’s education program, Signature in the Schools, so I will be getting started on that soon. I’m looking to expand the play we did last year, 12 Million Footsteps, about the Syrian refugee crisis, into a full length play, which I’m going to develop with some Syrian actors. Another theater in D.C.— 4615 Theatre Company — is producing the world premiere of another play of mine, Separate Rooms, next spring.


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to A Doll’s House, Part 2, now playing at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA through July 28.

Originally published on PopBytes

REVIEWS: “THE CLOSET” AND “THE SOUND INSIDE” AT WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL

Williamstown Theatre Festival

You know it’s officially summertime in the Berkshires when the annual Williamstown Theatre Festival kicks off. This year, the iconic institution celebrates its 64th season, holding its inaugural performances last week.


Up first on the Main Stage is The Closet. Written by Douglas Carter Beane (XanaduSister Act) and inspired by the French play Le Placard by Francis Veber, this world premiere comedy is running from June 26-July 14. Starring Tony Award winner Matthew Broderick (Brighton Beach Memoirs; How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying), Tony Award nominees Jessica Hecht (A View from the Bridge) and Brooks Ashmanskas (Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me), as well as Ann HaradaBen AhlersWill Cobbs and Raymond BokhourThe Closet is an uproarious contemporary farce guaranteed to make its audience ache from non-stop laughter.

The Closet

Set in modern-day Scranton, Pennsylvania, the play tells the story of Martin O’Reilly (Broderick), a middle-aged man who’s all but given up on his dreams of a bright future. He’s barely holding onto his dead-end job, his wife has left him, and his son (Ahlers) thinks he’s too boring and ordinary to spend even a minimal amount of time with him. At work, his impending firing is an open secret that office gossip queen (a scene-stealing Harada) loves to spread. Meanwhile, Martin obliviously and regularly accepts baked goods from his co-worker Patricia (Hecht), whose crush on him is as subtle as the giant crucifixes that adorn the office of the Catholic supplies distributor where they work.

Martin’s life is soon turned upside down with the introduction of his new roommate, Ronnie Wilde (the always hysterical Ashmanskas) – a flamboyant man who is as loudly boisterous as the patterns on his blazers. It’s not long before Ronnie infiltrates both Martin’s personal and professional lives.

Upon learning what Martin’s boss, Roland (Cobbs), is planning on doing at lunch that day, Ronnie concocts a wild and lavish scheme to convince Martin’s colleagues that the two of them are a gay couple. As a result, he can argue that if they do let Martin go, it would be because he was gay. Therefore, the already-floundering company would get terrible PR for its discriminatory treatment of a gay worker (despite the fact that they would be completely within their legal rights to fire him for that reason – Ugh).

The chain of events that ensues is a rollicking and whimsical ride in which every character is ultimately pushed to come out of their own respective closets, whatever they may be. Brilliantly directed by Mark Brokaw (How I Learned to Drive), The Closet is an undeniably laugh-out-loud satire about political correctness, yearning to fit in, and the pursuit of love in extraordinary places.

An equally intelligent and slapstick comedy, The Closet manages to both entertain and pack a poignant punch. After all, there’s an encouraging message at the heart of the show: live life as your most authentic self. In these uncertain times, that’s a reminder that’s never in short supply.

The Closet


The Sound InsideUp first at the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s more intimate Nikos Stage is another world premiere play. Written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Adam Rapp (Red Light Winter) and starring Emmy, Golden Globe and Tony Award winner Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds; Angels in America), The Sound Inside is the absolute must-see show of the summer. Directed by freshly minted Tony Award winner David Cromer (The Band’s Visit), this cerebral drama runs from June 27 – July 8.

Although she enjoyed some literary success early in her career, Yale University professor Bella Baird (Parker) hasn’t published a novel in nearly two decades. Now in her early 50s, Bella is diagnosed with cancer and given less than a 20% chance of survival.

Enter Christopher (Will Hochman). A freshman in one of Bella’s English classes, Christopher is unlike his contemporary peers. He doesn’t “do e-mail” and prefers discussing the merits of William Faulkner to taking selfies. One day, he shows up to Bella’s office hours without an appointment. Despite his professor’s insistence that he follow protocol and schedule a formal session through the university’s online calendar, Christopher keeps appearing unannounced. He tells Bella that he’s writing a novel and that, as someone enamored by her class, early prose and expertise, he needs her help in fleshing it out.

As Bella and Christopher spend more time together, she aids him in developing not only his novel’s characters and plot, but also (most importantly) his literary voice. At one point when his new mentor asks for an update on his progress, Christopher explains that he can’t think about anything other than his book. He says he feels like the novel is writing him instead of the other way around. With a knowing smile, Bella describes this as “the free-fall,” the part of a writer’s process in which their work begins to pour out of them like a faucet. This is the point when the author’s mind becomes so completely consumed by their story that the lines between what’s real and what’s fiction become a blur. It’s the stage that can only be reached when you listen and give in to the sound inside.

But as Christopher inches towards the milestone of completing his first draft, Bella becomes consumed by a different kind of force. In order to achieve the harrowing new goal she’s set for herself, she needs someone to help her – but as discreetly as possible. A prized loner with a rapidly intensifying disease, she decides to turn to the one person who she feels she can fully trust: her student. The result is a staggering exploration of not just what people are able to do for one another, but also what mortality means for an artist.

Parker’s tour-de-force transformation into Bella is a master class in stage performance. Her nuanced and raw portrayal allows audiences to peel back enough layers of Bella to become fully immersed in her audacious and often erratic psyche. Parker’s performance skillfully juxtaposes Bella’s sorrow and confidence, painting a vivid portrait of a simultaneously hungry and depleted woman on a quest to define her legacy.

The jaw-dropping reveal in the play’s climax dares its viewers to refocus the lens through which they not only examine Bella but also the overwhelming and sometimes shocking power art can have over its creator. The Sound Inside is a bold, remarkable and unforgettable character study that will haunt, challenge and inspire you long after the curtain closes.

The Sound Inside

Originally published on PopBytes

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.

The Royal Family of Broadway

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.

The Royal Family of Broadway

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

TALKING “THE AGE OF INNOCENCE” WITH STAR SIERRA BOGGESS

SIERRA BOGGESS IS SINGING A NEW TUNE.

After catapulting to Broadway fame in 2007 as the titular character in The Little Mermaid, Boggess has spent the past decade cementing herself as a contemporary musical theater icon. Having originated roles in shows like Love Never DiesIt Shoulda Been You, and School of Rock, as well as appearing in Les MisérablesThe Secret Garden and several incarnations of The Phantom of the Opera, the soprano has become one of the most sought after vocalists of her generation. Even her role in Master Class had her singing throughout most of that production, despite the fact that the show was not a musical.

But just like Ariel, Boggess is now navigating a new challenge – not using her singing voice. In The Age of Innocence, adapted from the classic novel by Edith Wharton, she is showing off her acting range by performing in a straight play. As the free-spirited Countess Ellen Olenska, Boggess is playing a woman who has fled her unhappy marriage in Europe and returned home to New York in 1870. What ensues is a scandalous love triangle that explores class, the morals of society, and the power of human attraction.

I spoke with Boggess about working on The Age of Innocence, her passion for animal activism, returning to Broadway, her solo music, and much more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: Growing up, who or what were some of your biggest influences that made you want to pursue a career in theater?

SIERRA BOGGESS: Barbra Streisand! I have to always start with Barbra Streisand. She was my first role model in the theater. After I saw the film version of Hello Dolly, she continued to be a huge inspiration in my life forever. Julie Andrews made me want to do this as well.

As I grew up, on the spiritual side, I was influenced by people like Wayne Dyer, Marianne Williamson and Brené Brown – people who have helped me think about life. That sort of thinking helps me as an artist even more, instead of just in my small artist circle, if that makes sense.

You tend to perform in musicals over straight plays. Why did The Age of Innocence seem like the perfect fit for your latest theatrical endeavor?

When the project came up, I read the play and was immediately in love with it. I had never read the novel or seen the film before, but I understood the character of Ellen right away. I was really, really excited to try and sink my teeth into it!

The other thing was that the director of this production is Doug Hughes. I had just seen Junk at Lincoln Center, which he directed, and I was like, “Who directed this? This is so incredible!” All of a sudden, I saw that he was directing The Age of Innocence and I wanted to work with him so badly.

Douglas McGrath is the playwright for this – he adapted it for the stage. He is also extraordinary. It was just a whole experience of “I want to work with these people!” and I really wanted to play this part. Luckily, they cast me, so I feel happy!

Countess Ellen Olenska is often regarded as a fierce and independent woman who was far ahead of her time. As an actor, how do you think this character differs from your previous stage roles? What have been some highlights of bringing her to life?

Well, one thing is that she doesn’t sing everything, so that’s a major difference! I try to find myself and tell my truth in whatever character I’m playing. I haven’t even been thinking about how she is different because I think a lot of the characters I’ve played are actually quite fierce in their own ways.

What I love about bringing Ellen to life is that she is trying her best. She’s not coming into this world trying to be difficult. She’s just doing the best that she can with the tools that she’s been given, and that’s not good enough for the people that believe in New York society in 1870. She’s just bringing herself to the table and always trying to be accepted by being truthful and by being herself.

I think one of the most heartbreaking lines that she says is, “Does no one here want to know the truth?” That’s what’s been fascinating to play because it’s incredibly vulnerable. She’s a woman in this time, she is alone, she is thinking things that other people don’t think and doing things that other people don’t do. It’s not to be like, “Look at me, I dare to be different!” It’s more that she’s just trying to be her most honest and authentic self. I love that about her.

How much are you relying on the novel to find your interpretation of Ellen? Will this production explore your character in ways beyond what is known of her from the source material?

It does! Edith Wharton wrote so beautifully, but Doug McGrath has really smartly added some things into the play so that you are never confused about what someone is thinking or feeling. He pays such homage to her work and I think the viewers are going to be thrilled. It feels almost seamless. For example, you see how the love between my character and Newland happens – how almost accidental it is just because they’re being their authentic selves.

I was relying on the novel before I started rehearsal, just to help myself with research. What was great about that is Edith Wharton describes 1870 very vividly, so you know exactly what’s going on and what is expected of a person in society. That was very helpful. It’s been really interesting to do research about that time, especially since I’ve lived in New York for 15 years. Researching what New York was like then has just been so cool.

Edith Wharton became the first woman to ever receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction when she won for The Age of Innocence in 1921. Prior to signing onto this show, were you a fan of hers? What do you think it is about her work that has made it so timeless and such a staple of American literature?

Isn’t that so cool? I think it’s the honesty of how she speaks about that time that she was living in. In a way, it makes you feel sorry for her, because she was just so aware– if that makes sense.

I think she maybe feels herself in Ellen a little bit – where she can see that something doesn’t feel right and is wondering why no one is talking about what’s actually going on. There’s a great line that she wrote that’s also in our play, and it’s something like, “Knowing things makes people think that you don’t have to talk about what’s going on.” It’s basically saying that if we know something is happening, we don’t have to talk about it. But that actually creates loneliness!

To me, that’s what makes her so interesting. She’s commenting on her own society at the time when she’s living in it. Plus, the way she describes things and her use of language is just stunning. I mean, it’s got to be that.

Although it’s set during the Gilded Age, The Age of Innocence is still very relevant to contemporary audiences. Is there a primary takeaway that you hope audiences leave with after seeing this show?

Doug Hughes talked to us a bit about this when we started. He’s calling this sort of a memory play. It’s Newland’s memory of what this time was. I think that’s why it’s relevant, because people still have these types of pulls today. It’s called The Age of Innocence, but it’s almost like it’s about integrity. It forces us to ask if we are choosing things based on being right or on being kind? Do we do things based on our integrity, based on what our gut is telling us to do, or are we just freely doing what we want because it feels good for us? The play really makes us ask and wrestle with those questions. I hope people walk away thinking about that.

What I keep coming back to is the underlying river of integrity, and how deep and passionate love makes us feel invincible – but also crazy and psycho. If we can ground it in integrity, then we can sort of get our answers of what we’re supposed to do. I feel like I’ll become a better person just having done this play.

Do you have plans to remain involved with this play beyond its world premiere in Hartford? Are there plans for future regional productions and/or to bring it to Broadway?

Yes, there are! I don’t know what I’m allowed to say, but yes, there is definitely one other production happening that we know of.

On your website, you describe yourself as “an avid yogi, vegetarian, and animal rights activist.” What are some ways that you encourage people to help with animal rights activism and what is it about this cause that makes it so important to you?

I think that we’re their voices. There is nothing better on this planet than animals. They are all beings of love. I’ve even brought my cats with me to Hartford! Actually, a lot of the actors and people involved with the play also brought their cats and dogs. I think that’s so important! As actors, a lot of us have animals. They are always there to remind you that the present moment is all there is.

There’s nothing that breaks my heart more than people who abuse animals. All this stuff goes on, like trophy hunting. I love the Humane Society and think that they’re really great. They tend to always talk about the good things that they’re doing, as opposed to always inundating us with “look how bad people are abusing” or whatever. That positivity is very important to me.

Bernadette Peters on Broadway has come up with Broadway Barks. I love that somuch – being able to raise money, help animals, and promote an “adopt don’t shop” message, and stuff like that.

I hope to eventually have a platform big enough that I can make real changes for these amazing creatures that we have. I really believe that as humans, we’re supposed to take care of and protect them.

You created your “I Am Enough!” initiative as a way to engage with and help your fans/followers embrace their full potentials. Can you please elaborate a bit about what this initiative consists of and what your goals for it are?

When I was doing The Little Mermaid, I was getting a lot of mail from people. This was the start of fan mail for me, 10 years ago. It was funny because it wasn’t just, “Hey, I love you, can I get an autograph?” It was, “Here’s my life story.” People talked to me about all sorts of stuff – some were suicidal, some were dealing with self-harm, eating disorders, all kinds of stuff.

I realized people were writing to me because I was representing Ariel, a character who believes they were born in the wrong body or the wrong time. That realization was very deep for me. I think people often didn’t even realize that’s what they were connecting with. The same can be said about my Phantom of the Opera character, Christine Daaé. People were relating to this girl who is representing someone who loves the unlovable.

What I realized is I can’t write everyone back and fix everything that they were talking about. But what I cando is write simply, “You are enough! It’s unbelievable how enough you are.” To me, the idea that we are put on this planet is enough. It’s what we do with that trusting of our enough-ness that makes us go on many different journeys. I encourage everyone to start from the place of “I am enough! And now I can answer my questions of what I should do or who I am.”

As I was writing back, “Hey, whatever your name is, you are enough. Love, Sierra,” that in itself was enough. Now, it’s turned into this huge movement! I feel like it’s my responsibility to keep reminding people, as much as they need to, that we can start from that place. I think that will help us with a lot of different self-harm or disorders or things like that. It doesn’t necessarily fix anything, and those thoughts will often come because at the end of the day, we are human and self-doubt is there. But if I can help remind people of that, then that, to me, is good.

What’s amazing is when I’ve toured, even in places like Australia and Japan, I will start to say “You are enough!” and people in the audience will start saying it with me. I think it’s just incredible to see that message have that kind of reach all over the world. I love being associated with that as much as I love being associated with characters that I’ve played.

Last spring, I interviewed your friend and frequent collaborator, Ramin Karimloo. He mentioned that part of why he loves working with you is that the two of you have a shorthand and a real trust with one another. He said that in particular, working on The Secret Garden at Lincoln Center with you was a real highlight. From your perspective, what do you think it is that makes you such a captivating pair on stage? And what’s been your favorite collaboration with him so far?

It’s exactly what he said. We do have a shorthand and we do trust each other. We know how each other works, we know the things we each struggle with and the things we’re really good at. But at the core of it is trust. The first time that we met, there was an instant onstage chemistry within just minutes of meeting each other. That is very unique, I think. There was also something where we just got each other right away. That meeting was to do Love Never Dies in London, so I will always love and be sentimental about that, since it was our first collaboration.

Another favorite was the 25th anniversary of Phantom at Royal Albert Hall. I feel like we almost left our artistic souls on that stage with each other for a while. I felt like I was hungover after that experience. I wassofulfilled doing that with him. We just really trusted each other for that show. I’m glad that it was filmed because if ever in my life, I want to reflect on that time, then I will be able to. That was a very special night for us. It’s so cool that it was preserved.

Speaking of The Secret Gardenit’s been confirmed that Warren Carlyle will be directing and choreographing the first Broadway revival of the show later this year. Do you plan to be a part of that production in any way? If not, what type of show and/or role would you like to tackle next on the Great White Way? 

Well, I would love for The Age of Innocence to come to Broadway. I think that this is a play that people are ready for, especially in this time that we’re in. I really, really hope that we do get a chance to do this on Broadway. It would be nice to do another play on Broadway. The last time I did a play was Master Class, but that almost doesn’t feel like a play because I sang so much in it!

With The Secret Garden, I love that show. I make no secret about that. It’s one of my favorite scores. The revival will be a different production and different team than the one Ramin and I did at Lincoln Center, so I don’t know. I would be thrilled to be involved in that production, but regardless, I’m going to be thrilled because that score will get to be revived!

This year, there are multitudes of celebrations of Andrew Lloyd Webber – including (but not limited to) the release of his memoir and new retrospective album to the debut of a new musical revue to television specials and more. Having appeared in multiple iterations of The Phantom of the Opera and originating roles in both Love Never Dies and School of Rock, you’re often referred to as a muse of the iconic composer. What is it about your work together that keeps drawing you back to one another? And how are you planning to celebrate his landmark 70th birthday?

Well, I’m doing this play at the time of his actual birthday, but I will definitely be celebrating!

About us working together, I just love the way that he writes. I mean we alldo! His music is accessible to all of us. There’s also something about the Phantom score that I just never feel done with. He’s very special and I feel really lucky to have the relationship I have with him.

I’m thrilled that this year is celebrating so many aspects of his life. As long as I’m available to celebrate him, then I will be there. If I’m unavailable, I’ll still be celebrating. I’ll always just celebrate him!

And what a cool year for him! There are also the Alan Jay Lerner and Leonard Bernstein centennials, so there are a lot of big things happening this year.

In 2013, you released your debut solo album, Awakening: Live at 54 Below. Do you have any plans for a follow-up solo record?

I do, yes! I’m always talking with a friend of mine, who wants to produce it. It’s just figuring out the timing, but I definitely want to make another album. We’re always talking about it, and just trying to find the time.

As a child, you played the flute and were a competitive figure skater. If you weren’t a theater performer today, would you still be pursuing one of these passions or would you be doing something else?

I really did want to go to the Olympics. For a long time, I couldn’t even watch the ice skating portion of the Olympics because it was just too painful. It hurt so badly. But skating was such an expensive sport that we just couldn’t afford it anymore. I remember that being a huge heartbreak for me when I was younger, but yes, figure skating is what I would have definitely still pursued.

Springtime often sees the debuts of numerous new shows on Broadway and this year is no exception. Purely from the standpoint of a fan, what new show(s) are you most looking forward to seeing over the next few months?

Oh, well I’ve got to go see Carousel! That’s not a new show, but I have to see the new revival. My friend Lindsay Mendez is playing Carrie Pipperidge. I’m also really excited about Frozen!

Another show that opened this season that I really love is The Band’s Visit. It’s so powerful and I just loved it. It’s incredible! The woman who’s the lead in it, Katrina Lenk, is so amazing. Everybody in that show is. It’s so different than anything that I’ve seen, so I loved that. I recommend that show for all people.

What are some dream roles on your musical theater bucket list that you’d love to play?

It’s funny because with whatever role that comes up, I’m like, “Oh, that’s my dream! I didn’t know this was my dream!”

I think I want to do some revivals now, because that’s the stuff that I love and that made me want to do theater. I would really love to do Sweet Charity. I would actually also love to do Camelot, because I love that score so much. That score is just really incredible and I think that maybe people forget that. It’s due for a revival. But I’m up for whatever!

Thanks so much, Sierra! Is there anything else that you would like to talk about that we didn’t discuss?

I have to say that The Age of Innocence is really beautifully done. I can’t say enough about our director, Doug Hughes. I can’t think of anyone better to direct this piece. He is an absolute dream come true. He’s everything that I had heard about him and had dreamed about working with. What he’s done with this piece is really incredible.

And I also want to say how incredible the cast that I’m working with is. We just finished our first week of rehearsals, and are beginning to put it on stage here in Connecticut. We did a week of rehearsals last week in New York, and this is now the end of our second week. It’s one of those casts where we are all so lucky that we’re getting to work with each other. I’m really thrilled about that. They’re all such incredible actors, and specifically incredible play actors. They’re such a great team of people. I feel really honored to be among them.


 

CLICK HERE to purchase tickets for The Age of Innocence, playing at Hartford Stage in Connecticut from April 5 through May 6.


Originally published on PopBytes