LaChanze (Dirty Sugar Photography via The Broadway Blog.)
One of Broadway’s biggest voices will be rolling into the Highline Ballroom on Monday, February 27, but don’t expect show tunes. LaChanze will be celebrating the launch of her new EP, Feeling Good.
The inspiration came from a cabaret set that the Tony Award-winning actress (The Color Purple) has been performing, coupled with work on her memoir. Together, she felt there were stories to tell that would showcase the music with key moments of her life.
LaChanze (Dirty Sugar Photography via The Broadway Blog.)
“All of the moments are very specific — from my childhood through adolescence, adulthood and midlife,” says the actress, who, after several ensemble roles on Broadway, captured the hearts of audiences and critics alike in Once on This Island. The show, directed by Tamara Tunie, also touches upon some of the challenges she’s faced and the people who were influential in getting her back into her life after a personal tragedy.
One of LaChanze favorite moments, which she describes as “pure joy,” is from a specific moment from her childhood, expressed through Dianne Reeves’ radiant song, “Nine.” The multi-talented artist also showcases her own songwriting skills with “You’re Free.”
LaChanze is thrilled to be back at the Hammerstein Ballroom, where she played a Valentine’s Day concert in 2009 and fell in love with the space. In the heart of Chelsea and tucked under the historic High Line elevated park, the venue’s size sits comfortable between a cabaret and concert venue.
“The stage size is huge and equipped with terrific lighting. I love the venue. It’s open, expansive and easily transformed,” says LaChanze of the artistic hub that has welcomed such artists as Stevie Wonder, Lady Gaga, Carlos Santana and more.
LaChanze’s impetus to produce the concert and tour the show later this year (visit www.mslachanze.com for future dates) is multi-faceted. Creatively, it is a celebration of her professional and personal life through song, but it is also an opportunity to stay engaged and relevant in a notoriously fickle industry.
LaChanze (Dirty Sugar Photography via The Broadway Blog.)
“For women in general, and not just women of color, when you become a certain age opportunities narrow. We’re viewed differently than men,” observes LaChanze. “Men have full careers in film and television. Women are often relegated to specific roles — the mom or the girlfriend. This happens across the board and even more for African American women.”
“One of the reasons I’m doing this show is because I don’t want to sit around and wait for the phone to ring,” she continues. “And we’re not a monolith. It’s a wide net that’s cast for a few roles, so I’m telling my own story.” LaChanze brought on director Tamara Tunie
In spite of the challenges, LaChanze continues to be in demand and has been working in television, film and voiceover. Broadway audiences will have to wait until at least 2018 for her return to the Great White Way until her daughter graduates from high school before the seasoned actress is ready to commit again to eight shows a week.
But for now, we’re feeling good knowing that LaChanze
‘In Transit’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)
Rick Hip-Flores is a seasoned musical director, having worked on several projects both on and off Broadway. Yet he, along with the cast of In Transit, is currently exploring unprecedented territory by being the first completely a cappella Broadway show.
The harmonic tuner is currently enjoying an open ended run at Circle in the Square and explores the daily grind for a diverse bunch of New Yorkers—complete with joy, frustration, dreams, and reality.
Photo provided by Rick Hip-Flores.
Hip-Flores recently spoke with the Broadway Blog to discuss the unique aspects of rehearsing and conducting what he considers a “tough beast to tame.”
A cappella singing used to have old-fashioned appeal with glee clubs and barbershop quartets. In the last few years, it’s become quite hip, thanks to groups like Rockapella, Straight No Chaser, Pentatonix and the Pitch Perfect movie franchise. What is it about this style that people find so appealing?
Immediately, I think people react to the human voice. The creative spirit of a cappella is that you don’t need to be classically trained to create music. A group of people can get together, create an arrangement and make it sound great. Mainly, there is an automatic connection when you hear the human voice. Instruments only emulate it.
With “cantata” (musically accompanied singing), it’s somewhat easier to blend singers who possess a variety of vocal skills and techniques, but with a cappella, there has to be a collective synchronicity. You clearly found the right blend with In Transit. What was the audition process like and how you were able to find the right talent?
These actors went through the hardest vetting process of any show I’ve been a part of. They had to sight read, sing in groups, and possess music theory knowledge. In terms of blending with the cast, we listened to their placement of vowels, how much vibrato they used, and other factors that aren’t considered as solo performers. On top of all this, they had to come across as engaging performers. There are many hats that have to be worn for In Transit.
Erin Mackey in ‘In Transit.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)
How is the cast able to stay on pitch from the beginning of each show through the end?
In talking to people after the show, they are always blown away by the cast’s ability to do that, but I have to say that pitch is not the hardest part for them. The most difficult components are staying perfectly in sync rhythmically, keeping the same tempos, and finding the right volume and blend.
Did the cast come into rehearsals knowing the music or was that taught to them?
They all came in completely cold. A few of them had done prior workshops of the show, so they knew a little bit, but all of the parts had been rewritten anyway, so it was all new. The creative team told me that the first ten days would be spent solely on learning the score. In a typical rehearsal process, only three days would be spent on music. At first, I wondered how the cast would sit still for 80 straight hours of music rehearsal. To my surprise, they were extremely intent on learning it and getting it right and I think it shows in the final product.
Margot Seibert and James Snyder in ‘In Transit.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)
I certainly don’t mean to imply that any of the performances in this show are akin to a lip-synced Mariah Carey performance but due to the amount of sounds coming from such a small ensemble, are any of the parts pre-recorded?
(Joking) Well, I wouldn’t tell you if they were. No. Nothing is pre-recorded. Even offstage singing is live. Sometimes, the cast may be changing a costume, moving a set piece, and singing their part at the same time. So the audience will hear the smooth sounds but have no idea what mayhem is going on behind the scenes.
Is this the first time you’ve worked at length in the a cappella arena?
It is. I worked on some arrangements in college, but this is the first time I’ve worked on it in this capacity. It has a whole series of challenges but I will take what I’ve learned from In Transit and apply it both to music that is not a cappella and instrumental music.
Besides the obvious addition of instrumentation, what are some of the challenges and differences between this show and other musical theater projects?
The biggest challenge is from the audience’s point of view. If you think about the energy that a band creates, you can turn up the volume and have the band providing the foundation for that energy. With a cappella, you don’t have the same dynamic variety and range and you have to create it all with the voice. Musically, it’s tough to create a varied evening through a cappella, but I think that the composers achieved it very well.
In Transit Circle in the Square
235 West 50th Street, NYC
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theatre journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter@Ry_Runneror on Facebook.
For a true theater lover, there is simply no one else who has captured the rich history that lies between the walls of Broadway’s cherished structures better than Jennifer Ashley Tepper, author of The Untold Stories of Broadway. Tepper’s third volume has just been released, and for any theater geek, it’s a must read.
Tepper spent an extensive amount of time interviewing an array of individuals who had not only stepped into the spotlight, but she thoughtfully sought out the “unsung heroes” that make Broadway hum: stage hands, music arrangers, directors, company managers, and box office personnel.
In this volume, she highlights the Broadhurst, the Belasco, the Edison, the Lyric, the Majestic, the Schoenfeld, the St. James and the Walter Kerr. In between interviews, she sprinkles some interesting tidbits about the theaters and infuses her own experiences and memories.
In addition to writing, Tepper has also worn many hats including directing, producing, and marketing of many Broadway shows and is the director of Programming at Feinstein’s/54 Below. As an industry insider, Tepper knows how to gather the “dish,” but she serves it back to theater lovers in a compelling, gracious, and reverent manner. Think of her as Michael Riedel minus the snark and with better lipstick.
From ghost stories to opening night tales, backstage rituals, secret rooms, PR pranks, and auditions, Tepper’s book is as thoroughly entertaining as a Broadway show itself and can either be enjoyed from beginning to end, or by casually leafing through. With the holidays approaching, it’s the perfect gift for the person who already owns original cast recordings or previously published coffee table books.
Jennifer Ashley Tepper (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)
The Broadway Blog: So many people love the “razzle dazzle” of Broadway, but your interest goes much deeper than that. What is it about these physical spaces that fascinates you?
Jennifer Ashley Tepper: I’ve always loved the idea that when you’re sitting in a theatre, you are where so many other people have been: people who have created hit shows, people you admire, and all of those things that are so unique to Broadway.
You might love a particular movie, but there’s not really a chance to visit the soundstage and pinpoint exactly where the actors stood. These theaters are so specific in the sense of their history. Many of them have been here for at least 100 years. It connects us to the past. Plus, every theatre has secret passageways and weird nondescript rooms. They help chart what Broadway used to be and what it is now.
BB: You reference a secret tunnel between the Broadhurst and Schoenfeld. Tell us about that.
JAT:People don’t really know about it if they aren’t working in either of those theaters, which are on two different blocks. Two of these secret passageways lie in the inner alley that connects the two theaters. Street passerby on 45th Street can look to the left of the Schoenfeld to find a locked alleyway. The stage door is to the right of the Schoenfeld, but the alley on the left also provides an exit, used by audiences and show folk alike. At the very back of the alley, one door leads directly to the Broadhurst stage and another door leads to house left in the Broadhurst auditorium.
(Photo: Daniel Douglas / Shutterstock.com via The Broadway Blog.)
BB: Most of your stories are warm and nostalgic or bittersweet. You also tell stories of people who have had ghost experiences. I’m wondering if there were any that were too bleak, gossipy, or just downright depressing to share?
JAT: There totally were and I have a file marked as “Off the record.” People have instructions to destroy it (laughs). But actually, Fritz Weaver was a Broadway actor who just passed away. He was an amazing man. I had the pleasure of interviewing him and he told me a very sad dark story. He played a Tony Award winning role in a show called Child’s Play and it was about an incredibly dark, violent, suicidal teacher.
Fritz was a method actor and he told me that the biggest regret of his career was the year he did that play because he took the show home to his young kids. He admitted that although it was critically acclaimed, he spent so much time trying to make it up to his children who were terrified by his presence while doing the show. I thought that it was so moving that he focused not on winning the Tony, but what toll it took on his family. That really stuck with me.
BB: Any stories of all out brawls between creative teams or All About Eve type stories?
JAT: There is a lot of that and sometimes you get the true stories of what you’ve heard through gossip, but you get to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. One the best examples in this book is the real story behind Taboo, the Boy George musical. Raul Esparza talked about quitting, working with Rosie O’Donnell, and why the show failed. People tend to be honest as long as—say—ten years have passed.
Rosie O’Donnell and Boy George at the opening on ‘Taboo’ on Broadway, November 13, 2003. (Photo: Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com via The Broadway Blog.)
BB: You mention in the preface that you wanted to focus on people of color and women whose theatrical contributions were either not applauded or remembered. Who were some of those people?
JAT: One of the things that I ran into is that I tried to find female playwrights who had worked at a particular theatre and there either weren’t any or they were deceased. Some other influential artists of color were hard to pin down for an interview. It’s hard to get people you’ve never met before to answer a phone call or email regarding an unfamiliar project. I tried to get as many as I could, but I filled in the blanks quite a bit in this volume.
The Schoenfeld has a cool history of women writers so I charted that in the book and I also found women who worked behind the scenes at that theatre.
George C. Wolfe, who is one of my heroes, has a lot of incredible material in the book. Baayork Lee talked about being in The King and I with white actors who were made-up to appear Asian. People either didn’t care or didn’t protest. So there were some markers that I found with regards to race and gender.
BB: What are your most vivid memories of theaters that you reference in this third volume?
JAT: A Chorus Line revival at the Schoenfeld really sticks out. I saw it 11 times and can recall skipping class on my birthday to go to a matinee. I was working on title of show at the time, directed by Michael Berresse. Michael was also playing Zach in A Chorus Line and took me backstage following the show.
I had the launch of my book at the Lyric Theatre and have such a vivid memory of my first time being there. I came to the city as a teenager with my parents and we were planning to see Aida, but learned that Adam Pascal was out of the show that day. I cried so much that the box office exchanged our tickets for later in the week and instead, we rushed down to Broadway and ran to our seats for 42nd Street. Whenever I walk into a Broadway theatre, I immediately think of the last few times I’ve been there. Those memories are powerful.
(Photo: Shubert Organization)
BB: Did you happen to find any research on the size of seats and the limited leg room?
JAT: I found a lot of fascinating information. I interviewed Bob Wankel, President of the Shubert Organization, who talked about how, when all of the theaters were first built that women didn’t go to the bathroom that often in public. They didn’t want to remove their corsets or petticoats.
So now, if you’ve ever heard complaints about the lines at ladies’ room it’s because the bathroom was probably built into what was once an office. Things like that definitely affect the physical space. Plus, people used to be smaller so there is less leg room. It’s interesting to learn that the actual life of people go into how these buildings were built.
BB: Coming from someone who is 6’1 and fuller framed, if you have any clout on the design and leg room in newer theaters, I’d appreciate that!
You have a few other volumes coming out after this, right?
JAT: I do. There are 40 Broadway theaters—soon to be 41 with the Hudson—so I’m looking at about six volumes in total. I don’t know how long that will take but I plan to get to all of them.
All three volumes of The Untold Stories of Broadway can be purchased on Amazon.com.
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.
Melissa Errico (photo: Brigitte Lacombe via The Broadway Blog.)
Currently starring in Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of Finian’s Rainbow (extended until January 29, 2017), Melissa Errico is re-defining the ingénue. Her self-written feature in The New York Times was a hallmark moment for the 46-year-old actress, who refuses to play to age-based limitations, writing:
The ingénue police are knocking, but I’m not letting them in. They know the great Mary Martin was 46 when she played the young postulant Maria Von Trapp in the original The Sound of Music. (They probably knocked on her door, too.)
And Finian’s Rainbow is a fable always worth retelling, with an absurd plot that is really not absurd at all. It’s about equality, peace, racism and tolerance. It is about a more hopeful America where each person might see beneath the surface of another, and find within oneself a tolerance toward oneself — even a celebration — as we allow our own surfaces to change.
The Broadway Blog had a chance to catch up with the Tony Award-nominated actress in between shows and an overflowing life with her husband, three daughters, and Yorkshire terrier.
Melissa Errico in ‘Finian’s Rainbow’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)
Why do you think Finian’s Rainbow resonates with today’s audiences?
I’ve done the show over the course over 15 years. Concerts then a full production, then a concert at Town Hall. We opened Oct 25 but by the time we had the election the show was very different.
It’s hitting a nerve, offering a possibly reassuring voice. A model of liberal racial politics — somewhat antiquated — but still a model. Yip (E.R. Harburg, the show’s lyricist and book writer) was a great humanitarian and liberal activist. Finian’s Rainbow is about inclusion and we’re living in a time that many people feel threatened.
At first, I didn’t think that the musical was current. In my dream world I thought we were past that. There’s a terrific dialogue exchange that could come out of today’s headlines:
Senator Billboard Rawkins: Of course it’s legal! I don’t know where you immigrants get these radical, foreign ideas!
Sharon McLonergan: From a wee book the immigration officer handed us. It’s called ‘The United States Constitution.’
Finian McLonergan: Haven’t you read it?
Senator Billboard Rawkins: I don’t have time to read it, I’m too busy defending it!
In particular, what do you think makes this production special in Irish Rep’s intimate space?
Irish Rep’s space has become larger and much more playable since it’s recent renovation. There are still those onstage columns, which are incorporated so beautifully into the set design by James Morgan to create this sort of dreamy plantation or rural forest.
From the actor’s standpoint, it’s tight quarters backstage. There’s no chance of warming up and you can plan on brushing your teeth with someone else. There’s this unspoken agreement to be communal and work together, and the only way to succeed is to be that kind of person. Charlotte Moore (Irish Rep’s artistic director) is a genius to find those kinds of people to cast.
In terms of performance, it’s not a Broadway show where you’re ushered along. You’ll notice that there are no microphones — there’s not a speaker in the building. It’s the audience and the actors. And then this all-female Celtic jazz orchestra sits down and forget about it! There’s a lot of color coming out of those four girls. You’ll never have that kind of experience on Broadway.
This is story theater. There’s no ability for the show to get fake or pretentious. We’re constantly looking for the substance, and to tell that story you have to put your heart out there. And then there’s the technical side of things. If I want to crescendo with everything else happening around me I have to walk toward the audience for my voice to rise above the others. There are a million different levels. It’s hard stuff!
The New York Times piece put a spotlight on women of a certain age in the theater. Do you think there’s a double standard?
The theater community wants women to age and wisen and teach and connect and be sensual. But there aren’t a lot of roles out there. But there’s another culture — the world of concerts — where we can create a strong experience and women are not impotent in that domain.
There are also a million catch-22’s. In my 30’s, while my career was soaring, my doctor said, “Are you ever going to have children?” It’s tricky to be a gal but we wanted to have a family.
Being in our 40s is an interesting time. It’s not that long ago that we felt young, but then we realize that we’re really adults now. I’m certainly not moaning. We each have to work it out in our own way. Lead the way in your wanting.
I want to be an adult in the business, so that’s what’s coming. I have a family. I have things to do on the off weeks. I have three amazing daughters. And yes, I’m also desperate to play certain roles.
(Photo provided by Melissa Errico.)
Do you feel there a special skill set for those actors, like yourself, who seem to embrace the classics, like Finian’s Rainbow?
Some people are just born very modern. They’re not given ballet lessons! I had that sort of training and what I call “pretty” lessons, but with an element of trapping a person as a “good girl”— lots of qualities that you find in characters like Leona in Do I Hear a Waltz? or Gwendolyn in The Importance of Being Earnest.
I love all the ideas behind these works, too. There’s a bookishness about me. My first big job was Cosette in the first national tour of Les Misérables and you could find me backstage reading the Victor Hugo novel. I’ve always been fascinated by the source material of so many of these great shows.
You recently sang “The National Anthem” at a New York Rangers game at Madison Square Garden, what was that like?
I wanted people to remember the country is still there. Hey, I threw in a high “C”!
I was put on the ice in front of 65,000 people to touch their spirit, and for a moment, to lift up that room. It was a chance for that energy to pass through me to the crowd, hoping to bring out the best in everyone for one night. And as performers, we hope they carry a little bit of that out the door.
(Photo courtesy Erich Bergen via The Broadway Blog.)
On a November night ten years ago, 20-year-old recent college drop-out Erich Bergen flew to San Francisco from his home in New York to start the job he now describes as having “shot me out of a cannon.”
Cast as Bob Gaudio—spring-chicken of the Four Seasons—in the first national tour of the colossally successful Jersey Boys, Bergen spent over six and a half months rehearsing and performing at the Curran Theater in the City by the Bay.
“The city has such a mystique for me now,” he said in a recent phone call from Manhattan. “I have amazing, intense memories associated with San Francisco. It seems like the way some friends who traveled around Europe after college feel about Paris. Whenever I go back it’s like this really important time of my life, the people, the music all coming rushing back.”
Once a child-actor—“My parents used to have me imitate all the singers on We Are The World as a party trick”—Bergen made his national debut at 11, playing Dana Carvey’s son on the comedian’s short-lived ABC variety show.
Bergen is only half-joking when he says, “San Francisco is the city where I became a man.”
“My birthday is New Year’s eve. I literally turned 21 there. I remember we had a cast party at a bar around the corner from the theater. I felt so good, like I’d really done something with my life. And I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.”
(Photo courtesy Erich Bergen via The Broadway Blog.)
Playing one of the Four Seasons in Jersey Boys puts a male lead in a slightly perilous situation: The adulation of the band by its fans is mimicked by baby boomer audiences out for a night on the town. It’s not hard for actors who play the roles to feel a bit like rock stars themselves.
“I had a lead role in one of the biggest shows of all time,” recalled Bergen. “I was on the road with it for a year and then opened the resident production in Las Vegas.” As a young, handsome star of that hit production—which went on to become the longest-running Broadway-to-Vegas show ever—Bergen was the toast (or at least one slice of the toast) of the town, buttered up by LA producers and casting agents who caught his act and beckoned him westward.
Not immune to charms and flattery, Bergen missed a few too many Jersey Boys performances for go-sees and screen tests. After two years, he was fired from the Vegas company.
“It was like coming off a big high,” he remembers. “I moved to LA and did that thing that all actors do. Going to audition after audition. Money drying up to the point where you wonder if you’re going to be able to fill the car with gas.”
Bergen picked up occasional small parts on shows in television series including Gossip Girl and Desperate Housewives and also flew back to New York with some frequency, participating in workshops and auditions for Ghost, Wicked and The Book of Mormon, but never landing a lead.
In his Los Angeles downtime, Bergen began to focus on his songwriting, eventually recording a pair of EPs consisting primarily of his original tunes—along with an almost downbeat cover of Madonna’s Open Your Heart.
“In the songs I write and the songs I love, the beat doesn’t come first,” says Bergen, who points to Billy Joel and James Taylor as writing influences. “Melody always wins with me. In twenty years, you’re not going to sit around a campfire and hum a beat. It’s called ‘Name That Tune’ not ‘Name That Beat.’”
The melodies of the great American songbook were attractive enough to Bergen that, in 2012, he did a spell on the road as tap-dancing Billy Crocker in the national tour of Anything Goes. “Bob in Jersey Boys was such a perfect part for me. This didn’t match my strengths as well. And frankly, it didn’t pay as well. I didn’t feel like it was what I should be doing.”
During the Anything Goes tour, Bergen returned to San Francisco, and was delighted to be booked to do his cabaret act on a dark night. Within days of his performance the club abruptly shut down, leaving Bergen with the worst of his San Francisco memories.
Returning to LA from the road and beginning to feel that his career was in a serious downturn, Bergen’s next big break echoed his first: A call from Clint Eastwood, asking him to reprise the role of Bob Gaudio in the movie adaptation of Jersey Boys.
While the film was generally viewed as a flop, the individual performers had a chance to show some star quality. “That film restarted everything for me,” says Bergen.
Erich Bergen plays Blake Moran on ‘Madam Secretary’ (Courtesy: CBS Broadcasting Inc. via The Broadway Blog)
In short order, Bergen won the part of Blake Moran, openly gay assistant to Tea Leoni’s Madam Secretary on the CBS political drama. Rather unexpectedly, the showrunners for the program—which also includes recent Feinstein’s headliner Patina Miller in its cast—have (via karaoke, talent competitions, and the like) come up with opportunities for Bergen to show off his singing chops.
“I did ‘For the Longest Time”’and ‘Fire and Rain,’” he recalls, “And in the Thanksgiving week episode this month I do three separate numbers.”
Bergen’s return to San Francisco takes place during the series’ mid-season hiatus, and he looks forward to visiting some of his local landmarks.
“There’s a little 24-hour diner up the street from the Curran called Café Mason,” he recalls fondly. “It’s a nothing place, but almost every night after Jersey Boys, I went there and had a turkey and avocado sandwich. It was the best sandwich. I’ve never been able to match the joy of it.”
Erich Bergen Feinstein’s at the Nikko
222 Mason Street, San Francisco
Saturday, November 5, 7 p.m.
Sunday, November 6, 3 p.m.
Betty Buckley (Photo: Scogin Mayo via The Broadway Blog.)
Truth be told, this interview wasn’t 15 minutes. In fact, it was well over 45 and I have a feeling that if I hadn’t had a pressing deadline, the Tony Award-winning Betty Buckley would have chatted with me for more for an hour. Because that’s what happens when you engage a true artist on the subject of creativity: the floodgates open and you better know how to swim.
At the time of our phone conversation, Buckley had just finished a celebrated run of Center Theatre Group’s Grey Gardens and completed a road trip with her longtime assistant back to her ranch in north Texas to “blow the cobwebs out of my mind.” They called themselves the Road Warriors and even posted some of their journey on social media.
It was after 9/11 that Buckley felt the pangs to return to her Texas roots. With decades of studying, performing, recording, and teaching under her belt, she felt visionless and without purpose. Her love of horses and the equine sport of cutting reinvigorated her and this November she’ll celebrate 14 years of life on a ranch.
But ultimately Buckley is a self-proclaimed “working girl” and this fall she heads to the East Coast for 15 concerts, including her latest show, “Story Songs,” which will play seven performances at Joe’s Pub in New York City.
Can you tell me more about the inspiration for your latest show, Story Songs?
Betty Buckley: At each point in your life certain songs fit and others don’t. This is a collection of songs that I feel at this point—through interpretation and from my vantage point—can resonate with a degree of truth.
I do a new show, generally, once a year. This past Spring, I connected with composer Joe Iconis and he invited me to sing in his show at Feinstein’s/54Below. He sent me some songs and at the last minute he wrote a song for me, “ Old Flame”—it’s very funny and he’s a wonderful writer. It fits me, as a Story Teller, like a glove.
In February I went to Australia to perform “Defying Gravity,” an evening of Stephen Schwartz’s music. It was a wonderful series of concerts with a full orchestra and I sang “Chanson” from The Baker’s Wife and “No Time at All” from Pippin.
And then I reached out to other composers whom I admire—people like Jason Robert Brown. He sent me a few songs, one titled “Cassandra”– from a new show he’s working on. This is the base of the material and then I start to consider what they all have in common. It’s an evening of stories about some interesting characters.
Betty Buckley: That’s not a big deal for me. It’s something I include in my awareness, of course. It’s just a different space. My work process remains the same in every venue and genre.
CATS is back in the limelight with its first Broadway revival recently opening at the Neil Simon Theatre. It’s certainly one of the benchmarks of your career. What do you think is the emotional entry point for the character of Grizabella and what were some of the challenges in bringing her to life?
The job assignment was to “stop the show”. But within that, you have to find in yourself a world of profound isolation and loneliness. Grizabella is in the last moments of her life. As the Glamour Cat in her youth, she lived life to great excess. She was considered a great beauty. And she drank too much, smoked too much, and she was promiscuous. And now in her later years she is no longer desired and has become the pariah of the Tribe of Cats. She longs to be included but the cats shun her and keep sending her away.
The character is only on stage for 13 minutes. (I timed it at one point when I actually got to sit and experience the show for the first time from start to finish. It was the 8th Anniversary Celebration of the show in London.) I kept waiting for Grizabella and thinking, “Where is she?”
Trevor Nunn’s direction was to play pathos, but I was overwhelmed with the responsibility of stopping the show, and I didn’t know that there was a formula for that. I wasn’t “stopping the show” during previews and it was frustrating—they called special rehearsals for me, and there were lots of conversations.
In desperation, I called my voice teacher, the great Paul Gavert. I thought they were going to fire me. He said, “Come over on your lunch break.” He threw a pillow on the floor and told me to hit it. And I said, “This won’t work, teach me how to stop the show.” He said, “Hit the pillow!”
I hit the pillow and started sobbing. And I heard the voice of this little child inside me saying, “I’m here, too. I’m here, too.” I’d forgotten to ask my inner being how she wanted to do the song. From that awareness, I then hit the streets of New York City on a quest. I found this beautiful portrait book of photographs of homeless people, and I began to follow various homeless women around New York City. There were women on the streets at that time that were my age and had eyes like mine.
One morning heading to work I passed woman on the Upper West Side. She was dressed shabbily with white, pasty makeup and smeared lipstick. She moved as if in slow motion with tremendous grace and dignity. I was profoundly touched by this encounter and the connection she made with me in just a few fleeting moments.
Two nights later, the Universe sent me another woman, almost exactly like the first one. We too had that same amazing connection. It took me about two weeks to incorporate all this information into my journey through the show. The creative team kept calling rehearsals. I said, “I’m in transition.” And they trusted me which was amazing and generous of them to do.
These women I observed reminded me, most profoundly, that we often overlook people because of circumstance: Bigger. Better. Best. We are taught to believe that on some level, and it’s not true.
It finally came together a few performances before Opening Night. “Memory” became a song for me about longing—a cry of the heart. And I suddenly understood: To ask for nothing but be willing to share everything.
I see Grizabella as my soulmate. The character is one of my closest friends and I visit her every time I sing her song. I immediately go to that world, it’s a dreamscape, a place that I love. It is a privilege and great blessing in my life.
(l to r) Rachel York and Betty Buckley in ‘Gray Gardens.’ (Photo: Craig Schwartz via The Broadway Blog.)
Do you see continuity among some of the major theatrical roles of your career: Grizabella in CATS, the title character in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Rose in Gypsy, Big Edie in Grey Gardens?
Betty Buckley: The explanation is soul and spirit. I loved the great actresses of the previous generation to mine: Kim Stanley, Gena Rowlands and Geraldine Page. They told truths in their rawest form. They were my role models and I wanted to become that kind of actress and be able eventually to bring that kind of raw truth to my work in the Musical Theater.
My first Broadway show, when I was 21 years old, was 1776. There were two women in the show and 30 men—mostly actors who could sing but they’d never done a musical before. Howard Da Silva, William Daniels and Paul Hecht took me under their wings. I was an experienced performer but a very naïve girl. I continued to go to acting school and studied hard at the Actor’s Studio, Stella Adler, and with Sondra and Greta Seacat, and my coach Peter Flood.
Then I got the part of the stepmother Abby in the TV series Eight is Enough. We did 29 episodes a year for four years. That’s where I continued to practice and learn my craft and the business of “Big Business Show Business.” On the heels of that came Tender Mercies then CATS. That was my training ground. I had a goal to become a certain kind of Story Teller/Singer/Actress. The Universe collaborates with your truest vision for yourself. If you’re willing to do the work, you’ll be guided how to achieve that vision.
Betty Buckley at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. (Debby Wong / Shutterstock.com via The Broadway Blog.)
Betty Buckley: I share and teach the tools taught to me by great teachers. They have never failed me. The tools are very practical, not amorphous. We, as a Humanity are completely connected. We each of us have a heart that is beating and wants to love and be loved. We have to remember that in our storytelling. You must allow your heart to go there. Each lyric or line must be vivid to the singer/actor. Each word must have a deeply personal resonance. When you’re willing immerse yourself, to do that work, then vicariously your journey becomes something in which the audience can experience their truest selves. It takes time to learn and a willingness to be that vulnerable.
“Try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh, so mellow.”
Peter Reckell (Photo courtesy of ‘The Fantasticks’ via The Broadway Blog.)
Anyone who’s familiar with the iconic musical, The Fantasticks, will recognize this indelible lyric, originally sung by the late, great Jerry Orbach, and recorded by everyone from Liza Minnelli to Gladys Knight & the Pips. Now it’s Peter Reckell’s turn.
The Emmy Award-nominated actor returns to his theater roots for a limited engagement and will appearing in the long running Off-Broadway hit from September 5-25. Most recognize Reckell as the hunky Bo Brady—a role he originated in 1983 and played on and off through 2012.
But what most people don’t know is that Reckell is a theater kid at heart, and his return to The Fantasticks marks the 35th anniversary of when he appeared in the original Sullivan Street production.
The Broadway Blog caught up with Reckell while he was enjoying a bit of summer vacation with his family on Lake Michigan before returning to the Big Apple to once again take to the stage.
The Broadway Blog: You’ve melted the hearts of many a TV viewer for nearly 30 years, but did you formally study acting?
Peter Reckell: I studied at the Boston Conservatory. They offered training in music, drama and dance, and I opted for the music theatre program, which combined all three. I was dancing, doing Shakespeare, studying music theory. It was a pretty cool start for a Midwestern boy.
But my real learning started when I moved to The Big Apple. I worked at night at a deli and auditioned during the day. Actors are never in as good of shape as when they’re out of work!
BB: Tell us about your move to Los Angeles and entry into the world of daytime television.
PR: I had jumped into New York wanting to be a song and dance man and was auditioning for musicals. I got a manager through my voice teacher, who said there were more opportunities in television.
I did a two-year gig on As The World Turns, which filmed in New York, and I think that’s—in part—why I got the Sullivan Street gig. I moved to Los Angeles and signed with an agency, telling them I didn’t want to do daytime. I was interested in feature film. It’s funny in a way. Youth. Bravado. Enthusiam. It saves us but it also gets us into trouble. My agent convinced me to audition [for Days of Our Lives] and after three or four callbacks I got the role.
BB: Why do you think Days of Our Lives has had such staying power? 51 years!
PR: In the beginning it was more available to people, our characters weren’t rich. Quite often I’d go out for personal experiences and people would come up to me and say I reminded them of their brother or neighbor.
BB: And then things got wacky. What would you consider the craziest plot line in all of your years on the show? One where you read the script and thought, “Wow… we’re going there.”
PR: I was on the show when was Marlena (Deidra Hall) was possessed. I [also] had a brain chip put in me and turned into a mime once. The brain chip thing was kind of wacky, but it was a period when that’s what entertainment was about. But the base of our viewers has been around a long time and hung around through the craziness.
Madison Claire Parks and Andrew Polec in ‘The Fantasticks.’ (Photo courtesy of the production via The Broadway Blog.)
BB: The Fantasticks is similar in its longevity. Why do you think it’s been able to transcend the test of time?
PR: I’ve thought about this a lot—making it mine again. The story and the message are universal. When I was young I related to the roles of the Mute and Matt. Now I’m playing El Gallo. A few decades have gone by I’ve been through the bumps, bruises, and aches. It makes me a better person and appreciate my life more.
It’s the ultimate character because as the narrator I get to talk to the audience and explain a few things. It’s not the extravaganza of some of the Broadway shows. We ask the audience to use its imagination. Then I get to the fun part of being El Gallo, the charismatic character. The back and forth is such a fun, interesting journey for me as an actor.
I’m looking forward to doing this night after night for different audiences. Every night a show will have its own personality.
BB: Do you have any must-see, eats, or do’s while you’re in town?
PR: I’m just excited to bring my wife and daughter here to see all the things that haven’t changed much: the museums and Central Park. There’s nothing like New York.
The Fantasticks The Theater Center, 3rd Floor
1627 Broadway/210 West 50th Street
Peter Reckell performs September 5 – 25, 2016
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo.
For the first time, The Broadway Blog breaks form with our “15 Minutes with…” column, taking this opportunity to introduce you to up and coming musical theater writer/composer Aaron Michael Krueger. His new show, Super!, opens August 12 as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. Krueger’s 2014 musical, New Dawn, took home four awards (including Best Book, Music, and Lyrics, and Best Musical) at the Midtown International Theatre Festival.
The Broadway Blog had a chance to gain some insights about his latest project, how it’s developed, and the challenges of storytelling in the context of a Festival setting.
Aaron Michael Krueger (Photo: Colin/HeadshotsandReelsNYC via The Broadway Blog.)
What inspired you to write Super!? I’ve always found shows like Smallville interesting because it really focused on what makes a superhero a human, instead of what makes a human a superhero. It made the characters relatable.
Can you tell us a bit more about the show? What can audience members expect? (Without any spoilers!) Without giving anything away, I’d tell people to expect a show that’s more in line with current comic book and movie trends in terms of tone. It’s not at all like the Adam West Batman series. Audiences can expect some really stellar performances given by this incredible cast and some music that is sure to get stuck in your head.
How has the show evolved since its debut at the Midtown International Theatre Festival? The show has grown a great deal. The book is about 90 percent new material, and there are a number of new songs and themes. One of the cast members from this production was in the MITF production as well and his first comment after reading it was that the show was much darker, and much more human.
Can you share a bit more specifics about the evolution of this latest draft? Would you say the greatest changes are in plot line, character development or other aspects? The bulk of the changes are actually in development of the specifics of the show. There is absolutely more character development, which was needed from the last draft, but a couple of new plot points in the show have driven the show into a slightly darker place. It’s one that made a lot of sense for the story we’re trying to tell.
Do you think there are common themes in your major works (New Dawn, Super!) thus far? Absolutely. Both New Dawn and Super! are coming of age stories, very different ones, but they have that in common. New Dawn has a character who deals with coming out, and we actually had a conversation with our lead in Super! this time around about the similarities between telling someone you’re gay and telling them you have super powers.
What composer/lyricists do you admire and what is it about their work that resonates with you? I really love Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. I think their work is brilliant, and I always fall in love with it. I think Joe Iconis writes music that is accessible and moving and always fun. And Larry O’Keefe writes such beautiful songs that integrate into stories so perfectly.
Finding inspiration at Comic Con. (Photo provided by Aaron Michael Krueger via The Broadway Blog.)
As an author, what are your thoughts about diversity in casting? Do you think it’s important to try to actively exemplify our multiculturalism on stage? I am always a fan of seeing a diverse cast on a stage. I, myself, am mixed (black and white) and growing up, had a difficult time finding characters and role models that I could relate to, so it’s always exciting to see a show with a diverse cast. I try to write shows that can be open to any interpretation of ethnicity. I’m also adopted, so I don’t have an issue casting people of two different ethnicities as siblings because I’m of the belief that a common ethnicity isn’t what defines your family.
As part of the New York International Fringe Festival, what have been some of the challenges (and solutions) to putting up a show with limited time and resources? I have been very grateful for the fact that FringeNYC does offer discounts on certain services or rehearsal rates. In terms of the show content, the biggest obstacle has been how to deliver the expectations of the superhero genre in a festival setting. It forced everyone to get very creative and figure out ways to design a superhero costume or make it seem like people are flying through the air without having the large budget of a blockbuster film. But I think the show absolutely delivers the spectacle, but even more so the heart of what has made the genre so popular.
Lady Rizo with her son. (Photo: Bill Evans via The Broadway Blog.)
Raised by theatrical gypsies, Lady Rizo is one of New York City’s powerhouse vocalists. And while those in the know may recognize her from frequent stints at Joe’s Pub and The Darby, Rizo (a.k.a. Amelia Zirin-Brown) has staying power and international recognition, including a duet on Yo-Yo Ma’s Grammy-winning album, Yo-Yo Ma and Friends: Songs of Joy and Peace.
Rizo returns to Joe’s Pub tonight with her new show, Lady Rizo: Multiplied. Eight months postpartum, she digs her sparkling heels into new motherhood. Backed by a choice New York trio led by longtime collaborator Yair Evnine, Rizo rips apart carefully chosen pop songs and presents them among her own stirring originals.
The Broadway Blog’s editor Matthew Wexler had a chance to chat with her while she was getting her hair done at a Los Angeles salon—what any proper diva should be doing on a Wednesday morning!
The Broadway Blog: It’s embarrassing, but I had no idea who you were until I saw you perform at the recent Night of 1,000 Judys benefit for the Ali Forney Center, hosted by Justin Sayre. How did you meet Justin?
Lady Rizo: I met Justin when he first moved to New York City. What a funny fellow… and then I thought—does he really talk like that? He’s completely smart and authentic and hilarious. I spent time with him at a Radical Faerie queer sanctuary in Tennessee. I’ve done his show, The Meeting, a couple of times. I’m happy to be a guest if I’m passionate about the subject.
Lady Rizo’s debut album, ‘Violet.’
BB: What was the song you sang? It was captivating.
LR: “Blues in the Night”—a haunting arrangement I created with music director Tracy Stark. I wanted something pastiche, beautiful, dark, and haunting. I’d been practicing it all night, singing it to my infant son as I put him to bed.
BB: You have a strong sense of theatricality when you perform, did you study theater?
LR: I come from a theater family. I was raised on the Oregon coast by a group of theatrical hippies. Their passion was theater—Shakespeare and Brecht in barns and basements. This artistic community I grew up in was incredible rich. I started really early. I was in a Chekov play at two (I didn’t have a speaking role.) Then I studied at Cornish College of the Arts, they offered a merit-based full scholarship.
BB: Was there a point that you could identify a shift from musical theater to your own unique cabaret style?
LR: I was always encouraged to look at art individually and radically, but after graduating I was trying to be a working actor and taking a lot of different gigs. Being cast in musicals, I firmly felt that it wasn’t my place even though I could sing, dance and act.
Then I started to get cast in straight plays with music, and finally it was the evolution of my own shows. I moved to New York City to start over again with this demeaning process. It makes sense: supply and demand—there’s a power dynamic but I had a special breed of insanity and pride that I wasn’t going to do that. So I created a show.
I was married to a beautiful Colombian man at the time and I created [“Lady Rizo”] with him. That was his last name. I didn’t take his name legally. It’s ironic that it’s had more staying power than the marriage.
Lady Rizo (Photo via Twitter.)
BB: Do you have a desire to return to the stage in a more traditional theatrical setting (doing the same show eight times per week). If so, are there existing roles that you’d like to put your stamp on?
LR: There was a cool movement when there was a discussion of reviving Funny Girl and Michael Musto wrote a column about me. I love the freedom of making my own rules but I’d love my career to mimic the arc of Bette Midler that transitions back into acting.
BB: I assume your new show, “Multiplied,” is at least—in part—inspired by the birth of your son. What can audience members expect?
LR: This life change… it’s a very strange tug. I’m so happy and love with my beautiful son. He’s charming and sociable—that means a lot to me. It’s how I identity myself. But it takes so much brain space to raise a baby if you aren’t someone who farms out the job to caretakers. I don’t have daycare and nannies. His father, a lighting designer from Sydney, is incredible.
The evolution of mankind took over. It turns out I am a breeder. Part of what I’m grappling with is the resignation of that term. I identify strongly as a queer person and have always in my adult life circled around that and so I’m struggling with my own boundaries as a perceived heterosexual breeder.
Gender is the frontier that we’re at – and something fun to keep in mind when raising a son. What is it like to raise a white male? One can hope he’ll be a homosexual. All I can do is dress him in peach. (I have an aversion to pink.)
The core of my uncomfortability is that I feel like the voices of parents are still so hetero-normative and it becomes so loud. You don’t really hear alternative parenting voices in the media because people that have a problem with society aren’t vocal breeders. We need more artists and free thinkers to fill our population if we don’t want to have it completely hijacked.
Will this be the same show you intend to perform in Edinburgh?
LR: Yes, it’s a show that I started making in London in March. I loved performing pregnant. It lowered everyone’s expectations. They were just happy that I was standing in heels. I didn’t have to work as hard. But it’s good to reflect on that time.
BB: What artists do you listen to and can we expect any new collaborations?
I just recorded my second album at Royal Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s seen some of the legends like Al Green and Isaac Hayes and a lot of the same components of the studio during that time are still there. I’m hoping to release it in the fall.
BB: Beyond music, your social media feeds show solidarity with the LGBT community, women’s rights, and gun opposition. How important is it for you to use your notoriety to shed light on some of these important issues?
LR: Why else do what I do? It’s interesting to hear how people get angry when artists respond to the world around us. I’m not interested in a neo-Nazi loving my singing voice. I’d much rather reach someone who’s thinking humanity more holistically through my voice.
It’s the way I was raised. Overt power and sensuality on stage can be considered radical. Slut shaming is really high. It only takes a moment reading the Internet to see that anonymity breeds contempt. We’re living in a patriarchy. We can accept that, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t voice opposition to it. Misogyny affects everyone—including men—because it denies the feminine inside the man.
If people get excited about my music, it allows me to explore these deeper causes.
Lady Rizo: Multiplied Joe’s Pub
425 Lafayette Street, NYC
July 19, 9:30 p.m.
July 20, 9:30 p.m.
July 25, 7 p.m.
July 26, 9:30 p.m.
The Radio City Rockettes in ‘New York Spectacular’ (Photo courtesy of Madison Square Garden via The Broadway Blog.)
With approximately 11 shows to perform on a weekly basis, Katie Walker doesn’t find herself with much free time. The North Carolina native, who serves both as a dance captain and performer in the New York Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes, is entering her ninth year with the famous precision dance company.
Best known for the Christmas Spectacular, the Rockettes are currently starring in a summer spectacle that is thrilling audiences and critics alike. This marks the second consecutive year for the non-holiday themed show, which is a splashy love letter to New York. It also heralds a fresh approach for the Rockettes through Emmy Award-winning choreographer Mia Michaels.
Walker recently spoke with the Broadway Blog over the phone to discuss the artistic process and the improved changes she’s noticed since joining the troupe.
Katie Walker (Photo provided by MSG via the Broadway Blog.)
BB: How long have you been with the Rockettes and how did you land such a coveted gig?
KW: I’ve been with the Rockettes since 2008. The audition process was probably the most intense audition of my life. It’s a two-day process if you make it past the callbacks. There are approximately 500 other girls and you go in 100 at a time. You have about 20 minutes to learn the choreography. Then you perform it three at a time. It’s quick, it’s a lot of pressure, and after you perform it, they will make an initial cut. Then they repeat that process throughout the day. At the end of the day, about 50 dancers are chosen to come back for Day Two where they do it all over again. Then, it’s a waiting game. I auditioned in April and didn’t get the acceptance call until July.
BB: How did the collaboration with Mia Michaels emerge?
KW: We worked with her last year on the opening number (Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York”). We had a little time to work with her on that, but this year [as director and choreographer] we had the chance to work with her every single day. We started pre-production for the show on January 12 and would meet from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. to find the balance between her world and ours. We then called in some of the Rockettes to see how the material would work on a larger scale. Then Karen Keeler, director of the Rockettes creative, Mia and myself would put the formations on paper.
BB: What is one of the major changes you noticed with the New York Spectacular from last year to this year?
KW: The biggest difference is that this year, the Rockettes are featured non-stop. There is one number that we do where we have literally 90 seconds to change costumes and run back on stage. This year, thanks to Mia, the dance has an edgier style. The choreography is much more modern, physical, and contemporary but it still maintains the precision and unity that the Rockettes are known for.
KW: When I started in 2008, many of the dances had been in the show for years. Over the last few years, they’ve introduced a new number every three years to make it a bit more modern and lyrical. It’s a nice balance between the classic and the contemporary.
BB: There’s a lengthy rain scene in the show in which all of the Rockettes are dancing to “Singin’ in the Rain.” How are you able to get through that with without slipping and sliding?
KW: We have taps at the bottom of our rain boots and sometimes we put tape at the bottom. Even then, the stage and the water will wash it away. We rehearsed that scene so much during technical rehearsals. Because of how the rain falls, we have to change the balance on our feet or the pressure we are putting on the stage.
The Radio City Rockettes (Photo courtesy of Madison Square Garden via The Broadway Blog.)
BB: Is there a favorite scene in the show for you?
KW: I absolutely love the finale, which we call “Radio City New York, New York”. It’s a perfect balance between the traditional and the contemporary. Mia put a modern edge on it and it pushed us away from “being in a box” to giving us the freedom to “just dance it.” Frank Sinatra’s famous song is playing, a backdrop reveals the skyline of New York, and the audience is on its feet. It’s my proudest moment.
BB: How do you maintain your stamina through this process?
KW: Once we start rehearsals, we rehearse six hours a day, six days per week. Other activities like the gym and yoga go by the wayside and the rehearsal itself is really our stamina building activity. There is no downtime aside from a lunch break. After one week, we’re all in great shape for show mode. Now that we are performing, we have a little more free time. We are fortunate to have an athletic training center and gym at Radio City, so when we have long gaps between shows, many of us will run on the treadmill in order to keep our downtime active.
Katie Walker taking a moment on stage at Radio City Music Hall. (Photo: Facebook)
BB: What is the most rewarding aspect of being a Rockette?
KW: One of the most amazing things, in addition to performing, is so much of the outside work we get to do. We are so well known and viewed as a historical icon of New York City. We get to do a ton of community work with children and at children’s hospitals. That interaction on a human level is one of my favorite things about this job. This year, as assistant choreographer, I taught nearly every dance in the show myself. To prepare 41 other Rockettes for a new show that was created for them was a huge moment for me on opening night.
BB: What is the most challenging?
KW: None of it is really hard because it’s a job that we love so much. Even though we have to wake up sometimes at 6 a.m. to do a 9 a.m. show, we don’t mind because we get to have so many cool experiences. The physical wear is probably the most challenging because our muscles get tired and things get sore, but we just push through it and not let it affect our performances.
BB: I imagine after this show wraps on August 7, you’ll start preparation for the Christmas Spectacular?
KW: We will. We’ll have about four weeks off and I hope to visit my family in Elon, North Carolina.
BB: I will spread the word to my fellow cynical New Yorker friends that this show is not just for tourists!
KW: Yes! You’ll leave the show loving New York City!
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics and Teaching Theatre Magazines. Follow him on twitter: @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.