Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler chats with Stephanie J. Block, who will be appearing with The New York Pops at Carnegie Hall on March 21.
“Nothing came easy to me,” says Stephanie J. Block, who along with Andrew Rannells with be performing with The New York Pops (with musical direction by Steven Reineke) on March 21. The California native now has a handful of Broadway credits under her belt due to her consistently grounded performances and a powerhouse voice that shakes the rafters. “I was a waitress for four months, and I was hideous at it! I’ve supported myself through the arts, sometimes many jobs at a time,” says Ms. Block. “I needed to respect and take nothing for granted. It served me well – people can get jaded and over it quickly. But I’m still in awe to be in the position to do the things I love.”
Most theater aficionados perhaps think that Block “burst” onto the scene as Elphaba in the first national tour of Wicked, followed by her playing the role on Broadway. But that green witch isn’t the only one with an untold story. Block was living in Los Angeles and doing regional theater when Stephen Schwartz happened to be on the west coast having dinner with colleagues. He was chatting about a new musical in development and was looking for a particular kind of singer with dark features and a big voice. Stephanie’s name was mentioned, and within a matter of days Schwartz invited her over to sing a few songs.
She was attached to the project through its entire development up through a two-week workshop at Universal Studios. By the time it was ready for Broadway and the whole team (and multi-million dollar budget) was in place, the producers felt they needed an actress with Broadway experience to handle the pressure of carrying the show. Tony-nominated Idina Menzel landed the role while Block was offered to understudy then eventually stand by for the lead.
Ms. Block, after plenty of tears and contemplation, asked herself, “Is this my path? And I said absolutely. Never again would I miss an opportunity based on not having the [Broadway] credit. But there’s a difference between confidence and cockiness. It was a tough choice—hard for me to swallow. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult to watch her play that role. But never showed it in the rehearsal room and never to my co-workers. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t have those feelings.”
It took 19 years for Ms. Block to make it to Broadway, who says you’ve got to dream and dream big. Since Wicked, she has established herself as one of the most relevant and versatile voices in contemporary musical theater. She most recently starred as Sheryl Hoover in the Off-Broadway production of Little Miss Sunshine written by James Lapine and William Finn. She received both a Drama Desk and Tony Award nomination for her portrayal of Alice Nutting/Edwin Drood in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Other Broadway credits include Anything Goes and 9 to 5: The Musical, for which she earned a Drama Desk nomination. She created the roles of Grace O’Malley in The Pirate Queen and Liza Minnelli in The Boy From Oz (opposite Hugh Jackman).
Ms. Block’s concert work is the latest evolution of her craft. She credits 9 to 5 co-star Mark Kudisch for inviting a concert promoter to the show, which led to performances at such glorious venues like Wolf Trap in Washington D.C., the “fabulous” Fox Theatre in St. Louis, and of course… Carnegie Hall.
The March 21 performance will be the performer’s first full concert at Carnegie Hall, where she brought down the house at The New York Pops’ 30th anniversary gala with her rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” She’s keenly aware of how nerves can get the best of you. “It’s easy to freeze, the words ‘Carnegie Hall’ hold such a reputation. When you put that pressure on yourself, it’s not an easy place to be. It’s all in your head.”
“The nerves set it any time there is high profile performance and the expectation is such since it’s a one-night-only event. The New York Pops has an amazing pedigree. I want to be myself,” says Ms. Block, “but I’m also aware I need to be on my ‘A’ game when stepping onto such a revered stage. Every lyric counts, every breath counts. I’m there with an 80-piece orchestra!”
She has been emailing with music director Steven Reineke and co-star Andrew Rannells and says The New York Pops is gracious enough to develop charts for some of the numbers that aren’t in their regular repertoire. But beyond that, rehearsals are more limited than one might think. The team will rehearse with a pianist and only the day before does the entire orchestra come together for a full run-through.
Ms. Block will be singing songs from the American Songbook and Broadway but interestingly, identifies her vocal quality with composers from an earlier generation. “I was called a little Ethel Merman. An old musical theater broad. Yet my career has been shaped with contemporary musicals,” says the actress, who also acknowledges the good fortune to be in the original company of several Broadway shows, where the material has been crafted specifically for her voice.
For young female singers, Ms. Block says it is imperative to learn about the instrument of your vocal chords and how small and delicate they are. “We are athletes,” she says. “The injury rate is 100 percent. How you care for your chords is up to you. Go and get classical training. It’s all about endurance. I’d tell any belter: get some great technique.”
When asked for one-word association with some of the many characters Ms. Block has played, this is what she has to offer:
Grizabella (Cats) — attachment
Edwin Drood (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) – fulfillment
Judy Bernly (9 to 5) – tender, precious… that’s two words, I know!
Elphaba (Wicked)– powerful
Liza Minnelli (The Boy from Oz) – challenging
Barbie (voiceover work) – polar opposite
Sheryl Hoover (Little Miss Sunshine)– maternal love
Reno Sweeney (Anything Goes) – sassy
“I’m very, very lucky,” says Ms. Block, who in spite of a list of credits that most actresses could only dream of attaining, still feels as though she’s often called in at the 11th hour after producers have exhausted all other possibilities. “There something about every role that scares me. And I’m so grateful.”
Follow Stephanie J. Block on Twitter at @StephanieJBlock
CLICK HERE for ticket information for The New York Pops on Broadway March 21 concert.