Call Her The Steam Train: Meet 'School of Rock’s' Emily Borromeo
As she so famously sang in a high school production of Songs For A New World, “You don’t know me. But you will.” Actually, in retrospect, I don’t think she was assigned “Steam Train.” Might have been her childhood friend Nic Rouleau of Book of Mormon… but I digress, and I was primarily looking for an excuse to use “steam train” in my headline.
Today we talk to one of the most talented people I know, and the aforementioned quote is one I’ve been using in reference to her since we met in a youth theatre production of The Wiz back in 2002. When a 15-year-old Emily took the stage and belted out “Home” at the end, I knew I was watching a star (Elegies reference: 2 points) and have been telling people ever since that she would soon be gracing the Broadway stage.
We worked together two more times, both at Mountain View’s Peninsula Youth Theatre, in productions of Children of Eden (she was Mama Noah, Rouleau was Adam) and Les Miz (she was Eponine, Rouleau was Valjean). Then we went about our merry ways, and I kept my eyes peeled for her inevitable rise to stardom.
This claim finally came true a few months ago, as Borromeo made her Broadway debut in the fabulous School of Rock. She replaces Jaygee “Imelda” Macapugay in the ensemble, where she most prominently appears as Summer Hathaway’s mom. (I speculate that the track has become specifically Asian in order to accommodate the Lucy Liu joke in Act One, but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.)
Offstage, she is best known as host of the Emmy-nominated children’s show “Sunny Side Up” and was a lead vocalist of the group “Element,” which absolutely slayed on “The Sing Off.”
Let’s talk to Emily!
MB: We've been friends since our teens, but let's go back. How did the theatre bug first hit you?
EB: I was in high school when I realized that Broadway was this amazing thing and it was in New York. The CD cast recordings of Rent, Wicked and Avenue Q really hooked me into the scene.
MB: What are your earliest and most memorable stage roles?
EB: My first lead role was Ti Moune in Once On This Island when I was a teenager. Before that I played a bunch of animals, reporters, and towns persons.
MB: You were always one of the most freakishly talented people I knew. Did you always have it in your head that Broadway was the goal? What were some of the main challenges you ran into, and did you find that race factored heavily into some casting decisions?
Thank you! I had an inkling in high school that I wanted to move to New York City but I also knew I wanted a traditional undergraduate experience, so I majored in Business Organizations at Brown and stayed active in the musicals scene.
Peninsula Youth Theatre had such a profound impact on my theatrical journey, that I thought one day I might run my own children's theatre company... I really want to do for other kids and families what PYT did for me and my family.
I moved to NYC on the cusp of a changing climate-- race was being addressed more directly and openly, and these conversations seemed to be gaining momentum. I was still auditioning for South Pacific, Miss Saigon and The King and I. I would love to perform in any of them, but I wanted to also be considered for the other shows-- both traditional and contemporary works.
There's so much work to be done in terms of POC (people of color) being cast and represented onstage and actors telling more diverse stories, but it's happening and I'm proud to be continuing to push these conversations forward.
MB: I remember when you finally made the big move to NYC. We saw Vanities, hung out with Jim Caruso, all the normal stuff. Were auditions then your main focus? Any particularly interesting stories from the audition room?
EB: I was in a dance call for West Side Story and one actor kicked her shoe so hard that it flew into an opening in the ceiling and got stuck in there. Someone had to come in with a ladder to retrieve it. Always wear heels with a strap!
MB: In the meantime, you found time to get married, join Broadway Barkada and land a TV show! Let's talk about the show. How did that come about, and what has that experience been like? How has the children's TV experience helped you grow as a performer, and what have been the greatest challenges? The greatest joys?
EB: I host a morning preschool block of programming called "Sunny Side Up" on the Sprout network (NBCUniversal). I got the job by submitting a video through an audition sweepstakes, and this job has been one of the highlights of my life. We start the morning with preschoolers and their families and celebrate all the moments-- big or small of life at that age!
We write all of our own songs, sketches, celebrity cameos, games, and crafts. Coming from a musical theatre background, the hardest challenge for me was hosting and writing for this live children's TV show. Getting used to having an earpiece, working with puppeteers, creating a ton of original content on a short timeline, and performing it in a small multi-camera studio was a completely new thing for me. We literally walk into the office with blank Word documents and in a matter of days we have fully-realized segments with props, costumes, music arrangements, and graphics.
I'm particularly proud of our 2 Emmy nominations for "Outstanding Preschool Series" and our performances on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade every year. As a kid, there weren't a lot of times that I turned on the TV and saw a girl or woman who looked like me. Now I get to write my own stuff, and play myself-- not a stereotype of an Asian woman. I am really honored to share kindness, curiosity, and courage with the youngest generation.
MB: And now, finally, you make your Broadway debut in this fantastic show. How did the opportunity come about? What was the audition process like? And where were you when you finally got the call?
EB: It was so quick! I had the audition and the next day I got the call. It was the dreamiest way it could have happened! I was standing on the sidewalk near the subway station and sort of fell to my knees crying when my agent told me on the phone. Everyone around me rushed to see that I was okay and I shouted, "YES I AM SO GREAT THIS IS A GOOD CRY!"
MB: Has the 8-a-week schedule been a challenge? How do you stay healthy and energetic for that grind?
EB: I snack and eat constantly to keep my energy up and I work out a few times a week to make sure I feel energized and active. I've started doing short guided meditations on my phone and they are wonderful. I nap whenever I can.
MB: Is there a favorite moment for you in the show for your character?
EB: I love sitting onstage during Parents’ Night as Dewey has a heart-to-heart with us (the parents). It's a sweet moment where we start to see our kids in a new light.. and that continues at the Battle of the Bands when we let loose and accept our kids in a bigger way.
Offstage, I love all the traditions we have with the kids-- high fives, hugs, harmony sing alongs, dance moves. It gets us all pumped up for the show and keeps us connected as a cast.
MB: With diversity so much in today's conversation and an increasingly strong voice from underrepresented "ethnic actors," do you feel added pressure, or compelled to "represent" the community?
EB: I don't feel it as a "pressure" to represent the Asian American artist community, I just want to do it and I want to do it well. I am always so happy to hear when someone I know from the community is breaking down traditional barriers.. We're all trying to knock down the door and keep it open/make it easy for others who are coming in after us. I want to tell all kinds of stories-- whether or not race is central to the storyline. I find it refreshing when I'm playing a role where race is irrelevant to the plot.
MB: Do you have any idea what will come next?
EB: I have no idea what will come next, and that is scary but also awesome. I couldn't have seen this coming a few months ago, so I'm embracing all the open possibilities ahead!
MB: What is your DREAM ROLE in musical theatre (male or female) and why?
EB: I'd love to play Aaron Burr! And I'd also love to be a part of an original cast.
MB: For any young performers around the world, what is your single best piece of advice or inspiration?
EB: Surround yourself with people whose work you admire. Early is on time. Compare leads to despair. Prepare prepare prepare. Learn your music theory!
MB: Finally... tell me a really funny story about Nic Rouleau.
EB: Are you serious about this one? I have too many!
MB: I’m always serious. Wise answer on your part. Thanks, Emily. You are fantastic in the show and congrats!
Matt Blank is an arts journalist, educator, designer and lecturer. He most recently spent a decade on the editorial team for Playbill.com and as Editor-in-Chief of PlaybillArts.com, publishing over 7,000 articles and covering five Tony Award ceremonies. Follow him on Twitter @MattBlankPlease and Instagram @brdwymatt.