I am intensely passionate about attending live theatre, mainly because of its immense power. It makes reality melt away, drawing me within a into a world different than my own for a few hours, playing my emotional keys through sentimental ballads and show stopping soliloquies, and provoking thought and subsequent change. Due to the fact that I myself aspire to become a professional performer (especially a musical theatre performer), I swell with the admiration I feel towards the extraordinary people I see gracing the stage. I adore the fact that when I attend a Broadway musical, I am able to exit the theatre directly after the curtain call and approach the stage door in the hopes of meeting one of these exceptional performers.Read More
This past spring, OnStage Founder and Editor-in-Chief Chris Peterson informed me that I was one of the select few applicants out of approximately one hundred or so hopefuls that had been chosen to write for OnStage as a college intern in the summer of 2015. To say I was ecstatic and incredibly grateful is a complete and utter understatement, and my experience as an OnStage intern was incredible and invaluable. I am also extremely thankful that Chris has granted me the opportunity to continue writing for the site. It is amazing and surreal to combine my passion for both writing and theatre, and to be able to share my thoughts and opinions concerning various aspects of the theatrical world with the general public and theatre professionals.
As I posted articles each week and witnessed the widespread responses they received, a deep realization overcame me – the power of the written word to affect people and inspire change is boundless. I also became painstakingly aware that the online community is an audience through which the written word can spread (and be either endlessly praised or endlessly criticized) seemingly faster than the speed of light. This caused me great happiness and, at times, great frustration. My internship experience not only made me a better writer and analyst of theatre; it forced me to grow, and to develop a thicker skin.
When people criticize writers on the Internet, they sometimes forget that these writers who are reading the often-harsh comments posted on their computer screens are human beings with feelings. Honestly, with our society’s intense emphasis on communication that is effected in an impersonal manner by electronic means rather than in person, I can understand why this insensitivity occurs. Nevertheless, it doesn’t change the fact that, as a human being, I always remember the specific critical comments posted about my work and me much more clearly than any of the positive comments. It seems to be the nature of humanity to be able to recall negativity much more easily than positivity.
I have also come to realize that this is true of the impact made by the critical comments of arts journalists and critics as well; subjects of their remarks will always remember the negative comments more vividly than the positive ones. As a person that identifies herself as a performer as well as a writer, I understand this concept from both perspectives. Consequently, I have often struggled internally as a theatrical writer due to the fact that expressing my honest opinions (no matter how impersonal they are intended to be) about the shows I review could, at times, hurt the subjects of my reviews. As a person who creates art, mainly as a performer and as a writer, I understand that sort of hurt.
Furthermore, it is difficult to write critically and to perform simultaneously due to the fact that I could very well be expressing a negative opinion about the art made by a close friend or director I’ve worked with in the past or hope to work with in the future. It is never fun to be in a situation where expressing your honest opinion will hurt anyone and in addition, possibly negatively affect one’s own performing arts career. How do I go about maintaining my sense of truth and integrity as an arts journalist without hindering my career and my viability as a performer? How do I juggle my ambition to maintain legitimacy as a writer and theatre spectator and my desire to be an empathizer, a supporter of other performers and theatre friends, especially as a performer who understands the immense power that the critic wields?
My conclusion is that there is no easy answer to either question. First and foremost, as a person who constantly strives to create and thoughtfully engage with art both as a writer and as a performer, I have learned that no matter what I say or do, no matter how meticulous I am, I will face criticism. It is inevitable, and honestly, if every other person, artist or spectator, agreed with every one of my opinions or creative decisions, the world would be pretty damn boring. More importantly, my work would never be challenged whatsoever, and as a result, I would not be motivated to change for the better.
Secondly, as Spiderman’s Uncle Ben infamously said: “With great power comes great responsibility.” As an arts journalist that has been granted the opportunity to regularly post my work to a public, online forum, I have control over the critical commentary put forth with respect to the greater theatrical community, and realize that my words have the ability to affect readers in a multitude of ways. I have promised myself that I will always remember to exercise my words carefully and treat my subjects with dignity as long as I am involved in the field of arts journalism, for what I write will inevitably influence the feelings of my audience. I will do my best to be as truthful a writer as I can be, and will continue to consider the weight and impact (emotional and otherwise) of my words carefully before sending them out into the world. It is a balance that is exceedingly difficult to achieve; truly a juggling act. All I can do is continue to develop the skills I need to keep those beanbags up in the air.
There are so many more women who have paved their own distinctive paths on Broadway, and some of our OnStage readers have helped remind me of that! By doing so, these powerful women also (subsequently and simultaneously) became role models for aspiring actresses and women in general who felt that there was no one they could personally relate to or feel inspired by on Broadway. These revolutionary women forged ahead with their memorable voices in tow, setting an example for and influencing future generations’ pursuit of their own unique performance styles (just like the first five I wrote about did). So why stop at just five when there are so many more distinctive voices/leading ladies worth discussing?
Liza Minnelli is the daughter of two famous parents, the late, great Judy Garland and stage and film director Vincente Minnelli, who named her after an Ira Gershwin song (“Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)”). Minnelli has always been known for her signature belt and eccentric personality, and although her voice is now considerably more ragged-sounding than it once was, its flair and distinctiveness have remained intact over the years (and have played a crucial role in her career in show business). Minnelli has won an Academy Award, two Golden Globe Awards, two Tony Awards, a Special Tony Award, one Emmy Award, and one Grammy Legend Award, and in 2000, she was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame. She began performing professionally at seventeen years old in an off-Broadway revival of the musical Best Foot Forward (1963), was awarded the Theatre World Award for her performance, and the following year, was invited by her mother to perform with her at the London Palladium. Minnelli then starred in a production of The Diary of Anne Frank, which went to Israel on tour, and at nineteen years old, made her Broadway debut as the title character in Flora the Red Menace (1965, written by John Kander and Fred Ebb). She won the 1965 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, becoming the youngest woman ever to win said award. Minnelli worked as a nightclub performer and recording artist, recording pop standards and show tunes from musicals she’d performed in for albums such as Liza! Liza!, Liza Minnelli, and New Feelin’.
She collaborated with Pet Shop Boys on an electronic dance-style album called Results in 1989, which included singles Don’t Drop Bombs; So Sorry, I Said; Love Pains; and Losing My Mind. Minnelli performed Losing My Mind live at the Grammy Awards ceremony later that year, and later received a Grammy Legend Award. She has acted in films such as The Sterile Cuckoo (1969, earned Minnelli her first Academy Award nomination); Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon; New York, New York (1977, alongside Robert DeNiro, gave Minnelli her best-known signature song, aka the film’s title theme); and Arthur (1981, alongside Dudley Moore). She infamously portrayed Sally Bowles in the film version of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret (1972), her best-known film role to date, and her performance earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, a BAFTA Award, a Golden Globe Award, a “David di Donatello Award,” and a “Sant Jordi Award.” “Maybe This Time” (Cabaret) is also known as one of Minnelli’s signature songs. On television, Minnelli has appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Judy Garland Show, Arrested Development, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Saturday Night Live, and starred in a made-for-television secial entitled Liza with a ‘Z’: A Concert for Television. In 1997, she returned to Broadway, taking over the title role in Victor/Victoria. More recently, she has done more work as a recording artist and concert performer (despite having faced a serious case of viral encephalitis in 2000), performed on a live album entitled Liza’s Back in 2002 (which received rave reviews), and returned to Broadway from December 2008 to January 2009 in a solo concert called Liza’s at The Palace.
Elaine Stritch was known for her powerhouse voice and its extraordinary, brassy tone, and although she unfortunately passed away last year, is considered to be a Broadway legend. She made her stage debut in 1944, and her Broadway debut in 1946 in Loco. Soon afterwards, she performed in Made in Heaven and Angel in the Wings (a revue), and then served as Ethel Merman’s understudy for Call Me Madam (which she later starred in the national tour of) while appearing in the 1952 revival of Pal Joey. In 1961, Stritch starred in Noël Coward’s Sail Away; she had started out playing a minor role in the show, and the creative team decided to give her the lead when they started doubting the original lead’s dramatic talents and further observing Stritch’s talent. She played Ruth Sherwood in Wonderful Town in 1966, appeared in an off-Broadway revival of Private Lives in 1968, and was the original Joanne in Stephen Sondheim’s Company (1970) in both the Broadway and West End productions. “Ladies Who Lunch” from Company is considered to be her most signature song. Stritch has also appeared in various other musicals, including The King and I. She was nominated for four Tony Awards (for Bus Stop, Sail Away, Company, and A Delicate Balance), was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1995, and was awarded the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance in 2002 for Elaine Stritch at Liberty (her amazing one-woman show).
Stritch also notably appeared in the Broadway revival of A Little Night Music from July 2010 to January 2011 as Madame Armfeldt, and performed a cabaret act at NYC’s famed Café Carlyle in early 2010 and in fall 2011 (At Home at the Carlyle: Elaine Stritch Singin’ Sondheim…One Song at a Time). She appeared in films such as Three Violent People, A Farewell to Arms, Providence, September, and Who Killed Teddy Bear? For her work on television (30 Rock, An Inconvenient Woman, Law & Order), Stritch was nominated for eight Emmy Awards, and won three (for Law & Order, 30 Rock, and for the television broadcast of Elaine Stritch at Libarty). She once said concerning performing: “You cannot tell an audience a lie. They know it before you do; before it’s out of your mouth, they know it’s a lie.”
Last but certainly not least, Lea Salonga, known for her impressive vocal control, clear, sweet, and pure vocal tone, and powerful soprano range, is also known as the first Filipina artist ever to sign to an international record label (Atlantic Records, 1993) and the first Philippine-based artist ever to have received a major U.S. album release/distribution deal. Not only is she one of the best-selling Filipina artists of all time; she is an incredibly versatile and globally renowned performer. A prodigy of singing and performing, she made her professional stage debut at seven years old in The King and I (1978, Repertory Philippines) before performing in various other productions and as part of several television projects. Salonga received a Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences award nomination for Best Child Actress, and won three Alíw Awards (similar to the U.S. Grammy Awards) for Best Child Performer. In 1989, competitive auditions were held all over the globe for the lead role of Kim in the musical Miss Saigon. Salonga auditioned, and after competing with childhood friend Monique Wilson for the role during callbacks, Salonga won the role, and Wilson was named her understudy. She played the role of Kim both in the West End and Broadway productions, and won the Laurence Olivier, Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Theatre World Awards for her renowned portrayal of Kim. Salonga subsequently became a successful recording artist, (I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing, Lea…in Love, etc.) and concert performer (The Homecoming Concert, The Best of Manila, The Millennium Concert, Songs from the Screen, a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, etc.) and made appearances on television while sporadically returning to play the role of Kim in Miss Saigon in various professional productions.
Salonga is known as the first Asian actress ever to play the roles of Éponine and Fantine in Les Misérables on Broadway. She is also known as the singing voice of both Jasmine in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Fa Mulan in Disney’s Mulan (1998), and for her esteemed work with the Disney Company, Salonga was named a Disney Legend in 2011. In 2002, Salonga performed in a reinterpretation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song, and garnered critical acclaim and multiple award nominations for her performance (including Distinguished Performance from the Drama League). She has done extensive work on the stage (Grizabella in the Asia-Pacific tour of Cats, Catherine in Proof in Manila being among her notable credits), has performed in various acclaimed solo concerts all over the world (and received a standing ovation for her solo concert at Los Angeles’ Walk Disney Concert Hall in 2008), and has received the Order of Lakandula Award from Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (recognizing her excellence in the performing arts and use of her talents to benefit society), several Alíw Awards, and a Presidential Award of Merit from President Corazon Aquino (the 11th President of the Philippines). Additionally, the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences presented her with the Golden Artist Award at the 53rd FAMAS Awards to honor her immense international achievements and success in 2005.
There are so many more women who have paved their own distinctive paths on Broadway, and some of our OnStage readers have helped remind me of that! By doing so, these powerful women also (subsequently and simultaneously) became role models for aspiring actresses and women in general who felt that there was no one they could personally relate to or feel inspired by on Broadway. These revolutionary women forged ahead with their memorable voices in tow, setting an example for and influencing future generations’ pursuit of their own unique performance styles (just like the first five I wrote about did). So why stop at just five when there are so many more distinctive voices/leading ladies worth discussing?
Carol Burnett, now eighty-two years old, was met with disapproval from her mother when she decided to focus upon performing (she originally thought she would pursue writing/playwriting as a sole career focus) as a college student at UCLA. Supposedly, her mother said to her, “you can always write, no matter what you look like,” for she did not believe that her daughter was attractive enough by conventional standards to make it as a professional actress at the time. However, regardless of her mother’s opinion, Burnett made the decision to pursue a career in the performing arts. Her distinctive look and distinctive, heavy mezzo belt alike helped her become a distinguished and successful performer and comedian. Burnett performed at various cabarets and nightclubs all over New York City before landing her breakout role on Broadway; in 1959, she made her Broadway debut as Once Upon a Mattress’s original, singularly quirky Princess Winnifred, a role for which she received a Tony nomination. After a thirty-year hiatus from Broadway, she returned to portray Charlotte in the 1995 Broadway production of Moon Over Buffalo, and was nominated for a second Tony Award for her performance. She has appeared in thirteen Broadway productions, the most recent of which was Love Letters in 2014.
Burnett is also well known for her extensive work in the film world (Pete ‘n’ Tillie, Annie, Noises Off, The Secret World of Arrietty, etc.) and television (The Twilight Zone, All My Children, Desperate Housewives, The Lucy Show, Law & Order: SVU, etc.). She is best known as the star of The Carol Burnett Show (which ran for eleven years, 1967 to 1978), an infamous variety show that included singing, dancing, and comedy alike, and created many alternate personas on the show that are still spoken of today. Burnett has garnered numerous Golden Globe and Emmy Award nominations for her work, and has won six Emmys and two Golden Globes. She has earned many other prestigious awards and honors over the years (including the Kennedy Center Honors prize and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame), was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1985, and will receive the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in January of 2016.
When I was studying at AADA this summer, my Song Interpretation teacher, Christopher McGovern, constantly made it a point to emphasize the fact that “we are all mere mortals next to ‘the Big B;’ she is way up there, and the rest of us are down here. We all have to accept that. So please never sing a Barbra Streisand song at an audition…EVER.” Barbra Streisand is arguably one of the greatest, most unique entertainers of all time. Often referred to as “Queen of The Divas,” she is one of the very select few entertainers ever to have been honored with every single major industry prize: ten Grammy Awards (including the Grammy Legend Award and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award), two Academy Awards, four Peabody Awards, five Emmy Awards (including one Daytime Emmy), eleven Golden Globes, a Kennedy Center Honors prize, an American Film Institute Award, AND a Special Tony Award. Barbra is also known as one of the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold over 72.5 million albums in the United States alone and 245 million records worldwide (making her the best-selling female artist and the only female artist in the top ten). When Barbra went on a multi-city tour in the summer of 1994 (her first public concert appearances in twenty-seven years), tickets sold out in less than an hour; THAT’S how influential she is. Her concert tours, album and ticket sales alone are the stuff of legendary due to her unparalleled ability to evoke emotion through her unbelievable vocals and ability to lose herself in a song. Streisand is a mezzo-soprano known for her ability to sustain high notes and vibrato and belt with great intensity and control; her voice has actually been described as “semi-operatic” as a result (even though she is predominantly a pop and musical theatre singer). When she was young, people urged her to get a nose job in order to make it in show business, but she chose not to comply, and it’s a good thing, too; Streisand’s signature, immediately recognizable, nasally yet smooth vocal tone (which nowadays possesses a slight huskiness) might not have existed if she had, and her career would not have been the same without it.
Although it seemed as if the odds were against her due to her unconventional look and disapproving mother, Barbra was determined to become a star. She started out as a recording artist and cabaret/nightclub singer, gradually making her way onto the New York stage (Another Evening with Harry Stoones was her debut) and national television (The Tonight Show, Ed Sullivan Show, etc.), and her first album, The Barbra Streisand Album (1963), made the top ten on the Billboard chart, won three Grammy Awards, and made her the best-selling female vocalist in the country at the time. In 1964, Barbra portrayed Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, and her esteemed, legendary performance made her a star overnight; she was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, and even appeared on the cover of Time magazine (all at twenty-one years old). She repeated her role in London’s West End in 1966, appeared in her first four solo television specials from 1965 to 1967, and received an honorary “Star of the Decade” Tony Award in 1970. Barbra’s renditions of the show’s musical numbers, particularly of “Don’t Rain On My Parade” and “People,” have become timeless, infamous, and signature songs of Barbra’s. Other signature songs include “Happy Days Are Here Again” (duet with Judy Garland), “The Way We Were,” and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (duet with Neil Diamond). Barbra’s film career began when she repeated her most famous role, Fanny Brice, in the successful 1968 film adaptation of Funny Girl (directed by William Wyler). She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the role that year, and shared the award with Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter). Other films include The Way We Were, Hello, Dolly!, The Owl and the Pussycat, A Star Is Born (Academy Award for composing music for “Evergreen,” making her the first woman to be honored as a composer), Meet the Fockers, Little Fockers, and Yentl, the latter making her the first woman ever to write, producer, direct, and star in a major studio film. Yentl won Oscars for Best Motion Picture Musical and Best Score, and Streisand won the Golden Globe Award for Best Director, which made her the first and only woman to date ever to win that award.
Judy Garland (born Frances Ethel Gumm) was an extremely versatile entertainer and middleweight contralto whose vocals possessed one of the most signature sounds in show business. Her lower range was especially velvety, rich, and dark, made it nearly impossible not to recognize her voice, and certainly helped shape the course of her entire career. Sadly, she struggled her entire life to overcome difficult personal obstacles, which many argue stemmed from film executives’ relentless criticism of her appearance in addition to financial instability and issues in her personal life. Garland died in 1969 at a young age from a barbiturate overdose; she was constantly given amphetamines to stay awake and barbiturates to help her sleep as a young entertainer in order to keep up with her rushed filming schedule, and this led to Garland’s lifelong addiction issues. Regardless, Garland was (and still is) considered one of the greatest cinematic stars and singers who ever lived.
In fact, in 1997, she was posthumously presented with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 1999, the American Film Institute ranked her among the ten greatest female stars in the history of American cinema. Garland started out as a vaudeville star, part of a trio with her two sisters called “The Gumm Sisters” (later “The Garland Sisters,” and Frances Ethel Gumm changed her name to “Judy Garland”), and as a teenager (thirteen years old), was signed to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios as a solo artist. MGM created a sort of “girl-next-door” image for Garland (which, although it would change later on, haunted her throughout her life), and paired her with Mickey Rooney in a string of “backyard musicals” for a while, which included Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, Love Finds Andy Hardy, and Babes in Arms. Garland was cast as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (1939, based on L. Frank Baum’s children’s book), a role which she is infamous for, and her rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (which she sang in the film) would become her most famous and signature song. Other films include Strike Up the Band, Little Nellie Kelly, Andy Hardy Meets Debutante, For Me and My Gal, Presenting Lily Mars, The Clock (1945, her first straight dramatic film), and The Harvey Girls (in which she introduced an Academy Award-winning song, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe”). Garland’s infamous portrayal of Esther in the 1944 movie musical Meet Me in St. Louis introduced three more of her signature songs (“The Boy Next Door,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “The Trolley Song”), and was one of her most successful films for MGM. Other signature songs include “Get Happy” and “The Man That Got Away.” She also costarred with Fred Astaire in Easter Parade (1948), which was also immensely successful, and with Gene Kelly in Summer Stock (1949). Garland parted from MGM in 1950, but embarked on a four-month, sold-out, successful comeback concert tour across Ireland and Britain in 1951. She also performed in a one-woman show for a four-week limited engagement at the London Palladium and at the Palace Theatre (NYC) in 1951, which received rave reviews, what went down as the loudest ovations in history, exceeded theatre records, and was considered Garland’s “rebirth.” She was nominated for an Academy Award for her starring role in the musical remake of the film A Star is Born (1954) for Warner Bros., but lost to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl (although most people had expected her to and believed she deserved to win). Garland later starred in multiple other films, performed at Carnegie Hall (considered by many to be “the greatest night in the history of show business”, and the two-record Judy at Carnegie Hall won four Grammy Awards and was certified gold), and her weekly television series, The Judy Garland Show, was nominated for four Emmy Awards. She also garnered a Juvenile Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and a Special Tony Award during her lifetime.
On July 31st, I had the immense pleasure of attending an evening performance of Hand to God on Broadway. The play centers around a character named Jason’s time at the Christian Puppet Ministry in the extremely religious town of Cypress, Texas. The hand puppet he has made in class, Tyrone, takes on a hilarious yet terrifying personality of its own and takes over Jason’s life and psyche completely; Jason is seemingly powerless to stop “him.” I found Hand to God to be fascinating, thought provoking, AND sidesplitting hilarious all at the same time.
Although The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q have similar comedic styles to that of Hand to God, Hand to God manages to differentiate itself in its own right, and in my opinion, its five-person cast is flawless. Steven Boyer’s performance as Jason/Tyrone is masterful and triumphant, and the four other cast members (Geneva Carr as Margery, Sarah Stiles as Jessica, Marc Kudisch as Pastor Greg, and Michael Oberholtzer as Timothy) each brought something wonderful and clever to the table. However, even though Hand to God is an amazing show, possesses an amazing cast, and also happens to have been nominated for five 2015 Tony Awards (including Best Play), there had been multiple empty seats in the house that night.
Upon noticing this, I was astonished.
After curtain call, I was incredibly excited to hopefully have the chance to meet Hand to God’s phenomenal actors and get their autographs at the stage door. My boyfriend and I ran to the stage door and awaited their arrival, but we were shocked when we noticed that only ten other audience members besides ourselves had decided to stick around and seek out the Hand to God actors.
Meanwhile, around the corner, dozens upon dozens of people were waiting outside to catch a glimpse of Taye Diggs exiting Hedwig and the Angry Inch, many of whom, I bet, had not seen the show that night.
Yes, Taye Diggs is an exceptionally talented man, but the Hand to God cast is also exceptionally talented…and yet almost no one had chosen to stay and shower them with the acclaim they so deserve. The unimpressive audience turnout at Hand to God that night and meager presence of audience members at the Hand to God stage door, which contrasted starkly against the huge audience turnout and presence at the Hedwig and the Angry Inch stage door, come down to one crucial difference: although both shows are terrific, Taye Diggs is a celebrity, a big name star, and the Hand to God cast members are not.
To be totally honest, I am not quite sure how I feel about the fact that big names have been taking over Broadway in recent years. On one hand, I can understand why this has been happening. Nowadays, theatre is far from a dominant art form in our society due to the fact that movies and television have astronomically increased in popularity, and as a result, ticket sales have been down; without those ticket sales, Broadway cannot function. Period. With A-list film and television stars headlining Broadway shows, demographics that would never normally buy Broadway tickets buy said tickets in order to have a chance to see their favorite stars of the big and little screens in person. As a result, ticket sales increase dramatically, which helps Broadway dramatically. Also, I must admit, it IS pretty cool to have the opportunity to see talented celebrities such as Emma Stone (an otherwise seemingly “untouchable” A-lister), for instance, performing in Cabaret right before our very eyes.
However, on the other hand, I often feel that having big names take over the Broadway stage is unfair and almost degrading for those who aspire to have successful, Broadway-oriented careers. Many of the Broadway’s brightest stars, “big names” in the eyes of a small community, have worked their fingers to the bone for years in order to earn their share of the Broadway spotlight. It sometimes seems as if A-listers feel as if they can waltz in whenever they wish, whenever they feel like being in a Broadway show, and steal that spotlight away from those who have spent their entire lives taking acting/singing/dancing lessons, spending thousands of dollars and countless hours on improving themselves, waiting for the right opportunity and the right role to come along. (Additionally, these A-listers, although this is not always the case, aren’t always skilled enough, prepared enough, or right enough for the Broadway roles they are granted.) It annoys and frustrates me that film and television celebrities have the power to effortlessly conquer a domain that is not theirs.
It also makes me feel hopeless and, frankly, a little terrified, about the field I wish to pursue. What if I spend my life working towards achieving my Broadway dreams, only to have them stolen from me by someone whose agent made a five-minute phone call to earn them my role?
When I went to see the recent Broadway revival of Cabaret (starring Emma Stone and Alan Cumming) this past January, I was incredibly disappointed in the theatergoing public that night. I walked into the theatre lobby with my ticket, and prior to the start of the show, the ushers announced that Emma Stone would not be going on as Sally Bowles that night; an understudy would be going on instead. They also said that anyone who wanted to opt out of seeing the show that night, return their tickets, and get a refund as a result could line up on the left side of the lobby. For me, staying to see the show regardless was a no-brainer.
Understudies are some of the hardest working people on Broadway, I have a huge amount of respect for them, and I knew that the person playing Sally that night would be wonderful. (She was.) I also was excited beyond belief to see Alan Cumming’s infamous portrayal of the Emcee. (He was outstanding.) However, roughly half of that night’s planned audience of Cabaret lined up for refunds, and I was truly astounded by their lack of respect for the rest of Cabaret’s cast, creative team, and for the theatrical world in general. I also felt sorry for them after the show had ended; they missed out on a spectacular night of live theatre simply because they did not feel like sticking around to see someone other than Emma Stone perform the leading role.
Additionally, when the show ended, my boyfriend and I saw a man carrying around a stack of at least twenty Playbills, mistook him for an usher, and we asked him if we could each have one (Playbills were being handed out after the show had ended in order to preserve Cabaret’s shock value). The man was not an usher, but rather happened to be the father of the understudy I had seen playing Sally Bowles that night, and was collecting Playbills from that specific performance for their entire family to keep. He excitedly told us that she had been striving to play a leading role on Broadway for the longest time, and that this was the first time she had ever gone on as Sally. My heart melted, and we told him that he should be proud, for she had done a fantastic job. It is so unfortunate that half of that night’s anticipated audience had deemed her performance unworthy of their time without having born witness to it.
At the stage door immediately after Hand to God had ended, when I asked Michael Oberholtzer (aka Timmy) for his autograph, he said to me jokingly: “You want my autograph? Okay, but it ain’t worth nothin’.” But the thing is, as an aspiring stage actress, it IS worth something to me.
It commemorates the occasion during which I had the privilege of meeting people who, although they might not possess names that draw in gigantic crowds, are unbelievably good at what they do, at what I hope to have the chance to do professionally and half as well as they do someday. It commemorates the occasion during which I was able to meet extraordinary actors regardless of whether or not they have achieved celebrity status yet, actors like the ones in the cast of Hand to God (a show which, if you can, you should without a doubt purchase tickets to see). For me, that is what Broadway is all about: the talent, the professionalism, and above all, the artistic integrity, all three of which contribute to the true meaning of theatre. It is a place where the people who are the masters of my craft, the people I idolize, are able to dominate and shine; it feels like home for me, and it IS home for them.
Hopefully, when visiting stars with big names enter our sanctuary, they will remember to step inside gently and share the Broadway spotlight rather than shoving Broadway’s full-time inhabitants aside in order to bask in it themselves. As long as they (and the fans who have followed these newcomers to Broadway) respect the craft and the community that was well established before their arrival, I am sure that both Broadway performers and devotees (such as myself) will make some room and welcome them. After all, nothing is more strongly associated with community than theatre.
What do you think of the recent “big names on Broadway” phenomenon? Please feel free to share your opinion below
Recently, I posted an article about five Broadway leading ladies whom I believe to possess some of the most distinctive voices in the musical theatre world. I believe that these extraordinary women (Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Idina Menzel, Lena Hall, and Kristin Chenoweth) have used their groundbreaking voices and singular styles to redefine women’s role within the musical theatre world and the musical theatre world in general. However, there are so many more women who have paved their own distinctive paths on Broadway, and some of our OnStage readers have helped remind me of that! By doing so, these powerful women also (subsequently and simultaneously) became role models for aspiring actresses and women in general who felt that there was no one they could personally relate to or feel inspired by on Broadway. These revolutionary women forged ahead with their memorable voices in tow, setting an example for and influencing future generations’ pursuit of their own unique performance styles (just like the first five I wrote about did). So why stop at just five when there are so many more distinctive voices/leading ladies worth discussing?
Here are five more of my picks (in no particular order):
Bernadette Peters, one of Broadway’s most applauded and deemed legendary performers (both by critics and the public), has maintained a career in show business that has lasted five decades thus far (and began when she was a mere ten years old). She has starred in musical theatre, films, on television, in concerts, and on recordings/albums (four of which have won Grammy Awards). In her career, Peters has received multiple awards and award nominations, and among them, she has received nominations for SEVEN Tony Awards, winning two plus an honorary Tony, and has been nominated for nine Drama Desk Awards, winning three. According to writer Alex Witchel (and the rest of the musical theatre world), Peters is “the premier interpreter” of the work of the famous Stephen Sondheim: she created the role of Dot/Marie in Sunday in the Park with George (1984) and the role of the Witch in Into the Woods (1987), appeared in a 1995 concert version of Anyone Can Whistle as Fay Apple, portrayed Mama Rose in the 2003 Broadway revival of Gypsy, participated in a reading of Bounce in 2006, starred in the Broadway revival of A Little Night Music in 2011 as Desiree Armfeldt, portrayed Sally Durant Plummer in Follies in 2011, and starred in A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair (the Sondheim and Wynton Marsalis staged concert revue) in 2013, all with flying colors. She also performed for Sondheim in his 1993 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony. Sondheim himself said, “Like very few others, she [Peters] sings and acts at the same time. Most performers act and then sing, act and then sing…Bernadette is flawless as far as I’m concerned. I can’t think of anything negative.” Peters is known for surprising people; she is small in stature, but is known for her powerhouse voice and acting, signature alto/mezzo belt, and also her possession of some gorgeous soprano notes (which she has surprised people with over the years).
Although she has portrayed a few roles that were originated by Ethel Merman, she has managed to use her singularity to radically deviate from Merman’s style and become an originator in her own right. Her renditions of “Broadway Baby” and “Send in the Clowns,” among many of her other song interpretations, have become the stuff of Broadway legend. In 2012, New Dramatists presented Peters with their Lifetime Achievement Award, and said this (which I believe to be a fitting ending to my extensive Bernadette Peters rant): “She has brought a new sound into the theatre and continues to do so, in surprising and miraculous ways. By some sleight of magic, her singularity always manages to bring out the best and richest in the work of her composers and writers.”
Patti LuPone is a two-time Tony Award winner (having been nominated for six), two-time Grammy Award winner, 1985 Laurence Olivier Award winner, 2006 American Theater Hall of Fame inductee, Drama Desk, Drama League, and Outer Critics Circle Award winner, Royal Shakespeare Company performer, and one of the most versatile, forceful, and fiery divas ever to grace the world of show business. (We also know her as one of the most vocal enemies of electronic distractions in live theatre.) After beginning her career in 1972 as a member of The Acting Company (founded by John Houseman and Margot Harley), LuPone made her Broadway debut in 1973 in Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. She won the 1985 Olivier Award for her work in both the original London cast of Les Misérables as Fantine and in Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock as Moll. LuPone portrayed Eva Perón (which is a very challenging role emotionally and especially vocally) in the original 1979 Broadway production of Evita, which earned her the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical; her performance elevated her to stardom/legendary status (although she claims that her experience in Evita was the worst experience of her life).
Her other notable, praised stage performances include her Tony Award winning portrayal of Mama Rose in the 2007 revival of Gypsy, her Tony nominated portrayal of Lucia in the 2010 original production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, her Tony nominated portrayal of Mrs. Lovett in the 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (in which she also played the tuba), her Tony nominated portrayal of Reno Sweeney in the 1987 revival of Anything Goes, and her Olivier nominated portrayal of Norma Desmond in the original 1993 London production of Sunset Boulevard. LuPone starred in the 2007 Los Angeles Opera production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny alongside Audra McDonald (and won the Best Classical Album and Best Opera Recording Grammy Awards in 2008 for it), and, on the other side of the spectrum, has received Emmy Award nominations for her work on television. She is also known for her perfectionism, “naturalistic fire” (The New York Times, 1997), her signature rendition of “Meadowlark” (The Baker’s Wife), and her rich, commanding mezzo voice, which assists LuPone in captivating audiences however and whenever she wishes.
The multitalented star of stage, screen, and television in both England and the U.S. by the name of Dame Julie Andrews (made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000 for her services to the performing arts) used to possess a legendary four-octave vocal range (an incredibly rare, tremendous feat). Andrews was a coloratura soprano known for her gorgeous, sweet, elegant and pure tone, and also boasted perfect pitch; as a child, she was dubbed “Britain’s Youngest Prima Donna,” and a throat specialist even told her that she already possessed a near adult larynx. She was actually encouraged to pursue opera, but felt that her light vocal tone was much more suited to musical theatre. Andrews appeared on the West End in 1948 (at age thirteen), and in 1948, became the youngest solo performer ever to be seen in a Royal Command Variety Performance at the London Palladium (performing for members of King George VI’s family). In 1954, Andrews made her U.S. Broadway debut in The Boy Friend as Polly Browne, and was the highlight of the show. In fact, she was asked to audition for My Fair Lady on Broadway near the end of her run in The Boy Friend, and landed the role of Eliza Doolittle (which would earn her a Tony nomination).
She was then featured in the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1957 television musical, Cinderella, due to the fact that Richard Rodgers was so impressed by her. Unfortunately, ever since she underwent surgery to remove non-cancerous nodules from her throat in 1997, her range and ability to sustain notes have been limited, but that hasn’t stopped her from performing; her distinctive performance style stems from her voice, but also stems from her specific, poised acting. She has won an Academy Award for her famous portrayal of Mary Poppins in Disney’s 1964 feature film, Mary Poppins. Additionally, throughout her career, she has garnered two Emmys, the Kennedy Center Honors, the Disney legend honor, a BAFTA, three Grammys, and five Golden Globes. Andrews is also famous for her starring roles in the 1963 production of Camelot on Broadway as the original Queen Guenevere (which earned her another Tony Award nomination) and in the 1965 movie musical The Sound of Music as the imaginative Maria (which earned her the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Musical and also happened to inspire numerous Internet memes).
Carol Channing’s voice isn’t a beautiful one by usual standards, but ironically, its lack of supposed “beauty” is where its beauty lies. Its individuality, rasp and almost gravelly quality have truly distinguished her as one of the most distinct musical theatre stars in history and have helped mold her extensive stage, television, and screen career. Channing is now ninety-four years old, and has a career that has been active SINCE 1941! She gained her first job on a New York stage in 1941, but didn’t gain stardom until she was cast in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as Lorelei Lee in 1949 (and made “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” famous). Ironically, she later received her fourth Tony Award nomination for her starring role in the 1974 musical Lorelei, which was a re-imagination of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
In 1956, Carol Channing was nominated for her first Tony Award for her portrayal of Flora Weems in Vamp. She was nominated for four Tony Awards in total and won two; the other Best Actress Tony Award that she received was for her legendary portrayal of Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly! in 1964 (a portrayal which still lives in infamy today, along with her rendition of the title song). She has sung in many cabarets and concerts, has appeared on many variety shows on television, and has also appeared in many films, including the 1967 American musical film Thoroughly Modern Millie as Muzzy Van Hossmere (which earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress). (Channing appeared in Thoroughly Modern Millie alongside Julie Andrews). Channing won a Special Tony Award in 1968, was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981, and received a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award in 1995.
Where do I even begin when it comes to Audra? First of all, she is probably one of the most versatile performers ever to walk the earth. For her brilliant, famous contributions to the theatre, she has won a record SIX TONY AWARDS, and is the only person in theatre HISTORY to have won Tonys in all four acting categories: Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel, 1994, and Sarah in Ragtime, 1998), Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play (Sharon in Master Class, 1996, and Ruth in A Raisin in the Sun, 2004), Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Bess in Porgy and Bess, 2012), and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play (Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, 2014). For her extensive, groundbreaking work on the stage, on television, and in the music and film worlds, Audra has also garnered multiple (*inhales deeply*) Drama Desk, Theatre World, Outer Critics Circle, Ovation, Drama League, and NAACP Image Awards, as well as the Sarah Siddons Society Award (2013), the Emmis Communications/Hot-97 “KISS-FM” Phenomenal Woman Award (2005), a Grammy Award (Best Opera Recording), and has been nominated for two Emmy Awards. (Please do not try to say all of that in one breath like I did.) Notably, in May of 2000, McDonald portrayed The Beggar Woman in a concert version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street that took place at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center (alongside George Hearn as Sweeney and Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett). In addition to her theatrical work, she is known for her starring role on ABC’s Private Practice (as Dr. Naomi Bennett), and has recorded multiple solo albums. It is rare for a performer to be so phenomenal at what they do that they somehow manage to revolutionize and simultaneously earn both critical and commercial acclaim for nearly every project/role they get their hands on.
Audra McDonald is one of the few performers in the world that has managed to achieve this feat, and is, in my opinion, one of the greatest gifts ever bestowed upon the performing arts in general. She studied classical voice under Ellen Faull at the Juilliard School, and still maintains ties with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the New York Philharmonic in addition to singing solo at various renowned concert halls throughout the country (including Carnegie Hall). McDonald’s incredibly broad vocal range has helped her incredibly versatile career to take shape, and is known for her ability to sing low, smooth jazz just as well as she can hit a high C, emit a beautiful, classical soprano tone, and sustain a jaw-dropping vibrato.
I’d love to continue to hear readers’ feedback, so feel free to comment with any thoughts/opinions!
I find it amazing that for many years, women were banned from performing on the stage altogether and now, women drive musical theatre culture; theatrical auditions for women are, more often than not, extremely competitive. Within the world of professional musical theatre, the most noteworthy women are powerhouses who have completely revolutionized and redefined the field, and are role models for every woman (and some men, I’m sure) who decides to pursue a career in musical theatre in the hopes that they will have the opportunity to do the same.
As both a theatre lover/performer and woman who is part of a culture that has oppressed women in numerous ways over the years, I am continually in awe of and inspired by Broadway’s legendary leading ladies. Their monumental, emotionally charged performances and soaring voices make me cry and leap to my feet, and their complete domination of the craft triggers my passion; it motivates me to be the best performer I can possibly be. They make me feel as if the world is my oyster.
I believe that attempting to name the supposed “best” Broadway actresses within the realm of musical theatre is, in a way, pointless. In my opinion, every actress who has made an infamous name for herself on Broadway stands out in a unique way and for unique reasons. How could we possibly compare women who not only have found their own Broadway niches, but also have created said niches for themselves? So instead, I have decided to discuss some of the actresses whom I believe possess the most distinctive voices within the musical theatre world. Their exceptional voices move us on stage, are individualized, and also reflect the personal styles of the actresses they belong to. Whenever I hear any of them on cast recordings, Youtube, the radio, etc., I immediately know who is singing, and feel the specific emotions I associate with their performances all over again. Below is a list of five extraordinary Broadway actresses whose voices possess these qualities and are, in my eyes, some of the most distinctive I have ever heard (in no particular order).
5.) ETHEL MERMAN: “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (written for Annie Get Your Gun), “Anything Goes” (Anything Goes), “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (Gypsy), and “Rose’s Turn” (Gypsy) are just a few of the show tunes that this woman lent her voice to and made famous. The late great Ethel Merman, a huge part of the foundation upon which modern theatre has been built, originated the roles of Annie Oakley, Reno Sweeney, Mama Rose, and many more. She was a mezzo soprano known for her signature belt, has been called “the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage,” and many would argue that, although she was an incredible actress as well, her singular voice shaped the course of her entire career. In addition to a Drama Desk Award (Hello, Dolly!) and a Golden Globe, she won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical in 1951 (Call Me Madam), and was presented with a Special Tony Award in 1972 (although I believe she deserved more for all she accomplished). In a review of George and Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy (1930), The New Yorker said that Merman was “imitative of no one,” and I think most musical theatre fanatics would agree.
4.) ANGELA LANSBURY: Angela Lansbury, amazing star of stage and screen, is currently eighty-nine years old. After seven decades, her career in show business is still intact, which is a phenomenal feat in and of itself. Within the realm of musical theatre, Lansbury originated and made famous the role of Mame Dennis in Jerry Herman’s Mame (1966) and the groundbreaking role of Nellie Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979, directed by Hal Prince). She also notably portrayed Mama Rose in Gypsy in 1973. Lansbury has been nominated for and won countless awards, including (but not limited to) five Tony Awards (WOW), an Olivier Award, six Golden Globes, and an Honorary Oscar. She is an immensely successful and acclaimed actress who has transformed theatre and transfixed all who have born witness to her, and also has an unmistakable voice. Even those who are unfamiliar with Angela Lansbury’s numerous accomplishments as a film, television, and stage actress would recognize her voice if they heard it. She even lent her voice to the role of Mrs. Potts (the teapot) in Disney’s 1991 animated film, Beauty and the Beast, and due to its distinctive quality, her performance was a standout.
3.) IDINA MENZEL: I have idolized Idina Menzel for most of my life, and when I met her in 2012 after her concert at the Mann Center in Philadelphia, I was tongue-tied. Idina originated and made famous the role of Maureen Johnson in Jonathan Larson’s RENT, the role of Elphaba in Stephen Schwartz/Winnie Holzman’s Wicked (and won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for the latter), and the role of Elizabeth in Brian Yorkey’s If/Then. She typically plays strong, independent women, which is one of the many reasons I adore and idolize her. Menzel boasts many notable theatre credits, which include her portrayal of Kate in The Wild Party (2000), Amneris in Aida (2001), and Florence Vassy in Chess in Concert (2008). Idina is known for her wide vocal range (and her voice type is often debated because it is so versatile), impressive, signature belt, and distinct sound. She has also done sporadic work on television and in the film world, and when she lent her distinctive voice to the role of Elsa in Disney’s Frozen (2013), her character’s anthem, “Let It Go,” became a worldwide sensation and staple of popular culture. Menzel has performed for many distinguished audiences (including President Obama and the First Family), and has embarked on multiple concert tours; she actually just kicked off a World Tour earlier this year. Fun fact: she loves to sing barefoot during her concerts, and believes heels hinder both her comfort level and her voice.
2.) LENA HALL: After seeing her in Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch this past January, I became obsessed with Lena Hall. Her nuanced yet brilliant performance and impeccable vocals completely captivated me, and I later proceeded to watch every Youtube video of her that I could find. (Also, she looks incredible whether she’s dressed as a man or as a woman, but that’s beside the point.) Lena Hall is a phenomenal vocalist who makes every single song (no matter the style) she performs completely her own; no matter what, she stays true to who she is as an artist, and I have an immense amount of respect for that. She is both a rock singer and an incredible musical theatre performer, and I can honestly say that I have NEVER heard a voice like hers within the world of musical theatre before. Her voice is rocky, soulful, and boundlessly powerful, and I believe that it (she) breaks the mold of what musical theatre audiences have come to expect from Broadway’s leading ladies. Hall made her Broadway debut in 2000 (Cats as Demeter) and gained various other professional theatre credits before originating the role of Nicola in the original Broadway cast of Kinky Boots (2012). However, her voice is so distinctive that it took fourteen years for the right role to come along (Yitzhak in Hedwig) and allow it, and her, to truly shine on a Broadway stage. Look out, world, because I’m telling you: Lena Hall is a truly special performer.
1.) KRISTIN CHENOWETH: The bubbly, hilarious, mega talented Kristin Chenoweth has shaped a rather successful career for herself in film, in television, and on the stage. She is a classically trained coloratura soprano who is capable of nailing notes that most people can only dream of hitting, and is also capable of producing a mean belt and a flawless, distinctive vibrato. However, both her speaking and singing voice ironically possess a certain nasality that is often frowned upon by classically trained singers, but this nasality has actually proven itself to be a valuable asset to Chenoweth. Part of Kristin’s infamous, trademark persona is calling upon said nasality during performances in order to enhance their comedic nature; this persona, combined with her unparalleled vocal control and versatility, has made her a much beloved star. She won the 1999 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Sally Brown in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown on Broadway, as well as Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards. Chenoweth was nominated for the 2004 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical (as well as various other awards) for her performance as Glinda in Wicked, but lost the award to costar Idina Menzel. Chenoweth most recently starred in the 2015 Broadway revival of On the Twentieth Century as Lily Garland, and was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance (as well as Drama League, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama Desk Awards; she won the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk).
Which other Broadway leading ladies do you believe possess the most distinctive voices? Which leading men? Please comment; I’d love to read your thoughts concerning others who are worth discussing
As we all know, when mounting a theatrical production, a creative team, production team, and cast come together to bring a vision to life. Each of these groups of people is essential to the process of successfully animating that vision, and must contain well-qualified, efficient, professional team members who complete the various tasks associated with said roles. For most of my life, I have served as a performer within various theatrical productions, and up until last year, within the realm of the theatrical world, I did not identify as anything but a cast member. Over the years, I had gained an extensive amount of knowledge and experience as an actress, singer, and dancer, but I had always wanted to expand my horizons by gaining a wider range of theatrical experience outside of my comfort zone. So, in January of 2014, I applied to direct a musical, the dark comedy and cult classic known as Little Shop of Horrors, for Greasepaint Productions, Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges’ completely student-run musical theatre organization. I was excited by the prospect of bringing my creative vision to life, worked diligently on my application, and ended up being approved to be the director of Greasepaint’s Little Shop of Horrors for the spring 2014 semester.
My directorial debut was an experience that, although amazing in many ways, at times, frustrated me beyond belief. There were times during which I felt incredibly claustrophobic, there were times during which I wanted to pull all of my hair out, there were times during which I completely resented everything, and there were times during which I completely doubted myself. Hell week took on an entirely new meaning for me, and I was honestly surprised that I emerged relatively unscathed on opening night. However, my directorial debut also taught me a great deal, particularly concerning theatrical authorship. I naively began the process of directing Little Shop of Horrors believing that the show would be one cohesive vision that belonged completely to me and that I was the clear author of the show. However, the final product ended up being very different than I’d expected it to be. I was the helm of a ship rather than the entire journey that I had attempted to pre-plan, and I learned that when it comes to theatrical authorship, collaboration is key.
I began to learn about the importance of creative collaboration in the theatrical world right away, during the Little Shop of Horrors audition process. When mounting a production at a small college, it is always difficult to predict how many people will actually come to audition for said production, and therefore it’s impossible to know if the people who do actually come and audition will fit the qualifications for the characters that make up the show. At Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, this challenge is multiplied by the fact that many more women than men are always in our talent pool due to the fact that Bryn Mawr is a women’s college and Haverford is a coed college. There are four characters in Little Shop of Horrors that are traditionally male and played by men: Seymour Krelborn (the protagonist), Audrey II (the man-eating plant), Mushnik (Seymour’s employer and the owner of Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists), and Orin Scrivello (a sadistic dentist who is dating Seymour’s love interest, Audrey). In my original vision for Little Shop of Horrors, I had planned on casting each of these characters as men (as done on Broadway and for most productions of Little Shop of Horrors). However, only three men auditioned for my show, and I now had a bit of a predicament; only three of the four male characters could actually be cast as male, and I had no other choice in the matter. I was forced to rethink things, for the audition talent pool was out of my control and I therefore had to tinker with my original vision of the show. Since an abundance of female talent had showed up at auditions (around twenty women), I decided that I would cast either Mushnik or Audrey II as a woman (since gender is not a crucial part of either of those characters’ identities), but I wasn’t sure which yet.
The day of callbacks arrived, and I had many important decisions to make. I had people sing and read for each character, and when it came to the male characters, I knew whom I wanted to cast as Seymour and whom I wanted to cast as Orin right away. I then heard a few women and one man sing and read for Audrey II, and loved the way that the man played and sang for the character. So, I decided to cast him as Audrey II knowing I would now need to cast Mushnik as a woman. I was worried about finding an actress who would be able to handle the role, and my worry intensified after I heard various actresses sing and read for the role and wasn’t taken with any of their interpretations of Mushnik. When a few members of my production team and I were discussing who to cast as Mushnik, however, a couple of them brought one woman who had impressed us at auditions that we had no idea what to do with to my attention. She had been called back for Audrey and for the Doo-Wop Girls, and we all believed her to be a skilled singer and actress, but did not think she was right for any of the roles she had been called back for. Thus, after discussing the matter further, we decided to take a chance, cast her as Mushnik, and make Mushnik a female character even though we hadn’t seen her in the role yet. My original vision of Mushnik had already completely been scrapped from the show; the rehearsal process hadn’t even begun yet and the overall vision of the show had already started to change from “mine” to “ours.”
Throughout the rehearsal process, I would listen to different actors’ opinions on their characters and how they believed their characters should act during each particular scene, and started incorporating actors’ ideas into the show. I also started to work with Abby (the woman I cast as Mushnik) on creating Mushnik as a female character. Mushnik is a strong comedic role, and I intended for the character to be exaggerated and over the top, high in energy, high strung, unsympathetic, and to have a strong Yiddish accent. However, the way Abby played the character was entirely different from what I had originally intended Mushnik to be. Abby played Mushnik as sarcastic, cynical, bitter, and frustrated yet sometimes strangely compassionate, and she did not put on an accent. I began noticing some great acting decisions Abby was making and realized that, although I honestly hadn’t been fond of her interpretation at first, her version of Mushnik was also very funny in its own way. I had a talk with Abby after one rehearsal, and together, we created a backstory for her version of Mushnik in order to solidify and strengthen female Mushnik as a character. We decided that female Mushnik had dreams long ago that she had been forced to abandon due to the fact that she had gotten married at a very young age. Her husband, Mr. Mushnik, started the Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists business shortly after they had gotten married, but after a few short years, left her for another woman and moved out of Skid Row, leaving Mrs. Mushnik in charge of a flower shop that she had never wanted in the first place. This would explain Mrs. Mushnik’s sarcasm and cynicism. Mrs. Mushnik also seems to have a soft spot for Audrey at certain points in Little Shop of Horrors, and Abby and I decided that this was due to the fact that she sees many similarities between herself and Audrey; Mrs. Mushnik does not want Audrey to end up with a fate like hers (Audrey is in a bad relationship and so was Mrs. Mushnik, Audrey seems to have abandoned her dreams and Mrs. Mushnik does not want her to do so since that’s something she herself was regrettably forced to do). Mrs. Mushnik as a character had therefore become a collaborative effort between Abby and I. Additionally, it was interesting to me that after each performance, some audience members would approach me and praise the decision to cast Mushnik as a woman (especially ones who had already been familiar with Little Shop of Horrors before seeing Greasepaint’s version). A couple of students even exclaimed excitedly, “Mushnik is so much better as a woman! The character just makes so much more sense that way!”
I can with absolute certainty say that each and every member of my production team contributed to the final product of Little Shop of Horrors and added unique perspectives and ideas to the mix. For instance, my set designer, Henry was completely in charge of designing the plans for and supervising the building of the Little Shop of Horrors set. I spoke on the phone and met with him a few times to articulate my ideas and requirements for the set in terms of the blocking I had come up with for the actors, and based on our discussions and some additional ideas of his, he designed a fantastic set that was easy to put together in a short period of time. However, he did end up making a few changes to what I had originally wanted for my set in order to make it work with the resources we had for the show. For instance, originally, I had wanted my set to contain a window made out of Plexiglass and for “Mushnik’s” to be painted onto it backwards (since the set was the interior of Mrs. Mushnik’s flower shop and I wanted the window to appear as it would from the point of view of those inside the shop). However, it soon became clear to Henry and I that it would be much more difficult for us to obtain Plexiglass than we had originally anticipated. So, he decided to plan for the space on the center “wall” (made out of a painted flat) that was to be set aside for the Plexiglass window to be a square painted with light grey paint and then black and green for lettering (“Mushnik’s”) and decoration; the window was now to be painted onto the set instead of constructed out of Plexiglass. We had Erica, a member of my stage crew and a skilled painter, paint the window onto the set once we had built it, and our collaborative plan worked out perfectly (trumping my original vision).
I collaborated closely with my choreographer, Emily, in the process of creating Little Shop of Horrors as well. At first, I didn’t think I would even require a choreographer to work on my show, for Little Shop of Horrors doesn’t necessarily require any complex dance numbers. However, I decided that I wanted to bring a choreographer in to work on the show when I realized that the Doo-Wop Girls, three central characters in the show who are meant to resemble a girl group of the 1950s or 60s, should probably dance in a more professional and synchronized manner than the other characters in the show. I have over nine years of dance experience myself, but I knew that directing on its own would be a huge commitment (and choreographing in addition to directing would be a lot for me to manage in addition to my studies). My assistant director recommended Emily for the job, and after I had offered Emily the position of choreographer, I met and spoke with her on various occasions to discuss what the Doo-Wop Girls’ dances should look like. We mainly spoke about the rock and roll, doo-wop, and early Motown influences of the music of the show’s score, and I told Emily that I wanted the Doo-Wop Girls’ movements to be sharp and in sync with each other (due to the fact that they are a girl group of sorts, reminiscent of the Supremes). However, I also wanted some of the numbers (which would be taking place on an elevated platform) to be low key, since I didn’t want the actresses playing the Doo-Wop Girls to injure themselves by performing motions that were too intense on top of the platform. Emily and I decided that she would choreograph the dance numbers that would be taking place in the actual stage area while I would choreograph the dance numbers that would be taking place on the platform according to how they would correspond with the action occurring on the actual stage during those numbers. After Emily had initially choreographed her numbers, I based the style of the numbers I choreographed off of her style so that the dancing in the show would seem to flow and have one coherent style. Audience members praised the show’s choreography highly, so this strategy apparently worked out very well.
Little Shop of Horrors started out as one cohesive vision that had been authored by one person on paper, but through the process of bringing it to life as an actual theatrical production, it became a collaborative effort. Treating a piece of art as something that is a collaborative effort rather than as something that has one author is, in my eyes, being true to the nature of art. Art is meant to be up for interpretation, but when there is only one “author” credited, solely her/his interpretation of the art and the “author” her/himself become the only things that matter. A work of art should feel open and inviting, and people should feel comfortable engaging in a dialogue concerning said art during its creation and after it has been created.
Collaborating with others is both inevitable and vital to the process of creating theatre. It improves the work significantly, it is humbling, and if done in a professional, respectful manner, it keeps everyone relatively sane (well, as sane as we theatre fanatics are capable of acting). When opening night of Little Shop of Horrors arrived, I was able to witness the vision that my collective team (emphasis on the word TEAM) and I had brought to life together. What I saw before me was a beautiful combination of various types of skill and talent, like a tapestry that had been woven together to create something truly unique and wonderful. It was one of the most rewarding moments of my life.
“You are clearly a very experienced performer. Your performing muscles are very strong, but you haven’t exercised the others yet. You must do that. Your work must feel less like a performance and more…real.” Todd Peters, my summer Acting teacher at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, said this to me about four weeks ago, immediately after I had executed Uta Hagen’s Fourth Wall Telephone Exercise in front of the entire class. When he told me that, I had heard him, but had not truly understood. I remember nodding (a lot), but honestly, at the time, I was, well, confused. Don’t they call this ‘performing’? Don’t people call us ‘performers’ for a reason? What exactly is the problem? I kept asking myself, frustrated thoughts running rampant through my mind. I would not fully begin to comprehend what Todd meant and incorporate it into my scene work until the last week of the program.
Yesterday afternoon, I performed in a final acting showcase (in which we performed scenes we had been assigned a few weeks before) with the rest of my Section 6 AADA classmates. This event marked the end of my time of my time as part of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts’ five-week, all-encompassing drama program, and also marked the end of my time as a 2015 summer student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Now that I have completed my summer studies there, when I think back to the confusion I felt five weeks ago as a result of Todd Peters’ initial feedback concerning my work, I see it as a place from which I can trace the growth I underwent as an AADA summer student.
Directly before I began my training as part of AADA’s five-week program, I had completed AADA’s two-week musical theatre intensive. I had acted in dramas in the past, but my central focus had mainly been musical theatre up until I took part in the five-week program. (I have such a strong love for musical theatre, and to be frank, nothing else truly compares to the way I feel about musical theatre.) However, before AADA, the amount of official acting training I had received (both in musical theatre and in drama) was infinitesimal; I had gained the extent of my knowledge of performing mainly through experiences I’d had performing in shows. This is why I decided to apply to AADA in the first place: to start to gain a foundation of official training in both musical theatre and drama (training which I could continue to expand upon as I complete my senior year at Bryn Mawr College and after I graduate). Through AADA’s two-week musical theatre intensive, I took Vocal Technique, Song Interpretation, Dance (Tap/Jazz/Ballet), and Acting classes. The smorgasbord of training I received through the American Academy of Dramatic Arts’ five-week program included, in addition to Acting, Voice and Speech, Movement, and electives in Improvisation, Stage Combat, Theatre Dance, and Shakespeare. Although I took classes in a wide variety of different disciplines during my seven weeks at AADA, I noticed an overarching theme that I felt each and every one of them pointed towards: finding and exploring truth within imaginary circumstances.
According to my various AADA summer teachers, there is a difference between the literal definition of “performing” and the figurative definition. Obviously, performers “perform” in front of audiences, for they present all sorts of forms of entertainment to audiences; that is what the literal definition of “performing” is. However, if a person is figuratively “performing” on the stage, that person is conveying the opposite of truth to an audience. The audience can see through the “performance,” for it, frankly, seems like a lie, and causes the audience’s belief in the imaginary circumstances to morph into a sense of disbelief and distrust for the actor. Actors must strive to find their own truth within their characters and their imaginary circumstances; we must always find a way to connect to our work through the lens of emotion (which we, as humans, have felt infinite types of throughout our lives).
People are conditioned to give into self-consciousness and deny vulnerability from a very young age; over the years, we develop a sense of internal shame and insecurity that restricts our ability to connect and formulate honest relationships with others. This, in my opinion, prevents people from being able to lead lives that are truly fulfilling, and as a result, is a huge challenge for any actor to overcome (due to the fact that actors strive to emulate the human experience as truthfully as we can). Being available to emotion and refusing to cut oneself off from vulnerability are both crucial skills for those who wish to pursue some sort of career on the stage. The best actors never play connection, but rather are emotionally connected to their work. Ideally, actors should not completely pre-plan their work; they should feel so connected to it that they start to live and explore within it. Due to their ability to discover and connect with truth, even in the most complicated of circumstances, “actors are the most human of people” (Todd Peters, AADA).
Throughout my time at AADA, I worked diligently to develop and hone my skill set as an actress, and even discovered some new skills I had never utilized before. But above all, I began to work towards becoming the most truthful performer I can possibly be (although the irony inherent in the phrase “truthful performer” still isn’t lost on me). Of course, I have not fully perfected the art of communicating truth on the stage yet; I still have a LONG way to go.
However, thanks to AADA, artistic honesty and integrity have taken on a completely new meaning for me. Within the artifice of imaginary circumstances, I will strive to always keep truth in my heart and in my work.
When I was about seven or eight years old, I attended The Lion King on Broadway with my family for the first time. This was an extremely big deal for me, especially since The Lion King was (and still is) my all-time favorite Disney movie, and I was ecstatic to witness its magic live onstage. Roughly five minutes before the show started, however, I noticed a slip of paper that had been tucked inside my Playbill. It read, “The Lion King on Broadway Casting Call: Seeking Children to Play Young Nala and Young Simba.” I believe I stopped breathing for a full minute. I was restless and more excited than I had ever believed possible. After the show ended, I knew I had to tell my parents about my brilliant idea to audition to be Young Nala. They had to understand. This was obviously my destiny.
I squealed my case to my parents in the car on the way home, begging and pleading for the chance to make my new-found dream a reality, and I distinctly remember them exchanging many a nervous glance. Once we had arrived home, they decided to sit me down in the living room so that we could have a chat. My father cautiously said to me, “Honey, I know this is hard to hear, but I don’t think you can be Nala on Broadway.” My heart sank. “Why? I don’t get it!” I replied, confused and upset. My mother, albeit unsteadily, took over: “Adriana, honey, how do I put this…? You need to be, um, a certain race to be in that show. You, well, you need to be African American. You need to be black.”
I was devastated. I was crushed. I simply did not understand. “But that’s not fair!” I exclaimed over and over again, unable to handle the fact that I would never play Nala, would never be cast in my favorite Disney story. However, I gradually put two and two together. The Lion King takes place in Africa. Most Africans have dark skin. I am an Italian American who has white skin, and based upon my appearance and racial background, audience members would never have believed that I (as Nala) inhabited the Pride Lands of Africa in the context of The Lion King. I had learned that, in the context of certain theatrical projects, casting that is specific in terms of certain characteristics (race/gender/etc.) is necessary (well, it should be but isn’t always treated as such, unfortunately, ex: how Emma Stone was cast as an Asian American in the recent Aloha movie). Casting is not, in fact, blind, and sometimes, it most certainly should not be.
However, there are certain cases in which diversifying casting can be done, and done successfully. Ironically, as a twenty year old, I would go on to play a role in a much beloved, iconic musical that I’d never in my life have thought I’d play; said role was actually originated by a black, male actor, and I am neither black nor male. Yet, in the fall 2014 semester of my junior year, I was cast as Benny, aka Benjamin Coffin III and the former roommate and current landlord of the other principal characters, in my college’s production of RENT, which is a role that was originated by Taye Diggs both on and off-Broadway. (I’ll give you a second to pick your jaw up off your keyboard before you continue.)
I went into the audition process for that production hoping that I would be cast as Maureen, RENT’s eccentric, bisexual performance artist (and one of my dream roles). I was called back for Maureen twice, and towards the end of the audition process, I was definitely being taken into heavy consideration for that role. However, something I would never have expected happened during the casting process. I soon received an email from the creative team, which included the cast list, and the email informed me that I had been cast as Benny instead.
I knew that the director, a student in my year named Maya whom I’ve worked with on numerous college productions, had been planning on gender-bending Benny, but I was still completely shocked. It had simply never occurred to me that someone could possibly believe I was capable of playing that role. However, Maya needed to fill a void in her cast, for many more women than men typically audition for Bryn Mawr/Haverford productions. So, she went into the audition process looking to cast Benny as a woman, was excited to put a new spin on a character that is often overlooked, and felt that I was well suited to her vision of a new, female Benny. She also had tested my vocal range during the audition process, and knew I was capable of singing Benny’s part as it was originally written (aka, in a man’s range); the music director would not (and did not) need to transpose any of Benny’s songs with me as Benny. I was excited by the prospect of reinventing Benny; I do not believe a woman has ever played Benny before, and I had never had the chance to reinvent a role before. I accepted my role, and Maya and I worked together to 1) reinvent Benny as a character and 2) attempt to successfully incorporate our reinvented Benny into Jonathan Larson’s piece.
I worked very closely with Maya throughout the process of reinventing Benny as a female character, and we made some changes to allow the diversification of the character to make sense within the context of the show while also staying true to Jonathan Larson’s original message and intention. For instance, in the context of the production, due to the fact that Benny was now to be a woman, Benny became a lesbian instead of a straight man (still married to a wealthy woman, Alison Grey), which in turn affected Mimi, who now had to become a bisexual character instead of a straight character. The director and I not only changed Benny’s gender and sexual orientation, but also decided to put our own spin on Benny’s personality and backstory in order to provide audience members with a fresh, new take on the material.
Maya and I sat down together for about an hour when the rehearsal process first began, and analyzed Benny as a character. First of all, we changed the character’s full name from “Benjamin Coffin III,” which is typically perceived as a “masculine” name, to “Bentleigh Coffin III,” a more seemingly “feminine” one. Benny is supposed to be “yuppie” and pretentious, and in our opinion, the name “Bentleigh” certainly fit the bill. Maya and I then went on to discuss what we believed were Bentleigh’s roots as a character: where she came from and how her background affected who she had become when the musical began. The results of our discussion were as follows: Bentleigh was born and raised into a very wealthy family, and therefore became rather used to living with a high level of financial security and comfort. She then met Mark, Roger, Maureen, and Collins during her college years in New York City (at NYU), became very close friends with each of them, and became infatuated with the Bohemian lifestyle that the four of them were pursuing as a result.
After college, Bentleigh decided to abandon her upper class family and its finances, move in with Mark, Roger, Maureen, and Collins, and pursue life as a Bohemian with them. However, life as a Bohemian was much more difficult, a lot less secure, and a lot less glamorous than Bentleigh had expected it to be. Facing poverty as a “starving artist” was especially difficult for Bentleigh to deal with due to the fact that she knew the life (and financial security) she was missing/had given up. Bentleigh also felt as if she was in way over her head when it was made known to the group that Collins had AIDS and Roger was HIV-positive. She also had briefly started a romantic relationship with Mimi and learned that Mimi was HIV-positive as well, which was news that she wasn’t able to process easily since she had fallen hard for Mimi very quickly. So, when she met Alison three months before the beginning of the musical, whose family owned the building that Bentleigh and her friends lived in together, and learned of her immense wealth, Bentleigh decided to take advantage of the situation. Bentleigh began dating Alison, and when Alison asked Bentleigh to marry her, even though she didn’t love Alison, how could Bentleigh refuse? Our Benny was very practical and ambitious, and married Alison (out of desperation) in order to escape the life of a starving artist and regain access to the comfortable lifestyle she had previously given up. Due to her marriage to Alison, Bentleigh ended up ironically becoming the landlord of the building she’d been living in with her friends, moved out of the building and in with Alison in Westport. Even though there are some ways in which Benny still tries to help out her friends during the show and shows that she misses them, they feel betrayed by her, and shun her throughout RENT for selling out and leaving them behind. Maya and I did not treat Benny as a villain, but rather as a character whose sense of practicality/need for financial comfort ability and her love for her friends and the Bohemian lifestyle conflict throughout RENT.
Through our process of exploration and reinvention of Benny as a character, Maya and I discovered that Benny is never actually granted a conclusion at the end of the show; rather, traditionally, Benny is ordered to leave the East Village by his wife once she discovers that he has been cheating on her with Mimi, and the audience never learns what happens to Benny in the end. Maya decided that our new, female Benny would be redeemed in the eyes of her old Bohemian friends. Once Angel, a drag queen and the love of Collins’ life, died of AIDS, our new Benny reevaluated her life choices. Angel is the most selfless person she had ever met, and had the most selfless and unconditional love for both Collins and for her friends that Benny had ever seen. Benny realized that she drastically pales in comparison to Angel; she realized she’d been incredibly selfish in her relationship with Mimi (she’s already married and wants to have Mimi as well as security alongside her wife), her relationships with each of her friends, and her decision to sell out. At Angel’s funeral, when Benny witnessed that Mimi a) might die soon and b) is truly in love with Roger, we had Benny yank the Bluetooth for business calls that she wore in every scene of the show up until that point in time off her ear, symbolizing her change of heart. In the very next scene, Benny began to atone by offering to pay for Angel’s funeral. Benny does this in every version of the show, but Maya and I felt that depicting Benny’s change of heart visibly onstage both made our reinvented Benny’s character arc more interesting and made Benny’s choice to do this make more sense.
Maya had Mark change one of his lines from “In honor of Benny’s wife pulling Benny out of the East Village location” to “In honor of Benny’s wife leaving Benny here in the East Village location” specifically so that Benny’s presence at the end of the show made sense. Maya and I also decided to have Benny present for the finale of the show, which has never been done in a production of RENT before, in order to illustrate to the audience that Benny had been welcomed back by her friends with open arms after they witnessed her change of heart. She decided to have Maureen, Joanne, etc. hug Benny, thus conveying forgiveness and re-acceptance. Our Benny also was able to use the final scene of the show to finally let go of Mimi, accept the fact that she and Roger were going to be together from now on, and cherish the fact that Mimi was alive and well at the show’s conclusion.
Reinventing Benny called for a few minor script changes, and I realized that it was impossible to have my creative voice seamlessly blend within the production without said changes having been made. However, our diversification of Benny added new layers to the character, and actually helped me to see RENT through the lens of a totally new perspective. Maya and I ensured that we kept Jonathan Larson’s intention for the character and for RENT in general from being discarded during the process of reinventing Benny. In the end, the message of the show, which is that love and living each day as if it is one’s last day on Earth are the most important components in what Jonathan Larson defines as a successful life, still shone through, which is what truly mattered more than anything.
Diversifying casting, in some cases, simply does not work, for certain shows call for incredibly specific casting choices in order for their plot lines to make sense. But sometimes, when it can logically be done, diversifying casting can change people’s way of perceiving and thinking about a theatrical production, and can even enhance a piece’s original intention and message. With that being said, Taye Diggs will soon be taking on the role of Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, and will be the first black man in history ever to play the role. His Hedwig will certainly add new, fascinating, insightful layers to the character that will cause people everywhere to change their perspective and further their understanding of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I for one am thrilled.