Lauren Marcus on the Intersection of Musical Theatre and Songwriting; an in-depth conversation

“Okay, so I have a weird question…” I say, feeling my cheeks burn from a tiny bit of embarrassment. “Yeah,” Lauren says, ready for anything, her tone immediately relieving any doubts I had about asking the question.“Can we take a selfie on here, like just a screenshot basically?” I ask, laughing slightly.

“Yeah!” she says, jumping up enthusiastically. “We should get a better background, like let me get in front of our instruments or something.” As she sets her phone up in front of the infamous instrument wall, she says, “Your lipstick looks really good.” I can feel myself smile the biggest smile I’ve smiled all day.

Lauren Marcus Selfie

This is what an adorable FaceTime selfie looks like

“Thanks! I changed it like five times this morning,” I say. And it’s true. I changed my lipstick five times because I was so excitedly nervous for this interview. I wanted everything to be perfect. When I first started this blog, I made a dream list of people I wanted to interview. Lauren was one of the first people on that list. Besides being a remarkable performer across a variety of different mediums, she is just an all around cool person. She’s a frequent performer at cabaret clubs in New York like 54 Below and Joe’s Pub, as well as being a go-to girl for new musical readings. She’s also a stellar singer-songwriter who has a way with words. Her storytelling skills are impeccable. She just released an EP of her original music called Never Really Done With You. However, songwriting hasn’t always been her first interest. As a young girl growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Lauren was bitten by the acting bug.

Growing Up in Love with Musical Theatre

“I had always just known that I wanted to perform, that was very much just what I always wanted to do,” Lauren says. “But until 6th grade, I never did a real musical. [At my] junior high, the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders would get to audition for the musical. And so I just waited and waited. I saw the shows growing up and I think that my parents were waiting until those first auditions to be like, ‘Is she good? Like we think she’s good.’” Lauren says this with a sweet smile and a tiny laugh. “And then I auditioned and it was Bye Bye Birdie and I got Kim, and I think everyone was kind of like, ‘Yeah. She’s okay. She’s okay. It’s going to happen.’ Glencoe was really big on the theatre stuff,” she says, reflecting fondly on her hometown.

“In junior high, I also did some community theatre and that happened because our choreographer for our school shows asked me to come audition for a community theatre production of Chess. And actually, I have a funny story that I think my mom would kill me if I told, but I’m still going to tell it. I did that first production of Chess at the community theater, which was a big deal for me. And then I learned my first big lesson about the business because they took my parents aside and they were like, ‘We’re doing The Secret Garden next year, is Lauren available?’ And my parents were like, ‘Yes.’ And then they talked to me, and I was like, ‘Oh, they’re doing Secret Garden for me, this is so exciting.’ And then seven months later, they had auditions and I was not cast. And I did not understand what happened. I remember my mom called the director,” she says, horrified. “I’m glad to know that happened then and that we all learned our lessons early. It was kind of our first [lesson], like, ‘This is the business, and you never really know for sure.’”

Lauren describes her high school, New Trier High School, with a bit of awe, “It was written about one time in Time magazine, it’s a weirdly known public school with about 1,000 kids per grade. But the list of alumni who went to my high school is insane. Ann-Margret, the Callaway Sisters, I’m going to blank, but [my husband] Joe [Iconis] and I always joke around, like we’ll be watching TV and I’ll be like, ‘Oh that person went to my high school.’  I mean it’s crazy. So there’s just pictures of them everywhere. And they did a million shows a year. So that’s where it really started.”

Her determined deportment is especially clear as she tells her journey through the rigorous college audition preparation process. She attended NYU Steinhardt as a Vocal Performance Major with a concentration in Musical Theatre. “It’s kind of roundabout how I got [to NYU]. Right before my senior year of high school, my family moved to Garrison, New York which is an hour north of New York City. And I’d been saying for years, ‘I’m going to New York,’ so I think my family knew that was on the horizon. They’re really supportive which I’m very grateful for. I did a pre-college summer program at Syracuse University and that went really well. And one of the staff members at Syracuse recommended Steinhardt as a place I could take voice lessons. I remember my dad made me ask, because I was too nervous to ask for any advice or help, and so [the Syracuse staff member] recommended Steinhardt, who recommended Dianna Heldman. I went in and had a lesson with her, and then I auditioned for Syracuse at the end of the summer and actually knew I could go there, I had gotten in if I wanted to, but I loved taking lessons with Dianna, so I went to NYU, and she was my voice teacher for the next four years.” The warmth in Lauren’s eyes shows her clear respect and affection for her college voice teacher.

After NYU, Lauren was preparing to tackle her next big adventure: grad school in Scotland. “[After] NYU, I was in the city for a year auditioning, doing shows, and doing a lot of concerts. And I love music, clearly it’s a very big part of my life, but I have always felt super strong in the acting. When it comes to doing a show, the acting is the thing that gets me really excited and I wanted to develop those skills further. And I was always interested in Shakespeare and I had never gotten a chance to do that so I looked at a bunch of different programs and the thought of maybe not being in the country sounded exciting. I found this program [in Scotland] and I went there and got my master’s in acting.”

Songwriting

It was actually in Scotland that Lauren began writing music seriously. “I’ve always written a little. I wrote a lot of songs in high school that weren’t good at all. Same for college, but I never shared them with anyone, which I’m glad about because they weren’t very good. And then I really started in earnest in Scotland.” It began with a defeating rehearsal process where she was playing a part that she just wasn’t right for. “I was super frustrated and I bought this ukulele as a joke to lighten the mood and it became this outlet. I started actively trying to finish songs, to put pen to paper and it became kind of therapeutic and I wrote for about a year that way before I started sharing it with anyone. I remember I sent one of those songs to my parents and told them somebody else wrote it and I was just recording it. So I don’t even think they knew that that’s something I was doing in private. And then it probably took two or three more years before I did my first actual gig and then just started really putting my music out there.”

Her EP has been described as having a “retro-pop” sound. This makes total sense when she describes the type of music she listened to growing up. “Until about 6th grade, I exclusively listened to the oldies station. And then I listened to a lot of what my parents liked which was Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, James Taylor. I think if you listen to my stuff, it’s hugely influenced by the 50s, 60s, and 70s.”

You can really hear that influence on her song “Next to You,” which is featured on her EP.

https://youtu.be/FnyXvhiP6oo

“I also love country music. Like I love country music,” she says, her voice getting deep and husky to emphasize her emphatic love for the genre. “[Currently], I am obsessed with an artist named Margo Price, who sounds country, but old school country to me.”

A huge part of old country music is the element of strong storytelling. And Lauren certainly knows how to tell a story through song. Below is her song “Moonshine,” also featured on her EP.

https://youtu.be/YwCk62i-wGM

“What’s your favorite part about songwriting?” I ask, my curiosity stemming from a recent attempt at songwriting myself. She takes a moment to contemplate this.

“I feel like I can answer a few different ways,” she pauses to gather her thoughts. “My favorite part of the process of songwriting is usually when I come up with a hook. Then the whole thing comes from there, and it feels like this whole puzzle that’s leading up to the hook. And that’s kind of fun because I’m a big word game person. I love Scrabble; I love Scattegories. I grew up every week playing a game called The Word Game with my family where you’d sit down and they give you a long word and you’d come up with as many words as you can. I don’t know why, but that all feels strangely related. So that part’s fun. And then, I guess my favorite part of the actual act of it, besides finishing it, because that’s the best feeling in the world, is when you’ve written something and you can stand behind every word. When there’s no part of it that feels weird or out of place.”

“Do you prefer performing your own music, or watching someone else perform your stuff?” I ask.

“I love performing it,” she begins, a huge smile breaking across her face. “To me, performing my own music does not feel like singing. I don’t even relate it as singing, it’s just my own music. I think about this a lot. I love musical theatre, but that feels like getting up and singing and this feels like something else. I don’t worry about someone else singing it technically better, I don’t worry about somebody having a better interpretation of it. It’s mine, so that’s what it is. Nobody can tell you what you’re doing wrong with it. It’s you and it’s yours. I would love to see someone else interpret it. Joe and I, at our wedding, a friend did a mashup of two of our songs mixed together and that was insane because I haven’t had a lot of people sing my stuff, and then to hear it mashed up with his, was probably one of the most emotional moments of my entire life, just to hear a different interpretation of it.”

https://youtu.be/9uinfWsCQdY

Songwriting has also helped Lauren figure out what her own voice sounds like. “It’s funny,” she says, “At Steinhardt, part of the training was classical, and I think I drove my teacher crazy, because to me, at some point, you just have to let the training go, hope it’s in there, and then, I felt like, especially after school, I had to learn the way I like to sing, which isn’t what was instilled in me. Because so many things were taken out of me, like glottal stops or morphing vowels, but that’s a huge part of me and the way I sing. So I had to relearn it a little bit. And I’m so grateful because I have this amazing training and I know that I’m never going to get sick, I know that I’m not doing anything bad, but some time off is not a bad thing either.”

Her unique voice has given her the opportunity to perform frequently in New York’s many cabaret clubs and concert venues. I am so excited to ask her about one of my favorite places, 54 Below, that I ask her two questions at once, but she handles it like a pro. “Okay, so when did you first perform at 54 Below and what’s your favorite part of performing there?”

“That’s actually funny, my first few times there, I was asked to sing my own stuff, which is kind of crazy and really cool. Susie Mosher hosted some nights where she had people come in, and she asked me, so my band and I came and performed. I wish I had an exact date, but I can tell you what I liked about it. First of all, I just remember the first time we stepped into 54 Below and I hadn’t seen anything that classy or cool, in terms of like venues, it felt like you were stepping into a supper club or something. I love it because it just seems like you’re surrounded by people who love theatre and love what they do. Nobody who works there feels over it, or like it’s [just] a job. Everyone feels passionate about it.” Outside of performing in numerous concerts at 54 Below every year, she also gets to perform in a crazy annual holiday extravaganza that her husband puts together called “The Joe Iconis Christmas Spectacular.” “Christmas is fun because the waitstaff get excited for it too. There’s probably a couple who hate us because it’s like 70 people running around, but for the most part, they’re really into it. It’s also so fun to use this classy, beautiful place as your own playground. And they give Joe and the rest of us the freedom to do that, they’re so kind with the space there. I mean we do ridiculous stuff, we’re dancing on the banisters. They’re not afraid to let us do that there. It’s the best of both worlds: the most classy mixed with the most passionate people in one place. And their drinks are awesome.”

Where her Two Worlds Collide, Writing Musicals

Lauren has also begun writing musicals, combining her love of the musical theatre medium with her passion for songwriting. “I wrote book and lyrics to a kid’s musical called The Meanest Birthday Girl. And that was part of the New York Children’s Theatre Festival in 2015 with a woman named Leah Okimoto, who wrote the music. It’s based on a book by Josh Schneider. It kind of seemed like the right time because I do write my own music and I do lots of hosting and skits and those types of things, so it was like, ‘Okay, let’s start with a kid’s musical.’ So I wrote that, and I’m working on two right now that I’m very secretive and weird about, that I don’t share or talk about a lot. Writing musicals is hard,” she says. “It’s super intimidating because I feel like I’m married to one of the best and then all of my friends are so, so talented at it, so it’s also something that is hugely intimidating to me to put out into the world,” she says.

“I also wanted to ask you about your thoughts of being a woman in a man’s world, which for musical theatre especially, songwriting seems to be a man’s world, though it is changing,” I say.

“Sometimes I do feel like I get treated a little bit differently. Especially in the beginning when I was so nervous and I didn’t know a lot of the ropes, I always kind of got the feeling like, ‘Oh you’re the little girl with the ukulele,’ you know? Also, oh, I will never forget this, [I was at a venue and] the sound guy told me that he was going to wait for the real musicians to get there. And I was like, ‘Ugh,’” she says, with a sigh of disgust. “And granted, I’m not the most technical musician, but I have a lot of training. I took 8 years of piano. I’m not great at any one instrument, but I have a degree in music, like I know what’s happening. So for him to say that, I was like, ‘Ah!’ Now, I’m 30 and I just wish I had the confidence that I do now. I just wish I had been able to have that confidence when I was 23 about it.”

Releasing her EP and Looking to the Future

“So you have an EP that just came out, can you tell me a little bit about that?” I ask.

“So my EP is called Never Really Done With You, and there are 6 songs on it,” she says, highlighting the essential facts about the album before opening up about an insecurity about recording that makes her so relatable and so human. “So, recording is terrifying to me. I love to perform live, and when you perform live, it happens and it’s over and if you make a mistake, it’s gone, you know? Recording has always been super scary to me, it feels so permanent. I did a demo a few years ago, with guys who are in my band, though at that point, we didn’t know each other. [That was] when I still was kind of figuring it out, I was just starting to put these songs out at all and I didn’t quite know what I was doing or who I was as an artist or what my sound was, so I like the demos but they’re also hard for me to listen to because I didn’t know what I was doing yet and they also don’t sound like me now, as an artist,” she says, her face scrunching up.  “Ew, that sounds weird to say. I’m an artist, bleh. Anyway, this has really been, like, This is the year, I’m doing this, it’s time. This is stupid, I’ve been playing for four or five years. But I honestly didn’t feel ready until now to put anything out in that way and I just do this year. And I recorded it at Restoration Sound in Brooklyn with Lorenzo Wolff, who produced it. He was amazing: absolutely incredible, and very patient. And it’s been really fun learning everything. I feel like I’m like giving birth to a child and I’m really excited.” Her excitement is palpable, even through the tiny video chat screen that we’re conducting this interview on. It’s clear, she is ready to put her music into the world. And you know what? It’s amazing. Her EP came out a few days ago, and I have been listening to it non-stop. It’s incredibly intimate, a complete snapshot of the way her mind works. Her ability to convey a story is astounding and her unique voice exudes emotion in the most beautiful way.

Reflecting on her career, Lauren says, “One thing I’ve been thinking about all the time lately is acting and singing vs. writing and performing [my] own stuff. Acting is such a difficult thing to do and it continues to be difficult and there’s lots of things this year that were close calls or I wish would happen, but what’s funny is that I’ve been thinking so much lately that if things had gone the way I wanted them to go straight out of school, I would never be doing this right now. Like I don’t know if I’d ever be sharing music I write. And it’s very unlike me to be like, Everything happens for a reason, but I think I’m just kind of glad that the acting thing has been slow and steady,” she says, before adding, “for now. Now I’m ready for it to be different, but I’m just so happy that the writing thing has become such a huge part of my life, and it does make me feel like more of a well-rounded person. I feel like I get to say things and express myself in a way that I don’t think I’d be doing if everything had been perfect in the acting part of it.”

You can grab Lauren’s EP on iTunes at https://itun.es/us/OJhHdb

You can also listen on Spotify at https://open.spotify.com/album/0GSs8otQKODNTo4Ypq8jbS

For more information on Lauren, check out her website, laurenmarcus.com

 

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