Rachel Sussman: How her Michigan roots led her to NYC and back to the mitten

Nothing inspires me more than seeing a lady from my native state, Michigan, kicking butt in the New York theatre community. And what’s even cooler than that? How about creating a program to bring new theatre to Michigan while simultaneously serving as the the Director of Programming and Artist Services for the New York Musical Festival. Rachel Sussman truly is a dream. An avid advocate for new theatrical works, she co-founded the MITTEN Lab, which looks to utilize Nothern Michigan’s landscape and talent to develop new theatrical work.

 
The MITTEN Lab has allowed Sussman to return to her roots. She hails from Metro-Detroit, where performance originally worked its way into her heart. She was a competitive dancer and a self-proclaimed theatre nerd. Performing was a family affair. “My family grew up doing a lot of community theatre, as an entire family,” Sussman says, “So my parents and my sister and I and our dog would all be in shows together.”

 
A few significant educators impacted Sussman’s life as a young theatre student. She recalls her elementary school music teacher, Mrs. Richardson as the first big influence on her life. “Do you know the song ‘Day-Oo?’” She says, singing a line from it and giggling. “She gave me that solo when I was in fifth grade. I was a huge teacher’s pet, so that was a big deal.” She also cites her high school theatre teacher, Mr. Rutherford as influential to her career. “We had a very intense, pre-professional style theatre program at my high school called the Groves Performing Arts Company (GPAC). Their support and encouragement helped me continue on in the arts.”

 

This led her to NYU’s Drama Program in the Tisch School of the Arts. Tisch’s Drama Department is organized into different acting studios, each one highlighting certain professional acting techniques. Sussman began studying Lee Strasberg’s technique before transferring into the Experimental Theatre Wing. “I went from one end of the acting spectrum which is very psychologically based to the end that is all physically based, you know, handstands and cartwheels and somersaults in acting class,” she says, spinning her hands around as if to mimic the motion of a cartwheel. “And in that process, I went abroad to Dublin, and that gave me just a wider perspective on the kinds of art that people were making,” she says. She found herself immersed in a totally different culture, where she learned from the way locals used art to respond to social, political, and economic turmoil that was happening in Ireland at the time.

 

It was also at NYU that she realized that she didn’t want to be an actor. She interned at Second Stage for a semester, and she loved it so much, that she continued interning there the next summer. “Chris Burney, who is the Associate Artistic Director at Second Stage, is a huge mentor of mine. It was that internship that really gave me the insight into the artistic and administrative side of the industry. I realized that I didn’t want to only interpret work after it was created; I wanted to be a part of the creative collaboration, so I [began] doing more dramaturgy and creative producing after my Second Stage experience and that path felt so right.”

 

Sussman used all of her college elective credits to do internships. She is now the Director of Programming and Artist Services for NYMF, which is the largest new musical theatre festival in the world. They produce between 40 and 50 musicals in various stages of development over a 3-4 week period each summer. Sussman is deep in the selection period right now. “The festival ended for this year on August 7th and submissions opened on August 17th,” she says, emphasizing the cyclical nature of her job. The submission process is double-blind. “It’s an incredible thing we have. We have a reading committee of industry professionals and the authors’ names are left off of everything so they’re judging based on the quality and integrity of the work alone. Then, we select finalists and those go to the grand jury which is very, very high level fancy Broadway people: directors, choreographers, agents, actors, producers, etc. and we choose approximately 10 shows. Those 10 shows receive $5,000 toward their production as well as dramaturgical support and a conference dedicated to helping them produce a show in the festival.” That’s just the first step of the festival. The rest of the festival is comprised of concerts, events, workshops, and readings of new musical theatre work, most of which is handpicked by Sussman. “The readings are always exciting because the work is often earlier in its developmental process and the focus is solely on the material alone; you don’t get the same design elements or production values that you get when you do a production.”

 

One of my favorite NYMF-produced shows is a concert called Women of Note, which Sussman called “a celebration of women, queer, and trans artists in music and theatre.” This year, it showcased 32 writing teams–so many that the concert had to be split into two concerts. “It was an opportunity for some of the incredible artists to be seen by the New York theatre community at large. It was people like Lauren Marcus, Georgia Stitt, Amanda Green, Shaina Taub, and everyone in between. We run the gamut there.”

 

She has used her skills most recently with the MITTEN Lab, which she co-founded. The name not only stands for “Michigan Incubator for Theatre Talent Emerging Now,” but is also an homage to the shape of Michigan’s lower peninsula. She developed the MITTEN Lab with her friend, who she met in middle school, as both of them were doing youth theatre shows together. Michigan has a rich theatrical legacy, the New York-famous Nederlander family is actually from Detroit; however, the urban Detroit experienced decades of dilapidation and is only now on the verge of recovering. “The city of Detroit had terrible troubles, but with this artistic renaissance and creative economic surge that is now happening post-bankruptcy, Detroit has become the place to be for so many artists working in all kinds of media. ” However, Sussman still noticed a deficit of new theatrical work being produced in Michigan. “Living in a place like New York City, there’s so much new theatrical work that it’s oversaturated. So the idea of taking some of that talent and putting it into a city or space that is hungry for it could be really helpful.” The founders also wanted to boost the connections between professional theaters across Michigan. “It’s not like New York City, where you have The Public and The Atlantic just blocks from each other. We are seeking to connect companies across the state to one another through the Lab, becoming a hub for them to encounter new talent and send their own artists. Our hope is that this can lead to meaningful collaborations and put more theatrical work into the Michigan pipeline.” The founders hope to use the new work and MITTEN Lab to forge relationships between Michigan’s many regional theatres.

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As for what’s next for this creative theatrical extraordinaire, Rachel Sussman is producing a play at 59E59 Theaters in November and December called Don’t You F**king Say a Word, written by Andy Bragen and directed by Obie Award winner Lee Sunday Evans. “It’s a play about tennis and friendship and our obsession with competition and winning. We call it ‘God of Carnage meets tennis,’” she says, not revealing too much.

 

And what did this kick-butt lady boss have to say about this blog’s mission of promoting women in the theatre? “The thing I always push for is more women producing and more women in leadership roles in this artistic medium. I think that when you have more women in those roles, the more likely to be you are to expand boundaries and diversify what’s being made.”

Sheri Sanders on Rap Music, Sanford Meisner, & More

Immediately upon talking to Sheri Sanders, I realize she is a people person. By that, I mean she has a genuine interest in people. She wants to learn things about other people, hear their stories, and share her own. It’s a really cool thing and I’m sure it’s something that has contributed to her success. Sheri created Rock the Audition, which teaches musical theatre performers how to study and perform popular music. A mentor of mine recommended that I read her book, Rock the Audition, and it’s genius. She breaks down the technical aspects of different eras and styles of popular music, making an easy guide for the reader. She has since created an on-line rock musical training program with custom cut and arranged music that sounds incredible on the piano.

Her bio is incredibly impressive: “In 2004, Sheri noticed that the radio was changing the climate of Musical Theatre and created Rock The Audition, a masterclass in auditioning for Rock Musicals. The class became a hit in NYC- and Sheri immediately  became the world’s preeminent popular music repertoire coach. Sanders cold-called Hal Leonard Publishing, and in 2011 became the first author to publish a book on the new relationship between popular music and Musical Theatre. Her book Rock The Audition: How to Prepare for and Get Cast in Musicals brought her to to 58 Musical Theatre programs in 4 years providing students, teachers and coaches the skills to successfully research, prepare and perform all styles of popular music currently represented on Broadway- Motown, 70s Folk/Rock, Disco, 80s Pop/Rock, Contemporary Pop/Hip Hop, Rock/Punk/Emo, Country/ Bluegrass, and Faeries.

Sheri and her new interactive On-Line Rock Musical Theatre Training Program now makes it possible for Musical Theatre programs and individual professional performers and coaches to study directly with Sheri from every corner of the world, with custom cut and arranged sheet music that sounds incredible on the piano for any audition or performance! http://www.rock-the-audition.com”

But how did Sheri become one of the industry’s most sought after teachers? It all started with a secret love of theatre.

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“I grew up in Westchester [which is] 20 minutes north of the city, so at 13, 14 years old, I would sneak in and see shows. I would tell my mom I was going to the mall and I would just sneak in, so that taught me about what I was passionate about. As a young person, my first few Broadway shows were Big River and The Mystery of Edwin Drood and the original production of Les Mis. It was a secret passion that I ended up making a reality for myself, but seeing those shows and seeing those performances was life changing for me. In fact, a funny thing that I’ll tell you is, Les Mis was one of the first shows I saw, and Randy Graff was in the original company of Les Mis and what’s really funny is, she emailed me the other day, because we both teach at NYU now and she said, ‘I’ve been hearing about your class. Can I come and sit in?’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?! Randy Graff! You were one of the actresses that I saw that made me want to do this!’ I remember being thirteen and singing ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ at some party and [when I got to the high part], I cracked. And my voice teacher put her hand on my shoulder and was like, ‘You’re coming with me.’ It was those things, those people that I saw, who made me want to perform, and now I get to have those people sitting in on my life, asking me how I do what I do, when I’m thinking, I wouldn’t have even been here if it weren’t for you! So in terms of the influence on my life, I would say that there have been a lot of musical theatre people and shows that made me want to do this and because I did it, I ended up finding out what my niche was and then being in service to the community in a bigger way than being an actor.”

“That’s amazing,” I say, imagining what it must be like to have your idols become your peers. “Who inspired you when you were younger?” I ask.

“I’ve said this before, but in my late teens, Bette Midler was a huge influence on me. I watched all of her old movies from the late 70’s and 80’s, when she was a performer in her younger years, because she was so emotionally wild, like sometimes she would crack and sometimes she was flat, sometimes sharp, but she was always crying and always emotionally engaged and inventive and always did interesting interpretations of music. I would watch these old videos of Bette Midler and say, ‘I want that wilderness. I want that sauciness and that freedom that she’s got to be herself. She was a pretty big influence on me as a younger person. I’ve yet to meet her, but hopefully someday I will,” she says, grinning.

I smile, silently hoping that the two meet one day, before asking my next question. “Where did you go to college and how did that influence you?”

“I went to Emerson college and I dropped out after my freshman year. So I did not finish. And I don’t encourage people to not finish college, I think it’s important for some people to go to school, but for me, I was always a little bit immature for my age, so I think the college life was a little too intense for me. There’s always a part of me that wanted to finish school, but it’s interesting because I’ve taught at 58 colleges, so I kind of have finished school, you know? And all of my college professors and students are my teachers at the schools I teach at, so I feel like I’ve graduated 25 times over. And actually, funny enough, I went back and taught at Emerson last year and it was kind of a monumental event.

“I wish I had had the maturity to stay in school, but I ended up coming to the city and studying acting and theatre and I learned on the job and I thought that was really good training. I had to go out into the world and audition and work in shows that were not guaranteed and had never been done before. I did a lot of original work. In the first couple of years that I was in New York, I did these shows with these theatre companies, and they were all original and they were bad most of the time and you learn, for lack of a better word, how to shine shit. I learned how to make things that didn’t work, work. I learned how to collaborate; I learned how to paint sets and write music and do the lights and direct and these are the kinds of things that actually gave me the tools to be able to be reliable on more levels that just as an actor. And so the way that my world worked out, even though I dropped out, I feel like I got incredible training in life and on the job. It ended up turning into a professional acting career where I worked steadily for about twenty years, even while I was building Rock the Audition. But I appreciate [my training] because I feel like in college there isn’t a lot of opportunity to work on new work. You work on plays and musicals and scenes that already exist, so there’s not as much chance to make something bad, good or better. That’s a skill set that, I think if more colleges had access to new material, then they [could] go, Woah, what can I do to make this make sense? So I guess I was trained in the art of making something that doesn’t make sense, make sense. I put myself through the college of hard-knocks.”

“Can you talk a little bit about your professional acting career prior to Rock the Audition?”

“Well I would say that it’s two-faceted. Because I didn’t go to school, there wasn’t anybody saying, ‘You’re an ingenue,’ or ‘This is your type,’ so I was very flexible and open to try anything. [Because of that], I had a reputation like, ‘Give it to Sheri, she’ll make something great of it.’ And then at the same time, since I didn’t go to school, I wasn’t socialized, if that makes sense. I didn’t have a place to work out my garbage. Because that’s something that happens when you go to college, you learn about relationships and a lot of personal stuff comes up when you leave home. It was a time when my sexuality and my relationship to my family and a lot of stuff comes up and college is, it should be, a safe space that allows you to work through that stuff, [where] teachers grab ahold of you and say, ‘Cut the crap! You can’t do that!’ I didn’t have any of that, so a lot of that had to get worked out in Broadway callbacks and a lot of that got in the way. But I’ve also given myself a lot of forgiveness about that because we can only do the best we can. And I ended up totally okay; my life turned out pretty good. I would say that I was up for a lot of Broadway shows and that my talent was definitely acknowledged by the community, [but] that I just needed time to ‘cook.’”

She goes on to explain what she means using a metaphor, “Somebody told me that everyone ‘cooks’ at a different temperature, so that’s why some people book a Broadway show right out of school and some people don’t book a show for ten years, some people never book a Broadway show, some people work regionally and that’s awesome, some people become agents. Everybody is a different dish and everybody has different ingredients and everybody needs to cook in a different way, so I think that Rock the Audition was a great opportunity for me to cook.”

“So, how did you come up with the idea for Rock the Audition?” I ask, referencing her genius book and teaching program that teaches musical theatre performers how to successfully perform popular music.

“It really came from an idea that a friend of mine had. She said, ‘You’re a really good rock singer and nobody knows how to sing popular music, you should teach people and then you’ll probably blow up because you know what you’re doing.’ And I was like, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to teach.’ I just wanted to be the special person that people gave things to because she could make something great out of it. But what I didn’t realize was that I could still be that girl, because ‘Give it to Sheri’ became: ‘Give the crisis in our community to Sheri and she’ll fix it.’ So I put my big girl panties on and I took it on. Conceptually, because I listened to popular music growing up, it was very much like ‘boil water, cook food.’ I understand popular music, I understand a lot of different styles because I listened to the radio growing up, so it took me having a certain amount of imagination plus common sense and inspiration from popular music and musical theatre to go, ‘How do I get these two things to live together in harmony?’ So I just started practicing on people. That’s how it started, I was like, ‘Don’t give me any money, just let me practice on you and let me listen to your voice. Oh, you’re a legit soprano? What would I want to hear you sing? I don’t want to hear you sing Janis Joplin. I want to hear you sing Olivia Newton John because Olivia Newton John is a soprano, she’s just a rock singer [who’s] a legit soprano.’ So I started identifying all of the different methods to heal the crisis. And some of it came from asking people to listen to popular music rather than listening to showtunes. Some of it came from me doing the history work, like, ‘You guys! You can’t just sing a song! You’ve got to live it like a person in the 70’s did!’ Because when they wrote Pippin and Godspell, it was the early 70’s, so the music and emotional life of these shows [mirrors that time period.] You can’t just come in and riff the shit out of something and assume we’ll be like, ‘Ooh! You’re perfect for Pippin!’ You have to give that 70’s folk energy and you can’t give it without looking up the 70’s folk era.

“That’s when I started thinking, if you study popular music and you watch videos of people performing from that time period and you do research about what was going on, you can actually create a character that’s based on yourself. So rather than being like, ‘I’m playing the role of Billy and this is what he’s like,’ you can be like, ‘I’m Sheri and it’s 1968 and my husband is away at the war and I don’t know when he’s going to be home, and when I sing this song, I’m praying for him.’ And so you get to create stories completely out of your imagination based on history. That’s been really, really fun because it gives people more room to create details about themselves. It helps build a person’s personal character. So we’re not working on characters in shows, but on your own personal character, developing your own personal character and the empathy and consciousness and playfulness and depth of character that only makes you a cooler singer and person. So that all ended up happening and it all just made sense and I have essentially spent the last fourteen years trying to reach as many people as possible so that everyone can do this work and now the big thing I’m doing is creating teachers so that they can do it. That’s the big thing that’s happening now, I’ve taken the business online and I have 10 colleges currently studying with me online and 24 private voice teachers. I’m making the voice teachers actually perform popular music themselves so that they can teach it, so that they can go, ‘I had this visceral experience. Now I can explain it.’ It’s not just about having a healthy belt, but being able to transport me into the Motown era with your voice and body and soul,” she says. I listen, completely in awe of her brilliance in response to a problem she saw in her community.

This is a woman who is clearly in love with teaching, so I asked, “What’s your favorite part of teaching?”

“I have two favorite parts, Bailey,” she begins, smiling wide. “One is, teaching has made me a cooler person. I just feel like the opportunity to collaborate with people on stuff that is oftentimes difficult and scary and emotional that also asks you what your feelings are, I feel like I’ve become a much cooler person to be around. I feel like also the succeeding has also made me a cooler person to be around because oftentimes as actors, our success is reliant upon people choosing us, so when you create something on you own, [it can be an awesome feeling.] I encourage a lot of actors to find something that is their own, and it might be in the theatre, but find something that gives you value or worth so that it’s not dependent on a casting director calling you back or a creative team hiring you. Because you could be the most talented person in the room but it’s just not yours, which has really crushed a lot of people, myself included. So I think that teaching has made me a cooler person. The other favorite part about teaching is that because of the subject of it being popular music and because it is open to interpretation, I have noticed that there is a certain kind of work that I evoke in students and teachers that has some crazy liberation in it, and watching students and teachers find something in themselves that they didn’t know they had because I’m saying it’s not about your type and it’s not about anything, it’s about what this music does to you. When people find out what this music actually does to them, they become liberated and I think that experiencing other people’s liberation and experiencing people go, ‘Oh my god! It’s that simple?’ or ‘I didn’t even know I had that in me!’ or ‘Look what that story did!’ [is so amazing.]

“It’s like asking a white girl to sing her song from the 50’s and 60’s about a brown boy and saying, ‘No, you’re not supposed to talk to brown boys, you’re not supposed to be anywhere near them,’ yet, this song you’re supposed to be singing, ‘He’s Sure the Boy I Love,’ if you’re singing it about a brown boy, the details it gives you about who you are as a human being are so rich and delicious that we’re looking at you going, ‘Oh my god, she’s an integrator in the 50’s and 60’s. What a cool relationship.’ I can see her relationship to people of color during a time where she wasn’t supposed to have one. You’re no longer saying, ‘I’m cute and I’m white,’ because I [wouldn’t] care about you saying that. I don’t want a white girl that doesn’t care about brown music. I want a white girl that listens to the brown community. I love it when people realize, ‘All I have to do is make the boy I’m singing about of color, and it completely taught me something about myself that I had no idea about.’ [I like] asking people to use history to do soul-searching, if I had a hashtag it would be #researchsoulsearch, research the era and soul search your own life, and that, to me, brings out such incredible things in people that have nothing to do with their ‘type.’ It gets them in their authentic emotional self. I definitely feel like teaching allows me to go home at night and put my head on my pillow and go, ‘This was cool, Sheri.’ I couldn’t do it without my students. I can tell them everything, but they have to come forward and do it, so I feel like it’s a nice collaboration,” she says.

And what is the woman who knows all popular music listening to currently?! This was a burning question of mine, so I asked, “What music are you obsessed with right now?”

“I would say now, the stuff I’m most intrigued by or I find the most exciting is Nicki Minaj,” she says, laughing, “because she’s like a pig and she’s filthy but she’s also a genius. She’s addictive, she’s talented! I love rap and I love all of the different genres of it and that’s something also something that I think is very important for me to be obsessed with right now because everybody wants to do Hamilton and they want to sing Hamilton and they don’t even understand that there are 60 or 70 different styles of rap that all exist because of where people were when they needed to report where the cops were treating them. There’s east coast, there’s west coast, there’s trap, there’s political rap, there’s freestyle, there are so many different kinds and the art forms of rap are so intricate and interesting and different. And you’ll notice in Hamilton, he uses all of the different styles of rap to tell the stories. Probably my biggest rap influences are Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliot. Studying it as a teacher of it, I think that the coolest thing is identifying what kind of rap songs are out there and what kind of rap songs are appropriate for auditions, what kind of rap songs can we get where I’m rapping a little bit and then I’m also doing a cool hook, and how do I arrange a rap song, but more importantly knowing that we can only rap about what we know and what’s true. I don’t know what it’s like to be treated subhuman by white cops, but there are other rappers like Eminem or the Beastie Boys or even the great Macklemore and Lewis, that were all influenced by rappers of color and they appreciate the influence of it. I think what I love is studying rap music and then studying musical theatre’s relationship to rap music and performers’ relationships to rap music and how they can successfully rap without emulating something that they have no right singing about. I’m pretty obsessed with rap stories and people like Jason Mraz and Ed Sheeran, [both rappers] in [their] own right, and if you’re a musical theatre performer, you might want to start with them. You can’t be a caucasian person who came from a privileged background and sing about what it was like to be trapped in generations of drug abuse and selling. You just can’t sing about it. I love rap stories and how they’re told and I do also love that there was a phase where rapping was becoming about making money as a rapper so [rappers] stopped reporting about what was going on but [instead] rapping with this female singer, and then now there are people like Kendrick Lamar and they’re reporting again and I would like to see more of that,” she says, feeling like she could go on all day about the intricacies of rap music that she so clearly respects and admires.

“I have one more question,” I say, “and it’s really nerdy.” She smiles at this, ready for anything. “So I saw on your resume that you studied Meisner,” I begin, talking about Sanford Meisner, an acting teacher whose technique emphasizes an actor focusing on their scene partner and taking everything from that scene partner, instead of worrying about themselves. “I studied Meisner in high school for two years and I’m obsessed with it so I’m just curious if you have any thoughts about the way that applies to the way you teach?”

“Actually, that is a really nerdy question that is so highly intelligent and I’m actually really impressed that you learned Meisner in high school and that you’d ask a question like that and I have an answer that I think you’re really going to dig,” she says, and my inner acting geek is getting excited. “So you know from taking Meisner that it’s not about you, it’s about putting your attention on the other person and taking what you’re getting and letting them affect you and then responding authentically. And  I would say, in complete honesty, that, particularly in popular musical theatre, your scene partner is the music. You need to let the music affect you and when the music affects you, it makes you then have a relationship with the music that is then about how you and the music are in a relationship with each other. So a rhythm might affect you, or you might take a change from one rhythm to another rhythm based on what it’s doing to you. I really think Meisner and popular music go so deeply hand in hand with each other because the music is your lover, the music is your friend, the music is the person you lost, the music is all of those things and you get to be in a relationship with it and deal with it. And I think that question was probably one of the smartest questions anybody has ever asked me,” she says. And I am beaming, silently thanking my amazing high school acting teacher for teaching us such an incredible technique.

Jennifer Tepper on working with her idols at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below & on USOB

Interviewing Jennifer Tepper was kind of surreal for me. For those who don’t know, Jen is my boss. I have been interning on her book The Untold Stories of Broadway, Volume 3 where I transcribe interviews she’s conducted. So all I’ve done since last October is listen to Jen interviewing other people. Now I’m interviewing her. It’s a full-circle moment, something which she says she experiences often when working with her idols at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below, where she’s the Director of Programming. She is known for producing many insanely amazing concerts and shows as well as for her work as a Broadway historian. My favorite thing about Jen is her relentless positivity and promotion of everything theatre. She grew up in Florida, surrounded by theatre.

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From a Theatre Nerd to a Broadway Historian

“I grew up in Boca Raton, Florida. South Florida was definitely very influential on my love of theatre. I feel like South Florida nurtures theatre kids in a very specific way because there’s so many snowbirds, older people, who want to attend musicals and go see shows. Our local high school sold out 12 performances of our musicals every year because there were all of these elderly people in the community. And there’s all these touring houses and regional theatres and just theatre stuff going on, which I think largely has to do with having that population,” Jen says, and then her eyes flicker with a new thought.

“I went to a summer theatre camp and that was life-changing,” she says, a preface for a story. “My mom and I always joke about this. My parents are both in medicine, but they love musicals so we’d go to touring productions of A Chorus Line and Fiddler on the Roof when I was young and I liked them, but the real reason I kind of got involved in theatre was because [of what happened] when I was 9. My best friend from school and camp [was a girl named] Rachel and her and I loved each other, we were best friends, but like 9 year olds do, we would just fight because we were together all the time. So our moms, who were also really good friends, were like, ‘Well, you can go to school together all year, but you just can’t go to camp together this year. So either Rachel has to go to sports camp or Jen has to go to theatre camp.’ I think they literally flipped for it, and I went to theatre camp when I was 9 and that’s really what sparked everything: being in Annie when I was 9. Every summer at camp was really influential because, not only did we get to do shows, but I was surrounded by people who loved theatre and we would become obsessed with cast recordings and we had this community of nerds together.

“‘Then, I counted down the hours until I could start going to this high school, Olympic Heights. I had babysitters and camp counselors who had gone there and I was like, ‘All of their shows are so cool!’ And they would do individual songs and take them around to the community and also participate in competitions, which was amazing to me. Once I was there, I was President of our drama department my senior year and competed in a lot of theatre competitions. That kind of shaped my brain a lot because, not only did I love performing in them, but after a little while, I realized that I didn’t want to perform for a career, but I loved picking other people’s songs and finding out what the new musicals are that everyone is doing at competition and researching new writers. That all blended into what I’ve ended up doing with my life in some weird blender way of things,” she says.

“Who influenced you growing up?” I ask.

“What’s really funny and crazy that I’ve been thinking about is that we have had an extraordinary number of performers that I kind of worshipped [as a kid] at 54 Below in a span of a couple of months. We had Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley who were my favorites, and then we have  Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal coming up, who I also loved as a tween and teen. That’s a really fun part about 54 Below is having those people come back into my orbit in a professional capacity.

“I also had a lot of influential experiences of seeing people do stuff in my hometown. At theatre camp when I was ten, the teen group did Hair and I remember seeing all four performances that they did and being obsessed with it and [thinking], What a crazy musical that does all these crazy things that I didn’t know musicals could do. And it was performed by all these teenagers who I thought were the coolest people ever. We did Hair at 54, it all comes full circle at 54 Below, and I was just like, I loved the revival on Broadway so much, but no matter what, Hair is always going to bring me back to being in this auditorium in Boca with these sixteen year olds who I was in love with because I was ten years old singing those songs. I have a lot of those experiences.

“As far as people I admired and was like, I want to learn more about what they do and have similar careers to them, I was obsessed with Ken Mandelbaum’s book Not Since Carrie, which is one of my favorite books. And then, Ted Chapin, who wrote Everything Was Possible, another favorite book, [who was] also the head of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization and former head of the American Theatre Wing. Ira Weitzman, who was very influential in the development of new musicals. There were a lot of people like that who did specific things in the theatre that had to do with being a historian, producing, or making musicals happen, that were kind of their own jam, who I really admired and looked up to and learned more about from books.”

“What was your first Broadway show?” I ask next, thinking about what theater she saw her first show in and how that impacted the future Broadway historian.

“The first Broadway show I ever saw was The Full Monty which is funny because David Yazbek was here [recently] and I was thinking about it. That was really exciting and important and validating for me as someone who wanted to work in the theatre because it was my first time in New York and I knew that I really wanted to see a new show that I hadn’t seen, that had its original cast, and that had a new score. My mom had gotten us tickets to something that didn’t fall into any of those categories and we begged her to sell them and we got rush seats to Full Monty instead and I’m really happy that was my first Broadway show. I remember sitting in the front row of the Eugene O’Neill and like looking back at the audience and being like, ‘This is what a Broadway theater with an audience looks like.’”

“I love that,” I say. “So how did you choose NYU and how did moving to New York for college influence your career?

“It’s so funny because [I’ve been thinking about this lately] because I moved to New York in August 2004. I only applied to NYU. I knew that I really wanted to be in New York for school. I had only visited New York three times before I moved here but I knew I was going to learn the most from being in New York because I was so interested in studying what the Broadway industry was. So if I had wanted to study acting or directing, it might have been a different choice, but I wanted to learn, What is New York theatre? What are the theaters? So I applied to Dramatic Writing, because I did a little bit of playwriting in high school and I liked it, but mostly I really liked writing in general, especially writing about theatre, so I thought it would be a good fit for me. I spent 4 years at Tisch being an oddball in Dramatic Writing because I wanted to talk about musical theatre documentaries and write about New York and mostly people just wanted to watch The Godfather and write Indie films. But, I also ended up shaping my own curriculum: by taking a lot classes outside my department and through internships and going to a million shows and taking notes and teaching myself and reading a lot on my own. It was very much like New York City was my campus,” she says.

Working at Feinsten’s/ 54 Below

 

Next, I asked Jen to described her job at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below. She summed it up with a series of questions she must answer. “I essentially answer questions like, ‘Should we book this person? What should the ticket price be? What kind of content should be in their show? How many performances should it run for? Do we want to do this musical, who could we talk to that might want to direct if or who can we talk to that might give us permission?’ It’s deciding what our audiences will see and how much they’ll [pay to] see it. It’s a half and half between people reaching out to me and me figuring out how to piece their show together or it’s me thinking, This person would be good, maybe we could get this person to play a week, or This would be a good musical, and then asking people.”

“What’s it like to be working with people you look up to?” I ask, referring to her job at 54 Below, where she works with numerous performers each week, some who are Broadway legends and some who are still in college.

“You know, it’s so funny,” she begins, “I went to see Jeremy Morse as Ogie in Waitress and Jeremy and I lived across the hall from each other freshman year of college, so we go back all the way to 2004. We’ve been friends ever since. It blends together now of the people that are your [friends] who are doing such cool things like being on Broadway and going on for a principal role, and the people who you looked up to from the time you were a kid, who you now get to be friends with and work with. It’s this weird combined thing at this point, but I still get, not intimidated, but really excited around people. We just had Norbert Leo Butz, oh my god, he’s another one that I listened to so much as a kid. It’s really an honor and you realize that that’s what makes theatre great: this nurturing of generations and me getting to talk to someone six years older than me and then me getting to talk to someone ten years younger than me. Theatre is really passed down from person to person, and I think that working with these people that I looked up to really drives that point home. I have a lot to learn from being around them and they learned something from people before them that I can have passed onto me, so it’s always really cool,” she says, excitedly, and I smile thinking about how she’s the person ten years older than me who is passing down her theatre knowledge. She’s so right about how amazing the cyclical aspect of theatre is.

Being a Female in a Man’s World

Full disclosure: I didn’t know what a producer was until Smash. I also didn’t know women were producers until Eileen Rand. That may be fictional, but Jen is a real life example of a woman who is blazing her own trail in the New York theatre community.

“What is it like to be a female in a predominantly man’s world of theatre?” I ask.

“Well, what’s interesting is that I’ve become more aware of the why and what that means recently because I haven’t found that a lot of people have been discriminatory against hiring women. I’ve never had a situation where I felt like someone was hiring only men for a job, but there is this other layer, in that women don’t necessarily become producers because of the certain ways that things are structured and the certain things that come with jobs that have been predominantly male. A lot of jobs in theatre require years and years of pursuing them before you might get paid full time for them and a woman might not feel like that’s a path that she can take, and also pursue things like having a family. There are ways that women in society and their roles have conflicted with jobs in the theatre. I also think a big part of it is the world of internships that we’re in, I’ve done internships where I’ve had paid jobs at the same time to make it work. In general, you have to have some kind of support in order to do an internship and a lot of the advantages that come with progressing in the arts come with those internships and sometimes women or other people that don’t see themselves getting hired for the jobs don’t commit to those paths because they don’t know if they’ll lead [where they want them to]. So it’s all of these really weirdly complicated sources for there not being a lot of women doing something. I think it’s also a domino effect: if men are largely the producers, they’re going to produce plays that they identify with and those are plays oftentimes written by men and then if men are producing and writing the plays, then they’re going to pick a casting director who is a man and then that person is going to cast it the way a man casts a play. [On the other side of that] if you look at Fun Home, women writing that are choosing to hire other women to do things on that show, so it kind of takes the domino effect coming into play before you see a lot of change made.”

Working on The Untold Stories of Broadway, Volume 3

“Now I have a bunch of questions about The Untold Stories of Broadway,” I say, referring to her book series. Each volume focuses on eight Broadway theaters and Jen interviews people who have worked in various jobs in the different theaters. Then, she publishes their interviews, organized by each theater.

“You already know everything,” she says. I’ve been sleeping, eating, breathing USOB, Vol 3 for the past year. Interning on this book has taught me so much and I can’t wait for the masses to read it.

“I know a lot, but not everything,” I say, smiling. “How did you come up with the idea for it?”

“So part of it was spending so much time at the Lyceum during [title of show] and becoming so obsessed with that theater. It has so many things about it that are different from other theaters, from the abandoned dressing rooms, to the Shubert archive on top. It’s the oldest continually operating theater so it’s got a lot of details in the theater that are just old so you feel like you’ve walked into another world, like a time warp. Jeff Bowen and I would look up shows that had played there and we’d be like, ‘Oh, so and so probably had this dressing room when this show was here.’ So that really planted the seeds and then I met Brisa Trinchero and Roberta Pereira a number of years ago. Brisa had seen [a show I produce which highlights songs and stories from underappreciated musicals], If It Only Even Runs a Minute, and from that, she was like, ‘Oh, I’m starting this publishing company and would you like to pitch a book?’ The book that I had in mind had been percolating in my brain. I had thought that someday I’d write a book about the Broadway theaters themselves, so it had kind of been in there, but when they asked me to do that, I was like, This is the book I could pitch. It was something where I was like, I’ve been thinking about this and can probably write it in ten years, but, you know, you shouldn’t do that, you should do it now, because if you’re passionate about it now, you should do it now.”

If you follow Jen Tepper on any social media site, you know she’s obsessed with Hal Prince. In 2013, she interviewed him for USOB. “What was it like to interview your idol, Hal Prince?” I ask.

“Totally surreal and intimidating. Something about working in theatre and working with people now but also writing about history makes you very aware. When I walked into Hal Prince’s office, [I thought], I’m going to remember this moment forever. And forty years from now, I’m going to be able to say, ‘I interviewed Hal Prince.’ So it puts a weird amount of pressure on it and at the same time it makes you appreciate it more because you’re really aware of how special it is while it’s happening. So those are both pros, but it does make me nervous sometimes. It could not have been cooler. When I think about my interview with him, what I’m most impressed by is that, I love Hal Prince, like I worship him, I’ve read everything he’s written and then books about him and every bit of literature I could get my hands on about him and there were things that I asked him in that interview that he told me stories about that I hadn’t heard, which I was like, how crazy for this man who is probably asked the same questions over and over again to really come up with stuff that he hadn’t said. I just was so amazed by that. And I know there are some stories in Volume 3 that are going to come out about his time as an assistant stage manager prior to becoming a producer and director and I don’t think this story is anywhere else. So that was really cool. Sometimes when you interview your idols, you feel like you’re going to know everything they’re going to say, and it was really cool not to,” she says, fangirling over her idol.

“Do you have any interviews that surprised you?” I ask.

“Definitely. It’s always funny and surprising when I know more about a short-lived show than the person I’m interviewing, when I’m so excited to ask this person about an obscure show and they’re like, ‘Wait, what? Who wrote it?’ because they did it for like two months, while I’ve read about it for years. That was surprising to me at first. The Walter Kerr is in the upcoming book and there’s a musical that I was really fascinated by called Soon that played three performances and I was really excited to ask Barry Bostwick about it, and he had so many great stories and memories about other shows that he had done, but he was kind of like, ‘Oh yeah, tell me about Soon.’ So that’s been funny and surprising, but once it happened a few times, I was like, Oh, this makes sense. The life of the artist is doing a lot of shows and if you only do a show for a moment, maybe you don’t remember it as well. I think a lot of people have been surprising in that, there’s his sense that people love doing their work but are not as interested in the history as I might be, but I’ve found for the most part that people are. Four of five people I interview will be like, ‘I was so excited to be at the Barrymore because this show was at the Barrymore.’ I found a lot more nerd-dom than I expected and that has been lovely.”

“That’s so cool,” I say, nerding out just like the Broadway artists she interviews.  “Do you have a favorite chapter that you’ve done for any volume?”

“What’s so funny is, I haven’t been able to stop talking about the Schoenfeld, and everyone is like, ‘Oh, that’s your favorite theater.’ And it’s not, but I’ve been so in it because I’ve been writing about it. When I was writing about the Nederlander, I was so in the Nederlander. I feel like that’s the thing with working on eight theaters at a time, you really get to know them better. I started thinking yesterday about exactly which eight theaters are in the fourth book, like, ‘It’ll be really cool to focus on the Imperial,’ not that I don’t know the Imperial, but when you’re going there thinking about a specific thing you read about from 1942, it puts this new layer of respect on the theater. So I wouldn’t say I have a favorite chapter, but it’s really amazing how much each one gets you while you’re working on it. I will say, I think I had favorite theaters before I started writing the books, but now I really love them all so much for different reasons. I would say, ‘Oh the Alvin and the Winter Garden are my favorites because of Follies and Merrily,’ you know, they were both in the first book. But then you start kind of digging into the Belasco, and you’re like, ‘That’s so special!’”

“I totally understand. Transcribing interviews about the Edison really got me, I loved working on that for the book,” I say, and Jen agrees. “Okay, this is a really silly question, but how do you pick the colors for the covers of the book?” I ask.

She laughs and says, “For the first one, we picked it and we liked it, the second one we picked it and we liked it, the third one I’m kind of like, you have to match it to the first two. But also, when we looked at the green cover initially, it had a red center and I was like, ‘That looks like Christmas.’ So we started trying out different colors for the center part. I think, we’ve always thought, ‘Oh, they’ll be red and yellow and blue and green’ for the initial colors, so I think we were like, ‘Okay, this one can be green,’ but we’re still experimenting with the detail on it.”

“I’ve always wondered that,” I say.

Jen finishes with some insight into what she has been thinking about when writing Volume 3.

“Your question about women made me think about this, I feel like, whether this is true or not, I feel like I am a better writer and a better listener and interviewer since the books started and a new focus of mine when I started interviewing [for Volume 3], was to interview the oldest people possible to make sure each chapter started as far as back in history as it could get and hopefully capture some stories from the 40s. I’ve gotten better about trying to make sure I can fill in the gaps by finding as many people to interview as I can. I think I have a ways to go, but have come a certain distance as far as inclusion of people of different races and people of different genders. It’s really interesting, I think when I started Volume 1, I didn’t think about how I should have female musicians because I should show that there are female musicians on Broadway, I just thought I wanted to represent each theater and that was it. And now, because of the world we live in and all of the conversations that are happening, I’ve started going like, ‘Okay, let me try really hard to get a female house manager,’ or  ‘If I’m talking about this show, I have an Asian actor because this show was about something that happened to the Asian community.’ What’s really hard is that it’s not my choice who says yes to doing an interview, but I’ve tried really hard to be representative in Volume 3, so that’s hopefully something that will be even better in Volume 4.

“The things I’ve heard about the book that I love the most are when someone is like, ‘I got your book because I love theatre and I didn’t understand how cool it was to be a house manager or a box office treasurer or a lighting designer,’ or these jobs that are not performing that people don’t know about as much. I love that and I want to make sure that is in the book as much as possible. There’s some info in book three on what it means to be a vocal supervisor or what it means to be a music supervisor. Then my other favorite thing is like when people say, ‘I’m going into the Richard Rodgers so I read the chapter about the Richard Rodgers.’ That is so cool. I just try to keep in mind what I want the books to do for the people who read them. It’s a responsibility that if people who are students are going to read the book, I need to represent theatre in the best way possible.”

You can purchase Untold Stories of Broadway, Volume 1Volume 2 on Amazon.

 

 

Shoshana Feinstein: From fangirl to producer, a unique journey

“I still have these pinch-me moments often, where I’m like, ‘How is this my life?’” Shoshana Feinstein says. Her path from fangirl to producer extraordinaire is incredibly unique. She is an Original Programming Producer at New York’s cabaret club, Feinstein’s/ 54 Below. However, only a few years ago, she says she was strictly a fangirl. She credits her New York City roots as the reason she fell in love with Broadway.

SHoshanaFeinstein ProducerHat

Photo courtesy of Shoshana Feinstein.

“I grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan,” she says,  “and I would say that influenced me in that I grew up going to see Broadway shows. From a young age, I really knew and loved theatre. When I was a kid, my grandmother would take all of us here and there or my mother would get tickets through work and we would go. [Broadway] was something that I went to and knew existed. And then, as soon as I was old enough to start going on my own, which was high school age, I did. And that’s when it became more of a hobby. I’m not a performer at all, never wanted to be. So I didn’t do anything theatre-related in high school, except see shows.” she explains, her charming NYC accent apparent as she speaks.

“So what is your music background. Obviously, being at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below, you’re surrounded by music, so I was wondering how that interested you when you were younger,” I say.

“I’m a music fan, always have been. I love music, but I have no musical ability or talent at all. I took piano lessons for about three weeks when I was around twelve years old and ended up dropping it because it conflicted with an arts thing I did. I was always more into the art side of things, [such as] painting and sculpture. Honestly,  growing up I never really thought I’d work at all in anything having to do with music. I loved it as an art form, but it was never something to aspire to. It was always just like, ‘Wow! These people are so cool because they can do something that I can’t do,’” she says.

“Where did you go to college and how did that influence your career?” I ask.

“I went to college here in the city. It’s a private school called Touro College. I went to school for Graphic Design. That was my interest at the time. I don’t really do that anymore, but I think it’s a similar creative eye to what I do now. The only way it influenced me to where I am now is that I was in New York so I was seeing Broadway shows. I was seeing them multiple times, so I got to know who people were and started following them from show to show and getting introduced to the whole musical theatre side that’s not Broadway,” she says, explaining how her passion for Broadway began to open her eyes to the New York theatre community beyond Broadway.

“So, what lead you to producing?” I ask, curious how a graphic design student ended up working as a producer.

“As you can probably tell from me talking, my path was a little bit weird and unique. I was just a fan of theatre, it started with Broadway, and then I started going to Joe’s Pub to see people do solo shows and then I actually had a friend move to New York and she did video work as a hobby. She had a video camera and she started working with people [who were] performing things. And she kind of dragged me into that,” she says, laughing. “One night there was a Ryan Scott Oliver concert and she had to work and couldn’t make it, so she asked me if I could film it. I said, ‘Sure. I don’t know what I’m doing, but if you show me what to do, I’ll do it.’ And from there, I started doing a lot of filming and it grew over the next several years. It started as a hobby where I was working a regular nine to five job in graphic design [during the day], and then at night I was just filming. As it started to become more popular, I started putting more time into it, like upgrading things, until filming became a full-time job. And because I was filming all the time, I was constantly behind the scenes of all of these concerts. I was backstage and I was seeing everything about it. I started thinking, ‘Well, it doesn’t seem too complicated. If I have an idea, why can’t I just do it?’ So I did. I kind of wanted to do an understudy concert and I decided to just go ahead and do it and see what happens. It was a concert featuring a bunch of understudies on Broadway. I didn’t know what I was doing yet. I asked a lot of people for advice. I asked Jen Tepper, [Director of Programming at 54 Below], she had already started her Runs a Minute series, so I had asked her a bunch of questions I had and there were a lot of things that I probably ended up doing in a stupid, roundabout way. But then we got there and we did the concert and it went really well. So we did another one a few months later and from there I just started being like, ‘Oh! I have an idea. Let’s do it and see what happens.’ And then when 54 Below opened, I did a couple of concerts there and two years ago they said that they wanted to add a few producers on staff and [asked if] I would be interested. And I said, ‘Sure. Why not? I’m doing it anyway. I love doing it, so why not do it a little more officially?’ So that’s how that happened,” she says, a certain disbelief about her own journey.

SHoshanaFeinsteinInt54BelowPic1

Photo of a #tbtLIVE Throwback Thursday concert produced by Shoshana Feinstein at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below. Photo courtesy of Shoshana Feinstein.

“What’s your favorite part about Feinstein’s/ 54 Below?” I ask.

“I just, I love, love, love the people there. All the way from the owners to the waitstaff. Everybody does their job so well. They’re so equipped to support you with what you need on their end. It’s just, honestly, the most loving work environment. I feel so supported. I feel like they believe in me and they trust me and really want me to succeed, which is really amazing. I was worried when I took the job that producing would go from being something that I’d do for fun because I loved it to being just a job: something where I didn’t really want to do it, but that I had to. Luckily, that has not been the case at all. I still get to do things that I absolutely love doing and it still feels like a passion project,” a smile spreads across her face as she talks about where she works.

“That is just amazing,” I say. “Can you also talk about the New York theatre and cabaret community and what it’s like to work with people that are your friends in that environment?” I ask.

“It’s amazing,” she begins. “There are two sides to it. There’s getting to work with your friends and then there’s getting to become friends with these people who you admire and who do something so cool. And I love that. We’ll do an amazing concert and someone will come up and say, ‘Wow! That was an amazing cast. How did you get that?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, I just kind of reached out to my friends.” And then I realize how incredible it is to be able to say that these people who are so insanely talented are my friends and I get the opportunity to work with them in a way that, I hope, is really exciting and fun and beneficial to both of us. I feel like they’re helping me out by performing in a concert and I’m helping them out by giving them the opportunity for exposure or whatever it is for each person. And then there’s also that thing where I get the chance to work with people who, eight years ago, I was literally standing at a stagedoor waiting to get autographs from. And I’ve been lucky enough to have that [moment with] a lot with a lot of reunion concerts I’ve done. I recently did a Footloose reunion concert and I was sitting in rehearsal with Jennifer Laura Thompson and Jeremy Kushnier and I was sitting in paradise and my mind was exploding, like, ‘This is happening,’ like ‘This is something that I’m a part of,’ you know? I’m still, at heart, a Broadway fangirl. Eight years ago, I considered myself just a Broadway fan. And now, to be a part of the community is really mind-blowing. I still have these pinch-me moments often, where I’m like, ‘How is this my life?’ You know? It’s really incredible.”

54ElevatorSelfieFootloose Shoshana Feinstein

An elevator selfie from the Footloose reunion concert. Photo courtesy of Shoshana Feinstein.

“I love that,” I say. “What’s your favorite part of working on new and original work?” I ask.

“I think my favorite part is creating something out of nothing. And I don’t mean that I created the material, but usually when you have an idea, and then you put it out there, you’re creating something that likely wouldn’t exist if not for your hard work at it. That really satisfies the creative side of me. I love when there’s something that I’m passionate about, that I’m putting on and then people come see it and all of the sudden they’re talking about how awesome it is. It’s like when you convince your friends to watch a TV show you love, and then they love it and you feel good about getting other folks to watch it. I love that, I think it’s incredible, especially when it comes to new work and new writers. I love to discover new things and I love helping other people discover new things,” she says, a giddiness to her voice.

To close, she talks about following your passion no matter what. “I’m a big believer in that if there’s something that you’re passionate about, pursue it. It’s kind of cliche advice, but I feel like it’s literally my life. If you love something, find a way to put it out there, even if it’s not necessarily going to be your career,” she turns it back to me for a moment, saying, “Like what you’re doing with your blog, it’s something that you’re excited about. Create. Because it’s nice to feel passionate about something and you never know where life is going to take you. I mean, I never would have thought that I would end up doing this. It all just kind of happened, but it happened because I explored what I was interested in. I wasn’t looking out for a job, but I was like, ‘I love this. I want to make it a part of my life.’ Don’t not do something because you feel like it’s something that you can’t do or because you think that you’re never going to be successful at it, because you never know. Even if you don’t end up hitting your ultimate goal, the path getting there can be satisfying.”

 

Bright Star Swing Maddie Shea Baldwin: Singing on the Monkey Bars

“I kept singing ‘My Heart Will Go On’ from Titanic on the monkey bars in preschool,” Bright Star swing Maddie Shea Baldwin says when I ask her if she remembers when she knew musical theatre was what she wanted to pursue. Fresh off of her first Broadway show, Maddie conducted herself with grace and confidence, the latter being something she says took time to build. Her unique journey to Broadway is something that reminds me of so many of my friends who are starting their journey to becoming actors and actresses. Maddie’s honesty about her experiences in the business thus far is so inspiring. She graduated from college just last year and is establishing her place in the New York Theatre community. However, she got her start on the opposite end of the country in San Diego.

Maddie Baldwin

“Where are you from and what impact did your hometown have on you?” I ask.

“I grew up in San Diego, California which is a very beachy, surfy town, but it has a really amazing theatre scene. The Old Globe, where they actually did Bright Star for the first time, [is there], as is La Jolla Playhouse. I started doing theater when I was in third grade, so I think just the wide variety of opportunities they have there [impacted me]. I also worked in professional theaters in 5th grade. There was always something to audition for. It’s very artsy, which is funny because it’s also the polar opposite: it’s very artsy but also very surfy, like eat a burrito and go surf, so I kind of had best of both worlds. I went to the beach all the time after I had rehearsal. You know what I mean? So it’s kind of cool to have that balance, which I think impacted me now [because I] have other hobbies and other things that I enjoy,” she says.

“What are some of the places where you did theatre growing up?” I ask, curious about the vast opportunities available for young actors in San Diego.

“I did my first show through my high school. I went to the same school from Kindergarten through 12th grade, so if the high school would do a show and they needed kids, they use them from the elementary school. So we did King and I and that was my first show and I was like, ‘I have to do this for the rest of my life.’ I was obsessed. So, from there I started doing [theatre at] the San Diego Junior Theatre and it’s in Balboa Park, it’s the community theater there. I did classes and then I started doing mainstage [where] the cool kids [performed], but I looked up to the cool kids, I was a youngin’. I did my first show there in fifth grade and did that until I was a senior in high school. And at the same time, across the way is The Old Globe. It’s the same location. Literally across the street, the Old Globe was there and it was the professional theater. And they would hold auditions every year for How the Grinch Stole Christmas, so when I was in fifth grade, my mom was like, “You have to audition for The Grinch,” and I was like, “No, I’m so nervous!” But I auditioned for The Grinch and then I did that for three years in a row around Christmas. I was a Who in Whoville. And then I ended up being too tall. I was taller than the Grinch. And they were like, ‘Maddie, we’ve got to [kick you out.]’ I was a really tall kid,” she says, with a smile, her eyes revealing her fond feelings for her hometown.

“Do you remember the moment when you knew theatre was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?” I ask.

Suddenly, an embarrassed smile breaks across her face and she lets out a little giggle. “I remember singing on the monkey bars, thinking, I am doing this! [Even though] it wasn’t anything, no one would watch. But you had a crush on the guy in the sandbox and you’re like, ‘I need to sing for him!’ But yeah, it was my favorite. That’s my moment. But I just have always wanted to. My whole life, I’ve never wanted anything different,” she says with a determination that she seems to have had her entire life.

“That sweet,” I say, thinking about how hard it must be to hang upside down on the monkey bars and sing at the same time.

“Who inspired you as a young child?” I ask.

“Bernadette Peters. Bernadette Peters! Mostly Bernadette Peters. [And] Julie Andrews. I watched all of the classics growing up. Who else? Oh my gosh. Bernadette Peters was truly one of my favorites. Oh, Barabra Stresiand! My favorite record/ album collection. I was just listening to it last night I have like, truly I think I have 30 records of hers. I’m obsessed. Judy Garland. Just classic ladies who own their talent and are confident. I just looked up to them because I watched all of the classic stuff. Bernadette Peters is crazy because she came to the show and Michael Mulheren is friends with her, and he kept saying backstage, ‘Bernadette’s going to stop by,’ and he kept saying, ‘Bernadette, Bernadette, Bernadette,’ and finally I went up to him and I was like, ‘I’m sorry, are you talking about Bernadette Peters? Or like another Bernadette?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, she’s a friend of mine.’ And I was like, ‘I’m going to crap my pants.’ He was like, ‘When she comes back, I’ll introduce you.’ I was like, ‘I get nervous around famous people, don’t do that!’ And he pulled me aside and I was like, ‘Bernadette!’ I just gave her a big hug, awkwardly. But she’s so nice, luckily. I am such a fan. Such a fan! [Also] Audra McDonald. I’m not a soprano like her and I bow down to sopranos, so her voice was always like…goddess, she’s a goddess. And she’s just a beautiful woman and a genuine woman. And now Carmen [Cusack]. Carmen is now my role model. I told her a million times. She’s the most genuine, down to earth human being and she is so talented but so kind and cool and collected and so herself. She’s a friend, but I think I’ll continue to put her up there as a role model. I want to be like her for sure. I know she’s my new one for sure,” she says.

“How did you choose where you went to college and what impact did your college have on you?” I ask, one of my standard questions.

“Woah. Okay,” she says, caught slightly off guard. Collecting her thoughts, she begins, “My college story is kind of, it’s an intense story, it’s a little bit of a longer story if you want to hear it,.” I nod, intrigued.  “So I was a musical theatre kid, I liked straight acting, but I knew I wanted to do musical theatre. I knew I wanted to move to New York and I said, ‘I’m moving to New York when I’m out of high school.’ So you have unifieds, [which are auditions for many schools all at once] and I had eleven schools I was auditioning for. All the big ones, you know, Michigan, Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Carnegie Mellon, all of them. Originally I wanted to go to school in a city, but I didn’t know where I was going to end up. I was just going to see what happens. I ended up getting into no schools. I got into no schools, which I think is important to say because, at the end of the day, you know, I don’t think that necessarily happens to everyone, but I got into no schools. I really had a hard time auditioning at that time. I was auditioning for the Junior Theatre where, and I had been auditioning for them my whole life, so it was easy. Suddenly, I was in these rooms with people I don’t know and it was the most nerve wracking experience for me. I wasn’t confident in myself and I knew the auditions didn’t go well and I got into no schools. So that was probably the hardest thing I’ve gone through. That was four years ago. So I looked at my options, I was waitlisted at Boston Conservatory, but that was it, so I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do. I thought this was what I wanted to do. Should I not be doing this. Am I not good enough?’ It was really hard for me. And so I decided on Indiana University, it’s a big school and I think education is really important, so that was a big thing for me because I think as an actor, you need to have knowledge of the world. Be a person, right? To understand different types of people. So that’s good, and it’s got all of the ‘ra ra’ stuff, you know, it’s got games, so I thought that was cool because I never did that in high school. So I chose that and they had a BA program that anybody could be a part of. So I was like, that’s cool. There’s a BA program, I’ll go, and I will see what happens. But I was really upset, I was so upset. So I went on a whim and that whole first year, I followed the curriculum of the musical theatre class, you can your freshman year. So I followed the curriculum and I just worked on myself. I was in the practice room every single day, I auditioned for everything. I did some plays that year, I did some musicals that year, Just worked on myself, really, really hard and sort of rediscovered my passion for it. I realized, ‘This is what I want to do. I can be good enough.’ And I found my confidence! So I ended up doing this musical and it was this mainly a two person musical and the guy in it was a sophomore musical theatre student. So all of the musical theatre faculty came to see it. And they were like, ‘Hey you should audition for the program next year.’ I and I was like, ‘I did and I didn’t get in.’ And they said, ‘you should re-audition.’ And I was so nervous, obviously, but I auditioned and it went great and I got in. It’s such an important thing to know as a human being, that your own passion is what matters most and what you make out of a situation is what matters most. So I’m not perfect, I’m still not perfect and it’s a time that really helped me and now I’m more confident and I’m still working on myself. But you need time to be like, ‘Alright, is this what I want to do? Yes! This is the only thing I want to do with my life.’ So that was my experience and I know auditioning for schools is the most I nerve-wracking thing and I remember feeling like that was the end all be all, but at the end of the day, you’re going to make the most out of every situation you’re in. And no matter what program you go to, BA or BFA, whatever you make out of it is going to be what you get out of it,” she says.

“Wow,” I say, surprised that she had such a humbling start to her career. “So let’s talk about Bright Star, what was that experience like?” I ask.

“Um, Bright Star was crazy for me. I still don’t even get that it happened really,” she says, with a sense of awe and disbelief.  “I graduated school in May and I auditioned for it in August. It was one of those things that I went to like, ‘I’m not ready for this, but I’ll go and do my best.’ And it worked out. It’s always when you least expect it. It was just incredible. The story was something that I was passionate about. It’s a beautiful story, which is [amazing because] you do a lot of theatre and you don’t always have your heart on fire for it, but this truly was a beautiful story to tell. Everyone was lovely. Everyone was so genuine and kind and a true reflection of the story. Being a swing is insane. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done and probably will ever do. It’s a hard job. Going into it, I knew what a swing was, obviously, but I was like, Okay…I can’t believe they’re trusting me with this. Being a swing is a whole different set of skills than anything I’ve ever done, because you’re doing everything times four. It was almost like studying for a test, you know, I had notecards and packets that I had typed out and written out to remember it and I had sticky notes in my script and I had five different methods to learn all of the charts. But you really don’t know it until you go on the stage. And you go onstage and you feel like you’ve never been onstage. You go on for the first number, and you’re like ‘I’ve never done this track.’ And then you’re like, you know what, being on a Broadway stage is just like being on any other stage, it’s just like home to me. And it would feel the same way to you, it’s like it’s Broadway, you’re on Broadway, but it’s just a theater. You’re with your cast that you know and it suddenly becomes comfortable. It’s scary and for Bright Star, we didn’t start rehearsing onstage until we opened. So the craziest part for me was previews because that’s when a couple of people got sick so I went on during previews, before I had rehearsed. So that was crazy. But luckily, our creative team is so lovely and we had a rehearsal during the day so they let us go through everything. But you know what Emily Padgett said, because she was a swing for her first time that she ever did a Broadway show, she said, ‘Be fearless. Because you just have to go onstage and trust that this is what you’ve been doing your entire life. Trust yourself and be confident in yourself.’ Like I said, I’ve always had issues with confidence, so it really pushed me to be like, this is what I do, I’m a performer this is my job. My job. I have to do it. So it’s so good for me. I learned more than I’ve ever learned in my entire life in a span of less than a year. It was truly one of the coolest experiences and I made some incredible friends. And I can’t even believe it’s over. It’s kind of weird to me now, like what do I do? But it was very very special. And I think it will always be that special,” she says, reflecting on her past few months.

“What’s your favorite part of the New York theatre scene?” I ask.

“It’s so small. I’m doing [a lot of] concerts and and I know a ton of people from doing a concert with them or a show with them or I know them through a friend. I know of or have met almost everyone, so it’s kind of crazy how small it is. And I like that. I like how small the community is. It truly feels comfortable. It feels kind of like a family. It almost makes it feel less scary. It makes auditions less stressful because you know people and everyone’s just an artist here and we’re just performing. It’s starting to become a comfortable environment,” she says, giving me a glance into what it’s like as a new actress in the Broadway community.

“That’s so cool,” I say. “Is there any advice you have for young aspiring actresses?” I ask, confident that she must have some bits of knowledge that she’d like to share.

“Yes! These are things I’m learning. I’m not trying to say I know everything because I really don’t. That’s one thing. One thing is that you’re going to feel like when you get to this point where you’re an actor in New York that you’re going to feel differently, like you’re going to be more mature or whatever. And yeah, you grow up, but I’m still feeling inside my head the same I did in middle school. You’re always going to be you. This business is really hard, there are a lot of people saying no, but I think what’s important is to know yourself. Be confident and love yourself. Be able to just leave things at the door and leave and be able to have friends and hobbies or learn an instrument and do things where you don’t have to constantly have pressure on yourself about one audition. That makes it so much easier. An audition is just opportunity to perform. So I had to kind of find that out when I got here and it was because I was sitting next to people I recognized from Broadway. And I was like, ‘I’m a nobody!’ Instead, I had to say, ‘This is three minutes to sing a song I’ve been working on. This is my opportunity to read these sides as myself and bring myself into my character and be different than everybody else because everyone else is different than I am.’ I try to look at it as an opportunity to do my little show. I go in and do my little show and then I’m done and I leave and I go to the park or I go home and work on my next thing. I study it. Maybe it’s a new character I get to do. I don’t get attached, obviously, because we don’t book everything, but it’s just an opportunity to work on something new. And I’m learning that. I’m learning how to be confident enough that I can just leave my things at the door and move onto the next thing. I just think that it’s important to love yourself. We’re all still just on the monkey bars singing!”

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

 

Hannah Elless on Bright Star’s full circle moment & her love for her hometown

“Oh wait,” Hannah says, jumping up. “We have to take a picture with this!” she says, grabbing a Polaroid camera. “I’ve never taken a selfie with it,” she says, as we flip the camera around for a picture. She sets down the tiny Polaroid, we have to wait until it develops to see if it turns out. We are sitting in Hannah’s dressing room backstage at The Cort Theatre. I am looking around at the makeup scattered around her table, at the beads dangling from one wall, at her name on the outside of the open door, and I am so full of happiness for Kalamazoo’s hometown hero.

HannahBlogInt4

We sit down and I shuffle some papers around to find my first question. “What is the first show you saw in Kalamazoo?” She smiles, taking a moment to think. Kalamazoo is our hometown. It’s a cultural hub in southwest Michigan with strong support for theatre. We are fiercely proud of all of our local actors who make it big, like Hannah. “The first show I saw was Annie at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre and it changed my life because as a girl in middle school, watching other girls in my community who were in middle school perform was completely inspiring. And sometimes you don’t know if something is possible unless you watch someone else do it. So for me, as a young girl being taken to our community theater,  watching a show like Annie, inspired me to think, I could do that. I could be that girl telling these stories and that helped me to have the confidence to audition for Annie when it came around to the Comstock Community Theatre a couple of years later. And I had broken my foot right before the auditions and I was devastated. I thought it was all over. And my parents encouraged me to go even though I had a broken foot. So I went and auditioned. I did the dance call with a cast on my left foot, and I got Annie and that was the start of really, my music theatre career,” she says with a smile.

And what a career it has been. She started out on tour in Mamma Mia! before making her Broadway debut in the revival of Godspell, singing “Bless the Lord.” She has worked off-Broadway in The Other Josh Cohen, a new musical, and is now starring on Broadway eight times a week in Bright Star, another new, original musical. She’s always been destined to work on new musicals. In fact, the first show she ever did was a brand new musical.

“I was 11 years old and I sang with the Kalamazoo Children’s Chorus and they were looking for a girl to do a new musical,” she says, “Can you believe it?” I agree, it’s pretty wild, considering the majority of her career has been spent working on readings and workshops of new shows. “It was called Gertrude McFuzz and it had two people in it, it had a female opera soloist, who played the narrator, and it had a part for a young girl to play Gertrude McFuzz. And I got recommended from the Kalamazoo Children’s Chorus. It was totally sung through, it was an operetta, and I learned what blocking was, I didn’t know what the word was,” she laughs in disbelief, talking about the blanket term used for every move made onstage. “I did all of my own blocking, essentially. I didn’t know what I was getting into! I was 11 years old and I got paid! So my very first theatre gig, I got paid! Money!” We both laugh. “And so I thought, Wow this is cool. I want to do more theatre where I make money singing. What a funny joke, because I didn’t get paid to do theatre for, you know, another 12 years until college. So that was my very first show and it was a musical and it was a brand new musical. It was at the Nature Center. They have a little barn there that has a performance space and that’s where we did the shows. I think there were four shows. Quite the run. Yes, so my first show was actually a musical and a brand new musical. So I’ve come full circle.”

Hannah always talks about how her dream role is originating a role in a new musical. Now, she is doing that in Bright Star, where she plays the ingenue Margo. She brings down the house each night with her big solo, “Asheville.”  Her voice is beautiful, but her acting is what sets her apart. Perhaps it was her early training in classical theatre and acting that created a foundation for stellar acting. She was inspired by a director at The Kalamazoo Civic Theatre.

“Her name is Michelle Hopkins,” she says, when I ask about a teacher who had made an impact. “And she was my director at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre when I did The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, which was a play for the Civic Youth Program and that was the first show I did with her. I went on to do many other plays and especially Shakespeare and classical works and she was the one that taught me about first folio and iambic pentameter, and Shakespeare. It should start [at a young age] because Shakespeare can be so intimidating if you don’t get involved with it at a young age, but if you’re just introduced to Shakespeare as a kid, it’s a normal thing. You’re used to the stories, you’re used to hearing it. By the time I hit college, I actually had more knowledge about classical theatre than the majority of my peers coming into college because I had had, basically a private education through Michelle Hopkins and her love of Shakespeare and classical works and I still carry that with my today into New York City. My love for Shakespeare started with her and she taught me so much about performing.”

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[Photo courtesy of The Kalamazoo Civic Theatre and Fred Western]
Then, Hannah goes on to talk about why Kalamazoo’s local theatre scene inspires her. “The great thing about Kalamazoo is we have so much community theatre, and by that I mean theatre outside of the education programs. So yes, you can do shows at your school, but you can also be in a production with people of all ages and that is what made me a really good performer because I would go into shows where I’d be performing with people like Erin Beute and she was a huge inspiration to me, and you know, because she was older than me, and really talented and it taught me a lot because I was around all kinds of people, all different ages. That in itself was an education for me. And that’s why Kalamazoo is so great. The community is so inspiring when it comes to theatre.”

In fact, it’s possible that Kalamazoo inspired her to pursue theatre as a career.  “One of the shows, actually the last show I did at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre was Beauty and the Beast and I wasn’t going to audition for that either. I had decided it was my senior year, and I needed to focus on college applications and theatre, in my mind, wasn’t a profession at that point. It was more of a hobby that I really liked. Something that gave me a lot of joy. And I thought, I don’t have time to do a show, it’s my senior year, I have other things to focus on. And I was encouraged to audition and through a set of circumstances did end up auditioning. And they gave me Belle in Beauty and the Beast. Seventeen years old. We did so many shows. It was the holiday show. And that show changed my life because it’s where I learned how to have endurance and I learned that I could be a leading lady and carry a show on my shoulders and lead a company. It taught me a lot about being a good leader and it also showed me that maybe I wanted to do this for a living. And so because I did Beauty and the Beast at the [Kalamazoo] Civic, my very last show there, I auditioned for music theatre programs and it’s all history from there. I got into the programs I wanted to and ended up going to Western Michigan [University] and was so inspired by Marin Mazzie who had gone there. I just have a lot of female role models in my life that have gotten me to this point. And Kalamazoo really shaped me. I still look back at my time there. The Miracle Worker at the [Kalamazoo] Civic, I did that when I was 14 years old, and I joke, but it’s kind of not a joke, that that may be some of the best work I have done. I’ll constantly be trying to live up to the work that we did onstage in The Miracle Worker. Again, I had a great director, Bev Riley, Erin Beute played Annie [Sullivan] and the cast was phenomenal, our set was unbelievable. I didn’t know at the time what I had in our community theater, I just thought all community theaters ran like a professional theater. Little did I know how lucky I was to be in Kalamazoo.”

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[Photo courtesy of The Kalamazoo Civic Theatre and Fred Western]
“You’re legendary for Beauty and the Beast,” I say, “because, we’re all like, if she was seventeen and got a leading role, we can be seventeen and get a leading role.”  “Listen,” she says, “That’s how it works, is you see someone else go ahead of you and you say, ‘I can do that,’ and then you’re the person that does it and someone else sees you, and it’s a cycle of art inspiring people to make more art. That is what we’re looking to do as artists, is inspire more people to make art.” I nod, because, that’s really what Hannah Elless is, above all else, she is an artist. She’s a musician, a singer, an actress, a storyteller, and she’s an artist. I believe her genuine artistry is what helped her build a successful career.

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[Photo courtesy of The Kalamazoo Civic Theatre and Fred Western]
She leaves me with a thank you and an anecdote.  “I’m so thankful to Kalamazoo,” she says, smiling, “and the family and support that it gave me. And I’m just so proud of my hometown and so happy to sing its praises and to talk about it. I was in a coffee shop and I was wearing a hat that said ‘Kalamazoo’ on it and someone said, ‘What’s that? What’s Kalamazoo?’ And they pronounced it right, I was like, ‘Well first of all, you pronounced it right,’ I said, ‘It’s the greatest city in the world!’ We need to write a song about it. Hamilton got it all wrong, it’s Kalamazoo actually,” she says, laughing. Indeed it is.