Musical Theatre Monday – Corey Ann Haydu on The Fantasticks

Happy Musical Theatre Monday, yo. How are you celebrating? All ways are good ways. Today our guest bloggist is the adorable and talented Corey Ann Haydu, whose upcoming book OCD Love Story is one I’m quite, quite excited for. I will let Corey get to it!


COREY ANN HAYDU: I was meant to be a New Yorker.

Not only in the typical ways: I used to be an actress, I felt wildly out of place in Boston, I never wore fleece well enough to be a real New Englander, I have a Jersey father and like tiny spaces and excellent restaurants and have a pretty underdeveloped sense of smell, which comes in handy walking around in New York summers when the garbage heats up and its smell infiltrated the humid air. Evolutionarily speaking, I was built for the city. And I moved to New York for all these reasons, but mostly because of The Fantasticks.

First things first: I started performing when I was nine. To be more accurate, I started performing when I was six and started listening to musical theatre cassette tapes with my father on long drives from our home outside of Boston to our summer retreat in New Hampshire. I was especially enchanted by Annie, as most six year old girls were, but I also was pretty familiar with Evita, Les Miserables, Oliver, Into the Woods, The Music Man, The Sound of Music, Cats, and many other original cast recordings. I was tiny and really good at reading and had that  supposedly charming thing where my enormous belt was in sharp contrast to my insanely tiny frame (when I was nine I was the size of a six year old. Now that I am thirty I am finally the size of an eleven year old). So needless to say I was pretty successful, as far as child actors performing in summer stock productions go.

My parents found that whole tiny-girl-belting thing pretty adorable too, and supported my love of musical theatre. My father used to take me to New York City for a weekend and we would see four shows in the two days we were there. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the big theatre and the sometimes cheesy shows. I had a Cats t-shirt that I tied to the side with a scrunchie like any extremely uncool pre-teen girl in the late eighties and very early nineties was known to do. But I didn’t quite fit in with Those Musical Theatre Girls. I wasn’t outgoing enough, for one. And I didn’t really pull of my side-tied t-shirt with any kind of finesse. And I didn’t really think the sun would come out tomorrow. I had a dark side. The kind of dark side an eleven year old has. You know, the really deep kind.

That’s where The Fantasticks came in. My father had seen it back in his days living in the city with my mother, and knew it was hip. It was edgy. It was exactly the kind of thing his kinda angsty daughter would like.

He was right. I had never been to the village. I had never been to a small black box-ish theatre. I had never seen a show with so few set pieces, so few costumes, such a tiny orchestra. The actors references the audience constantly. I had the belief they were even more interested in me and my adorableness than I was in them. And I was VERY interested in them. I loved that there was a character who played a Wall. I loved that there was something both fairy-tale like and adult to the show. I loved the cheeky tone, the tiny simple moments, the  strange leaps in logic.

More than that, I loved walking my Washington Square Park after the curtain call and seeing something wildly different than the diners and bright lights of Times Square that had been my experience with New York City before.

“I’m going to live in the Village,” I said to my father. We walked by a girl in a cool vest and a boy in a cool hat and I knew I was special enough to be part of this side of the city. I liked that it was called The Village. I liked that the buildings were lower and made of brick. I liked seeing a part of New York that I felt convinced no one else in my town had ever seen.

And I just knew I could be the girl in The Fantasticks. I could have a relationship with a Wall and a Moon and wear my hair long and wavy and put glitter on my face and sing songs that sounded less like musical theatre and more like poetry. I could be bohemian and funny in the sad way. I could live in the Village and work in a teeny tiny theatre instead of a big glitzy one. I could be too cool for Broadway. I could be off-Broadway.

Seven years after I saw The Fantasticks with my father, I moved to the Village. I wore long sweater coats and drank coffee at hole in the wall cafes with mean waiters and walked through the Washington Square arch and maybe even had a relationship with it, maybe even heard it sing to me and tell me what to do with my life, which was stay in New York and live in small spaces with big dreams and romantic hair and serious thoughts.

I’m sure there are other reasons I moved here. But not really. Mostly it was the vision of being an artist—the dirty (but still safe! Still beautiful! Still romantic and scripted and glittery!) kind, that brought me here. The Village is still dazzling, off-Broadway is still the tiniest bit dangerous and lovely, and The Fantasticks still brings me to tears.

Corey Ann Haydu is a young adult author living in Brooklyn. Her first novel, OCD Love Story comes out on July 23, 2013, and her second, Life By Committee will be hitting shelves Summer 2014. She has an MFA from the Writing for Children program at The New School, and a BFA from Tisch School of the Arts at NYU where she studied acting and fell in love with NYC. Corey transcribes and discusses her humiliating childhood diaries at formerselfproject.blogspot.com. These days, you can find her at her local cafe where she writes books, drinks mochas and eavesdrops on stranger’s fascinating conversations.


Musical Theatre Monday – Interview with Jason Graae

GUYS. MUSICAL THEATRE MONDAY IS BACK! YEAHHH it is. It is back with a bang, because in today’s thrilling installment, we have an interview with one of my favorite performers, Jason Graae. YEAH WE DO. Let’s get to it!



Jason Graae has been featured on Broadway in A Grand Night For Singing, Falsettos, Stardust, Snoopy!!! and of course, Do Black Patent Leather Shoes..? His many Off-Broadway shows include Forever Plaid (Original Sparky), Hello, Muddah, Hello, Fadduh (Drama Desk Award nomination-Best Actor), Olympus on My Mind, All in the Timing, etc. He made his Metropolitan Opera House debut as vocal soloist in Twyla Tharp’s Everlast with ABT. A Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award winner, he hung upside down for a year as Houdini in the L.A. company of Ragtime, was featured in Forbidden Broadway Y2KLA! (Ovation Award), and at the Hollywood Bowl he played Benny in Guys and Dolls and Marcellus in The Music Man. Numerous TV shows include 6 Feet Under, Friends, Frasier, Rude Awakening and for five years he was the voice of “Lucky” for Lucky Charms Cereal. He has recorded over 45 CDs, including three solo albums. His show with Faith Prince, “The Prince and the Showboy” recently won the New York Nightlife Award for best duo.

AMY SPALDING: Hi, Jason, welcome to the blog for the Musical Theatre Mondays series!
JASON GRAAE: Thank you, Amy. I’m thrilled to be here. (On my couch.)

AS: What was the first musical theatre production/performance/song/etc. that you really admired?
JG: I saw my mom dance in a community theatre outside Chicago in a production of Wonderful Town. The first song I ever remember was “Why O Why O Why O Why Did I Ever leave Ohio?”. And “The Conga”. I was stagestruck immediately at five.

AS: When did you first know you wanted to be involved in musical theatre?
JG: In Tulsa, Oklahoma – when I auditioned for one of the kids in Oliver! at Tulsa Little Theatre. I didn’t get it and the rejection was exhilarating.

AS: Were you involved in school productions in high school?
JG: Yes, when I was in high school we did Sweeney Todd – the original melodrama. I played Dr. Lupin, a Reverend who lusts after Mrs. Lovett and gets turned into a pie. I was a sophomore and I got huge laughs, and the cute class president invited me to all the cool parties after that. And by cool parties at my high school in Tulsa – I mean, Bible groups.

AS: What was the most exciting thing about your first productions?
JG: I remember the smell of the rehearsal studios and the dressing rooms. Magical. I was so stagestruck. And yet really shy. I eavesdropped a lot.

That sounds weird.

I was a newsboy in Gyspy at the aforementioned Theatre Tulsa – Sam Harris was one too. My mom played Tessie Tura which I thought was terribly exciting, that my mom was a stripper. Sam Harris’ mom didn’t strip.

Onstage.

AS: What was the scariest or most stressful part? Has it gotten easier as you’ve performed more or is some of it fresh and scary each time?
JG: My entrance as Houdini in Ragtime. I actually had to go to therapy about it. Entering sixty feet above the stage, hanging upside down from my ankles in a straight jacket in handcuffs. I’ve never done THAT before!

…Sober.

Graciella Danielle said if I was uncomfortable I could walk in from the back but for the amount of stage time Houdini had I figured that entrance was paramount to the character.

AS: Have you ever had a crush on anyone in a production with you? Did it end up dreamy or disastrous?
JG: Yes, in every show. Often started dreamy, often ended disastrous. I’m friends with most of them now.

When I did a certain production of Falsettos, I played Mendel the heterosexual psychiatrist, and it was a TAD weird that there was this sexual tension between Mendel and Whizzer.

AS:What are some of your favorite roles/productions you’ve been involved in?
JG: Falsettos, Ragtime, The Grand Tour, Forever Plaid, and Little Me, which I currently am in rehearsals for with the delightful 42nd Street Moon Theatre Company in San Francisco – runs at the Eureka Theatre May 1-19th!!!!

AS: What’s your favorite thing about being a part of musical theatre?
JG: I truly love the people I work with. We’re a unique breed. I love listening to the girls belt their brains out. I love the variety of roles and shows we get to play in. I have to say I love living in a heightened reality. Music elates me. Every single time we sing “Real Live Girl” I get goosebumps.

AS: What would be your advice to anyone pursuing a career in musical theatre?
JG: Save your dough. No one taught us that in college. I was on Broadway at twenty-three. I thought the $$ would last forever. It doesn’t. Save your dough.

AS: Thanks so much for your time, Jason!!
JG: It was my pleasure, Amy!

Amy, right?

AS: …[awkward silence]


Musical Theatre Monday – Amy Spalding on Merrily We Roll Along

One of the few things I knew going into writing The Reece Malcolm List was that it needed to feature a school musical. I didn’t want it to be the kind of show every single school had already performed. Yes, of course you’ve got your Bye Bye Birdie and your Guys & Dolls. Getting beyond that, to me, was vital. I also knew I wanted to lightly echo some of the book’s themes, without hitting anyone over the head with them.

I did what any reasonable writer would do: I put out a call on the internet to tell me what to use. Multiple people who didn’t even know each other suggested Merrily We Roll Along. As a longtime attendee of the church of Sondheim of course I’d heard of it. But I’d never heard it. I didn’t actually know a single thing about it.

My friend Christie said, I have a video of the Kennedy Center production! She said, You know how amazing I said it was! She said, Come over; we’ll watch it.

I watched it like a million times.

My book began gelling in my head. Knowing the characters my characters would play, I understood them more. Hearing how these actors performed their roles, I saw what it meant to inhabit someone you aren’t, and what that would mean for my book’s characters.

The show is about friendship and love and creating art. It’s about how your actions now can dictate your then. (And how your then can change your now.) It’s about Broadway and Hollywood and taking terrible jobs to pay the bills while you pour your heart into making something people end up saying won’t sell.

Merrily We Roll Along is told backwards. When the show opens, our leads hate each other and themselves. When the story opens (and the show ends), Frank and Charley and Mary are just kids, and they’re in love with the lives they’re positive they’ll lead.

Back then it felt like my whole world was the show’s ending and the story’s beginning. “Someday just began” is what they tell each other. I was finishing college and getting ready to move to L.A. I was working on a book I hoped would one day be published. I was forming friendships with creative people that changed how I thought about the role others played in my life. My someday really was just beginning.

But it’s never that simple. My life in Missouri as who I was then was ending. I was already at the end of the story of many of my relationships, and more at the middle than the beginning of others than I realized at the time. It was easy then to look down on the Frank Shepard that never finished Take a Left because he was too busy, amongst other things, taking meetings at Paramount. Two years later I had a job on that very lot, and I could feel that within me I wasn’t always the noble one, the protector of the purest creative vision. Even more surprisingly, I didn’t necessarily see that as a failing.

It turns out that for me at least, Merrily is always something I relate to, though not always in the same way or for the same reason. I’ve been the friend left behind, but I’ve been the friend who had to leave another behind. I’ve fallen in love with someone who was never going to get it (and probably maybe didn’t deserve me anyway), but I’ve also stepped all over someone else’s feelings because I didn’t care enough at the time to, you know, take care not to. I’ve created art I believed in and I’ve also happily been ensconced in dayjobs that pay my bills. (I also believe highly in that.)

I’m also pretty sure that if I ended up on a talk show with one of my best friends and they’d just done something I considered a betrayal that I’d…well, freak the fuck out.


Merrily is also one of those pieces of art about creating pieces of art that resonated loud and clear for me. My friend Nick and I joke that we can gauge how creatively successful we’ve been by at what point of “Opening Doors” we’re currently relating to—”we’re opening doors/singing, ‘look who’s here!’” v. “they’re slamming doors/singing, ‘go away!’”)

It’s not a perfect show, of course. (What is? Oh, probably Sweeney Todd, good point.) “Our Time” pushes idealistic hopefulness to extremes. The musical’s book as I’ve seen it is sloppy and heavy-handed at times. (The Encores! production, at least from what its cast recording gives away, was able to finesse it quite a bit.) The reprise of “Not a Day Goes By” has always struck me as one of the creepiest displays of unrequited love onstage. But, anyway, I’m better at loving flawed works than perfection (except for season 3 of Parks & Recreation which is flawless).

The show started off as research to me and ended up so entrenched in my life I honestly can’t imagine if I’d never discovered it. Art resonates the most with me when I see both the best and worst of myself in it. My characters performing the show are half my age and therefore have so much more ahead of them, but to be honest, a lot of my hopeful moments still feel a lot like Merrily‘s ending/beginning. Someday is always just beginning.


Musical Theatre Monday – Interview with Amie Bjorklund

I am really excited about this Musical Theatre Monday interview. When I was working on The Reece Malcolm List, I unfortunately hadn’t actually seen a live production of Merrily We Roll Along. I was subsiding only on a video of the Kennedy Center Production. (Though, really, there’s no “only” about that video, and if you can get your hands on it, you should, because despite its dubious quality and legality that is a hell of a cast.) Then, magically, as I was finalizing the manuscript for my agent to start submitting, a production opened in Orange County. I’m probably insanely picky about actors playing Mary Flynn, but this one, Amie Bjorklund, was seriously incredible. On top of this, she said such insightful things at a post-show Q&A I ended up expanding tying Mary’s theme’s into Devan’s.



Amie Bjorklund is an accomplished entertainer who is driven by a love of self-expression. Her variety of roles highlight her passionate personality and are often noted for their unique blend of humor, grace, and wit. Amie has created characters that are unforgettable, including The Witch (Into The Woods), The Narrator (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat), Mayzie (Seussical the Musical), Reno (Anything Goes), Sheila (A Chorus Line) and Shelby (Steel Magnolias). Amie is also a corporate emcee for companies like Raytheon, Trident Dental and LionsGate Entertainment.

Amie has appeared in theater on both coasts, as well as internationally, working with the Michael Chekov Theater in New York, The Old Rep and Old Joint Stock in England, 3D Theatricals, Covina Center for The Performing Arts, The Chance Theater, Huntington Beach Playhouse and Theatrical Arts Entertainment.

Amie recently graduated with distinction from Birmingham School of Acting in England with her MA: Acting The British Tradition. She is currently starring in The Hale Theater’s production of The Hit as Susan Timmerman.

AMY SPALDING: Hi, Amie! Welcome to Musical Theatre Monday. What was the first musical theatre production/performance/song/etc. that you really admired?
AMIE BJORKLUND: The first musical I heard and fully felt the emotional pull to it was Miss Saigon. I had heard musicals before, having danced throughout my school years and done musicals in high school. But the first time I heard Miss Saigon I was mesmerized and fell in love with everything about it. It’s heartbreaking, joyous, beautiful, painful and exciting. When I finally saw it on the stage I was even more enthralled. The big houses bring a helicopter on stage! It’s theatrical magic and it’s so powerful. I used to listen to this entire album during my drive to Sacramento from L.A. during college. It would keep me awake and engaged. Ellen is one of the dream roles on my list. I am certain I will play her one day. She’s an amazing character and I love her songs.

AS: When did you first know you wanted to be involved in musical theatre?
AB: I didn’t really think about a career in musical theater until I was cast as the nightingale in Once Upon a Mattress my freshman year in high school. I got to wear a funny hat and was introduced to the idea that someone could be pretty, sing well, and be funny at the same time. The first time I knew I might have a career in it was when my teacher told me she would have cast me as the lead, Winnefred, but she couldn’t give that part to a freshman. I learned that I had to put my dues in and the time, but I had the talent.

AS: What productions were you involved in in high school?
AB: I did Once Upon a Mattress and A Chorus Line (Sheila) in high school. I also did their straight plays. I loved it all.

AS: What was the most exciting thing about your first productions?
AB: Knowing I was good at something. That might seem self aggrandizing, but it was nice to know that I had talent for more than just singing. That I was interesting to a audience and was someone they enjoyed seeing on the stage. I also liked staying after school to work on a project. And I loved having a cast to hang out with who all liked each other and created our own versions of high school drama.

AS: What was the scariest or most stressful part? Has it gotten easier as you’ve performed more or is some of it fresh and scary each time?
AB: The scariest part in high school was letting go of all the angst that one has as a teenager. It’s hard enough to be yourself, your true self, in high school. Then putting that aside and being someone else was nearly impossible. You bring all that self-consciousness onto the stage with you until you get strong enough not to. It has gotten easier as I’ve grown as an actress. The more training I get, the more comfortable I am putting on someone else’s skin and walking around as them. It’s also easier as I get more comfortable with myself and who I am and what I want. It is also fresh each time – that part doesn’t go away. It’s not so much scary for me anymore, but always exciting.

AS: Have you ever had a crush on anyone in a production with you? Did it end up dreamy or disastrous?
AB: Ha! I’ve had crushes on a lot of the guys I’ve worked with. I’ve usually kept it to myself because someone else would also have a crush on them. I’m not a fan of going after the same guy as another girl. But most times the crush was a good thing. There have only been a couple where it hasn’t worked out. I’ve ended up dating a guy I was in a show with for a while and we ended up being really good friends after we broke up. It’s never easy to date artists because we each have such different ways of looking at the world and are both usually extremely passionate and driven. But it’s also a nice thing because you have someone you can talk about the business with and your concerns. Dating world aside, there are really good people in this industry and I have been lucky to meet a lot of them.

AS: What are some of your favorite roles/productions you’ve been involved in?
AB: I did a fun production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat a while ago. It was a disaster of a show, but we got to tour and stay in hotels and I got to perform at the Kodak Theater (where the Academy Awards are held) which is still the largest house I’ve worked in. I LOVE playing The Narrator, The Witch (Into The Woods) Mary (Merrily We Roll Along) and Mazie (Seussical). I have been very lucky to play roles that I love. When I went to study in England I was introduced to an entire new set of roles for my bucket list. Lady MacBeth, The Duchess of Malfi, Gertrude (Hamlet), Mrs. Malaprop (The Rivals)…there is an entire world of female roles out there which I am eager to get my hands on.

AS: As you know, the plot of my book The Reece Malcolm List features Merrily We Roll Along as the school musical. What are your memories of performing in the show?
AB: Originally I was cast as Kit, the reporter. Then, about a week into the rehearsal process I replaced the woman playing Mary. It was a lot to take in all at once and I was very excited. I remember Mary being a hard part to get behind because of the depth of her love and pain, but once I was in her brain I fell in love with Mary and her struggle. I loved telling the story the way they did at The Chance, where it was all in Frank’s head and we were presented as memories. I love all things Sondheim and being able to play one of his best written females made me very happy. I liked that I got to fill in some of the holes that are left open for interpretation and create a world for Mary that was fully flushed out and real. Then I got to sing about it.

AS: Given the backwards timeline of MERRILY, were there any specific challenges inherent to the show?
AB: I think that’s the inherent challenge. However, the way we did it made it easy to follow. I liked the memory idea better than actually going back in time. It made it smoother and the transitions a little easier to handle.

AS: Did you have to wear any hideously period-specific costumes?
AB: Not really, no. We all stayed in the same costume the entire time. I wasn’t the biggest fan of my dress, because it was made to make me look unflattering, but I got to be a redhead, which I really liked!

AS: What’s your favorite thing about being a part of musical theatre?
AB: The songs. I love the music. I love the idea that you have so much emotion to share that you break out into song. I love bringing the audience with me as I sing to them, hopefully stirring emotions that may be quietly sitting there inside them. I love the sets and the costumes and the full feeling of a musical. There is a part of our hearts where only music can reach. Musicals are a special piece of art that gets in there and moves people.

AS: What would be your advice to anyone pursuing a career in musical theatre?
AB: It’s a tough world so make sure you love everything about your career. Even the hard/frustrating parts. And don’t be afraid to not want to pursue it. There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind about things and making this a hobby you love but don’t depend on for income. It’s a hard life and it’s not for everyone. I always tell my young acting friends to get some experience in the business world. Maybe a business minor with your theater BFA or an AA in business. Our job is to sell ourselves and the more experience you have with running a business, the easier that will be. Also, go to college. You don’t know where life is going to take you. Today you want to be an actor/actress and you don’t think you “need” a college degree. But you don’t know where life is going to take you and you will never regret getting a degree. Plus, you can take unlimited dance classes while you’re there getting your BA!

Also – for the rest of your life you are your only asset. The talent you bring to the table. The work ethic. The preparation. The skills. The hard work. The physically strong and healthy body. You are the only thing you can control. You can’t control who casts you for what, but if you go in there and work hard and are a genuine, true person who loves their art, you know you did the best you can do. And at the end of the day, that’s all we can ask from anyone. Especially ourselves. Break legs out there!

AS: Thank you so much, Amie!!


Musical Theatre Monday – Kate Schafer Testerman on Into the Woods

Happy Musical Theatre Monday, one and all. Today we have some pretty great with us…my agent! I don’t think I had it in my checklist, back in the days I was scouring the internet for the perfect agent, that I needed compatibility where musical theatre was concerned, but, luckily I got that anyway. So please welcome the fantastic Kate Schafer Testerman.

KATE SCHAFER TESTERMAN: Family legend (and my complete collection of Playbills) tell me that the first Broadway musical I ever attended was Oklahoma! in January of 1980*. I was six, and, I’m told, sang along with the stars as they performed songs I already knew by heart. We lived in the suburbs just north of New York City, where my dad commuted to work daily, and theatre tickets were a semi-regular occurance. I saw Annie starring Allison Smith the same year, Marcel Marceau on Broadway, Yul Brynner in The King and I, South Pacific, and Me and My Girl with Jim Dale. But it was Into the Woods in February 1989, at the Martin Beck Theatre, that made a firm, lasting impression.

I’d received the soundtrack that previous Christmas, wrapped together with tickets for myself and at least one of my three sisters – it could have been more, but that detail is fuzzy.  What isn’t fuzzy was just how often I listened to the soundtrack – Bernadette Peters belting out “Last Midnight,” the rat-a-tat-tat lyrics from “Prologue” to “Finale” – I knew every word, every intonation, and sang along at the top of my lungs anytime I could convince one of my parents to play the tape in the car while we drove, or in my bedroom on a bright red cassette player.

I wanted to be Little Red Riding Hood – I was almost 16 at the time, and here was a “little girl” starring on Broadway in a musical I loved – but I didn’t just want the role, I wanted to BE her. We’ll leave it to therapists to analyze what else that meant to the suburban teenager I was then, fifth of five children, safe and protected, growing up in a loving extended Irish Catholic family.

When the day came – Thursday, February 2nd – I remember turning the corner onto 45th Street and seeing a huge blow-up giant’s boot hanging over the theatre, and my disappointment that Bernadette Peters had recently left the production to be replaced by Nancy Dussault. Joanna Gleason, the original Baker’s Wife, had also been replaced by Cynthia Sikes, though I initially wasn’t as concerned by that as by the recasting of the Witch. But oh…

The first act was euphoric and exciting, seeing the songs I loved live on stage, laughing at a plastic cow being pushed around and sung to by a plaintive Jack, watching Red stalked by the Wolf and getting back at him, and cheering as the Baker and his Wife got the Wish they’d always wanted.  Intermission couldn’t go by fast enough.

In Act Two, I was confronted with the Baker’s Wife dallying with Rapunzel’s Prince on a ramp in the woods, and then… (spoilers) STOMP. The giant. Reader, I sobbed. As the Baker sang, “It’s because of you there’s a giant in our midst and my wife is dead,” tears poured down my face. My sister leaned over and whispered something along the lines of, “Why are you crying? You knew this happened. It’s on the soundtrack.” And yet – I hadn’t seen it. I’d heard about it, but somehow glossed over the fact. A soundtrack isn’t a full production, no matter how much I might think it was, and there was a world of hurt between the Baker’s Wife singing, “Now I understand / And it’s time to leave the woods…” and the Baker blaming the Witch for his wife’s death.

I was traumatized, and that, maybe more than anything else, was reason enough to keep going to the theatre. My next obsession was The Phantom of The Opera (which I saw at least three times between 1988 and 1990, and started a fan club with a fellow theatre nerd in high school), followed by Les Misérables.

The spring of 1992 found me a freshman in college, at the University of Delaware, and after a first semester where I attended football games, went to frat parties, and studied with my fellow honors students, I needed more.  One of the two theatre groups on campus was hosting auditions for Into The Woods, and I grasped at that chance to be Little Red Riding Hood. It wasn’t a completely far-fetched hope. Besides attending lots of theatre performances, I’d done numerous community theatre productions – starring as Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, and learning to tap dance for Anything Goes – and school shows, from Oklahoma! to a musical based on the comic strip Luann. I’d taken improv and dance classes, and been in my school chorus for years. This was my big chance.

I’ll spare you the anxiety I went through, waiting for the cast list to be put up. I didn’t get the part. That is, I got a part, but not the part. Instead of the young, perky Little Red, I was…her grandmother. Yeah. Not my dream part, but with perspective, I can happily say that it was my dream introduction to college theatre: to working long hours, as part of an amazing ensemble cast, falling for the leading man, being warned off the leading man, making friends that informed my entire college experience. If it hadn’t been for Into The Woods, my years at college would have been so very different – would I even be the person I am now? It seems impossible.

Backstage, Kate as Granny, with the Wolf and Little Red

Into the Woods changed my life. Hyperbole? I don’t think so. “Careful the wish you make, wishes are children. Careful the path they take, wishes come true, not free.”

Onstage, the cast performs “Ever After.”

*Featuring Harry Groener – the mayor from Buffy the Vampire Slayer!

After a dozen years working in publishing in New York City, Kate Schafer Testerman moved to Colorado and formed kt literary in early 2008, where she concentrates on middle grade and young adult fiction. Kate is a graduate of the University of Delaware’s Honors Program, a former cast member of the New York Renaissance Faire, and an avid collector of shoes. Her interests cover a broad range including teen chick lit, urban fantasy and magical realism, adventure stories, and romantic comedies.


Musical Theatre Monday – Adam Grosswirth on Sweeney Todd

Happy freaking Musical Theatre Monday, the holiday that comes around (approximately) 52 times a year. This doesn’t make it any less special, OK. This makes it 52 times (approximately) MORE special. OK. Today we have a super cool person with us, the charming and delightful Adam Grosswirth!


ADAM GROSSWIRTH: When I stop to think about it, which I guess I’ve never really done before, being a musical theater nerd is in my DNA. It was just a latent characteristic that only peeked through occasionally until I was around 15 (which…draw your own conclusions there). But when I was little I was really into the movie of Oliver! for some reason. I guess it was on TV a lot, because we didn’t have a VCR. When it wound up being my school’s 4th grade play, I was deeply disappointed that our truncated version didn’t include “Who Will Buy,” although since the entire class sang everything in unison regardless of who was onstage, it really couldn’t have worked. (My affection for that song, with its rounds and harmonies, will matter later on, I think.) But I did get to play Fagin Number Two (notably both the first and the second-to-last time I acted). I have vague memories of seeing Peter Pan on Broadway and Really Rosie off, and clearer memories of wearing out those albums (and Oliver!) on vinyl. I was super proud of my eight-year-old self when I noticed that Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual had a story arc.

But for the most part there wasn’t much theater in my life. I grew up in Manhattan, at a time when that was less of an indicator of having money, since my parents’ generation was able to snag rent stabilized apartments in slightly shady neighborhoods (like the actual west side in West Side Story) that would quickly become trendy and rich by the time I was old enough to notice. The school system hadn’t quite caught up yet, so my wonderful parents, committed to raising me in the city, also committed to sending me to private school, which was a bit more of an indicator of having money. It’s not as if we ever had to choose between dinner and tuition — we were absolutely never poor — but it did mean we didn’t go to Broadway shows.

My mom was a musical theater fan, though, and had seen plenty of stuff before I was born that I’m now jealous of. But what I remember around the house were older cast albums that are probably what people who hate musical theater first think of when they hear the words “musical theater.” And, worse, Barbra Streisand and Michael Feinstein. In some versions of this story this might have made me gay. And, well, maybe it eventually did. But first it turned me off of the entire genre. (I’ve since come around on the classics, but the crooners are still not for me. Mom has had Rod Stewart’s American songbook album in her Amazon wish list for years and every Chanukah I refuse to buy it for her. I simply can’t condone such behavior.) And in the absence of anything post-Hair (and this was still before the Menken/Ashman Disney revolution), my early brush with musicals faded.

But remember that private school I mentioned? It was what we called “artsy.” Our auditorium was a pretty typical high school auditorium, I think, but it had proper wings and a full fly system. There was also a black box and a scene shop. Seriously, a scene shop. There was a big play every fall and a big musical every spring, a decent dance program, all manner of music, and smaller stuff in the blackbox throughout the year. The shows were often not the usual high school fare. The musicals and concerts would perform excerpts in weekly assemblies, so even if you didn’t go to the shows you were forced sample them. I was interested, and I took acting in 7th and 8th grades because you had to cycle through all of the arts in middle school (8th grade would be the last time I ever acted), but I wasn’t generally drawn to the theater despite having several friends involved.

And then came Sweeney Todd. It’s a safe bet that if you’re reading this you know this, but there’s so much plot in this show it’s hard to talk about without it, so just in case: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a 1979 musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler (who, as Sondheim often says about his collaborators, doesn’t get nearly enough credit), based on an earlier, pretty mediocre play by Christopher Bond. Set in 19th Century England, the show opens with a prologue sung by the ensemble which sets the scene and also establishes that we’re about to see a melodrama on an operatic scale. We meet Sweeney Todd, a broken and bitter man who was rescued from a mysterious shipwreck by a sailor, Anthony Hope, as the two arrive in London. Sweeney returns to his old home, where Mrs. Lovett still lives, running a pathetically unsuccessful meat pie business. She explains that no one will rent the room upstairs because they believe it’s haunted. Recognizing Sweeney as her former tenant Benjamin Barker, she draws him out by telling him (and, hey, conveniently, the audience!) the story of the man who was imprisoned on a trumped-up charge by a corrupt judge because Judge Turpin wanted to fuck Barker’s wife, essentially. When she still wouldn’t give in, Turpin raped her, and she poisoned herself. Turpin adopted the doomed couple’s infant daughter, Johanna.

This is all too much for Sweeney, who reveals himself and his aim of revenge. The ever-practical Lovett is not only unfazed by this revelation, she’s thrilled to have Sweeney/Barker back, because she always secretly loved him. So much so that she saved his razors, and he can be a barber again, biding his time until he can take his revenge. Meanwhile, Anthony happens upon Johanna at her window, falls instantly in love (because of course he does), and vows to break her out of her virtual prison and take her away from the evil Judge Turpin — who, meanwhile, has noticed that Johanna has grown to womanhood and decided to wed her. (Sweeney’s morals are pretty ambiguous throughout the play, but Turpin and his assistant Beadle Bamford are always unquestionably the most evil people around.)

Meanwhile, to establish his street cred as a barber (it’s the 19th Century, this was a thing), Sweeney challenges the con artist Pirelli to a barber-off, basically, to drum up word of mouth. But it turns out Pirelli used to apprentice for Barker and he recognizes Sweeney as the escaped convict he is (honestly, it’s surprising this doesn’t happen more often, with him set up in the same shop and all) and tries to blackmail him. Sweeney does what any of us would do, I think, and slits Pirelli’s throat with his razor. Moments later, the Judge arrives for a shave, having been referred by the Beadle, who was at the contest. Just as Sweeney is about to kill him, Anthony bursts in to tell Sweeney about his plan to elope with Johanna, which of course sends Turpin running off, declaring he’ll lock Johanna up and never return to Sweeney’s shop again. Sweeney flies into a rage, vowing revenge on basically the entire world. Mrs. Lovett remains focused on the fact that they have to do something about Pirelli’s body, and it dawns on her that meat is meat, and she has a business to run. So if Sweeney’s intent on becoming a serial killer, they might as well kill two birds with one stone.

You guys, that’s just the first act. And if you’ve never seen it or listened to any of the wonderful (and largely complete) recordings…I know it’s silly to issue a spoiler warning for a 35-year-old show, but seriously, so much of the pleasure of Sweeney comes from the fact that it’s a thriller, and the twists in act two are such a delight that I want you to maybe stop reading now and go listen to the original cast recording first. I wish I could forget them and see it again for the first time.

Anyway, I remember my friend Suzie telling me this story on the bus home from school one day and thinking, “This is a musical??” I had seen the movies of West Side Story and Little Shop of Horrors and I knew dark, complicated musicals existed, but I was also at the height of my Stephen King phase, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Straight razors? Meat pies? Seriously, and a musical?

And then I saw it. And more importantly, I heard it. Twenty+ years later I’m supposedly an expert in these things, and I still can’t describe what Sweeney Todd sounds like. The show is operatic, in that it’s nearly sung through and huge, but it doesn’t sound like what most of us would think of when we think of opera. It certainly doesn’t sound like Rodgers and Hammerstein, or even Bernstein. It doesn’t even really sound like much other Sondheim. This was the first time I’d heard his music, of course, but even now, while I can hear things in the score that sound like him, it’s like nothing else he’s written. The music suits the story perfectly, grand and melodramatic but still somehow suitable for Broadway in the late ’70s (but now also performed by opera companies).

Sondheim has said that when he first encountered the play, it struck him as “a story that sings.” And boy does it. For all my incredulousness, now I can’t think of any way other than a musical to tell the story of Sweeney Todd. What better way to guide an audience through all of that plot than with song? In an old-school musical comedy, characters would be busting out all over with love, joy and the occasional comedic interlude. In Sweeney they are full to bursting with rage, fear and longing — emotions just as musical, if not more so. The schticky comedy number is about killing and eating people. And the best part about it is that it makes perfect sense for it to be there. You know how when shit gets really tense and then everyone gets punchy and can’t stop laughing and making tasteless jokes just to get through it? Welcome to “A Little Priest.”

It’s no accident that the most traditional, straightforward, flat-out pretty love song in the show is sung by Sweeney to his razors. “Not While I’m Around” starts out as a heartfelt ode by a boy to his mother figure, but there’s an undertone of violence, and when she echoes his sentiment it’s with the knowledge that she’s probably about to kill him (though that makes it no less heartfelt).  The actual young lovers in the show can’t possibly really be in love, having known each other for about five minutes, and their duet reflects how flighty they are and how poorly thought out their plans. In his big solo ballad, Anthony sings not that he loves Johanna, but that he’ll “steal” her. The alternating time signature of “Pretty Women” means it never resolves, ratcheting up the tension from measure to measure, drawing the audience in as Sweeney draws in (then loses) the Judge.

My favorite moment in the show — maybe in all of musical theatre — is when Sweeney kills the Beggar Woman. He still doesn’t know who she is but she (along with the audience unless they’re especially quick) has just figured it all out. The orchestra swells and booms out the melody he keened (to quote the stage directions) to his presumed-dead wife earlier, all strings and horns and timpani, and it is HEARTBREAKING. That’s the thing about Sweeney: In a way it only works as a musical. Without music, every single character is a monster. With Sondheim’s music and Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations we get a peek at the tortured souls inside, as romantic as any Tony or Maria.

The lyrics function similarly. “When a girl’s emergent / probably it’s urgent / you defer to her gent- / ility, my lord” is one of the most Sondheimy rhyme schemes out there, but it also says so much about the character, a fop who puts on airs and is showing off to impress his boss. Contrast that with “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit / and it’s filled with people who are filled with shit / and the vermin of the world inhabit it.” Blunt, clumsy, full of rage.

These are things that only music can do. That’s not to say that only musicals can do them; background music and scoring function in the same way. But for 15-year-old me, this was a revelation. I was clued into the use of music and rhythm and rhyme to tell the story, signal emotions, illuminate character, before I consciously knew what any of that meant.

It also made me realize, in a way that’s important for the work I do now, that no subject matter is off-limits for a musical, as long as you do it well. That’s a pretty big caveat, let’s be clear, and I’ve seen plenty of ill-conceived musicals since that high school auditorium in 1990, but I still believe it to be true. In Finishing The Hat, Sondheim wrote that Sweeney “prove[s] that if you give an audience a good story, especially an extravagant one, they’ll accept it with pleasure, no matter how bizarre and idiosyncratic it may be.” I was probably actually pretty normal, but in 9th grade I liked to think of myself as bizarre and idiosyncratic, so it makes sense that this would be my entry point to musical theater, and still (now that I’m unquestionably normal and boring) where my tastes in shows trend toward.

Plus, everyone seemed to be having so much fun. My friends on the crew got to sit in the chair and fall down the chute and oh my god so much fake blood! So that was it. The following school year I dipped a toe in the techie waters and was having papier-mâché fights while making fake rocks for Pirates of Penzance. A year after that I was doing props and puppetry for Little Shop of Horrors, and a year after that I was stage managing Into the Woods. Fast forward a bit and I’m stage managing on Broadway, and a bit more and I support regional theaters and writers all over the country at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre. I suppose technically it was a slow build, but I trace it all directly back to Sweeney Todd. Revenge never sounded so good.

Adam is a former stage manager who is now the Membership Director at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, a not-for-profit organization that helps theaters connect with each other and produce musicals. Which is pretty great, and definitely better than making meat pies. In his spare time, he enjoys being cranky. He blogs very sporadically at judgmentcall.blogspot.com, and tweets all too frequently @adam807.


Musical Theatre Monday – Jennifer Laughran on Annie

Happy Musical Theatre Monday! Sometimes I approach people to write for the series because they’re clearly dying to do it. But sometimes I just decide people NEED TO and I force them like a big showtunes bully, because I am so sure they’re gonna write something great. This may have been the case this time. But, of course, I was right. (JUST SAYING.) So please welcome the amazing Jennifer Laughran to the blog! MAKE HER COMFORTABLE, GUYS.


JENNIFER LAUGHRAN: When Amy asked me to write about a musical, I had an excruciating time deciding which.

Should I talk about the first (very) amateur production I was ever in, my 4th Grade production of Mary Poppins, that taught me the bitter taste of jealousy as I got cast as a mere suffragette chorine rather than MP herself?

Or about the time I snuck out of school to get early tickets for Guys and Dolls when it was touring in Los Angeles, and they had a special promotional crap game with giant novelty-sized dice in front of the Pantages theatre, and I played and won a t-shirt and a cast recording, which was rad, but it was ON THE LOCAL NEWS and did I mention I’d DITCHED SCHOOL to be there?

Or perhaps the time that I got introduced to Nathan Lane by the stage door of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum but then I was so freaked out that I just cried and it was the most embarrassing moment of my life (until the same thing happened when I first met Judy Blume)? Or…or…or…yeah. I guess I have a lot of awkward theatre stories.

Before I worked in publishing, I went to a theatre conservatory, studied directing in college, and in my teens and early twenties had paying jobs as everything from box office to stage manager, dramaturg to puppet-builder, and everything in between. But when I was little, I really really really wanted to be an actress.

Specifically, I really really really wanted to be Annie. Annie the musical came out around the time I was born in the late ’70s, and though I never saw it live, the album of the B’way cast recording was one of the first I remember. I wore that album out. The ’80s Annie movie came out when I was wee and that was it for me — Annie was not just my favorite character but possibly my best friend. You can tell how obsessed I was by the fact that my great-grandmother got me commemorative Annie plates…and I still have them. (Here’s a picture!)

Despite the fact that I was white-blonde, afraid of dogs, a decent but not great voice, two left feet, and showed no particular signs of any other talent, when I was like 6 I became completely obsessed with some rumor I’d heard, or invented, that there was soon going to be an Annie 2, and if I could get to the audition, I would get my turn as the red-headed, dog-loving, singing, tapping star. Obviously I would be PERFECT for the role. I “practiced” belting out “Tomorrow” ceaselessly in preparation (sorry Mom). But I was not Andrea McArdle or Aileen Quinn, not even close. And even in my deluded, Annie-addled state, I knew it.

I did have some sort of epiphany about this at some point and decided that, since plays and movies take so long to make and I’d age out of the role of Annie in the mythical Annie 2 anyway, I’d probably be better off being Pepper. She’s older, and all she has to do is be a bitch to everyone.

(In fact, much later, there WAS an Annie 2Miss Hannigan’s Revenge started previews in 1989 and went terribly, never making it to Broadway. It was then reworked and became Annie Warbucks, and opened in the early ’90s. Needless to say, I was too old to be an Orphan by then. Even Pepper.)

Anyway, in case you don’t know Annie (who the hell doesn’t know Annie??? Get out from under your rock, friend!) — here’s the basics. It’s based on the comic strip Little Orphan Annie and set in the 1930s.

There’s an orphanage — the kids are sad, but plucky. Our star Annie is the smartest orphan, and the only ginger, and the MOST plucky (obvs). Annie is also a little different from the other orphans in that she has “real parents” who she thinks are still alive. She wears a broken locket around her neck — when she was left at the orphanage, her parents left a note saying they’d be back for her with the other half of the locket to know them by. She sings the extremely affecting song “Maybe” late at night, praying/dreaming about what her real parents are like and wondering when they’ll come for her.

“Hard Knock Life” is all about the insane chores the orphans have to do. The movie did a nice job with the choreography on this one; it’s a really fun number. (I became an expert on somersaults and handsprings on and off beds due to this song. Also, learned what a Mickey Finn is.) We also get our first taste of the boozehound orphanage director Miss Hannigan (played to perfection in the movie by Carol Burnett).

Annie runs away and picks up a stray dog named Sandy. She sings her most famous song, “Tomorrow” – which is about being cheerful, or some shit. Annie is RELENTLESSLY CHEERFUL, even in the case of obvious awful circumstances, like being starving in the street and having a dog steal your only scrap of food etc.

Annie ends up getting sent back to the orphanage, and she brings the dog. Miss Hannigan is a total psycho in a Kurt Weill kind of way and sings a drunken burlesque number about murdering children. Good times.

Oh and because it is the 1930s and actually a lot about class and class mobility, there is a lot of stuff about Herbert Hoover and Hoovervilles and economic collapse and dancing hobos, etc. I didn’t get all this when I was little obviously. But it is actually important to the story. Anywhoo, the basic point is, it’s the depression. There’s a super-rich robber baron called Mr. Warbucks. How rich is he? He has not one but TWO foreign caricature sidekick/bodyguard/manservant/stereotypes, Punjab and The Asp.

For PR purposes (because everyone basically thinks he is terrible, which he sort of is), Mr. Warbucks wants to invite a boy orphan to spend Christmas at his mansion. His glamorous lady secretary arranges it, but there’s a screw-up, and Annie ends up getting picked up instead. There’s a great number “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” that is a “we’re your nimble servants” number in the vein of “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast.

Needless to say, Egomaniacal Mr. Warbucks doesn’t WANT a little girl orphan. Whoopsie! But guess what? The sassy little ginger and her mutt win him over. They go to Radio City Music Hall, walk the streets of NYC, etc. Cut to, heart of ice melting, he decides he wants to keep her. BUT! She still thinks her parents are coming for her. Daddy Warbucks vows that he’ll do anything to find her parents if they are out there, and if they aren’t, THEN he can adopt her. He offers a huge reward for anyone who can prove that they are Annie’s parents and there’s a media blitz over it.

BUT! The evil Miss Hannigan, her brother Rooster (played by Tim Curry in the movie) and his moll (Bernadette Peters) come up with a scheme. They know about the locket. They have the other half, because Annie’s real parents are long dead. And Rooster and the moll are going to pretend to be Annie’s parents, take her, take the dough Warbucks is offering, and then KILL ANNIE! (Cue dramatic music!)

At this point, naturally, Daddy Warbucks decides to take his adorable ward to the White House to hang out with FDR and give him advice on foreign policy. Because that is totally normal. (In the movie I don’t think they make it quite clear that Warbucks and FDR are on opposite sides, politically — the play makes it much more clear.) Annie’s sage advice is basically, “hey the depression can’t last forever CHIN UP!” – she sings a reprise of “Tomorrow” and FDR and the cabinet love it. Annie is not just a plucky little orphan, she’s now a celeb and an AMERICAN HERO.

Spoiler alert: the Plucky Orphans kind of save the day, Daddy Warbucks ends up realizing his secretary would be a perfect wife and mother to Annie, and there’s a happy ending for FDR and everyone except the villains, who get appropriately handled, AND there is a party with fireworks at the end. Perfection.

LESSONS LEARNED:

  • Plucky Orphans are awesome and smarter than bad guys.
  • Wealthy Egomaniacal Industrialists are really just looking for affection.
  • EVERY story would be better with a gigantic party at the end.

Jennifer Laughran is a literary agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency, based in New York. She went from reading children’s books to selling them with her first job in a bookstore at age 12, and has been up to her neck in kids and YA books ever since. She represents many popular and award-winning children’s authors, all of whom are adorable geniuses. You can find out more about Jenn on twitter, @literaticat, and about the agency at www.andreabrownlit.com.


Musical Theatre Monday – Interview with Emily Skinner

Happy Musical Theatre Monday! I am really, really psyched to welcome Emily Skinner to the blog for an interview. Emily reeeeally needs no introduction, but since I started this series because of the production of Merrily We Roll Along in my book, I do want to mention that Emily as Gussie Carnegie was so, so fantastic. That production of Merrily was basically my bible when I wrote the musical-related plotline, so I am thrilled she is here!


EMILY SKINNER: BROADWAY: Side Show (Tony nomination, Drama League Award), Jekyll & Hyde, The Full Monty, James Joyce’s The Dead, Dinner at Eight (Outer Critics Circle Nomination), Billy Elliot. NATIONAL TOURS: Billy Elliot, Disney’s On The Record. OFF-BROADWAY: Jerry Springer The Opera at Carnegie Hall; No Strings, Pardon My English, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (at City Center’s Encores!); leading roles at Manhattan Theater Club, WPA Theater, Playwrights Horizons, Roundabout Theatre Company, York Theatre, Paramount Theatre at Madison Square Gardens. REGIONAL: multiple roles at The Kennedy Center, Signature Theatre, Alliance Theatre, The Hangar Theatre, Long Wharf, The Old Globe, Goodspeed. She has sung with symphonies internationally and her numerous CD recordings may be found at Amazon.com.


AMY SPALDING: Hi, Emily, welcome to the blog for the Musical Theatre Mondays series! What was the first musical theatre production/performance/song/etc. that you really admired?
EMILY SKINNER: My mother had a great collection of cast albums that I started listening to at a very early age. I can recall singing along/acting out to the entire score of the Original Cast Album of Oklahoma! at at the age of five or six. Frighteningly enough, I could still probably sing the entire thing verbatim…

AS: When did you first know you wanted to be involved in musical theatre?
ES: Suuuuuper early. Kindergarten. I had a fantastic elementary school teacher who encouraged me, staged an entire production of Really Rosie for me to star in. She called my mother at some point and actually said “Mrs. Skinner, look out, I’m pretty sure your daughter is a performer.”

AS: Were you involved in school productions in high school?
ES: By high school, I was doing professional productions. Where I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, there was (and still is) a wonderful professional theater community that has been really supported by the city.

AS: What was the most exciting thing about your first productions?
ES: Being onstage! Working with professional adult actors who were wildly gifted and living the life I aspired to live! Ye Gads!

AS: What was the scariest or most stressful part? Has it gotten easier as you’ve performed more or is some of it fresh and scary each time?
ES: Hmmm.

The only time I feel scared/stressed/nervous is when I feel unprepared. So I generally try to make sure I’ve adequately rehearsed the material enough so that isn’t a concern. Which can be tricky when you have very little time to learn a show (I once played Marian in The Music Man with only five days of rehearsal!), but after years of this, you figure out what you need to do. If it means I’ve gotta stay up all night to do it, you just do it.

AS: Have you ever had a crush on anyone in a production with you? Did it end up dreamy or disastrous?
ES: Oh sure. There are lots of pretty sparkly people in this business. And what is more of an aphrodisiac that Talent? I’ve succumbed more than once…ahem…

But it can be very very tricky. I prefer to keep my work and personal life separate entities. Seems a healthier choice for myself.

AS: What are some of your favorite roles/productions you’ve been involved in?
ES: Lizzie in 110 in the Shade was a real highlight because of the scope and range of both the story arc and the vocals. Loved playing Mrs. Lovett with my friend Jeff McCarthy as Sweeney, very much hope to tackle that role again in the future. It’s such a demanding role, word-wise, I walked away from that going “Bring it on, World! I can play ANYTHING now! I did LOVETT!”

Dirty Blonde was a blast also because of the great, fun challenge of mastering Mae West at all ages of her life.

And Billy Elliot was wonderful because of all the amazing kids I got to work with and because it made demands on me physically that I never thought I could pull off—doing a cartwheel on a raked stage eight times a week for two years in your 40s is nothing to sneer at!

AS: As you know, the plot of my book The Reece Malcolm List features Merrily We Roll Along as the school musical. What are your memories of performing in the show?
ES: The production I was in at The Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration was slightly magic. The wonderful Chris Ashley (who now runs La Jolla Playhouse) directed it with wit and and a smart eye. It was a great group of actors who really respected each other, were up for fun, and felt grateful to be doing such stellar material. Raúl Esparza, Michael Hayden, Miriam Shor, Anastasia Barzee, Adam Heller, myself. We just had a blast. The entire company used to have a crazy bonanza dance party onstage behind the curtain to Jonathan Tunick’s glorious overture. It grew semi-notorious and Sondheim came and watched it one night and laughed…

AS: Given the backwards timeline of Merrily, were there any specific challenges inherent to the show?
ES: No. The version we did was the version James Lapine had come up with a few years earlier. It’s a show that asks a lot of an audience because it is told backwards, with them all starting the show in middle age and then ending when they are all just out of college. The first scene of that musical (and the play that it is based on) is one of the ugliest scenes ever. Terribly difficult to start a show being off-put by all the protagonists…but by the end of the piece, when you see how their friendships developed and what they went through, it’s very, very moving. Lots of people say the show doesn’t work, but I’m not one of those people. I think it works as what it is.

AS: Did you have to wear any hideously period-specific costumes?
ES: Yes. Oh Gawd. Yesssss. The less said, the better.

AS: What’s your favorite thing about being a part of musical theatre?
ES: I love telling a great story through music. Playing with heightened emotion. Exploring/playing with other actors and people in the theater. I am so lucky and grateful to do what I do. Hope I can continue!

AS: What would be your advice to anyone pursuing a career in musical theatre?
ES: Study. Work hard. Then throw it away and have the most fun you can possibly have whenever you have the chance to perform.

AS: Thanks so much for your time, Emily!!


Musical Theatre Monday – Abby McDonald on Grease

It’s the end of 2012 but there is time for one more Musical Theatre Monday before 2013 is officially here! I am thrilled to have author Abby McDonald here today. When Abby McDonald mentioned doing a post about unrequited love — because of her most excellent book Getting over Garrett Delaney which I read before I even KNEW Abby so I promise you I sincerely and nonbiasedly adore it — I of course only thought of musical theatre’s patron saint of unrequited love, Les Miserables‘ Eponine. If you’re into musical theatre and haven’t cried over some boy who isn’t paying attention to you while croaking out the lyrics to “On My Own” I’m not sure I could ever understand anything you’re about. But, anyway, Abby actually had a more original idea. So I will let her take it away.

ABBY McDONALD: My latest YA book, Getting over Garrett Delaney, is about a girl who has been harboring an epic unrequited crush on her guy friend, and the shenanigans and hijinx that ensue when she finally decides to try and get over him, with a little help from an unconventional 12-step program. I was inspired to write it because we’ve all been there: you’re their shoulder to cry on, their late-night talk buddy, their first call — for everything except an actual romantic partner. And nothing captures that exquisite ache of longing like Sandy’s plaintive “Hopelessly Devoted to You” from Grease.

Oh, Grease! I watched this so many time aged 7-13 that I know the whole thing by heart. Looking back, it’s clear that this was the blueprint for all the things I now find cinematic catnip: makeovers, high-school, spontaneous sing-a-longs, drag racing, fairground scenes, and OF COURSE the climactic dance contest. Plus, as a Brit, the vision of ’50s Americana offered a strangely exotic allure, and to this day, I have a strange Pavolian attachment to diners with red vinyl seating.

As I got older, my alliegences (of course) shifted from the doe-eyed heroine and her high-necked cotton nightgowns to the more badass Rizzo, but there’s no denying that Sandy kills her wistful night-time garden stroll and sells this song as an anthem for the unrequited crushers everywhere. Feel it! Feel the resignation and angst. And then go read my book and figure out how to get over it — without squeezing into black lycra and learning to smoke.

Guess mine is not the first heart broken,
my eyes are not the first to cry. I’m not the first to know,
there’s just no gettin’ over you.
I know I’m just a fool who’s willing to sit around
and wait for you
But baby can’t you see, there’s nothin’ else
for me to do. I’m hopelessly devoted to you.

Abby McDonald is the author of three other young adult novels: Sophomore Switch; Boys, Bears, and a Serious Pair of Hiking Boots; and The Anti-Prom (plus two books for not-so-young-adults). Originally from England, Abby McDonald now lives in Los Angeles, where she eats pie, watches way too much TV, and longs for a kitten.


Musical Theatre Monday – Tim Federle on Radio City

Earlier this year I found out something really exciting. There was another 2013 debut author whose book had a lot to do with musical theatre. I knew I must immediately meet this person. Luckily that person in question was the really-great-at-Twitter Tim Federle. (You should really consider reading the first chapter of Tim’s book.) Tim knew it would be only a matter of time before I forced him to participate in Musical Theatre Monday…and that time has come at last! Happy holidays, everyone.


TIM FEDERLE: I was twenty years old the first time I missed a Christmas with my family.

I was hundreds of miles from Pittsburgh that morning, prepping to do what I’d done every day for the previous two months: dress up like a polar bear to entertain Radio City Christmas Spectacular audiences, while the Rockettes changed their shoes in the wings.

I’d never worked on Christmas. Who works on Christmas? And I remember waking up that day and kind of dreading it. Not the job—it was a unique joy to lip-sync for thousands of children; to try and gradually memorize the names of thirty-six Rockettes in identical costumes; to share a backstage with two live camels. But it was Christmas morning. I dreaded being away from home for the first time, and all the things the holidays meant to me: hot chocolate, hot fires, hot new cast albums. Family.

I missed Pittsburgh.

Back to Radio City, to that morning. It was 8 a.m. and we backup dancers and Rockettes converged, as was our custom six days a week, to warm up in this tremendous rehearsal room. We were the only dancers in town who were awake at that hour—many dancers become dancers simply for the right to doze till noon—and we had coffee in our hands and sleep in our eyes. We were tired. By Christmas day, the show had been running for two months, since Halloween. (Trick or treat. Want a candy cane?)

And on the very day the entire Spectacular had been written to celebrate, somebody came up with a joke to break through our group exhaustion. Wanna hear the joke? The joke was that whosever ankles cracked the loudest during the morning warm up was the winner. The winner of Christmas.

That was the joke.

Mia won. Mia was the Rockette with Disney eyes and Warner Bros. boobs, and Mia’s ankles cracked the loudest in our group warm up, and thus Mia was the Winner of Christmas. We giggled and cheered, and the sheer energy of that plainly stupid moment kept me aloft for five shows that day. Yes—when you’re a backup dancer, camel, or Rockette, you do five shows a day. And the point is, we needed a new reason to be there that morning, a new distraction to justify missing the holidays at home. And so our distraction was a senseless joke. And it was enough.

I called my mom on a break between shows that day. My mouth was teeming with chocolate babka—when you’re twenty years old doing five shows a day, chocolate babka is the backbone of literally every meal—and my mom said something dubious like, “Tim? Is that you? You sound…happy.”

I was as surprised as she was, being far from home but somehow surrounded by a new family—a hodgepodge collection of dancers who’d put aside Christmas with their loved ones to put on polar bear heads and put on a show. I was happy, by golly.

As my career danced on, I found out you don’t get Christmas off on Broadway, either. It’s tourist season, baby! Nobody tells you about the slushy streets and toddling tourists when you’re a kid dreaming of New York. I’m so glad they don’t. How many wonderful dancers would avoid moving to Manhattan if they knew what 8th Avenue was like on December 25th? (How many wonderful dancers would miss out on meeting their new families, too?)

Ten years, five Broadway shows, and one upcoming novel later, these days I lug my laptop around more often than my tap shoes. Sometimes I miss the spotlight, but it’s lovely to spend the holidays with my parents and brother again, after that decade away—wearing glitter and wigs and the look of a tired but lucky dreamer. It’s nice to enjoy the fire with my dad, and trade gifts in person, and watch my nephew crawling around. He’ll love the Christmas show, someday. I’ll take him.

And yet! Last year, when we settled into Christmas dinner as a family for the first time since Frasier was on the air, the clock hit 7:30 and I tensed up. I didn’t have that familiar half-hour call till “Places, please!” There was no costume to put on. No audience to impress. And when I swallowed past the weird and turned to my mom to say, “It’s nice to be home again,” she cut me off and blew on her hot cider and said, “I miss the old days. When we got to hear about your adventures backstage.”

BONUS: To see me shake my seashells (not a euphemism) in “Under the Sea”—yes, I played a catfish in The Little Mermaid—check out moments 1:14 and 1:58. Out of 4.7 million views, only 352 people haven’t liked it!

Tim Federle is the author of over seven hundred emails. His forthcoming debut novel, Better Nate Than Ever—about a small-town teen who crashes an audition for E.T.: The Musical—was inspired by Tim’s time coaching the child stars of Billy Elliot on Broadway. Better Nate Than Ever hits shelves this February from Simon & Schuster. Say hi at TimFederle.com and on Twitter @TimFederle.