“There is no place I know to compare with Pure Imagination”

The arts these days are in an excellent state.  At least in Pleasanton, California, where I have had the pleasure of working with their Civic Arts Stage Company these past 5 months.  There are many factors that have gone into making this the most enjoyable work experience of my career thus far.  I’m working with a fantastic company with excellent leadership.  I know that I am 100% supported on an administrative level.  The office is accessible and communicative.  It’s glorious.  I also have a cracker jack team of artists that work with me at the theatre.  There’s no ego involved.  We’re all there to teach kids and create art.  Our rehearsals are collaborative, warm, and outrageously fun.  Finally, there are the students.  This is an after-school program, where kids ages 8-18 have to audition for each show.  The fact that this is a by-audition program does a great deal to ensure that the kids involved come in with a desire to be there and a commitment to the project.  They are excited to come to each and every rehearsal, and their joy, in turn, makes me more and more excited that this is where I get to go to work three or four days a week.

From the get-go, I’d had a sneaking suspicion that the Pleasanton program was something special.  It’s not very often that you find a city-sponsored program with such a phenomenal budget and commitment to artistry.  But in in this little hamlet, way out in the East Bay, the community is coming together to create excellent arts programs for their children.  The more thought I’ve given to it, the more I’ve been able to whittle the magic – for that is indeed what this feels like – down to Community.

Our work in the theatre really is all about creating community.  As an educator and a director, I really have three jobs.  One is to create a community or company within the group of directors and actors who are with me at the theatre for every rehearsal.  In this case, adults and kids alike are working together to create something special.  Establishing what we’ll call Community Level 1 is something that I strive to do right from the beginning.  I want everyone to know that we are in this together.  Whether you are playing Charlie Bucket or an Oompa Loompa; whether you are the director or the stage manager – we are all equally accountable for the final production.  I find that giving people ownership like this increases everyone’s commitment and belief in the project.  Inside of the company community, is the world of the play – Level 2.  In our recent production of Willy Wonka, it was necessary to establish both the world of the Bucket family outside the factory, and Willy Wonka’s magical universe inside the factory.  The ability to create these imagined worlds is completely reliant on first establishing community within the acting company.  The actors’ ability to relate to each other in character and on stage  directly correlates to the level of trust they have for their directors and fellow actors.

Level 3 is reaching out to the city, town, or community at large whom you wish to come see your show.  As a director, I have a duty not only to educate my students, but to teach the community in which we function about the value of our work.  I want the parents, siblings, and friends who come see the show, not only to enjoy the story, but to feel like they got to step into our family for a short while that evening.  Willy Wonka was a perfect show with which to establish all three levels of community.  It starts with the song “Pure Imagination,” in which Wonka pulls Charlie into the story.  It’s also an appeal to the audience.  “Come with me, and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination.”  Isn’t that really the point of any show.  The actors, directors, and designers have worked tirelessly to create a world and a story, and now we have to convince the audience to come along for the ride.

Willy Wonka was one of those particularly special productions, where it just seemed like the perfect combination of people and energy.  Every rehearsal was a joy.  The kids were warm and eager to learn.  Usually, as a director, I mainly am focused on Community Levels 1 and 3 – that is, the community of our entire company, and our ability to reach out to an audience.  It really is up to the actors to create Community Level 2 – the world of the show.  Yes, I envision the world and give them the tools to create it, but ultimately, they are the ones on stage, breathing life into these characters and making their world something tangible.  In Willy Wonka, however, I had the unique opportunity to experience that on-stage world first hand.

In a strange turn of events, I ended up having to play the role of Ms. Teavee – Mike Teavee’s mom – for one of the performances.  Our shows are double cast, so there should always be an understudy, but this was an extraordinary circumstance.  I got the call on Friday at 4pm that I would need to fill in for the 7:30 show that night.  As the director, I was, of course, very familiar with the character and the blocking, but there is a rather big difference between knowing the role on paper, and actually walking in her shoes!  When I arrived at the theatre that evening, we let the kids know what was going on, and told them that I’d need to practice a few of the scenes before the performance that evening.  There was some choreography that I didn’t know, and a rather quick costume change that Picture 2required a bit of finesse.  The kids were shocked, awed, and excited.  They all quickly jumped in to help me, whether it was showing me a dance step that I wasn’t certain on, getting the costume ready, or guarding the dressing room door while I was changing.  Once I got over my initial fear and adrenaline rush, and began to settle into the performance, I was struck by how warm and supportive the kids were.  One of the younger girls came up to me at one point and said, “Rachel, this is so cool.  You’re our director, but now it’s like we’re teaching YOU!”  And she was right.  They gathered around me that night and made me feel completely safe and taken care of.  There was no way I could fail.  They were there, sending me good energy on stage, discreetly showing me where to stand when I was lost, high-fiving me when I came off stage after every scene, and congratulating me at the end of the performance.  I feel incredibly fortunate that I was able to step into their world for a night and experience, first hand, the family they had created on stage.

The best theatrical experiences are the ones in which you reach all three levels of community engagement.  That’s really the whole point of theatre – bringing people together to share stories.  If the show happens to be polished and filled with top-notch talent, that’s an added bonus.  I have a feeling that as our community grows, our levels of talent and finesse will increase as well.  The more that students return for show after show, the more they learn and improve.  The more that people keep coming back to see our productions, the more support the city will send our way.  I am so fortunate to be working with this large talent pool of enthusiastic actors, a passionate and giving staff, and a supportive surrounding community.  As Willy Wonka says, “If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it.”

“It makes you wish that the world could be as lovely as it looks.”

What I love most about musical theatre is that it has the power to fill the viewer with hope and possibility.  Musical theatre exists in a world of heightened existence.  Where characters sing when the emotional stakes are too high to simply just talk.  Where kings, peasants, sailors, and movie stars explode into dance when they are too excited to be still anymore.  Where magic still exists.  The magic can be quite simple – as simple as two strangers meeting in the middle of a big city and falling in love; as simple as answering that ever-elusive question “Who am I?”  Other times, it is full-fledged, unashamed, fairy tale magic.  Both have the ability to fill the audience with wonder, taking your breath away, causing you to think and feel, and making you wish that the everyday world could be as wonderful as it looks under theatrical lightning and with a string section underscoring each important moment. 

But how do we keep the magic in a world that is growing more cynical every day?  Smart Phones and reality television give us instantaneous information and answers whenever we want them.  It’s getting harder to hold on to that sense of wonder that theatre requires of both actors and audience.  How do writers, designers, directors, and actors keep their work fresh and interesting enough to engage a modern audience without comprising the story or artistry of the piece?  Especially when approaching dated material.

cinderellaI had the opportunity to see two different shows this week.  One which surprised and delighted, and one that disappointed.  The surprise came at the Broadway Theatre in New York, where I had the pleasure of seeing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella – the first Broadway production of the piece that the gentlemen wrote as a TV movie starring Julie Andrews in 1957.  The show has had two similar television remakes – one with Lesley Ann Warren in 1965, and one with Brandy and Whitney Houston in 1997 (my favorite when I was in middle school) – and a national tour.  This is the first time, however, that the show has appeared on Broadway, and it appears with a new book by Douglas Carter Beane (with two acts for the first time), beautiful new musical arrangements by David Chase, and more spirit than I have seen in any of the other versions of this classic story.  Now, this new adaptation is not perfect.  I want to make that clear before I start gushing.  There are definitely problems in Beane’s book.  He can’t seem to decide on a tone for the story – is it unabashedly bright-eyed and optimistic, or is it ironic?  I, personally, would prefer the former.  As I watched the show, I grew tired of the constant wink, wink, nudge, nudge.  The characters of the Stepmother, Stepsisters, and Sebastian (the prince’s subversive advisor) adopted 2013-style sarcasm far too often.  It seemed as if Beane was afraid to just own the optimism and naïveté of the story, but, as far as I was concerned, he should have just left it alone.  I appreciated the wit that he infused into the script, and think that some of it was absolutely necessary in order to make the book seem funny to modern audiences, but we don’t need to be hit over the head with it.  In fact, the best moments of the show were the ones where he left the story speak for itself.  Honestly, Cinderella has existed for hundreds of years in many different forms.  It is the definition of timeless. 

This Cinderella gives the classic tale and large injection of confidence and empowerment.  Cinderella herself is spunky and kind.  She is not waiting for the prince to come and save her from her dreary life.  After a chance meeting, she sees goodness in him, and wants to be able to tell him about the terrible things that are happening in his kingdom.  She doesn’t lose her glass slipper, but, in fact, gives it to him so that he may find her later.  Prince Topher is not full of smarmy confidence, but is very much a boy struggling to find his identity and become a man.  The Fairy Godmother does not simply wave her wand and make Cinderella’s life magically better.  No.  She empowers Cinderella to find the strength that has always existed within her.  After she transforms Cinderella’s rags into a beautiful ballgown, the pumpkin into a golden carriage, and the mice in horses, she says, “Now go to the ball.  In the name of every girl who has ever wished to go to a ball in a beautiful dress.  In the name of every girl who has ever wanted to change the world she lived in.  Go with the promise of possibility!”  We’ve heard the adage of “Anything’s possible” repeated throughout time, and I think it’s often looked at as a cheesy and naïve outlook.  But I have to say, that for the two hours and twenty minutes that I sat in the Broadway Theatre, and for a good while afterward, I actually believed it. You could actually feel the entire audience leaning forward and soaking it all up.  The crowd was on its feet the second the show was over, so clearly I wasn’t the only one who believed in Cinderella.  You can watch a great Theatre Talk interview with Douglas Carter Beane, producer Robyn Goodman, Victoria Clark, and Ann Harada where they give insight into the choices in this adaptation here.  There’s also a wonderful interview with Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana on broadwayworld.com where they discuss the brilliance of this adaptation.

This message is aided by rock-solid performances by the entire company.  The voices and new choral arrangements are absolutely luscious.  And Josh Rhodes’ choreography manages to be classically beautiful – “Ten Minutes Ago” feels like a moment that you might see a the New York City Ballet – and also energetic, sexy, and exciting.  The casting is also excellent.  Harriet Harris, Ann Harada, and Marla Mindelle are excellent as the Step family, Santino Fontana strikes an excellent blend of both goofy and charming as Prince Topher, and Victoria Clark, though sadly underused, is naturally brilliant as the Fairy Godmother. 

Let us make no mistake, though.  This show belongs to Laura Osnes.  Osnes entered the ap-theater-review-cinderella-4_3_rx404_c534x401Broadway scene in 2007 after winning the role of Sandy on the Grease TV reality show.  She’s had some hits and misses over the last six years.  She replaced Kelli O’Hara in the acclaimed Lincoln Center production of South Pacific and then went out to play Hope Harcourt in Anything Goes two years ago.  However, trying to fill Kelli O’Hara’s shoes, and standing next to Sutton Foster perhaps did her a disservice.  She finally had a chance to shine, originating the title role in last year’s Bonnie and Clyde, but the show was a flop and closed quickly.  Perhaps we should all be grateful for Bonnie and Clyde’s early closing date because it made her available to play Cinderella.  She owns the role in every possible way.  She is a true triple threat – singing beautifully, dancing as expertly as any chorus girl, and acting up a storm.  It is her belief in possibility and magic in Cinderella’s life that enables the audience to believe as well.  And it most certainly does make you wish that the world could be as lovely as this show makes it look.

And if top-notch acting and a compelling story aren’t enough, you should just go see it for the costume change transformations, designed by the brilliant William Ivey Long.  There’s one in Act Two which will actually have you believing in magic.

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Why Kids Are Better

“It’s a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought, that if you become a teacher by your pupils you’ll be taught.” – Oscar Hammerstein II

If only I could have known what these words would one day mean to me when I played Anna Leonowens in our 8th grade version of THE KING AND I, and was rolling my eyes through the multiple verses of “Getting To Know You.”

In some wonderful act of karma, the girl who swore up and down that she would never become a teacher is devoting the bulk of her professional work to exactly that. I have learned that there’s so much more to teaching then working in a traditional classroom setting (something that I still don’t believe I have the temperament for). It started out casually enough. Some part-time work directing children’s theatre and teaching musical theatre classes. Then, one day someone asked if I taught voice lessons, and so it began. Eventually it was a three year residency as a teaching artist, plus a 20-student voice studio. When I moved to California, I got to stretch my wings a bit and explore more professional opportunities as a Music Director, Director, and an Actress. Ultimately, though, I always come back to teaching.

I’ve been struggling a bit lately with balancing all of the various aspects of my career. Taking care of email, phone calls, scheduling and the other “business” aspects of my work every morning. Teaching lessons or in rehearsal for the youth show I’m directing each afternoon. In rehearsals or performances for the professional show I’m music directing each night. Personal time has become a foreign notion. As I write this, I’m on an airplane en route to Michigan for a family reunion which will provide my first days off in nearly two months. It’s enough to wear even the most passionate, energetic person down! I love my work, but something has clearly got to give. Many people have heard me say lately that all I want to do is go to rehearsal with my kids and just forget the rest of it. So why are kids better?

I happen to be working with a particularly special bunch right now. Lightening in a bottle, as you might say. It was clear from day one that this was a unique group. They were attentive, insightful, kind, and enthusiastic. We talked about creating the best possible work space in which to crest our show. One girl added that we needed to “Be safe both physically and emotionally.” Our work has been fun, challenging, and inspiring. As I told a friend of mine, “No” just isn’t a part of what we do. Everyone is open to ideas and possibility. We end almost every rehearsal with a circle. Sometimes we give compliments, sometimes we talk about where we can improve, sometimes we just layout the plan for the next rehearsal. You should hear these kids! Thanking their counterparts (each role is double cast) for helping them learn a part they missed. Recognizing each other’s focus and effort. Even on challenging days, their insight can make my heart leap out of my chest. One recent day, we were talking about how they set the bar really high for themselves, and so the adult directors have come to expect a lot from them. I admitted that it would be unfair to expect them to be completely well-behaved and focused at every moment of every rehearsal. One girl piped up, ” We’re only human!” (And they’re only in 4th-6th grades, to boot!)

Our play opens on Friday and, while I’m so proud of the work that we’ve done and can’t wait for people to see the finished product, what I’m really going to take away from this project goes far beyond what the audiences will see. I’ve learned that lending someone your script can be the greatest act of kindness. I’ve learned that kids can be horribly cruel to each other without even realizing what they’re doing. I’ve learned that a little bit of encouragement goes a long way. I’ve learned that if you can ignite a child’s imagination, then anything is possible. It’s about seeing them smile and hearing them sing. It’s about that moment at the top of the show when they hit that first pose, nail every beat of choreography, and sing out with such heart that you can actually see them beaming. And you’re beaming right back. And it’s not because they’re particularly polished or Broadway quality. It’s because you all share the same secret. You’ve all seen the most incredible strides and learned the same lessons. You’ve all had the same hard days and amazing “aha” moments. And then the moment comes when you turn the show over to the actors and let them own it. And in this situation, it’s not just director giving over to the actors. It’s adults giving ownership to children. And the children, in that amazing way that only they possess, take it to a place of magic and imagination that adults can only marvel and and remember with envy.

I could say that I love teaching because it’s a selfless act, but that would be a lie. It’s actually quite selfish. That beaming feeling that I just talked about? That’s pretty much the greatest feeling that exists. And I pretend to be irritated, but it’s pretty great to say, “Okay, let’s make a circle,” and have them all flock around you. And I pretend to gripe about how demanding they are, but there’s a certain excitement in having at least ten people calling your name to ask you something the second you take a break in the action. Is my ego involved? Absolutely. But don’t think for a second that I teach out of some strange puppet master tendencies. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done. You pour in countless extra, unpaid hours. You tend to tears and scrapes. You deal with parents (who are the worst of all!). But in the end, with any luck, there are 25 kids who come out happier and stronger in the end. With any luck, they’ll walk away from this experience remembering to always be “strong but wrong” and carrying little imaginary candy bars of “diction” and “yes” in their pockets that they can nibble on whenever needed. It’s the least I can give them in return for all they’ve given me.

The Glamorous Life

It’s 11:17 pm on Thursday night and I’ve just gotten home from work.

My day began at 10:30 this morning with a two-hour paper tech for a show I’m directing.  That was followed by two different music coaching sessions, and the day finally wrapped up with a performance of the show that I’m music directing.  It’s a life in the theatre.  Meetings on stage to discuss lighting cues while the floor around you is being painted.  Playing scales, introducing repertoire, and preparing students for recitals and performances.  Costumes, makeup, and rock ‘n roll.  There is no doubt that this kind of life is invigorating.  We’re making art here!  I am so fortunate to work in a field where creativity is encouraged.  I spend my days making something out of nothing – “a hat where there never was a hat.”

People who aren’t in this business seem to think that what I do is rather glamorous.  When I tell people about the projects I’m working on, they usually respond by describing it as “fun” or “sexy” or “exciting.”  And, at its best moments, it is definitely all of those things.  In the best moments, the work isn’t “work” at all, but is play.  When the stakes are high and the on stage connections are honest, it can certainly be sexy.  And when my students remember their blocking without being prompted, it is very exciting!  It is difficult to tell people who look at what I do as something that is sheathed in mystery and vigor that, some days, it’s just a job like any other.

In today’s 12 hour work day, I traveled approximately 51 miles (Oakland, to Berkeley, back to Oakland, to Albany, to San Francisco, and finally, back to Oakland).  I ate lunch, standing at the counter in my kitchen during a ten-minute interlude in the action.  I sat in Routetraffic for 40 minutes on my way to San Francisco.  Once in San Francisco, my walk from the car to the theatre consisted of passing a screaming man on the sidewalk, witnessing a fight, and nearly stepping in poop (human or animal – we’re not sure).  I scarfed down some soup for dinner, warmed up the cast and the band, got into costume, and played rock music on a horribly out-of-tune piano that is making my tendinitis worse every day.

My guess is that I netted about $120 for the day.

Audra McDonald released a new CD this week, and she finally recorded one of my favorite songs – “The Glamorous Life” from Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.  One of the lines keeps resonating with me:

What if her broach is only glass?
And her costumes unravel?
What if her coach is second class?
She at least gets to travel.

Some days are not glamorous.  Some days are very challenging.  This is a field where great work is expected at all times, but there is very little monetary payoff.  I have this feeling that an intense 12-hour work day is a bit easier to swallow when it’s accompanied by a 6-figure salary.  So, why keep living like this?  Why not pack it in and go work in finance?  Well, it’s hard to explain, but I think it has something to do with magic.  It’s because even on the hard days when all I have are questions, the answers something always comes to me in music.  So, here’s today’s answer:

It’s All About Me

Theatre has a reputation for being a rather egotistical art form.  After all, a great deal of personal investment goes into creating a piece of art.  Actors, directors, designers, and musicians are all sharing their craft.  There’s never enough time or money, and so theatre demands that we give more of ourselves.  It is completely reasonable to say that blood, sweat, and tears go into getting a play on its feet.  It’s no surprise, then, that ego comes into play.  It’s your talent, your work, and your name in the program.  Since most theatre artists don’t take home a million dollar paycheck once the show opens, the payoff comes from applause, reviews, and other forms of personal recognition.

It is important that each artist been seen and acknowledged for his or her work.  So often, while we’re in the midst of the stress and excitement of putting on a show, we forget that our individual investments are part of a greater whole.  We are, in fact, all on the same team, striving to create something that is bigger than each of our singular pieces.  After a rehearsal last night, I couldn’t help but think of this classic musical theatre scene:

In that charming, high stakes way that musical theatre holds the patent on, this scene from 42nd St perfectly captures my point.

“Even if you don’t give a damn about me, think of all those kids you’ll be throwing out of work if you don’t do this.” It’s not about the producer and it’s not about the star.  It’s about all of the actors in the chorus who are dying for a tiny piece of the pie.  Everyone’s energy is connected on stage.  If one person decides not to invest on a given night, every single person in the production is effected.  You might not feel like giving it your all that night, but those kids in the chorus need you to.  Some nights, it’s hard to get energized for a performance.  That’s life.  Maybe it’s been a long day.  Maybe you’re sick.  Maybe you’ve had some bad news.  Those are the nights when you don’t do the show for yourself, but you do it for everyone else on stage who desperately needs your energy in order to create their own performances.

“Think of the songs that will wither and die if you don’t get up there and sing them.” One of the things that I’ve always found most special about the theatre is that it’s a live art form.  The text and the songs are written, but until actors get up and say or sing the words out loud, they don’t truly exist.  Without life and form, the words will simply go away.  Writers and composers give us the the gift of their words and melodies.  As musicians or actors, we have a really sacred and special duty to breathe life into what is otherwise just ink on paper.

“Think of the costumes that will never been seen, the scenery that will never be seen, the orchestrations never heard.” There are dozens of unsung heroes who work on every production of a show.  The designers, the stitchers, the carpenters, the deck crew, the orchestrators.  All of these people invest their personal abilities into serving the show.  Beautiful costumes, sets, props, and orchestrations are created.  A team of crew members, dressers, stage managers, and musicians are hired to seamlessly incorporate those elements into the world of the show.

“Think of our show, and the thrill and pleasure it can give to millions.” The audience is just as important an element as the costumes.  Without anyone to see all the work, what’s the point?  Plays can serve many different purposes.  They can provide social commentary, they can shock, they can offend, they can amuse, they can entertain.  Whether a piece is meant to be an amusing diversion from life, or whether it’s written to elicit real dialogue and change, the people behind the fourth wall do play a part.

“Think of Musical Comedy – the most glorious words in the English language!” Musical theatre is an incredible, quintessentially American art form.  When a character starts to sing, it’s because words just aren’t enough anymore.  It’s a high stakes game, with high production value, the greatest talent in the world, and an important job to do.  It’s amazing that we continue to get audiences to buy into the fact that the characters just start to sing out of the blue. Those of us who are lovers of musicals, know that incredible rush that comes with the swell of the orchestra, the unimaginable high note, or the perfectly synchronized tap dance.

“Sawyer, think of Broadway, dammit!” Here in the Bay Area, we’re pretty far from Times Square, but the spirit remains the same.  After all, it’s really about the greater essence of BROADWAY, then about the literal street.  Broadway is the greatest goal.  The ultimate dream of “making it.”  The highest echelon of the craft to which we have all devoted our lives.  Broadway is so much more an idea than an actual place.  It’s about all that it represents – the best talent, the most beautiful theatres, packed audiences, 30-piece orchestras.  Even if we have no aspirations that our little show will get discovered and transferred to Broadway, it is the standard to which we should hold ourselves in our daily work. Because you never know, do you?

As always, the greatest lessons about musical theatre come directly from musical theatre.  The point is to respect the craft.  That’s all.  There will be days when you don’t feel like it.  Life does play a factor.  But on the days when you’re “not feeling it,” do it for someone else.  Do it for the other actors.  Do it for the writers.  Do it for the designers and builders.  Do it for the love of the craft.  Do it for Broadway, dammit!

Learning How to Play

My mother recently wrote a great post in her blog Discovering Santosha, entitled “Go out and play!”  She begins by writing, “Plato wrote, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Playing allows us to take risks, to laugh at ourselves, to fall down, and to get back up. We discover truths about ourselves, as well as others.”  She goes on to share a story about being inspired when her yoga instructor began a class by saying, “We’re just going to play this week.”  This reminded me of a similar moment in my life.

The summer before my senior year of college, I switched to a new voice teacher.  In a vocal performance program, the relationship between student and voice teacher comes above all.  My work with my former teacher had stalled, and through a serious of emotional

Senior Recital at NYU
Senior Recital at NYU

conversations, it was decided that I would switch into a different studio.  When I went to my first lesson, I was nervous about the work and stressed about my voice.  I had spent three years of college working and searching for some sort of missing link in my singing.  I had a big old voice, but I was constantly receiving the note that something was missing or that there was more I could be doing.  It had become an infuriating mystery!  At my first lesson with the new teacher, after a bit of conversation about why I was making the switch, he sat down at the piano, turned to me, and simply said, “Let’s play.”  With those two words, everything began to click into place.

Like so many other performers, I had become fixated on the idea of work.  I cared about my craft and wanted to do a good job, so I buckled down and worked.  But, as the old phrase says, “Too much work and no play…”  From the moment of that voice lesson, I began what is now a life long journey to find the ease and joy in performance.  It’s a lesson that applies not only to performers, but to athletes, politicians, CEOs – anyone who has to get up and speak in front of people.  The same brilliant voice teacher who taught me how to play, also assigned a whole class of students to read W. Timothy Gallwey’s phenomenal book The Inner Game of Tennis.  In it, Gallwey discuses how “‘Every game is composed of two parts, an outer game and an inner game.’ The former is played against opponents, and is filled with lots of contradictory advice; the latter is played not against, but within the mind of the player, and its principal obstacles are self-doubt and anxiety.”

These ideas are at the foundation of my current work as a director and a vocal coach.  It is my job to help my actors and students approach their work with a sense of ease and confidence.  Of course, these things don’t happen magically.  There must be a foundation of excellent technique.  I’ve always believed, however, that the process of discovering one’s voice and building that technique should be interesting and fun.  I love the process of theatre or music because that is the time to play.  In the old movies, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland didn’t turn to their friends and say, “Hey kids!  Let’s put on a work!”  They wanted to put on a Play.  Somehow, even in the course of putting on a play, we can forget what is at the root of its name.  We get caught up in the stress of memorizing lines, learning blocking, and trying to create relationships with the other characters.  We forget that it’s supposed to be fun.  We forget that, at its core, we are really just playing Makebelieve.

SLCT CampOne of the reasons that I love working with young actors, is that they are still very willing to play.  You also usually get a longer rehearsal process, so there is more time to learn and explore.  Some of the most insightful, brilliant moments of discovery have occurred when I was just playing with my students.  Kids are silly, and strange, and wonderful.  They’re eager to play and to soak up information.  I do my best to bottle up that energy and enthusiasm when I approach my work with adults.  Really, it should all be the same at heart.

We are all born with the ability to play.  I think one of the greatest tragedies is that, as we 311_630507610539_1932_ngrow older, we forget.  I feel fortunate to be able to work in a field where I get paid to play every single day.  I am also lucky to have some very wacky friends, among whom play is readily encouraged.  Even if you aren’t an actor, there is still room for play in your life.  Take a risk.  Give up the iron grip on the world, and go play.

CalArts

The arts are alive and well in Berkeley.

While the rest of the Bay Area seems to be struggling to find its artistic identity and patron base, Berkeley is flourishing.  The 17.6 square miles that make up Berkeley proper, house three major education institutions – The University of California Berkeley, the Graduate Theological Union, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  That same small city houses dozens of arts venues – Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Zellarbach Hall, the Greek Theatre, La Pena Cultural Center, Aurora Theatre, Freight and Salvage, Hertz Concert Hall, the Ashby Stage, 924 Gilman, Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center, Berkeley Playhouse, Bay Area Children’s Theatre, Impact Theatre, Berkeley Ballet Theatre, Youth Musical Theatre Company, Shotgun Players, CalShakes, Central Works, Berkeley Moving Arts . . . the list goes on and on

Last night I attended a performance of Swan Lake by the famous Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra at Zellerbach Hall.  The young lady sitting next to me commented to her friend that she didn’t think of Berkeley as particularly exciting destination.  All evidence around us, though, pointed to the contrary.  All 2,015 seats in the auditorium were filled for opening night of the renowned ballet.  The audience demographic was surprisingly varied, with people of all ages, sizes, and colors.  I must admit that I’ve never seen so many young people at the opera.  The audience was enthusiastic and appreciative for the entire duration of the three hour ballet.  I’ve never been much for ballet, but I must admit that the remarkable dances, gargantuan orchestra, and the energy in the room kept me fully engaged.  It was incredible to look around and realize that every person there was helping to support a classical ballet company traveling with 71 dancers, 67 musicians, a conductor, managers, dressers, technicians, and countless others.  I suppose, in a sense, ballet is still part of most little girls’ dreams.

I am currently working at Berkeley Playhouse, where we share rehearsal space in the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts with Berkeley Ballet Theatre.  In addition to the nearly 100 students who attend one of our classes or rehearsals every day, I also witness dozens of young ballerinas pouring in and out every afternoon.  From the young beginners, to the older girls who are there every afternoon, changing in the tiny bathroom and stretching in the hallway, new aspiring ballerinas are being created every day.  In a way, it’s almost ridiculous that so many families are pouring so much money into training for an art form that is very competitive, occasionally unhealthy, and can really only promise a serious dancing career of about ten years.  On the other hand, I suppose a similar argument could be made about musical theatre, so I shouldn’t judge.  Still, I wonder what it is that is so attractive about ballet.  It was never a pastime that appealed to me, but I realize that I am probably in the minority on this one.  When you think about it, ballet may in fact be the most popular classical art today. 

After the Mariinsky departs, CalPerformances has an exciting season planned.  Zellarbach Hall will host a new Philip Glass opera, the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, Yo-Yo Ma, Baritone Nathan Gunn, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and many more.

Berkeley is not just a home for the classical arts.  Last Thursday, I was part of the crowd at the 8,500 seat Hearst Greek Theatre for a sold out concert featuring Christina Perri and Jason Mraz.  The Greek Theatre was built on the Berkeley campus in 1903.  The project was envisioned by University of California president Benjamin Ide Wheeler, was designed by John Galen Howard, and was paid for by none other than William Randolph Hearst. The design of the theater is based directly on the ancient Greek theater of Epidaurus.  One of the very first “performers” in the Greek Theatre was President Theodore Roosevelt, who gave the university commencement address in May 1903.  The performers have changed over the past 110 years, but the Greek Theatre still stands and still packs an impressive punch.  Jason Mraz gave a concert under the Berkeley night sky that I will not soon forget.  With an incredible band and a strong message of gratitude, Mraz had the enormous crowd eating from the palm of his hand.  There is something very powerful and moving about hearing thousands of voices raised together in song.  A performer like Jason Mraz, an active advocate for the earth and peace and love, is the perfect draw for the Berkeley crowd.  It is, after all, rated the third most liberal city in the country.

I have to disagree with the girl sitting next to me last night.  Berkeley is a destination.  At least for the arts.  In the past week alone, I’ve witnessed over ten thousand people actively supporting the arts in Berkeley.  I spent all of last year working at a theatre company 20 miles away in Concord where it was a challenging just to fill a 210-seat theatre every week.  Trust me.  There is something very special happening in Berkeley.

 

Movie Musicals – A Lost Art

I grew up on the classic MGM musicals.  I cleaned out the musicals section at Rocky’s Video, and eventually had to resign myself to watching the same movies over and over again.  Gene Kelly and Judy Garland were my heroes.  Their films were sweeping and romantic.  I bemoaned the fact that no one really made movie musicals anymore.  Though I understood the practical facts that movie musicals were expensive to produce and no longer the sure-fire money makers that they once were, I still had a dream of seeing a modern movie musical on the big screen.  In recent years, the movie musical has had a renaissance.  You can imagine my disappointment, therefore, with the lackluster quality and reception of many of these new films.  Why don’t modern movie musicals resonate the same way as their early predecessors?

I think that the answer to this question is twofold.  First, I think there are problems with the ways in which modern movie musicals are handled.  In the heyday of movie musicals of the 1940s and 50s, directors and actors often worked exclusively in that genre.  They understood that a musical movie was a different beast from a dramatic movie and from a musical play.  It takes an entirely different style of both directing and acting to make a musical come to life on the screen.

The second missing piece is the audience’s willingness to suspend their disbelief.  Today, with the whole world at our fingertips, it is harder and harder to sit down in a movie theatre and buy into the fact that people are singing and dancing on the screen.  The directors and actors have an even harder job of creating circumstances in which the audience will believe that the characters would actually need to sing about something.

Let’s do a little side-by-side analysis.  First, take a look at this clip from the 1944 movie, “Meet Me In St. Louis,” starring Judy Garland and directed by Vincent Minelli. In “The Trolley Song,” a group of teenagers are on their way to tour the site of the upcoming World’s Fair.  Esther, played by Judy Garland, is in low spirits because the boy she likes hasn’t shown up.  Low and behold, he appears, chases down the trolley, and manages to join the group!  The day is saved!

Now, a modern day comparison.  Go with me here.  “High School Musical 2.”  Starring Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens.  Directed by Kenny Ortega.  In this closing scene of the second movie, Troy believes that he is left to close the show that the kids have been working on all summer by himself.  But wait!  His girlfriend, Gabrielle, who we thought had up and moved away, returns to save the day!  All of the kids join in and the show is a success!

I know many people will disagree with me, but I actually believe that the High School Musical franchise represents the most successful attempt at modern movie musicals to date.  First of all, they are the most reminiscent of the old Mickey and Judy, “Hey, kids!  Let’s put on a show!” musicals.  Look at this scene from “Strike Up the Band” (1940):

Now, look at this scene from “High School Musical 2” (2007):

The clothes and style of music are different, but the idea is exactly the same!  These films are successful because they establish the idea that these characters are supposed to be singing.  It’s easier for the audience to accept any song and dance that they see from this point forward because we’ve established that the characters are creative, musical people.

Ok, but what about characters that aren’t supposed to be musical?  First, a successful classical example: “Oklahoma!” (1955) Starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones.  Directed by Fred Zinnermann.

A singing cowboy?  Sounds far fetched, and yet, somehow it works. First, the acting is superb.  Gordon MacRae endows Curly with such booming masculinity that you accept the singing without question.  He seems joyous and natural.  There is nothing affected about his performance.  And what about the direction?  Sweeping technicolor!  Full of life.  The characters are real country folk, yet everything is bright, beautiful, and heightened.  It’s exciting, and that excitement forces people to believe it.

Modern “realistic” musicals are less successful.  Look at this clip from “Rent.” (2005) Starring Adam Pascal, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, and Rosario Dawson.  Directed by Chris Columbus.

It just doesn’t work.  The music is upbeat, but the characters are somehow boring.  The scene doesn’t make sense.  There’s too much ambient noise, and the light somehow isn’t right.  One of the things that made “Rent” so exciting on stage was the rock show quality of it.  Chris Columbus took all of that away and tried to make this a regular feature film where the characters just happen to be singing.  But that isn’t what movie musical are about.  The situations must be heightened, otherwise the characters end up looking as awkward as they do here.

So, the question is: Is there something in between “High School Musical” and “Rent”?  I found “HSM” to be entertaining and successful, but it doesn’t typically appeal to the target adult movie-going demographic.  Is it possible to make a modern movie musical that appeals to a mass audience and is artistically convincing?  We may get the answer to our question when the highly-anticipated “Les Miserables” movie hits theatres this Christmas.  Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathway; and directed by Tom Hooper, the Oscar-winning director of “The King’s Speech.”  It’s a huge budget film with an all-star cast.  Word is that Hooper had all of the actors sing live during filming, an bold move that will hopefully bring a dose of realism to the film.  My fingers are crossed for its success.  It’s a sweeping classical story with all of our favorite modern day film stars in it.  Hopefully this blend of old and new will be the key to unlocking the elusive contemporary movie musical.

Audition Ennui

Auditioning stinks.

No matter which side of the table you’re sitting on, auditioning is one of the most brutal pieces of the theatre puzzle.

As an actor, I came to dread going to auditions, not because I was scared, or anything having to do with the time I would spend singing or reading. Rather, my distaste for auditioning warn born in the holding room. A New York City holding room is a hotbed of ego and nerves. How can anyone do his or her best in an audition, if they’ve just spent hours packed in an airless room, listening to the cacophony of warm ups, gossip, and tales of the latest children’s theatre tour that the girl sitting next to you just closed? Talk about a head game! How can anyone possibly maintain focus on the task at hand? Somehow, though, you get used to it. You must eventually learn how to tune all of the nonsense out in order to have a successful audition.

New York actors are audition pros. When you’re a young, non-equity actor, you quickly become accustomed to seeing the same people every day. These are the other professional auditioners out there. Getting up before dawn, taking the subway to midtown, being among the first 30 names on the unofficial list, moving into the holding room, getting dressed and curling your hair in the bathroom at Chelsea Studios, learning a monologue in the noisy hallway, running between calls at Chelsea, Ripley, Nola, and Actors Equity – all this becomes part of the daily routine.

Lately, I find myself missing some of that diehard energy. When I first moved to the Bay Area, I was refreshed by the more casual audition process. Almost every theatre gives appointment slots, regardless of your union status. Actors are legitimately friendly with each other in the waiting area. Companies allot huge amounts of time to each person auditioning. There are no decrees to cut your selection down to 8 bars because they’re running behind schedule. As a music director who now works behind the table, this took a little getting used to. Coming from that New York state of mind (sic), I can usually make a judgement about someone in the first minute. I sometimes yearn for the environment where it would be acceptable to cut someone off early. It’s not about not wanting to give people a chance. Anyone who as ever worked with me knows that I believe deeply in the value of educating and nurturing artists. But if someone has clearly not prepared for his or her audition, there is no saving them.

Too often, lately, I have seen people come to their auditions in gym clothes. I’m sorry. Unless it’s a dance call, there is no reason not to be dressed for success. The folks behind the table are forming opinions of you before you ever open your mouth. You owe it to yourself to look fabulous when you walk into the room. It shows that you take both yourself and the audition seriously.

Organize your music. This goes well beyond making the accompanist’s job easier. Loose leaf paper could fly off the music stand, disrupting you in the middle of your song. Similarly, it is hard to make a large paperback anthology of music lie flat. The last thing you want is the pianist holding your music up with one hand, while trying to play with the other. Do yourself a favor and put your music in a binder. Neatly copied, double sided, and clearly cut. Don’t make the audition any more complicated than it needs to be. And, please, have more than one song prepared. You never know when people are going to want to hear more. (But also be sure that you don’t have songs in your book that you aren’t prepared to sing that day. You might get someone sneaky like me at the piano who will flip through your book to see what else you have and then ask to hear it.)

Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. The beauty of having all these auditions by appointment here in the Bay Area, is that there is usually ample time to prepare. If the company sends you material to prepare ahead of time, make sure that you do. In this age of Facebook, Google, and YouTube, there is no excuse not to do the research and prepare. No excuses of work, vacation, or illness. If you’re not prepared for the audition, don’t come in. Send a polite request to reschedule. Companies here are unbelievably accommodating. Rarely will you get the response of “too bad, so sad.” A request to reschedule is going to go over a lot better than a sloppy audition for which you clearly have not prepared.

New York auditions may be a bit intense, but they are also very clear. The cream quickly rises to the top. I think we could use a little bit more of that fire in our souls here in the Bay Area.

The Beauty Is – 10 Most Influential Musical Theatre Experiences

Tonight, I finally managed to carve out a little time to just sit at the piano and play some music. It’s rare these days to find the time to play simply for pleasure and not for work. I find that one of the major hazards of a career in musical theatre is that you lose sight of the pure joy of the art form. It’s hard to just give over to a musical experience without allowing analysis or criticism to set in. I was so happy tonight to just flip through an anthology of showtunes. Like visiting old friends, it was fun, nostalgic, and filled me with some much needed levity. In the spirit of finding reminders of why I love musical theatre so darn much, I decided to compile my list of the ten most influential musicals in the life (so far)…

1. THE SOUND OF MUSIC (20th Century Fox, 1965. Starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, Directed by Robert Wise. Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.)

This is the first musical that I have any real memory of. It’s actually a very early memory. It was Easter Sunday and I must have been about four years old. They used to air The Sound of Music on television every Easter (don’t ask me why). My parents had it on that year, and I was rapt for the entire 3 hours. I remember starting on the couch and gradually moving closer and closer so that I was sitting directly in front of the television. When people ask me how I first got into singing, I usually answer, “Julie Andrews.” I thought that she was some sort of mythical angel and that the kids in that movie were so lucky to have worked with her. I also remember bawling my eyes out at the part when Maria comes back from the Abbey. I’ll never forget hearing her voice singing with the children, and seeing the look on all of their faces (which must have mirrored the look on my own) when they realized she had come back. I still get a little teary every time I get to that section of the film. See what I mean.

2. SHOW BOAT (George Gershwin Theatre, 1994. Produced and Directed by Harold Prince. Starring Rebecca Luker, Mark Jacoby, Elaine Stritch. Music by Jerome Kern. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.)

Oscar Hammerstein and I seem to be well matched. When I turned nine years old, my grandfather took me to see my first Broadway show. In the spirit of the epic musicals of the 1990s, Hal Prince had created a sweeping revival of the 1927 classic, Show Boat. Perhaps a bit high brow for a 4th grader, it took a few embarrassing moments for me to subsequently learn that using the term “negro,” which I had picked up from the show, was not a sign of culture or intelligence. Luckily, the show opened my eyes to some more important and appropriate lessons. Namely, that classic musicals were still accessible and important. I was a modern, nine-year-old girl from Washington, D.C., yet I was completely engaged by a musical written in 1927. I was deeply impacted by the story of an ill-advised love affair, racism, and a single working mother – themes that are still extremely prevalent today. It is no wonder that Show Boat changed the face of American Musical Theatre when it first premiered. I played the CD on endless repeat, read the liner notes until they were worn out, and avidly followed young Rebecca Luker’s career. My friends roamed the hallways singing Alanis Morrisette, while I was singing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”

3. RENT (1996. Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Starring Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, and Jesse L. Martin).

I first heard Rent in the dressing room at the Adventure Theatre in Washington, D.C. where I was starring in a show called The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. At eleven, I was the youngest in a cast that was otherwise comprised of teenagers and adult professionals. It was late 1996, and Rent had exploded on the scene in New York City. The cast of my show was obsessed with it. Each day, a DiscMan outfitted with small speakers would be stretched to its peak, as “La Vie Boheme” pounded in our ears. I didn’t grasp the nuance of every concept in the show, but I knew enough to know that a little scary, but awfully exciting, and incredibly important. It was my first non-traditional musical experience. Rent sounded nothing like Rodgers & Hammerstein or the classic MGM musicals that I had come to love. It was Rock and Roll. It was full of bad words. And people died. It opened my eyes to the fact that there might even be more to New York City than the theatre district and my grandfather’s Upper East Side Apartment. It was also my first indication that theatre could be a tool for some sort of cultural commentary. I had certainly never seen anyone so excited over Oklahoma! By the end of our production, I too knew every word to the score, and had successfully convinced my skeptical parents to take me to see it. Rent was also the first musical that my non-musical, school friends loved just as much as I did. Who knew that a rock opera could be the key to coolness in middle school?

4. KISS ME, KATE (Martin Beck Theatre, 1999. Directed by Michael Blakemore. Starring Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marin Mazzie, Amy Spanger, and Michael Berresse. Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter.)

I saw this production of Kiss Me, Kate over Memorial Day Weekend of 2000. It’s also when I knew for certain that I would be having a career in musical theatre. I’d loved musicals and been performing in them for my entire life. This production, however, is what solidly convinced me that much more than an extra-curricular activity. Michael Blakemore’s revival was smoking hot, with fits of rage, incredible passion, side-splitting comedy, and color and light to take your breath away. I remember leaving the theatre just buzzing with excitement. I could not conceive of how Brian Stokes Mitchell could sing so beautifully, or how Marin Mazzie could be so damn funny, or how Amy Spanger could just belt her face off, or how the incredible Michael Berresse could scale the entire set without breaking a sweat. This was the kind of musical that I wanted to spend the rest of my life being a part of. Magic was happening in a little theatre on W. 45th Street, and I knew I had to find out how to create that for myself. I saw the show three more times and finally had the chance to play Lilli Vanessi the next year at my high school. A dream come true for my fifteen-year-old self.

5. COMPANY and MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (The Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. June 2002. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Company – Starring John Barrowman, Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner, and Lynn Redgrave. Merrily – Starring Raul Esparza, Miriam Shor, and Michael Hayden.)

I pair these two shows because I saw them within a couple weeks of each other at the incredible Sondheim Celebration that Eric Schaeffer put together at the Kennedy Center in 2002. In my mind they are part of one greater introduction to the genius of Stephen Sondheim. I had seen a production of Sunday in the Park with George when I was in sixth grade, but it went way over my head. I had subsequently studied and listened to a bit of Sondheim, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2002 that I got my first good dose. The Sondheim Celebration produced six of his works – Company, A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, Passion, Sunday in the Park with George, and Sweeney Todd. Each had an all-star cast, and I was lucky enough to see three out of the six shows (the third being Sweeney Todd). Whereas the shows I had seen up to that point had all entertained, influenced, and inspired me, these productions of Company and Merrily We Roll Along touched me on a far more significant personal level. To be sixteen years old and seeing these brilliant works that dealt so fully with the human spirit was extremely enlightening. I valued that the stories were not tied up in a neat bow in the typical musical theatre fashion. In fact, both stories are left open ended. At the end of Company, Bobby has come to his conclusions about marriage, but we have no idea what happens next or if he ever finds his person in the universe. In the heartbreaking Merrily We Roll Along, we watch Charley, Mary, and Frank move backwards through time, ending at the night of their first meeting. I listened to “Our Time” with tears streaming down my face, knowing that their blind optimism would ultimately turn into cynicism and loneliness. Like Rent (but in a very different way), this introduction to Sondheim’s works confirmed the feelings I had that theatre could be about much more than pure entertainment.

6. THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (Marquis Theatre, 2002. Directed by Michael Mayer. Starring Sutton Foster, Gavin Creel, Marc Kudisch, and Harriet Harris. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Lyrics by Dick Scanlan.)

By mid high school, I was an official Broadway geek. I read broadway.com obsessively and spent every extra ounce of spending money buying out the Broadway section at Tower Records. To my horror, I couldn’t watch the 2002 Tony Awards live. I was probably studying for AP Tests, or something equally painful. I had to tape the Tonys and watch them after school the next day. It’s a good thing I had the 2002 Tony Awards on tape because watching Sutton Foster leading the girls in that electric rendition of “Forget About the Boy” became a daily ritual for me. A couple weeks later, the original cast recording came out, and I rushed to the store to buy it the second I finished my Physics final. I put in on my parents high-end sound system, laid down in the middle of the family room, and spent the next hour trying to visualize every moment of the show. That Tony performance had made my heart race. A modern classic musical! And Sutton Foster! Plucked from the chorus and an overnight sensation (happily enjoying some longevity ten years later). We bought tickets to the show, and I counted down the days until my dad and I would take the train up to New York to visit NYU and see Thoroughly Modern Millie. Those two experiences will be forever linked in my mind and heart. Like Millie, I was the little girl in the big city, full of big dreams, but with a few tough lessons ahead. After a daytime visit to the NYU campus, we headed up to the Marquis theatre, where I was just swept away. As Sutton Foster belted out “Gimme, Gimme” I couldn’t tell if the pounding that I heard was the bass drum or the beating of my own heart. New York. Theatre. Home.

7. CAMELOT (Arena Stage, 2003. Directed by Molly Smith. Starring Matt Bogart, Kate Suber, and Steven Skybell. Music by Frederick Loewe, Lyrics by Alan J. Lerner.)

I never really loved Camelot. I thought that Julie Andrews sounded lovely as always on the original cast recording, but the whole thing struck me a little more than pretty singing. The 1967 film starring Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, and Franco Nero left me equally cold. The singing in the film was unimpressive and I was not a fan of the 1960s soft-focus film style. See what I mean. When my suggested seeing Molly Smith’s new production at Arena Stage for my 18th birthday, I was somewhat hesitant. Little did I know that this would be the first of many experiences where Molly Smith would take my skepticism and turn it completely on its ear. This Camelot was something entirely different. She stripped away all of the pomp and circumstance usually associated with the show. If you really look at the show in a historical context, it was a dark and dirty time. She made her characters – even the king and queen – human beings with their feet on the ground. Guenevere was a rough and tumble young girl from a northern Celtic kingdom. Arthur was a new king with his head in the clouds, but big dreams for what Camelot could be. And Lancelot was not a pompous boor, but a man of deep faith, searching for a place and people to believe in. Staged in the round, this Camelot was swathed in symbolism and humanity. By taking away the grandeur and oppressive scenery generally associated with the show, the words and characters suddenly sprang off of the page. The text and story were as rich and heartbreaking as any Shakespearean tragedy. I started weeping the moment that Lancelot and Guenevere were discovered, and couldn’t stop until well into our ride home after the show.

8. THE LIGHT IN THE PIZZA (Lincoln Center Theatre, 2005. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Starring Victoria Clark, Kelli O’Hara, Matthew Morrison, Mark Harelik, Michael Berresse, Sarah Uriarte Berry, and Patti Cohenour. Music & Lyrics by Adam Guttel.)

The Light in the Piazza challenged everything I thought I knew about musical theatre. It was musically sophisticated and contemporary, yet with a lush, sweeping classicism. It was set in the 1950s, yet highly sensual and electrifying. It was a modern musical, yet it featured legitimate singing. I had two major reactions to seeing The Light in the Piazza. The first was to call everyone I knew to tell them to go see it. The second was to say “Finally! Someone has written a role for my voice.” Until The Light in the Piazza came around, I thought I was going to be doomed to be in revivals for the rest of my life. My strength lay in my legit soprano voice, but contemporary roles for that voice type were few and far between. But “Clara” seemed to be just about as soprano as they come. (Actually, having subsequently played the role, I can now say that she actually runs the vocal gamut, from low and rich, to a mixed belt, to soaring soprano). At the time of my initial experience with the show, I had never seen or heard anything so beautiful. Every element of the Lincoln Center production – lights, set, costumes, casting – came together and transported me to this special moment in the characters’ lives. This was the first show that inspired me to go back to the source material – Elizabeth Spencer’s original novella – and search for clues into the characters and the story that they were telling. The Light in the Piazza has in fact changed my life twice. Once in 2005 when I first saw the show and was just bowled over by its beauty and sophistication; and again in 2012 when I was recruited to play Clara. The show is full of complexities and endless grace. It raises difficult questions about every kind of love and about the human spirit. It is a show that I could watch or perform over and over again and never grow tired of it. It also features what I consider the sexiest moment in theatre.

9. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Stage Left Children’s Theater, 2009. Directed by Ayn Lauren. Starring Lindsey Sherman, Sam Weinstein, Matthew Prigge, Patrick Gambuti III, Scott Galina, and Jordan Andelson. Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Tim Rice.)

Who would have thought that a bunch of kids could so wholly change my life? I could put every moment of the three years I spent at Stage Left Children’s Theater under the umbrella of “most influential theatre experiences.” It was there that I discovered a passion for teaching and directing, and it was the best possible training ground in which to develop these talents. SLCT is a magical place where young actors put on professional quality productions that simply take your breath away. Beauty and the Beast was the pinnacle of my work as a music director there. It was an ambitious selection on every level. As the music director, I had to quickly learn how to teach difficult harmonies to 75 kids, nurture and encourage the leading players, and rehearse a student band. It was one of the best lessons in collaboration that I have every received. Director, Music Director, Choreographer, Stage Managers, Set Designers, Costume Designer, Parents, and Actors all pulled together to create something huge and beautiful. It opened my eyes to the possibility of community-driven theatre. It taught me to see the creation of art as something so much bigger than myself.

10. IN THE HEIGHTS (Richard Rodgers Theatre, 2009. Directed by Thomas Kail. Music and Lyrics by Linn-Manuel Miranda. Starring Linn-Manuel Miranda, Many Gonzalez, Christopher Jackson, Andrea Burns, Karen Olivo, Olga Merediz, and Priscilla Lopez.)

After so many years in “the business,” I was becoming jaded about theatre. It was rare to be able to go to the theatre and just give over to the experience. I was hyper critical and over-aware of the various technical elements of a given production. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief and allow myself to be embraced by the story. In the summer of 2009, I was also becoming incredibly embittered about the stage of contemporary musical theatre. No one was writing anything that interested or excited me. Everything just seemed belty and trite. In The Heights restored my faith. A true love letter to New York City, it was, in many ways, a modern classic musical. It follows a traditional music theatre format. Linear beginning, middle, and end with a couple of love stories, a life-altering chance, dreams, extraordinary circumstances, and catharsis. It features ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, and, in classic musical theatre fashion, takes place in the span of just three days. It sounds like it could be any story set in any place. But this particular story is set to the vibrant beats and colors of Washington Heights. The whole time I was watching the show, I thought, “I’ve been to that street!” It all felt so real. The composers, writers, designers, and actors had hit the spirit of that particular neighborhood squarely on the nail. In The Heights achieves everything a modern book musical should. It is not overly heady and esoteric. It is story telling at its absolute best and some of my favorite contemporary music.