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The Ensemblist is an inside look at the experience of being a Broadway performer- from the first rehearsal through performing eight shows a week and beyond. Whether you’re an experienced theatre professional or a passionate fan, The Ensemblist will give you the opportunity to get to know new performers and the great work they do onstage, while also shedding light on some of the hidden innerworkings of the Broadway experience. Created and hosted by Mo Brady (The Addams Family, SMASH) and Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Chicago, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), The Ensemblist is the only podcast that shows you Broadway from the inside out. 

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Blog

To Broadway and (Hopefully) Back

Mo Brady

by Keaton Whittaker

“Do you want to be an actor when you grow up?”

 Keaton Whittaker

Keaton Whittaker

“I am an actor.” – A quote from an 11 year old me in the Seattle Times, while doing a long run of To Kill A Mockingbird. I feel as though I’ve been my 20-something year old self stuck in a tiny body since I was about nine, which is accurately depicted in this slightly embarrassing quote.

When I started working in regional theatre, I was eight years old. I had no plans of becoming anything bigger or doing anything outside of the city of Seattle. I was perfectly settled and content. I was just a barefoot-running, lake-swimming, boat-riding, tree-climbing twelve-year-old when my whole life got flipped on it’s head.  After doing the pre-Broadway run of Shrek The Musical at the 5th Avenue Theatre, I made my way to New York to sign with an agency, expecting nothing to come of it. Six months later, I was moving to play Fredrika in the Broadway Revival of A Little Night Music. Everything happened so fast that no one really even had time to process what was happening, and how drastically mine and my family’s life was going to change.

 Keaton Whittaker with Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones in  A Little Night Music

Keaton Whittaker with Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones in A Little Night Music

Really long story short, I ended up doing the whole twenty two month run of ALNM, my mom came out to live with me for most of the time, and sometimes she would go back and be with my brother and my dad in Seattle. After we closed in 2011, I did two short off-Broadway runs and decided to move back home and finish high school like a normal person.

To many people this seemed like a crazy idea. "Why wouldn’t you just want to stay and keep working? What are you going to do when you go home? Won’t you be bored? Aren’t you going to miss your friends? Do you think you’ll ever work again?" All I could reply was I knew it was time to go home. I missed my family, the trees, my dog, and all my friends.

So I went home and went to a normal high school… for a year. It turns out I did get bored and when I craved more than just a typical high school career. I thought it was fun and all, but the second an opportunity came my way I snatched it as quickly as I possibly could. I ended my high school career with a production of Carrie, starring Alice Ripley, Kendra Kassebaum, and me. I'm not kidding, this still feels like it could’ve been the peak of my career. Getting to work with them was transcendent. 

Finishing school and going to college was always a non-negotiable point for my parents. No matter what shows I did or where we were moving to, the goal was always a college degree. Which I am proud to say I just earned in April from The Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. But don’t let me get ahead of myself: a BFA in Musical Theater is no walk in the park. I chose CCM because of its outstanding reputation, incredible faculty, and its hoards of wildly successful alumni. That being said, it was the most challenging venture of my life thus far.

 Keaton Whittaker and the CCM Class of Musical Theatre of 2018

Keaton Whittaker and the CCM Class of Musical Theatre of 2018

Having a Broadway credit before coming into school, to some people may seem like a leg up. But in some ways I felt the opposite. It is easy for people to assume things about you. I found this to be the case with a few, and it took me a long time to prove those people wrong. The reality was that I was just blessed to have been in the right place at the right time. Those preconceived notions were a valuable lesson, because no matter who you are people will always assume things before getting to know you. It’s your job to prove them wrong.

One of the biggest reasons I decided to go to school in the first place was to have a consistent education. For four years I was in the same place with the same people. The most valuable training came from my peers and classmates. I learned to be self aware through them. I learned how to be incredibly positive through them. I also learned how easy it is to be incredibly negative and jaded through them. I don’t think I ever could've understood what we learned in class without my classmates teaching me what they did outside of class. I became a human being who is now capable of absorbing all of the knowledge I can, from everywhere I can, because college taught me to be open.

As actors I don’t think we never stop learning, but it is up to each individual as to whether you will be open to receiving. This is not always an easy lesson, but It is the most valuable lesson I’ve learned from anywhere - Broadway included.

Since I moving in New York in April, it has been a different experience. The only way I know New York is going to school during the day and doing a Broadway show at night. That’s… not my current schedule. I was lucky to have signed with a great agency out of showcase, and am getting to audition a lot which is great. Ive worked a few different day jobs, trying to make sure I’ve got something steady with the freedom to audition. The one thing I’ve found the most difficult that I didn’t anticipate is the rejection. For the first week after every audition I had to call my boyfriend crying because nothing came of it. To which he replied (lovingly of course) “Get used to it.” I’ve since gotten a little bit better about walking out of a room and letting it go, but that is something that I’m hoping will come with more time.

The reality is, New York is hard. Most people don’t just walk into a Broadway show. I was lucky to have an experience like that, and to make those amazing connections. Now, I get to experience New York through a new, older set of eyes. I don’t know if I would have even been open to experience that if it weren’t for my time at school. My classmates and my teachers taught me to treat this like an adventure, because we are the few lucky enough to get to pursue our dreams.

Deconstructing a Rock and Roll Anthem

Mo Brady

 by Mo Brady

“I (Who Have Nothing)” is one of the most recorded popular songs of the 1960s. It entered the American pop canon with a recording featuring singer Ben E. King, and was taken on by artists ranging from Joe Cocker to Liza Minnelli. 

 John Edwards

John Edwards

However, the first time actor John Edwards ever heard the song was not one of these notable recordings. Like many musical theatre fans, he first heard the song on the original cast album of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history. The show debuted in 1995 featuring a cast of nine, including Dear Evan Hansen star Michael Park. Among the dozens of beloved rock and roll songs included in the show are “Love Potion #9,” “On Broadway,” and “I’m a Woman.”

This summer, John Edwards joins a cast of nine in the first New York City revival of the show since its original production. A veteran of Broadway’s Jersey Boys and the national tour of Hairspray, he is also a member of the Broadway Inspirational Voices choir. While those shows are based on popular music, Smokey Joe’s Cafe marks his first foray into singing revue.

“Although Jersey Boys was a lot of work, this show is way more demanding physically and vocally,” notes Edwards. “Unlike a book musical, we don’t have the luxury of scenes with dialogue. It’s literally hit after hit after hit, during which you have to connect, engage an audience, tell a story, all while making it look seamless and effortless.”

Edwards enjoys this kind of fast-paced performance: “To me, it’s a lot of fun. It keeps it exciting and makes it feel a workout at times. By the end of the show, I feel like I have just done a marathon. It’s how I imagine Beyoncé must feel after doing a concert.” 

As a part of the show’s quartet with Dwayne Cooper, Jelani Remy and Kyle Taylor Parker, Edwards sings songs like “Young Blood,” “Keep On Rollin’” and “Poison Ivy.” However, his moment to shine comes late in Act II when he takes the stage alone to perform “I (Who Have Nothing).”

  Smokey Joe's Cafe  at Stage 42 (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Smokey Joe's Cafe at Stage 42 (Photo by Joan Marcus)

On the original cast recording of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the song was recorded by Victor Trent Cook who also originated roles in Broadway’s Starmites and Street Corner Symphony. “Listening to that album, the lyrics are so honest, fun and embedded with so much rich imagery,” says Edwards. “The music is so lit, you can’t help but feel it in your body. It makes you want to dance and sing.”

Performing pop standards on a musical theatre stage requires a delicate balance. An actor must create their own unique interpretation of the song’s vocal stylings and story. However, in order to do so the actor must be aware of the existing renditions of the song that made the song famous with audiences.  

Prior to working on this revival, Edwards listened to many different versions of “I (Who Have Nothing).” While drawing inspiration from the Tom Jones and Linda Jones versions, the one that inspired him the most was by Dame Shirley Bassey. “I just love her tone and how strong, resonate and full of passion her voice is,” says Edwards. “Her interpretation hits me in the gut the most and felt familiar.” 

In rehearsal, Edwards build his own set of circumstances to perform the song under, using the song beforehand (“Spanish Harlem” featuring Dionne D. Figgins and Jelani Remy) as inspiration. “Story-wise, when the song starts, I see my friends Jelani and Dionne, newly coupled up full of hope and happiness,” says Edwards. “While they are at the beginning of a new relationship, I’m at the end of mine, begging and pleading for my partner not to leave.” 

Since those circumstances are never directly related to the audience, Edwards infuses them with his own life experience. “When it comes to performing the song, I am definitely drawing on a couple of personal moments of great loss from my own life’s journey. I start in a space where it’s just God and myself and then it blossoms and expands from there. It is the most vulnerable I feel in the entire show. It’s also the most therapeutic moment for me.”

“It truly is a testament to the creative brilliance of songwriting geniuses Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller,” concludes Edwards. “I simply get the chance to tell the stories using my own voice colored by my own experiences.”

Part of the Magic.

Mo Brady

by Julia Freyer

“Magic” is the word friends use most frequently to describe their time at Transcendence Theatre Company in Sonoma, California. Friends come back from contracts with visibly invigorated spirits, a renewed sense of joy in life and art AND an increased knowledge of wine! When I was asked to join the company as a performer and associate choreographer for the first show of their summer season, Stairway to Paradise, I was so excited to experience this “magical” theatre company for myself.

 Julia Freyer

Julia Freyer

In 2008, Amy Miller, Brad Surosky and Stephan Stubbins conceived a theater company that would integrate health and wellness into the arts, put service above self, and make a positive impact in the lives of artists and the community they serve. Transcendence Theatre Company found their home in Sonoma, California at Jack London State Historic Park. Transcendence's first full summer season of Broadway Under The Stars concerts premiered in 2012. Each Broadway Under the Stars event begins with over two hours of pre-show picnicking, wine, and food trucks. At sunset, the surrounding mountains and vineyards provide the backdrop to the performances that take place within the open-air winery ruins of the park. 

I was introduced to theatre by the community theatres in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Even growing up, I was astounded by the adults who worked full-time jobs during the days and showed up to rehearsal from 7-10PM nightly because theatre made them so happy. Most adult volunteers in Grand Rapids community theatre saw a show in the area and had been so moved that they “had to get involved”—not because they had a formal theatrical background, but because they loved their experience at the theatre so much that they just wanted to be a part of the magic.

Like Grand Rapids community theatre, Transcendence Theatre Company relies on the magic of volunteers to make their productions a reality. “Team Transcendence” is comprised of volunteers who work positions ranging from ushering, facilitating parking, selling merchandise, dressing…even pouring wine pre-show! Every pre-show begins with a circle up of the full team—salaried company members and volunteers. Every volunteer introduces herself or himself to cheers from the rest of the circle. Further, everyone brought in to Sonoma from out of town (performers, stage management, musicians, etc), lives with members of the community who donate living spaces. My housing sponsors, Steve and Inga, discovered Transcendence because they are volunteers at Jack London State Historic Park. In 2012, Steve and Inga saw a poster for Transcendence in the park and immediately fell in love with the company and the shows. Seven seasons later, Steve and Inga volunteer nearly every performance (together, they comprise Team “Stinga” as the lead volunteers for Wine and Beer) and they open their beautiful home to out of town artists. Going above and beyond, Steve and Inga threw “Pizza and Pinot” parties for me and my fellow company members, advised me on the best grocery stores, and they even helped me plan for my upcoming backpacking trip because they are both experts in the field!

Following the Transcendence mission statement to “impact the lives of artists and the community,” through the Transcendence CONNECTS program, every company spends a day volunteering within the community. The Stairway to Paradise cast volunteered at Sweetwater Spectrum, a housing center for adults with autism. We played theatre games, sang Disney songs with the residents and talked about their experience at our show the previous weekend. It was empowering to use our art to impact the Sonoma community in a positive way! When The Boys and Girls Club of Sonoma came to see one of our performances, several company members and I led a workshop before the show. Connecting with the kids while they watched the show that night was incredible—smiling at the little ones with whom we had just played improv games with and seeing their excitement and recognition was a heart explosion for me. At a traditional regional theatre job, performers live alone in hotels and generally go to work at the theatre, head home and stay in the hotel or spend time strictly with company members when not at the show. At Transcendence, thanks to the community activities and the network of volunteers and housing sponsors, artists feel integrated into the Sonoma community.

 Cameron Hobbs and Julia Freyer at Transcendence Theatre Company

Cameron Hobbs and Julia Freyer at Transcendence Theatre Company

In a traditional rehearsal, 10AM is go-time. Perhaps the stage manager will say a few words or reminders about the upcoming day but generally, you dive right into rehearsal. At Transcendence, every experience, be it a rehearsal, performance, or volunteer opportunity, begins by holding hands in a circle as a full team and taking four deep breaths. Those four breaths gave me the opportunity to center myself, breathing in everything wonderful I was experiencing. Each breath was an opportunity to reflect. Following the four breaths, rehearsal at Transcendence begins with a thirty-minute alignment. Alignments ranged from Pilates to meditation to nature appreciation to writing anonymous complimentary phrases to each other on papers stuck to our backs. I believe it is thanks to the alignments that I quickly felt close with people I had only just met. Within days of meeting, I knew more about every single cast member beyond who could belt to the heavens or who had insane extensions. We shared an emotional connection. Subconsciously, this allowed each of us to take time every morning to settle our minds, granting us the opportunity to appreciate the moment and each other before diving into rehearsal. The connections made in the alignments then carried through to performance and I believe were visible from the audience.

As a performer, the magic of Transcendence Theatre Company is palpable. When I met director/choreographer, Tony Gonzalez, his spirit, warmth and enthusiasm instantly inspired me. I mean, his joy shot directly into my heart. I say this with absolutely no exaggeration. The same feeling goes for every single person I met connected with Transcendence. Over time, without realizing it, New York and auditions had built up a hardened shell around my heart. Theatre becomes work and the joy I found in the art had begun to slip away. I often tell my husband that I “love to dance” while boogie-ing around our apartment. However, I had not felt that overwhelming, “heart was going to burst” feeling from dancing and creating in ages…until I arrived in Sonoma. I began to feel heart explosions again, multiple times a day. Everyone at Transcendence is led (and in turn, leads) with love, gratitude and positivity. There is no room for fear. I believe every person, not just the actor, performs at his or her highest ability because he or she is fully supported from every single direction. Penny Notter, my mentor from Grand Rapids theatre, always taught by leading with Stanislavski’s quote, “Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.” The unique art inside each person who arrives at Transcendence, no matter what the role, is celebrated!

I now understand why friends describe their time in Sonoma at Transcendence Theatre Company as “magic.” The theatre is impactful, transforming both my life as an artist but also making it about more than just myself. It reminds the individual artist that theatre is actually about community and can only thrive WITH community. Coming home, I closed my eyes and took four deep breaths as my plane landed in New York. I thanked Transcendence Theatre Company for reminding me why I fell in love with theatre back in Grand Rapids as a little girl. I opened my eyes in New York with a full heart, recharged, full of joy, hope and light…and with a couple of bottles of wine in my suitcase to remember my time in Sonoma.

 Transcendence Theatre Company

Transcendence Theatre Company

Project Broadway: The Unconventional Materials Challenge

Mo Brady

Sharone Sayegh and Raymond J. Lee are teaming up for their first duo show at Feinstein’s/54 Below. Taking a cue from “Project Runway,” Sharone and Ray are excited to present an evening of Unconventional Materials as they tackle nontraditional casting roles and partner up on a few exciting pop selections.

Sharone&Ray.jpg

1. How did y'all come about deciding to perform together? 

Sharone: 54 Below asked Ray if he would like to do a show as part of their Summer Duo series, and said he could choose who he wanted to do the show with, and he asked me! I was so honored and excited that Ray asked me. Ever since we met doing Mamma Mia! on Broadway years ago, I've loved singing and collaborating with him. Ray has one of those voices that sounds amazing singing anything, and he truly lights up any room he's in. I'm so grateful to have him as a friend and collaborator.

Ray: Sharone had asked me to do a few benefits in the past and I always had such a great time singing with her. Sharone has such an amazing and versatile voice and I wanted to have an evening where we just got to jam and do our thang. Plus she is such a wonderfully creative person and such an inspiring artist that I knew we would have a blast putting this concert together. Also being both actors from diverse backgrounds, we have this understanding of what we go through every day in this business. Plus the Mamma Mia family is a strong one and we go way back!

2. Why did you name your concert Project Broadway: The Unconventional Materials Challenge?

Ray: Disclaimer...I'm a HUGE Project Runway fan!

Sharone: We knew we wanted to take songs that people knew and do something really different and exciting with them. We also both wanted to sing songs that we both don't normally get the opportunity to as minority actors. And we both love Project Runway and thought about the "unconventional materials challenge" that they do every year where they have the designers make a garment out of unconventional/non-fabric materials like candy wrappers, electrical wire, etc. 

Ray: I think Sharone and I get pigeon-holed into certain roles because of the way we look, but I looked at her and she looked at me during our initial brainstorm session and we were like "Wait! You could TOTALLY play that part! That part doesn't have to always be this type." I think she'd make an amazing Julia Gulia in The Wedding Singer or a fantastic Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors. Actually, Seymour is a huge dream role of mine...so anyone reading this PLEASE CAST US!

Sharone: We thought we would apply that concept to how we chose our "materials" and use songs from roles we wouldn't traditionally be cast in, and also alter songs to blend with other songs and create really unique mashups. I'm really excited with what we've come up with, I think people are going to be really surprised and delighted by the mashups we've created along with our amazing music director, Steven Jamail.

3. As actors coming from diverse backgrounds, what have been some of the challenges that have faced you in the business? 

 Sharone Sayegh

Sharone Sayegh

Sharone: It wasn’t until I moved to NYC after college to pursue a career in theater that I realized that my ethnicity, the way I looked, the texture of my hair, the shape of my eyes and nose, my name, everything about me and my cultural background would so deeply affect and diminish the opportunities I had as an actor. It seems very obvious now, but when I first moved here I almost didn’t realize how “different” or "ethnic" I was perceived to be until it was continuously pointed out to me as I navigated the world of auditions. 

Ray: I'm right there with you. I always knew I was Asian but I really didn't feel "Asian" until I started pursuing theater in college where I was reminded of what I looked like. And it's hard because I gravitate toward the pop/contemporary sound of music, which back in the day was hard to come by when it came to Asian American roles. 

Sharone: I started to realize that at almost every audition I had, I was asked to do the scene or sing the song in an accent or in a language other than English. During my first year in NYC, it finally dawned on me that the business as a whole did not view me as American. Even if they couldn’t tell what ethnicity I was, they still viewed me as “other." I was not given the opportunity to simply play a girl from LA, as I knew and felt that I was. 

Ray: I have many friends who are ethnically ambiguous and they deal with their own hardships in this business. Do they look enough of one race or enough of another? I look Asian and will always look Asian without a doubt in this industry, so it has also brought its own challenges. But I've also learned to own what I look like and how I sound, and it's helped me create the career I have today. 

Sharone: My lightbulb moment was when I went to an audition for the tour of Hairspray in my first year in NYC. There were too many people at the audition and the monitor came in to the holding room and said they would be making a cut - as was normal practice for big calls. The monitor very politely then informed the room that the show was about race relations in the US in the 1960s between Caucasian and African Americans, so if those of us in the waiting room weren’t White or Black, we should probably head home. I wasn’t upset - that made total sense to me - but as I started to gather my things and head out, I thought to myself, “Well, I’m not white and I’m not black, so this isn’t the show for me. I should probably just start auditioning for Middle Eastern musicals…..but wait, are there any?” I went home and started researching to find any Broadway musicals that were set in the Middle East or had any Middle Eastern characters - the only show I could find at the time was Aida, which was no longer playing and had opened on Broadway in March of 2000. It was set in ancient Egypt - and from what I could gather, all of the actors who had played the Egyptian roles in the original cast were Caucasian. 

Ray: I also had a Hairspray audition moment too! I had no idea what the show was about when I first moved here and went to a EPA or ECC. I walked into the room and the person behind the table was so confused as to why I had shown up. I just sang my song, left, and moved on to the next audition. It didn't even occur to me why I was getting that look behind the table. I'm also the worst musical theater queen in the world and should have done my research. 

Sharone: I then started auditioning for shows and roles about other minorities since that was all I could get seen for. I made it to final callbacks for the original cast of In The Heights on Broadway and was told I didn’t get the part because I wasn’t actually Latina. Again, I understood and agreed with the show's decision, it should be cast authentically with Latinx actors - I just felt so stuck. There were no shows or roles for Middle Eastern actors and no one would consider me for shows that didn’t have anything to do with race, so what was I supposed to do? Simply not be an actor? That wasn’t an option for me. 

Ray: When I first started auditioning, I remember going into specific auditions and looking around and realizing I was there to audition for the token minority spot. It was humbling and I knew there would be a day that things would change and I feel that momentum really gathering steam right now in this industry.  That is why I am so thankful for pioneers like Sharone who have worked hard on their craft, kept persevering even when things looked bleak, and proved to creative teams all over New York, and the country that WE exist. There are plenty of minority actors who can bring that magic on the stage just like everyone else. They just finally need the opportunities! 

4. Sharone, you are currently in THE BAND'S VISIT which won several Tony Awards including Best Musical, and Ray, you just finished SOFT POWER. How have your experiences been with your shows? 

Sharone: The Band’s Visit is the first Broadway musical that has given me the opportunity to portray my own ethnicity. It’s my first time speaking Hebrew on a Broadway stage, the first time I don’t feel like I have to work in spite of my ethnicity, or the way I look, or my name. In fact, I feel like all of these things are finally an asset to the show I’m performing in, and the role I am playing. On opening night, I knew it would be incredibly special for my parents to sit in the audience and watch me fulfill my dream of originating a role of Broadway. What overwhelmed me even more that night was thinking about them, as immigrants to this country, making countless sacrifices and spending their lives making sure that my sisters and I had everything we needed in order to succeed in a country and culture very different from the one they had grown up in. And they were watching me succeed by representing them. I was representing our people and our culture for the first time on a Broadway stage. They were seeing themselves for the first time on a Broadway stage. And not only was I representing them and my people, but I was doing so in a show about real people with real stories. Not about stereotypes of Israelis and Arabs. Not about the heavy politics of the region, which is so often the way the Middle East is portrayed in the U.S. I wasn’t playing “Terrorist’s Wife #3,” for a change, I am playing Anna. A real girl, who is on the best date of her life. Who is consumed with thoughts of boys and love and fun. Who has a mother and a father and a cousin that she sets up on a date. Who thinks and feels the same way as any “American” girl her age would. And who simply happens to be Israeli. And for that, I am so grateful to The Band’s Visit, and I am so incredibly proud to be up on that stage every night.  

 Raymond J. Lee

Raymond J. Lee

Ray: Soft Power was an incredible experience because it was basically a full Asian American cast, along with two Caucasian members, telling this American story through a Chinese lens. We didn't have to perform the show in any sort of accents, except for American ones, and we got to convey so many poignant messages together as a company. At the end of the show, you see a sea of Asian faces singing our faces off about Democracy and I would always have to hold back tears in my eyes. It meant the world to be able to perform with my fellow Asian American actors, many of whom I've been auditioning with for years but never got the chance to perform side by side with. Also the idea of younger Asian kids sitting in the audience, seeing us on stage, and realizing that there's room for them in this industry filled me up with such hope and strength. David Henry Hwang, Jeanine Tesori, Leigh Silverman, and Sam Pinkleton created something magical with Soft Power and I really hope we get the chance to bring the show to New York.  

5. What kind of songs can we expect on Thursday, July 26? How did you come up with your song list?

Sharone: We have a ton of really cool mashups that blend a bunch of different styles of music together including, pop, musical theater, rap, rock, and more. You won't know what hit you! We're also doing a couple duets straight up, but with our own takes on the roles. And finally we'll each be singing a couple solos which are from a really wide variety of musical styles. It's going to be a really exciting and surprising night, I'm very much looking forward to it. 

Ray: Expect some SANGING from the two of us and night to remember! We are both so excited!


You can catch Sharone Sayegh and Raymond J. Lee at Feinstein's/54 Below on Thursday, July 26 at 930pm.

Carole King's Showstopping Hits

Mo Brady

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

by Mo Brady

Beautiful is squarely Carole King’s show. Lovingly and adeptly portrayed by Melissa Benoist, the story takes us from her days as a teenage composer in the Midtown’s Brill Building to headlining at Carnegie Hall. But unlike most musicals, Beautiful uses the ensemble to showcase the talents of its protagonist.

As a songwriter, King wrote songs for many 50s and 60s headliners including The Drifters, The Shirelles, Little Eva and The Righteous Brothers. These indelible hits include “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “One Fine Day” and “The Locomotion.” And while King was the genius behind these melodies, it was also the performances of these songs by famous recording artists that made them number one records.

 Salisha Thomas

Salisha Thomas

In the crowd-pleasing second half of the show’s first act, many of these are performed in quick succession. King and her fellow songwriters set up the creation of these songs, often singing a simplified opening before handing the reins over to the ensemble to perform them as showstopping hits. And five years into the show’s Broadway run, the ensemble is filled with pristine vocalists who bring this music to life.  

In her Broadway debut, Salisha Thomas headlines a stunning rendition of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” Launching centerstage after completing a logic-defying quick change, she takes control of the stage and makes the audience feel at ease. Her shimmering voice and radiant smile make it easy for audiences to see why this song became a staple of the popular music canon.

As the Righteous Brothers, Adam Dietlein and original cast member Kevin Duda perform a spot-on rendition of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” that brings the house down. Duda’s soaring tenor voice masterfully navigates the song’s harmonies. Dietlein follows up the song with hilarious performance of guitarist Nick, bringing laughs to the audience before he even utters a word.

Ten of the show’s current ensemble make their Broadway debuts in the show (with five of them veterans of the production’s first national tour). Their exuberance and passion beams from the stage into the audience, bringing the music of Carole King’s extraordinary career to life.

 The original Broadway company of  Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

The original Broadway company of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

The 5 W's

Mo Brady

by Paul Canaan 

Part of The Ensemblist's "What I Teach" Series

 Paul Canaan

Paul Canaan

About 10 years ago I started teaching workshops for school groups visiting New York. They would see a Broadway show and I would teach them about what they saw. Fans of Legally Blonde for example, got to Bend and Snap with the pros. Trust me when I say… I’ve done enough bending and snapping to last 10 Elle Woods lifetimes. Now when I bend, I actually snap. But these workshops opened my eyes to the massive need for quality arts education in this country.

More recently, I’ve had the chance to teach more intense workshops that cover the three disciplines of musical theatre: music, dance and acting. Lately, I connect most with song audition prep. Finding the right song for your type and conveying a story and character through that piece. Aside from proper vocal technique and getting a song in the correct key for your voice, I believe embodying the character and conveying emotional arch of the story is equally important as hitting that high note. I teach a little easy-to-remember acting technique to cover your bases before you go into an audition -

5 W’s: Who, What, Why, Where, When.

Who - is the character you’re portraying and who are they talking to.

What do you need to express or want from the other character you’re talking to.

Why did I say that? Why am I singing right now? Why did I end the song this way?

Why is the character reacting this way? “Why” embodies the questions we ask about the material, because questions lead to answers.

Where does the action take place? Specific environments help tell the story better.

When does the action take place? Time-period, time of day, etc, are all important to support the character's storyline.

After a student sings their song, I ask them to answer the 5 W’s as it pertains specifically to their song. With new discoveries, we do the song again and see if they can go deeper and implement more organic choices to tell the story. The goal is to know the character as intimately as possible so your audience or people in the room see you completely as that person and relate to your plight. After a while, my students can quickly tell me the 5 W’s they’re playing whether it’s a scene, song, or even a dance. And when one student understands this, others gain perspective for their own material. As musical theatre artists, we are storytellers, so no matter what we’re doing on stage, the story is the most important. This quick technique aligns you with the characters point of view so that you’re more equipped to tell their story.

I cherish every opportunity I get to share what I’ve learned with young aspiring artists. Throughout history, art and passion have been passed down from generation to generation. This is how it works. We honor those who paved the way for us as we work to pave the way for others. Everything I know, I’ve learned from teachers, mentors and other artists. The ultimate reward from a career in the performing arts is contribution and giving back. It’s also so refreshing for me to be reminded of where passion is born through the eyes of a young dreamer.

 Take It From The Top Students

Take It From The Top Students

"A Good Student is One Who Will Teach You Something."

Mo Brady

by Hanifa Jackson-Adderly 

Part of The Ensemblist's "What I Teach" Series

 Hanifa Jackson Adderly

Hanifa Jackson Adderly

My teaching journey has always been a stagnant one, being that I was often performing. Balancing my schedule between a dance company and a musical production made it difficult to dive in completely like I envisioned. The last few years I have been doing less on stage performing and more in studio teaching and have a great passion for both. I have had the opportunity to teach different techniques including Ballet, Horton, Contemporary and Barre fitness.

I teach students from outreach programs, local dance studios, competition conventions and major Universities. Every class level will require a different version of you as the head of the class. That to me is one of the most rewarding sides. Getting to relate to different artists at different phases of their dance journey. Passing on the knowledge that I have been afforded, and seeing the appreciation and light when a student is locked in and absorbing it into their bodies.

Nothing makes me more happy and satisfied than leaving class knowing we are now more physical, knowledgeable and inspired than when we started. It’s a beautiful marriage between student, teacher and music. 

A Netflix Education

Mo Brady

 Francesca Granell

Francesca Granell

My Friday morning began in a bit of a moody, irritated haze following a night of restless sleep (or lack thereof). I didn’t have anywhere to be until my call-time for the show that night at 6:30pm, but I didn’t necessarily want to sleep the day away. So, I swiftly transitioned from the bed to the couch, made myself a cup of pour-over coffee, ate a leftover slice of cherry pie (not a normal breakfast choice, but this was not a normal morning), and I popped open my laptop with the full intention of picking up where I left off in Season 3 of Gossip Girl on Netflix. A promising start to my decidedly lackluster afternoon. Instead, I came across one of Netflix’s more substantial offerings, a stand-up comedy special titled “Nanette” by Hannah Gadsby.  I knew this would be the more educational choice, and I happened to be in a mental state where I was actually in the mood to consume thought-provoking content, rather than idly scroll through every mindless app on my phone while Gossip Girl streams in the background. Let’s just say I made the right choice.

In the course of one hour I went from laughing out loud (alone, mind you) to openly sobbing to being struck with laughter yet again, my emotions spiraling. After it ended, I sat on my couch in silence, in shock. I picked up the short novel I’ve been meaning to finish for the last couple of weeks, a Don DeLillo story with a female protagonist, and I found that I couldn’t get past a few paragraphs without feeling incredibly tense and uneasy. In that moment I decided I didn’t want to read a man’s words. I didn’t want to watch another Netflix comedy special by a male comedian. I had to get out, I had to seek out a woman’s voice. So, I throw on some clothes and walk two blocks to the nearest used bookstore in my neighborhood that I had been meaning to check out. Not 10 steps into my walk, I feel the unwarranted glare of a homeless man in my path before then hearing him yell “SMILE!” at me, a command I obviously do not obey. After I pass, having never even made eye contact with this man, I hear him say, “Or not!” I’m fuming inside, but my pace increases as I seek out refuge in this quaint little independent bookstore. Once I’m inside, I think, “Surely there must be a plethora of female-authored books to dismantle my tension!” I look around and pace the aisles as my heartbeat quickens, my breathing becomes audibly labored, I’m quite literally panicking in the middle of this little library, surrounded by books that are overwhelmingly written by men. It’s only after about forty minutes of panicked perusal when my eyes land on a copy of “Bad Feminist” by Roxane Gay priced at $4 that I decide to check out and leave. I exit the store with another woman who turns to me with an inviting smile and says, “It’s a great book. You’re going to love it.” I had finally found solace.

I don’t want to reveal too much or try to summarize Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special on here because I think it ought to be required viewing by everyone. But I will say that it really made me realize that I personally need to seek out more female content for myself — female stories about women BY women — I mean, what a concept! It reminded me of a feeling I had a couple months ago when I read the novel Marry Me by John Updike, one of my favorite contemporary American authors that I had read quite a bit of in college as an English literature major some seven or eight years ago.  While the prose and plot-line drew me in, I couldn’t quite ignore the sound of the author’s voice tinged with an air of male chauvinism as he narrated the perspectives of the two female characters intertwined in a love triangle with the male protagonist. It depressed me for a couple of reasons, one being that I didn’t quite agree with Updike’s perspective of a woman’s thoughts and feelings, and the other being that in many passages throughout the novel, I discovered that I actually related deeply to how these women felt — these women, these fictional characters being voiced by a man in his portrayal of their existence in this complicated love story. It fucked me up, to say the least. Had I experienced these same unsettling feelings when I studied his works in college? Or had I even registered them as feelings at all? 

I don’t really know where I’m going with this, but the wheels are certainly turning up here in this frazzled mind on this hazy day. I’m feeling all sorts of feminine energy stirring up, and I want so badly to connect on a deeper level with my fellow humans about these things. We live in an age where information and inspiration is buzzing right at our fingertips just awaiting our eager consumption. There is a plethora of authentic female content out there that exists in all mediums, be it literature, art, music, theatre, etc. I think it’s important as women to seek out and share this content because it helps us to identify aspects about ourselves in a much bigger picture and makes us feel less alone.  Let’s keep learning, let’s keep listening, let’s keep sharing. And let it come from an open place, from a place of humility, of empathy, of love. Always. And, please!  If you’ve got any recommendations, let a girl know.

"...They Are Capable of Anything."

Mo Brady

by Nicholas Cunningham

Part of The Ensemblist's "What I Teach" Series

 Nicholas Cunningham

Nicholas Cunningham

As I sat in the car with my Mum, we drove to the south side of Brisbane (we live on the north side) because I wanted to join one of the best dance schools in Queensland, DLDC, The Davidia Lind Dance Center. I saw them perform at competitions in Australia and the school, to me, was all inclusive. A variety of performers, all shapes and sizes, and ages, and aesthetics. The numbers I saw were creative, interesting and most of all inspiring. So we arrive at the school and we enter the building through these giant glass doors, purple walls were surrounding me with graffiti of dancers and trophies, upon trophies, upon more trophies. If I remember rightly, there were even trophies sitting on the floor waiting to be displayed as they had run out of room in the foyer. I knew that I had walked into a school that was not only the real deal, but coming from only a small amount of dance training, a school that was very intimidating. 

As I wait patiently, the silence is broken and I hear footsteps coming down the hallway, and this statuesque woman with black hair and piercing eyes introduces herself as Davidia Lind, the woman who owns and runs the school. We went up a flight of stairs and walked into the biggest studio this 15 year old boy had EVER seen. Sat in the middle of the room with her and my Mum, we spoke about why I wanted to come to the school. I will never forget the moment I knew how much I wanted this because Davidia said to me, “It’s not about how talented you are, it’s about how much you want it. You could have the facility to be the most successful performer, but if you don’t live, breathe and want it, you won’t succeed.” 

It was at that point I knew I was exactly where I needed to be - as a late starter - but as someone who had never wanted anything more in their life, what she said was the catalyst for my career. At that point I knew I wanted to be a performer and would fight every step of the way to be the best I could be.

 Nicholas Cunningham in the classroom

Nicholas Cunningham in the classroom

Teaching is a gift. I am so humbled from what I have learnt from my students and am grateful for them turning up and producing some of the best dancing I’ve ever seen, often surprising themselves. It inspires me to create new work for them. I try to bring an energy to my studio/classroom where my students will be pushed beyond their own perception of what their potential is. I encourage them to drive themselves to places they think they aren’t capable of, often breaking down walls, beliefs and preconceived ideas. I encourage all my students to be the best possible versions of themselves, as we are born into the package that the universe has given us so we must nourish it to the best of our ability. The complicated/challenging world of the arts as we know is not easy, and we must be the most authentic version of ourselves to succeed.

I am Head of Dance at The Institute for American Musical Theatre. I teach technique classes, jazz, and musical theatre at the school. I also oversee all of the dance teachers that come and teach for our school. Every single one of my teachers has in common is that they are to be encouraging, insightful, creative, but firm. All of our teachers have experience in the business so they are teaching from first hand experience which we pride our school on. 

I teach my classes almost as a masterclass every time, delving into the minds of my dancers/students, trying to bring out stories, emotions and their own connection to movement. I drive them to learn how to let go of conformity and to embrace what they have been given, all while throwing intense technical aspects of dance at them. Whatever level they are at, I will always challenge my students to have courage and be willing to make mistakes and learn from them. Because this is the truest way we succeed, is through failure. Sometimes this ends in emotional out pours, but I never leave my students feeling like they have failed, I encourage them that what they have experienced is a success. They pushed themselves beyond what they were ever capable of. This is where the work starts. This is where the extraordinary is made. As the trailblazer and power house singer Celine Dion sings, “It’s the moment that you think you can’t, you’ll discover that you can.” - this WILL bring you closer to the power of the dream. 

Without going all “Soul Sessions with Oprah” on you all, I have in the past been made to feel worthless, stupid, and insecure. It has carried through my life and I still fight on a daily basis to connect with my heart and know I am enough. From this feeling I teach purely from a source of love and encouragement no matter where my students are, their background, their aesthetic, their ability. I make sure that each and every one of them is made to feel none of those things I felt, as I would never want to put that weight on any gift of life. 

My main goal as a teacher is to make a difference in the world, to change a person's life, to encourage the defeated that they are capable of anything.

I had a student ask me once, “Why do you dance?” - my response was, “It began as an escape for me, from reality, it was the one place I knew that I could think of nothing else but dancing. I found after years of training, my passion, artistic input and time, it grew into something much deeper. It became a place of peace. When I am dancing I am most at peace, the noise stops, my soul soars and begins to dances euphorically. This is why I dance.”

I hope my students will find that place in their lifetime. That is a gift we mustn’t take for granted. So to all my budding students out there reading this, listen to your heart and follow your dreams, nurture your gift and put the extra in extraordinary.

 

"Every Exercise Comes Down to Confidence."

Mo Brady

by Tommy Bracco

Part of The Ensemblist's "What I Teach" Series

 Tommy Bracco

Tommy Bracco

Have you ever tried to learn choreography from a YouTube video? You’ll find that you end up doing everything backwards, because you’re learning from a screen. Also, it takes forever to rewind, slow down the dancers, and count it out yourself. But that’s exactly what one of my students at LaGuardia High School used to do. Let’s call her Mya. When Mya came to my class, she had very little formal training. She couldn’t point her feet, hold her core, or spot her turns. But her curiosity was gigantic.

Over the course of two years, she developed a rigorous work ethic. She’d stay after every class to ask me questions or to show me the latest phrase she’d choreographed. Eventually, Mya became the most compelling dancer in my class. She created a number for LaGuardia’s competitive ‘Rising Stars’ talent show, bringing an entire audience to their feet with her undeniable presence, rhythm, and authenticity. Watching her uncover the joy of expression is something I’ll never forget. She inspired me to lean into my passion for teaching.

For years before I taught classes at LaGuardia, I’d been preparing my young cousin, Serena, for her professional auditions. She was a trained dancer with raw talent as an actress. The first few times that she had to tape auditions for TV shows, she wasn’t used to working on scenes. She’d read from the paper and rest on her charisma and dance training to get some jobs. But I could tell that she had more to offer. She began to find a new level of success when I pushed her to go beyond memorizing lines for an audition. It took sacrifice for her- she would have to cancel plans with her friends and get all of her homework done, in addition to preparing several pages of sides for the latest audition. But over time, I watched her come to the realization that when she really worked hard on these sides, she liked the way they came out. Eventually, this confidence transferred to her auditions. After that realization, Serena booked Matilda The Musical on Broadway, followed by several major TV shows, and was recently flown to L.A. to test for the lead in a Disney pilot.

Moments like these led my best friend Adam Kaplan and I to start LION ARTS - a ‘one stop shop’ for young artists. Our goal is to strengthen audition technique and to amplify confidence. We tackle technical skills of auditioning, such as picking up choreography in a dance call, finding beats in a 32-bar cut, choosing solid repertoire, and knowing how to speak to an accompanist. But the practice is much deeper than that. It’s really about learning to bring your authentic self into the room, fighting through nerves to express yourself bravely and rigorously preparing yourself so you can make excellence a habit.

 Tommy Bracco, backstage in  Pretty Woman  

Tommy Bracco, backstage in Pretty Woman 

Along the way, I’d like to demystify this industry to artists who are starting out. Young people should see themselves in the Broadway stars that teach with us.

Since Newsies became such a phenomenon, I’ve had a lot of fans of the show approach me and talk about how much it meant for them to see it. A lot of them are aspiring performers themselves. It’s always flattering when this happens, but it also feels undeserved; I feel like they see me as more than I am. I’m a human being, just like anyone who sat in the audience of that show. A lot of people see success in this business as a secret formula that only some people can unlock. At LION ARTS, we want everyone to know that it really is just about authenticity, training, and perseverance. If you build a reputation as a kind person who works hard, you will do amazing things. I want every young artist to know that. There’s no better example of this than when I had a student in a class at a theater camp in Queens back in 2013. A young boy named Luca Padovan approached me after I taught and told me that he wanted to do what I did. Two weeks later, we were sharing the stage in a Broadway show. We closed Newsies together, and he’s gone on to star in several other Broadway and TV shows.

In the years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve discovered that every exercise comes down to confidence. The performers that people want to work with are the ones who exude authenticity and bravery. And obviously, building those skills is helpful - not just for success as a Broadway performer - but for any endeavor in life.

Connecting with young artists is the greatest gift I can give myself. Instead of being approached by people who think that I’m somehow above them because of what’s on my resume, I’d rather connect on a personal level so that they see us as the same. I don’t give them anything- we work together so that we grow together. It feels to me like completing a circle, so that we end up having a shared experience as we all grow the artistry and confidence that are already inside of us. That process is a million times more fulfilling than a standing ovation in a Broadway house.

More info, including our August Intensive (Aug-23rd-26th), go to Lionartsnyc.com

 Tommy Bracco, with Adam Kaplan and LION ARTS students 

Tommy Bracco, with Adam Kaplan and LION ARTS students 

When Bigger is Better

Mo Brady

My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center Theatre

by Mo Brady

Twenty-two years ago, Rent ushered in a new kind of musical. Not only was it formative for being a downtown rock opera about the AIDS crisis, it featured an tiny ensemble of eight actors each charged with playing multiple characters. In Rent, the work of many was destined down into the responsibility of the few. 

Since then, small casts have been all the rage on Broadway, both for reasons artistic and financial. Last season’s Come From Away and Dear Evan Hansen both proved case in point how a small cast can deliver a full-fledged musical. These days, even larger musicals like Hamilton or Mean Girls tend to employ small ensembles with actors wearing multiple hats (figuratively and literally).

Thank god for Lincoln Center Theater, which skirts this trend by giving us large and luscious productions. Its current Broadway revival of My Fair Lady features an onstage cast of 33, including an ensemble of 22. (That’s literally twice the size of the onstage ensemble of The Addams Family, for those who enjoy 2010-era Broadway references). 

What does an ensemble of 22 give? You get a chance to show nuance. When an ensemble isn’t required to do the jobs of many, they can just BE. The actors may not be showing as much versatility as when they are playing multiple roles, but they can bring a quiet depth to their performances. 

In Act II’s rousing “Get Me to the Church on Time,” you can see 22 different viewpoints on Doolittle’s impending nuptials. You can have Liz McCartney perform an entire verse as a passed out drunk, her head firmly planted on a pub table. You can have Rebecca Eichenberger play a worried skeptic among a sea of drunken revelers. That’s not the kind of reaction you could have among an ensemble of ten, where every ensemblist’s reactions must speak for many. 

These 22 ensemblists include a roster of Broadway regulars, from Sasha Hutchings and Samantha Sturm to Keven Quillon and Lee Zarrett. Much of the show’s score features these actors front and center, from the quartet of street denizens that sing “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” to the half-dozen actors playing Higgins’ Butlers and Maids. Yes, “I Could Have Danced All Night” is a feature for Eliza Doolittle, but it’s also a vocal feature for the two actors who sing it with her (Kerstin Anderson and Minami Yushi at the performance I attended.)

Not every show needs triple threats to tell their stories well. In My Fair Lady, we get to see dozens of great singers and actors (of all ages and body types) singing some of Broadway’s most memorable music. While the ensemble of My Fair Lady may not be Broadway’s busiest ensemble, the numbers they do perform in are true showcases for their talents. 

  My Fair Lady  at Lincoln Center Theatre

My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center Theatre

"...the Vibration is So Much Greater."

Mo Brady

by Amanda LaMotte

 Amanda LaMotte and Christian Dante White in  Hello, Dolly!

Amanda LaMotte and Christian Dante White in Hello, Dolly!

Last week, I was so lucky not only to go on in my understudy track (Minnie Fay) in Hello, Dolly!, but my second show on I got to the theatre to find out that a fellow understudy would also be on in a principal role! Christian Dante White would be playing Cornelius. I went upstairs to get ready and the moment we saw each other we hugged with excitement. Being an understudy is a crazy job, and we often “do the show” together in understudy rehearsal, but the chances of both being on at the same time is rare and exciting.

Our little understudy family at Dolly has always been so loving and supportive and it is amazing how we all celebrate one another- so I felt proud that we would both get to play these roles at the same time. 

Doing the show with Gavin and Christian isn’t drastically different, but something about doing the show with another understudy feels comfortable. We know each other’s timing and inflections and nothing comes as a surprise. We had never done the show with this configuration of actors before, so it was nice to have something about it feel comfortable. There’s also an incredible vibration of energy when an understudy is on- and when there’s multiple, that vibration is so much greater. It’s fun for the whole company but especially for us. It feels amazing to celebrate the hard work each other have done in rehearsal. 

I feel so grateful to have spent the week playing onstage with each of these two incredibly talented men and I will cherish my time on stage with them both. But I will always remember cheering Christian on from onstage instead of the wings, and how proud I was to see him be such an amazing beam of light on that stage! Understudying is a beast, but when you get to do it with such a remarkable group, it’s one of the greatest joys. 

 Amanda LaMotte

Amanda LaMotte

"Eight Talented Men Who Haunt My Actor's Nightmares": Part II

Mo Brady

by Pomme Koch

(read part I of Pomme's blog here.)

5. Andrew Polk, “Avrum”

 Pomme Koch

Pomme Koch

Andy plays a grandfather in The Band's Visit. I am Andy’s second cover. If you know my age, this is an eyebrow-raising statement. But it’s not actually that much of a stretch. After all, I was one of, like, two men in college who could grow a full beard, so I ended up getting typecast as the father/grandfather/dying king/dead king for four straight years. To be honest, I dread going on for Andy a lot less than I do for some of my other tracks. I guess those student loans were worth it after all. 

Stepping into a character who’s distinctly older than you requires a bit more vocal and physical work. My “hook” with Andy is to place my voice somewhere between Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu. Andy thinks he sounds nothing like my impression, but what does he know? 

As much fun as it is to play Avrum, it’s better tdo watch Andy do it. By his own admission, he has a slim background in musical theatre, but he gets one of the flashier numbers in the piece and he tears it up like it’s the Super Bowl halftime show. I recently took a class with a renowned acting teacher who referred to Andy as his “north star,” and it’s a thrill to dance in his footsteps.

6. Ari’el Stachel, “Haled”

I met Ari in 2016 when we were hired for a workshop of a new piece with Mandy Patinkin. While I spent most of those two weeks in stupefied awe of Mr. Patinkin, I was cognizant enough to take note of this Stachel guy, whose vocal cords sounded as if they’d been gently kissed by the honey-laced lips of the baby Jesus. Cut to two years later and it’s no surprise he’s a Tony winner—not just for his voice, but for his absolute determination to nail every element of the character. 

 Pomme Koch in  The Band's Visit

Pomme Koch in The Band's Visit

A victim of this determination has been our drummer, Ossama Farouk, who became an object of Ari’s obsession from the moment he found out Ossama was originally from Alexandria, Egypt (where the eponymous Band members originate). Ari set to work nailing every one of Ossama’s inflections and gestures, insisting on complete authenticity. And while the Tony Award is the flashiest fruit of Ari’s efforts, the real victory came one night when Ari said hi to one of our stage managers, Charlene, from the stairwell in his best Alexandrian accent. Charlene unknowingly shouted back, “Hi Ossama,” and I have yet to see Ari prouder than he was in that moment. 

7. Etai Benson, “Papi”

My life has crisscrossed with Etai’s in weird and wonderful ways for over ten years now. I met him when we both were in school at the University of Michigan and he was roommates with one of my best friends from back home. We stayed in touch after we graduated and ended up traveling to Israel (!!) with a couple other friends from school in 2014. He even sent me detailed voice memos coaching me through the Hebrew lines when I was auditioning for this show. So understudying Etai is a lovely and fitting cap to our first decade of friendship, and I remain impressed and surprised by his work, despite having seen him in countless productions at school. 

There’s a seedy underbelly to our relationship though; Etai and I have turned each other into degenerate backgammon obsessives. We started playing back in September as a way to pass the time during tech (one scrapped iteration of a scene featured Papi and Itzik playing in the cafe. The game was cut, but the board remains hidden on set). Cut to nine months and almost 2,000 games later, our fixation has devolved into a clinical addiction; threatening text messages, profanities hurled down the halls, minutes stolen on the floor of the shower room between scenes desperately trying to fit in just one more game, a total obliviousness to the comings and goings of our fellow man whilst enrapt in the cruel and fateful power of the tumbling dice. The real victim here may be Sharone Sayegh, who claims to have originally introduced the game to our backstage activities, only to be excluded as Etai and I grew more Gollum-like in our mania for the precious checkers. (ps., as of this writing Etai owes me one full dollar from last night’s game.) 

8. Alok Tewari, “Simon”

Alok is the James Bond of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. He’s got some background in international something-or-other, no one knows much about his personal life, and he’s the suavest gentleman in the building. So I’m definitely a natural fit to be his second cover. 

Simon also plays the clarinet, which makes the match a little less fitting. Down at the Atlantic in 2016, Alok went ahead and actually learned how to play the instrument. And Alok’s first cover, James, has complicated my life even further by learning how to play the clarinet as well. Once upon a time I spent a year learning the saxophone just so I could play the solo from “Jungleland,” but I definitely do not play the clarinet. And breaking news: there are a lot of holes on that instrument. 

So whether it’s playing the clarinet, roller skating or improvising in Hebrew, understudying this many roles can best be summed up by something my friend Carlos Valdes once said after he had taken over a role in ONCE on Broadway. “I was supposed to play the bass with my thumb,” he recalled, “But I didn’t know how to do that.” “So what’d you do?” I asked. “I played the bass with my thumb.”


Read Part II of Pomme's blog here.

"Eight Talented Men Who Haunt My Actor's Nightmares": Part I

Mo Brady

by Pomme Koch

 Pomme Koch

Pomme Koch

I’d like to think that each track I cover in The Band's Visit is an exclusive club comprised of only two members: the actor I cover, and myself. I say “I’d like to think” because a) each role is covered by at least two understudies and b) nobody else thinks this. 

There are, however, things that can only be learned by actually stepping into a role; consequential details and surprising quirks that no amount of note-taking from the wings will prepare you for. As I’ve stumbled upon these nuances in performance and rehearsals, I’ve developed a newfound admiration for the actors who have played these characters hundreds of times. This is my tribute to the eight brilliantly talented men who haunt my actor’s nightmares. 


1) Adam Kantor, “Telephone Guy”

This role involves over 30 minutes per show of standing perfectly still and staring at a light. Honestly, I get panic attacks if the subway stalls between stations for more than 30 seconds, so this one is always a bit of an uphill mental battle for me—(Note to casting directors: don’t call me in for shows where you have to be on stage the whole time unless my character gets a bathroom break or a Xanax). As of this writing, Adam has done more than 200 shows, clocking in at over 100 HOURS now of standing stock-still. I’m actually sweating as I type this. What isn’t evident from the audience is the strain this puts on one’s calves and back. The first time Adam came back to the theatre after having been gone for a two show day, I complained to him for five minutes straight about how sore I was before remembering that he has to do eight shows a week. But he doesn’t complain. Ever. 

 Pomme Koch in  The Band's Visit

Pomme Koch in The Band's Visit

The icing on the cake of this role is that at the end of the whole thing, you have to sing one of the most difficult songs I’ve ever encountered in my life. Oh, and no pressure, but it’s the emotional apex of the piece and the moment that most audience members report as the straw that broke the camel’s back of their tear ducts. Adam nails the song every show, and once he even managed to do it at 8:00 A.M. on The Today Show while I was in bed scrolling through Instagram stories with one eye open. 

2) John Cariani, “Itzik”

I was sitting in a restaurant on Ninth Avenue three years ago when I spotted a tall, lanky man outside. “Holy sh*t,” I said, “That’s John Cariani!” I had seen John a few weeks earlier in SOMETHING ROTTEN! and I was completely starstruck. John’s one of those rare actors whose voice, body, and essence meet in some magical combination that’s even greater than the sum of their parts. He’s so good he makes me want to quit. 

Cut to 2017 when I learned I’d not only be in the same cast as him, but I was going to be his understudy, and there are few moments in my career when I’ve felt prouder. 

Purely from an acting perspective, John’s is my most challenging and rewarding track. On the one hand, his delivery is so unique that if I simply run with the choices he’s made I’ll end up just doing a bad John Cariani impression. On the other hand, after over 200 shows the performance seems definitive.

I went on for John at the last minute back in April, and after a couple performances Itzik had become my favorite part. I learned that as long as I had the courage not to reach for every laugh John gets, and as long as I could stop being a fan of his for just 90 minutes, I would be left simply with Itamar Moses’ sparse and beautiful dialogue, generous and open for inhabitation. At the time of this writing I’m two days away from taking over the role for a week while John is on vacation, and looking after his creation will be both an honor and a joy.

3) Bill Army, “Zelger”

I hate Bill Army. Well, that’s not true. I absolutely love Bill Army. He’s my dressing roommate and has become one of my most indispensable friends in the cast. But I also hate Bill Army, and here’s why: have you seen the film version of THE BAND’S VISIT? There’s a scene in a roller rink, and the skating is pretty simple. They move their legs back and forth and go in small circles. Now, our version is a Broadway musical and naturally the team was going to capitalize on a roller disco scene, but there’s nothing that says it has to be Xanadu.  

But they cast Bill Army as Zelger, and he happens to be a preternaturally gifted skater who’s spent half his life with eight wheels strapped to his feet. And the only problem there is that Mr. Army needs understudies, and I happen to be one of those understudies. 

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how the least athletic individual on Broadway—someone whose mother put him in improv classes instead of little league and whose favorite sport is badminton—ended up at a skating rink in Harlem last summer with a Russia-sized bruise on his ass, teaching himself to roller skate. I hate Bill Army. 

4. Jonathan Raviv, “Sammy” 

I just completed my first full week filling in for Jonathan and I walked away with a newfound respect for the character and his arc. First of all, you’ve got to scream at Katrina Lenk in front of 1,000 people. Also, you have to be screamed at by Katrina Lenk in front of 1,000 people. Did you see the Tonys? Would you want those eyes to scowl at you? As soon as she starts glaring you really just want to apologize and walk away.

This role to me epitomizes the “There’s no small roles, only small actors” axiom. Jonathan’s not in every scene, but he’s in a couple pretty damn important ones. And it wasn’t until I stepped into the role that I realized how much of a gold mine the contrast between two of his major scenes are and how much opportunity they provide. I can’t give away more than that without ruining the plot (the word “plot” used lightly when applied to our show), but it’s worth paying special attention to the different notes Jonathan gets to strike when he’s on stage.

Katrina Lenk: The Character of the Genuine Artist

Mo Brady

by george abud

The ascent, appreciation, and admiration of Katrina Lenk is an important event that should be dissected carefully, understood, and set as a benchmark of where we wish to go in the theatre.

 Katrina Lenk

Katrina Lenk

The importance being that she is a genuine artist and she has been given a seat at the table.

Katrina Lenk is one of those rare artists bringing that old ethic and dignity into a new generation and a new world.

She listens more than she speaks. She seeks to understand. Her concern at the end of long work days is not ''am I going to get my praise,' but rather, 'did I serve the character?' She finds happiness in clarity and discovery. She does not purport to be perfect. She does not present herself as a superhuman, rather, she humanizes and makes real a hugely weighty responsibility. All her many gifts come from a sense of humanity and responsibility. She does not paint the world as rosey; she exists in something real, and that’s how she speaks about it. She conducts herself with grace, and offers respect to everyone. I could go on.

There is no bullshit with her. And that is sadly a rarer quality today than one wishes it to be. With Katrina we are being given portraits so real that we are revealed through them.

There are many great artists out there, of which I include her. But far fewer who get their due.

And while you thank God that she exists, you pray even harder that people break down their adoration and continue to use it as a guide map of what they wish to support. The genuine artists. Whatever Katrina Lenk may possess she leads fully from the point of an artist. She came to make and she came to give.

A prime example is the way people react to Katrina’s work. People’s overarching reaction to her is not about how she looks or how she sings, but rather how she affected them with her whole being. It is the whole of her abilities, her talents, her focus, and her soul that penetrate you. We are reacting to the artist, not to a trick, not to a look, nor to a sound, but to a whole person.

 Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub in  The Band's Visit

Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub in The Band's Visit

You may think this is all a given in the theatre; that whoever is able to make you feel that overwhelming sense of humanity gets the job. Not true.

I am an advocate of many things within the theatre community. Racial responsibility and representation in casting and on creative teams; in creating more opportunities for women; in gender parity in writing and casting; in accessibility to opportunities for actors of all means and status; in telling diverse and innovative stories; in expanding our definition of diversity everyday. But I think above all this the all encompassing thing is genuine artistry. The hiring of an artist who possesses the humanity and qualities to create vibrant, exposing, diverse, true art. And who will be hired regardless of their age, their race, their commercial appeal, their class, their able-ness, their status, etc. And I think through our cause of uplifting genuine artists, we will beget everything else. Because we will have filled our theatre with those who have come to create, who have come to challenge, who have come to support, to give, and to ultimately bring together.

Katrina Lenk has been concerned with one thing since the very beginning of The Band’s Visit: honoring the character.

Now. This is all not to say that great artists are not currently all around us and working in some capacity in many different corners of everywhere. This is more to highlight that those great artists are not always the one given the trust, the confidence, and the opportunity to have the work they deserve. I think it comes from the fact that many great artists are not cookie cutter. That is to say marketable. That is to say a continuation of the status quo.

We are told by our industry to be ourselves. To cherish and develop what makes us individual and unique. But a lot of times, when it comes down to the wire, it is that uniqueness that limits us from appearing to be able to appeal to a mass audience.

 George Abud

George Abud

With Katrina Lenk we see a clear example of someone who is thoroughly gifted, wildly driven, and wholly original being given a seat at the table of “sure things." Or, those individuals who first and foremost seem to appeal to a mass audience. When it comes to Katrina, what she is first and foremost is human. Just think of the richness that could further inhabit our theatre if we had more trust in people rather than marketing analytics.

It begins with our misplaced value system. We say we want raw, evocative, form-pushing, real, impacting stories and story-tellers, but the way we speak, the way we write, what we show up for and what we spend our money on leans far more towards celebrity, towards wealth, towards commercial beauty, towards someone else’s definition of the world.

So in true form to our inspiration of this writing, Katrina Lenk, let us all strive not to imitate her, but to honor her and those like her by fighting to be unabashedly ourselves. And let those in the casting seats honor that by allowing these genuine artists their own seat at the table.

If we are to continue towards a theatre built on humanity, whether the stories be big or small, then Katrina Lenk shouldn’t be the exception to the rule, she should be the basis for it.

5 Debut Questions - Meet Once on This Island's Daniel Yearwood

Mo Brady

Today on our blog, we welcome Once on This Island ensemblist Daniel Yearwood to Broadway and learn about his journey to the Great White Way:

 Daniel Yearwood in  Once on This Island

Daniel Yearwood in Once on This Island

1. What's your name and hometown?

Daniel Yearwood, born and bred in NYC.

2. What is your role/track in your Broadway debut?

I’m a Storyteller and I understudy Daniel in Once on This Island.

3. How did you find out you had booked the part?

I got a phone call a few days after the audition and started rehearsal two days later as it was an immediate replacement. I’ve enjoyed each and every moment since!

4. What's been the most surprising thing about preparing to perform the show?

The vocal arrangements! Anne Marie is a musical genius and has incorporated so much of the original score into vocal lines the ensemble sings throughout the show. We are embodying instruments and it works beautifully with the concept of the show-how would you tell this story if a hurricane had just wrecked your island. Because we’re on an island my next biggest surprise was learning how to embrace the set. This show is immersive to the fullest extent and I never really visited beaches frequently so maneuvering my way through the sand has been quite the experience! 

5. What are you looking forward to most about your experience on Broadway?

This community. This show is a family if I’ve ever seen one. Watching the show throughout the rehearsal process got me itching to share their energy. It’s infectious to the soul and I have so much to learn from veterans in this show-both in the ways of technique and living in gratitude. There is so much I could for granted but I’m realizing that walking in humility will leave room for God to raise you up. 

 Daniel Yearwood

Daniel Yearwood

It is a Week I Will Never Forget."

Mo Brady

 Hannah Kanter

Hannah Kanter

To perform on Broadway has been a dream since I was a little girl. Thanks to the Jimmy Awards, at 18 years old I’ve had that opportunity. After performing at the Jerry Herman Awards in Los Angeles for my nomination as Velma Kelly in Windward School’s production of Chicago, I was awarded the experience of a lifetime for a Broadway dreamer. I wasn’t expecting this trip to New York so when it was time to go, I was overcome with feelings of excitement, fear, and curiosity. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

It took a lot of dedication and hard work. The first night at NYU Tisch, after a few quick hellos to new friends from around the country, we got right to work learning the music for the opening number which combined musical snippets from several shows including Once On This Island, Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, and Mean Girls. And the first morning, we began staging. On the second full day, we were split into two groups; a medley group and a production number group. As we all hurried to go check the lists, I found my name listed under the production group.

Since everyone was the lead in their high school musical, I was wondering how anybody was going to feel about not being the star of the medleys. I learned quickly that after a disappointing video audition due to a throat infection, the person in the back most of the time was me. I won’t lie. Originally, I struggled with how to make my voice heard and how I could be seen when I was in the back of most of the number and I’m only 5’3”. It took some time for me to get used to it and I did my best to make the most of where I was. I had to keep reminding myself that I was one of eighty kids out of 100,000 who would do anything to be in the back of the opening number at the Minskoff Theater on Broadway. It was hard but the most important thing I learned while I was there is “you are enough,” so I had that running through my mind throughout the week.

Usually I like to add my own special flair to the dance moves or the vocals, but in this case, we were told to act as a unit, an ensemble, and to add a unique flair, but in a different way. We needed to find the flair from within ourselves without drawing specific attention to us. So...I went with it. I found the flair within myself. One of the greatest parts of being a part of this ensemble was learning from the other nominees. I learned more about the fundamentals of acting, singing, and dancing but I also learned about professionalism and “rules of the theater.”

After all that worry that I was at the back of the group and how to add my own flair, I won a Jimmy Award for Best Performance in an Ensemble! This experience taught me never to give up even when the going gets tough. It is a week I will never forget.

Margaritaville, No Time for Long Goodbyes

Mo Brady

 Justin Keats

Justin Keats

It’s never easy to have a show close, whether it’s a regional gig, a contract at an amusement park, or the end of a Radio City season, there are always the post-show blues that come with it. Closing a Broadway show, however, comes with a heavier heart. Most Broadway shows are usually open-ended contracts that you hope will last years and keep you here in NYC and with your community, so when you get your closing notice there’s a sense of the world dropping out from underneath you. For Escape to Margaritaville, I didn’t just feel the fall out because of losing a job, but mainly because I won't get to play and work with these crazy Margaritaville natives everyday.

I often hear the party line, “My cast is so great and we love each other," but this is an unreal group of people. We are a family. Some of us have been together now for over a year. We are involved in each other’s lives. We are beyond supportive of each other. Every one of us is uniquely talented and special and continues to make coming to work every day not work at all but more like coming home to play for a couple hours. And it’s not just the cast, but the crew, the creatives, and the producers. I’ve never experienced such a bond in a cast. I have witnessed it time and again through the three rehearsal processes we went through all of us encouraging each other to play and find new moments. To take a risk and be there to make you laugh when it fails miserably or cheer you on when you nail it. I really love this group of humans.

I can’t help but feel a sense of hopelessness. I can’t help but wonder, “Where did we go wrong?” Or, “Was there something more we could have done?” But that’s not how theater works. But I know it’s a special group when people from our marketing and social media teams are sad because they have loved working with us. I also think it says something beautiful about a cast and a show when after we got our closing notice that the ushers of the theater have stopped me to tell me that they are going to miss us and that they are confused as to why we are closing. I mean these are the people who see it more than anyone and they aren’t sick of us yet.

We as a cast have been involved in every opportunity that we were offered. We participated in Easter Bonnet Competition and more than ten people were involved with Broadway Bares. We have joined together with Come From Away and made a softball team. I don’t know of a cast so new that is already so involved in the community. We all want to be here and now we don’t get to be and I am sad that our group will of course dissipate. But the cool thing about this, unlike the cast of my first Broadway show, is that we are all New Yorkers. I can’t wait to see where everyone ends up next.

I can’t wait to support each other and see shows and cabarets and go to goodbye parties for when people book tours. I can’t wait to watch the trajectory of their careers. I’m such a fan of all of them. It’s truly a cast of stars lead by the music a genuinely goodhearted man, Jimmy Buffet. I didn’t know his music well before I went to La Jolla, in fact I had no idea why we were singing about cheeseburgers, but he is such a positive light and wanted this show to be the escape humanity needs right now from these crazy times and maybe that’s why we are all so great to each other. We fell into the island vibes. We all relaxed and just wanted to have a great time making people happy and smile.

I have a single cue every night at the end of the show in the back of the house and I love watching the audience sing and dance in their seats, or sometimes aisles, and just see them relax and shed the hard shell New York forces us to wear. We really have created something special here. I will miss our little piece of paradise in the big city. And although I am of course nervous about what is next for me, I will gladly take a tip from the big man himself and breath in, breath out, and move on to new adventures.

 Justin Keats (right) in the pre-Broadway production of  Escape to Margaritaville

Justin Keats (right) in the pre-Broadway production of Escape to Margaritaville

"You Take A Breath... and Then You Leap."

Mo Brady

 Ashley Blanchet

Ashley Blanchet

I think the story starts when my agents sent me the appointment to audition for Elsa in Broadway's Frozen. Because I'm black, I was pretty shocked and I wrote back- you mean... the iconic BLONDE one? I was pretty sure someone had made a mistake somewhere, but they insisted, so I went in to audition. I immediately felt a connection to "Let It Go." To me, the song is about self-love and empowerment, which is something I can relate to struggling with especially BECAUSE I'm a minority and because of my bisexuality. It's a song that touched the entire country, and I think that's because it begins with a lot of shame and repression and self-hatred for being different, and then you watch her put an end to that and make a decision to embrace herself fully. Once she does that - she's unstoppable. She's literally magic. It's incredibly liberating no matter who you are, and after auditioning with that song I realized that, although I'm not a blonde, I relate deeply and very personally to the message.

I practiced Elsa for about a year on my own before my date came to go onstage. Often, between shows I like to go to Ripley-Grier or one of the open studios in midtown, just to sing through her songs and work on scene work. I wanted to be as prepared as possible so when the surprise moment ever came to go on, I could trust that my voice was as used to the role as if I performed it every night. 

But even with as much preparation as I could think of to do, when the overture started at my first performance for Elsa, I had a moment of complete terror. From the Elsa dressing room, I listened to the ensemble singing the opening number that I normally sing each night and felt completely alien; in the wrong place. What if I couldn't do it? What if I blanked?? I sat down on the couch and tried to coach myself into a state of relaxation. That's the hardest part for me, the moment where you have to STOP working, where you have to relax and trust that the work is there. There were many people in the audience that I didn't want to blow it in front of. And the biggest struggle of being an understudy is; you must be as confident as if you do it every night -- but how, when don't even know if you can do it, yourself? 

I guess the answer is... you put an end to the self-doubt and tell yourself you're ready, that those hours of private preparation are there. You take a deep breath, open up to the luxury of performing something you deeply relate to.... and you leap.


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