BWW Interview: Rachelle Rak Shares Her Story of Professional Growth, Perseverance, and More
Rachelle Rak has been performing at the Broadway level for the majority of her life and is one of the most resilient people in the business. With almost 30 years of experience, she has seen it all and more. But she has never backed down and never refused to stop growing as a performer. I got the chance to speak to this strong Broadway gypsy about her experiences with mentors like Ann Reinking and Gwen Verdon, her upcoming show at 54 Below, and of course her signature mantra, SAS.
You're premiering your show at 54 Below this Sunday, January 4. Are you excited about it?
I'm very excited! The last time I performed at 54 Below was when I was almost 8 and a half months pregnant. I was ready to pop! And I've been teaching, but this is the first time I'm performing and really putting it out there. My daughter will be exactly 8 months old on January 4, so it's a lot. I haven't done my one-woman show in a while. I did my other show when I was 40, four years ago, and now I'm saying I'm "Ferociously 44." I'm hitting it again. And this time I have some really great friends and peers that I've worked with go through my story, not in any particular order, but just some things I haven't talked about. So this is a totally different vibe.
Great! And tell me about the title of your show, "SasTM With One 'S'."
Yes. Well, my nickname is "Sas" and the nickname I have has been since the national tour of Smokey Joe's Café. And really, I got it kind of randomly, because I just started saying it to people, like, "Sass, hey sass! Hey sass!" We're on the road, and you can never learn everybody's name when you go to a new city, so I started, I guess it was just a friendly way to be like, "Sass, I need you to-" you know, whatever it was. And people kind of responded in a positive way to it, and it just stuck. I remember some crew guy referred to me, and he was like, "You're the sass."
And it became like a language, and then when I was doing Fosse on Broadway, I went into the first rehearsal, and I introduced myself, and said, "My name is Rachelle Rak, but you can call me Sas." And at the time, you still had show jackets, they were very in, but I had "SAS" put on it. So it's kind of like, sass with two 's's has one meaning, but "sas" with one 's' can be anything from "Strength Action Serenity," to anything. I always tell my students, "You have to find your SAS." So it's not about being like me. It's finding what makes you have that strength and that story and that action and that acting. I could put SAS to different words, but it's finding your SAS... And my friends make fun of me all the time, because I trademarked and purchased it. But for me, it's what I say. I repeat it, and it's something that I live by. So I just decided to TM it and put it on t-shirts and headbands.
Exactly. How awesome! I also noticed that one of the characters you played in Thou Shalt Not is listed as "Sass," so...
[Laughs] We were in rehearsals- and it's funny, because I do a little bit in my 54 Below show about naming the part- but in the opening number, I was a waitress and had a little dance feature. I kind of like, ran the club. So [director Susan Stroman] said, "What name do you want people to call you?" and I said, "Well, Sass, of course." So everyone of course was like, "Sass, get me a drink. Sass! Sass! Sass!" So I have gotten to actually say that and be that.
You're a seasoned triple-threat with lots of Broadway credits, national tours, and pretty much everything, and along the way, you've worked with some big names in show business. So who are some people that you've really learned from on your journey?
Oh let's see, where to begin?! Well first of all, I was in Starlight Express in 1988 or 1989 when I was 18, and I remember this, that Arlene Phillips came up to me- and this is a harsh lesson- and grabbed my waistline and said, "What's this?" with a British accent. I'm telling you, 18 years old, that stuff sticks with you. It was a different time, so it was ok to do that. But the things that I learned, first of all, it's not a negative. Arlene Phillips as well kind of toughened me up to know, "Oh, ok, you have to be fit." but I did learn from Arlene Phillips in Starlight, and it toughened me up. And I did that show for a long time. I feel like doing Cats and doing Starlight Express, those Lloyd Webber shows, very early, I had a resilience that just, I could do anything. That's what I thought, because I had such stamina. And I'm grateful for that.
The person who influenced me the most was my mother. She was my [dance] teacher. My mother throughout my life trained me, and I would say, prepared me. So when I didn't win, I never felt angry, I just thought, "Ok, what's next?" And I think that prepared me for those kind of harsh moments that do happen, because they do happen. And this business is always about, "Me! Pick me! Am I good enough? Am I pretty enough?" It's exhausting. And I say that with tone, because after 25 years, you're like, "I like me. It's ok if you don't." It takes the resilience and discipline to get good and then to get great. And for me, I'm still not there. I'm like, I just want to keep getting better. Every step I take, I'm trying to grow. Even if I fall, even if I embarrass myself, I'm going to laugh at it, and move forward. That's where I'm at.
I would say Ann Reinking and Gwen Verdon gave me the greatest opportunities in [the original Broadway production of] Fosse. I did not start as a featured dancer in anything. I was in three numbers in three and a half hours. And pretty much, when we were in LA, they were firing people, and I thought I was definitely on the roster, because I was not in the show. Because I was not a Fosse dancer, I hadn't done a workshop; nobody knew me. They made fun of me, because I came in the first day in a leopard outfit and everyone else was in black. I was being me, but I didn't have that Fosse know-how. I didn't come from that school, but I was so willing to learn the Fosse style just to be in the ensemble.
So I stayed for every dance rehearsal and learned every number. I wasn't in many, but I learned how to do it. But then, for some reason, an opportunity came about, and I was the understudy. Somehow Ann kept seeing me work in the corner. And every time a female left the show, they moved me up. And it was a gift. I understudied Valerie Pettiford who was a class act to understudy. I learned how to have someone understudy me, and this was a big deal for me. So I learned the most understudying Valerie, going on and singing "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries," and dancing that great man's work. I mean, it was life-changing, and it changed the way I danced forever.
And then after that, I remember people saying, "Well you're not going to go back into the chorus, are you?" And I was like, "I like to work! I want to be a part of the show." And that's also something, there's a lot of students who are not learning to dance, sing and act and do all three well, because they want to be the one singing the solo. I wanted to be in the game. I wanted to be in the show.
So after years of doing that, then I wanted to do other things. And then I got some other opportunities. But I'd have two shows in one year, and then nothing. Sweet Smell of Success and Thou Shalt Not were the same year, and I had done two workshops, and I chose [to go to Broadway with] Thou Shalt Not because I'd never worked with Susan Stroman. It just seemed like the right choice for me at the time. She was big and up and coming, and she had done The Producers, so I didn't know her.
So I wasn't the understudy for anything, because she told me I wasn't innocent enough to play Therese Raquin. So begrudgingly, I accepted that news, you know, because I wanted to keep growing. And then something happened. One of the understudies was injured, one of them lost her voice, and [Stroman] said to me on 9th Avenue, "Do you think you could learn the part?" and I was like, "I thought I wasn't innocent enough..." And in nine days, I learned the entire part of Therese Raquin with the New Orleans accent and went on. I mean, I had a stage manager at every wing telling me my cue line. It was crazy! But it was live. Like, you want to talk about feeling alive? That was all fear. So Susan Stroman at that time did a lot for me.
And let's talk about Every Little Step. That's the first place I saw you. It was an amazing documentary, but oh my goodness, so incredibly heartbreaking.
Yeah, They spread [the audition process] out over this 8-month period, which they don't usually do. Usually it's tighter, but after four months of auditioning, I felt like I got the part. I mean, the buzz from people was all about me. My friend [lyricist] Scott Wittman said, "Oh yeah, I heard that Bob Avian really likes this 'Rachel Rak.'" [laughs]
And you know, I was doing Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the time, and I wanted this part, I lived the part, I was the part. This was it. Like, for me, I put every egg in that basket, and I was getting that part. And what they liked about me at my first audition, when I came back, they had asked me to change. I had this kind of shredded leotard that was in the color of Sheila. But they wanted something different. And I remember coming back to the final, and they were like, "We'd like you to change that, and could you maybe pull your hair up?" and then it was, "We want you to do what you did last summer." And I was like, "Honey, I don't know what I did yesterday." And that was the truth. And anyone that asks you that, now, without sounding disrespectful, it just sounds ridiculous, because the whole point of being in the moment is creating where you are that day. Unless you're just blasting through lines every night, you have to touch something personal when you're talking about monologues, or you're talking about playing Sheila, or whoever you're playing. So that was a big let-down. And I'd forgotten all about it.
And then, I wasn't invited to the premiere of the film Every Little Step, because I wasn't cast, so I kept getting texts that night from friends who were in the cast who were like, "Sass, you've got to see this documentary." And I was like, "Oh, well what did I say? Oh no..." And then the New York Times called my mother's house in Pittsburgh, and my mother thought they were calling for a subscription.
So then all of a sudden, because of the buzz of this documentary, the New York Times sent the film to my apartment so I could watch it, because I hadn't seen it. So I did all these interviews with the New York Times. I mean, it was amazing, the LA Times did this whole story, and you know Sally, the one thing I will say about fate and irony, is it ended up the part that I didn't get that I wanted, that was everything to me at the time, ended up giving me more respect, or just people understanding what I went through. I mean, everybody goes through that every day of their lives, but the notes that I got on facebook from the gypsies saying, "Thank God somebody finally spoke up. Somebody finally said, 'No, that's not good enough. I need an answer today.'"
Hopefully in the right time and show, I'll return. We'll see, you never know. Maybe I'll be able to. I'm trying to move into choreography, and doing the one-woman show like this that I put together not just for me but for others. I'm trying to expand. Being around people and being in the room with people like Jerry Mitchell, and watching and learning and paying attention to people like Gwen Verdon. I hope maybe, if I'm lucky enough one day, that I can do more choreography. It doesn't have to be on Broadway. I want to just create.
For sure. You've been in a few shows that were considered flops, like your most recent one CATCH ME IF YOU CAN.
Oh, so heartbreaking! I mean, people think once you're in a Broadway show, it's "What show are you doing next?" It's very hard. And I'm not looking for empathy, but just because you're in one show does not mean you get the next one.
It just doesn't work that way. In life, life works that way where you work really hard, you get a promotion. Broadway does not work that way. And with so many different choreographers, they all have their groups, and to break into that group it can be tricky. So when you do, you better ride it out and enjoy it. And that's something that I really can relate to. I always feel for the underdogs, because somebody gave me a shot when I was 17 years old, had no resume, I was in high school. And someone thought I could sing and do an understudy for four characters in CATS, including Grizabella. So when new people are coming to town, I always hope that someone takes a shot on someone new with nothing on their resume, but with a lot of guts and a lot of heart, because that's how I started. I did not go to college. I did not have a BFA. This was life for me, and I was very blessed at 17 that somebody said, "Yes."
I'm trying to get my show to be for teachers, students, and parents to teach a little bit about my journey, but a lot of fun. People are constantly trying to create things around this city, and I just feel like you have to take a chance on others. In this business, it's so easy to just think, "I, I, I," but if you take a moment to open up your world to help someone else, you'd be amazed at what can happen.
Rachelle Rak in Sas with one 'S'™ plays 54 Below (254 West 54th Street) on Sunday, January 4, 2015 and Thursday, January 29, 2015. There is a $30-40 cover charge and $25 food and beverage minimum. Tickets and information are available at www.54Below.com. Tickets on the day of performance after 4:00 are only available by calling (646) 476-3551.