BWW Interviews: Nikka & Mo Discuss Silly Surprises for The Ensemblist Live Anniversary Show

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BWW Interviews: Nikka & Mo Discuss Silly Surprises for The Ensemblist Live Anniversary Show

Patrick Hinds, host of Theater People Podcast, recently told me that he considers The Ensemblist to be the Radio Lab of theatre podcasts. For podcast aficionados, that is extremely high (and well-deserved) praise.

Nikka Graff Lanzarone (WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, CHICAGO) and Mo Brady (THE ADDAMS FAMILY, SMASH) are two musical theatre pros that have been giving listeners a look at Broadway "from the inside out" for over a year. Next week, they are having a party to celebrate, and you're invited.

Nikka and Mo will be welcoming Jeff Pew and Luke Hawkins, Ariana Debose, Rachel Bay Jones, Alysha Umphress, Daniel Watts, and The Skivvies (Nick Cearley and Lauren Molina), who sing their infectiously catchy theme song.

To get tickets to the show, click on the calendar at BirlandJazz.com. In April, The Ensemblist was one of our Top-20 Podcasts for Theatre Fans, and recently I spoke with Nikka and Mo about their upcoming live show and their first year of podcasting.


Ok, let's start with the important stuff. What are the details for your First Anniversary concert?

Nikka: The concert is on Monday, June 16th at 7:00pm at Birdland, and it's part of Jim Caruso's "Broadway at Birdland" series. So it will lead right into "Cast Party," and lots of fun people come to that, so we're hoping that lots of fun people will come to ours as well, because we have a really awesome lineup.

Mo: Yea, we have six really unique ensemblist based acts; either people that have been in Broadway ensembles and now are in principle roles, or people that are currently ensemblists and are up-and-comers. They all do something unique. They've all done their own (cabaret) shows in the city, so this is kind of a "Best of Broadway" evening. The "Best of Broadway" with an "Ensemblist" twist to it.

Are you guys playing emcee as well as performing?

M: The structure of the show is going to be we'll do a little bit of an intro, we'll talk about the podcast, we're gonna share some of our favorite moments from our first year; we're gonna play some audio from those; and then we'll have each of our guests come up. They'll all do a performance that has an ensemble-theme to it; something about an ensemble experience that they've had. And then we'll ask them questions. We'll talk to them for five-six minutes; we'll be able to ask them about their ensemblist experiences, or experiences covering roles...

N: Just stuff you wouldn't know about them if you've only seen them in other cabaret settings or...

M: in their shows. We're really excited about having Rachel Bay Jones from PIPPIN on. Rachel gets asked a lot of questions about PIPPIN, but we're really excited about asking her about HAIR, and covering Patti LuPone in WOMEN ON THE VERGE. She's got some really fascinating stories to tell that aren't the typical things that she gets asked.

That sounds like the perfect cap to a pretty exciting first year of the podcast. What has the success of the show and the response you've gotten from it been like for you guys?

M: I think the first time that it really hit us was when we did the "Listener Questions" episode, because that was the first time that we really reached out to people. It was like, "Hey, is anyone listening? Let us know."

And we really got a great response from people by email, Facebook, Twitter. So, it looks like people are really interested in hearing stories from an ensemblist perspective.

N: My favorite thing is to be out and about in New York; going to shows, or going to events; and to have people that I think are really cool come up and go, "Hey, I really like the podcast," or, "This episode was amazing."

It makes you feel like what we are doing is reaching all kinds of people; people who are in the business, and people who are not in the business.

Obviously you are both ensemblists yourselves, and have lots of cool Broadway friends, so I understand where the content comes from, and why it is such a great educational tool, but how did you guys decide to start doing a podcast?BWW Interviews: Nikka & Mo Discuss Silly Surprises for The Ensemblist Live Anniversary Show

N: Because we're nerds.

M: Because we're public radio nerds, that's why. But, our impetus was really seeing the amazing people that we get to work with, who have incredible careers and incredible stories to tell that are funny and weird and heartwarming, and we wanted to create a venue to share those stories with people who are passionate about theatre. And we love that it can be a really great teaching tool. We Skyped with a school earlier this year whose drama teacher wanted to have us talk to the students, and that was a great chance to see the other side of it, and see what types of questions they had.

One of my favorite things about the show is that you guys have your own personal wealth of knowledge, and you could probably deliver a very cut-and-dry, educational show, but instead you include so many other members of the community to share their amazing stories about the episode's topic. Has there been a story that one of your guests told that really surprised you?

M: We go into each episode with a thesis statement, like, "Let's have the married couples." And what we want them to say is something along the lines of, "You can have a successful marriage and be in Broadway shows." That being said, we do find that there are good surprises.

N: The first thing I thought of was when we were doing our cast album episode, hearing that not necessarily everyone that's listed on the liner notes is singing on the CD. Those are things that you wouldn't know unless it was your experience. I've recorded a couple of original cast albums, and it never occurred to me that the opening night cast would be different than the cast that's on the album. It's just weird little things like that, where you think you know your own community, and then somebody lifts up a different rock and shows you a whole other bunch of things living under it.

M: And the cast album thing really speaks to something that I love, which is that we get to be proxy high school theatre nerds. We get to say, "I love you. I loved this show, I loved this performer," so to get to sit down and ask them questions that 16-year-old me wanted to ask has been awesome. I remember pouring over the cast albums, every page. "Jennifer Cody, oh, she's done this show, and that show, and this show." To then be told that everything about your childhood wasn't true was mind blowing.

N: Santa Claus is a lie.

M: In the Gypsy Robe story; how the Gypsy Robe gets passed down and what power the Gypsy Robe recipient has in choosing who's next is fascinating. Something that we never knew, because it's not something that you want everyone in the community to know; a deeper level of insider knowledge.

N: Next level nerd-dom.

For someone who has never heard your show, and isn't sure if they want to invest the time to binge-listen to all of them (even though thtey should), is there a specific episode that you think is the epitome of what The Ensemblist is?

M: One of the great things about doing this for a year now, Nikka and I forget the episodes we've done, we've done so many, so, it's been wonderful to look back at this year (for the live show).

N: We were both at a birthday party about a week ago, and somebody was saying, "What's your podcast about?"

It was really fun to look around the birthday party, and at almost every person there, and say, "They were on this episode and they talked about that. And they were on this episode and they talked about that." It made me really happy.

M: When we do an episode about something that is so intrinsic to the ensemblist experience that most casual theatre fans, or people that haven't worked in this specific community, might not know about, I think that's great. I think about the Swings or Replacements episodes. A fifth of people that work on Broadway are swings, but most theatre lovers, and even theatre students, don't have a clear idea what that means. Half the people that work on Broadway are going to be replacements, but when you go to school, you don't learn how to be a replacement, you learn how to audition, you learn how to perform, you learn to sing, act, and dance, but there is a specific skill set to swinging that doesn't get shared. So, it's been wonderful to shed light on those aspects of the business.

BWW Interviews: Nikka & Mo Discuss Silly Surprises for The Ensemblist Live Anniversary ShowBefore we go, if you could each describe what audiences should expect from the live show in three words, what would they be?

N: Oh crap...

I assume those aren't two of the words you'd choose. If you want to go with more than three, that's fine.

N: Whatever words you would use to describe the podcast, could get used to describe the show, except there will be that element of live performance that we don't always have, because what we do is so curated. You'll get more of how we are when we're recording; more of our personalities.

M: Something that we're really conscious of is the balance of being educational, but also letting a little of our silliness come out. So, I think the live show is going to be as eye-opening and surprising as the podcast always is, but it's gonna be a little sillier.

As a listener, it seems like you guys have been showing a little bit more of that silly-side when you banter in recent episodes than you did in the beginning. Was that something you were cognizant of, or have I been imagining that?

N: No, we were totally cognizant of that. We wanted to establish ourselves as people you could trust for information first, and then let you see that we were people that really got along with each other and loved what we did. Also, we did the first 10 episodes long-distance. I was out of town, so we didn't get to develop an on-air banter, until we were both back in the same place at the same time.

Is that when you were doing THE JUNGLE BOOK?

N: Yea. We were just sending things back and forth to each other, trying to make it sound like we were having a conversation.


To get tickets to the Ensemblist Live Show (which you should) visit BirlandJazz.com. You can also get more information at TheEnsemblist.com, or "Liking" their Facebook page or following them on Twitter. And of course, if you are a theatre fan, you MUST subscribe on iTunes.

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Matt Tamanini Matt is BroadwayWorld's Chief TV and Film critic. He also writes across other BWW sites, and serves as BWW's Database Manager. He received a BA in Journalism/Communications from The Ohio State University and has worked in sports broadcasting, media relations, and journalism. He also has directed and/or produced over 30 plays and musicals, and is currently writing two plays of his own. You can connect with Matt through Twitter: @BWWMatt.