BWW Interviews: Rachelle Rak of Broadway-Bound FLASHDANCE
You've probably seen the movie, but what does Flashdance The Musical have that the movie doesn't? One word. Sas. That's right ladies and gents. Broadway veteran Rachelle Rak has taken on the role of Tess in this brand new musical that is currently sweeping across the US.
Featuring popular 80s tunes "Maniac," "Manhunt," and "What a Feeling," Flashdance The Musical tells the story of Alex Owens, an aspiring dancer who works at a steel mill in Pittsburgh, PA. I had the honor of speaking with the Queen of Sas herself about the show as well as her past theatrical adventures, her choreography career, and her video blog 'I Love Rak 'n Roll.'
So tell me, what is FLASHDANCE about?
Haven't you ever seen the film? No, FLASHDANCE, I'll tell you, FLASHDANCE was filmed in Pittsburgh in 1983. It was about a girl, Jennifer Beal played the character, her name is Alex Owens, and she was a steel worker by day and she was a dancer at night. And, some refer to it as, it was definitely a club where they performed. They didn't take all their clothes off, it was a dance club where they would perform. It's not like a strip club like we know today. Very different. And, she would do that by night. But her main goal was to try to get into, what we call in the show, the Shipley Academy, which was to go to college and be properly trained as a dancer. That was her dream. So it's kind of like, that's the main story. It's Alex Owens who, of course, you know eventually falls in love with her boss at the steel mill. That kind of thing. A love story. But really ultimately a story about a girl that has a dream. She comes from nothing and you know is working her way to try and get that dream, and you know I don't want to give away the ending, but in the end... My character is one of the girls who, I've worked, I'm from Pittsburgh, I've lived in Pittsburgh, my character's name is Tess, and I work in the club and I perform and I dance and I want Alex to have a chance to have a better shot at it than I did. I'm a lot older, I've been around the block, that kind of thing. And that's kind of where it all starts.
It's set in Pittsburgh, and you get the steel town setting, and all of the Pittsburgh bridges, and also the 80s which is when MTV was just happening. Music videos didn't exist until now. There was no music video. So it was the first of its kind, and Sergio [Trujillo] has done a wonderful job in bringing the 80s and 2013 together, which I think is really cool. We're not going back, you know, we're moving forward with both elements.
Your character is a performer and so are you, so are there any personality similarities that you have or things that you can relate to?
Oh yeah! Well yeah, just like, you know I finally played Sheila in A CHORUS LINE at Papermill this summer and I have so many similarities with Sheila, the character, and so many very different qualities about myself. So with Tess, she is a one-liner, you know a sassy one-liner, a zinger, tell it how it is, bossy... Basically she has every trait that I do, all of my good traits. And, she is a hard worker.
You know we create sometimes our little sub-stories, where you grew up, are you supporting a child, or you know you have all these stories that you bring into the play. They're not in the actual story, but that's your back story. And, you know, my parents happened to both grow up in Pittsburgh. One was from McKees Rocks, which is you know, lower-middle class at that time. And, my mom is from the West End. These were the two areas, and they both went to high school at different high schools. So I have a lot to pull from being from Pittsburgh, for me. Also Pittsburgh is such a town where there's Point Park College and Carnegie Mellon so you can relate to a girl that comes from nothing, is working in a factory job, that wants to be a dancer. The story still holds today. And that's what I think people are affected by. It's a simple story, it's straight forward, it's FLASHDANCE.
Tom [Hedley], who wrote the film screen play, created the one word "flashdance" before you ever heard of "flashdancers." This was the first time you ever saw "flashdance" put together as one word, one idea. So, in going back, the film has had a lot of hits. It has some major hits, you know "Maniac," "Manhunt," "What a Feeling." Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll" was in the film, but was not a production number. So, this is the first time, that happens to be the number I do in the show, it's the first time the number has ever been physically done in FLASHDANCE, so that's exciting. So all of these songs were, they were epic in the 80s. I mean Irene Cara's "What a Feeling" came on and you just stopped in your tracks. So now Robert Cary and Robbie Roth, who wrote the music and lyrics, have come up with over a dozen songs in the style of, uniquely created for this show to kind of frame the story and to still embrace the songs that we're using that are from the 80s. It's all become one kind of world that Sergio has created.
80s music is just so much fun! Now, you've done a lot of shows, you said A CHORUS LINE, and you've also done CHICAGO, WEST SIDE STORY, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN... shows that I think of as "classic Broadway." But, this show is a lot different than others that you've done before.
This is like a dream come true for me! This is like... someone said to me once when I did "I Gotcha" in FOSSE... they said, "Rachelle you're like Ann-Margret with a Tina Turner chaser." That was probably the greatest compliment I've ever got in my life. In this show I get to be the Tina Turner chaser. In this show everything that me, Rachelle, you know... I've done some classic musicals. I've worked with some classy people from Susan Stroman to Jerry Mitchell to Jack O'Brien... I mean the best of the best... Ann Reinking... God bless Gwen Verdon who was wonderful to me, and who I was fortunate enough to actually work with her and get it directly from the master... Chet Walker... some class acts. And, I've had a wonderful ride of a career.
Sergio and I met in FOSSE. It was the last show he ever performed in, and he had decided then he was going to be a choreographer. It was when he was first starting out, and I have never worked for him until now. This is the first show I've done for him. I did one Encores! of KISMET for him. Sergio's a wonderful choreographer, and this is his first time taking over the directorial and choreographic responsibilities. And, for me, to watch him do what he's done in the last, that's now, we just celebrated 14 years from when we opened FOSSEE... to see where he's come and what he's creating is exciting for me as his friend and his peer and his employee basically. I remember he called me and said, "Sas, would you do a sit down reading for Flashdance The Musical?" You know, we were just going to sit at a table. There's a lot of things people don't know. You know you just sit at this table with the director and producer there and a handful of people and you read through the play. And that happens many, many times. I remember the first time, he said to me, "Rachelle, you know when we get to this number, do you happen to know 'I Love Rock and Roll'?" And I was like I think so. And I think I got up on the table and was throwing my... I don't know what I was doing. I'm telling you the rock star in you comes to life. And that's why, with this show, I have a lot of similarities to Tess, but mostly I get to be the full-out, wild dancer that everyone, you know all of those classic musicals I've had to tame, tame, tame, tame, tame. Even Sergio was like, "Sas!" You know, he has to try to keep the leash tight because I like to go wild. But, he's allowed me to be a part of really creating Tess, which is something that I love to do.
I haven't replaced a lot of people in musicals. CATS was the only musical I went into when the show was already established. Every other show has been from the original company or original workshop, and I love that. Even if the show is a big flop. Even if it didn't do well, for me it was always about creating something. Even an ensemble character. So, I'm very happy to be a part of it all.
You also have these phenomenal costumes that you get to wear in this show! It's sparkles, and spandex, and heels, and hair. What is it like to wear those costumes?
Oh, it's a dream come true! It's like glitter and pumps! I mean, it's the greatest thing ever! It's every drag queen's dream. I mean it's... it reminds me of I've done a couple of shows where I didn't really fit it. Like, let's say OKLAHOMA for example. I remember I was in wool. Not only did we look like we were wearing wool, we were wearing wool. It wasn't made for dance comfort. I remember Susan Stroman said to me, "You're the only girl who looks like she's been to the big city." You know, I was the dark haired... I never quite fit in. She made me the athletic dancer, and I had a great time. It was wonderful, the revival, but there are shows that you do where you don't get to be you. Really, you're going the opposite way. And then a show like DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS was so much fun because it was all set in the French Riviera and we were all gambling and we were glamorous and we were with John Lithgow, so those moments were great.
But now, I've never done like a ROCK OF AGES. I've never done that type of a show. This show, not only having... You know, we're making the original company on the road. I've done, I think five table readings of this show. I mean it's been a year of my life of just... I would go and do other jobs and then go in and do a reading of FLASHDANCE, and then I'd go do another job and then do a workshop of FLASHDANCE. So, it's been a year of investing in these characters. So, to get to do it, to finally get to put them on the stage is wonderful. It's amazing.
And Emily Padgett and I have kind of been there from the first reading, you know in the table read. She and I have, I guess I feel like I've watched her grow in to the character Alex. She's not only a lovely girl, but super, a superb talent. She is well grounded and humbled by, you know she is a singer/actress who has become an amazing dancer. It's amazing to watch because I started out as a dancer. So to watch the transformation come from the other end, and the will this woman has to want to take class and be better... She doesn't want to just play Alex, she wants to be better every time she plays her. So I've been inspired by being around Emily Padgett. And she says these kinds of things to me, but for me to still be here and be able to do what I do and watch the next generation... You know my stepson said to me, "Are those girls really fifteen or twenty years younger than you?" And I said yep, some of them are! And it's so funny he's like, "You can't tell."
Well you should be very proud of the fact that some of these girls are still trying to keep up with you!
Oh my God! Thank you God! The life on the road, I'll say this... You know I haven't been on the road since 1996, since SMOKEY JOE'S CAFÉ. It's been a long time for me. Broadway's been good to me and off-Broadway and teaching and choreographing. I've felt like... there were five years there where I wasn't on Broadway, and I was trying to re-invent myself. After A CHORUS LINE didn't happen for me, I don't know if I had doubts or I wasn't the same or I needed to just heal or it affected me deeper than I thought, but it took five years to get back to CATCH ME IF YOU CAN. And it took so much work, and it took saying yes to every single job that was for a dollar, that was for no money, they were benefits, and it took a change. I would say that was my time in my life where the energy around me had to change. And once it did, then CATCH ME IF YOU CAN happened, and even though CATCH ME IF YOU CAN didn't last, it put me back on the map, back on the radar.
I was so disappointed that I was not able to go see that show! I was planning on seeing it in the Spring, but you guys closed so early!
It happened so fast. I know. It all happened, and it was so surprising. You know, usually I have... for so many years you think you know when you're in a good quality show. You know, you really... after that I was like well I apparently don't know anything. So 25 years I've been doing this and I don't know anything. So, you never know. And that's the thing that's hard to explain to most people. First of all they think just because you do one Broadway show that you'll do another. That's not how it works. And I'll get, "Of course you'll get this show! Look at all you've done, Rachelle!" And I'm like of course nothing! Of course it still comes down to the last man standing. You know, who's the last man standing? When it comes down to the last two, do they pick you or do they pick someone else? That's something that, you know now, I'm not afraid of that anymore. I say pick me, pick whoever you want, but this is who I am, this is what I do, and if I fit in your idea of a show then I'll be the right choice. This is, a year ago, for me on Easter Monday I auditioned for, I just saw Tara Rubin who is a casting woman in New York, but she also was casting for FLASHDANCE. She and I met, I was 17 years old in Pittsburgh in a high school, and they hired me 25 years ago this year for the national tour of CATS. And it's just amazing that, first of all, where she's come and that I get to say for 25 years I've been privileged to, not only perform with some of the greatest talents on Broadway, but you know to develop into this person and performer and woman. I hope to just keep growing and learning for the next 25.
So you've been doing this for a quite long time. What has been, two-part question, what has been the most challenging part about working in this business and what has been the most rewarding?
Well, they're so close together. The most challenging part is when you get your role and you try to do the best work you can and then you don't get picked. You know, this is not a business that just because you came in prepared, just because you were the best man for the job, or so you thought in your mind, that it's going to go your way. So I think the hardest part is learning how to pick up your bags and you know your purse and your shoes and your face and your ego and carry it out the door when you're not selected, because it does come down to someone else's opinion of you. And it's always... I always say this, but it's very true... Was I... Did I sing well enough? Do I sing high enough? Am I tall enough? Am I thin enough? Am I brunette enough? Am I funny enough? There are so many elements of being something for somebody else that... this is where you know it kind of comes full circle for me, to learn to just be. Do the work. Do the prep work, and that is where the reward is now coming in. Of course I want to please people and give them what they want. But ultimately, I no longer come from the place of doing it for them. I'm coming from the place now, when after all these years, of doing it because I want to be the part, I want to enjoy the moment. And if it's my turn, and if they pick me, then that's great. But, it's not going to define who I am anymore. And there was a time where it did, and it can. It can break you. Show business can rip your heart out and throw you to the curb. I know people that have talent, that have true talent and have been in New York and have never gotten their first Broadway show. Never! And it hurts. It blows my mind that the stamina, the endurance, and the heart that it must take to keep fighting, to keep in the game. Because that is... and it has nothing, sometimes it has nothing to do with talent. Sometimes it's just someone else beat you out of that one shot.
So ultimately, in the two-part question, the challenges are, when things are as well as they could possibly be and you don't know when your next job is, when you don't have... you know everyone in New York says, "What are you doing?" And they don't mean to make you feel bad, but you know the first thing I... I lived in Hell's Kitchen and you know you run into someone and they say, "So what are you doing?" And right away you feel like... hmmm and you choke and you're like I don't know what's next and you go into panic mode. And no one really means to make you feel that way. It's just a normal question. But as performers it's like, you know, it sets you off. So I would say now, and the lovely wonderful age of 42, I say calm down and do the work, be prepared, and go in and do your best. But I'm also, I'm a teacher, so I have a lot of students that come to me and say I haven't gotten a call back. And I'll say well how many auditions have you been to? And they'll say maybe three or four. And then I try to tell my students... and they're older, you know they come to me after they've gone to college sometimes... that sometimes it's time to look at what you're doing. If the group of people aren't calling you back, it's perhaps something you need to change. It's not always them. And a lot of my students will say well I did well, I sang well. And then I said well are you sure? And I'm sure they're ready to kill me. But my mother was my greatest asset in life. She was my teacher, and my friend, and she was honest. An honest friend in show business, and honest teachers who aren't blowing smoke and giving you the smoke and mirrors, that's... those are the people that will get better. Those are the people that will improve and get the callbacks, and then will start to reap the rewards.
Do you teach dance classes or at a school? Where do you teach?
Well for a while when I was trying to reinvent myself I was teaching at Steps, and then I stopped teaching there because I was doing an off-Broadway show and it conflicted. And then I started to teach a once-a-month 'Sas Class' through my friend at Broadway Workshop. I teach private lessons, I have a website for private coaching, I teach master classes. I'm teaching a master class here in Atlanta this week with a friend, her name is Paige Chambers. She left New York and came to Atlanta, so I'm teaching for her. I just went... I'm going to be on Dance Moms on March 26th. I went to teach the girls from Dance Moms last week. So, you know I love to teach. It's where I come from. That's all I know from my mom and from having a studio. You know, the one thing I can't say enough is embrace the music, embrace piano, embrace singing and harmonizing. All of the things I didn't know at a young age and was afraid of... I was a dancer and I could belt out a song, but I didn't know that you had to you know read music. I didn't go to college where you learned to read music and all of that stuff. The more skills you have, the better off you'll be. But if you can't get out there and stand still and let a song be a part of you, and become you, and you're just performing it, people will see right through that. Have you ever thought about choreographing for a show?
Have you had the opportunity or desire to do that?
Yes ma'am. Well, it's funny that you should ask because I have done some re-staging of some off-Broadway shows that I was actually in. But this last year I just started to choreograph for the Norwegian Cruise Line. I choreographed a show for them on their Pride of America ship, which is the Hawaii ship. And, I did a few... they need a number where like they pull away from the dock and they needed an exciting number for the cast to do on the pool deck. So I've become kind of a choreographer for Norwegian Cruise Line. I've also been in every kind of, I would say situation, with Jerry Mitchell, and some with Sergio on pre-productions of Broadway shows. I feel like I've been around the right company. And, now I've choreographed for Broadway Bares, which is a big benefit in New York. I'm trying now to expand and to think... you know I wasn't ready in any way of thinking that way, or I wasn't putting out any energy into a choreography career. And now that's starting to become more present. That may be a part of my future. So, yes.
So, the tour for FLASHDANCE... You guys are still pretty early in the tour, but the show is set in Pittsburgh, and you are from Pittsburgh, and you got to open the show in Pittsburgh. What was that like for you?
Well let's just say it was like Cinderella. It was magical. It was a Disney classic. No, it was amazing. First of all, yes I'm from Pittsburgh, the show... when I was watching the bridges, like the visual art that was used that the scenic design team did for the show I was affected because it was the bridges... every bridge I knew... the Three Rivers Stadium... so we're talking about my... it was my youth, it was my beginning, it was... FLASHDANCE was a movie I saw when I was 14 years old and it was the dream that you could do something. I mean I didn't know. I came from a small dance studio in a small suburb of Pittsburgh with an idea. You know, I saw CATS when I was 14 and I had an idea that's what I wanted to do. I didn't know how to get there. So it affected me. FLASHDANCE affected me at that age, and when I was 17 was when I started my musical theatre career, which is amazing. It's an amazing story and it's a gift.
So going back, I had not performed in Pittsburgh since 1989 in STARLIGHT EXPRESS. This was the first time I've returned to playing a lead role in a show about the town that I'm from, about a dancer. And I come out and sing, "in a world made of steel, made of stone." That's one of the lyrics in "What a Feeling," and no lyric has ever had more meaning to me because you know it's the steel town, it's all I knew growing up, it's 80s. This is an old steel town and it's also... I was singing to this young dancer. So I said to Sergio... he said, "What do you feel when you're standing there singing that song, Sas?" And I said I'm giving her all of my good energy... like every dream that I ever had I want this girl to have, and that's what's in the character. I felt that night, that opening night, every dream that I had as a young girl that has come true. You know, stardom has different levels and all of the ideas you kind of think you want to be, or you think what it is to be a star is totally different from where you really are.
How have your audiences reacted to this show? I know there's the music and dancing, but there's also a real story here, too.
You know I have to say I'm always surprised because they're affected by her [Alex's] story. She affects you. Emily Padgett, Alex Owens, the character and the woman, it affects you. Falling in love with someone from the other side of the tracks, also the rich and the middle class, that also has an affect on people. Seeing a factory shut down and having to fire people in the time that we're living in today, worried about jobs... so it's very present in the now, which is why I think people are so affected by it. Yet, women and men that are probably 45 or 50, or my age, 42, I would say 40s and 50s, are bringing their kids to see it. Now you're bringing a generation of your children to share in a story that you appreciated. So audiences, I think they're affected by the new music. They love it. They love the dancing. It's like, you know, people in their living room now get to be the judge and the jury of the talent that there is in the world because they get to vote. They get to vote you off, they get to pick the American Idol, they get to watch Dancing With the Stars. So when you come out and get dressed up and you spend money to go to a theatre, the bar has always been set here, you know, it's up high. So Sergio has set the bar for what I feel for us as a musical, a live performance eight times a week, he's set the bar very high. And, you're living up to the audience's expectations. So they're affected, they're moved, they're falling in love, they're falling in love again with the 80s, and they're falling in love with these characters. So by the end of the night when everyone's on their feet singing "What a Feeling," it has an energy. It has a presence, and I'm really happy to be up there.
And you also get to not only share your presence on stage and share this story with people, but you have been doing a video blog called 'I Love Rak 'n Roll.' It has been really fun to see all of the behind-the-scenes and the goings on of tour life. So, talk a little bit about what you've been doing for that.
Haha. Well. 'I Love Rak 'n Roll,' yes, Broadway.com came to me and said, you know, "Would you consider doing something?" Now I had no idea what I was in for, but I have a wonderful associate, David Gordon, because I am still stuck in the 80s with my computer skills. So he and I, I do a lot of the filming. You know, sometimes we talk about ideas, sometimes I'm winging it. Whatever is happening that week... I'm trying to capture what is happening, whether it be with a group of people outside the theatre... one time we went zip-lining, you know where you follow... This week's that's coming up, tomorrow, you know, I wanted to follow the ensemble. The ensemble means a lot to me. It's where I spent a lot of my career, and every ensemble member, so I follow the ensemble. Some of them change characters six times in the show. Some of the women play men. I mean it's crazy. So, 'I Love Rak 'n Roll' has been about Sas, me, Rachelle, being on the road, being... you know just being me. I think... that's what Broadway.com said... they said, "They want to see you, Rachelle. Get in front of the camera." Talk about what it's like. Talk about how hard it is, or how easy it is to be on the road. But, the more you can share that they don't know what's going on back stage, you know they don't know what a loading day is or what sound check is or what a travel day is. That's interesting to some people, and for us, we don't know that. You know, I didn't know that would be something that people would want to watch. And they definitely needed a lesson in "cha cha puus"!
Ok, talk to me about this. What is this phrase? You've kind of created a phenomenon!
That is a Rak-ism! These are Rak-isms! This is it. This is my own language. This is a Rak vocabulary. It's "cha cha puus," it's "bite the apple." It has nothing to do with New York City. It's the button of a number. I take a bite out of it. I give the widest grin you could ever imagine. You know, and "sassing it up" is everything from... A few years ago I met a young man, Daniel Robinson, and he said to me we should do a music video. And we went out and we shot a random music video and he said, "Why don't you write a song about Sas, about you?" He pushed me, this young kid, I was like who do you think you are? And he pushed me and inspired me to do something creative, and what came from that was a new image, a re-invented image of Sas. In my song I sing "I'm bring MOS with me," and everyone's like what's MOS? All of a sudden there was this like code world happening, and those sayings... you know... "cha cha puus" has nothing to do with anything dirty in any way. It's the way you walk, it's the way you talk, it's an energy, it's a snap, it's a head roll. You know, so there's a lot of people who are like Sas you're crazy, and maybe I am a little, but it's who I am. I am full out and full of energy for this life that we've chosen, and I'm going to give it my all for as long as I can. And if that means I have to "cha cha puus" over to the theatre and you know, strap my ankle on because hurting, that's what I'm going to do.
So I think, I'm hoping, you know, I think it's catching on, but people... they send me the funniest things and they're like what is 'I Love Rak 'n Roll'? You know, what does it mean? It's so funny. I think aren't I lucky that they're interested? I think it's good for the show. It creates a good buzz, and you know Broadway.com has been around as long as I have. You know, we kind of started together. And it's the same with BroadwayWorld. I was the second Gypsy of the Month ever for BroadwayWorld.com in New York. And that was when they first came up with the Gypsy of the Month, I think I was the second one, and that's amazing. That was a long time ago.
So all of these things matter. They inform people and they inspire people about theatre. We need people to buy tickets to the theatre all over the country. It's important to share it with the next generation because you can easily get caught up in watching everything on television and think that that's what theatre is, and it's not. And it's important, you know I say not everyone's meant to be on stage. There are some people that are meant to be writers of theatre, and there are meant to be critics, and there are meant to be just patrons. You know, everyone has a place. You can still be a theatre lover, you could have done theatre in high school and college and still not wind up on stage, and still love the theatre. That's the hardest part is accepting it.
I think that people that are going to college for musical theatre degrees, it's become very common, and I don't want to say that they're giving them out, people are earning them, but that doesn't get you a job. That's the difference. That's the hardest part, and then you feel like you failed. And ultimately, you didn't fail. It's just there aren't enough openings. My husband always says to me they have done a comparison, he works in finance, and they've done this comparison, a random comparison of the stock market to show business. And he said one in eleven thousand people will do a Broadway show. Not many Broadway shows. One Broadway show. And whenever I was offered this job he said you know that's the one in eleven thousand. He always reminds me of that because it's very true, and just because you want to be a part of Broadway, or a part of show business, it doesn't work that way. That's where it hurts. That's where the pain comes in, when they don't pick you. How do you continue to fight? That is where you surround yourself with good people, with good positive people that are your friends and that are truthful.
So that's my preaching of the day. Now I need to go put my lashes on. I have to put my eye lashes on here in my hotel room. I like to go to the theatre with it so when I get there all I have to add is the glitter and the lipstick. The fun part, the glitter and the lipstick. I'm like glitter Cinderella! Actually, I'm more like glitter Joan Jett maybe. Sergio said do you want to play Joan Jett or do you want to be Pat Benatar? And I said I want to be Tina Turner!
Cha cha puus your way to the Mahalia Jackson Theater in New Orleans starting February 26 to catch Sas in Flashdance The Musical! For tickets and other information visit www.mahaliajacksontheater.com or call the box office at (504) 287-0351.