Broadway Bullet Interview: Stephanie J. Block
We talk to, and hear from, the wonderful Stephanie Block! Most recently seen as Grace O' Malley in The Pirate Queen, you might also remember her as Liza Minnelli from The Boy from Oz, with Hugh Jackman. Add to that a 2006 Helen Hayes award for Outstanding Actress for her performance as Elphaba in the First National Touring Company of Wicked, Stephanie is it -- what we love about our leading ladies: ever graceful, humble, and sharp as a tack. Oh yes, and she can sing pretty well, too
We also play songs from two of her shows: "She Loves to Hear the Music" from The Boy from Oz, and "Woman" from Pirate Queen
Broadway Bullet: I'm sitting here in the studio with Stephanie J. Block, who many of our fans should recognize. She recently starred in the much talked about Pirate Queen on Broadway.
Stephanie Block: (laughs) That was very diplomatic of you, "much talked about." That's good.
BB: There's been much talk about the show. I'll get into that. She also was in The Boy from Oz --
BB: And, also for all the people whose stark screaming is done, Wicked as well. Elphaba, correct?
BB: (laughs) So, amongst numerous other things in your career, how is it going?
SB: It's going well. It's a little quiet now, as we closed The Pirate Queen last month, but things have been good; I've been doing readings here and there, which is great, because for me, without working for about four or five weeks, I do get a little -- I get a little prickly, I get a little antsy. But, it's been nice, you know, to do two weeks for the 9-5 reading, and then next week I begin -- The Roundabout is perhaps looking to revive Bye Bye Birdie, so we'll be doing a reading of that next week. So, you know, just enough to keep me busy, and then my personal life is filling in the gaps.
BB: You know, I have to say: I'm curious, what is this about, doing a reading for an established show? That seems kind of odd.
SB: Well, they haven't revived it since Chita Rivera. So, since it is the 1950's, they think, How is this going to be able to translate to 2007, 2008? They try to see who in Broadway's community, now, could maybe fit these particular roles very well, and to see if they can get the chemistry. So really it allows them to sit back, look at the piece from this day and age, look at the new Broadway personalities, and what kind of colors and different personalities they can bring to the roles that have already been created.
BB: So, you excited, you fully on board with that, if they go -- ?
SB: Oh, yeah, that would be swell. I mean, really, really, really great. So, I'm kind of lucky, at this point, just because there are kind of all these little seeds being planted that, hopefully, you know, there will be a nice schedule for me in the next couple of years.
BB: Now, we're going to get back to some of these upcoming possibilities of rumors, but I would like to get back to you, and talk to you about what we came to discuss today -- we actually have, I don't know if you're familiar with Marty Cooper. He owns The Colony --
SB: Oh yeah, yeah --
BB: It's the same one on here --
SB: Absolutely, yeah.
BB: Big fan of Pirate Queen.
BB: He's not ashamed in talking about it --
SB: Yeah. He and his wife showed up several times, yeah.
BB: You know, he really felt that the press gave it a real unfair shake. And I'm wondering what you feel about that whole situation, because, from my perspective, it did seem to be handled rather oddly. I was trying to talk to you when it was on the show, and all of a sudden, they shut it down -- like, they were afraid of anything bad happening and they wouldn't let me in to see the show, they wouldn't let me talk to you, I mean -- (laughter)
SB: I will agree with Marty. I think we got an unfair shake. I don't think anybody is going to say we had the most perfectly-written show, ever, but there were elements to our show that were extraordinary, and they were completely overlooked. You know, I feel if critics don't appreciate the music, or this sort of epic musical, if they want that genre to be gone altogether, that's one thing. But yet, you know, take the time, and say, "These costumes, the craftsmanship, they were extraordinary." You know, this voice on Hadley Fraser, who, truly, when I heard that sound come out of him, I thought, Wow, Broadway's really going to sit back and take notice, because this voice is just thick and glorious. And really, you don't hear an instrument like that, all that often,. So I did think that there would certainly be points on both the pros and the cons list. And, unfortunately, across the board, they all just hopped on the -- Con train. (laughter) If that makes sense. And it was kind of like a punch to a gut, time after time after time. I think everything was condensed, with us opening in April, and then, you know, the reviews coming out, and then shortly after was awards season, and they were so back-to-back, that there was no breathing space that maybe some musicals get to have. They'll open four, five months before awards season, which allows people to take an exhale, and then go back, and look at the play again, from a different perspective. We didn't have that opportunity. It was just, kind of: here's the slug to the right cheek; here's the slug to the left cheek. And with the imminent speak of Young Frankenstein coming in, that did --
BB: They were like, "Oh no, you're not doing 100% business, we want Mel Brooks." (laughs)
SB: Uh, I, yeah, there was a lot of talk that --
BB: Because business wasn't bad on Pirate Queen.
SB: Business was not bad. Although, our producers were very candid with us, and said, "Hilton Theater, it's a corporation, they're not a normal theatrical landlord," where you could go to somebody who owns a theater there at the Nederlanders or the Shuberts. Although [the Nederlanders and Shuberts] are business men, too, they also know that: "Okay, summer's coming up, tourist season's coming up -- the people from the Midwest, the people from out-of-town, we really think they are going to embrace your show." So, there was something contractually -- which I don't feel comfortable speaking about here in the room, but it was very much of that corporation mentality, as opposed to artistic mentality -- that once that happened, that was it. I'll tell you -- I'm taking some liberty speaking on John [McGolgan], and Moya [Doherty, producers of The Pirate Queen]'s behalf -- but they wanted to keep it going. They were willing to see a deficit; they were willing to take a hit in the beginning, hoping that the word-of-mouth, which was really -- we were starting to get a great fanbase -- and we love embracing them. and loving them, calling them "The Bridge and Tunnelers." -- they were adoring the piece, and they were telling, you know, twenty, thirty of their friends, and they were all coming back. So, no, our ticket sales went down, with the ebb and flow of the rest of the Broadway community. You know, everybody's ticket sales went down, as did ours. But, it wasn't that bad, to where the show came to an absolute screeching halt.
BB: It seemed to be doing over 80% most of the time.
SB: It really was.
BB: A lot of shows would kill for that, especially with the size of the Hilton.
SB: Yeah, it really -- it was doing all right.
BB: I mean, I would imagine it was a pricey show to run, too. (laughter)
SB: It was. (laughs) So I'll tell you, even from a cast perspective, when we were packing up our dressing rooms, it was -- I'm still tender about it. That's the only word I keep using because, out of nowhere, you feel somebody pulled the rug out from under you. You just went, "All right, we thought for sure we would make it to August or September, at least." And then, to close in June was a really abrupt and sad good-bye.
BB: Do you think it had anything to do -- it's kind of an odd thing for the Boublil-Schonberg show. All the other ones that have come to Broadway have had numerous incarnations in London, or overseas, and they've been known, before they hit New York.
BB: And do you think that colored expectations, [perspective audiences] not being told ahead of time that it was a hit?
SB: Yes, yeah. The interesting thing about Boublil and Schonberg is they came to us and said, "We are not critics' favorites. So be ready for that. We just, we aren't." When Les Mis opened in London, [the critics said that it was] the biggest bomb you could possibly imagine. I mean, venomous, their reviews. But [Les Miz and Miss Saigon] were also stories that were very familiar. The story of Grace O'Malley was one that most Americans would -- they had no idea who this woman was. I know when I got the call to audition, I had to immediately get on the computer, Google, and find out who she was, because I had no idea. So I think that was part of it. You know, the investment on the producers' end, and the composers' end, they had been working on it for five years, so they felt like there were many incarnations, not necessarily with a public audience, but they had gone through the entire score with a band, and revised it; they had rented a studio in Ireland, hired dancers, and done choreography with dance arrangements, well before the Broadway company had even come in. So, to them, their preparations and their testing ground was ready to go. I think Chicago was a huge eye-opener and I do -- I love out-of-town tryouts because that's exactly what you're doing. It's a complete test-run. You have no idea how you're going to be accepted, or not accepted. And Chicago was a huge, huge eye-opener for us; that this was a very detailed story and people for two-and-a-half hours were sitting there going, "Okay, I understood that. Oh, whoa, whoa, whoa. How did we get here?" You know what I mean? To tell this woman's life, and they would compare it to an Evita, they wanted to have that similar feel with Grania; it was so complicated: seventy-two years of this woman's pirating, and her interactions with England, and bapapa, and how can we make that concise and clear? And then, what takes precedence over -- what stays, and what goes, when you're talking about a real, live, iconic personality? So, it was a little touch-and-go there for a little while, but I think they got a nice, clean sense when it reached Broadway. But again, by then, the word had already gotten out as to how people were responding to it in Chicago; there were a lot of naysayers, right off the bat. It was interesting. It was really interesting. The energy was something like I had never experienced, when we reached Broadway. There was a whole handful of people with so much hope, to bring back kind of the big, spectacle musical, and there were a lot of people that were, like, "Oh yeah, we heard about Chicago, good luck." You know, that sort of thing.
BB: It seems like, with its Irish heritage stuff, [Pirate Queen] would've been more of a natural for Boston, or was that specifically why they were going to Chicago, was to get away from the --
BB: All right, in order to let people hear a little of what they may have missed. Why don't we play one of the songs from Pirate Queen? You know, the cast recording is out and available.
SB: Right, it is, it is. I have yet to hear the entire thing, but this is the first song that Grania gets to sing. It was not in the Chicago production; it was specifically added and written for my character, here on Broadway. It's called "Woman," and it's kind of her: "Don't label me, don't tell me what I can do. This is my passion and -- you watch me, I'm going to do it." It's called "Woman."
BB: (laughs) All right. Let's take a listen.
BB: We've got to talk about some other things in your career, because it seems as if you've gotten a massive fanbase, but you have had shows with, like, interesting talking points, as we move to The Boy From Oz.
BB: I have not, in recent memory, seen a show that was so -- tied with its umbilical cord to its star. And it must've felt -- because you gave a performance that was much talked about, you were Liza Minnelli in that show --
SB: I was. I was.
BB: -- and a couple of great numbers, and stuff, and all the focus was just really around -- does the show even run without Hugh? In fact, if he was sick, or if he was on vacation they would just shut it --
SB: We would just shut down! (laughter) That is very, very true. Umm, it was interesting. He is such an amazing performer. He embodied this character to such an extent. And Boy from Oz was such a fine line between a book musical, and, as we would call it, an event. There was, of course, scripted scenes, but so much of who Peter Allen was, so much of his essence, was to break that fourth wall, and reach out to the audience. And shortly after our first couple of previews, Hugh started inching his way towards that direction. I knew we had discussed it in rehearsals, and they said, "Let's keep it somewhat contained." But the audience would respond to him, and then it would become, like, this really interesting relationship. It was no longer people sitting in an audience, watching a story be told. They were very much involved, and they would come to the theater, hoping to be chosen, hoping to be commented on. I remember Hugh, as Peter Allen, would always point out people who came late. People started purposefully coming late, (laughter) so that they could then, you know, be introduced, and made fun of, and have a spotlight for a hot second. That started to creep into our scenes. We would be, kind of, servicing the story, and forwarding the story of Peter Allen and Liza Minnelli, and teddy bears would be thrown on stage with Hawaiian shirts on. Or underwear. Or -- so, it just became this interactive play. I think we all took it in stride. I think we enjoyed the energy every single night because he would change it every single night. Staging would change; lines, cues would slightly change. It just was such an amazing opportunity, as an actor, to not, kind of, fall into that "We're doing our 270th show" rut. It was completely different, every single day. And what a joy! And really, I've been blessed that my backstage life has been so happy. And that was one of the greatest memories that I'll take with me, is that, that little Boy from Oz family backstage was exceptionally happy, and welcoming, and loving one another.
BB: So, no bruise to the ego, having the media discuss this --
SB: Oh, no, no. I mean there would be times when we were like, 'Yeah, I'm the back-up singer for Justin Timberlake," because the girls would be screaming crazy and -- but, you know, we all had our day in the sun, and I think Hugh made sure that if it was getting to be too overwhelming, he would say, "And let's hear it for Isabel Keating as Judy Garland," or "Let's give it up for Stephanie Block playing Liza Minnelli." He would give us the props when necessary. But no, we absolutely know where our bread and butter was. (laughter) We absolutely -- and when we took that one-week, or two-week vacation, because he was on vacation, and yet we were still getting paid, it was all good. We could care less. We'd come back to work the next Tuesday, slightly tanner, well-refreshed, and be like, "Go Hugh! Go work two-and-a-half hours, baby! Go!" (laughter)
BB: I hope my research is correct on this, was that also your Broadway debut?
SB: That was my Broadway debut. I had come out with every anticipation of opening Wicked, that being my first Broadway debut. And as we were rehearsing to go out-of-town, is when I got notice that I'd be playing Liza. So, I was able to go out-of-town, and be with the premiere cast of Wicked, standing by for Idina; was able to go on once, out-of-town, as Elphaba. And then, once that contract was complete, and Wicked was going to Broadway, I then, kind of veered off, and went off to The Boy from Oz.
BB: Well, why don't we take a listen to one of your songs as Liza from Boy from Oz?
BB: Does this need any set-up around it?
SB: Yeah. Well, this was a fantastic number because it was taken from Liza's Liza with a Z concert. The choreography is very similar, with Fosse dancing. My costume is identical to what she was wearing in the concert, as well as the back-up dancers. And It should be, and look, and sound, very much like her numbers from her concert, Liza with a Z, 1972 concert.
BB: So, what led you, then, back into Wicked?
SB: Ah! Like I said, that day in San Francisco, when I was able to go on for Idina, was a blessing. Stephen Schwartz was in the audience, Winnie Holzman, who wrote the book, was in the audience, and one of our producers Marc Platt, was there, and they just said -- they got to see how I would've interpreted the role, and they said, "That was fantastic. Go off, and do your Broadway stint with The Boy from Oz, and then we'd love to have you as soon as you can." So, there was this opportunity, where the Elphabas were in transition; they were starting the National Tour, and they were also ready to say good-bye to Idina, and bring on a new Elphaba there on Broadway. So, you know, it was this great toss-up, and Shoshana then took over the role, Shoshana Bean, I should say, on Broadway. And I went off to originate the tour.
BB: Now, you still have pretty strong ties with the current cast of Wicked.
SB: I do, I do. I'm marrying Fiyero. (laughter) He is an extraordinary man, and I know, we call them show-mances, and this is so not a show-mance. I was leaving the tour, as Sebastian Arcelus was coming into the tour, an extraordinary human being, and that was it. I left, he continued on until October. We maintained relationships and communications throughout, and I was done. I mean, once I was able to kind of let myself breathe, and step back, and take a minute with this person, off stage -- not the Elphaba-Fiyero relationship, which is not us at all -- but to know him as a person, I mean, I couldn't be more excited.
BB: Now, because there's a lot of rumors flying, are you trying to get back in and do a little stint in Wicked while he's still in it?
SB: "Am I trying?' It sounds I'm like knocking and crawling at the door, "Let me in! Let me in!" (laughter) Yes, there are some talks going on -- again, you know, they're going to have a cast turnover, I think, for lack of a better word, in October. And I do have some time that is available, so, there is some talking going on. Does that mean that I will -- that it will end up be me playing the role? Nah. You never believe that until there's an actual contract, in hand, and, you're at you're costume fitting. But, it's certainly out there. In the atmos -- in the universe. Yes. Yes. Yes. And to share the stage with Sebastian would be great. We would have to, of course, take some time off together for wedding and honeymoon, but I think it would be really swell to come back and be together on stage, as well as establishing a home off stage. I know a lot of people are weary of it, and, "Oh, it's too much time together." But, I think for he and I, it would be the perfect dynamic and the perfect balance for us, at least for a couple of months.
BB: And Wicked really needs another press angle to help its sales.
SB: Yeah, I know, they're so sad, their ticket sales. (Laughter) It's just so sad.
BB: Other projects, like, as you mentioned, you did a couple workshops for 9 to 5.
SB: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah yeah.
BB: I'm sure a lot of people are interested in how that's coming along.
SB: Oh, it went so well, everybody! It was a great, great day, and I think for a lot of people's careers, and it really got a lot of juices flowing, and Dolly Parton is a dream to work with. Her score is fantastic, and, you know, you would kind of see -- way too many country songs; that's what I was a little weary of, but she has written an unbelievable musical theatre score. And in the script itself allows -- it lends itself to these kind of wonderful, dreamy, musical theatre numbers. And it was great. It was great to see theater owners and producers who are, kind of, always grim and stern, to walk out of there saying, "Oh my gosh, that was one of the finest readings we've ever seen. We're excited about bringing this back to Broadway." So, I don't think I'm talking out-of-turn, they will -- they do have a theater, an out-of-town tryout, which will happen summer of next year. And then, it will be coming back to Broadway -- I do not know what theater; I do not know the exact dates -- but it will be coming back to Broadway, fall of 2008!
BB: So, is it okay to talk about, how much liberty have they taken with the film?
SB: You know what? They've stayed pretty close to the film. Of course, anytime you have a character, like these, singing -- I think the three girls, when you watch the movie, you could almost dictate where the musical numbers would go. But, for someone like, the Boss, who is played by Marc Kudisch, to have him, kind of, come out in his fantastic, egocentric self, and sing a song; or the character of Roz, who's kind of the snoopy secretary, for her to break out in song, it really exposes so much more about these characters that you see in the film, and their quirkiness, and it's really going to be fantastic. I'm very excited.
BB: I think a lot of people are. It was announced pretty suddenly, too.
SB: Yeah, yeah yeah.
BB: It seems to me like this thing that was completely blown off everyone's radar, when it was announced.
SB: I'm telling you, when we did the workshop, we were like, "This sucker is so close to being ready," which, you know, you don't really get to say that a year in advance, before you go into an actual production.
BB: I understand that this might be a really big pet project that you would love to maybe rally producers behind, and it was your dream thing, and that's a revival of --
BB and SB: (simultaneously) Funny Girl!
SB: Absolutely. I think, you know, it's been well over forty years. Barbra Streisand was a genius, and she became a Broadway sensation with that play. But, it is the story of Fanny Brice, and there is a different take that can be taken. Now, as an actress, you see Barbra's choices, and you would say, "I am an absolute fool if I don't do that because it is the right choice; it's the appropriate choice; it's the perfect choice." But I also think there's a different story there, that is: to go really in-depth with Fanny Brice, and to stay very true to that character, as opposed to, kind of, following the exact path of Barbra Streisand. And the music, the score, you know, Jule Styne, with the score, it's still one of those great "actress roles" that I don't know would be trumped anytime soon, even with other fantastic actress roles like Elphaba, or Evita, or Grace O'Malley. It's just one of those roles that I think -- there's a new audience there for, and can be a new appreciation for the music and the storytelling of Fanny Brice.
BB: Well, fantastic. Producers take note.
SB: Take note! Take note!
BB: Well, why, thank you so much for coming --
SB: Thank you!
BB: And your speaking so candidly about so many different things.
SB: Yeah, yeah!
BB: And I guess, maybe as one final note, for some of our younger listeners, who are maybe thinking about getting into acting, and stuff, what would be your biggest piece of advice to people looking to do that?
SB: Can I be brutal?
BB: Yes! Please.
SB: Okay, okay. Kids -- and maybe not even kids -- dreams are so not enough. Like it fires you up, and the passion, and the dreaming, fantastic! Now get to work. Save your money because New York is beyond expensive, and next thing you know, you're working at the Starbucks, or the Gap, and then you start missing auditions. And you wake up, and five years have passed, and you haven't been able to afford your life, and make that dream come to fruition. Also, when you're in the business, it's a great sacrifice. It's a great joy, and I don't know anything else that would fulfill me like this, but you will miss weddings; you will miss the births of your nieces and nephew; you will miss funerals; there is a lot of personal life that kind of, falls short, a little bit. And you do that with an understanding that, "Okay, it's not a 9-5 job, it becomes very much a lifestyle." So, if you're not ready for that, you're not ready for Show Biz and Broadway life. You're just not. So, take into consideration. And save your money! (laughter)
BB: Well said.
SB: Thank you.
BB: We can't close without mentioning your August 27th concert --
SB: At Birdland! Yes, this is the fourth time I'll be doing this concert. There will be some changes, and some song additions, but it's really such a great night to not be a character; to actually just be yourself, and sing songs that you love, and appreciate, and really mean something to you. And, yeah, I invite you all to come -- I wish I had the number for Birdland. But, Birdland is on 44th between 8th and 9th. It's a 7 o'clock show. I have Billy Stritch on the piano. Really, it's really going to be a fantastic night. I think I'm going to be bringing in Sebastian to do a duet or two with me. (laughs) And I invite you to come. I really invite you to come. There is also a special event that will be happening about a half-an-hour to an hour before the concert, where I'm going to be auctioning off some things from Wicked, some things from Boy From Oz, some things from Pirate Queen, and all proceeds will go to Broadway Cares! Equity Fights Aids and The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. So if you can, join us early, and bid on some of these pieces for the auction; all money will be going to a great cause.
BB: What have you been doing in the studio? It's clear you've got to find some work. (laughter)
SB: Yes! I know. I do have a lot to do. Are we talking about the solo album?
BB: I don't even know!
SB: Oh, I'll come back. We've run out of time. So we'll talk about more when I come back.
BB: All right. Well, thanks so much for coming down.
SB: Thank you!
Intro Photos: Left, Stephanie Block and Hugh Jackman in The Boy from Oz; Top center, Stephanie Block headshot; Right, Stephanie Block and Hadley Fraser in Pirate Queen.
Photos: 1.) The Pirate Queen poster, 2.) The Boy from Oz poster, 3.) Stephanie Block, Hugh Jackman and Isabel Keating in The Boy from Oz, 4.) Stephanie Block as Elphaba in Wicked, 5.) 9 to 5 movie poster.