GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Megan Reinking of 'Hair'
Her last name is Reinking and she's a dancer, so naturally Megan Reinking gets the question a lot: Are you related to Ann? Answer: Maybe, distantly.
Megan had the chance to figure it out with Ann Reinking herself when she attended the Broadway Theatre Project, a summer training program co-founded by Ann, as a high schooler. Ann told her that, yes, she knew there were Reinkings in the Midwest—Megan's from Iowa—but her family had lost touch with those relatives several generations back, apparently after a controversial divorce.
A question Megan would rather be asked is: How does she feel to be part of the Hair Tribe in Central Park this summer? Short answer: Totally thrilled. Longer answer: "Hair has always been my favorite musical, since I was a kid. My first exposure to musicals was my mom's old records, and there were three that I was obsessed with: Hair, Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar." She used to dance and sing along to the Hair album all the time, even when she didn't "have any idea what I was talking about." Like the song "Colored Spade," in which Hud raps out a slew of racial epithets and stereotypes. "I thought it was a tap dance song, because there's a lyric about tap dancing," Megan recalls.
In high school she and her friends liked to sing "Black Boys/White Boys" in the basement. Today she has a solo in "Black Boys" in the park production. You'll also see her front and center during the "Ain't Got No" reprise, and she has a few affectionate moments with Jonathan Groff (Claude) during "I Got Life" and "Sodomy." And she partakes in some, ahem, free love in a couple of scenes.
Like most of the Hair cast, Reinking was in the concert staging presented for one weekend last September after the regular Shakespeare in the Park season. In January, when the Public Theater decided to give it a full production, everyone was offered the same roles (and told to stop cutting their hair). Megan had been trying to get into a production of Hair ever since she began doing musical theater. Whenever she'd heard about an open call for it anywhere, she went. She once got close to being cast as Sheila regionally, but the theater had already filled its allotted Equity slots. Bryce Ryness was also at those auditions, and he didn't get a part that time either. He's now playing Woof in the park, and he and Reinking smiled at each other with great satisfaction when they saw each other the first day of rehearsals.
Reinking's affinity for Hair stems not only from those old records but also from her avid interest in history. And the 1960s is one of the two periods in American history that intrigue her most (the Civil War is the other). Among her fave books that she's reread time and again are The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien and A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo, both about the Vietnam era. When Reinking first studied the Vietnam War in high school, she found out something she hadn't known before: Her father is a Vietnam vet. "He doesn't talk about it at all," she says, but he did agree to be interviewed by his daughter when she was researching the war for a term paper. She saved the transcript of the interview and has given a copy to everyone in the Hair cast.
To the self-described "history buff," Hair's second-act songs "Walking in Space" and "Three-Five-Zero-Zero" resonate most profoundly—and are her favorites in the show to perform. "They communicate so many truths about who these people were, and who we are today," she says. "It's the part of the show that speaks the most to me directly and says what these people were fighting against and spoke out about."
Her interest in history had been sparked when she was little and started poking around her older brother's Civil War book set. "The only way to understand who we are and where we are is to understand where we came from," says Reinking, who fell one class short of a history minor in college. "There's a bad trend to think that these people from the past—we must be evolved from them, we've learned from every mistake that's been made. You have to understand that they're just like we are, in whatever given circumstances they had."
Reinking has had a bit of history repeat itself in her career. She made her Broadway debut in 2004 in Frank Wildhorn's Dracula (the second in a string of Broadway musical flops about vampires) and then in 2006 returned to Broadway in Lestat (the third). She had gone into Dracula as a replacement for the final three months of its five-month run, but she was with Lestat from its pre-Broadway tryout in San Francisco. "It was my first time creating an original show and dealing with all of that critic stuff," Reinking reflects. "I learned more than anything that you can't read the message boards, because it just gets in your head and it becomes your life. You get so obsessed with wanting them to like it, when really your job is to focus on what you can put into it." Two years on, Hair has helped heal whatever wound remained, as she's sharing the joyous Hair experience with Will Swenson and Tommar Wilson, who were also her castmates in Lestat.
In a more positive case of history repeating itself, Reinking has costarred as Ariel in Footloose at three different regional theaters. The first was right after college in summer 2003, at Music Theatre of Wichita. The next year she played Ariel at Sacramento Music Circus, though by then the script had been revised from the Broadway version done in Wichita. In the fall of 2005, she was Ariel once again at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, outside Chicago. "I think I've completed the Footloose chapter of my life," she says, adding that it ended on a high note with her "wonderful experience" at Lincolnshire. "All the work you normally have to do, just figuring out who the character is and memorization, was already done. I could really use all of that time to live in the role and the show and felt free to really experiment and play."
In that production, she played opposite Tyler Hanes as Ren. They'd been apprentices together a few years earlier at the Broadway Theatre Project, a three-week program held annually in Tampa that students must audition for. Megan attended four summers in a row, starting after her sophomore year of high school. She had been studying dance since age 3, when her family was living in Ames, Iowa, where she was born (they moved to Cedar Rapids when she was in fifth grade). By high school she was taking three or four classes a week at a dance studio and participating in, and occasionally winning, regional and national dance competitions.
She also was involved in a show choir, which had its own competitions. Her choir won Grand Champion a couple of times, and at the national Showstoppers choir contest during Megan's senior year, she won second place in the solo competition. She had the same point total as the boy who finished first, but the tie-breaker was vocal technique, where he'd outscored her by one point (she was a point higher than him in acting).
In middle and high school, Reinking enjoyed drawing—a hobby she intends to resume soon. She and her friends created superhero comics, and at one point, comic book artist was her career ambition. She also flirted with wanting to become an astrophysicist, an interest stirred by science fiction. "But then I realized how much math is involved." Though she liked musicals, "it didn't dawn on me that there was an actual profession, or major, that was musical theater" until her first year in the Broadway Theatre Project.
"I was so lost that first summer," she says. "There were these question-and-answer sessions, and I remember people asking Ann about Sweet Charity and I had no idea what she was talking about. I was so confused, I didn't know who these people were. I was so out of my league that first summer." Despite her naivete, she made enough of an impression that first year to get the female part in Damn Yankees' "Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo." for the performance at the end of the apprenticeship. (In subsequent years' shows, she sang Cosette's part in "One Day More" from Les Miz and Sarah's songs from The Civil War, with Hanes.) At the Broadway Theatre Project, she was one of only 25 students selected to take a master class in tap with Gregory Hines—"to this day, one of the most incredible experiences." Gwen Verdon was also a BTP guest artist during Megan's apprenticeship, and the faculty included some people with whom Megan would eventually work as a professional: Rob Fisher, musical director for City Center Encores! when she was in Bye Bye Birdie there in 2004, and Dave Clemmons, casting director for Dracula.
Her last summer at BTP was between her freshman and sophomore years at the University of Michigan, where she majored in musical theater. Between her junior and senior years she worked at Music Theatre of Wichita, appearing in all five shows it produced that summer (The Will Rogers Follies, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, The King and I, Cinderella, Ragtime). She returned to Wichita the following summer for her lead role in Footloose and ensemble parts in its other shows, Oklahoma, Chicago, Good News and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Reinking says those two seasons provided invaluable training. "It's really great for people just coming into the business to do summer stock like that, because you learn a work ethic: You pick up stuff fast, and you just have to cycle it in. Then when you get to these longer processes, it's like a luxury having so much rehearsal. There's no excuses in summer stock—you learn something and have to be off-book the next day."
After her second season at Wichita, Reinking moved to New York. "The biggest adjustment," she says, "was learning how to afford the city." One of the first lessons in NYC economics that she picked up: "Don't waitress in Times Square, because when it's not tourist time of the year you don't make any money."
Between theater jobs, Reinking has made ends meet by waitressing and hostessing at restaurants, most recently at Josie's on the East Side. During her first year in New York, she worked at one restaurant as an actor, playing horror characters at the Jekyll & Hyde theme eatery near Rockefeller Center. She had gotten an agent through her senior showcase and was going to as many as half a dozen auditions a week, but more than six months passed before she was cast (in Birdie at Encores!). When she was in Scarlet Pimpernel in Wichita, one of the principals had told her it takes about a year in NYC to get known by casting directors and become more adept at auditioning, and that turned out to be true for Reinking.
She also learned from her own experience how to approach auditions. "The trick, I think, is to be yourself and show them who you are. It's important to not try to figure out what they want, because half the time they don't know what they want; it's more what they see in you." After Lestat closed, the director, Robert Jess Roth, told Reinking that he remembered her audition. "He said, 'I had no idea what I wanted, and you walked in the room and I sat up and was like: That's what I want. If she can sing, she's got this part.'
"The fact that it was just that simple kind of changed my perspective on auditioning," says Reinking. "Most of whether or not you get a part is determined by who you are and the energy bring into that room. It takes a lot of pressure off. All I have to do is be who I am and show them what can I bring to it."
Sometimes that doesn't work out as planned. Reinking recalls, with a shudder, her audition for a Glinda cover in Wicked—one of her first in New York. "I was so terrified. Who doesn't want to do Wicked? It was my first audition for Bernard Telsey's office, and it was awful. I usually don't feel bad about my auditions, but I was so nervous, my voice cracked." She then had to worry that Telsey, one of the major casting agencies, would write her off completely. "For a while I made a point to go to any open call Bernard Telsey's office was holding, because I was like, 'That's not how I am! I was just scared.'"
These days, Reinking has to take past injuries into consideration when deciding which shows to try out for. She usually passes on really demanding dance shows, as she has sprained the same ankle about eight times, once tore tendons in her spine and still is affected by a leg abductor muscle that she tore in high school when she did a split without warming up. Ever since she jammed the ball of her foot during Bye Bye Birdie, dancing in heels hurts. She remembers "almost crying" during an audition for Thoroughly Modern Millie. "Clearly, no more heel tap shows," she states.
Reinking has participated in a number of workshops and readings of new musicals, including the concert presentation of Green Eyes at Joe's Pub; R-E-S-P-E-C-T, a jukebox musical about the civil rights era, at New York Stage & Film's Powerhouse Theater upstate; and the F. Scott Fitzgerald-inspired My Swan. She also had a featured role in The Children, based on the 1980s horror movie of the same name, at the 2006 New York Musical Theatre Festival, and was in Cinderella at Massachusetts' North Shore Music Theatre—which had only one performance in July 2005, due to an electrical fire after the first preview that shut down the theater for four months.
In Hair, Reinking wears purple striped corduroy pants, a striped tank top and a sheer robe rimmed with orange feathers—an "amazing authentic-from-the-'60s" piece that she says was lent by a friend of the costume designer. Her pants were copied from a pair she owns. "When we did the concert, we were asked to bring in a lot of our own clothing that is similar to the time period. I brought in a pair of these brown corduroy pants that I think belonged to my uncle in the '60s—I have so many clothes that I've confiscated from my grandpa's house. They loved them, so they actually rebuilt that exact pair out of different fabric."
And what about the end of the first act, when those clothes famously come off? "It's almost silly how much of a deal people make out of it," Reinking says. "It's barely lit, and it's more about the message of the moment...about that freedom and that expression." The director, Diane Paulus, told the actors to decide for themselves each performance whether to strip. "It has to come from this freedom from everything that defines us, and just being one with nature," says Reinking. "If you're not feeling it, you're not feeling it. If you're feeling pressure to do it, the whole moment's gone."
The cast faced another type of exposure at the second preview, on July 23. During the trip sequence leading into "Three-Five-Zero-Zero," wind whipped up and lightning started. "You couldn't have planned it better," says Reinking. "The director said later it was like being on a trip, it was so surreal." She continues: "When we got to that whisper section, it lightly started to rain. Then there's the big gospel vocal section, and it just started raining on us. The audience was applauding. Then we're all laying dead on the ground for the entirety of 'What a Piece of Work Is Man' and this rain was falling on us. It was electric, just an amazing experience."
Even under normal weather conditions, that's the part of the show that moves Reinking the most. "The music goes from this horribly tortured place with these descriptive lyrics—'ripped open by metal explosion, caught in barbed wire, fireball, bullet shock...'—into this glorious gospel piece while still singing about horrifying things. And all of that ends with the beautiful 'What a Piece of Work Is Man.' It's theater at its best, and the kind of material that inspires and moves people. It's the kind of theater that is the reason we do what we do as actors, and I feel honored to get to sing it every night."
That second preview had to be stopped after those songs because of the danger the lightning posed to the miked performers. "So we all ripped off our mikes and ran out anyway and sang 'Let the Sun Shine In' acoustic," says Reinking. Normally, the show ends with a great big dance-in—cast and any audience members who want to join them. At the first preview, about 300 people went up on stage and it started to crack from all the weight. So a limit of 200 was set; it's up to the ushers to count and keep people off stage when it reaches maximum capacity (they can dance in the aisles).
Now that she has Hair on her résumé, Reinking has done two of the three shows she used to listen to on her parents' records. She was in a community theater production of Tommy during college, and would love to do it professionally. She'd also like to break into film and TV. She almost was cast in the movie Death in Love, which screened this year at Sundance. She was about to have her hair dyed brown for final consideration for the role of Jacqueline Bisset's character in flashbacks when the producers decided she wouldn't look old enough to pass for 30. Reinking also came very close to a role on One Life to Live and was called back for All My Children. On stage, Reinking may someday follow Hair with another '60s-set show. She's been called in repeatedly for Jersey Boys and told by those casting that they "love her" but they think she's still too young-looking.
Photos of Megan, from top: singing "Black Boys" in Hair, with Tommar Wilson (left); in Central Park, her workspace for the summer; as Ariel in Sacramento Music Circus' Footloose, with James Royce Edwards as Ren; with Hugh Panaro on and off stage during Lestat; in The Children at NYMF '06 with Heath Calvert; with Bryce Ryness (seated) and other Tribe members in Hair [bottom Hair photo by Michal Daniel].
Updates on some previous Gypsies of the Month: