InDepth InterView: Natalie Toro Talks JUST IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS, Birdland Show & More
Today we are talking to a familiar face to theatre fans who has appeared in a number of memorable roles on Broadway and elsewhere, in notable shows ranging from LES MISERABLES to THE FIX to A TALE OF TWO CITIES, CATS and beyond - the passionate and thoughtful Natalie Toro. Discussing many of the details in the painstaking process of bringing her spectacular new holiday-themed album, JUST IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS, to life - song selection to overall style and sound - Toro shares stories from the studio as well as from her own life, having spent the better part of the last year preparing, recording, mastering and now finally releasing the album to the world, along with a few music videos, too. Speaking of which, Toro shines a light on the talented guest stars and collaborators that appear on the release, including Jon Secada and Ryan Kelly, the latter with whom she stars in the new music video for "Baby, It's Cold Outside". Additionally, Toro also casts a look back at some of her most celebrated roles to date and tells colorful tales from participating in the national tour of CATS, the American premiere of Dana Rowe and John Dempsey's THE FIX and the original Off-Broadway production of ZOMBIE PROM as well as LES MISERABLES and A TALE OF TWO CITIES on Broadway and more as well as illuminates her involvement with the recent workshop of the new musical by Dana Rowe and Michal Aman, FRIDA. Plus, Toro looks ahead to her holiday-themed Birdland show in promotion of JUST IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS, plans for a 2014 Christmas tour and much, much more!
More information on Natalie Toro's JUST IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS is available at her official site here.
More information on Natalie Toro at Birdland on December 8 is available at the official site here.
Just In Time For Christmas
PC: Your recording of Gounod's "Ave Maria" is sublime. How did you come to choose that version of the piece?
NT: It's a funny story, actually - and one that I will be telling at Birdland: I used to classically train at the Manhattan School Of Music and my piano teacher from that school taught me how to sing it and he had me come in one Christmas Eve to do it at a church where he played the organ. I was like 12 - really young - at the time. So, I said, "Oh, my gosh! Really? You want me to sing this at church?! I'm so excited!" Because, you see, I was a classically trained pianist and I was really studying that seriously at the time, not voice, but I just agreed to do it anyway and said, "OK! I'll do it!" And, so, then, we are at the Catholic Church and we do the song and it goes well and everything and when we finished the song, there I am, waiting for the applause. [Laughs.]
PC: To dead silence!
NT: Nothing! I'm like, "Nobody is clapping?!"
PC: That's so funny. Were you pleased with your performance?
NT: Oh, well, I didn't know anything back then, but I still had a voice. I was really developing still, though.
PC: When did you first perform for an audience?
NT: My first performance was at the Apollo at age 5 during amateur night.
PC: What did you sing?
NT: Oh, there's this cool song that goes, [Sings.] "Which Way You Going, Billy?" - it's this fun '70s pop tune. So, ever since then I've been hooked.
PC: In speaking of your stage roles, I wanted to touch upon your experience doing the American premiere of THE FIX. How did you become involved with Cameron Mackintosh and company?
NT: Well, I'll tell you the story - it's hysterical. Dana [Rowe] called me when I was in CATS on tour and he said, "OK. I want to ask you something: is there any way you can get out of CATS to come and be in THE FIX in Washington, D.C.?" And, I said, "What do you mean? Aren't you guys already in previews?!" And, he said, "Yes!" So, I was like, "OK. I'll see what I can do."
PC: What happened?
NT: It wasn't working out with who they hired and so I just felt awful about it - I was like, "So, I am going to replace someone and she doesn't even know yet?" Then, we had to go through Cameron because of my contract with CATS and everything. So, that same week they started previews and they ripped me out of the tour for, I think, three months, and then I came in to do THE FIX. I remember came in on a Saturday - Dana picked me up at the airport and I said, "How am I supposed to learn a whole show this quickly?" and, he said, "I know you can do it."
PC: Were you really impressed with the book and score on first glance? Your character in particular has some knock-out songs.
NT: Incredible! Incredible. But, back to the story: That Saturday night I see the show. I see it with the actress who I am replacing - all her exits, all her entrances and everything. I'm thinking, "What is she doing? What is she saying?" you know, trying to absorb it as much as I can. Sunday morning, before the matinee, I go to Dana's hotel room and rehearse with a little Casio piano. So, we're rehearsing in the hotel room all day Sunday and I'm learning the script with Dana, and, then, Sunday night I see the show with the other actress - her last show. Then, on Monday, I went shopping for a new costume and I had a rehearsal with Stephen Bienskie, the lead, and then Tuesday morning I had a rehearsal and full run-through with the whole cast and Tuesday night I was on.
PC: Wow! Was it easier to learn the music given Dana's involvement and his belief in your abilities?
NT: I couldn't even begin to tell you how I did it, Pat - it really was divine intervention, I think. It was. If you asked me to do that now, I don't know that I could - and if I did I bet I would lose like twenty pounds in a day! I know that I had heard some of the music before, but that was it. I barely remember anything about it now, but I just remember how I had to learn everything so quickly. I remember that the cast was just watching me from the wings when I was on like, "Oh, my gosh! How is she going to do this?!" Then, opening night was a Thursday night and Cameron was in the house on Thursday afternoon - we were all alerted about that. So, I passed him in the hallway and I said, you know, "How can you just pass me in the hallway like that and not say hello?!" And, he said, "Oh, my God! Natalie! Natalie!" And, I said, "You owe me big time!" And, then, after that, Cameron and I had a great conversation. He told me some great stories about people he knows in London who go in in one day in situations like this and I was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah - whatever!" [Big Laugh.]
PC: What a great memory.
NT: Yeah, opening night was that night and we got really great reviews. So, I guess that was just one of those crazy things that happen in theatre that don't happen anywhere else.
PC: How ironic given that you left playing Grizabella in CATS to replace someone else in THE FIX - Elaine Paige replaced Judi Dench during rehearsals for CATS originally in the West End.
NT: That's right! That's right. I remember Cameron telling me that story and other ones about Patti LuPone and people and me being just like, "That's great! That's great! But, what about right now?!" [Laughs.]
PC: Do you have any desire to record those songs someday?
NT: Oh, yeah! I would love to! I loved singing those songs.
PC: You and Dana have re-teamed recently, have you not?
NT: Yes! I just worked with Dana on his new musical about Frida Kahlo - which was insane. Insane! It's EVITA times two!
PC: What a build-up - from a former Evita, no less! Is it a biomusical?
NT: Yes, I think you could say it is a biomusical. I think that they captured so many of her insecurities and how she was able to overcome so many of her downfalls. I mean, let me tell you, somebody who is in a horrific accident like that - broKen Bones, a pole goes through her body and all of that; then, she had polio and she couldn't have children, too. I can't even believe somebody like her existed - with such strength! I mean, she really didn't give a sh*t what anybody said about her - she just didn't care; she knew what her destiny was. What I love in particular about the way this is designed is that they show the constant pull and tug in her own mind - they really flesh that out in a really great way.
PC: How would you compare the experience of FRIDA onstage to Julie Taymor's film of Kahlo's life?
NT: Well, it's been a while since I've seen the movie but from what I remember they don't capture her insecurities like this does - and, believe me, she had a lot!
PC: She was bisexual in a time that was not accepting of that, as well.
NT: Oh, yeah - this woman had a lot going on, let me tell you! I mean, in one of the photos I saw of her, she was dressed like a man.
PC: Her art is very sexually-charged, too.
NT: Yes, it is. Definitely. And, at that time, can you imagine - being like her? And, in Mexico? I can't even imagine! [Laughs.]
PC: On that note, is Natalie Toro your real name? It's almost too good to be true.
NT: Yes! It's my real name - I'm actually Puerto Rican. There were two Toro families many, many years ago and one cam from Spain and one came from Puerto Rico and then settled in Columbia. A lot of people have it spelled with two rs instead of one - I get fan-mail from people trying to find out if I am Puerto Rican or Columbian. People say, you know, "Oh, my God! You're from Puerto Rico - you're family!"
PC: Recording with one of the biggest Latin music stars for JUST IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS must be a particular thrill for you, yes?
NT: Oh, please - I am still pinching myself! It was incredible.
PC: Jon Secada is such a talented and cool guy. What was it like recording with him?
NT: Well, when I first spoke to him on the phone I didn't know what to expect - I got his cell-phone number and so I called him up and we were just chatting about what we were going to do. So, I gave him some ideas about what I wanted to do and he said, "You know what? This is your album - you tell me what you want me to do, Natalie."
PC: He gave you carte blanche!
NT: Then - then - he said, "It's an honor to sing with you." And, after that, I nearly fell off my chair! [Laughs.]
PC: What high praise.
NT: It was incredible! So, the passion passing from one artist to another like that is just priceless. The best part was when I finally picked "I'll Be Home For Christmas" and we decided that that would be a really cool tune to do, I was trying to decide with my producer how we could arrange it so it could be a different way of doing it but also, you know, "How can we make this Jon?"
PC: Make it fit him, too.
NT: Exactly. I am always looking for different and eclectic ways of arranging a cover tune, and, let's face it, everybody has a Christmas album and so many of them sound the same. To me, the arrangements always sound the same at least, so I wanted this album to be different from those. I mean, you can have big stars with big albums out, but the arrangements are all the same that you always hear - and I am not being derogatory about them at all; classics are classics - but, I really wanted to come up with something good and something fresh for Jon. So, my arranger is out in California - James Lum - and I called him up and I was just like, "OK. We gotta do something special! I'm thinking a Latin flavor; just a flavor." And, so, we went back and forth on some things and we said we wanted a sort of Gypsy Kings thing - and it became all about guitars. So, I sent it to Jon and he said, "I love it!" And I said, "Great! Do you want to work out what we are going to do and what harmonies we should do where?" and everything like that. And he said, "No, no, no - we'll just work it out in the studio." I didn't say it at the time, but I was so nervous when he said that - I mean, I'm used to rehearsal!
PC: A theatre actor, through and through.
NT: I am! I am. But, because it was Jon, I was like, "OK!" [Laughs.]
PC: It worked out well in the end judging from the result!
NT: When we got to the studio in Miami, we met and it was so awesome and we hit it off amazingly - and he was right; we knocked it out! After we were done recording, he said to me, "You know what? It needs percussion." So, we tweaked it. I remember that we did it in this amazing 32nd floor high-rise in Miami overlooking the ocean. I walked into the studio and said, "What?!"
PC: It seems like most people end up recording Christmas albums during the spring and summer anyway, so Miami is as good a spot as any!
NT: I know! I was in shorts and a t-shirt recording there for that song. For me, though, it's just about the frequency that exists in the music - I just close my eyes while I am recording at the mic and my producer is in the booth recording; we tried to be really, really careful in how we present each song. Even though people know me as being a Broadway singer, I didn't want this to be a Broadway-sounding album.
PC: Although the opening track is quite a show-stopper!
NT: That I'll give you - yes, yes, yes! That is. That song was written by David Zippel and David Friedman for Nancy Lamott, actually, as you may know.
PC: "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is known as having a bit of a scandalous edge. Tell me about your recording of it - a duet with Ryan Kelly.
NT: We changed it a little bit - I couldn't get permission to actually change the lyrics by the publishing office. What we wanted to do was to try to make it more up to date. We recorded a video for it - Ryan Kelly, from Celtic Thunder, and me. Since he lives in Ireland, we flew him here and I recorded it with him first - and he didn't know me from Adam!
PC: A testament to your ample abilities, for sure.
NT: When we found out that we had gotten him to agree to do it, I went to my arrangers and said, "OK. This has never been done with a Celtic flair...," and, so, that's when we had the idea for the video.
PC: Tell me about the video shoot.
NT: Honey, it's like a mini-movie, that video! It was a shoot! Ryan Kelly came back from Ireland to shoot it in LA and we did this huge three-day shoot there in a warehouse with no air conditioning - and it was hot, let me tell you! It is a grand video and I am so happy that people are going to be able to see it now. When I first saw it, I was like, "Oh, my God! This is better than I ever could have imagined!" I mean, I am an actress, so I like having a beginning, middle and end - and this video is a mini-movie!
PC: Where did you take the adorable album shots?
NT: In Central Park. We did the music video for "Just In Time For Christmas" at the same time as the picture on the cover - and, at the time, we didn't even know that was going to be the cover. We were just shooting and taking shots by the rink and when we saw the energy that came from that shot we were like, "Whoa!" I really like it.
PC: You are all about the emotion and the feeling and energy, it seems. True?
NT: Yes, I am - and how something can change yourself and how you feel.
PC: Did you consider including any songs from Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens's A CHRISTMAS CAROL: THE MUSICAL given that you have done it onstage in the past?
NT: To be honest, I really didn't - I was trying to stay away from Broadway for this album. I wanted this album to be me as a recording artist.
PC: Your self-titled Broadway-themed solo album is so unique - and this is a great follow-up with some lesser-known gems.
NT: Yes, in 2008, when I was in A TALE OF TWO CITIES, I recorded a solo album with some pretty eclectic arrangements, which, as we have been talking about, is how I like it!
PC: How did you come to include "I Remember" on that? Furthermore, are you familiar with the Christmas version of it?
NT: No, I am not! That's interesting. I recorded "I Remember" because of a dear college friend of mine who was killed on Thanksgiving - a drunk driver - and he used to sing that song a lot in college. So, I dedicated it to him.
PC: What a sad, but ultimately moving recollection.
NT: Yeah - it's a very haunting arrangement because of that; just piano, cello and violin. It was as if he came back as a ghost and sang it to me - that was me impetus behind that arrangement. I mean, when you lose a friend of yours who you love like a brother you want to do something to honor his memory and so that's what I did to honor him.
PC: "Unusual Way" is another standout track on that album.
NT: Thank you for saying that. The simple truth is that I just love that song and it is usually done by a soprano-y girl and I wanted to belt it a little bit and lower the key. So, I asked my arranger on that to make it more about the cello and the violins - I wanted it to move like water; I remember saying that. And, I wanted it to not so much be a theatrical song but an intimate thought. You know, all my arrangements are my ideas and I try to do my own version of things. Like, for instance, my "I Dreamed A Dream", we put the back of the song in the front and it's in three, you know? So, the listener is getting just enough of the song they love and want to listen to, but it's also different enough that it makes them really listen to the song and not take it for granted.
PC: To listen with fresh ears.
NT: Yeah. You know, not, "Oh, 'I Dreamed A Dream' again."
PC: Are you looking forward to the Broadway revival of LES MISERABLES, particularly having performed in the original for three years?
NT: Well, first of all, let me just say that I think LES MISERABLES is just timeless and I am proud to have the association with the show that I do. To be honest, though, I feel like: let people miss it a little bit. That's just my feeling, though - I'm not a big corporation. I feel like the movie was just out, so let people miss it a little bit and then bring it back with a bang. I don't miss it yet myself.
PC: So, did any songs not make the cut for JUST IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS or was it always planned as an EP?
NT: The songs on the album are the songs we always planned - except for the duet with Jon, which we added at the last minute. We felt like, "You know what? Just give them what they need." Any more songs on it and it would feel like, "Enough!" So, really, the bonus track is on it - we were only supposed to have six songs, but we added the duet with Jon at the end.
PC: What track in particular means the most to you? It seems to me that "Just In Time For Christmas" depicts you most accurately and vividly.
NT: I have to say, when I listen to the album that I have a different favorite every time - they are all so different and so non-traditional. So, honestly, it's impossible for me to choose.
PC: What's the background of "Once Upon A Christmas Song"?
NT: Well, we completely re-arranged that from the original - we even added kids. The original version is on YouTube - search Geraldine; that's Peter Kay's character, who sings the song. My executive producer introduced me to the video - it's this huge video - and I said, "What is this song?!" And, so, the wheels started turning. We intertwined these kids singing Christmas songs into the arrangement and updated it - I can't wait for Peter to hear it and to see what he thinks.
PC: What about "Our First Christmas Together"?
NY: "Our First Christmas Together" is from Phil Coulter, who is like the David Foster of the UK. I really wanted to bring that song and the other one to America because I think they are really great songs and nobody really knows them over here. I know Phil, and, so, when I told him I was doing a Christmas album soon, he said, "Well, why don't you do a Phil Coulter one?" And, so, he re-arranged this and made it like a Nelson Riddle-type arrangement for me. I really love how it turned out. Like with all the other songs, you never know how it is going to turn out until you actually do it.
PC: So, what can we expect from your upcoming album release party at Birdland?
NT: Oh, honey, we're changing the face of Birdland! We're going to have video and games and it's going to be a party! I mean, a lot of the times when people have a CD release at Birdland, they just come in with their band and perform and sign CDs and that's it, but not me! This is a production! [Laughs.]
PC: It sounds like quite an epic holiday event!
NT: It is! I'm glad I know the owner of Birdland, because if I didn't I feel like he would be like, "No, this isn't OK!" [Laughs.]
PC: Will you be doing further gigs to promote JUST IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS - perhaps next Christmas?
NT: Yes! We are planning a tour and looking for investors now. People are always looking to go to holiday shows and it is amazing how often people ask me when I am doing shows across the country if there is a holiday show they can go see, so I hope we can do one next year. We want to do a big show with dancers and a band and with sponsors and hit the big performing arts centers next December.
PC: Will there be another music video to promote the album in between now and then, perhaps?
NT: Yes! We are hoping to do a video for the "Once Upon A Christmas" song, but we are only in the planning stages at this point. We are hoping to do something in February, though - I will definitely keep you posted!
PC: This was delightful. Thank you so much, Natalie, and congratulations on a wonderful new holiday album!
NT: Beautiful! This was so much fun. Thank you so much, Pat. Bye bye.
Photo Credits: Walter McBride, Signature Theater, etc.