BWW Interviews: Lara Teeter Talks SHOW BOAT, Cap'n Andy, His Career and About Teaching
Houston, Houston Grand Opera, Lara Teeter, Show Boat, Interview, Musical, Opera
In the crisp, morning hours on December 27, 2012 I got the chance to speak with Lara Teeter, who will be playing Cap'n Andy in the upcoming production of SHOW BOAT at Houston Grand Opera. The celebrated actor had a plethora of interesting and scholarly items to discuss about SHOW BOAT, and the character of Cap'n Andy. We also had a good time discussing his career as an actor, director, choreographer, and teacher.
Me: How did you first get involved in theatre?
Lara Teeter: Wow! We're just going to start right off. This is my second cup of coffee. Well, I created a pantomime for my seventh grade speech class. The teacher told us to do something funny or sad, and I created a pantomime of somebody making and then eating a peanut butter sandwich, with the final beat being the peanut butter getting stuck to the roof of my mouth. From there, I just had a series of teachers. There was an eighth grade speech class that was actually [taught by] a different teacher. Then, in the ninth grade, there was no speech class, and the teacher had a few of us that were still very interested in speech and doing excercises in theatre. We hadn't really done any plays at this point, and she created an advanced ninth grade speech class. Out of that class, we cast and performed on stage THE WIZARD OF OZ, and I played the Scarecrow. And since that time I think I've played the role maybe eight times. That's really the beginning. This was all in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Me: You made your Broadway debut in THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS. What was that experience like?
Lara Teeter: I was the first replacement for that show after it had been running Off-Broadway and on Broadway for about a year and a half. Folks around these parts will of course know the Texas Aggies, and they'll know that show. I guess the show started here in Houston. Tommy Tune was the choreographer, and I guess he found a way for it to have its start here, and then [he] transferred it to New York. The original cast stayed together for quite a long time, and I was the first Aggie Football replacement.
You know, [Pauses] that's a very interesting question of what was it like. [Pauses] You know, it was a dream come true. There you are in a 46th Street theatre, and when I first moved to New York, it was very fascinating to me that the theatre seats and the theatres themselves are a lot smaller than some of the theaters back in my home state of Oklahoma. And so there you are in this cramped, little, old, stinky theatre in the middle of the universe-the very center of the universe-in terms of I guess "making it" because the audience members are from all over the world. And yet it was amazing, there you were opening on Broadway, and at the same time it felt very much like all the other shows I had done in my school. It was just something I loved to do. And I guess the big realization I had that night was that you have all this anticipated sense of what it's going to feel like, and really it felt like opening a show at OCU in some way. Oklahoma City Univeristy is where I went to school. And then on the other end of it, it felt like you'd won the winning ticket. So, it was interesting. It was an interesting slice of observation for me.
Me: You struck gold in the 1983 Broadway revival of ON YOUR TOES. What was it like being nominated for a Tony Award for your portrayal of Junior?
Lara Teeter: Well, I was actually doing my laundry when I got the phone call that I had been nominated for a Tony Award. And, it was [Pauses] a wonderful feeling. It was...[Pauses]...I look back at it now, and I actually teach the history of musical theatre now at Webster Conservatory in St. Louis, and whenever we get to the 1930s, ON YOUR TOES by Rogers & Hart debuted in 1936 with Ray Bolger in the lead, and I'm always a little bit taken aback when I get to that part of the history. I am able to share the fact that I did the show with the same director that directed Ray Bolger in 1936. That was George Abbott, who was known as Mr. Broadway in his life. He lived until he was about 107. I guess by the time he passed away he had written, produced, performed in, or directed over 120 shows on Broadway. And that's just unheard of now.
Then, ON YOUR TOES also was phenomenal because last night, for instance, the Kennedy Awards celebrated the life of Natalia Makarova, the Russian ballerina that opened the show. And ON YOUR TOES is a show you won't see done very often, and the reason being is because the ensemble is both the Broadway Hoofer type and also they have to be ballet dancers because a big theme of the show is that the Russian Ballet comes to New York City, and so people don't do this show because it takes two types of really incredible dancers to pull the show off. So, there I am, you know, never having partnered [with] one of the great Russian ballerina dancers of the time, and she had never done a Broadway show ever before. So, we kind of had everything and nothing on each other. We kind of had a special bond that way.
So, the whole nomination-I'm sorry I'm going on about this-you know, being nominated for that show, looking back years ago, there was just so many things involved in that one little moment in time, it is hard just to say something like "Oh, it was great. Wow, it felt wonderful." It just goes beyond that. Now, where I am in my life and in my career, as I still perform and I direct and choreograph, I [also] teach musical theatre, and knowing a lot more now about the history of musical theatre than I certainly did at that time in my career, it was just a very special thing to become part of that very small, elite group of people. I mean, it was luck. I will be the first to say that luck was there for me. Luck is when preparedness and opportunity meet one another. And, I must have been prepared when the opportunity came. It could have been someone sitting to my right or on my left, but on that particular day, on that particular audition, I was able to be the right person they were looking for.
The other part of the show that was phenomenal was George Balanchine, the great and wonderful Artistic Director of the New York City Ballet for many, many years, and someone who had again choreographed the show originally in 1936 sat in the audience on my final audition. I think I auditioned something like five or six times, and he was actually present for my final audition, which was on a stage reading with [Natalia] Makarova. I had a chance to just touch briefly with him. He ended up not choreographing the show, but his protégé, Peter Martins, who then took over for him for New York City ballet when he passed away, did stage all of the original George Balanchine work for the show. Donald Saddler was the other choreographer, who was also a Broadway born Hoofer and dancer. So I got the chance to work with two phenomenal Broadway choreographers. One was born in the cloth of having all kinds of eccentric and tapping dance and then George Balanchine's choreography, which was, of course, ballet. And the "Slaughter on 10th Avenue" ballet, which was termed as the "jazz ballet," was something to be a part of. That was a long-winded answer. I apologize for that.
Me: That's fine because, on a side note, ON YOUR TOES has been an interest of mine since I was in high school. In marching band, we played "Slaughter on 10th Avenue" as part of our 9-11 tribute show.
Lara Teeter: That's awesome. It's a very haunting piece, isn't it?
Me: Yeah, it really is. [Pauses] Ok, your Broadway and other theatre credits include many notable shows. What has been your favorite role so far?
Lara Teeter: Well, that's a question that I've been asked before and it's a little bit like Apples and Oranges. There are certain roles you cannot compare, but I will have to say that ON YOUR TOES stands alone. Like I said earlier, that experience was, when I think of ON YOUR TOES I don't so much think of the role, I think of the experience of it all. The experience of that was phenomenal.
But, my actual favorite roles; there's three of them. And it's the Scarecrow in THE WIZARD OF OZ, Don Lockwood, the Gene Kelly role in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, and also Will Parker in OKLAHOMA. Over the course of my singing and dancing career, those three roles were the ones that were kind of my go to roles. Those were the highlight roles of my career. On from there, there are many other roles on the side that offered a lot of challenges and fun. I actually had the opportunity to play Henry Higgins in MY FAIR LADY, and I was a little bit shocked when the director friend of mine called me to audition for it because that would not be a role that if you looked at my resume, whether you knew me or not, it would not necessarily be a role you might consider me for. But I knew this fella, and he was also kind of a song and dance man and he had this idea and called me in and I ended up doing the part. Playing that role at the North Shore Music Theatre was kind of a stand-alone. But, I would say, if I had to choose one, it was probably the Scarecrow in THE WIZARD OF OZ.
Me: Most recently, you have been teaching at The Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University in Saint Louis, Missouri. While not your first collegiate teaching experience, what are your favorite aspects of this chapter in your life?
Lara Teeter: The mentoring. The fact that I can sit down and talk to the students about perspective and their lives. I practice Yoga. Yoga can be misconstrued. It is quite simple really. It's just about being in the moment. It's about breathing. It's about being aware. So, the center of my teaching, whether it's a dance that you're learning, a song you're working on, or a particular role that you're working on in a show, anything my students are involved with I try to bring them to a sense of awareness and breath. Being aware of their breath and being aware of what they're feeling and what they're sensing. Awareness is a way of looking at things without any judgment, and so I try to help them find a place in themselves that's not judgmental.
You know, the most important thing I think that any teacher can do, as they're sharing their knowledge with any student, is passion for the subject, a sense of wellbeing in a person's life. I've got four children, and so my teaching and parenting kind of walk hand in hand because you're trying to not just tell your children what to do, you're trying to demonstrate what it means to be a balanced person, what it means to be a happy person, or what it means to love what you do.
Some of the best moments I have in teaching at the conservatory is when a student walks in and says, "You know, I think I'd rather go to med school," and they leave the conservatory. I feel like that's a huge accomplishment. If the work in the conservatory can open them up to the point that they really realize that it's possible that they're trying to live someone else's dream and not really living their own dream. On the reverse side, it's exciting to have someone come in with all kinds of talent, but they lack the discipline. At some point they realize that the key to their being an artist really lies in their daily discipline, and you see a student finding the joy of a daily discipline whether it be dance, singing, or acting. Then, you feel like they're going to be success no matter where they end up. No matter what show they end up doing, no matter where they are, whether they become a teacher or go to New York and have a hugely successful Broadway career, or a film career, or if they just go off and decide to start their own business and have a family, you get a sense that they're going to be just fine. That's my favorite aspect of teaching.
Lara Teeter: It is not my first time to perform in Houston. I was involved in a production of THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE at TUTS many years ago. And I don't know if I could tell you the year, but I want to say it was late 80s/early 90s that Theatre Under the Stars did PIRATES OF PENZANCE. [A quick Google search places this production in November of 1987.] It was one of the shows I did in New York-the Broadway revival that had Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith, George Rose and all those people. I was the dance captain for that show. And that show actually launched my directing credit because people wanted to do this version of PIRATES. So, I did one of the cops-I think it's Sir Edward. He's the main cop that appears in the second act. This version was a silent film version of it. So, the character was very physical and sort of based on a Charlie Chaplin-esque or Buster Keaton type role.
Me: Tommy Tune was originally slated to play Cap'n Andy, but was placed on vocal rest. Is there a story behind how you got involved in the production?
Lara Teeter: [Laughs] Yeah, it happened yesterday! We were in our final week at the Conservatory, and I got a rather emergency, red-flagged, desperate e-mail from Mark Lear here at Houston Grand Opera, basically just saying, "Here's the deal: Tommy Tune has had to back out of our production. Here are the dates. We need you quickly to come to us and play Cap'n Andy, if there's any way possible. We'll do whatever we can to get you here." I mean, it really just came completely out of the blue. I actually told Diane Zola, the gal at Houston Grand Opera, I told them that in 48 hours I can't remember the last time I shot out and received so many e-mails, texts, and phone calls, because what it meant was I had to get the chair of my department and the dean involved. Of course, it's the very end of school; they are incredibly busy with all the things that they're doing in wrapping up the semester. The Houston Grand Opera needed to know immediately, and I basically told them there is no way I can tell you right now because this involves me missing the first three to four weeks of classes in the Spring semester.
We open at the end of the first week of classes. The first time we are on stage in January 14th and that's our first day of classes. Then we run though February 9th. So, I had to hustle to get all kinds of approval. I had to get my classes covered. And here I am doing the finals. As I told Houston Grand Opera, this is tricky because I have 48 hours, not only is my chair and my dean busy, but these are the busiest times of my semester. I have vocal juries in the morning, we have showings all afternoon, and then at night I have my senior cabaret. So, I had literally like ten-minute slots throughout the day that I could talk to somebody. Yeah, it's like, "Ok. If it could have been last week, you know, it would have been different."
But, anyway, when I did contact my chair, I was able to get a meeting with her. I walked into the meeting and somehow she had wrangled the dean to be sitting there. Which I still don't know to this day how that's possible because you have to understand that our dean-you just never can get him-he's so busy. And there he was sitting in the meeting, so I was able to get approval from both ends. Of course, before I go in to meet with them I had to contact all kinds of people saying, "Can you do this? Can you do this?" And, yeah, so we ended up making it happen, and so here I am.
Me: SHOW BOAT's original running length was four-and-a-half hours. It was trimmed to just over three hours for its Broadway premiere. Since then various productions have cut it down more or reinstated previously cut material. What can audiences expect from this production?
Lara Teeter: Well, again, I teach the history of musical theater, so SHOW BOAT is one of my favorite shows to talk about on many, many levels. In 1927, this show truly changed the shape of musical theatre on Broadway and in America. Interestingly enough, it wasn't until really 20 years later-not 20, 15 years later-in 1943 when Oklahoma opened that the ball got picked up. SHOW BOAT happened. It was way before its time, and then another 15 years goes by before OKLAHOMA kind of picks up where it left off.
What can the audience expect form this SHOW BOAT? Well, we've been in rehearsal for four days and the director and the choreographer have made a huge success with this show at Chicago Lyric Opera, and then they are going to go on to DC and, I guess, San Francisco Opera with this production. And Francesca Zambello, she is one of the top directors in the world today when it comes to opera, so I was very excited to get a chance to be in the room with her and to see how she works, and, you know, she has a very, very-I'm not answering your question.
The audience can expect [Pauses] an authentic, true to life version of SHOW BOAT. Meaning that the director has chosen a particular ending to the show, that's one of the things that has changed the most-there are many different versions to SHOW BOAT in terms of how the show ends and how the characters finish the plot-and Francesca [Zambello] has made a very, very specific choice because she has very specific take on Edna Feber's novel. And being in the room, for me, watching an opera or seeing the singers or sitting out in the audience and watching Houston Ballet's version of THE NUTCRACKER, where you are witnessing a premiere company at work, that's one thing. But, to be in a rehearsal room where there's just a piano, a conductor, and these phenomenal voices is really beyond thrilling because you have these classically trained, world renown vocalists who are signing this classic Kern and Hammerstein score, and it is beyond thrilling to hear this piece done.
SHOW BOAT is one of those crossover pieces, meaning that a theatre company like Theatre Under the Stars could do this production. They could do SHOW BOAT. But then also Houston Grand Opera can turn around and do it as well because, the way the score is written, the classically trained voices have to be there whether you do it at Theatre Under the Stars or you do it at Houston Grand Opera. And the fact that they [Houston Grand Opera] have these phenomenal opera singers who also can act is kind of beyond inspiring. So, the audience is going to have an incredible experience with the show. The messages this show has to offer are timeless. It's one of the reasons why this show is a classic. It was the first time that a black cast and a white cast shared the stage together. It was really the first time that interracial marriage was discussed on stage. It's the first time that a force of nature was an actual character in the play, which is of course the river. There are just so many things about this show that make it the classic that it is. So, the audience will get a first class entertainment.