BWW Interviews: From WEST SIDE to MADISON COUNTY, Jessica Vosk 'Bridges' the Gap
Immensely gifted musically and dramatically, Jessica Vosk http://(http://www.jessicavosk.com) has experienced a wealth of shining moments on the stage in the past year. First was her appearance as Anita in the San Francisco Symphony's world premiere of the complete Broadway version of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story in 2013, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Then on Feb. 20, 2014, she participated in another groundbreaking premiere: the Tony-nominated Broadway musical of bestselling novel The Bridges of Madison County at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
Jessica shows extraordinary talent, intelligence and creativity, and remarkable gratitude for every opportunity that's come her way. She spoke with me via phone from the Schoenfeld Theatre in Manhattan about her exciting journey.
EM: Tell me how you first got interested in singing and theater.
JV: I grew up in New Jersey, probably an hour outside of New York City, in a very musical family. My dad played guitar in a band and taught me to sing harmony as a kid. I remember riding in the car with him to the City, singing. That was my forte. The theater bug was probably with me since birth. I'm a very dramatic person! Theater and singing have always been a huge part of my life.
EM: About what age were you when you started in community theatre?
JV: Probably seven. I think I was eight or nine when I got the role of Annie in a theater in Pennsylvania, my first really big role. That got me wanting to be on Broadway someday, to be in theater for the rest of my life. I was just this kid who loved to sing, working with all these adults.
EM: When did you first become serious about singing?
JV: I started lessons about age six, with a teacher who came to my house. A lot of adults I sang for were telling me, "There's something special about your voice." I kept that in my mind. In grade school and high school I did choir competitions, as many musicals as possible. High school was when I started to audition for big shows in New York. My mom took me into the City, or sometimes I traveled there by myself. At the time I really didn't have a clue as to what Broadway was. It seemed like something for great, famous people. I didn't have any idea how to get there or what to do. But music was my number one thing. It came so naturally, always easy for me to learn. And I've written music, too. Acting was this amazing bonus, but more difficult for me to tackle. It really took going to classes and sitting and watching and learning.
EM: From there you went to Montclair State University to study... advertising?
JV: After high school I was accepted into the University of Hartford Musical Theatre program. It didn't feel like a perfect fit. I missed going into the City every weekend for auditions. Eventually I needed to decide what I really wanted to do with my life. I left and went to Montclair State, graduated with a degree in public relations and advertising and took a job at a financial firm in Midtown Manhattan. It was a great position, I was really successful at it, but didn't love it. It wasn't my passion, like music or musical theatre. I left to come back to musical theater, a leap without a net, not knowing what was going to happen. Then somebody contacted me for my first job, a beautiful show called Christina, written by the band Abba, at Carnegie Hall, my first big musical theatre job. It was a sign from the universe that I should be in this career.
JV: I played a featured role, with one of the greatest conductors in musical theatre, Paul Gemigniani. After that performance they decided to take us to Royal Albert Hall in London. I've been working ever since, and been lucky enough to work with Gemigniani a few more times in New York. It's kind of crazy. From the world of finance to Broadway. They couldn't be more opposite. But life is too short not to do what you love.
EM: That was definitely a sign you were doing the right thing. What then?
JV: The opportunity came up to do Dangerous Beauty at the gorgeous Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles. Triple threat - singing, acting, dancing. An amazing learning experience, to put a show together from the ground up from nothing, being a part of that technical process, getting the chance to work with a Tony nominated director, plus time in the L.A. sunshine. I came back to New York with more knowledge in my pocket. I did a few City Center Encore shows, really fast productions that happen in about two weeks, about three to five performances of each. Such a plethora of talent. One of the shows was Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along. Getting to work with him was a treat. Another was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, tons of singing. Really difficult vocally but I loved the challenge. Of course anything with Sondheim is more than a challenge. That was another big moment in my career. Then I did a New York Philharmonic performance of Sondheim's Company, a star studded show with Neal Patrick Harris, Patti Lupone, Stephen Colbert, tons of TV and movie actors. To see how Patti Lupone tackles acting through song was an amazing learning process, much different than sitting in a classroom. Watching seasoned professionals go through a song or a scene, watching their process, I think is the best tool for my own learning. Getting to perform with the Philharmonic at Lincoln Center with Gemigniani, all put together so fast, was a blast. They videotaped it, it was in movie theatres across the country. Very cool to have my family and friends watch it on the big screen.
EM: After that came "TUTS"?
JV: Theatre Under The Stars, in Houston, where they foster a lot of new musicals, have tours coming through, like Wicked, plus older musicals. I got cast in Man of La Mancha. Three weeks of working with an "out of box" director who believes in realism. If you were in a prison it really felt like a prison. So much fun. The theatre is gorgeous, enormous, so you're playing to thousands of people every night. They bring lots of large talent, big stars who have done tons of Broadway shows, and you get to watch them work. Again, huge learning experience. I came back to New York. And West Side Story happened.
EM: Tell me how.
JV: It kind of came out of nowhere, I was super surprised. Jay Binder, a great casting director in the City, was casting it. Cheyenne Jackson had already signed on as Tony, and they were looking for the others. Michael Tilson Thomas - I hadn't know of him before, because our worlds are so different and separate - was in New York searching for theatre actors to portray the roles of Maria, Anita and Riff. I got the call to audition for Anita. It was a really big break for me. It's not often someone will take a chance on you, like, "She has the perfect voice for this role. You should really see her." That's exactly what happened. This casting office took a chance on me. I went to Lincoln Center, met Michael Tilson Thomas at the first audition, sang two songs from West Side Story for him and got to work on musical notes he gave me. I figured out who he was after I left the room. Maybe it was good I didn't know that going in. I got to be sassy and do things I probably would have been too nervous to do if I'd known I was singing for Michael. But I was just floored when I found out everything he's done.
EM: Including being Lenny Bernstein's protégé.
JV: It blew my mind that Bernstein was Michael's mentor, that Michael got to do this West Side Story the way he'd wanted to for years. Even being able to audition, never mind doing, that fiery, saucy role of Anita, just getting to sing it for this musical genius. Out of this world. Afterward I didn't know anything for while, I just thought it was fun to get the chance. I was so shocked to get the phone call about filming a call back on camera to send to Michael in California, to have a second chance to prove I could do it.
EM: What was that like?
JV: it was filmed at the casting offices in New York. I sang, "A Boy Like That," and "America." They sent the film to Michael. I didn't hear anything for a few weeks and wondered if I got it. I'll never forget standing on line at Trader Joe's on the upper west side, when my agent called. "We just had a quick question for you. How would you like to play Anita?" I literally dropped everything on the floor! I couldn't believe it. I think it took the entire night for it to sink in that it was happening. I knew how big the production was going to be, this historical premiere, playing the full (Broadway) version for the first time. But amazingly, once I found myself in San Francisco and started working with Michael, everything kind of hit me. I went out there, prepared and ready to go, and showed I could do it. It's a fast and furious process, too. A couple of days' rehearsal and we were up and running. The symphony world is quite different from the theater world.
EM: Symphony orchestras don't have the luxury of all those Broadway rehearsals.
JV: It was just momentous, an experience I will never forget. The best ten days of my life. I can't believe it happened. It's surreal to talk about. "MTT" is one of finest people to work with, such a level of musicianship. The cast, the chance to actually sing with a symphony, you don't get to do that often. To watch the musicians playing that score, which is timeless, some of the best music. I could get lost just listening to it.
EM: I was so happy for all of you guys. It was indeed historical. I kept thinking while I was watching, "Such a great opportunity. Great music, great orchestra, great conductor." http://www.broadwayworld.com/san-francisco/article/BWW-Reviews-WEST-SIDE-STORY-Still-Shows-Many-Faces-20140107#.U169F-ZdWAa
JV: Not only was Michael amazing to work with, he's a great guy. To hear his stories about his family and theatre background, to know why he takes so much pride in really doing West Side Story right, to sit in his office and listen to all of that was amazing. And he's so supportive. I'm so glad I had the chance to work with him, even once. I couldn't ask for anything more. I'd love to work with him again.
EM: When I saw you as Anita in San Francisco, I thought it was the best since Moreno. You blew my mind.
JV: Thank you! It means a lot to hear that. A few people have said, "I've never heard an Anita like that since Moreno." And to have the chance to actually meet her when she came to the show, and give me a huge hug, and say, "My God, you totally nailed this role." What else could you ask? I will never forget that moment. She's incredible, such a kind, inspirational human being. To have her come down and meet me and chat with me about doing the role was like an angel coming and giving me her blessing.
EM: And there's a recording about to happen.
JV: I'm really excited, I cannot wait. I don't know how I've had the patience to wait this long! It's available digitally on May 20, but you can preorder the download now https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/bernstein-west-side-story/id864266179. The CD comes out in June. Alexandra Silber, who sang Maria - the two of us met through this gig - she's a good buddy of mine. We're both over the moon about the recording coming out. Of course we had to go all the way to California to meet, but we're in the same city so it's fun to keep each other posted on what's going on. We have a genuine friendship.
EM: Sounds a lot like (NBC TV series) Smash. As if that weren't wonderful enough, then came Bridges of Madison County on Broadway.
Next: Part 2 - from West Side to Bridges