An Interview with Stephanie J. Block
Lately, Stephanie J. Block--who is appearing in concert at Birdland on June 26th and 27th--has been a woman of the elements. Recently spotted midair as Wicked's Elphaba in the smash musical's national tour, the talented Block will soon be reigning over the seasand Broadwayin the Boublil and Schonberg musical The Pirate Queen.
Yet don't expect a female Captain Jack Sparrow, that charmingly lazy sea dog who helped to ignite pirate mania two years ago. Grania O'Malley (a name further anglicized to Grace O'Malley in the show) was a woman of many accomplishments. In addition to femme-buccaneer, she was a wife, mother, warrior and chieftain. Legendarily, a proud Grace chose not to bow down before Queen Elizabeth I while petitioning the monarch for the lives of her captive son and brother. Who then better to play this fiery, fearless woman than Block, a performer who has proven through many shows that she has the stage presence and acting talent to match her powerful vocals?
It's only natural that such a role is a little intimidating, but Block is excitedand will be very ready when the show opens in Chicago this October before sailing to Broadway. "My preparations began before my contract was even signed. As soon as I read the breakdown for the role of Grace O'Malley in The Pirate Queen, I began to prepare for this character. About a month after my audition I was flown to
Block sees much to admire in Grace besides the character's athleticismand views her as a self-empowered woman long before the word "feminist" entered the dictionary. "This woman was far ahead of her time. She mastered the duties of men with the flare of a woman. She balanced a lot of roles. She gave birth and moments later defended her ship!...She did it ALL!"
Nor is romance overlooked in the show, as Grace was a lover as well as a fighter. Block explains, "The Pirate Queen is, at its core, a love story. But it is shaped in such a epic way. There's great adventure, soaring melodies, vibrant and traditional Irish dancing. All of this is performed by a cast of 40!" When it comes to Irish dancing, The Pirate Queen will have a pretty peerless pedigreeit's produced by Moya Doherty and John McColgan, the creators of Riverdance.
Block is, in fact, thrilled to be working with all of the show's high-profile creative team, whom she calls "phenomenal!" Block elaborates, "In my opinion, Alain and Claude-Michel have outdone themselves," she says of the famed songwriting team, whose Les Miserables is returning to Broadway in the fall. "They are passionate and expressive people and that comes out in their musicality They see the story and the characters so clearly and they know how to bring that storytelling to a new level. Our producers have that same passion for this story. I am honored to be a part of sharing Grace's legacy and look forward to working with (director) Frank Galati and the rest of the creative team in bringing her glorious life to the stage."
Before opening in The Pirate Queen, Block will head to Birdland's stage to treat fans to her "Block Party" concert. On the line-up are standards, duets with musical director/performer Billy Stritch and a medley of '60s songsas well as a rarely heard ballad cut from Wicked.
Elphaba, in fact, was the role that Block last brought to lifeanother strong character with a green shade of skin not brought on by sea sickness. She opened as Wicked's Elphaba in the current national tour: "It was thrilling. Every city welcomed us with cheers and excitement! What a blessing to be in a hit! I'll admit, when playing a role of this magnitude, touring is not the easiest gig in the world. There were circumstances I could have never foreseen that also added to the difficulty of touring." She also praises her tour co-star Kendra Kassebaum: "Are you kidding me with how funny that girl is?!! During "Popular," you never quite knew what was going to happen. I LOVED that!!!"
Most Wicked fans are aware of the fact that Block's involvement with the smash Stephen Schwartz musical stretched back quite a bit further than the national tour. Block played the misunderstood witch of the West in Wicked's early workshops and then stood by for Idina Menzel when the show tried out in San Francisco about five years ago. When Block signed on to the national tour, it was like welcoming back an old friend whose every mannerism she remembered. She explains, "My interpretation of Elphaba did not change with time. I connected to this role quite early in the show's development and I "knew" her. I brought so much of myself to the stage when I played Elphie. Of course, Joe Mantello molded and greatly helped direct my intentions so that it serviced the story. It was a wonderful experience getting to become Elphie. It wasn't difficult to go back to the role. She never left me."
Did she have a favorite moment to perform in the role? "The answer to that question would change nightly. To be above the stage belting out 'Defying Gravity' is a theatrical moment I won't soon forget. But the simplicity of 'I'm Not That Girl' still rings so true to me that I get a little weepy just thinking of the lyrics." All in all, Block considers her stint as Elphaba in the national tour one of the most fulfilling times of her career.
It's been quite a career so far; Block, a California native, was a show biz veteran by her teens. "I began singing in church. The congregation got very involved, letting my parents know if/when they heard about an audition. That led to me singing jingles for TV commercials. I was a Screen Actors' Guild member by the time I was 12 or 13. I was always involved in community theatre. I can remember my theatrical debut as Townsperson #3 in Fullerton Civic Light Opera's stellar production of Annie Get Your Gun. This led to my days at Disney playing Phifer the pig in the 'Hooray For Disney Stars' parade. There was no looking back," she laughs.
Block didn't make her Broadway debut until 2003, with The Boy from Oz, but by then she had racked up about two dozen regional theatre creditsplaying a varied assortment of characters ranging from Crazy for You's Polly to Grease's Rizzo. She also won acclaim for her Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. Critics found the role the perfect showcase for her strong, sultry belt, comic flair and dramatic range, and she was awarded with a Robby Award for playing Fanny at Thousand Oaks, California's Cabrillo Musical Theatre in 2000 (she would later reprise the role at the Music Theatre of Wichita). If the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill classic is revived on Broadway, Block--who considers Fanny her favorite regional theatre role--would gladly give the role a third spin if asked. "It's time to bring her back to Broadway. What a powerhouse role for any actress. Producers interested can call...555-Stef!"
With The Boy From Oz, Block made the transition from respected regional theatre actress to bona fide Broadway starin a role that would have made a less daring actress run for cover. With Fanny, Block had played a legend who had already become somewhat mingled in the public's mind with Barbra Streisand; she had some leeway to take the role in a different direction. There was a little more pressure with the role of living icon Liza Minnelliwho in The Boy from Oz, finds a troubled marriage to Peter Allen (played by Hugh Jackman and whose songs the show featured) unable to deter her from coming into her own as an electrifying performer.
Yet Block more than succeeded, capturing Minnelli's trademark blend of sass, glamor and vulnerability without resorting to mimicry. Block says that she was careful to avoid such a performance trap: "I think because the majority of my performance was Liza at a young age, and I wanted to stay true to that vulnerable, raw girl I approached playing her as an actress, not an impersonator."
When Block plays a character drawn from real life, she takes her duty to that woman very seriously. She explains, "I do A LOT of research. I feel it is important to respect the legacy of these legendary women. It is an honor to be asked to "play" them...but it's not playing. In a sense it's retelling their stories and with that comes responsibility. There is/was only ONE Liza, Fanny and Grace but there will always be a little piece of me in my interpretation. However, if I am doing my job, their essence is ever present."
Block also enjoys sharing her gifts with younger talents, and loves to teach and mentor burgeoning performers. She says that although her current commitments have "limited her teaching," it's something in which she will continue to be involved. "I try to speak with as many high school groups, etc., as I can. I just recently was involved in an amazing project. Students from The California Conservatory of the Arts flew to NYC to do a reading of a new musical (called How the Nurse Feels). I came in to play the mother," she says, humorously adding, "Ouch! I was way too young!" She feels that "it is important to communicate the real truth about show business, life in New York and what to expect when choosing this career. Students need to understand that it's not just stepping onstage and belting out a song. They need to know it's a business."
It's clearly a business in which Block excels, and it won't be the least bit surprising if she both sails and soars in The Pirate Queen. The actress may be quite busy now, but she says "I couldn't be more excited to put my life on hold to be in Grace's life. It's a journey I so look forward to!"
"Block Party" will take place at Birdland on June 26th and June 27th. Tickets are $35. Tickets may be purchased through the Birdland box office (212-581-3080) or online at www.instantseats.com/birdland.
To learn more about Block, visit www.stephaniejblock.com.
1) Stephanie J. Block
2) Block in Wicked national tour--photo: Joan Marcus
3) Block in Funny Girl--photo: Music Theatre of Wichita
4) Block with Hugh Jackman in The Boy from Oz--photo: Joan Marcus