BWW Interview: PHANTOM's Ali Ewoldt Discusses the Challenges of Christine, Asians on Broadway and Her Solo Debut at Feinstein's/54 Below
Let's talk about race.
As a young lad, I was taken to the theatre quite often and generally felt it was a delightful vacation into the world of Things That White People Do (like yachting and listening to Drake). With a White father and Chinese mother, I identified on some level with both cultures but never felt fully embraced by either. It wasn't a source of any real exclusion, but it made me aware of race divides very early on, and theatre definitely fell under White.
Cut to a few decades later, Silicon Valley upbringing and a few attempts at college under my belt, and I'm working an entry level position in Broadway journalism. I was tasked with editing the bios for the first revival of LES MIS and was struck by the fact that this huge production of my favorite show had some casting choices that felt somehow daring at the time. Norm Lewis as Javert and Daphne Rubin-Vega as Fantine? How cool! By now, we had all seen Asian and Black Eponines and Fantines (thank you, Lea!), but a Black Javert was quite a step forward.
In the roles of the young lovers were two people I was unfamiliar with, by the last names of Ewoldt and Jacobs (namely, Ali Ewoldt and Adam Jacobs). When I finally saw the production, something struck me about the two of them, but it was hard to make out from back orchestra. A quick Google search and it all made sense: They were both fellow Hapas (people of half-Asian descent). This was a new experience for me, to see my ethnic identity represented on Broadway.
And so I became a fan of both. Over the years, as we all orbit in the same Broadway Asian community, I got to know Ewoldt and see her perform various roles, including Carrie in CAROUSEL, Tuptim in THE KING AND I, and Luisa in THE FANTASTICKS. Always happy to be supporting part of the Tribe and seeing someone who looked like me starring in these iconic shows, it became evident that Ewoldt possesses one of the most pristine soprano voices out there today.
I knew that it would only be a matter of time before her next big Broadway break, and that brings us to today. She stars as Christine in the long-running mega-hit THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and will be making her solo debut at Feinstein's/54 Below with FROM PHANTOM TO PHANTOM on March 12. Ahead of the show, Ewoldt was kind enough to take time to answer a few questions for us.
This interview has been edited for content and length.
MB: How did the theatre bug first hit you, and when did you get the sense that this was what you would be doing for a living?
AE: I was lucky enough to get to see Broadway musicals from a young age (my first was A CHORUS LINE at eight years old) and had already been exposed to movie musicals by my eldest maternal aunt, my Tita Myrna. Also, my very small town had an incredible public school musical theatre program--- I remember being inspired by the high school kids performing CAROUSEL and WEST SIDE STORY and BRIGADOON.
When I was 10, I was cast in Yeston/Kopit's PHANTOM at the Westchester Broadway Theatre as "the little girl." I was only in two scenes, so I got to spend a lot of time watching these wonderful professional actors both onstage and off and totally fell in love with the theater culture. But I somehow knew that performing was a really tough profession, so I actually went to a college where I would be able to ideally find something else that I was equally passionate about and [could] perform extracurricularly. I was a psychology major but quickly realized there would be nothing else I was nearly as passionate about as performing... So I gave it a try when I graduated!
MB: You went to an Ivy League school, studied something more "practical," then went for it with the arts! Were your friends and family supportive of your path, and what would your ideal career have been had you not found success in performance?
AE: My family and friends have always been extraordinarily supportive. My parents have started calling themselves "parent-groupies," my brother, aunts, uncles and cousins fly in from all over the country to watch me perform and my best friends from college, who are all doing very different (and extraordinary) things with their lives, make sure to never miss a show I'm in. I am very lucky!
MB: What was your first big role that made you realize this COULD be a living for you?
AE: Oh goodness--- I'm still not always sure this could be a living me for me! But I think getting to originate Cosette in the first Broadway revival of LES MISERABLES was a pretty big deal.
MB: In retrospect, Christine is such a perfect role for you, especially given that you've worked for Cameron Mackintosh before. Tell me about the casting process, how many times they brought you in and where you were when you found out you landed the gig. Who was the first person you called/texted when you got the role?
AE: I've been auditioning for this show for SO many years! Thankfully my agents never gave up on it or me. This last round was a first audition, a callback (that was filmed for the creatives in London) and then a final callback onstage at the Majestic with Hal Prince sitting in the audience!
I was rehearsing THE KING AND I at the Lyric Opera at the time and had to fly in for the day. And I found out over a week later in my dressing room during tech at the Lyric... But I was told not to tell anyone because it wouldn't be official until after the weekend (three whole days away).
I still called my mother. But I had to painstakingly explain to her multiple times that, "Don't tell anyone" meant she couldn't tell the entire family, let alone post in on Facebook. Which she didn't. I was very proud of her.
MB: You've worked consistently for years and years but it's been nearly a decade since you were last in a leading role on Broadway. Was it a challenge to get back into the swing of such a grueling schedule? How do you keep your body, voice and mind in shape?
AE: I came straight to PHANTOM from THE KING AND I in Chicago via about a year of the Broadway cast of THE KING AND I. But playing a principal role is a very different challenge than being in the ensemble. I would say the closest size role I had to Christine was Maria in WEST SIDE STORY, which I had done on an International and then National Tour (and then everywhere regionally) in the interim.
And yet, Christine has surprised me with how challenging she is, particularly considering I only perform six times a week. It's an incredibly physical role because of the weight of the costumes, the dancing and a surprising amount of running up and down stairs and ladder climbing, et cetera. And it is also a heavy emotional journey in addition to a tremendous amount of singing.
I do a lot of resting in my downtime. Netflix and my dog keep me company. Also acupuncture, physical therapy, vitamins, steaming, sleep, et cetera.
MB: Is there a favorite moment for you in the show for your character? What is the single most difficult aspect of the role for you?
AE: I love the ending (spoiler alert!) when Christine says, "God give me courage to show you, you are not alone." It really speaks to the heart of the piece and what Christine is about: She is able to see beyond the Phantom's physical appearance to his soul and use the most powerful weapon in her arsenal, love, to save the day. I think what makes the role difficult is all of the challenges combined: vocal, physical, emotional.
MB: Let's talk about "Music of the Night." Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Christine is in every scene except for "Notes" and "Prima Donna." Past Christines have told me stories about how "Music of the Night" is their chance to space out, think about errands they need to run, et cetera. One told me a story about actually falling asleep standing up during the song. How do you like to spend that six minutes of Christine Quiet Time?
AE: Ha! Is that what I am supposed to be doing then?! While it is true that Christine has very little downtime (other than "Managers 1" aka "Prima Donna," I am either onstage or changing costume), I love Christine's journey in "Music of the Night." This is really when she builds her relationship with the Phantom and he opens her heart and soul to a new world. Plus, listening to James Barbour sing this song is quite the treat. Of course, we all have our moments, and I'm sure I have thought about what I wanted to eat for dinner at least once during a show.
MB: Much has been made of the fact that you're the first Asian-American to play the role on Broadway. I don't recall any real hype about the fact that both Marius [Adam Jacobs] and Cosette were half-Fiipino when you did the LES MIS revival. With diversity so much in today's conversation and with an increasingly strong voice from underrepresented "ethnic actors," do you feel added pressure, or compelled to "represent" the community?
AE: Yes, I think that times have changed in terms of the visibility of Asian-American actors. I think we are talking about diversity much more now than we were 10 years ago. I do feel added pressure, but that is self-imposed. I know how long the journey has been to have a woman of color play Christine (28 years, if you're counting) and I want to make sure I am doing the very best job that I can as Christine in the hopes that others will be able to follow in my footsteps. I have had amazing responses from young actors of color who have told me that they now think it is possible for them to be in PHANTOM someday. That moves me and inspires me more than I can say.
MB: Has it been a struggle for you as a Hapa performer? Do you ever get told that you're not Asian enough, not white enough, not Latin enough? It's nice to have flexibility, but a person can only play Tuptim and Kim so many times, right?
AE: Yes, while I have rarely been told any of those things directly, I know being "not ___" enough has factored into casting decisions. But if I only played half-Filipino, half-Caucasian roles I would not have a career. I have been fortunate to have played a rainbow of ethnicities and I think that is largely because I am Hapa. And at the end of the day, I can only control what I bring to the table at an audition: my voice, my listening and storytelling, my preparedness, et cetera, and trust that every now and then the performer that I am will be what a creative team is looking for for a role.
MB: An Asian friend of mine was recently cast as one of the more beloved Disney leading ladies and was initially met with ridiculous responses along the lines of, "[That character] isn't Asian!" Have you run into any similar experiences when you've played roles traditionally seen to be represented by Caucasians?
AE: While I am sure there are those who object to an Asian-American Christine or Cosette or Luisa, I have been fortunate to not have been bombarded by those opinions. But I also saw Lea Salonga play (and conquer) Eponine when I was a child, so I think the idea and viability of non-traditional casting has long been embedded in my psyche. And if my experience with PHANTOM has taught me anything, it is that anything is possible.
MB: As if a full schedule of PHANTOM weren't enough, you have a show coming up at 54 Below on March 12. Without giving away too much, what sorts of material will you be singing? Any special guests?
AE: I'll be singing songs from important roles throughout my career, some songs from dream roles, some new musical theater songs, some tributes to my Filipino roots, et cetera. It should be a good representation of who I am as a performer (a half-Filipino, half-Midwestern soprano!) And I have a bunch of amazing special guests: fellow Filipinos Liz Casasola, Rona Figueroa and Joshua Dela Cruz (currently starring as Aladdin), and PHANTOM cast members Jeremy Stolle and our brand new Raoul, Rodney Ingram!
MB : How long will you be with PHANTOM, and do you have any idea what will come next?
AE: I will definitely be in PHANTOM through October and beyond that I don't know! Though, I do have some exciting projects and concerts that I can't quite announce yet it in the coming year.
MB: What is your one dream role in musical theatre (male or female) and why?
AE: I have been fortunate to have checked off so many dream roles that my next goal is to originate a role in a new musical--- I think that would be an incredible new challenge/experience.
Matt Blank is a theatre and culture writer based out of the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City. Follow him on Twitter @MattBlankPlease.