BWW Interviews: Elena Shaddow Stays True to Her Soprano Roots in ALWAYS BETTER: THE GOLDEN AGE OF BROADWAY

Elena Shaddow has been making her mark on musical theatre ever since her Broadway debut in LES MIS during her senior year at NYU. So when she takes the stage in her first solo concert at 54 Below on Saturday night, she will be bringing a new meaning to "The Golden Age of Broadway."

Shaddow recently took time out of her busy day as a Mom and a performer to talk about her upcoming concert, extensive ingénue roles, and how she stays true to her lovely soprano voice in the midst of today's "belty" leading ladies on Broadway.

So you have a 54 Below concert coming up on September 6; can you tell me about that?

Yeah! It's titled "Always Better: The New Golden Age of Broadway," and it's sort of a combination of some of my favorite things that I've sung over my career, but also I'm singing songs by composers that have really inspired me, and whose music speaks to me as a performer. I like to explore some of the newer composers that are out there. Also my music director for my program is Georgia Stitt, and I'm singing some of her songs in the show. And so it's just sort of a nice combination of more contemporary musical theatre and songs that have not been as widely performed. It's fun.

I'm opening with an Andrew Lippa song called "Spread a Little Joy," and then I'm singing a song that I was supposed to be singing on Broadway this fall, in TITANIC. I had booked TITANIC also, the smaller, scaled down version of it, and they were adding songs back in to the revival. They were adding a song in that had not been in the original, and I was going to premiere it. So I'm singing that, and that whole show has been sort of put on a shelf, unfortunately. I was hoping to sing it on Broadway, but I'll sing it at 54 Below. And then, I'm singing a trio with my friends Caitlin Kinnunen and Jessica Vosk, who are my friends from BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY.

So there's quite a spread of styles in there. I'm also singing a Sara Bareilles song. I'm pretty much staying very true to the Broadway core, though, and staying true to the fact that I called it "The Golden Age of Broadway," so there's like a reason for the other songs I'm singing, which will be detailed in the show when I perform it. There are some very beautiful, lyrical, interesting, very acting-based songs. I always like to choose those.

I've seen you use the word "legit" to describe the singing style of the songs your singing and how you sing, so can you explain that concept?

Yeah, well for me, "legit" is, I mean, it's a voice type. A legit soprano is a voice type, so usually it's a singer who doesn't usually get into their chest voice as much, or they sing in a more lyrical fashion, and it's not as quote, "belty," and, you know, that doesn't mean that a legit soprano can't be contemporary, but it's a voice type more than anything. I think that in a world of Sutton Fosters and Idina Menzels and Lea Micheles that have these incredibly strong, powerful voices, sopranos tend to be thought of as maybe not as exciting, and I think that couldn't be further from the truth, it's just what our pop culture has supported lately.

And so you gotta be who you are; you can't really change your physical makeup. It's sort of like, when I go to belt, certain things happen, and when Sutton Foster goes to belt, certain things happen, and it's just a difference in voice types. But that's really what all that means. So, I said before is all it does for us legit sopranos is it makes us sort of have to diversify our skills and find a way to connect with an audience that maybe whose ears are geared towards more to, like, a poppier sound, you know, how do you find a way to connect so it's not quite so, either off-putting, or intimidating, you know?

Yeah, for sure. So I saw you were Magnolia in SHOW BOAT at Royal Albert, which is of course a great soprano role. How did you get into that?

Well, it sort of started with Maury Yeston, who composed NINE. I had been in that revival, and I got to know Maury, and he said, "I know this director who directs mostly opera right now, but she's moving into musical theatre, and you should meet her, and her name is Francesca Zambello." And then I sang for her in his living room. And then she and I became friends and she was like, "I love your voice, I love your style, I love that you keep it very clean and there's no affectation," and that's more my training than anything, but she invited me to audition for it. She wrote me this email and said, "You know, I think you're a perfect Magnolia, you have the right voice type," which is like, a lyric soprano, and I went into her living room, and I believe I sang "You are Love," and "Only Make-Believe," and I booked it. I didn't have any producers- there were no producers in her living room, and I booked it.

And sometimes things just feel like they were meant to be. And it was easy, and I didn't feel like I had to jump through a bunch of hoops. It was honestly such an amazing experience. I just felt very very very grateful, and so excited to be in that show. I mean it was a huge, huge production. The biggest production I've ever been a part of. And singing with the gigantic orchestra, it was really humbling. It was really, really quite amazing. It was incredible.

That sounds like an awesome experience. And then of course, you also did the premiere of Bridges of Madison County. How did that go?

Bridges was complicated, and I think it something probably a lot of people are hearing about, what my experience was with that, but the thing is, that I knew going in that Kelli O'Hara was going to take the role back to Broadway, when I had the chance to originate it out of town. And for me, that alone was the payoff, just having the opportunity to create in a room with Jason [Robert Brown] and Bart[lett Sher] and Marsha Norman.

I know that my influence on the staging and my influence on the book and on some of the acting detail was in the Broadway production, for sure, and that's something that I can be proud of and say that I created that. I created that walk, or that was my idea to go back around that way or whatever, or that inflection. I didn't expect to connect to it so deeply. And that's not to discredit Kelli, who is an incredible actress and a beautiful singer, obviously, and the kindest, strongest woman I've ever met, and so for her to step in so gracefully and to be A. a new mother, B., have to be like, "Ok, well now this is mine," I think that she is incredible, and she taught me a lot. And so overall, the experience was wonderful, and I wouldn't change a thing. It was just, like I said, it was just complicated. But beautiful and so, so special.

Yeah, absolutely. And you were her standby on Broadway, right, not her understudy?

Right, so the deal was that coming into New York, I was the standby, and I had a few brush-up rehearsals, and I was around. I was stuck into the theatre, but yeah I wasn't in the ensemble, I wasn't any of that. For me, A., it was a good job, so for me and my family, it was the right choice, and B., I was meant to take over for Kelli, when Kelli was supposed to leave. If the show had kept running, we had it all worked out contractually that I was going to be her first replacement in September, when she left for the Met. But obviously, we never got to that point, which was too bad.

Besides that, you've gotten to do some great ingénue roles in your career. Which ones have really stood out to you?

Well, I really loved playing Lili in CARNIVAL. For me, that was a huge step forward in my acting and in my singing, because the character, the way that our director envisioned the show, was a little bit darker, a little less conventional. I got to really explore the darker side of- if there could be a darker side of- an ingénue. And that was fun for me. I think a lot of people were on board with my portrayal of Lili, but there were some people who were not happy about my portrayal.

But for me, to get to play an ingénue and get to sing the way that I sing, to act in a way that was just contrary to the way that most ingénues are directed to play, I felt like I was really honing my chops. And then after that, I got the chance to play Clara in LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA. I originated that tour and that sort of completed my portrayal of Clara, and if I hadn't played Lili, I don't think that would have influenced the way I played Clara, as well. So, yeah, because Clara is someone who is special, has a mental challenge, they sort of went hand-in-hand. And also, getting to sing that music by Adam Guettel was incredible, I mean it was just a dream come true, you know?

Yeah, and in the non-musical realm, you were in THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST in New Jersey, so how did you get into that? It's a little different from what you had previously done.

Yeah, well I had done the musical version of TWELFTH NIGHT [i.e., ILLYRIA] there, at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. And, I mean, I went to NYU for singing, and you know, I'd taken acting classes, for sure, but there was a point at which I realized, I need to be a better actor when I'm a singer, and you can't rely on just your singing, because everybody can sing. I really do feel that way. The voices in our city are just incredible. People can do anything! And so, what sets people apart is their acting, and acting through songs is about your portrayal of a character, so I decided to really start honing those skills. And I just auditioned for it. I asked the lady that ran the theatre, I said, "Can I come in for it?" And I got the part. And I coached it, I really worked on it, on the part of Cecily.

And yeah, I mean it's sort of a boring story, but for me exciting, because I booked a play! I got a part in a play where I was just acting; it had nothing to do with my singing, and that was very empowering. And that sort of sparked my interest in getting into that more. So I did The Shakespeare Lab at the Public Theatre the summer after I finished LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, actually, while I was pregnant with my first child, I did this 13-week Shakespeare intensive and really, really honed my skills there, I mean I busted my chops learning Shakespeare and the technique of it, and that was really excellent training. So from there, I've done musicals and plays. So it's been really, really fun.

So is there anything else you want our readers to know?

Just that I'm very excited, I'm very proud of this show, and I'm really grateful to all my supporters and to all the people who have just been supporting me and cheering me on over the last year, because it's meant a lot, because it's not always easy, so people that say, "We really believe in you," or "Never give up," or whatever, it has really sunk deep since they had faith in me, and so I feel very grateful to people who have been supporting me, and I sort of want to do this show to give back, because I feel like it's important to show that I also believe in me and that I will never give up.

Watch Elena Shaddow sing a BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY song, accompanied by composer Jason Robert Brown below!

Elena Shaddow in "Always Better: The New Golden Age of Broadway" plays 54 Below (254 West 54th Street) on September 6, 2014 at 9:30pm. There is a $30-$60 cover charge and $25 food and beverage minimum. Tickets and information are available at Tickets on the day of performance after 4:00 are only available by calling (646) 476-3551.

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