PHANTOM's Michele McConnell on What Makes a Real Broadway Diva!
If the Bravo "Housewives" franchise had "The Real Housewives of Broadway," Michele McConnell would certainly be a cast member and her opening "hook" line might be, "I'm not really a diva, but I play one onstage 8 times a week."
And, thus, this story begins. The Phantom of the Opera is now approaching its 30th anniversary on Broadway, having opened with Michael Crawford, Sarah Brightman, Steve Barton and Judy Kaye, and many of us have paid the show multiple visits, for varying reasons. I found myself in the audience, yet again, back when Norm Lewis became the first African-American actor to play the role on Broadway. (The role is currently being played by James Barbour). Norm and I have a long history together and I work with him in concert, so off I went with Blake Ross, who, at the time, was the Editor of PLAYBILL and my niece, Samantha, who was a budding actress, and had made her professional debut with Norm in LES MISERABLES at the MUNY. I directed that production.
It is no accident that PHANTOM has been running as long as it has. It stands proudly as a "flagship" of excellence on The Great White Way. I would honestly have to say that it is, without a doubt, the finest maintained production in Broadway history. This is a testament to the Stage Managers, Dance Captain and Harold Prince's watchful eye, as well as Mssrs. Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber (yes, they are a Sir and a Lord, now, respectively). It is still exciting to watch and hear what different talents bring to all the roles. Also, the late Maria Bjornsen's glorious sets and costumes are still a theatrical wonderland for the senses, as are lighting, sound and all the elements of the landmark musical.
Now, one might say that I know a lot about divas, having worked with Barbra Streisand, Bernadette Peters, Bette Midler, Kristin Chenoweth, Betty Buckley and, even more recently, opera great Deborah Voigt. But, the truth of the matter is, none of the names I just listed "act" as such or "believe" themselves to be described, in any way, by the iconic, fun and mystiquely "campy" word.
The word is of Latin/Italian origin came about in the late 1800s, describing the feminine of a divus God or divinity, usually assigned to a female singer and connotations of prima donna (interestingly, a song title from PHANTOM assigned to flattering the character of Carlotta). Fast forward and you can imagine how quickly and easily it began morphing and being thrown around.
So, on this re-visit to the long-running musical, enter upstage, Michele McConnell as Carlotta. Now, of course, the show is great, Norm is great, Christine is great, the Managers, etc., but every single time Carlotta came on stage, the three of us kept looking at each other and asking, "Who is that?" or "She's fantastic!" ... in our best "whisper" of course and so as not to bother the audience.
Her beauty, her stature, a "sterling" voice that was pitch perfect and had tone, purpose, accuracy, color and everything that intrigues a person like me. In addition, her acting values were perfectly calibrated and she was listening and reacting as "fresh" as could be, which is not often what one witnesses in visiting a long-run show. We were crazed while watching her and, at intermission, tore into our playbills in the lobby.
At the end of the performance, the show received an immediate standing ovation. It was simultaneous and well-earned and not the usual "waiting for the stars" kind of affair. When Michele McConnell took her bow, the audience clearly felt as we did.
We went backstage and were directed to the stage, where we would wait for Norm. All the usual hellos, the hugs, the "selfies" in front of the chandelier, etc. ... when a girl covered head to toe in winter garb walks across the stage and I ask, "Excuse me, were you Carlotta?" Now, remember, I didn't know her, nor had I ever laid eyes on her before. She said "yes" and the "gab-a-thon" began. I honestly turned into Seth Rudetsky and asked a million questions. She dropped her coat, etc. and we all talked for about half an hour.
The more we asked, the more we were stunned and the more we learned. She has been playing this part now for over 6 years, she has no agent, she lives in New Jersey with her husband, she teaches, she sells Mary Kay cosmetics (yes, you read that correctly), was kicking around for 14 years before she got this job (first, as an ensemble member, in February of 2010) and on and on. It was in that moment that I thought people should really know about her.
I wanted to know more, so we made a date to meet at the theatre. I arrived at the Majestic Theatre, to her dressing room on a cold afternoon. I have been backstage at that theatre many times, but never to Carlotta's dressing room. It's small and fascinating. Everything has its place and the walls are littered with her huge 40 pound costumes hanging along every piece of available wall space. She has her herbs, her teas, vitamins, etc. She also has a lovely couch and, of course, the lighted mirror that is the altar that defines Broadway for any and every actor. What is on THAT table prepares you to walk out onto that stage, eight shows a week.
Timothy Jerome dropped in, just back from vacation, and they discussed some Equity stuff, etc. and you can immediately feel the camaraderie. I am stunned by her beauty - healthy, glowing, natural beauty and how mellifluously she speaks and expresses herself. She is also truly grateful for this job and the life she leads. I am rapidly becoming a fan.
We talk about so many things: her favorite actors, more background info., her encouraging words for young people, wanting a career in the theatre and more.
But my favorite thing that I learned is about her Saturdays (before the matinee) at Ripley-Grier Studios, where she has Mary Kay Cosmetics meetings and she is letting us in on her regimen, with products for before and post-show. And... she's eligible for a Mary Kay Career Car (like a pink Cadillac). Yep, just an ordinary gal, working on Broadway and as individual and different as you could ever imagine.
A Real Housewife of Broadway, for sure!
Michele is in her final week at The Phantom of the Opera and, after Saturday night, will have played 2,228 performances. Astonishing!
I asked what she will do on the first morning she wakes up, knowing she doesn't have to come into New York City to do a show. She answers "not sleeping in yet! I have a regular Sunday morning church job I'll be singing in Newark where I live. Then I have an afternoon Mary Kay appointment scheduled in CT. Sunday NIGHT you will find me in my jacuzzi, happily enjoying a glass of wine, or bourbon...or both, in no particular order. LOL "
When asked about her immediate plans, she said, "In the immediacy, I am digging into my own voice studio teaching and Mary Kay business. I've got master classes lined up in November at universities and conservatories in PA & NC, in addition to my continued work at NJCU (my 8th year there). I am on target to earn my 2nd free car in Mary Kay by the end of December! I'm developing a solo cabaret for early next year. I'm super excited to participate in a couple of benefits this Fall, including the Hammerstein Award with YOU in December! It's boots on the ground, seeking out my next amazing Broadway chapter! I do however, look forward to a nice visit home to see my family, and I've joked with my husband Duane that this year, since I'm not performing on Thanksgiving in 40 lb. dresses, I am going to dig into a proper Turkey dinner! LOL"
But, it's me who's feeling lucky because, as Michele stated, she has agreed to join an amazing group of performers on December 4th, to honor Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt for York Theatre's 26th Annual Oscar Hammerstein Award Gala. And I will be directing .... so, I guess I can add another DIVA to the roster.