BWW Interview: Sandra Joseph of UNMASKING WHAT MATTERS: 10 LIFE LESSONS FROM 10 YEARS ON BROADWAY
Sandra Joseph, Broadway's longest-running leading lady as Christine Daaé in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, has turned her sights to new ventures. Using her professional experiences as a top Broadway performer, she has established herself as a sought after keynote speaker/singer and author. She has been seen on numerous national broadcasts, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN, The Today Show, and more.
In her #1 international bestselling book on Amazon, "Unmasking What Matters: 10 Life Lessons from 10 Years on Broadway," Sandra shares her remarkable insight into the journey inward, finding fulfillment and satisfaction. With wisdom accrued from her rise to Broadway fame, her courageous decision to leave the theatre, and her vision for using her talents in a new way, Sandra speaks to each one of us. This very readable book has practical tips, enjoyable anecdotes, and encouragement for everyone who is seeking to live life fully.
I read your book "Unmasking What Matters" twice. It's wonderfully written. I love a good metaphor and"unmasking" is such a great way to describe uncovering the 'you' inside.
I feel like I was handed a gift in the form of that particular metaphor with it being such big part of my life.
You spent ten years as Christine Daaé in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Are you still the longest-running leading lady in Broadway's longest-running show?
I still hold that record, I'm very humbled to say.
You talked about success being a mountain top. Once you get to the top, you see that the only way to go is down.
You know, it's a difficult thing to talk about because I never want anyone to think that I'm taking for granted the privilege and honor of having made it to that level of success. It was my dream that I worked my butt off for years to achieve through demoralizing rejection and countless hours of training. There's a pretty common occurrence when we get the thing we have been striving for. We think that whenever we get whatever "that thing" is for us, that it will change us somehow. That we will suddenly feel different inside, but what we discover is that we are no different. We still have the same issues that we had before. Success doesn't equal confidence and it doesn't necessarily equal fulfillment and happiness, because those things really are an inside job. It's an inward journey. I find that the journey upward, if we're paying attention, can actually be a catalyst for the journey inward. This is what I really believe we are here for.
I understand from talking with others that the audition process for actors is grueling. You have to be really committed. You were cast as the mannequin in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA the first time you auditioned.
(laughs) Yes, that was my first part in the show. I was very fortunate to get a role in the ensemble after my first audition. I didn't land the role of Christine until after my third audition.
How did you feel about that? Were you disappointed?
When I got the job in the ensemble, I was thrilled to be in the show and working. I was pretty much starving before that, living on a friend's sofa, thinking I would have to give up the whole thing and move back to Michigan. So, I was thrilled to be a working actor, part of a successful touring production. I was finally able to support myself. I also got to understudy Christine, which was a wonderful way to learn the role.
I think you also mentioned how it's easy to do one of two things wrong when you audition: go understated or over the top. Do you feel that this is what you did the first two auditions and on the third time, you found a way to meet in the middle?
Yes, absolutely. But I like "understated." I am a fan of understated. "Underdelivering" is another thing. When you are paralyzed by fear, which is where I was...I mean, I went into full fight or flight. I was like a deer in the headlights. I wasn't really present. I didn't perform the way I wanted to. I was just so overwhelmed. I was standing on a Broadway stage auditioning for legendary Hal Prince. The fact that I could even make a sound was surprising. They allowed me to come early and walk out on the Majestic stage and get comfortable in the space. I think they sensed that I was pretty green. I walked out onto that stage for the first time and started to cry. I couldn't believe where I was standing. All the history in that building-the history of Broadway and New York- it all hit me. Just to get to audition was a privilege. By the second audition, I had been understudying Christine for a year so I felt more prepared. Unfortunately, I over-prepared for my second audition and again, made the worst possible error for an actor: I wasn't present. When you try too hard, it can backfire. By the third audition, I was able to be spontaneous and alive. If we're not authentic and present, we can't do our best work, but that can be a difficult state to achieve when we're locked in fear.
You kind of knew when you were 8 or 9 years old that you were meant to be on stage. I remember you talking about seeing Annie as a girl and having a sort of precognition that this is where you were going to be one day.
I knew that I wanted to be a part of theater and I sensed that it would be as a performer, singing and acting. But as I got older, I recognized what the odds really were of making a living doing that. I remember in high school the first leading role I ever got actually was Annie. I loved just being in the theater. Even the smell of it. When the theater was empty, I would sometimes walk out onto the stage and think, I love this art form so completely that no matter what I do, whether I work in the box office or sweep the floors, I have to be a part of this world.
Do you still feel this way?
You know, it's interesting. As I've gotten older, my dreams and goals and what lights me up have shifted dramatically. Musical theater will always be my first love. I still love going to the theater. But I no longer feel that 8 shows a week is something that I am built for. I was fortunate to do 6 shows a week as Christine. My husband (Ron Bohmer) is still doing it. He still loves it. I am still using my voice and the skill set I developed in theater, but now I do it as a keynote speaker who sings. It's a second career that I've built that I didn't even really know existed. It has become my new passion.
Your advice in your book says to embrace new roles. Can you elaborate on that?
In my new role as an author/speaker, I talk about my whole Broadway journey, but the transition from one career to another was challenging. Transitions are tricky, but being open to our "next" is important if we want to have new experiences. There are so many lessons in Unmasking What Matters that are applicable to anyone who has a goal, a dream, who is evolving and growing into who they want to be, who they know themselves to be on the inside. Even if your path has nothing to do with theater, it's a similar journey where we are all going to come up against both internal obstacles, like the inner critic and self-doubt, or external obstacles, like when the odds are stacked against us. In the book, I share universal principles and practices for how we can move through the whole journey with as much grace, integrity, and dignity as possible.
"Success that satisfies over the long term requires something more than external accolades because self worth is an inside job." I love this. What does self-worth require in your experience?
The real gift is who we become in the process of going after our dreams; of getting our butts kicked and landing face down in the dirt and then picking ourselves back up. The research is clear on this: We think that success will lead us to happiness -that once I get "the thing"- then I will be happy. But research has uncovered that the opposite is true. It's when we find happiness within ourselves, when we live in a space of gratitude, we radiate positivity, and we're far more likely to be successful. We kind of put the cart before the horse. For all of us, it's helpful to continually come back to focusing on what's here now that we can be grateful for, what is right about our life as it is right now, while at the same time taking steps toward that which we want to create.
Do you think the idea of "Compare Despair" is more prevalent in the theatrical world?
I think we live in a culture where it's very easy to compare our insides to everyone else's outsides, especially now with social media. We tend to show our best face on Facebook, our most polished picture on Instagram. I think "Compare Despair" is rampant right now. One first step is simply to be aware that this is what's happening. Recognize that nobody's life on the inside is quite what might be projected on the outside.
In your book you quote a line from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran: "Your joy is your sorrow unmasked." And you wrote, "When we are raw, we are open to love." Were you talking about your father?
I lost my father very suddenly in 2007, just before Christmas. He was my person, the one who believed in me. The one who really saw me. He loved me not in spite of my flaws, but because of them. He was that person. He didn't care if I was ever on Broadway. He wanted it for me because I wanted it for me. But it would not have diminished his love for me if I'd worked digging ditches for a living. I do feel that whenever we are in the midst of any kind of intense suffering, whether loss or grief or heartbreak, we enter a space where we're in between worlds a little bit. The veil gets lifted. We're broken open and it we become more empathetic. As painful as those experiences can be, they drop us into the center where we recognize our connection with anyone who has ever suffered. I remember vividly being almost carried along by the compassion of other people and the connection I felt with everyone throughout time who had ever suffered a loss, and that buoyed me. I realized other people have gotten through this and I'll get through it too.
There are so many good nuggets in your book. Another I really like is "suspend your disbelief." How did you suspend your own disbelief?
There's so much that we could talk about in terms of how to move through any risk. I ask myself, what is my inner monologue? As actors, we think a lot about the inner monologue of the characters we play; not just the words on the page, but what's going on in the mind. We can apply this practice whenever we're putting ourselves out there. Look inside your own mind and ask yourself what thoughts are present. Recognize the self-limiting talk and consciously choose self-supportive words instead. I find it to be an enormously helpful practice.
Also, for me, really bringing my focus back to who are the people in my life who have my back? Who supports me? Who loves me for me? Who is in my life that believes in me and will love me just as much if this thing never happens for me? That, for me, is incredibly grounding and powerful. It brings me back to what really matters. I love the phrase, "Love is to fear as light is to dark." There is a quote I love by the author-poet-philosopher Mark Nepo: "Often our dreams don't come true, but sometimes we do. Working toward our dreams and through them enables us to inhabit our truth, which is much more important and life-giving than whether or not we get what we want." So I remember that too. I'm going for it because this is the path that I want to be on in my life. I don't want to be someone who lets fear stop me from doing things I really want to do. If it doesn't work out the way I want it to, if I don't get the outcome I want, at least I know I stayed true to myself. I stayed true to living a courageous life. Knowing that there are people who will love me no matter what gives me strength for the journey.
Where can we find your speaking events?
I mainly give keynotes for corporations, associations, and non-profits. I also do client appreciation events with financial advisors and business owners. Folks can find out more about what I do at www.sandrajoseph.com.
What one thing do you hope readers will glean from your book?
I titled the book Unmasking What Matters, and in the end, I believe, it is the unmasking itself that matters. The ultimate message of the book is that you're here to be the freest and fullest expression of who you are, so don't let anything or anyone keep you from that journey.