BWW Feature: The BROADWAY PRINCESS PARTY Continues to Bring Magic to New York and Beyond
The BROADWAY PRINCESS PARTY is having a homecoming of sorts.
The brand, led by Benjamin Rauhala and Laura Osnes (Rodgers and Hammerstein's CINDERELLA), touched down at Feinstein's/54 Below (then simply 54 Below) back in August 2015, returning for four more engagements over the next three years. When the show returns to the space on June 25, it will look a bit different than what New York audiences may have come to expect.
The BROADWAY PRINCESS PARTY has been been getting out and seeing the world, undergoing an extraordinary transformation along the way. But where did all the fairytale magic begin?
Well, once upon a time...
In January 2015, about six months before Rauhala's first PRINCESS PARTY, he joined the team at 54 Below as an Original Programming Producer. He'd worked with the venue before, but his first show in that capacity was BROADWAY LOVES Celine Dion, featuring a string of fabulous performers each taking on one of Celine's hits and most notably spawning a viral video of Jeremy Jordan singing "It's All Coming Back to Me Now." It was the first in a long line of BROADWAY LOVES shows, which have paid homage to everyone from Britney Spears to Sam Smith to Demi Lovato and, most recently, Gwen Stefani.
But even before that, Rauhala first flirted with putting on a show like this in 2011, when a production of PARADE he was working on was abruptly scrapped. Since they were already a few weeks into rehearsals and the cast was already familiar the music, he decided to organize a benefit concert for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, giving the show's cast an outlet to perform the songs they'd worked so hard on.
After that, Rauhala continued putting on shows, admitting it primarily served as a vehicle to collaborate and spend time with his friends. He found his work gaining traction in December 2013 when he served as musical director for 54 Below's performances of HIT LIST, the real-life concert version of the fictional musical from NBC's dearly departed SMASH, which brought Jordan into his orbit.
He went on to serve as music director for Jordan's solo efforts, and the pair began touring together the following spring. After seeing a "campy and funny" princess tea party while on a Disney cruise with one another, Rauhala was struck with the idea for a Broadway Princess Party and was reminded after a trip to Disney World with Jordan about six months later.
In a twist of fate, around that time, circumstances forced him to postpone another show he had scheduled at 54 Below, so Rauhala reached out to Osnes, to whom he had recently pitched the concept when she attended his birthday party, to see if she was interested and available.
"Within two hours, she had sent me this document that was, like, all of our friends' headshots and next to them were what princess they would play," he says.
That miraculous sense of pieces falling into place didn't stop there. In fact, putting that first show together was surprisingly simple. Everyone Rauhala and Osnes had dreamcast agreed, so the pair selected the numbers they wanted to include and set about writing "campy transitions" between them.
"We knew they were great songs. We knew they were great girls," he explains. "That was sort of just finding the right fit for everybody."
Part of the fun of those early shows is seeing all of these different princesses coming together, and it was just as fun for the performers themselves.
"The girls who were all so used to being in the same auditions as each other and competing for the same roles, they all got to be in a room together and support each other. It was really moving for all of them."
That level of connection is as important offstage as it is on. It comes as no surprise that his favorite part of putting the shows together is getting to work with other artists. In fact, the most taxing part comes when he's staring at his computer screen, putting together band charts by himself.
And whereas the BROADWAY LOVES shows frequently feature daring arrangements of pop songs, when it comes to the princesses it's a little more straightforward. When all is said and done, Rauhala believes it's all about choosing songs that speak to his fellow artists' truth and their musicality. So, tweaks don't happen in a vacuum and are, instead, often a big collaboration with the performers.
Still, while he's not afraid to remix some things, like arranging "How Far I'll Go" from MOANA with some of its reprises, Rauhala doesn't like to overdo it.
"I think we like to just kind of celebrate, mostly, what those songs were," he says. "We usually don't turn them on their heads very much because we love that material and we know that people are coming because they love it so much."
For Rauhala, it became clear they had something special on their hands when they announced the second BROADWAY PRINCESS PARTY several months later. Though just he and Osnes were billed, the shows quickly sold out.
"I think that's when it sort of changed for us and we realized that the brand had power, that it wasn't just about the fact that all of our girlfriends are fabulous and famous," he says, also noting, "We realized, 'Oh, we're onto something. People are really into what this stands for and what we're celebrating and what we're singing.'"
But there were signs that it was something special right from the start. After the first pair of shows, performances were posted to YouTube, and it wasn't long before they found an audience.
"The views were climbing and climbing and climbing, way more than... pretty much anything any of us had been associated with or posted, aside from Jeremy singing the Celine Dion video."
Rauhala sees no drawback to making this content available online for those unable to see the show---and for those who want to relive the magic---or showing work they're all so proud of for the world to see (and in the best possible light). More than that, though, the videos have played a not-insignificant role in the growth of the brand.
For the last pair of shows in New York, Rauhala heard from people who flew in not just from across the country, but from Europe and Asia, as well. He recalls a story from Teal Wicks (WICKED), who heard from fans at the stagedoor while performing in Japan. "The girls would say to her, like, 'Our dream is to come to America and go to a BROADWAY PRINCESS PARTY.' It's so funny because it's just a thing that happens in a basement on 54th Street."
The BROADWAY PRINCESS PARTY has evolved quite a bit since those first shows.
For one, rather than a cavalcade of stars, the current iteration focuses primarily on just three: Osnes, ALADDIN's Courtney Reed, who originated the role of Jasmine on Broadway, and Susan Egan, the voice of Meg in HERCULES and the originator of the role of Belle in Broadway's BEAUTY & THE BEAST. And, rather than each performer stepping into character, the three women take the stage as themselves and open up to the audience about the time they spent as princesses and what those experiences have meant to them.
That evolution began when a producer reached out to Osnes about taking the show beyond New York, and, along with Lee Lessack, helped get the BROADWAY PRINCESS PARTY a gig at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California. The show was booked nearly a year in advance.
Though it was meant to feature a trio of Osnes, Reed and Adrienne Warren, Warren booked the lead role in the West End production of TINA, the Tina Turner musical. That got the ball rolling for Egan. She had bowed out of an earlier event due to a family commitment, but around this time she had just joined Rauhala and Co. to film a "mini-princess party for the internet" at Feinstein's/54 Below.
"As sort of a happy accident, we asked Susan if she would want to do the shows with us, and she was down," Rauhala says. "She had so many intelligent and brilliant ideas for what the script could be like when we were there and how to make it funny and ways to expand things."
Songs had been parcelled out and a script had been written, but the stirring response to the show in California shed light on what the show could be.
"For some reason, those three women coming together and sharing that experience together, it became very emotional. The audience really sort of became children with us a little bit and went on that journey."
Speaking of children, Rauhala bristles at the idea of the princesses being bad role models, particularly the idea that they're all boy-crazy. Love stories have been deprioritized in modern Disney fare like MOANA or FROZEN, of course, but even with films of Disney old, there's more than meets the eye.
"I think people try to undercut the princesses and talk about that they do all this stuff for love, when the fact of the matter is you meet Princess Jasmine and she is refusing to take a suitor just because [someone says she's] supposed to," he points out. "Belle falls in love sort of by accident, but she refuses to accept what is handed to her. Everyone thinks she should marry Gaston and just live a small-town life. And she goes on an adventure she didn't expect, but it's because she knows there's something better out there for her."
To that end, Rauhala points out that many of the most famous songs from these works are the princesses' "I want" songs, which he says are more frequently sung about longing and their dreams than about a love interest. While he doesn't shy away from "A Whole New World" or "Love Is an Open Door," they do have some limits.
"We don't do 'Someday My Prince Will Come,'" he laughs. "Things like that... that didn't really resonate with us. What we were interested in were the songs about dreaming and wanting adventure in the great wide somewhere."
That level of thought and care extends to Rauhala's own role in the shows, overseeing the proceedings from the piano as the "Fairy GodFairy," who "makes people's wishes come true but is kind of sassy about it."
He and Osnes always intended to co-host the shows together and had great fun writing the material, which nearly always lands. However, as time went by, Rauhala became more acutely aware of the audience response to having a gay man step into the universe of the princesses. In particular, he remembers the reaction to him playing Adrienne Warren's mother while she performed "Almost There." Plus, he adds, "It lets the gay boys sort of see themselves onstage too, which is also really fun." ("Gay boys" as in kids, not in the Katharine McPhee way.)
Rauhala is keenly aware of the importance he might play to the little boys he sees out in the audience. They need role models too, he says, calling it "an honor" to step into that role. And even though out-and-proud queer characters in these musicals and films are all but none, he feels the message is certainly in the spirit of those narratives.
"It's all about living your dreams, living your truth and being who you want to be. That's what the songs are about anyway, so I'm glad to be a little bit of a representation for that."
For him, that rings true for his own experience as an Ariel-doll-owning, Belle-lunchbox-having kid. In fact, his first Broadway show was BEAUTY & THE BEAST. After returning home with his grandmother, he draped a blanket over two chairs and mimed playing the piano to a cassette of Susan Egan singing "Home" from the cast recording.
"I get to play that song with Susan every night now when we do the show. It never is lost on me that that is the reason---in a magical way---I learned to play piano, almost, was so I could do this 25 years later. I feel very, very lucky and blessed."
The sixth iteration of the New York BROADWAY PRINCESS PARTY will again feature Osnes, Reed, and Egan at the center.
"We're going to delve into [this new] version of it, which is those girls sharing their personal stories about being the princesses and what these songs have meant to them," Rauhala says. "I'm really excited for New York to see, kind of, this new vision for it."
They'll also be joined by two Anastasias---Liz Callaway from the animated film and Christy Altomare from the Broadway adaptation---and a pair of very special guests: Broadway's original Aladdin himself, Adam Jacobs, and WICKED's Derek Klena. The guys co-hosted the first (and only) BROADWAY PRINCE PARTY to date, which also marks the sole (canonical) offshoot from the mothership thus far.
"We thought, you know, the princes weren't going to get together and have a slumber party, but the princes would get together to talk about their girl problems and their problems with their dads and their kingdoms," Rauhala explained.
As for sharing the spotlight with other characters from these properties, while he loves injecting "villain energy" into the show---say, with Lesli Margherita (MATILDA) as Mother Gothel or CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND's Rachel Bloom making a special appearance as Ursula---if they did an all-villain show, he thinks he and Osnes would "get sad."
Still, with BROADWAY PRINCESS PARTY merch now a reality, Rauhala is certainly interested in expanding the brand even further. Egan's experiences in the cabaret world have been key to everything from structuring the show to considering possibilities for what the brand can be. That includes workshopping a version of a show that can travel to spaces for improv, a part of the business in which her husband is a major player.
The team also has eyes on a cast recording, an international tour and, if Osnes gets her way, a symphony concert. But the real headline is that, whatever form it takes, one thing is certain: Rauhala wants this to be part of his world for years to come.
The BROADWAY PRINCESS PARTY will return to Feinstein's/54 Below on June 25 at 7:00 PM and 9:30 PM. For tickets and information, visit www.54below.com.
Troy Frisby is an entertainment writer and digital news producer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TroyFrisby.