BWW Interview: Nikka Graff Lanzarone on Debuting HERO WORSHIP at Feinstein's/54 Below and Performing SWEET CHARITY in the Aftermath of the Election
Audiences may know Nikka Graff Lanzarone from her role in the recent Off-Broadway production of SWEET CHARITY, or as the co-creator and host of the Broadway-centric podcast THE ENSEMBLIST, in which she and her co-host Mo Brady delve into each facet of creating a Broadway show with an emphasis on all those names that aren't above the title.
Now, the multifaceted talent prepares to make her Feinstein's/54 Below debut on February 23, with a show she's co-created called HERO WORSHIP. Before descending to the sublevel venue, Lanzarone, billing the concert as an "eclectic whirl through the songs and performers who shaped [her] into the human she is," discussed with BroadwayWorld how she found her way into the show conceptually. She also shared details of what it was like to be a part of the feminist interpretation of SWEET CHARITY in the aftermath of the election, and how she hopes her podcast breaks down the stigma of ensemble work on Broadway.
What can you reveal about your Feinstein's/54 Below solo debut?
Well, it's called HERO WORSHIP. In writing any sort of piece for yourself, you need a hook. [Director] Robbie Rozelle had sort of been after me for years to do something like this, and I was like, "I don't know what to do. I don't know what to write. I don't have a hook." It came to me that every single person in the world has a whole host of different references and inspirations and heroes that make them who they are. That seemed to be the weirdest and most interesting possible way to make a show happen, and that's where we started.
How are you feeling as you prepare to perform just as yourself, separate from any character?
Oh my god, it's the worst! There's a certain safety that exists when you don't have to be yourself on stage and I think that existing in that kind of safety is probably why a lot of us who are onstage artists got into it--- sort of the ability to step out of yourself for a minute. This is like, not only not being able to do that, but having to dive into all the weird things that make you who you are. You're like, "Oh, god, why do I have any friends? How did I convince that nice boy to marry me?" It's so different [than performing in character].
How did you begin your working relationship with your director, Robbie Rozelle?
We had sort of followed each other on the internet, because that's how everybody meets each other nowadays. I think we met and first hung out for real during one of the Sondheimas concerts. We had a similar, sick sense of humor and I enjoy people who think I'm funny, and I think he's really funny. He's so tapped into what audiences and artists want on both sides of this bizarre world we live in. He somehow manages to pull really interesting things from people, and who doesn't want that kind of an opportunity to work with someone like that?
What was the inspiration behind your podcast THE ENSEMBLIST?
THE ENSEMBLIST is a look into everything it takes to make a Broadway show happen, through the lens of the ensemble. What we're trying to do is change the conversation a little bit of what it means to be a successful working artist in America and what it means to be a successful Broadway artist. So much of the focus on Broadway is about the names above the title, when there are thousands of other people who choose to make their lives and their livings in the theater community, and don't necessarily want their name above the title and still manage to achieve The American Dream. We wanted to break some of that apart, and hopefully destigmatize--- Because there is a stigma around ensemble work, and we really want to stop that. It's such a small percentage who end up getting to do what they love for a living at all, and we think these people are really incredible and want to advocate for them, and raise awareness of every single thing it takes to make Broadway tick.
Like THE ENSEMBLIST, do you think it's helpful for actors to have endeavors outside of performing?
Oh my god, of course. And it doesn't have to be a performing-related subject. There are people like Margo Seibert who has Racket, her non-profit. Every single thing we try to do onstage is about communicating and storytelling and everything we do is to make sure that we are the best possible storytellers, and anything we can do to remind ourselves that the stories we're telling are bigger than us. Also, it gives you structure and focus and a lot of the times we need that kind of stuff because, in the times of unemployment, it's hard to maintain and maintain one's sanity.
I have to credit so much of it to the amazing team of [director] Leigh Silverman and [star] Sutton Foster. You so rarely get to make the art that you want to make in the world and sleep in your own bed. Here, we got to. We got to tell a story that still needs to be told, and really dig into what it is we're all still fighting against, [while] seeing it play out in the news every day. We are still coming up against the patriarchy and we are still coming up against prescribed gender roles. It's continuing to talk about issues that are still facing women today, and being able to do it with such an incredible team... It was really remarkable to get to go to work every day.
That must have been compounded by the fact that the show went into previews just before the presidential election...
It was really interesting. [On election night] the building was playing all the returns on the TVs in the lobby so we all sort of stood for a while and then I couldn't take it anymore and I went home, but apparently people stayed really late. We got to work the next day, and we were still in rehearsals because we were still in previews. We didn't know what to do. Leigh called us all to the stage and we just all sat in the theater for a while and we all sort of collectively cried; cast, crew, everybody. We chatted about how we were feeling and how we wanted to approach the day and what was going on for everyone. Leigh said, "Okay, well, it's more important than ever to go and try to tell this story about a woman trying to throw out the patriarchy. Ready, set, go." And I didn't notice how many jokes about Hitler were in the show until there was, like, half a second before anybody felt they were allowed to laugh. It was so spooky.
The timing of the show with real-world events almost made it even more powerful.
That's what I mean. Those experiences are so rare and to feel like you're getting to be a part of one tiny piece of something like that, that might affect the way somebody looks at the world, or treats somebody else in the future, or thinks about something, that's all we're ever trying to achieve.
You clearly don't have much free time, but have you seen any show recently that's stuck with you or inspired you in some way?
My favorite thing that I've seen in a really long time is OH, HELLO, and it's not playing anymore! It did just close. I'm a weird comedy superfan and I had been following those characters through THE KROLL SHOW and saw the show Off-Broadway and was just like a weird, crazy superfan of that show. Getting to see the Broadway community at large embrace this crazy thing, it just made my nerd-heart smile.
Looking back, is there one piece of advice you wish you could tell your younger self about surviving in this business?
Be a whole person. Be a whole, entire person all the time. Living in the fear of saying yes to things because something else might happen isn't really helpful and I really wish that I could do more of that.