BWW Interview: Actress Sarah Bowden Talks A CHORUS LINE at Theatre Under The Stars
"Musik Und Ein Spiegel."
It may not have quite the same ring to it as "The Music and the Mirror" to the average, musical theater-loving American, but it's quite familiar to triple threat Sarah Bowden, who has traveled and performed around the world including, yes, playing the role of "Cassie" from A CHORUS LINE in an entirely German production.
Bowden is currently in Houston, where she's reprising the role of "Cassie" for Theatre Under the Stars' 51st season opener. Bowden was kind enough to chat with Broadway World Houston via email to tell us the differences between playing Cassie in English and German, explain why Michael Bennett's musical still resonates with audiences, and share a little insight into the auditioning process.
This is A CHORUS LINE, after all.
I read that your first experience with A CHORUS LINE was with the film adaptation. Do you remember your first impression? Did it differ at all when you first saw the show on stage?
Sarah Bowden: I grew up watching the A CHORUS LINE movie on VHS over and over. My mother would let us watch movies on the weekends, but only if they were movie musicals. I knew every line, every step. I loved it, mostly the opening sequence, that was my favorite: watching Richie dance better than everyone else and that classic dance style of the '70s, mixed in with the '80s vibe of the costumes and the hairstyles. The girls were so glamorous, and such dancers. I dreamt of being just like them, especially Val! I really wanted to be Val.
I didn't see the show until after I was in the show. The musical wasn't as popular in Australia as it is in the USA. I remember my original audition with Baayork [Lee] and she kept talking to me like I knew the steps, and I really didn't. Cassie is so different in the film - the most different I think - and I just had no idea what she was talking about, "turns to the end" and "in the mirrors." I had to learn pretty fast.
After doing the stage show now a number of times, I can confidently say I have fallen in love with it, even more than my memory of the movie as a child. Especially as it feels more connected to its truth as a stage show, because ultimately it's about live theatre, so that's where it ultimately belongs.
Patti D'Beck was quoted in The Longest Line: Broadway's Most Singular Sensation: A Chorus Line by Gary Stevens and Alan George as saying, "Everybody in the show wanted to be Cassie." And Cheryl Clark, who played Cassie on Broadway in 1975, has said that "Cassie is one of the most difficult sequence roles in Broadway history for a female."
What makes Cassie such a demanding but coveted role?
Sarah Bowden: Oh, there is so much to say here. Well, first let's say to the point of everyone wanting to be Cassie ... I mean, she gets to be the girl in the red dress. It's like the redhead in the red shoes or Jessica Rabbit, or Marilyn and her red lips. Everyone wants to be that girl. She's the embodiment of "star quality." What's funny about her though, she doesn't want to be "the star." She spends the whole show begging Zach to treat her like everyone else and just give her a job in the chorus, because she has figured out for herself that that is all she wants - to dance. In the chorus is fine, she just has to dance. It's the only thing that makes her happy, it's what she's best at, and what she loves the most on this earth. Is she too good? Isn't the girl in red always the one to stand out in the crowd?
What I will say about the difficulty is it's honestly the musical theater version of a marathon (and I've run two actual marathons, so I can state that with complete confidence). The emotional demands as an actress to hold a stage all alone, with just a voice and the hint of a distant figure to play with. The length and complexity of that dance, combined with some difficult and sustained singing. The stamina required to do the combination of all three of those disciplines at such a demanding level is immense, requiring experience, dedication, and grounding. It takes courage, commitment to one's craft and a huge amount of respect for this work of art we call A CHORUS LINE to even hope to somehow pull it off with integrity and conviction.
You've played Cassie before, most interestingly at the Stadttheater Klagenfurt in Austria in a German-language production. What, if anything, is different about playing a role like Cassie in another language?
Sarah Bowden: I think the strangest thing for me was playing Cassie, doing A CHORUS LINE at all, with the Baayork Lee. It was the biggest dream come true! But never, ever, when I dreamed of this as a little girl, did I imagine playing it in German! I loved every moment playing roles in Germany and in German, don't get me wrong. It taught me so much about myself as an actress, and it layered each role with an added challenge. But, "lass much Musik hören" just doesn't have the same ring to it as "play me the music."
Also, sometimes the translations to German are very literal and don't quite capture the essence or the true meaning of a line. I know I struggled with the lines going into the dance as Cassie, as they are so perfectly written in English, [like] when she says "what I really don't want to do is teach other people how to do what I should be doing myself." It's such a strong point to make as a dancer, because we are often asked if we are going to teach if it doesn't work out for us. I remember being granted permission to slightly alter the German translations to capture better the essence, weight, and depth of that line.
Also, German words can be long, and it normally takes more of them to say the same thing in English. Which means when underscoring is written so specifically for an English script, you'll have to speak faster in German, and unless the underscoring can be slowed down or modified, it presents a challenge to make that still seem truthful and not rushed.
Language differences aside, what is it like returning to a role like Cassie? Do you find there are still things to discover about her?
Sarah Bowden: Every single time I get to revisit this role, I discover more layers, more colors, more connection to myself as a human. I connect with her on a deeper level every time, especially getting older, trying to pull off that dance as it hurts my body more and more. Finding new ways to move becomes a challenge, and in that I discover new shapes, and new connections to her plea for a chance in the movement. She has figured out what she loves the most, to dance, and she isn't going to stop now, until someone gives her the chance to do that. I feel more and more connected to this plea, because I too just want to dance!
A CHORUS LINE was a smash hit when it premiered in 1975. And now, one Pulitzer Prize, nine Tony Awards, and almost 45 years later, it still shows no signs of slowing down. Why do you think A CHORUS LINE still resonates with audiences?
Sarah Bowden: I think A CHORUS LINE speaks to so many people because it's a story that can be translated to life. It's a message about putting yourself out there, putting yourself on the line, being brave enough to be yourself and tell your unique story. To be brave enough to fight for what you believe in and follow your heart.
My favorite song of all time is "What I Did for Love," and my favorite line in it is "the gift was ours to borrow." For me this means the gift that we were given, to be shared with the world. If that's singing and dancing, or open heart surgery, or being a parent, or a federal court judge ... whatever that is for you, it's a gift that we only get to borrow for the short time we have on this planet. We then must let it go and pass it on to the next generation. Hopefully committed, passionate, and inspired enough in our journey, that our gift and our legacy continues.
Now a little about you! Your artistic journey has literally taken you around the world. What has it been like performing in so many different places?
Sarah Bowden: I have loved performing all over the world, especially getting to perform in different languages! I've seen London, Tokyo, South Korea, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Canada, Australia and the USA!
We are so lucky that our work takes us to places we would never have dreamed of going. I also feel like we spend a good amount of time in each place, so we get to adapt to the lifestyle and really get to embrace a new culture. I always try my best to assimilate and embrace the culture. I find it makes my experience richer! I spoke Japanese quite fluently after a year in Japan, and German is now just as easy for me as speaking English after spending so long there. I've loved getting to know so many people all around the world, I feel like I am a part of one big colorful and crazy talented family!
A lot of artists say that each project teaches them something about their craft. What are some of the major lessons you've learned from the different productions you've been a part of? (Personally, I hope one of them is that it's next level cool to play Sally Bowles in Germany!)
Sarah Bowden: This statement is very true. When I take on a role, I try my very best to find the things in me that connect to that specific role. The triumphs, struggles or idiosyncrasies. When I play a role for an extended period of time (eight shows a week for a year-long contract, for example), I find myself sometimes becoming more and more aligned with the parts of that character that resonate with me. For example, when I was playing Esmeralda in Germany, I decided to run the Berlin marathon and raise money for a gorgeous group of physically and mentally disabled people that I had connected with. I felt the need to help those less fortunate than myself, aligning in that moment of my life completely with the role of Esmeralda.
Sometimes, you are cast in roles that align with your person at that time. One of my favorite parts I have ever played is Sally Bowles, and I played it the first time in Germany in German! It was so crazy cool to do that show in its own language. My German wasn't great at this point in my career there, but my accent and my little grammar mistakes were so authentic to "Sally," a British (in my case Australian) girl who had moved to Germany to perform in a cabaret club and live the fabulous and vibrant Berlin life that her heart and soul were drawn to, destined to live. It was literally my story coming to Berlin. I lived the Sally Bowles story, even got myself an apartment at the nollindorf Platz, and then I got to play the part. Pretty cool!
And finally, in the spirit of A CHORUS LINE, do you have any interesting audition stories? And do you have any advice (either for preparing for auditions or dealing with rejection) that you can share with us?
Sarah Bowden: My favorite audition story was last year in New York. I had just moved to the city, green card in check, equity card in hand, and with my life packed up into two suitcases. It was January/February, the middle of "audition season" (I didn't even know that was a thing until I was in the middle of it), and I was going to every single equity audition I could. One audition I was singing "Maybe This Time" and the director kept looking at my resume and back up at me with a confused look on his face. Multiple times he'd look down and up, down and up. Curious. As I finished singing he asked, "Random question ... but did you play Sally Bowles in a German production of CABARET in a tent, in a tiny town on the border of Germany and France?" Why, yes I did! "I knew your face and your voice we're familiar, what a small world!"
I felt so connected in that moment, like our little theater family is so small, and yet spans nations and breaks language barriers. It was a rough start to NYC audition life, lonely and daunting at times, starting fresh and not knowing anyone really ... but in that moment, I suddenly felt like I was family, connected, just like everyone else.
Tips for anyone starting out auditioning. Well, having been on the other side of the table too ... the creatives - they want your best. They are rooting for you. They want to see you shine in the way only you know how! You are so unique and that's what they are looking for. You! At your best, and most imperfect self. Don't be afraid to be ugly or wrong or different. If you want it bad enough, and I mean really, really want it, it will happen. It has to happen. It will never ever, in my experience, happen the way you plan for. So don't plan, or dream it up a certain way, only to be disappointed when it doesn't go exactly to plan. There is a plan, but it's bigger than you. So, put in the work, work harder at your art than anything else, keep looking forward, and keep being curious. Trust the process, be honest about who you are, and what you have to give. Give it openly and honestly with grace and dedication. Your wildest dreams are sure to come true, in ways you never could begin to imagine possible.
A CHORUS LINE continues through September 22 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For more information, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com. $40 to $129.