BWW Interview: Anna Abbott's A Nice Evangelical Christian in A VERY HAPPY GOYISHA HANUKKAH
The very first line on Anna Abbott's press release for her December 15th & 17th performances of A VERY HAPPY GOYISHA HANUKKAH reads, "How did a nice Evangelical Christian girl from Arizona wind up doing a one-woman comical cabaret show at the Jewish Women's Theatre (JWT) in Santa Monica?"
That intrigued me enough to seek out the answer to this interesting dichotomy from the direct source herself, "actor/singer/opera singer/writer/comedian" Anna Abbott, or as Anna says herself, "If Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler had a baby, that's me!"
This funny girl grew up in an Evangelical Christian household in Scottsdale, Arizona. Anna got bitten by the performing bug at a very early age. "When I was a toddler, I walked around the house with a violin in my arms, playing it like a guitar." Then, around age ten, Anna would pretend to put on music theatre camps with herself as the star performer. "I would sit in my room looking into my vanity and pretend Oprah was interviewing me about my latest movie, TV show, etc."
Anna remembers driving around with her dad, an English teacher who loved browsing through bookstores. Once they'd stop in a bookstore, he'd buy her mints there, instead of having to go to a convenience store. But, not just any mints - Testamints. "Little candies with Bible verses on them, so your breath had the freshness of the Lord. You can buy Testamints at essentially any Christian book store. My dad would always find the Christian bookstore. It's like a Barnes & Noble, only smaller; and instead of self-help books, it has Jesus Saves books. They had a music section where you could listen to all the latest hits including the edgy "Jesus Freak," which was played at every youth camp around the U.S. And they would sell all the Jesus swag you could imagine - bumper stickers, sweatshirts with John 3:16 on them, Testamints, and WWJD bracelets in every color you could imagine."
Pre-teens, Anna started lessons for classical voice. (She's a lyric mezzo soprano.) "I started voice lessons at twelve and studied non-stop all the way through college." Anna attended NYU Tisch School of the Arts on a voice scholarship, earning a degree in music, with a specialty in opera.
In the beginnings of her vocal lessons, she resented her formative opera training. "I wanted to sound like Hillary Duff, but now I am so grateful for it." Also, around the age of twelve, Britney Spears was scheduled to appear at a venue nearby Scottsdale. In spite of Anna's pleas, her parents wouldn't let her attend. "I was told she wasn't a good influence, and she doesn't sing about Jesus; so I couldn't go."
In her teenage years, Anna's taste in music was atypical of her peer group crowd.
"I was heavily influenced by the turn of pop music in the early 2000's, as well as, the revolution of experimental indie music and deep house of 2009. However, through all of that, I was studying classical voice. So when kids were blaring Eminem, I was most likely blaring Callas or Sutherland."
Anna has performed with the Dallas Opera, and in a place that most performers can only dream of performing in - Carnegie Hall. When I baited her with the standard question of "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" Anna had a great comeback, not the familiar "Practice, practice, practice;" but "Practice, money, dieting." Anna only wishes she could have valued the Carnegie Hall experience back in 2009 more. She was a soloist in Vivaldi's Gloria. "Unreal. I did not appreciate it at the time. Sometimes you get swept up in a world and are just too young, or too in it to understand how freaking cool it is."
Anna moved to Los Angeles in 2013 to try her hand (and her voice) in pop music. "I was at The Groundlings and UCB studying improv. That's where I studied with Phyllis Katz, the OG of The Groundlings who taught music improv, and now that is a major highlight of all of my shows. For instance in A VERY HAPPY GOYISHA HANUKKAH, I take a suggestion from the audience and make up an entire song on the spot."
When I asked her how she came up with such a catchy title for her show, she replied, "I thought if Barbra Streisand could make a Christmas album, why can't a goy make a Hanukkah show?"
"If you like to laugh a lot, listen to good music, but also want a show with a lot heart, then A VERY HAPPY GOYISHA HANUKKAH is it! It is a story of revelations told through song, story and schmaltz. My love affair with the Jewish culture which started with all the food, and really turned a corner at my first Yom Kippur service. With hits from Streisand, Midler, Fiddler and more, this show goes beyond your typical campy Holiday show, and is sure to make you laugh, cry, kvell."
Anna's parents reaction to her revelation of pursuing Judaism - "My mom just prays for me to know Jesus more, remarking, 'It's good that you're getting to know the roots of Christianity.' My dad just makes light of it."
Besides the revelation of Anna considering to convert to Judaism in her show, another secret will be shared with her JWT's Braid audience. Anna teases, "You have to come to the show to see."
Excitedly continuing on, "Yes, this show will dip into your favorite Christmas tunes, as well as many songs that are rich in Jewish tradition and culture beyond just Hanukkah songs. So, yes, bring your jingle bells and dreidels. The show's turning point is with the song "Where is it Written" from Yentl. When I first heard that song, it left me feeling safe to question. With the final song "Defying Gravity" from WICKED, I want the audience to feel leaving inspired to question, to take action, and to love."
For ticket availability at JWT's The Braid for Anna's December 15 and 17 shows, log onto www.jewishwomenstheatre.org