BWW Interview: Ana Gasteyer of I'M HIP at Performing Arts Center
SASS! BRASS! VIM! VERVE! GIN-AND-TONIC! MOXIE! NERVE!
When Ana Gasteyer steps up to the mic, she evokes the swagger of an era when a lady ruled a nightclub and an audience knew they were in for good time. The patter is real, the themes adult; the lyrics are timeless, and the music swings like crazy!
From songs like "One Mint Julep" and "Proper Cup of Coffee" to a surprisingly smooth rendition of Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats," Gasteyer's saucy selections tell stories with humor, heartbreak...and just a little splash of soda. Her vibe recalls that of a time when entertainers truly entertained, an era when a broad
could bring home the bacon, swing a set of sultry standards and still be a gracious hostess. Ana's heroes are those fun-loving dames who downed a cocktail, donned a dress and fronted a band of dapper gents in sharp suits wielding shiny horns -- think Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire as she captures Gary Cooper's heart. And then breaks it.
A violin player from the tender age of five, Gasteyer always had an ear for music and a knack for timing. Years later, after a formal education as a classically-trained singer, she made the fateful discovery that she could get people laughing -- and laugh they did every Saturday night at NBC's Studio 8H. Audiences fell in love with Gasteyer's flair for irony and character driven comedy on six seasons of SNL, where she unabashedly played, and often sang, at full-tilt.
Eventually, Broadway came calling and Gasteyer spent several years belting out superstar vocals in shows like Wicked and Rocky Horror. But she felt most at home crooning and chirping with a big band in a nightclub, amidst laughter and the inviting clink of ice in a glass. Her acclaimed shows, Let it Rip and Elegant Songs from a Handsome Woman, earned praise from audiences and critics alike who hailed the acts as "exuberant and rollicking entertainment" with "high-octane vocals" and "a topnotch swingin' ensemble."
Ana Gasteyer has teamed with producer and "New York Nightclub Supernova" Julian Fleisher to record her current release I'm Hip, a Moxie Jazz album with an eclectic range of covers and reimagined classics.
I had the opportunity to chat with Ms. Gasteyer about this upcoming show at the Purchase Performing Arts Center on Saturday, October 24th at 8:00 pm. She is as funny in real life as she is on TV. It was truly an honor!
Thank you so much for doing this interview! You will be performing at Purchase College which happens to be my Alma mater, so I was very excited when I saw that you were doing your one woman show there!
I'm just so curious because I talked to you when I met you at my brother's party about your being an opera singer and how you started out that way. How were you trained? Were you trained as a soprano or a mezzo?
Yes It's a generous description, believe me, because I lasted about a year and as I probably told you when we talked, I don't recall, but I went to school at Northwestern and Chicago's the birthplace of Improv comedy, and it was such a quick and rapid and distracted right turn. Even though I spent a year in the music school, I was constantly frolicking with the funny kids, and was a terrible music student-absolutely humiliating. Now, of course I do things like your brother's readings and I'm kicking myself that I'm not a better sight singer and that kind of stuff. Some of it is osmosis, but a lot of it, especially ... I played violin for 14 years and then I studied when I was a kid, and then I started vocally at home in high school and then a year at Northwestern, where I took more formal theory and things, but it's especially theory. I really wish I had tuned in a little bit more. You can get really far with a good knowledge of theory.
Oh, I know. It's mathematical most of the time and you find yourself going, "Oh my God, the "Circle of Fifths is killing me!"
I know. I do think that, not that this is interesting reading ... like, I have kids now and math, there's a lot of new approaches to math and I think creative approaches to math that we weren't exposed to, and I think Music Theory is the same way. It comes down to who your teacher is and how they're teaching it to keep it engaging and to keep it not the most bone numbingly, boring thing you've done in your life.
Oh, I know.
I even recently took up ... Because I always love the idea of throwing some Violin in to my acts just because there's nothing funnier than a bad violinist, and at this point, given the number of years I've calcified, I'm a pretty bad violinist. I started studying with this amazing woman, Megan Gould, who is an Aramaic-
...Gould is her last name. A friend of mine, one of my band mates, recommended her here. I hired her for private lessons with my daughter who subsequently quit violin, but then I was like, "Hey, I would love to learn to improvise a little," and that's all she does. Anyway, it's all Music Theory. That's the irony. She's this incredible improviser but the more Music Theory you know, the more you can jump around in the keys and, do you know what I mean?
Right. Then you can modulate and you can change keys.
Anyway, Purchase is a Conservatory, so a lot of the kids who go there are studying very traditional Music theory and Music training and Dance and Acting, so to see somebody like you who is so well trained in that, it is good modelling. You make it look effortless.
It turns out you can actually land on your feet when you're a complete screw up.
(Laughing) I have friends who are curious about how you went from Saturday Night Live to Broadway doing eight shows a week. Did that help train you?
For sure. It was, again ... It makes sense to me because it's my life but it does seem super weird if you're not me. I'm sort of both things, and one of the things I love about, frankly, doing my act is that it's a ... I don't want to say 'culmination' because it's not the end yet, but it's the best fusion of the things that I love to do and that I'm really 10,000 hours trained in. The one side is ... It's impossible to do music well without an amazing amount of experience and training. It doesn't really necessarily mean you're even good, it just means that in order to become passably acceptable, you have to spend an amazing number of hours doing it. Broadway is such a fast route to making up for having dropped out of music school. The amount of rigor and discipline eight shows a week ... I did back to back Wicked in Chicago and then I did ThreePenny Opera. Then I did Wicked in New York again. It was three straight years of vocalizing once or twice a day!
Did you work with a coach or a teacher?
Yes I did. I worked really extensively with Liz Caplan here in New York. I mean, she was incredible. She was great. And of course, so much of it is confidence and a role like Elphaba, even a really accomplished singer is pretty cowed by that part, and for good reason. It's sort of un-singable in many ways, and it's really not efficient to sing it every day.
Would you 'mark" at all, during the run? Like when you sang, "Defying Gravity?"
No, I'm not a good marker. I'm an actor first in everything I do, but I took incredible care of myself and I think a lot of Elphaba is dumb luck. I think if it falls into your range in the right way, it's not as dangerous for some people as it is for others. ?I think you do learn to do a healthy mix, and you learn ... You just have to sing something a gazillion times to know how to sing it. There's a 'G' that I hit all the time in Sister Kate. It's a really high note to belt and someone like Seth Rudetsky is always pointing it out, but I can do that note, but it's actually because I sing it all the time. I just know where to put it and how to do it. But if you were to say to me, "Can you hit a 'G'?" I would say, "No." It's not in my normal belt. I wouldn't throw a 'G' in for sh**ts and grins if I were doing it any old day.
How did you pick your repertoire
It's all happy music. It's all happy, happy jazz. It's all music that ... Look, when I first started performing conventional musicals, I'd get called to perform for people; to show up at people's fancy parties and benefits and things. And I'm not a long dress and piano kind of gal. It just doesn't fit me at all. Even at my most disciplined, even with that side of myself, I'm pretty much a good time gal and I can't be serious for too long. I wanted to do an act that reflected that, that was like a party where people got to come and hang out. I have a piano in my house. I almost always hire a piano player when we have a party. I think there's nothing more ... I'm social, I'm fun and that's basically it. The music was the music that brought great joy to my household and there was a baseline of musicality and fun. The thing is, with the era that we drew from, or that I should say just kept going back to, is this Entertainer's era, where it really wasn't considered super weird if you could sing really well and be funny. It wasn't confusing to people. You were supposed to be both, and that was the late '50s and early '60s, so a lot of the repertoire happens to fall in that era.
I think of you as a Madeline Kahn ... A throwback to that.
Oh! Thanks! That's a huge compliment
No, I mean you can do it. I remembered watching you on Saturday Night Live and you would be so funny, but then all of a sudden this vocal technique would come out and I'd be like "Oh my God."
Only real singers can notice that, because people ... That's how I met Seth Rudetsky, actually, because he was on the treadmill at the gym. He worked at Rosie O'Donnell at the same time I worked on Saturday Night Live, and he stopped me on the treadmill and he immediately went into placement and technique, and I was like, "Oh my God, this guy knows his stuff." He could hear it, because at NBC, they have these monitors in there. They run them throughout the building so you could watch a mix of things. You can watch Rosie while it's taping, or you can just watch ... It's all just live feed, and so he would see us rehearsing SNL when we were on camera.
I'm super grateful because there's something really wonderful about saying, I'm a little bit of both. I'm not just one or the other, because I think for a long time I felt like I had to be one or the other. I have both things. Saturday Night Live is all consuming and it's all last minute, and it's all ... Because it's live, and because it's written so last minute, there's this component of it that's just pulling it off all the time. I think the part of me that plays the violin and understood that things have to be really precise just longed for a certain amount of ... I don't want to say 'perfection,' but-
...Discipline. That's the word I'm looking for. I think that there was a huge relief to me in the routine of Broadway. Of knowing that you can do something every day and do incredibly well and organize your life around it. I knew the downside is ... I can get a little OCD. You can start to get obsessive in a way that's not healthy. But I definitely think that there's a lot to be said, muscularly and discipline wise and even just clean living wise. For me specifically at that point in my life of coming off the show in a crazy decade of improv, it felt really-
People want to know. They said to me ... How did you keep a straight face during those skits, especially the Shweddy Balls skit? That's really what they REALLY want to know.
There's so much pressure. You're not really thinking about cracking up. Things would make us laugh really hard all week long at the table. I did break up a little bit during Schweddy Balls, actually. If you look very carefully, you can see while we're eating, we're both kind of smirking. I'm actually pretty good at not breaking.
Or I would get it out at dress rehearsal, and then just focus, focus, focus.
Is there anything more you would like to say about "I'm Hip" at Purchase
Well, I always have a good time when I'm amongst kindred spirits, so it's always fun for me. I actually wanted to apply to Purchase. I remember the little brochure on my bed, but I didn't end up doing it. My mother was very anti-conservatory.
Yes, so were my parents. That's why Tom (Kitt) and I didn't do it. We were very under-grad, liberal arts philosophy.
It's hilarious because the underlying message is, "You're not going to get a job.
Exactly. "Plan B. What's your plan B?"
It's funny though because I'm of two minds on this. Part of me now wishes I had gone for it. Especially when you have hind sight and you're like, "Well, I worked. It would've been fun to have a little training under my belt." Someone like Chris Parnell ... I was on SNL with him, and who also did Suburgatory. He played my husband on Suburgatory. He went to North Carolina and he knows stage combat and he has amazing dialects, and all this stuff that's just ... If you don't do that, you have to just pick it up as you go along, which is what most people do. Hope that you get good directors and good jobs that teach you that stuff on the way.
People who know the jargon right away.
I'm sort of envious of anyone who went to Julliard or North Carolina or the like. I will say, I did go to Northwestern and I loved it and I never would have found improv the way that I did and for me, a preppy east coast kid, to go to this big mid-western school with a marching band and sororities, just this whole other slice of the world. It was really a great experience for me.
My mother was sort of right on that Life-view philosophy.
Like my parents, she probably told everybody, "I never wanted her to go to a conservatory. I'm glad she didn't." That's what I get.
My parents still say that they're glad.
I know. They give pat on the backs, every day. Tom was actually an economics major.
By the way, economics is not that far from Music Theory.
Well, it's really great to talk to you.
Oh, good. You're amazing! I appreciate it.