BWW Interview: Ariela Morgenstern of GYPSY at Bay Area Musicals Rises to the Challenge of Momma Rose
Ariela Morgenstern's story is a variation on the old chestnut "local girl makes good." The San Francisco native returned home a few years ago after a fruitful decade based in New York. BroadwayWorld spoke with her shortly after she had begun rehearsals for that Mount Everest of a role, Gypsy's Momma Rose. Morgenstern is a multi-talented performer with a career that encompasses musical theater, opera and cabaret. And as if that didn't keep her busy enough, she also has a toddler at home. In conversation she is warm and earthy, with a wry perspective indicating a strong sense of who she is in this world. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
For so many female musical theater actors, Momma Rose is the dream role. Is it a role you've always wanted to play?
Well, it's kind of funny because I played this as a senior in high school at Lowell. But I have a terrible memory so I remember it kind of, but as I was reading through the script again once I got cast in this, I was like "Wow, we must have done an abridged version. Did I really learn all these lines?!" Or maybe I was just young and didn't know any better, and our minds are like sponges [at that age] so it was just a no-brainer? I know, 16/17-year-olds playing Momma Rose is always a charming thought.
This was totally on my bucket list of dream roles so it is pretty amazing to be able to play it now. I did musical theater in high school, but I got my degree in opera performance and that's what I did for years in the Bay Area. I fell in love with opera because it was, you know, sink your teeth into drama, right? The highest of highs and the lowest of lows. I feel like this role and this musical has that. It has levity and charm and it's funny, but it has, my god, so many moments of heartbreak and pure rage and despair that the inner drama queen and the inner opera lover in me just loves.
Rose is such a rich and complicated character, and there are so many ways you can go with her as an actor. How would you describe Rose?
Well, I feel like there's the Rose that is me playing Rose, and the truth that I have, of just trying to have my daughters have a better life. My favorite song, "Some People," opens with the famous "Anybody who stays home is dead. If I die it won't be from sitting, it'll be from fighting to get up and get out!" She has terrible memories and imprints of this relentless line of shitty marriages and strict parenting and this dull, dark life in her younger years. She desperately wants excitement and life and just something more, something special. I feel like in many ways people see her as a monster - and the things that she does are monstrous - but I see only that she is desperate for something better, and caring in the way that she knows how to be.
And you get to do the mother of all 11 o'clock numbers, "Rose's Turn," which is a mini-opera in itself. I don't think I've ever seen two actors perform it the same way. Where do you think Rose is in that moment, both physically and emotionally?
I know she's fighting within two worlds, within this rage and desperation, and finally getting to express in a way that she hasn't ever the desire to make herself big. You know she's been feeding lives and feeding acts and people around her, and now she's like, "No, fuck you, I can do it! I can do it better than all of you!" She's got this inner boiling rage, and also there's this kind of manic dream. Whatever's happening in reality - the stench of the toilets down the hallway, the fraying costumes - that's not what's really important. What's important is the dream. She's also totally exhausted, rejected by everyone that she has known and loved, and is on the brink of extinction in many ways, so she's the most vital and the most broken.
Rose is sometimes called the King Lear of musical theater because it's such a large and demanding role. You've also played Diana in Next To Normal -
... which is another enormously taxing role, both emotionally and physically. When playing a huge part like that, how do you maintain your stamina - not to mention your vocal health and just plain sanity?!
Omigod, right? I really am trying to let my ego fall away, not try to prove anything in rehearsals, and what we say in the business "marking," meaning not singing full out. Because the minute I start trying to do that when I'm still thinking about (A) what the lines are, literally, (B) how I'm interpreting them, and (C) where am I supposed to go onstage? If I'm doing all of those things and trying to sing, slowly but surely that will damage and tire my voice. So I'm marking, marking, marking until I feel really comfortable. That requires a lot of trust, I think for me and also for the people I'm with. I sometimes think, are they gonna ask, "When is she going to show the goods?" But I know that both times I did Next to Normal, the last show of the week was my best-voiced, easiest show because in some way I felt like, "I don't have save anything, I don't have to hold back, I can just let 'er rip."
I am feeling very lucky that I have the opera and musical theater voice training - I have an amazing teacher in New York - that just allows me to have that stamina. And I also think, ya know, I got a big voice. I don't wanna like jinx anything, but I have to go with that "power of positive thinking / it is going to be OK" thing. And I have a nearly 3-year-old so between her and my husband and I, we've probably had the cold like three times in the last three weeks. Before I started rehearsals, which was only just a week and a half ago, I knew that I couldn't go through this process with anxiety; I had to go into it with trust.
You're a San Francisco native. What neighborhood did you grow up in?
Well, I have artist-musician parents and that means that we rented and did not own our own home [laughs] so I actually moved all over San Francisco. We lived above what was then Army for a while, we lived on Paris Street in the Excelsior, I think my first house was in the Castro, and then Park Merced for my teen years.
Where in the Castro?
I don't know the street, but it was up the big-ass hill. I guess that's like every part of the Castro. [laughs] I remember when I saw the movie "Milk" it was so moving. Because my parents were both musicians, the gay community is a part of my life so it felt so raw to see such a beautiful portrayal of that time. I asked my mom, "Did you go to the protests?! Weren't you a part of it?" and she's like, "No, sweetie, I had a newborn at home. You were like a week old, so I was not trekking down the hill!" I just love-love-love the city. It's changing so much right now. Sometimes I feel really hopeful and proud and happy that I am someone who is a working artist and lives in San Francisco because we need more of that. But it is triggering like when people move away and when all the businesses that I love - those bringing whimsy and artistry as opposed to just stylish minimalism - start going. It really hurts my heart. I want to bring as much art [as possible] into the Bay Area because I grew up with so much of it. I love the bones of this city.
What prompted you to leave the Bay Area a number of years ago, and why did you decide to return at this point in your career?
I left when I was relatively old for a big cross-country move as a young actor; I was like 27. I remember I was standing outside Amnesia, which is a bar that had a lot of live performances, like 10 years ago. I had this amazing political satire / cabaret / burlesque theater company and we would always perform there. I was standing outside smokin' a cigarette (whoops!) and I was talking to someone who just came offstage. He had just graduated from college and was so excited, and I realized I had been standing in that same spot doing the same thing for years and years. It had always been a part of my logical progression of dreams to go to New York, but I was just too busy in the Bay Area. It was great but I realized right then, as I put out my cigarette, "I have to do this now because if I don't, I never will." And so you know I had to do it.
I'm grateful that almost the minute I landed [in New York], I got my union card doing this amazing show called Adding Machine off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre. My opera background came in handy once again because I was getting up at the crack of dawn going to auditions and waiting for like six, seven hours because I wasn't in the union yet. They'd say "Maybe we have time at 3:50. Maybe they'll slot you in." after you've been there since 6:00 AM. And so I got slotted in. Adding Machine is this very dark, complicated almost classical work, and I sang "Pirate Jenny" because Kurt Weill is a specialty of mine and the accompanist was the composer, Joshua Schmidt. And the director was David Cromer, Tony Award winner. He's amazing.
So then I was there for almost ten years, and met my husband while I was doing a production of The Light in the Piazza at TheatreWorks here in the Bay Area. He moved out to Brooklyn for me. We had always imagined that we would move back to San Francisco to have a child, but kept putting it off because my career was in New York and we had this great apartment for cheap in Brooklyn in Windsor Terrace that was amazing. Then my beloved father, who was the cantor at Beth Israel Judea in San Francisco, passed away suddenly in the middle of the night, only 62 years old. And then within two weeks, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer so it was just like, "Clearly this is the time we need to move back, now."
You've twice appeared in productions of The Light in the Piazza -
Three times, actually!
That's one of my all-time favorite shows. You've played Franca and Signora Naccarelli. Any chance there's a Margaret Johnson in your future?
I understudied Margaret, but that's definitely on my bucket list. Omigod, that would be such an amazing part to play!
You are also quite an accomplished cabaret artist and opera singer. Do you see any connection between those two worlds, given that one is so intimate and the other so much larger-than-life?
I know! I don't see much of a connection in real life, but I do have to say that I try to bring the same acting ethos to them. The kind of art that I like to see is people making real choices, inhabiting a real human that we're able to see onstage. As Sanford Meisner said, "live truthfully under imaginary circumstances" and what's more imaginary than like singing about Oklahoma, or in the middle of your monolog just breaking out into song? Musical theater and opera are the most heightened of circumstances, but I wanna see real shit up there! (Pardon my French) So I would take that same sensibility for singing opera arias. In different nooks of the opera world, there's not the same emphasis on acting because it's so incredibly hard. But I've also seen some amazing actors do opera so I'm certainly not alone in that mentality.
Since you are the daughter of a cantor I just have to ask: Were there any difficult "Jazz Singer" moments with your dad when you decided to pursue a career in secular music?
[laughs] Um, no! Actually my father was a cantorial soloist, meaning he did not - in order to be a cantor you have to go get your masters, you have to live in Israel for a couple of years. He used to be an opera singer himself and came to be part of the clergy much later in life. I mean my dad was totally a singer and an artist so this whole "super Jew" thing didn't happen til later. [laughs] And I find myself kind of inching that way. I was raised very Jewish, I went to Brandeis Hillel Jewish Day School, this private school K through 8. It was fantastic - thank you, Grandpa! - but you know I married an atheist and I don't go to temple that much. I'm finding myself wanting to be more connected to that as I grow older. I think it is probably me having a daughter now and realizing what is important in terms of community and life cycles. I'm going to hopefully be singing some of the cantorial soloist stuff for the high holidays at my temple next year.
What's your favorite way to spend time when you're not performing? What's a good day for you?
A good day for me has a healthy balance. I teach acting, and I teach at the Haas School of Business how to basically make people better humans and be more present in themselves, in their presentations and as leaders. I love the balance of being able to use my skillset in that way, and then the other side is hanging out with my daughter. She is so fun and communicative and weird. She loves horror movies and witches, and I think she might be already bitten by the acting bug. I'm not sure, but I fear it's true.
(Photo provided by the artist)
Bay Area Musicals' production of "Gypsy" runs Saturday, November 9th through Sunday, December 8th at the Alcazar Theater, 650 Geary St., San Francisco, CA. For tickets and additional information, please visit www.bamsf.org/gypsy