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BWW Interview: Madalyn McHugh of FRIENDS IN LOW PLACES at Florida Studio Theatre

Now through April 12th

BWW Interview: Madalyn McHugh of FRIENDS IN LOW PLACES at Florida Studio Theatre

Florida Studio Theatre's original music revue "Friends in Low Places," created by Rebeca Hopkins and Richard Hopkins with musical arrangements by Jim Prosser, celebrates and explores contemporary country music. The show features songs by chart-topping country artists like Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, Brad Paisley, The Chicks, Jimmy Buffet, and more; artists who brought country music to the mainstream and redefined the genre while remaining true to its roots in storytelling and authenticity.

Cast member Madalyn McHugh, returning to FST for the third time, has a repertoire that includes musical theatre, opera, pop, country, and contemporary Christian music. In this interview, we discuss her Nashville roots, what music has taught her, and the magical music moments audiences have experienced in "Friends in Low Places."

How would you describe your connection to country music?

I grew up singing country music. I've been performing since I was seven and my dad started a family band with bluegrass, country, and contemporary Christian music that he wrote. My siblings and I were all in the band, and we traveled around and we sang my dad's music. So I grew up with a bluegrass and country background. In 2012, I went to Nashville and had the opportunity of recording my own album. Afterwards, I went to school to study opera and moved to New York City. I perform a lot of different genres of music now, but the background of my professional music career started with country. So this show is really special to me.

Give me a quick description of the show you're performing in now at FST, "Friends in Low Places."

Friends in Low Places focuses on contemporary country music artists who specifically pushed the boundaries of traditional country music. So we have George Right, Garth Brooks, Miranda Lambert, people who really paved the way for contemporary country artists and sort of changed the sound of the genre, that traditional Johnny Cash outlaw sound, and paved the way for modern artist today.

Tell me about your origins in Nashville, your Bluebird Cafe performance, and your relationship with country music.

My Nashville journey started when I was 17 years old. In my senior year of high school, I auditioned for an independent record label in Nashville and they took me on to record my debut contemporary Christian country album called "Stepping Stone." It was an amazing opportunity because I got to work with Nashville songwriters and Nashville studio musicians, and it introduced me to the world of country music and how things worked in Nashville. That was the beginning of everything.

My Bluebird Cafe experience was unbelievable, and it was a really huge foundation for my professional career. I have chills thinking about it right now. When you enter the cafe, it's so down to earth and it's such a small space. My sister and I performed her original song "Stepping Stone" at the Bluebird for a songwriter's night. There's not a ton of people packed into the cafe, but there's this energy and connection between the country artists performing and the country music supporters in the audience. It's a place that promotes the songwriter and the artist to really be heard - no matter who you are, whether you have a platinum record or whether no one's ever heard any of your songs. And to know that Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, a million legends have been on this stage was an incredible feeling.

There's no feeling like Nashville. It's such a bone chilling experience. I've performed a lot of different genres of music since I began my professional music career, but country music is so special because you're telling the story of the song, and everybody can relate to it. There's that union between the person sitting in the front row, you, and even supporters listening on the radio. It's like this big circle of people who all want to tell their story, who all want to relate to each other. It meets you where you're at, you know, whether you're happy, sad, excited, or upset.

In addition to country music, what other experiences inform your performance in this show?

I have learned through performing: you have to be willing as an artist to be vulnerable on stage. You have to be willing and open to allow the audience to see through the window, into your soul. When I first moved to New York in 2018, that was a huge learning curve for me. I grew up in a very small town and I had a lot of experience in Nashville, but pursuing musical theater in NYC was turning point in my career.

When I started auditioning, I didn't book my first professional, New York city gig until after 81 auditions. And in that 82nd audition, I met the artistic director here at FST, Richard Hopkins. He was the first person in New York City to give me a chance. I was at an audition for Bright Star, and I saw him in the hallway. I thought, I have to do something different, I have to just be really open and honest, because this is 81 auditions now and nothing's happening. So I stopped him in the hallway, and I said, "I know that I'm right for this show. I know I am."

And he said, "Okay, I believe you, let's hear you." Long story short, this is my third show at Florida Studio Theater. It has really taught me a huge lesson that I carry with me onto the stage, which is you have to kind of push yourself out of your comfort zone, because if you are going to bring the audience along with you on the journey, they have to see that you are being your true, authentic self.

Everybody relates to authentic storytelling. Because people can tell when you're not being honest, people can tell when you're not being authentic. With country music, you can't fake the story. You have to put yourself into it. And not everyone is willing to do that. That experience in New York set the tone for me in the next chapter of my career, which was "you gotta just go all in." You have to be completely open, completely vulnerable. Be willing to share who I am through my music, which I love doing. Country music takes your personal life story and puts it into the music, which is scary at first but after you get used to doing it, it's wonderful. It's the best feeling.

What lessons has music taught you?

Since I was seven, I've felt that I'm called to sing and to write and to be artistic and creative. That's the first time I performed: I was in church and it was a song that I wrote. From that moment until right now, at 28 years old - almost my whole life, I've always had music. And, you know, when I was seven years old, I knew that I wanted to perform as a career. But when you're seven years old and you're writing a song and performing it, that's just your heart.

The connection that I have with music has always been there, but it's broken my heart through 81 auditions, hearing "no" that many times in New York City, until I finally broke into that professional musical theater world four years ago. I look back and can remember the heartbreak that I was going through because music is my first love. The first, maybe, fifteen "no's" that I got were really tough. But after that, I started to look at auditioning as part of my job. They'll either say, "I'll see you again" or "no thanks." And you move on either way.

I've been at my highest of highs and my lowest of lows with music. I've experienced every human emotion with music but I always, always comes back to music. Whatever I'm going through: a breakup, an audition that I didn't get, or one I did book, the common denominator for me has always been music. Whether I'm singing opera, or I'm singing musical theater, whether I'm in Nashville or New York city or in Florida, like right now - it doesn't matter. I can always rely on music to be there for me, no matter what I'm going through.

What have been some highlights from throughout the rehearsal process and the show's run so far?

The rehearsal process was really, really amazing. It was challenging in the fact that it's very collaborative. So we have five artists on stage who are all so talented, so musically gifted, and everyone genuinely enjoys country music. So it was a really fun process, but it was challenging and definitely a learning process because we shaped the roles that were already established. This is the first time this show has been done, and the roles were written, but they were molded to our strong suits - changing keys or the way that we play certain licks on the guitar. So we would all give ideas, which isn't necessarily the normal rehearsal process.

It's an actor/musician's show. I play the piano a lot in the show and I had to invent some fun licks on the piano. It was a trial and error process, which was so fun because we would see what would work and see what didn't work, and then we'd change it and go back and forth. And at times it would get kind of exhausting because it's not just set in stone. But it was a big highlight for me because you have to be really creative.

It's a very rewarding experience to play as a band because it just makes you a better musician, a better actor, a better singer because you have to be so in tune with each other. I feel like I've known the other four people in my cast longer than the four months that I've been here. We're so in tune with each other and it's such a rewarding experience to be a part of something like that.

What is the emotional impact you hope your performance has upon the audiences of "Friends in Low Places?"

This show is happening at such a monumental time in the world. Audiences are so ready to have live theater and music again. So it is such an incredible thing to be able to stand on the stage and watch the audience so ready to receive it. And this music is so special. We've done a little over a hundred shows now, and there's a moment in the show, every single night, it when we sing "Country Roads" by John Denver, and the audience lets out a big sigh. They're so excited to hear, everybody knows the words and they quietly sing along to it. And every time I look at the people singing along, and I wonder where they are in their mind right now. When was the first time they heard country roads or is it taking them to a specific memory.

I think from this show, I want the audience to take away the feelings of joy and hope that country music can provide. I hope the audience leaves feeling rejuvenated, reenergized, and excited about the arts being back in their community. And I always hope, right before I go on stage, that there's at least one person in the audience who is taken back to another place or time in their life that holds meaning for them. If that happens to one person through my performance or the country music that we sing, I count it a success.

One night, during "Could I Have This Dance" by Anne Murray, a couple got up from their table. There's not really a space to dance, but they created their own little space and they started slow dancing. It was so beautiful. From stage I saw those people and thought, where did they just go right now? Is this their song, or was this the first song they danced to when they fell in love? That was a special moment that I'll never forget. Moments like that in the show are what it's all about for me.

About Madalyn McHugh:

Based in NYC, actor/musician and singer-songwriter Madalyn McHugh is thrilled to return to the FST for the third time, following Three Pianos and Outlaws & Angels. With a BA in Music/Vocal Performance, Madalyn completed NYC's Broadway-integrated training program, Open Jar Institute. Notable achievements include: her Nashville studio album, Stepping Stone, and opening for Kevin Bacon and Frank Vignola. McHugh recently co-created the pop band McHugh Girl with original music available on all streaming platforms.

You can catch Madalyn in "Friends in Low Places" at Florida Studio Theatre through April 12th. Tickets are on sale at FloridaStudioTheatre.org or at 941.366.9000.

Photo by John Jones.


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