BWW Interview: Stephanie J. Block Talks Childhood, WICKED, and her Upcoming Toronto Symphony Concert!
From April 10-12th, two-time Tony Award-nominee Stephanie J. Block will join the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Broadway star Ramin Karimloo and conductor Steven Reineke to present ON BROADWAY, an evening of Broadway's greatest hits at the Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto!
BroadwayWorld's Taylor Long sat down with Stephanie to learn more about her childhood, her experience with the blockbuster musical Wicked, and to discuss her exciting upcoming concert in Toronto.
PROFILE: Stephanie J. Block
Artist you look up to: Stephen Sondheim
Broadway show that moved you recently: Once on This Island
Favourite Flower: Peonies
What were you like as a child?
Until I found theatre I was very shy. I preferred to create worlds of my own and I really loved to make these worlds by myself, on my own time. Theatre became a part of who I was kind of early. I was 11 or 12 years old, and I started to become more social and more extroverted. I always liked to hang with the adults. Even in theatrical situations and rehearsals, I always found my way into some sort of adult circle. I sang a lot. I was very disciplined and very focused.
By the time I was in high school, I think my parents realized that this wasn't a bug, that this really was going to be a huge part of my life. I never complained when it was time to go to rehearsals, I didn't care if I missed the homecoming game. It was always my first priority to learn lines, learn a new song, or "work on my craft." I was very serious about it.
What drew you to theatre in the first place?
I was introduced to the MGM musical really early. I loved whatever fantasy they created - the idea of gathering a few friends, getting into someone's barn, picking people's closets to make your costumes and putting on a show. I didn't necessarily do that myself, but the whole idea of that being a possibility seemed so fun to me.
I started taking voice, acting, and dancing lessons very young. So, that sort of experience and training - I would always leave my voice lesson three inches off the ground and so anxious to get back to my next lesson. It was what fed me. It was what got me through the week until my next musical theatre experience - whether that was a rehearsal, a voice class, or watching my next Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney movie. Theatre is what connected my entire pre-teen and teenage life.
What was the first production you ever performed in?
I was Townsperson #3 in Annie Get Your Gun at Fullerton Civic Light Opera. I had one line, "Who's a-coming?" and I'd go around the house with every inflection - "Who's a-coming?" "Who's a-coming..." "Who's a-coming?!" I found every which way to say this one line.
Taylor, I was ready.
Out of every role you've originated, what would you say was the most challenging and why?
I would say Pirate Queen was probably the most difficult. Just the sheer weight of the material and the heavy sing was really challenging. Then you add the physicality of it all, the complicated rehearsal process, and the constant script changes. The production itself had so many different variables to it that could have gone very right, or could have gone very wrong. That was a big challenge from a logistics point of view.
Then when I knew the show wasn't going to be as well received as Wicked, which was the show I was just coming off of - that was a challenge. Getting fed from your audience is what helps drive you, energize you and inform you. It was tough when the audiences were showing up but then were just very polite as opposed to enthused. Then the audiences started to trickle away a bit and it became really a test of my wills to keep myself inspired, to continue to infuse this character with great integrity and energy. Whether there was a full house or an audience that was half full, it was a challenge on so many levels and I was pooped. Quite frankly, it was such an exhausting role that to do that eight times a week, it took every ounce of every breath. It was a real test.
Out of every revival role, what was the most challenging and why?
Physically my mind does go to Anything Goes. That eight and a half minute tap number was no joke.
Emotionally, I'd have to go with Trina in Falsettos because it was shortly after I'd given birth and I knew what it was going to cost on the personal end of my life to do this professionally. Trina certainly gave me a lot on all sorts of levels - from feeding me as an artist, feeding me personally, and even making me a better mom, believe it or not. But you know, it took time away from my little kiddo, it took time away from my house and home and I had to get back on stage, which, gosh it had been well over two years. Re-introducing this new mother person back to that schedule and back to that discipline was difficult.
Speaking of Falsettos - I know during the original run there were stories of people who were very sick coming to see the show, meeting the cast and thanking them for the show. Did you have any of these experiences during the revival?
It was interesting. We had so many remarkable and emotional moments from our audience members. I think a lot of whom were on the other side of seeing their friends and their loved ones pass in the 80s and 90s and they somehow came out the other end of it. I couldn't speak to whether they were still physically ill, but they brought an emotional loss - there was an emotional weight that they brought. This storytelling, well they told us, would help heal them - it was cathartic. We could hear the audible gasps and tears.
And then there was a whole other generation - these young kids that responded to the family aspect of it, the divorce aspect of, the aspect of finding your genuine self - whether that be gender, sexual orientation - they recognized themselves in the family and the ground that was ever-shifting. They would always meet us as the stage door saying, "my parents are getting divorced," or, "my father was gay but didn't come out of the closet until just recently and now we have this new dynamic in our family." They would lay some heavy stuff on us at the stage door. They connected with us as storytellers, as parental figures reaching out on a human level.
That was the magic of the piece, Falsettos. It allows people to open up in a way, and it opens doors for people that I've never quite experienced with any other musical.
That's why I think the work that you guys do is so incredibly vital. Why do you think arts education is important?
Oh my gosh, how much time do you have? I think it's vitally important. Even if these students are not looking toward having any sort of career in the arts, I think the whole idea of having music and expression and having that sort of subjective learning experience where someone isn't saying, "This is right. This is wrong."
It's all about interpretation, it's all about discussion, it's all about wanting to find the courage to get up and share your heart. Especially in this day and age where so much of our time is about checking off boxes and getting things done, or being secluded in technology - the arts expands and extends through all sorts of learning and only makes other subjects better. It really does help form a complete being. Again, this doesn't mean that they're going to be professional artists, but it sure helps them become fuller, more fully-formed, more fully expressive people.
How can you put any value to that? It is invaluable.
I want to travel back and focus on Wicked if that's okay with you. We're coming up on its 15-year anniversary. 15 years on Broadway.
It blows my mind.
You had the amazing privilege of workshop-ing Elphaba, you understudied for the out-of-town tryouts, you did the tour and you performed the role on Broadway. Can you briefly tell me how that experience has helped shape your career?
Wicked was a part of my life for eight years, on and off. The first time I heard the music was February 2000, so over 18 years ago. I was in Los Angeles, the call came out of the blue. Of course, I had dreams of moving to New York, but hadn't found the courage to take the risk. So in investing all of this time, falling in love with the material, falling in love with Elphie - and then not being able to be the one to originate the role on Broadway - it was heartbreaking. There's no other way to put it - it was just heartbreaking.
Like I said, I fell in love with playing Elphaba, with playing opposite Kristin Chenoweth - because she and I, during the final workshop, had worked two weeks together in creating these characters. But, it also allowed me to get myself to New York. When they did offer me, at that point it was going to be the standby for Idina, I had to really look inward and say, "yes, this is a bruise to my ego. This isn't necessarily how I envisioned myself coming to New York, but it is a way to New York."
I don't want to say it was a blessing and a curse, but it opened the door and allowed me to come to New York. I did kind of have to put my tail between my legs and say, "I know I worked hard to create and help form this role of Elphaba, but it's not going to be mine when it comes to New York."
Retrospectively, I think, "gosh, this is exactly the way this was supposed to happen." Would I have loved to maybe stand up there and accept a Tony, or have had the opportunity to bring Elphaba to New York and to the world? That would have been extraordinary. But my path was, as you had already mentioned, to take the first national tour, which allowed me to come to Toronto - we opened in Toronto - allowing me to see a huge part of the country. It allowed me to meet my husband, which in turn allowed me to make a house, and a home, and start a family. So, Wicked has been an extraordinary gift not only to my professional life, but also my personal life.
Elphie will forever be in my bones and in my blood, but when I look back, there is always going to be a little bit of heartbreak because, as cheesy as it sounds - I wasn't that girl.
Talk about your relationship with "Defying Gravity."
It's such an incredible anthem. It is one of those songs that I think will forever be a part of me. It's still very freeing. Whatever I'm feeling at that time, or that day - wherever I am in my life - it takes on a completely different meaning for me. Audiences still go crazy for this incredible song. So it's kind of a win, win.
It's a really great song that I hope, as long as my voice holds out, and people actually want to hear it coming out of my voice - I'm more than happy to sing it. And I WILL be singing it with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
Amazing! All of the Elphabas have this incredible sisterhood now, because you all know what it's like to have to sing that song, sometimes eight times a week.
It is a sorority for sure. Whenever somebody takes on the role, there's kind of this phone line that happens and we all call each other - "what did you do to... is there a potion?" It's one of those roles that again, to use the word "test" - it's just a vocal mountain that you have to climb, and in doing so, you also have to give yourself the allowance to not beat yourself up if you're going to miss a show. We're all human. We're musicians, but our instrument is so tiny and so fragile.
Some of these newer scores, without pointing the finger at any one composer, but we've moved to a place now where they love vocal fireworks - and it is exciting. But with this little instrument, you're like, "okay well if I was to go into a recording studio and do this a couple of times for you, that's fine. But, I just signed a contract to perform this for a year, eight times a week, and I think you're maybe asking for more than any one person can handle - regardless of technique."
This is one of those roles that really, you can't understand what it is until you do it. And then when you do do it, like you said, there's this absolute sisterhood and bond between all of the Elphabas. A kind of quiet understanding, if you will...or not so quiet understanding!
Before Wicked there wasn't this real expectation for vocal fireworks.
You know there was Funny Girl, there was Evita. But back in the day, you would have the matinee performer. And I'll tell you, when Stephen Schwartz gave me the call and said that they were going a different way with Elphie, but there's a strong chance that I'd be doing this twice a week, because of the rate of the role - I understood, you look at the score and you say, of course there's going to be a matinee performer. At the time there was Jersey Boys and the Frankie Valli role was doing that, so we all just assumed it would follow suit.
But Idina became really, so attached to Elphie. She loved the role and she's a fighter. So she was going to go on stage regardless. And she made it an "eight show a week." Idina Menzel with her cords, she set the precedence of singing the show eight times a week. So we all attempted to follow suit.
You can go for as long as you can go and then you have to allow yourself and forgive yourself for maybe not being able to do it as consistently as one might hope if you were doing another musical, or a play.
It's so interesting. When I do something else, especially revivals where the scores are completely different, or you're sharing the storytelling with two other lead couples that are taking a different plot line and it is very shared storytelling experience - you go, "oh my gosh, this is a breeze!"
"I get to sit backstage?!"
Right? Exactly! "I get to sit backstage for the next fifteen minutes, while somebody else takes the torch?" Drood was a beautiful, beautiful experience for that exact reason. It was such an ensemble piece that you were able to pass the torch, take a break, grab a water, settle for a second - and then come back on stage, share some of the storytelling, share some of the humour and pass the torch. That sometimes isn't happening anymore in these newer pieces.
How do you make time for self-care with a busy rehearsal and performance schedule and what are some practices that you employ to help you stay healthy?
Luckily, self-care happens because my husband, family, and friends understand what it takes to do eight shows a week. I think if I didn't have an incredible and understanding support system, self-care would be non-existent. There are times when it just doesn't happen.
We laugh when on a two-show day, literally, I've gotten up and I'm taking my daughter to her 9:15am ballet class with little two and three year olds, and then we have a birthday party from 11:00am to 12:30pm, and then I catch the train and try to shove an omelet in my face before doing the first show. People are showing up going, "oh my gosh, I woke up at noon," and you want to strangle them a little bit because you've been up since 6:30am and have already done an entire life as mom - and now you take on your full-time job as being a performer.
So, the self-care has shifted since becoming a mom. But I've got this great husband who looks at me and says, "okay - it's time. You need to go." And self-care can be anything from driving to CVS and walking the aisles in the beauty care section - that for me is like...me time. Or quickly going to Starbucks for 15 minutes in between picking her up and just having a latte by myself.
I journal as much as I can and I make sure to look at my life with gratitude. Because "success," I put quotes around "success," because it never came easy or fast for me. From the time I knew what I wanted to do until I got to Broadway, it took about 19 years. I really look at these opportunities as "I get to go to work" not "I have to go to work." Even when it feels like a job, even when I'm pretty pooped - I certainly know how blessed I am to be doing it and that feeds me.
The self-care is just part of maintenance. You gotta sleep. If there's this really great time after your eighth show and everyone is going off to a bar or a restaurant and they're all going to have the best time ever - I really have to pick and choose when I can go and how long I can stay. I just really have to come home, get my sleep, and take care of me.
When I say yes to a show and sign a contract, I know that means that I have to alter my life a little bit for the next year. It's not just showing up to work and doing the best that I can do, it's saying that for the next year of my life I have to really make changes and choices that will allow me to do the eight shows a week.
Is this your first time back in Toronto since the Wicked tour?
It is! Since 2005.
Have you performed with Ramin Karimloo before?
We have performed in the same sort of benefit concert, and in London for a Scott Alan Concert, but actually sharing the stage with Ramin and sharing songs with him - no. We do oddly enough have the same birthday - September 19th!
In the description of the concert with the TSO it mentions Carousel, Funny Girl, The King and I, Gypsy, Wicked, Company and Into the Woods. Looking at that list, and knowing your rep, the only two that don't really surprise me are Funny Girl and Wicked. Can you give me a hint of something else that we might see on the set list?
Yeah! The beauty of Carousel and The King and I is that I love singing the old American theatre songbook. It's very rare that I get cast in it in New York, because I've been blessed with originating a lot of new musicals or bringing more popular music to the stage. But in regional theatre, that's all I did - I was Nellie Forbush, I was Sarah Brown. So, in speaking with Steven Reineke when we were putting this concert together a couple years back, I said, "I'd love to use more of this legit, classical, old-school musical theatre voice."
So these couple of duets with Ramin allow me to do that. It really is so lovely to go, "I don't have to belt an E in this song. I can just stand here and share sound and relax in this beautiful, thick music." I don't necessarily get that opportunity as frequently as I'd like. So I feel very lucky that Steven Reineke has given me these opportunities with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to do it.
Can you tell me what's next for you?
I have a new series on NBC called Rise which airs Tuesdays at 9pm ET.
I will also be coming back to Broadway this fall with a new musical! I'm not allowed to say thus far!* I'm nervous, excited and anxious as hell - which is a good place to be. I always love being a little scared when walking into a new project, it makes me better.
To quote Stephen Sondheim, "I'm excited and scared."
Stephanie J. Block will be performing with Ramin Karimloo in ON BROADWAY with conductor Steven Reineke and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from April 10 - 12, 2018 at the Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, ON
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit https://www.tso.ca/concert/broadway-0#performance-1587
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
*It was announced on March 27, 2018 that Stephanie will be performing the title role in the new musical, THE CHER SHOW, based on the life and music of Cher.