Confession: Alison Cimmet is a friend. Which means, technically, there’s some conflict in having her as a Quaz.
Confession No. 2: Alison Cimmet is a friend who fascinates me. Which means, undoubtably, she’s a perfect Quaz candidate.
Ever since I’ve known Alison (who lives in my town), I’ve wanted to ask her 1,000 questions about the life and struggles and triumphs of a woman fighting to make it on Broadway while also trying to raise two children. She’s had some amazing highs (starring in Baby It’s You!; a handful of huge national commercials) and some dispiriting lows (auditions upon auditions upon more auditions), but always seems to come packing with a warm smile and kind words.
Here, Alison dishes on what it’s like to have a play cancelled; what it’s like to stand on a Broadway stage and look over a packed house; how the audition process works and why Jorge Posada is so darn important to her life. You can visit her website here.
Alison Cimmet, the Quaz stage is yours …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Alison, you were a cast member of the recently closed Broadway show, Bonnie and Clyde. I don’t usually start these off of a downer, but I will here. What does it feel like when you’re in a show that’s canceled? How does the cast usually find out—and how did you find out here? Is there a sense of disbelief, or do people usually see it coming?
ALISON CIMMET:Bonnie and Clyde was a great experience with a great group of people; even though it was short-lived I’m so glad I was a part of it. It was many years in the making and there was a high level of commitment to (and belief in) the show. Throughout our preview period (about a month of paid performances at night while we continued to rehearse and make changes during the day) there was very positive feedback. So when we opened December 1 to universally negative reviews, it was crushing. Producers told us tickets were only being sold until the end of the month and that our future beyond that was uncertain. It was incredibly disappointing for all involved, and truly devastating for many of the major players (the writers, director, stars).
We finally got an official closing notice two weeks before the 30th. I got a call from my agent with the news, but many cast and company members learned the news through Facebook or by getting a text from a friend who had read the news on Playbill.com. Everyone was sad but we managed to keep our spirits up through the Christmas season, and we found out that in the new year we’d be recording the Original Cast album which gave us something to look forward to.
As for me, personally: having a husband and children means that my life is incredibly full even when I’m not working. I was able to keep things in perspective and look forward to my impending unemployment—after a busy year on Broadway I’d have lots of time to spend with my awesome family.
J.P.:You were the understudy to the lead on the show Baby It’s You!, which chronicled the rise of The Shirelles. On multiple occasions Beth Leavel was unable to perform, and, well, there you were. If you can, please describe what it felt the first time, when you knew you’d be starring that night. How did you find out? How did you feel? Is there an “in-the-moment” calmness, or were you freaking out?
A.C.: My job on that show was to be Beth’s stand-by (an offstage principal understudy). I attended every rehearsal and preview performance and took extensive notes. I had to learn all her lines, songs, onstage blocking, and backstage traffic. In the event that she couldn’t perform, I’d be there to fill in. Beth Leavel (who, by the way, is an amazing performer and a lovely human being) is known for being a tough cookie and hardly ever missing performances, so I was *certain* that I would never be called upon to perform my duties.
When she started to lose her voice a week after opening (and the day her Tony nomination was announced) it caught me off guard. I was listening to the show via monitors backstage and heard that she was struggling vocally. Before my brain even started working, my body was freaking out: heart beating heavily, stomach doing flip-flops. Because it was so early in the run they hadn’t yet created my understudy costumes, so during that show I had some “just in case” emergency costume fittings in the basement of the theatre to see if Beth’s costumes (more than 20 of them!) fit me. Luckily, they did. I then ran through my lines with a fellow stand-by, and lamented the fact that I had not had a full run-thru rehearsal; nor had I rehearsed any of the lightning-quick costume changes (more than 20 of them!); nor had I sung any of the songs with the band. I still did not know whether or not she’d be well enough to perform the next day. That night I hardly slept at all.
Around 10:30 the next morning I got the phone call that I’d indeed be performing in the matinee that day. The next few hours were surreal. I was super-focused and calm as I walked through the blocking on an empty stage before the matinee with the stage manager (who was wonderfully supportive), and discussed the costume changes with the backstage dresser (who was basically my hero). When fellow castmates asked me how I was feeling, I said that I was purposely *not* getting in touch with my emotions—otherwise I would have been a sobbing heap of fear.
So anyway, yes, I was very calm, kind of in a robotic fog. After my opening song I was able to settle in and have some fun, but the whole show was like an out-of-body experience. I ended up going on the rest of the week, and none of the subsequent shows were as thrilling as that first one. Ultimately I performed 10 times over the course of the run; by the last few I felt I was finally able to embody the role and make it my own which was very gratifying.
J.P.:How did you become an actress? Like, what’s the life path that brought you to this profession? When did you know this was what you wanted to do?
A.C.: My mom got involved in community theatre when I was very small, and then my older brother did as well. When I was 6 and my sister was 7 we followed suit and auditioned as a team for a local community production of “Finian’s Rainbow.” We performed a fully-choreographed version of “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” for our audition. The director was so taken with us that, since we were too young for the chorus, he created a tiny cameo (a child leprechaun) that we performed on alternating nights. I was hooked.
I spent the remainder of my childhood in Portland, Maine doing as much theatre as humanly possible. When I wasn’t performing with my brother and sister in our living room, I was doing community theatre shows, school productions, and my mother’s audience-participation murder mysteries … sometimes juggling all these different projects at the same time! My parents were incredibly supportive, both financially and emotionally, and gave me access to incredible opportunities. I spent my summers at an acting camp called Stagedoor Manor, a high-school acting conservatory at Northwestern University, and a vocal performance program at Tanglewood. Then I started doing professional theatre during my summers while in college. As far back as I can remember, I knew that I wanted to be an actress. I never wanted to be rich and famous, I just wanted to work consistently and do interesting roles in interesting projects. I still feel the same way.
J.P.:There’s something about actors and actresses that often confuses me. It’s that need to always be on; the drive to be the center of attention; the loudest; the most creative. I’ve never felt that way with you, but I think you know what I mean. Truthfully, it irks the hell out of me. My question is—is this a byproduct of the profession, or is it something many performers just have? Or, am I way off and you have no remote idea whereof I speak?
A.C.: I think that assessment is a bit flimsy. There are all types of actors just as there are all types of folks in any industry. On the other hand, there may be a disproportionately high percentage of actors with those qualities you speak of—I like to call them “shmactor-y.” It might be a by-product of any combination of the following things: always needing to be “on” in case that person you just rode the elevator with is a casting director; adoring fans telling you how great you are; critics telling you how awful you are; deep insecurity; having people watch and then clap for your talent; your actual personal body being your “instrument” and needing to care for it with that in mind; naturally wanting attention and having that be what led you to the profession in the first place; the natural capacity many of us have to mistake attention for love; possibly just naturally being a narcissistic asshole.
I tend to feel uncomfortable in the proverbial spotlight and only comfortable in an actual one. Other actors always have to have attention, be the funniest one in the room, that kind of thing. I agree with you that it’s annoying, but I think that kind of narcissism is maybe only slightly more common among actors and is probably something you can find in any profession. Actors just have more public exposure than, say, accountants or pilots or gardeners. I personally find myself drawn to people (actors and non-actors alike) who aren’t always the loudest and don’t always have to be the center of attention (anyone who’s met my husband can affirm this).
J.P.:Of all the things you’ve done, I’m guessing you’re most recognizable from your turn as the secretary in the Staples commercial. How did you land that part? And how do you compare the satisfaction that comes from commercial work with the satisfaction that comes from the theatre? Is there any comparison at all?
A.C.: That was quite a ride! Within one year I did three big national commercials. I got recognized on the street for being the secretary in the Staples spot, the girl trying to shrink her clothes at the laundromat in the Cheerios spot, and the wife giving a pep-talk to her Ikea kitchen. All three of those jobs came through auditions my commercial agent set up for me, and then a series of callbacks for the casting team. It’s fun to think of commercials as little bite-size performances, and I suppose I’d say the artistic satisfaction is proportionately bite-sized as well. As for on-camera work in general (commercials, film, or television), it is an entirely different craft from stage acting. I enjoy it, but my experience and training and passion remains with live traditional theatre. I like the journey of the story telling and the in-the-moment aspect of live theatre. But commercials are a blast, and the money I make in a couple of days allows to me to pursue my less-lucrative theatre habit.
J.P.:Correct me if I’m wrong, but you don’t watch TV. Ever. How do you explain that? Isn’t it odd for an actress?
A.C.: Haha, well it’s true that I don’t have cable or any TV channels. We do own a television and watch a lot of Netflix movies. I do occasionally watch television shows through Netflix or Hulu. But, as I said in the previous answer, I’m a theatre actress at heart. And I go to see plays all the time!
J.P.:Your resume says you were on The Sopranos. Do tell …
A.C.: I dabbled in background acting for a short time when I was starting out. One of the shows I worked on was The Sopranos, in which I was a writing student for Tim Daly’s teacher character. I was in two different scenes, and in one of them I was quite recognizable. Once I amass more legitimate television credits (like the recent guest-spot I did for TBS’s Are We There Yet?), I will probably remove The Sopranos from my resume. But it’s a fun conversation starter!
J.P.:What’s the difference between the tons upon tons of good actors and the truly great ones? Like, what separates a Streep or Brando from the pack? And do you feel like you’re good? Great? Do you have it in you, talent-wise, to reach the highest of highs, or do you feel a certain limit within yourself?
A.C.: I think sometimes a performer has, innately, something special that others can’t learn, cultivate, or imitate no matter how hard they try. These extraordinary actors truly and deeply inhabit the roles they play. As for myself: I am all too convinced of my own limitations, which is in itself a limitation. And anyway, I don’t really put any thought into being good, or great. Just about doing the work.
J.P.:It strikes me that auditioning for a play or film or whatever is somewhat torturous. What is the average experience like? And do you go to auditions generally thinking the best, or the worst?
A.C.: Oh boy, it really depends. Auditions and my feelings about them vary wildly. Mostly, I feel like auditions are like dating. No matter how much I have to offer and no matter how much it seems to be a perfect fit on paper, the date is sometimes a big flop. Other times it goes splendidly, and I get another date or two and maybe even end up in a long-term relationship.
The average audition … I get an appointment in advance, with a scene or two from the show that I need to prepare. I read the entire script so that I can approach my scenes knowing their context; sometimes I go to see the play if it’s currently running; I might watch a taped version at the Performing Arts Library; I’ll try to find clips or movies online to become more familiar with the material; often I will hire an acting coach and/or a singing coach. All of this can be time consuming and expensive!
On the day of the audition I go the studio where the session is being held, and wait outside with other actors, each of us with our prepared material and our headshot and resume. When my name is called, I go in and do some or all of the material. Sometimes I do it once and they say “thanks” and that is it. When all that preparation leads to a two-minute audition that falls completely flat, it’s definitely disheartening. Other times the director will work with me and have me do the sides several times. Most projects will have callbacks (sometimes the next day, sometimes weeks later), and I go through the same stuff all over again. Once in a rare while, I actually book the job!
J.P.:As you get older, do you find it harder to get roles? I mean, there’s always talk about women and Hollywood and the struggle? Is it the same on Broadway?
A.C.: Actually for me, I think it will only get easier as I get older. People always want to cast me as the past-her-prime brassy sidekick or a quirky mother of college-aged kids, but I’m still too young for those roles! Once I’m in my forties I’m hoping my career will totally take off!
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ALISON CIMMET
• Fox calls. They’re doing a new movie, “Sarah Palin: Great American Icon” and they want you in the lead role. The pay is $3 million, buy you’ll have to do lots of press and talk about your admiration for Palin. You in?: Hell no. I do lack integrity, so I wouldn’t put it past myself to do an awful job just for the money. However I could never agree to lie and say I admire that woman.
• Rank in order: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Paul Newman, Kirby Puckett, Celine Dion, vanilla ice cream, Billy Joel, your slippers, Tom Cruise: Newman, Clooney, Pitt, Joel, slippers, vanilla ice cream, Dion, Cruise. Who the heck is Kirby Puckett?
• Five greatest actresses of our lifetime: Maggie Smith, Meryl Streep, Catherine O’Hara, Viola Davis, Imelda Staunton.
• Do you think the Broadway experience is overpriced? Feel free to elaborate?: Hell yes.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details …: I’m on a plane right now! Don’t put thoughts into my head!
• How did you respond to Jorge Posada’s retirement?: Who the heck is Jorge Posada?
• Can you happily watch a movie on an iPhone-sized screen?: If I were desperate for entertainment, probably. But it hasn’t yet come to that.
• Worst movie you’ve ever seen? Best?: Worst: I’ve blocked it out. Best (most beautiful): Amelie.
• Most talented performer you’ve ever worked with?: Oh geez. I’ve worked with so many extraordinary people. One of the most thrilling and inspiring was Harriet Harris, an insanely talented comedienne.
Way back in the early-to-mid 1990s, Newark, Delaware had a ton of bands. Some were good, some were spotty, some were crap. They’d pop up and go away, rise and fall. There’d be CD releases, followed by CD disappearances. Obviously, this is how it worked in college towns across America. Those years are experimental for students, and just as experimental for musicians.
Of all the groups from the era, one stands out: Love Seed Mama Jump. First, they seemed to be playing somewhere, everywhere. Second, they were regulars at the Stone Balloon, Newark’s cornerstone music venue. Third, their debut CD, Drunk at the Stone Balloon, was fantastic and cool and a must-have.
Anyhow, here’s the amazing thing. Love Seed still exists. And thrives. The Stone Balloon is long gone, but the band continues to play across the region. It’s, quite frankly, startling.
Hence, Love Seed lead singer Rick Arzt comes to the Quaz to talk Balloons, Idol, Miami Marlins uniforms and how the f^&* a band lasts beyond two decades. I view this as my personal Quaz gift to all the Hens out there.
Rick Arzt, welcome to Quazland …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Most bands last, what, two years? Three, max? Yet you’re the lead singer of Love Seed Mama Jump, and have been the lead singer of Love Seed Mama Jump for 21 years. How in God’s name have y’all lasted so long?
RICK ARZT: The reason we have lasted for 21 years is because we were all good friends who for the most part grew up together at the beach long before we had a band together. Yes, we fight and don’t always agree but there is an underlying friendship that goes way beyond our professional relationship. The other and most important reason is because people still enjoy coming to see us play and continue to make us relevant. Without loyal friends and fans there is no band.
J.P.:Here’s what I know of Love Seed: I was a student at the University of Delaware in the early 1990s, you guys played the Stone Balloon all the time and people dug you. In other words, I know nothing. So please tell—how did the band begin? How did y’all know one another? And, personally, what’s your musical background?
R.A.: Love Seed really began as a bunch of dudes hangin’ together at the beach, playing acoustic guitars, looking for free beer and hoping to meet some girls. We really had a lot of fun and never expected to make this a career. We all have different musical backgrounds and tastes but that just makes it more interesting and diverse .Some of the guys are true consummate musicians who have been playing instruments their whole lives. I was always a person who played lots of sports, sang in choir and musicals and loved to perform on the stage in any capacity. I do play guitar well enough to occasionally write some songs but I wouldn’t consider myself a musician like my band-mates.
J.P.:There’s a cliche, “Rock Star” narrative that seems to go along with most bands. Namely, they start off believing they’ll be the next Beatles or Stones, then they eventually wind up doing covers. Not that there’s anything wrong with such a journey—work is work. But is that, in any way, Love Seed’s story? Did you begin thinking, “We’re gonna be a huge national group”?
R.A.: LSMJ was never ever silly enough to think we could be the next Stones or Beatles. Through much of our career we actually tried very hard not to take it all too seriously. That is why many of our songs are purposely funny and very tongue in cheek. That said,we did eventually realize we had something special and out of that came some lofty goals and aspirations. The band did have some dreams of sold out stadiums and limos.We made five records, and sold over 170,000 copies ourselves. We signed with Sony Records in the 90s and Artemis Records in 2000. Although we didn’t become huge rock stars we got very close a few times and had a taste of that lifestyle. The record industry is a brutal, coldhearted bitch of a business at times so at this point we are honestly just very grateful to still play rock and roll and have people dig what we play. We had our shot. No regrets.
J.P.:What’s your greatest singular moment in music? Your lowest?
R.A.: That is a very tough question. Over a span of 20-plus years Love Seed had many wonderful highs and several crappy lows. Hard to point to just one or two.
J.P.:I always ask musicians this, because it fascinates me. I’m sure you’ve played “Take Me Home, Country Roads” oh, 865,532 times as a band. So when you play it for the 865,533rd time, what will be going through your mind? Can you still possibly get something out of playing the same song over and over? Do you think about your grocery shopping? Your dentist? The Simpsons? Literally, what goes through your head?
R.A.: Good question. There does come a time when you are known for a particular set of songs, be it our originals or our funny re-arranged covers (that one does get sick of). I think it would really suck if I didn’t love the songs from the beginning. Even though we do get sick of some particular songs we never had to learn and play tunes we didn’t originally love to play. That helps a ton. That is also why we always liked to rearrange and mess with most of our cover tunes to make it more fun and interesting. Personally, I always try to remember it isn’t about me. We love to play music and make people happy so if the crowd is rockin’ and lovin it than I am rockin’ and lovin’ it. However, yes occasionally I do think about The Simpsons.
J.P.:You’re sorta known as the official band of the Washington Redskins. You even play at FedEx Field after every home game. How did this happen? And, after so many years of shit football, are you sure you want this on your resume?
R.A.: Yes, we have been the official rock band of the Washington Redskins for over 12 grueling seasons. We got the job because I am a huge fan and because we had a very good friend in the front office by the name of Mike Dillow who threw us into the ring when Mr. Snyder decided to have a rock band after every game. I grew up in Rockville, Maryland until I moved to the beach at age 15. I am a fan—win or lose. It can be extremely frustrating, as all sports fans know, but that is the deal when you choose your team. They won three Super Bowls through my childhood days with the first Joe Gibbs era and I never realized until much later in life that those moments of glory as a sports fan could be so incredibly rare. The Skins have been struggling for a long time but I do believe, that unlike a lot of franchises, they spend lots of money and they keep trying to get it right every year. Eventually all of this pain will pay off. I hope.
J.P.: Does this business keep you young or make you feel old? What I mean is, while I can imagine it feels great to jam in front of an audience, I’m guessing either: A. The audiences are getting older, and the smell of Ben Gay has replaced the smell of, say, pot; or B. The audiences are still young—so young that they’re sorta near the age of your kids, and you can’t help but think, “Damn, I’m old.”
R.A.: Ha! Yes on all counts. We have many old-school peeps that have continued to come out and support the band through many years and we’ve always managed to pick up several new and younger people as well. I think its very cool. I hate to be repetitive but again I am very grateful. It’s funny because there are many times, particularly when we still play college bars, when I look around and think, “Damn I’m old!” or “Wow … how did these girls get into this bar? They look like they’re 12-years old!” It all just makes me laugh and appreciate it that much more. We certainly never expected to be together for this length of time. I find it amazing.
J.P.: Your CD, Drunk At the Stone Balloon, was required material for anyone who attended UD in the 90s. Hell, you sold 25,000 copies off of stages. What went into making that disc? What do you recall about the experience? Are you aware of its place in UD lore? And how did you feel about the closing of the Balloon?
R.A.: Well, that’s like five questions in one. First of all, don’t sell us short, pal. We’ve sold about 75,000 copies of Drunk at the Stone Balloon. This was possible through the support of many fans and record stores and hustling our asses off every night. What went into making that disc was a ton of energy and very little thought process. We just took what we did every night onstage and recorded it. There was no rehearsal. There are guitars out of tune and some singing off pitch but that is what made it very cool and very real. It is a fabulous tiny moment of time frozen forever. I like to think of that record as a great representation of the good, the bad and the ugly that was The University of Delaware and the Stone Balloon back in the glory days. We were all a bit bummed when they closed the Balloon. It was a killer venue for live music of all flavors for many years. It makes me a little sad for the current students who don’t get to enjoy that classic Delaware experience. That said, life goes on. Music goes on. There are other great venues. Nothing lasts forever and any other cliches you’d like to insert?
As far as our place in University of Delaware lore? I really have no idea. I’m honored you even asked the question to be perfectly honest.
J.P.:You once took the entire horn section of Paul Simon’s “Late in the Evening” and turned it into a kazoo solo. A. What the fuck? B. Are you ever concerned about taking all-time, all-time great songs and mashing them?
R.A.: No. Not concerned. Don’t give a crap. In fact, I hope we did offend some people. In a way, that was the point. At least it was something different and we would get a reaction from people one way or another. We learned these songs and messed with them because we truly loved the songs and the artists. What is the point of trying to sound exactly like the record? Just buy/download the friggin’ record and stay at home.
J.P.:So many artists complain about the state of music in 2012. CD sales are horrible, piracy is everywhere, iPods have reduced the communal experience of listening to a record. On and on. Do you agree? Are you happy where music is?
R.A.: I think for the most part that is a bunch of whining and BS. My parents complained about the “state” of music and their parents before them. Things change. When people get older they want everything to remain the same. Doesn’t work that way. I think iPods are awesome and incredibly convenient. I can carry around the equivalent of 1,000 CDs in my pocket. What’s not to like? If you wanna get communal then plug it into the speakers for everyone to hear. CD sales might be off but that’s just because people are downloading music and sharing music in a whole new way. There is more music being sold and shared than ever before. There are more kinds of music. There are so many more interesting ways to listen to music through the internet than ever before. I understand that music is a product and an art form. Artists do deserve to be paid for their hard work. I’m not a fan of piracy. However, the alternative is to go back to the stone ages when giant record companies and radio stations basically controlled almost everything you got to hear or may want to buy. Now there are 10,000 ways for a new artist to be heard. Before there were 10.Everything is a tradeoff in my opinion. As far as the actual “state” of the music itself these days? It always has been and always will be completely subjective to an individual’s taste.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH RICK ARZT
• Explain the band name, please: My best friend and our original rhythm guitar player, Will Stack, made it up off the top of his head in 20 seconds.It was just a joke. The whole thing was just supposed to be a joke. In hindsight if we had any idea this was going to be our career perhaps we might have put some thought into the name.
• Rank in order: Blind Melon, Hall & Oates, Celine Dion, Tupac, Earth Wind & Fire, Jay-Z, Amy Winehouse, Kid ‘n’ Play, Sammy Davis Jr.: Hmm. Sammy Davis, Jr,Earth Wind and Fire, Hall & Oats, Jay-Z and Tupac are equal, Amy Winehouse, Blind Melon, Kid ‘n’ Play, Celine Dion.
• Five greatest albums of all time: Impossible question to answer! I’ll give you some of my all-time favorites: Beatles—Rubber Soul/Abbey Road; U2—Unforgettable Fire/Joshua Tree; Jimi Hendrix—Are You Experienced?; Neil Young—Decade/Harvest Moon; Tribe Called Quest—Low End Theory; The Jayhawks—Hollywood Town Hall; Beach Boys—Endless Summer. There are so many more it’s ridiculous!
• Celine Dion calls tomorrow and says, “I’ll pay you $2 million to tour with me, without the other Love Seed members—but only to sing on my new duet, “Delaware Blows.” Would you do it?: I’d do it tomorrow on cable TV wearing a diaper for two million clams. Delaware and I have a very long love affair. She’ll forgive me one day.
• Five reasons Dewey Beach is the best vacation spot in America: Here’s why I love it: It’s incredibly small so you never have to drive. Just walk anywhere you want to go. There is something for everybody there. The ocean, great food, tons of fun bars for people of all age groups (over 21) and a lot of killer live music venues. The people are laid back and chillin’. Lots of beautiful girls. Not too expensive. Not hard to get to and most importantly it’s home.
• Would you rather join an Air Supply tribute band or change your name to Dickhead Schmegma?: I gotta go with Dickhead Schmegma. Has a nice ring to it.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, memories, please: Nope I haven’t. Thought about throwing up many times but never thought I was gonna die. Until now, thank you very much.
• Worst movie you’ve ever seen: Tough call. I’ve seen five million movies. I love movies. Seen a ton of bad movies. Perhaps Sgt Bilco with Steve Martin, whom I love … but that movie sucked.
• Miami Marlins uniforms—your thoughts?: I have no thoughts on The Marlins or their uniforms. Don’t really consider Miami a “baseball” town. GO PHILLIES. Lived in Philly for 12 years while we were making records. I am a child of a few cities.
• American Idol—love or loathe? And why?: I do not watch Idol. I do not watch reality TV. I think it is all lame as hell and for the most part not real. I think some very talented people have come out of Idol but it’s all way to contrived and insulting to the intelligence.
A couple of weeks ago I was walking through Grand Central Station, rushing to get somewhere for some reason by some time before I had to go somewhere else for something more.
Then I heard it. Coming from one of the hallways was an absolutely haunting version of Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” as New York a song as has ever been written. I walked toward the sound, almost instinctively, and saw a scruffy man sitting behind a keyboard.
Enter: Gabriel Aldort.
I stood and listened for, oh, 10 more minutes, and—without exaggeration—I could not have been happier. It was one of those moments where the sounds merged with the setting, and all I wanted to do was absorb it all.
Alas, I had to leave—but not without getting the business card of one Gabriel Aldort, New York City street musician and a man loaded with talent.
Here, Gabriel talks Manhattan, playing in 30-degree cold, homeless sex proposals and why he likes John Oates more than the mayor. You can visit his website here.
Gabriel Aldort, hit it at the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:So I stumbled upon you a few days ago, walking through Grand Central Station, playing Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters. I know so little about your background, so I’ll ask straight up: How did you get here? What’s your path—musical? Geographic?
GABRIEL ALDORT: I was born in Chicago, and grew up in Topanga, California, which is where my dad started teaching me piano on our old funky upright at the age of six. I went through a handful of teachers through the years, but never really took it seriously. I guess when I got to the point where I could entertain people with my playing and singing, I realized it was a talent I wanted to continue to develop—which I did through my formative years on the west coast. Fast forward to 1988, we had moved coasts to Northport, Long Island. A lot happened that year—I went into my senior year at a new high school, I got my first paying gig playing a baby grand at a Japanese restaurant. It was also the year my dad introduced me to New Orleans Blues, the style that would later come to define me as a player. I finished high school, sampled college, then at 23 left home for Atlanta to work at a music store.
Down there I hooked up with a great Jazz piano teacher, and caught up on some of the theory I’d blown off over the years. Some 3 1/2 years later, in 1999, I was back in New York, and shortly after, I moved into Manhattan and got a job at Manny’s Music on 48th Street, selling keyboards. A couple years later I started working as a manager of a blues club, Terra Blues. I also started working for YAMAHA as a trainer of music technology. In 2008 I met my future fiancée, Jennifer, at the club. In the spring of 2010 I finally got up the nerve to audition for Music Under New York, and thankfully got chosen to participate. (Right around that same time I started working with HAI, (Hospital Audiences Inc.) performing in care facilities.). For MUNY, I started playing in the subway three times a week, which I still do today; always in the morning for the commuters. This was a huge breakthrough for me musically, and spiritually. Later that year I left the blues club, turned 40 and got cast as a voice actor on a Turkish television show. On March 31, 2011, we welcomed our son Leon into the world. At the end of 2011 I finally started writing my own material. I’m going into the studio at the end of this month to record my first CD! My path musically is to continue to develop my music and performance, and to write some great songs. We plan on staying in New York City for at least a couple more years, after that … who knows?
J.P.:You’ve clearly played a lot of public places in the city. It strikes me as a rough gig. People walking by, oftentimes paying you no mind, ignoring you. What is the experience like, playing a subway station or a park?
G.A.: I find the experience of playing in public places very liberating as an artist. Before I started performing in the subway, I always had a certain level of performance anxiety. This quickly dissipated when I started playing for thousands of strangers. I think because I finally learned to start performing for myself … from myself, instead of being concerned with how the audience perceived me. It took a long time for me to figure this out.
J.P.:I’m sure you’ve probably dreamed of playing MSG or the Staples Center, a stage, a piano, 50,000 screaming fans. Do you view this as a path to your dream? Or is this who you are—a street performer? A guy playing wherever there are people?
G.A.: The idea of performing for thousands of people seems like a dream at this point. I have fallen in love with performing in and around the subway, as well as all the parties and events I’ve booked over the years. Now with the songwriting component in my life, as well as a basic passion for life, I just dig performing anywhere. I think it’s because as I continue to blossom as a musician, just the simple concept of expressing myself through music is enough. So yeah, an arena, a subway platform, a living room—it all works for me.
J.P.:Highlight of your musical existence? Lowest moment?
G.A.: The highlight of my musical existence would be when I played with Stevie Wonder at Manny’s Music. He came in on a Sunday when I was working, and while another salesman was helping him, I started playing one of his more obscure songs, “As if You Read My Mind” from the “Hotter than July” album. A couple seconds later, I feel this hand on my shoulder … it was Stevie. He leaned over and said, “That’s real good, but you got the left hand all wrong.” He then proceeded to show me the correct syncopation of the left hand notes, after which we played the song together; him on the right, me on the left, while he sang it into my right ear. Heaven …
The low point would be … Hmm, probably most of the times I was asked to sit in, and wasn’t comfortable with the key the song was called in (cue the performance anxiety …).
J.P.:I’m fascinated: What are you thinking while you’re playing. I mean, literally: you’re in Grand Central. It’s cold and drafty. People are rushing by. A homeless man smells like tuna. You’re singing a Billy Joel song for the 8,532th time in your life. What is running through your head?
G.A.: When I’m playing, most of the time I’m in the zone, because I’ve learned that if the performance isn’t sincere and doesn’t come from deep inside, people can somehow sniff out the insincerity. I try to play every song as though it’s the best version I’ve ever done. My mind inevitably will drift from time to time to the circus in my head, but I notice that if I’m not fully engaged with my performance, my tips diminish. I always dig, however, just people watching. Ah, the characters …
J.P.:I interviewed Travis Warren, the lead singer of Blind Melon, and he railed against American Idol … saying “singers need to struggle and ride for hours on buses and the like.” Do you agree? And when you see some mediocre talent like Justin Bieber or Jojo making millions, do you burn?
G.A.: I used to be a lot more judgmental about performers, or people in general. I’m settling more into the idea/belief that everyone has their respective paths, and who am I to judge them for their successes or failures. Time brings to light all things, and this life can be a long and interesting one. I guess the bottom line is, if you feel like someone who’s not as talented as yourself is reaping success, then what are you gonna do about it? This subject (as well as the general state of the music industry today), to me has multiple branches; unfortunately way to many to get into here. I will say this, though: The music industry has always had a history of producing material which mirrors the times … sad to say, but these days, times aren’t so hot.
On a brighter note, though, with the advent of the Internet there’s never been a better time or better tools for an artist to promote their material.
J.P.: You have a view of New York City that many people lack—and certainly a viewpoint. What do you see? What can you tell me about New York’s makeup that people perhaps miss?
G.A.: I think New York City is on the cusp of the evolutionary scale. The highest diversity of culture in the smallest square footage—how can one not be inspired by that? It’s also is a recipe for tremendous stress as well.
It creates a kind of emotional callus, but I think that’s why New Yorkers have the reputation that we do. We’re all thrown on top of each other and expected to just deal with it. I think this develops an exceptional trait in all New Yorkers—survival.
Over the years, I’ve heard various New York City residents complain about tourists. I’m always quick to point out the wonderment that one experiences when they go to any major foreign city for the first time. I keep that in mind when I’m strolling through Times Square and seeing the looks on these tourists faces as they navigate New York City for the first time.
J.P.:According to your website, Your first CD, Thanks for Today, is about to come out. What was this process like for you? Where did you record it? How long did it take? Was it an expensive project? And, besides selling it out of your case, what do you hope to do with it?
G.A.: I’m recording my first CD in the studio next week, and I’m super excited about it. I found a great engineer/producer, and after auditioning a couple studios, I settled on Pyramid. I just love their funky old Baldwin grand, as well as the vibe of the place in general; it suits my style. I’ve got 10 hours to record as many songs as I can, just me and a piano. I guess we’ll all find out how it turned out in February.
J.P.:It’s 15 degrees, dark, gray, people aren’t feeling the music and you’ve made $2. Are you ever thinking, “fuck this—I’m gonna do [blank]?”
G.A.: I actually love the environmental challenges! Schlepping my cart through the snow, sitting on my hands after every song because there’s a grate above me blowing down freezing air. I still love it! It’s all part of the challenge. I’m an optimist, though, so I’m always looking for the good in every situation. Oddly enough, during those trying times, I get what I would call, “sympathy tips.”
J.P.:Why do you think people respond so powerfully to music? I mean, technically, it’s just sound entering our ears. What’s the magic?
G.A.: Well, besides the fact that we’re all homo sapiens, the only other thing that EVERY human being on the planet has in common is our love of music. Whether it be dark and loud or soft and tranquil, everybody digs music. Music is all about frequencies, like the radio. Some people dig the frequencies you’re transmitting on, others might wanna change the channel. Psychologically I think it taps into something primal, something that’s hard to quantify. It helps us to express ourselves in ways that only music can. It helps us relate to people in a way that’s more easily digestible. I mean, you can talk to somebody till you’re blue in the face about an issue you’re passionate about, and they still might not get it; but convey it through music … and you could just sneak it in there. Once again, another vast topic of discussion for another time.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH GABRIEL ALDORT
• Five favorite performers of all time: Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Elton John, Dr. John.
• Would you rather cut out your tongue or spend the next three years watching an endless video re-run of Styx’s Mr Roboto video?: Definitely the Mr. Roboto video, I’ve found my tongue to be a great asset.
• Rank in order:Michael Bloomberg, Rex Ryan, Dick Clark, Ryan Seacrest, Celine Dion, John Oates, Meatloaf (the singer), meatloaf (the food), new socks: John Oates, Michael Bloomberg, Celine Dion, Meatloaf, (the singer), Dick Clark, meatloaf (the food), new socks, Ryan Seacrest, Rex Ryan.
• Most overrated and underrated instrument: Most overrated, the Kazoo, most underrated, The Zeusaphone.
• Five amazing things to do in your hometown of Topanga, California: Hiking, relaxing, trap door spider hunting, skateboarding, hitchhiking.
• Worst bathrooms in New York City?: It’s been my experience that the worst bathrooms are usually in the hottest clubs.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details: I’ve hit some some pretty bad turbulence over the years, (Grew up with a Mom for a flight attendant), but never so bad that I thought we were going down.
• More likely conspiracy: The US government planned 9/11, Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t kill JFK or Michael Jordan retired for gambling debts?: Oswald didn’t kill JFK.
• Strangest thing you’ve ever had someone say to you during a performance?: A homeless woman at Grand Central offered to make love to me.
• What’s your best joke?: Guy walks into a bar with a giraffe and they both proceed to get wasted. The giraffe passes out on the floor, and as the guy is stumbling toward the door the bartender says, “Hey man, you can’t leave that lyin’ there,” to which the man replies, “That’s not a Lion, that’s a giraffe!”
We live in a strange world, and an even stranger country. Though we love when people succeed, we devote an equal—if not greater—passion to failure. Sure, it’s fun when Tom Cruise stars in Rainman, but it’s even better when he bombs in Knight and Day. Why? Well, I suppose because setbacks help reduce the elite to our level. From afar, we take our sports superstars and cinematic and musical icons as untouchable beacons of light. When they fall short … when they trip, well, they’re back with us. On the ground. Dirty. We dig that. It’s not cool, but we do.
John Herzfeld knows whereof I speak. In 1983, he had the opportunity to direct Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in Two of a Kind—their first partnership since Grease. The film, as you probably know, bombed, and along with the two stars, Herzfeld took much of the heat. Was it solely his fault? Hardly. Just like a magazine, a book, a concert, a CD—films are collaborative efforts. But, to a certain degree, John was attached at the hip to Two of a Kind. It would, inevitably, be his legacy.
Only, it wasn’t. In the ensuing three decades, John has done some absolutely fantastic work, including 2 Days in the Valley, HBO’s Don King: Only in America and the unforgettable TV film, The Ryan White Story. He is an Emmy winner, a former member (well, for an episode) of the Dukes of Hazard cast and the husband of Rebekah Chaney, the actress/director.
Here, John talks Two of a Kind, Ryan White, Don King, Rex Grossman, Sly Stallone and fighting through the kidney stone from hell in the name of cinematic purpose.
John Herzfeld, Quaz away …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Back in 1999, I wrote a story for Sports Illustrated about John Rocker. The piece included a bunch of Rocker’s racist world viewpoints, and sorta blew up. Some 12 years later, I’m still remember, first and foremost, as “the Rocker guy”—and I’m sick of it. You’ve had a wonderful career in TV and movies, yet it’s hard to find an article about your career that doesn’t mention Two of a Kind, your 1983 feature film directorial debut (starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John) that, well, flopped. This obviously happens to a lot of people—folks seem to focus on the setbacks more than the successes. But have you come to terms with it? Does it irk you? And (I’m asking this as someone who honestly liked Two of a Kind,), do you consider it a better piece of work than people give credit for?
JOHN HERZFELD: Have I come to terms with it? You have to. Does it irk me? Yes, because—as I’m sure I’m not the first filmmaker to say it—the final product was very different from the movie I made. My version was much darker and all the heaven scenes were re-shot. In my version God had become fed up with the world and had decided to flood it again. Between the Holocaust, Vietnam War, Elvis dying and other disappointments he decided to end civilization. Only until the angels convinced him to show that man was still inherently good—did he decide to give civilization a second chance. Which, by the way, was the name of the movie—Second Chance. Until it was re-titled.
God was also in the eye of the beholder. When Charles Durning looked at him he was white, when Beartrice Straight looked at him—God was a woman, when Scatman Crothers looked at him he was black and when Castulo Guerra looked at him he was Spanish. In the end the studio felt that this could anger some religious groups and this subplot was expunged. But the original voice of God was done by Orson Welles. What a thrill it was to work with him.
Bottom line, though it put me in movie jail, it’s all part of the journey. I made great friends on that movie—Scatman and I were close until the day he passed away.
J.P.:You grew up in West Orange, N.J. … the son of Henry Herzfeld, a World War II veteran and appliance company owner. So how did this happen? Literally, what was your path from kid to Hollywood?
J.H.: I was an extremely lucky kid. In the second grade I realized I wanted to be in the movie business and I never wavered (except for a brief time from 13-to-14 when I wanted to become a gangster). Throughout all my years at school I had but one goal—to make it in the movies. On weekends I would see eight movies. Back then they had double features and I would see two Friday night, a Saturday matinee, two more Saturday night and two more Sunday. Sometimes I’d cut school in West Orange, take the bus down Newark, see two movies, jump back on the bus, go home—and my mother would never know I didn’t go to school. Movies were my film school.
Here’s how I made my transition: The day after I graduated high school I got on a plane and flew to Los Angeles. I hitchhiked up to the Sunset Strip because that was supposed to be where it was at. When I got out of the car it was like a sign from heaven. A movie was filming. There was a line of extras outside the Whiskey a Go-Go. I hid my little suitcase in the back of the building, went around front and snuck into the line of extras. In the scene they were shooting an actor was chasing a girl out of Whiskey a Go-Go, stopped her and started apologizing. I wormed my way to the front of the line to be right behind the scene. The AD asked me, “Hey kid, do you smoke?” I answered quickly “Me? Of course. I’m a chain smoker.” He said, “You watch him argue with her, light your cigarette, be amused by it and react. Can you do that?” “Absolutely” I said. When he walked away the extra standing next to me enviously said, “You’re not with us. You sneaked in.” This was my big break. I threatened him, “If you bust me, I’ll kill ya!” They did the scene several times and I smoked a few cigarettes and watched. After it was over the AD asked for my voucher cause he was gonna upgrade me to special business. I told him I snuck in. He said “Please don’t tell anybody, just leave.” I asked what was the name of the movie. He said, I thought, High School Graduation. I asked who the star was. He said “Dirt something.” At the end of the summer I went home and told everybody I was in a movie about high school starring Dirt something. The movie came out and there I was on the big screen. The movie was called The Graduate.
J.P.:In a 1996 interview with the MetroWest Jewish News, you said that, after World War II (and, specifically, your father’s part in liberating Dachau”), your dad became a “real fatalist.” What did you mean by that? And how did that impact your life and your world view?
J.H.: Man, you do your homework. My father saw a lot of action in World War II. He actually stayed on after the war for almost two years. And was made the military governor of Bavaria and was in charge of de-Nazifying that section of Germany.
During a firefight in Germany, on their way to Dachau, my father and the Captain of his platoon dove into a foxhole taking cover from enemy fire. A sniper shot my father in the helmet, the bullet ricochet off and killed the captain. He then took charge of the platoon. That moment made him a fatalist.
J.P.:Years ago you visited Auschwitz and called the experience “the most profound day of my entire life.” How so? And, specifically, how did that impact your approach to 2 Days in the Valley?
J.H.: Anyone who has taken a tour of Auschwitz or any of the other camps will tell you that it was a profoundly horrifying experience. It shakes you to the very core of your being. I had never really believed in the, quote-unquote, devil. But when I left there I believed Hitler was the devil. Those camps were the pinnacle of evil.
J.P.:You became known in the 1980s for directing two ABC Afterschool Specials—which were, without question, staples of my youth. In particular, you’re responsible for the 1980 film Stoned, which stars Scott Baio as a kid who became involved in marijuana. You were later given the “Scott Newman Drug Abuse Prevention Award” for the film. I’m wondering a few things: A. Did you enjoy doing the Afterschool programs? B. Marijuana use is sort of a joke in many circles—as in, “Uh, it’s just pot.” Were you a strident anti-marijuana advocate, or was a gig a gig?
J.H.: I had written a love story called Voices which MGM made with Michael Ontkean and Amy Irvin. It was about a singer who falls in love with a deaf girl. A producer named Linda Gottlieb (of Dirty Dancing fame) made me an offer: If you write an after school special, I’ll get you approved to direct it. Which is what I wanted to do—direct. I came up for the idea for Stoned not because I was a “strident anti-marijuana advocate”—remember I’m a child of the sixties—but because I thought it was a good morality tale. I never anticipated it would have the legs it did. It was actually shown, not only after school, but on Sunday night as an one hour dramatic special. And I ended up winning an Emmy for my first directing job. We were nominated for five Emmy’s and I will be forever grateful to Linda Gottlieb who gave me my shot.
J.P.:In 1989 you directedThe Ryan White Story, one of the most profound television movies of the last couple of decades. I sometimes get the feeling that doing a movie isn’t especially impactful or moving. You come in, do your work, film things out of sequence, take lunch breaks, etc. I’m guessing this experience was somewhat different, considering the topic and all. Am I wrong?
J.H.: Making The Ryan White Story was, without a doubt, the most profound filmmaking experience I have ever had in my life. Not just because it was the first movie to deal with AIDS, but because of the personal experience of making this movie. One of which I have never shared.
You must understand the circumstances. Ryan White was 17 and dying of AIDS. When I flew to Kokomo, Indiana to meet with Ryan a script had already been written which he was very unhappy with. This wasn’t just a movie, but this would become his legacy and he looked me in the eye and said “John, I probably won’t be alive when this movie is shown on TV So I really wanna make it right …” I re-wrote the script and went down to North Carolina to film it. The day before I got on the plane, I was driving down Santa Monica Boulevard and got an excruciating pain in my stomach. I was driven to the emergency room and was told I had a kidney stone. But it wasn’t going to pass easily … I told the doctor I was getting on a plane the next day to go to North Carolina to film a movie. He said, “No you’re not.” Bottom line: I couldn’t tell the network because they would have replaced me… I hid the fact that I was slowly passing a kidney stone while we filmed. After takes, I’d walk behind a house and sweat it out in private. The only way I was able to do this was because I was looking at a 17-year-old young man who was looking in the face of death and never blinked. I’d survive a kidney stone, he wouldn’t. Ryan was the most courageous person, kid or adult, I have ever personally met. But most importantly, actually all importantly—Ryan White was proud of the film. He was buried with the clapboard on his chest.
J.P.:Don King: Only in Americawas absolutely fantastic, and scored you an Emmy. I’m curious if you ever heard from Don King, or Don King’s people, or if he ever sent Mike Tyson to try and kill you?
J.H.: The answer is yes. Right after I signed on to do the movie I got a call in my office. My assistant said it was Don King. I picked up the phone. The voice boomed, “John Herzfeld, I heard you were a man of integrity, but obviously you have none!”
“Who is this?” I asked, believing it was a friend playing a joke.
The booming voice continued, “This script is a piece of shit. How would you like it if somebody wrote a movie about you, but never interviewed you? This is HBO’s revenge on me for taking Tyson to Showtime.”
I went to see Don in Vegas. He said, “How much are they paying you? I’ll pay you twice as much to do the real Don King story.” I asked him what parts of the script were untrue. He said the manslaughter charge, which he did time for, was bullshit and he did not bribe Ali. I went on a quest to talk to every person alive, who would speak to me, who was portrayed in that script. It started with me meeting Muhammad Ali in the kitchen of Caesar’s Palace where he was having dinner with Kris Kristofferson. By a stroke of luck, Muhammad Ali’s daughter had loved 2 Days In The Valley and told her Dad to invite me to sit down. I asked Muhammad Ali about the bribe and he didn’t answer me directly but said if I wanted to know about his life—“Ask my good friend, Gene Kilroy.” Gene opened the door to the world of boxing and I spoke to just about everyone portrayed in that movie. Annotating every conversation on tape. The scene where Jeremiah Shabazz delivers $50,000 to Ali in the hospital room was based on my conversation with Jeremiah Shabazz. I spoke to him the day before he died in a Philadelphia hospital room. As for the scene where Don is arrested for stomping a man to death, I tracked down the arresting officer who was now the mayor of Brentwood, Ill. I flew him out and he played himself in the movie. It didn’t matter that he was 20-some years older because he set the scene and set the eyewitness account. I did that with every scene I could … put a lot of the real people in the roles so the truth would be told.
HBO is a great place to make movies not by accident. They even let me put in the line where Don turns to the camera and says “This movie is bullshit, it’s HBO’s revenge on me for taking Tyson to Showtime.” After we won the Emmy and other awards, Ving told me that Don called him to tell him how much he enjoyed his performance. Ving was brilliant.
J.P.:Greatest moment in your work? Lowest moment?
J.H.: Winning the DGA award for Don King: Only In America was definitely a high point. Holding my award and standing next to James Cameron for Titanic was pretty cool.
Lowest moment? I think I’ve answered that.
J.P.:It seems as if your world/work is one of much surface bullshit. Everyone loves your work … everyone thinks you’ll be just perfect for this part—then they ignore you or, behind your back, shit all over your stuff. Am I right? And how have you survived so long in such an environment?
J.H.: I don’t think the entertainment business is anymore cutthroat than any other. It’s just more public. Your successes and failures are exhibited on a broad canvas.
My father was in the maintenance business, floor waxing and window washing. He had a company down in Newark. He had a shot at the big time … Made a bid on a project that would have changed his life. But the Mafia threatened him—a couple of goons visited me at school—and my father never got that shot. The movie business ain’t nothing compared to the real world. ’ve been in this business a long time—and it’s a phenomenal business. You don’t need a diploma to make it, you don’t need to know somebody … all you need is talent and a break. And I have always believed that talent is like a bubble under water. It will rise to the surface and eventually pop. I am very lucky to be working in Hollywood and every day I’m on the set I’m grateful.
J.P.:In 2009 you directedInferno: The Making Of The Expendablesfor your pal, Sylvester Stallone. It’s one thing to have, oh, The Making of The Godfather or The Making of Forrest Gump. But, uh … The Expendables?
J.H.: First of all, have you seen it, Jeff? (Writer’s note: No, but now I will) I think it really shows Sly’s struggle to mount this movie. It’s a real backstage look at him fighting for his comeback. Originally it was gonna be a documentary about Sly … I’ve know him since I’m 18 and there is about another 60 or 70 hours of film. At one point we discussed making it a series. I documented the entire process from his first meeting with Mickey Rourke (who wanted to recite an Edgar Allen Poe poem in Expendables) to all the actors who came and went during casting, the myriad of script revisions, the plethora of problems that plagued the production in Brazil and New Orleans and the multitude of injuries Stallone suffered during production. The original doc was also filled with Sly reminiscing about his other movies from Rambo, when Kirk Douglas was in it to the ones that went straight to video. Because of my long and complicated relationship with Sly—when you know somebody that long and have grown up together, through thick and thin—there’s a lot of compelling insights one can provide. If he is up for it, I’d love one day to release a director’s cut. I know people have heard this before, but Sly is much more than meets the eye. He’s razor sharp, extremely funny, and I know this may sound bizarre, but the man I know is actually scholarly. Did you know his favorite movie is The Lion In Winter? He can recite the dialogue from beginning to end.
• Mitt Romney approaches you with $5 million and the opportunity to direct, Mitt: American Legend. Do you take it?: He’s not a legend yet.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, please tell …: Yes. In a hellacious storm descending into Berlin, on my way to punch out a piece of the Berlin wall as it was falling.
There are people in this world who say they can’t dance, and there are people in this world who both say they can’t dance and, truly, cannot dance.
I am such a person.
My feet are both left. My elbows jet out at odd angles. I am completely tone deaf, whether the radio is playing Sinatra, Tupac or Dan Zanes. If I’m not the worst dancer in the history of the United States, it’s only because my father exists, too.
Hence, when people can dance, I am insanely jealous. And when they can dance like Craig Salstein, well, words can’t describe my level of envy.
Along with being a good guy and an excellent interview, Craig Salstein is one of the world’s elite ballet dancers. He is a soloist with the New York City-based American Ballet Theatre, which—for those of you not in the know (a group that includes, ahem, me)—is akin to starting for the New York Yankees or Green Bay Packers. Here, Craig discusses his mid-90s Star Search victory, the tug of Taco Bell, why the Nutcracker still matters and why it’s only natural to think of your grocery list while soaring through midair.
Craig Salstein, strut your stuff, Quaz style …
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Craig, I’m gonna start this with 100-percent honesty: Ballet has never interested me. I go, I sit there, I inevitably get sorta bored. That said, I have an open mind. What am I missing? What should I be paying closest attention to? What’s the best way for someone like me to develop a love and appreciation for what is, clearly, such a magical medium?
CRAIG SALSTEIN: Look, ballet is not for everybody—just like opera, symphony, Shakespeare, musicals and museums are not for everybody. However, they share qualities that have been known to motivate and inspire. Expressing any thought or emotion through voice, instrument, language and body is a unique experience for both doer and observer. I am sorry ballet bores you. The next time you watch ballet just keep in mind there is great sacrifice, suffering, dedication and discipline from the artist that is holding, or trying to hold your attention.
Also, it doesn’t insult me that you’re bored. Believe me, I understand. You’re sitting there in a seat, watching something you’re not overly familiar with. But it can be incredibly exciting, and if you know somebody who’s in the ballet and who has a good role, and you can point to the stage and say, “I know that person!”—it’s terrific. There are times when I find ballet to be boring. But I go because you learn, and you experience, and why would anyone turn that down?
J.P.:You’re a native Floridian who began his training at the Ballet Academy of Miami … at age 8. Age 8!? Crazy. Then you won Star Search in 1995 at age 12. What’s your path to the here and now?
C.S.: I’m from Miami—Born, raised. In a way, winning Star Search was the start of my career. But in a way it wasn’t—it was everything that led up to Star Search. I started dancing when i was young, but it wasn’t all ballet. I took ballet, but that wasn’t all. My first teacher was actually Mia Michaels, who’s now one of the judges on So You Think You Can Dance. I was focussed on jazz. Then, after Star Search I auditioned for Broadway shows—tons and tons of Broadway shows. But I never got one. Not a single one. I’ve still never been on Broadway. So after that … I thought, “Well, I can’t sing. Let me try focussing on ballet. Let’s see what I can do with it.” It’s not like I had this amazingly noteworthy background—in Miami I attended a place called the Gulliver Preparatory School with all the gentiles and Wasps. I say that because I’m Jewish, and it felt very weird inviting these kids to my Bar Mitzvah. I left school at a very young age and got a job at 16 with the Miami City Ballet. That was my first job—I went from the school of the Miami City Ballet to the company of the Miami City Ballet. Then, when I was 17, I left, by myself, for New York to come to the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company. I came by myself because i had no choice—I wanted to dance, and it was the place to be. If you’re ready you’re ready, and i felt ready. I was there for two years in the studio company, then in 2007 I was promoted to the main company—it’s like going from college football to the NFL. I loved every second of it, because there’s such a comradery among American Ballet Theatre people. Now I teach for the main company, and I’ve been with the company for 12 years.
J.P.:I’ve always imagined Ed McMahon smelled like graham crackers. True? And what do you recall of Star Search? Did you snag some sort of actual prize? A trophy? A goblet?
C.S.: I remember at Star Search really wanting to see and meet Ed McMahon. Most of my parents’ generation watched he and Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show and spoke highly of him. I knew he was special and he was the host. His presence was grand but his grip was really tight when he shook hands. He was also an ex-Marine, a tough guy. I won money and doubled it since I was in the Screen Actors Guild at the time.
What do I remember? Well, for the title I was against five little boys who also danced. I certainly didn’t know I’d win. The videotape my mother prides on having and shows her friends … if you watch it, I look pretty surprised. Something funny—for that job, Ed had to say a lot of names on TV. A lot of names. And he had trouble saying my last name. He messed it up a lot. So at the moment they announced that I’d won, they flipped a cue card and it said the winner is “Craig—” and they spelled my last name out for Ed, phonetically. S-O-U-L-S-T-E-E-N. I was joyful and elated, but the first thing that entered my mind was that card.
J.P.:Did that victory change your life?
C.S.: Mmm … maybe. It’s a conversation. I guess it has something to do with me being here. In some way.
J.P.:Do you still love ballet? Like, after all these years, does the passion remain?
C.S.: I continue to have an underlying love for it, and I’m sure I always will. But it can be a love-hate relationship. It can overwhelm you at times—the reality part of it, and the part in your head. The ambitions and the desires and your goals for the future. But there’s stuff you can’t really have a grasp on … can’t begin to imagine until you dive in. It can be really hard—physically, emotionally, mentally. I mean, ballet is my life. It’s like joining the priesthood and making that commitment. Again, it can be hard. There are so many misunderstandings in the ballet world—10 times more than the real world.
And the worst part—the hardest part—might be the physical. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, so it’s my cheat day and hopefully I’ll have a slice of pumpkin pie. But that never happens. You either stay in shape, or you don’t do this. It’s sacrifice central on the eating front. I’ve craved Taco Bell and Wendy’s for the last 10 years … well, not really. But i do crave foods. And if you’re wearing tights for a living, you have to look good. So whatever I eat, I have to burn off. Literally, whatever a dancer puts in his mouth has to be accounted for. In this area I am obsessive, because I know of no other way. My brain says to my mouth, “Man, those cookies look good.” Then my mouth says, “Don’t touch them, asshole.” The guilt kills me.
J.P.:My son is 5, and the idea of taking ballet … well, he would never consider it. Too pink … too many tutus …
C.S.: That’s very common, and I understand the perception. However, I am a member of American Ballet Theatre, which can be considered the greatest classical ballet company in America. We performed to a jam-packed New York City Center from Tuesday through Sunday, and received standing ovations. We did not wear pink nor were we in tutus. I would tell your son or any boy—there is a lot more to ballet.
J.P.:What are you thinking as you dance on stage? I’m being very serious—what crosses through your mind? Do you need 100-percent focus and concentration, or can you, mid-leap, think to yourself, “I wonder who’s singing on American Idol right now?”
C.S.: My focus is what drives me. When I am on stage I think of steps and executing them. I think of being in the right space at the right time. I think of where I am in the music. I occasionally dance with other people around me so I am conscious of them. Focus plays a big part as does multitasking and rapid thinking and finally a goal. Do the job and do it well.
That said, does the mind wander—shit, of course it does. Things creep in your mind. Dancers use their eyes, and you can’t help but look out into the crowd and think about things. I try to catch myself, but I’m only human. I mean, sometimes it does get boring, and you space a bit. And there are certain ballets that a dancer will do 30 … 40 … 50 times. To always stay in the moment under that sort of repetitiveness is very hard. But it’s the test of professionalism, too.
J.P.: I love the Nutcracker. My daughter loves the Nutcracker. My wife loves the Nutcracker. Do you love the Nutcracker, or is it something you’re tired of?
C.S.: I love it. There is magic in the Nutcracker, no question. Why? Because the music is so enchanting and rich. Tchaikovsky really hit a grand slam with it. Nothing else can belong to that music than the Nutcracker. The snow scene—the music sounds like snow. The Russian Dance is the Russian Dance. Tchaikovsky has a way of capturing you. I mean, look how popular it is—companies do it, high schools do it. We do 29 shows at ABC. It’s a money maker, and while the 15th or 16th time gets old, it really has magic. You see the kids in the audience, and they love it. And kids bring parents, and parents bring family members, and on and on. We’re a non-profit—this gets us money to do other things.
J.P.:You had a leading role in Within You Without You: A Tribute to George Harrison. I don’t really know what that means, but it sounds sorta cool and funky … 800 degrees away from Swan Lake. What can you tell us?
C.S.: The George Harrison Tribute was a dance choreographed by Stanton Welch, Ann Reinking, Natalie Wier and David Parsons. There were six songs. I was in the second and then the sixth, which Welch and Parsons choreographed. During the rehearsal time I remember all of us learning the dances were either miserable or laughing our heads off.
“Center Stage”—I’ve only seen it once or twice. It gave me that uncomfortable feeling. The final scene, with the dance you mentioned … yeah. I don’t recommend mixing two genres like that. It’s been done, but do I think it’s a great idea? No.
J.P.:Back in the 1980s, myriad professional athletes studied ballet in the offseason to help with fitness and flexibility. Willie Gault, Herschel Walker, etc. Is this wise? And would it be accurate to categorize ballet performers as “athletes”?
C.S.: It’s certainly athletic, no doubt about it. Being considered a coordinated individual is a plus in the world. Great hand-eye coordination for hockey, baseball, ping pong and tennis only enhances the game and the people who play it. I think dancers could be considered coordinated so I am pretty sure Herschel Walker knew it would be good to study ballet. Plus it helps with balance. If that is not why he did it, then it was a publicity stunt.
J.P.:What was your greatest moment in ballet? Your absolute worst?
C.S.: You should never ask someone about his greatest moment—especially a performer. Because I’m superstitious, and to talk about the high points means they won’t happen again. Or something. The worst moments? Oh, boy. You don’t know how many things can go wrong, and do. I went to Washington to dance and did the wrong arm once, and I was very, very upset. It was last year, and we were doing a hideous, old-school ballet that hadn’t been done since 1989. I did the wrong arm, and while it’s possible the audience didn’t notice, I noticed—and it upset me. It’s a reflection of my work. All the dancers did one arm, I did the other. I was really mad at myself.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH CRAIG SALSTEIN:
• Better dancer: Michael Jackson or Herman Cornejo?: I think Herman Cornejo and I would both agree that Michael Jackson can be considered for the rank of “the best.”
• What would it take for a 6-foot-6, 350-pound man to excel in ballet?: A good, strong core. Patrick Bissell, a dancer who ODed on drugs in the 1980s, was huge—probably 6-foot-6. He was just a gigantic guy. They had him take all the tall roles and dance with the heavy chicks and he always had a bad back. Dancers are compact—I’m 5-foot-9 on a good day.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash. If so, please tell …: Well, yeah. Coming back from Japan once it was really bumpy. But someone said to me that plane crashes aren’t caused by turbulence. I hope that’s true.
• Any interest in the Celine Dion Ballet Experience?: No. It would a bit self-indulgent. She always seems to hit herself a lot when she sings, almost like a disorder. Plus, that music a little too camp for me.
• Do you ever go out and dance for fun?: Oh, yeah. If you have the coordination to dance well, it’s awesome. It’s leads to attention and conversation.
• Mikhail Baryshnikov was born in 1948. Can a 63-year-old man still dance capably on a high level? Or is it, physically, impossible?:Baryshnikov has got to be one of the greatest dancers of all time. Like Astaire, Kelly, Jackson. I don’t know how he takes care of himself, but I am sure and know he can still deliver the goods as a performer.
• My big idea that can make millions: BalletGolf! You in?: Well, no. I don’t think it will work.
• Rank in order:Usher, Celine Dion, Sarah Palin, Emmanuel Lewis, Josh Hamilton, Maxim Beloserkovsky, your cell phone, Gerald Ford: Funny you should mention Gerald Ford, the man who was able to restore class and decency to the Oval Office. I find Richard NIxon more fascinating, though.
• Favorite curse: Ah, shit.
• Three things you refuse to eat: Here’s four—eel, key lime pie, olives, cottage cheese. Dancers should eat cottage cheese, because there’s so much protein. But I have my limits.
• I’m taking my wife to Miami for her birthday. Where should we eat?: If you like Stone Crabs, you should got to a place in North Miami called Joe’s Stone Crabs.
Christian Delcroix’s saga is the sort we should be telling to our kids.
In an age when college students seem to be bypassing their dreams in search of the quick riches promised by Wall Street, Delcroix—a kid from Pittsburgh; a kid from Florida State—wanted to perform. He wanted to sing and dance and leap and laugh and cry in front of audiences. And not just any audiences—the biggest ones. The ones on Broadway.
And here he is.
As we speak, Delcroix is portraying Young Buddy in the Broadway revival of Follies. He’s also served his time here in New York in South Pacific, and has an acting resume that’s both impressive and eye-catching. Here, he talks Plaxico, Seminoles, why Pittsburgh would be an ideal host city for the Olympics and what it’s like being a straight male in a profession where, well, the cliche leans elsewhere.
Christian Delcroix, Quaz with us …
JEFF PEARLMAN:So Christian, I’m going to start off with a doozie. Your friend Scott told me that you’re about to become a father. I’m assuming—based on his subtle word choices—that this means you’re not gay. Which means you’re ideal for this question: Clearly theatre—and especially musical theatre—is a comfortable place for gay men, and has been for a long time. So I wonder: Throughout your life in the arts, have people assumed you were gay? Do people ask? And, growing up, was it ever strange/different/awkward/whatever to be a straight male performer? Also, does the openness of sexuality in theatre result in different dynamics than say, at the local law office?
CHRISTIAN DELCROIX: So, yes, you are correct that I am a straight man working in musical theatre. I started getting into it around junior high, which clearly raised eyebrows in my school. As shitty as that is, its the world we live in. I think some people get out of the theatre at a young age because they canʼt stand the accusations and bullying. I luckily escaped all (well, most) of this … which had a lot to do with my older brother Chuck. He was extremely “popular” with all crowds … a true everyman, if you will. His inﬂuence and general goodwill toward all spared me the taunting that Im guessing others would have received. Therefore, it made it easier for me. As Iʼve progressed in my career though, people absolutely do assume I am gay because of what I do. It doesnʼt bother me at all though because I do the same thing really. On the ﬁrst day of rehearsal when meeting the cast, its natural to play the game in your head of Whoʼs Straight and Who’s Gay. I have always been comfortable around the gay community … although differentiating between a gay and straight community seems a little weird. In theatre, as cliche as it is, you truly are a part of one big community. That’s the beauty of our business compared to the local law ofﬁce I think … the openness of all involved and the ability to adapt to all walks of life in an easier, more comfortable way.
J.P.:You play Young Buddy in the Broadway production of Follies. You also played Young Buddy in Washington DC. That’s a helluva lot of Young Buddy. For you, how does a role stay fresh, when you’re repeating the same words over and over and over again, night after night? Does it ever get boring? Do you ever feel like just giving it a rest and staying home to eat ice cream?
C.D.: I have always prided myself on keeping the material fresh every night. The easiest way to do this really is to simply be present on stage. It’s easy to phone in performances (something I certainly ﬁnd myself guilty of occasionally), and easy to play the scene in the same way every night. To me, that is so boring. I love ﬁnding new things to do and new moments onstage from show to show. A lot of times, the things that spontaneously happen are terrible … but, hell, they are a product of being alive in a scene and not of being a bad actor. At least thats what I always tell myself to feel better. There are times when I want to stay home and eat ice cream or go out and have a few beers, but then I tell myself that I’m incredibly lucky to be given the opportunites I have, and to get my ass on stage!
J.P.:Can you explain, as best as possible, the magic of Broadway? Because it seems like everyone in your business wants to get there.
C.D.: Let me begin by saying that I just deleted a long and drawn out explanation of why I think Broadway has a certain kind of magic. It was too much. Getting to Broadway for a young actor is our “hitting a walk-off home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to win the game”. Its what is instilled in is from a young age as a measure of success, so I think most, if not all, actors dream of it. Once you get older, you realize that incredible theatre is being done all over the world and not just on Broadway. Which, of course, doesnʼt take anything from Broadway. It still was the ultimate goal for me when I chose this career, and I count myself extremely fortunate to have reached that goal twice now.
J.P.: What’s your path? Obviously you’ve had tremendous success—but how’d you get here? How’d it start? And is this what you expected long ago?
C.D.: I always loved to sing, ﬂail my body around spastically, and generally act like a jag-off (to use a Pittsburgh word) growing up. It was the summer after eighth grade, though, that I thought about doing something serious with all that energy. I enrolled in classes over the summer at a place called Pittsburgh Musical Theatre, and knew after that one summer its what I wanted to do. I still liked playing sports (particularly baseball and golf) but I wasnʼt nearly good enough at either one. I stayed with that company throughout high school doing numerous shows and continuously taking classes. From there, I went to Florida State University and got a BFA in Music Theatre. I wanted a school with an incredible program, great sports teams, and, to be honest, a good party atmosphere. Those four years provided me with all of that … especially the training. I had the best class ever who are all still my best friends, and our teachers were all so inspirational and just great people. After that, I moved to NYC and clowned around for a bit, enamored with the endless possibilities for clowning around that the city provided me. Once I calmed down a little and started taking my profession seriously, things started going a lot better for me.
J.P.:Earlier this year you took some time to play Horton in “Seussical” at the Pittsburgh Musical Theater. Dude, you’re a star on Broadway. What the heck?
C.D.: Well, I donʼt think Iʼd go so far as to say I’m a star on Broadway. But thanks for the optimism!! Iʼve been fortunate enough to be in two incredible revivals thus far … but I still have a long way to go. Pittsburgh Music Theatre gave me my start when I was young and has always welcomed me back with open arms. The founder, Ken Gargaro, is a dear friend and a mentor of mine. I jump at any opportunity I can to go back and be a role model for all the kids working with the company now. I get to do roles that I may never get the chance to do anywhere else and I get to stay for a couple weeks with my family. I still love Pittsburgh and miss it so much, so I love going back and will continue to do so in between working in the city hopefully.
J.P.: You moved to New York eight years ago after graduating from Florida State. Give me your absolute worst I’m-going-to-the-Big Apple-to-be-a-star story; like, your lowest, lowest moment trying to make it big …
C.D.: My worst moment was one of my ﬁrst auditions in the city. I had just graduated from college and, as a result of our showcase here in the city was graciously invited to the ﬁnal day of callbacks for the Broadway cast of Mamma Mia. My brother and I drove up from the Burgh and preceded to go out for “one” beer. Well, that was clearly a terrible idea. I showed up the next day and sounded like a Muppet my voice was so fried. I tried singing my song and almost threw up my vocal cords in the room. When asked to sing something a little easier, I fessed up to not having any other piece of music. I was promptly told to “not come back in” for that casting company til “I get my shit together.” And rightly so. It wasnʼt until five years later that they called me in again. I left pretty upset. I wasnʼt really ready, maturity-wise, to work as hard as I needed to. I realize that now, but oddly donʼt regret it. I learned so much those lean years that are invaluable to who I am now. But it still sucked pretty bad failing that miserably.
J.P.:So you were doing small threatre, trying to make it, when you landed the role of Yeoman Herbert Quale in South Pacific on Broadway. I love how this can work in theatre—one day you’re begging from crumbs, the next you have a dream gig. How did you land that part, and how did you react when you learned of the job? Do you remember where you were? Who you called? What you felt?
C.D.:South Paciﬁc was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and ﬁnding out about it was surreal. It goes back to that whole idea of getting to Broadway and achieving such a lofty goal. I remember my best friend from college, Mike Evariste, called me in the morning and said he just heard he got it. We had a deal that one would call the other when we heard. I was ecstatic for him and, of course, a little upset I hadnʼt gotten a call. So I called my agent immediately after talking to him, and they told me the good news. I then called Mike right back and we celebrated on the phone for awhile and a lot later that night of course. I remember I called every family member individually and shared a few tears. It was amazing—I imagined that moment for so long and to ﬁnally live it was a little bit of an out of body experience. I kinda walked around all day on cloud nine, and was ﬁlled with such a feeling of pride. I donʼt think getting to Broadway validates a career at all, but it did make all those hours training and working all the more worth it. More than anything, I was proud to tell my family. They were the ones who never stopped believing in me no matter what, so hearing their reactions and sensing their sense of pride was overwhelming.
J.P.:What do most theatre veterans think—really, truly, honestly think—of TV and film actors? Is there a lack of respect? A “That’s cake” sort of perspective? Because if I performed live before a huge crowd every night, I’d like at, say, CSI and think, “Not even the same ballpark …”
C.D.: Well, the two are clearly different. However, I donʼt look at TV actors and think their job is cake. There are so many different layers and nuances to acting on camera that are just as hard to master. Its the difference between landscape painting and abstract painting. Theyʼre both equally challenging in their own way, and I think both just as rewarding. With that said, I havenʼt really done a lot of “on camera” work, so I could be wrong. But I do have an enormous amount of respect for TV and ﬁlm actors.
Stage acting gives you endless chances to get a scene right … camera acting gives you a handful. So what actors on screen can convey with the limited amount of “tries” is pretty incredible. The one thing I cannot stand, however, is reality television. Actors who watch reality television as well frustrate me. The amount of scripted television is declining every day and those actors who are fans of these shows donʼt realize that there are countless job opportunities not available to them because of these stupid, inane shows. The very thought of the Jersey Shore clowns making six ﬁgures to basically drink and act like jerks is APPALLING to me! And I couldnʼt care less about The Real Housewives series. I get sick even thinking about it honestly. I know thats not exactly what you asked, but my mind went there and I had to vent. My apologies.
J.P.:What does it feel like standing on stage before a packed house, knowing you just nailed it, watching a standing ovation rise; knowing it’s for you? Seriously, I’d love to know what that’s precisely like …
C.D.: Its a feeling of accomplishment and pride. Knowing those people were affected by your hard work and took a journey with you is incredible. Its almost as if for those few precious moments, you form a bond with the audience and know them all personally. Like you just shared an inside joke. It never gets old, I’ll tell ya that.
J.P.:I covered Major League Baseball for many years, and the clubhouses always disappointed me in that black players usually stuck with black players, whites with whites, Asians with Asians, etc … etc. I’m wondering—what is the dynamic like behind the scenes for a cast? Do y’all hang? Are there divisions? Are people generally supportive, or do rivalries and cliques form?
C.D.: Iʼve been lucky enough to be in two of the most incredible casts one could ever ask for here in New York. There are certain groups of people who may hang out more than others, of course, but insofar as cliques and such, there really isnʼt anything like that. Human nature is such that not everyone will like everyone, but generally that doesnʼt extend past personal misgivings. As far as a racial divide, there is positively none of that. Like gay/straight, black/white or white/asian or black/latino, doesnʼt really exist in theatre. As opposed to baseball, where a relief pitcher has little to no association with a reserve right ﬁelder, an onstage cast is one big troupe all working off of each other and with each other to achieve a singular goal. When I was doing South Paciﬁc, however, our director Bartlett Sher, brilliantly sequestered the group of african-american guys on purpose for all of the scenes. This led to a rehearsal process where they had their own jokes and stories, and the group of white guys had their own as well. It didnʼt extend past the rehearsal room or stage, but during that time, it was such an odd feeling.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH CHRISTIAN DELCROIX
• You get a call from a director wanting you to play Sarah Palin’s husband Todd in the made-for-TV movie, Palin: An American Icon. It pays very well. Do you do it?: Absolutely not. The words ʻSarah Palinʼ and ʻIconʼ should never be used in the same sentence.
• Daryl Hall, Huey Lewis or Jeffrey Osborne: Daryl Hall (although I am a Huey Lewis fan, too).
• Who are your five all-time favorite actors?: Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro, Jeff Bridges.
• Would you rather perform Young Buddy in the nude before a packed house one time, or change your stage name for a year to Vagina Edward III?: In the nude. Although that name has a nice ring to it.
• The winner of the 2012 presidential election will be …: Obama
• Best moment as an actor? Worst?: Best—Singing “Being Alive” my ﬁnal year of college at the end of Company in front of my entire family. Worst—Having to completely start a scene over in a high school production of Bye Bye Birdie because I absolutely could not stop laughing. A one-minute scene turned into a three act play.
• What sort of impact will Plaxico Burress have on the Jets?: Minimal. Heʼs coming back after quite a long time away from the game and trying to get back into game shape, learn a new offense, and mesh with a pretty mediocre quarterback. Between Holmes, Keller, and a big year ahead for Greene, heʼs gonna be in the background for a while.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details …: Every time I ﬂy. Its borderline obsessive. The slightest rock of the plane and I close my eyes and pray compulsively. Sometimes I even sing Amazing Grace out loud. No joke … the people around me think I’m crazy.
• How long does it take an actor to know his show isn’t going to last? And is there a tell-tale sign?: Iʼd say right away. You get a certain feeling from the audiences response. If it’s tepid, you can count out word-of-mouth business.
• You’re from Pittsburgh,. Give me three reasons why the next Olympics should come to the Steel City.: 1. Youʼd have people from every country in the world buying each other cans of Iron City! 2. It would be the all time best tailgating in the history of the Olympics. 3. The rest of the country/world would get to see that Pittsburgh has become a pretty amazing, diverse, and progressive city, and not just a remnant of a great city past
with decrepit steel mills and smoggy skies.
How many people do you know who are born with a gift?
I’m not talking about someone who can hit a baseball (random ability deemed valuable by some cosmic oddity) or eat 17 hotdogs in a minute. I’m referring to something so brilliant … so startling … so … so … so otherworldly that you just watch or listen or observe and think, “Wow. I am witnessing something very special, and the best thing I can do right now is shut my mouth and appreciate it.”
In the 25 previous Quaz installments, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing some extremely talented, lovely, fascinating individuals. But here, with today’s Quaz, I honestly consider myself to be in the presence of, well, vocal greatness.
For those of you who don’t follow opera (and, to be up front, though I love the music, my knowledge is limited), Marie Te Hapuku is a star. Her voice is angelic. Beyond angelic. To listen to her sing is absolute bliss, and her spot among the luminaries at the Metropilitan Opera speaks for itself. She joined the Met in 2010 as an immediate cover for Lina in Verdi’s Stiffelo, one of myriad roles she has played throughout a fantastic career.
I actually first came into contact with Marie several years ago, when I wrote a piece for, I believe, Newsday about opera mothers. In other words, this Quaz is a testament to staying to touch with people.
Anyhow, here Marie talks about the life of an opera singer, the extent of her famous heritage, as well as the music she loves and why cutting off two of Shania Twain’s toes while visiting Indianapolis doesn’t sound half bad. You can visit Marie here, follow her Tweets here and become a Facebook fan here. Oh, and her YouTube channel is here. Trust me, it’s amazing.
It’s my absolute honor to welcome to the Quaz the greatest singer I know, Marie Te Hapuku …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Marie, I’m gonna go untraditional and throw you an odd one. So I love opera. Love it. I’m no expert, but the richness of voices, the theatrical drama, the music. I can sit and listen all day and be very happy. That said, several years ago opera sort of confused me. Specifically, I’m talking about the late, great Luciano Pavarotti performing with the Spice Girls and Bryan Adams and the like. I mean, I get it—let’s expose others to opera. But to have one of the brilliant vocalists of all time standing alongside Posh Spice … well, it just seemed wrong. Your take?
MARIE TE HAPUKU: Great observation, Jeff! But that’s showbiz, right? I think that was less about exposing people to opera, and more about those performers getting to sing with Pavarotti (and not the reverse). Sort of like Peter Brady with Joe Namath [JEFF’S NOTE: It was actually Bobby—but big points for effort]. Who hasn’t dreamed of such? Opera is very exciting to sing! Those pop artists had the money and means to make it happen for themselves. Here’s a confession for you: when I saw Michael Bolton singing opera on YouTube, it made my heart melt. Less because of his voice, and more because of his courage to sing something he LOVED and had always longed to do! Cynics be damned—I love people with heart. Even more, I love when musicians branch out into different genres and express themselves beyond their normal comfort levels. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the business.
J.P.:OK, this is gonna sound so dumb and basic, Marie. But I’m guessing most of my readers aren’t opera buffs. Can you explain the joy of opera? I mean, what is it about opera that does it for you? And when novices are sitting there, listening and experiencing for the first time, what should they be paying attention to? What’s the best way to maximize their experience?
M.T.H.: As a singer, I can tell you that the joy of opera is the result of singing with your entire body. Because opera is sung without microphones, it is a very physical, athletic, and sensual process: repetitive deep breathing, the contraction and relaxation of muscles, intense mental focus, and an exchange of energy with your audience. Add to that mix the vibrations of live instruments, the luscious harmonies of music, the intrigue of human relationships found in every opera plot, a fabulous frock to wear—and you have something that is downright addictive. The best advice that I can offer the novice is to FIND OUT WHAT THE OPERA IS ABOUT BEFORE YOU GO! And then, go to a live performance. I don’t have to tell you how much more exciting a game is LIVE, compared to watching it on your tv, right? I’m sure the day the Bad Guys won was much more earth-shattering in the stadium, than over the air. The same is for any performing art. See it live, so that you can experience the energy of the artists, and feel the squillo of their voices resonating in your ears.
J.P.: You joined the Metropolitan Opera artist roster last year as a cover for Lina in Verdi’s “Stiffelio.” I have no idea what that means, but it sounds hella good. I’ve interviewed a fair number of Broadway stars, and they all rave about the New York experience; about how it’s “just different” than playing, oh, Toledo or Miami or even Tokyo or London. Is it the same being at the Met? And, if so (or if not), can you explain why …
M.T.H.: After being hired on the spot for that Met job, I would have to compare it to being in the bullpen at Yankee Stadium versus pitching at Toledo’s Fifth Third Field for the Mud Hens. It felt a bit like being called out of the minors to warm up with Mariano Rivera. The synergy of NYC and the tradition of the Met is second to none. Being a part of it was an experience I will not soon forget, and I look forward to many more opportunities in the future.
J.P.:You’re a native New Zealander, born in Gisborne. I’m fascinated by your rise. Like, literally, how did you find opera? When did you know this was your calling—if, indeed, you consider it such? When was your first performance? And what do you recall of it?
M.T.H.: Jeff, I can honestly say that opera found me. I know that must sound so pretentious and cliche, but it is completely true. My parents brought me to the US when I was a child. Growing up, I studied piano and sang in school choirs, but my exposure to opera performance was limited to Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd singing “Kill da wabbit”. When it came time for college, I applied for a vocal scholarship, on a whim. To my great surprise, I was awarded a scholarship, and had my first voice lessons. I was hugely encouraged by my voice teacher to pursue what he felt was a true gift, but I wasn’t convinced that singing opera was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. That all changed a few months later, when I saw my first opera: a student production of Puccini’s “La boheme”. I was so profoundly moved by the music and the entire experience, that it became clear to me that singing was my calling in life. Absolutely. I changed my major and pursued my goals, graduating with a degree in Vocal Performance and Pedagogy. Then, rather than continuing my studies through the conventional path of enrollment at a music conservatory, I accepted an invitation into the Utah Opera Young Artist Program. As a result, I made my professional stage debut singing Hansel in “Hansel and Gretel” (I was a mezzo-soprano then), at an age when most singers were still in graduate school. It was very, very exciting for me, because I was aware of how young I was to be stepping into a principal role in a reputable house like that. I immediately followed that experience with San Francisco Opera’s prestigious Merola Opera Program and Western Opera Theater. That served as a launching pad into different opportunities that took me around the world and back again. Throughout my career, I have been extremely blessed by the enormous generosity of master teachers, coaches and conductors, who have freely shared with me their knowledge, techniques, and time. I have always been humbled by this, and feel a responsibility to share the gifts favored to me by my musical mentors. Singing is what I was born to do. When I’m not making music, I am not as happy. Nothing compares to singing the most divinely beautiful music ever composed—and getting paid for it. I know I am very fortunate to be doing something I love, and I never take it for granted.
J.P.: Whenever I read biographies of opera singers, I always think, “Man, what a life.” There’s always “New York this … Rome that … Barcelona this …” Is it true? Is the life all thrills and excitement and euphoria? Or is there lots of grime and hell we don’t know about?
M.T.H.: Oh boy—there is definitely a lot of grime and hell goin’ on. There is a story attributed to a master instrumentalist, of a fan gushing to him, “I would give my life to play like you do”, to which he replied, “I did”. It is no different for an opera singer, except that a singer carries her/his instrument with them at all times. It cannot be put into a case and stored on a shelf; everything—EVERYTHING—affects the voice. The singer’s physical health, vocal health, emotions, state of mind, personal relationships, the weather and levels of humidity, the altitude, food that is eaten (or not), hours of sleep, and of course the singer’s technique—all affect the sound that emanates from two tiny pieces of tissue suspended in the larynx. And please don’t forget the countless hours spent in the practice room, nor the thousands of dollars spent on voice lessons and language coaching. You can be sure that every “overnight sensation” is the product of years of training. It’s no accident that for every Green Room in an opera house, there are several rehearsal halls and dozens of practice rooms in the same building. So yes, while the lifestyle can be very thrilling and exciting and even euphoric at times, it is more often filled with ongoing discipline, uneventful repetition and study, and many lonely hours isolated in a hotel room. For most singers, seeing one’s hard work, preparation and dedication blossom in the immediacy of performance is what makes the process all worthwhile. One tangential thought I feel compelled to share: singing an operatic aria, or a song in a classical style, does not make one an “opera singer”. (I’m referring to certain recent winners in tv-broadcasted talent competitions, overseas and in the US.) A real opera singer actually performs an entire role on an opera stage—not just a one-off aria from Opera’s Greatest Hits. That’s what I call a “slop-ra” singer.
J.P.: According to your website, you’re a direct descendant of paramount Maori chief, Te Hapuku Ngai Te Whatuiapiti. I don’t really have a question—just wanted to see if I could type his name in on one try. But I’ll ask: What’s your tie to Te Hapuku and what does it mean to you to be a relative of a man who, in 1835, signed the Declaration of Independence?
M.T.H.: Well done, ka pai, typing his name all in one go! Te Hapuku is my tipuna, or ancestor, and is my fourth great-grandfather. As you stated, he was the paramount chief of Hawke’s Bay, which covers a large portion of the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand. His was also a signatory of the Treaty of Waitangi—a document that played an enormous role in New Zealand history, in that it enabled the British Crown to claim sovereignty over the island nation. Te Hapuku was a fierce leader in the region, and addressed many challenges and changes during his lifetime. Knowing that I have come from such greatness gives me a sense of unique identity, not only in the opera world, but also in life. We Maori are a very spiritual people, and I often feel the strength of my many tipuna urging me to press forward and to offer my best to everything I do. I am honored to bear my family’s name, and I enjoy fostering an understanding of my heritage with other people.
M.T.H.: Edward was right, in that all the feeling is right there in the music. But being able to understand the words being sung is also integral. Fortunately, there is a common convenience we can enjoy at most opera houses: supertitles. Projected above the stage in English, the audience can read a translation of the Italian/German/Russian/French opera as it is being sung. Of course there are those detractors who insist that such devices are unnecessary as long as the drama is sung with that passion and heartbreak you mentioned. The key to understanding opera is preparation, in the form of reading the story outline in the program notes, or even doing a bit of research online beforehand. YouTube is terrific for this!
J.P.:So the wife and I were watching the VMA’s the other day on MTV, and Justin Bieber was winning one award after another. I have friends who have been in the music biz for years, and they think Bieber symbolizes everything evil about it—some mediocre, flash-in-the-pan pretty boy makes the 14-year-old girls swoon, so he earns millions. You, Marie, have an amazing, amazing, amazing voice; a genuine vocal gift. And yet, were you to walk down the streets of Manhattan with a sign reading MY NAME IS MARIE around your neck, you’d go largely unrecognized (I’m guessing). So do you hate Justin Bieber and pop music? Do you get it? And can opera ever go mainstream?
M.T.H.: I enjoy pop music a lot and my kids can pick out Beyonce as easily as Mozart. It’s interesting that you used Bieber as your example. This year during the Super Bowl (of course I watched!), Bieber was in a Best Buy commercial. The first thing I noticed about the ad wasn’t Bieber, but rather the “background” music (the overture from Rossini’s opera, Il barbieri di Siviglia—The Barber of Seville). What a missed opportunity for Best Buy! The spot could have been named, The BIEBER of Seville!
Opera used to be the mainstream and its like-ability has helped it endure for centuries, which cannot be said for a lot of genres of music. (Can you imagine 1700’s country music?!) Like Lennox Lewis said about himself, opera is also like fine wine and only gets better with age. While it may not make the Top 40 today, it is more well-known than we may realize. Opera is integrated by pop culture, the media, and advertising into our everyday lives. Hum a few bars of the Anvil Chorus from Verdi’s Il trovatore, Toreador’s aria from Bizet’s Carmen [JEFF’S NOTE: An all-time, all-time, all-time favorite], or the ever-recognizable overture from Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell (Lone Ranger theme), and you’ll understand what I mean. It all starts with exposing KIDS to everything that this music offers! As I mentioned earlier, Looney Tunes played a primary role in my exposure to classical music when I was a child, and I have fond memories of the opera-singing orange on Sesame Street. I would love for all kids to have this same easy introduction to opera. As for taking the opera to the masses, the Metropolitan Opera is now broadcasting to a movie theater near you. In HD. With huge, THX-capable speakers that come very close to giving the movie-goer a taste of what it’s like to be in the opera house at a live performance! And every seat is the best seat in the house. It’s all very, very exciting and I strongly urge your readers to check it out.
J.P.: Greatest moment as a singer? Absolute lowest? Greatest moment?
M.T.H.: Every time I debut a new role. Seriously. Lowest moment was when I made a 38-hour journey from Sydney to London to Paris, then straight out of the taxi for an audition. Singing devoid of sleep just doesn’t work. Luckily it happened at the beginning of my career and I learned my lesson.
J.P.: The cliche image of an opera singer always—always—involves weight. Opera singers are presumed to be relatively heavy. Is there genuine truth to this? And, if so, why? Can a heavy person perform better than a stick?
M.T.H.: Do you know how hungry you’d be if you just killed the baritone, watched the tenor get shot, and then threw yourself off of the top of a building!? Two words: stress eating!! All kidding aside, the topic of singers and body-type has been addressed, discussed, and argued passionately for years. Bottom line: opera singing has nothing to do with weight—it is a vocal technique. Yes, some singers are heavy—but so are some accountants, doctors, athletes, hairdressers, and firefighters. Most singers do not look like the cliche. I would venture to say that the people who promote the hackneyed horned-helmet and spear-carrying image have probably not seen an actual opera. One only has to Google “opera singer” to see that the stereotype is perpetuated more by advertisers with caricatures and stock photos, and less by actual opera singers.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MARIE TE HAPUKU:
• You get a call from Eminem—he wants to do an English language rap-opera album with you. Are you in? And, under industry guidelines, are opera performers allowed to sing, “Bitch, where’s my wallet?”: As long as he wears the gown, and I wear the hoodie, I’m in. And yes, opera performers can sing any text, as long as it allows for appropriate vowel modification—“Beeeeee-oooootcht” is perfect!
• The world’s best acoustics are located … : … in the driver’s seat of my car.
• Do you think Deron Williams should sign a long-term deal with the Nets?: I didn’t know Deron Williams was an opera singer …
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details …: No, that only happened after the plane ride when I finally arrived in Paris. See question No. 9, above.
• Can music change the world, or is that just something we tell kids because it sounds nice?: Aristotle said, “Music has a power of forming the character, and should therefore be introduced into the education of the young.” We should keep telling kids that it can change the world, because it does.
• Would you rather spend five years co-starring in The Shania Twain Opera Experience with the Indianapolis Opera Company or cut off two toes of your choice?: Is there really a question here? Of course I would much prefer to cut off two of Shania’s toes.
• How’d you meet your husband? And how’d he/you propose?: I met my husband in college when I was performing in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. I was caught off guard by his direct question of, Hi my name’s Travis, what’s yours? He said he was from Wyoming, and was caught off guard when I responded, “Oh! I love Wyoming!” I had only been to Yellowstone and Jackson Hole, so I didn’t know any better—but I think it was that Wyoming charm that convinced me to say yes to his down-on-one-knee marriage proposal, six weeks later.
• Five things you refuse to eat: Crow, humble pie, a foot in my mouth, the egg from off of my face, and lima beans.
• Sidney Crosby, Malik Yoba, Sandy Koufax or Gary Coleman?: Are you asking me who is the shortest? Gary Coleman.
Much like Kevin Arnold’s girlfriends on the Wonder Years, I’m somewhat obsessed with Blind Melon—the greatest rock band to ever be remembered for a chick in a bee costume. Melon’s lead singer, Shannon Hoon, died of a cocaine overdose in 1996, leaving four bandmates wondering what, exactly, they were supposed to do now. Fifteen years later, drummer Glen Graham is still—in some ways—trying to figure that out.
He loves playing music; loves teaming up with the current Melon lineup (featuring the excellent Travis Warren on lead vocals); loves scouting out new opportunities and genres and such. But just because one was once a part of a Top 40 regular doesn’t mean it’s all roses and easy street. Here, Glen talks Hoon, drumming, Brittney Spears and why Duke vs. North Carolina rivets him—not one iota. Glen Graham, welcome to Quazville …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Glen, you told me that you are often looking for drumming work. Maybe I’m naive, but this surprises me. Hell, you were the drummer for one of my all-time favorite bands, Blind Melon.
GLEN GRAHAM: I appreciate that. But, to be honest, the profile of the band is very small. We’re a footnote. Maybe not even a footnote. If you liked us and still like us, we might loom large. But most people don’t know us for anything but No Rain and the bee girl video. And while I think No Rain is a pretty good song, as far as drumming goes there’s not much to it. I’m actually getting ready to put an ad in Jam Band. I’m available.
J.P.:Your lead singer, Shannon Hoon, died in 1996 in New Orleans. How did you learn of his passing?
G.G.: Our manager told me. I had ridden a street car back to my home in New Orleans. It was a four-block trip. I went inside, got in bed my my wife and two hours later the phone rang—Shannon’s dead. ‘You’re kidding, right?’ No, he wasn’t kidding. It was very sad, very harsh. You know someone, and he doesn’t exist. Strange. He had his funeral in Lafayette, Indiana. It was at a funeral home … very bleak. And a grave-side service. Oh, my God. I remember being at the wake after the service, at his mother’s house. One of our A&R guys was there, and he pulled me aside and said, ‘Do you think you guys are gonna get back together?’
J.P.: Shannon was a good guy …
G.G.: He was … he was. But he was sorta complicated. He could be difficult. And annoying. Shannon alienated everyone who interviewed him. He was a very antagonistic person to interview. You can see it more in the TV stuff than in print. He was a bridge burner. I think he wanted being in a rock band in the 1990s to be the same as being in a rock band when he was 10 and reading Cream. People were short and sarcastic back then. There wasn’t as much of that in the 1990s. People were earnest. He didn’t feel that.
J.P.:I read somewhere that after Blind Melon broke up you stopped playing for 10 years.
G.G.: That’s not entirely true. It’s an exaggeration. I did projects throughout that time, but I didn’t practice for 10 years. I lost interest, to a degree. But I knew people doing some projects and I worked on a few. I wasn’t in any way pursuing a music career. I moved to North Carolina after living in New Orleans. I build a house, and I really didn’t think of ever doing this again.
J.P.: Is it true you sold your drums on eBay?
G.G.: I tried to. My wife bet me $500 that I could get at least $5,000 for the drum kit I used on the last tour. I won—nobody bid on them. But I wound up selling them to a Melon freak for $10,000. Which is pretty ridiculous—they’re worth $500, tops.
J.P.:When I saw you guys in concert a few months ago, I was dazzled. The music was excellent, but what really got me was the emotion from spectators. So many knew the words to every song. Not just No Rain and Change—everything. It meant something to them. Do you get that?
G.G.: I do. For example, in the summer of 2008, toward the end of Travis Warren’s first period with us, we played a show in Spain. We went on last, after the Sex Pistols were booed off the stage for playing too long. There were 10,000 people there, and everyone sang every word to every song. We’d never even been to Spain. At that moment I thought, “Wow, people have our records in their collection.” It’s a totally emotional connection. I don’t even know why, necessarily, but it’s wonderful. This is stepping way out there, but maybe for a certain age person, younger than myself, Shannon is their Jim Morrison. But, in this case, The Doors are still touring with a guy who does a pretty good version of what Shannon did. We have a lot of songs that are intently personal and very dark. And a lot of people identify with that. J.P.:In music, generally speaking, bands can survive losing drummers, bass players, guitarists. But with rare exception—AC/DC stands out—a lost lead singer is the kiss od death. You’re still here …
G.G.: You’re right, and it makes sense. I can’t imagine watching the Police without Sting—even though I actually loathe the music Sting has done on his own. Let me say it this way—Travis is not a clone of Shannon. He’s pretty close, but he’s not the same. It’s sort of the way Richard Little does impressions. I’d say Travis is more of an impressionist than an impersonator. And somehow that works. And the way he is on stage … the thing he has going with the audience—that he’s honored to be up there … it’s meaningful. For him. for us.
J.P.:Awkward question, but after Shannon Hoon died were you mad at him?
G.G.: Hmm … well, I suppose I was mad at him for a brief period. There has to be frustration for anybody who kills themselves intentionally or unintentionally. You’re left with no answers and no way to continue except without that person—and it’s really, really frustrating. First, he was a friend of mine. But then it also symbolized my life and livelihood. One day we’re riding home from Houston to New Orleans and everything was great. Five hours later the world is over. Try dealing with that in a healthy way. J.P.: What do you think Shannon Hoon would be doing today were he alive?
G.G.: If Shannon were alive, he’d be dead (and by the way, Shannon would think that was hysterical). There’s no way he could have lived beyond 30. He was just one of those guys we’ve all met. He couldn’t survive without drugs. It’s sad. It’s still sad. But it’s true.
J.P.:When No Rain is on the radio, do you listen, or change the station?
G.G.: I change it. I love the song, it’s great, whatever. But it’s one thing to hear a song 5,000 times. It’s another thing to play it that many. I’m a lefty—sometimes I’ll switch around and play it righty, just to make it interesting.
J.P.:So I grew up a KISS fan, and I remember learning that Peter Criss didn’t do all the tracks he was credited with. I was devastated. Well, not devastated. But I felt sorta misled. Can you tell the difference between drummers?
G.G.: Oh, yeah. Of course. Bands go through drummers all the time, and the change is usually pretty clear. Take Traffic, going way back. They used Jim Gorfon, my all-time favorite, and they used Roger Hawkins. The songs were the same, the albums were the same, but each guy approached it differently. That’s cool. I’m sure, in KISS, Peter Criss had a certain feel that the other drummers didn’t. KISS is funny. Early in my career I made the mistake of talking about KISS. Someone asked who I liked, and I was stoned, didn’t wanna do the interview—so I said KISS. Well, I was a big KISS fan when I was 8, not in my 20s. KISS is so bad, it’s embarrassing. If I could have seen KISS when I was 10, I could have walked away with an amazing experience in my brain. But I didn’t see them until the reunion in 1997, and it was very bad. During on the the songs everything just grounded to a halt—it was during “Watching You”—and Paul and Gene turned and stared Peter down and counted him off. That’s a bad day at work. QUAZ EXPRESS WITH GLEN GRAHAM:
• Would you serve as Brittney Spears’ drummer for $500,000: I’d play with anyone. The Little River Band … anyone. I like any music that’s original and done well. I can’t tell you one song Brittney Spears sings—but sign me up.
• You’re from Columbus, Mississippi. Any vacation tips: Do you like Civil War cemeteries? • You live in Chapel Hill, N.C. Talk to me about Tar Heel hoops: It’s sad, but I know nothing. Carolina … Duke—I hear they’re good.
• Your three favorite Blind Melon songs to play: Hmm … that’s hard. I used to like to play Tones of Home. I like Mouth Full of Cavities. Did you say three?
• Is Blind Melon a great band?: Honestly, no. We’re a musical footnote, if that. I think we’re good, we play well. we wrong well. But we’ll be one of those bands … if people are still listening to rock 50 years from now, No Rain will pop up on the One Million Best Songs of All Time list. I’m fine with that.
• Do you think of yourself, first and foremost, as a member of Blind Melon?: Maybe. But first and foremost, I’m a musician.
Of all the people I’ve met in my 17 years as a journalist, one of my absolute favorites has to be Pete Nash.
How would I describe the man? Smart. Determined. Wise. Detailed.
Yup, dope. Before Pete became one of our country’s top baseball historians, he was best known as Prime Minister Pete Nice from the rap trio, 3rd Bass (the other members were MC Serch and DJ Richie Rich). If you’re my age, or around my age, and you dug the genre, odds are you spent a large chunk of time listening to Pop Goes the Weasel, the greatest Vanilla Ice-bashing song in the history of humanity (really, it’s the video that does much of the bashing). Hell, at the University of Delaware we wore that thing out. In their prime, the members of 3rd Bass were everywhere—sitting on Arsenio’s couch, touring Europe with PE, gracing magazine covers. On and on.
Nowadays, Pete has his hands full. He has written myriad books, and recently completed the first draft of Hauls of Shame: The Cooperstown Conspiracy and the Madoff of Memorabilia. He owns a tavern, McGreevy’s 3rd Base Bar, in Boston, and has been heavily involved in efforts to clean up the sports memorabilia business. His website, Hauls of Shame, is here.
Here, he talks Flavor Flav, Joel Youngblood and why rap will never be as good as it once was.
Prime Minister, welcome to the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:You strike me sorta like Superman. Clark Kent—Pete Nash, baseball historian/collector. Superman—Prime Minister Pete Nice, New York MC/rollin’ with the blunts and hos/Vanilla Ice slayer. Is this a fair analogy?
PETER NASH: Perhaps in the old days that would be a fair assessment, and my radio-show DJ was DJ Clark Kent (of Dane Dane fame). Having hung up the mic, though, I doubt I be displaying any super-powers in MC battles. I never was a blunt roller. That being said, try to drive around on tour in the same van with Redman and Cypress Hill for a few weeks.
One might call it bizarre, the whole change from rap to what I do now. I have to say, when I was doing the music it was always the real me. But when you are spitting lines to crowd and performing, you are basically, not a character … but if you’re doing a song, obviously you’re gonna have some flair or charisma that you might not bring to everyday life. Most MCs, if you see them on the street, outside of the way they physically look, they’re not entirely the same people from stage. I mean, I’ve clearly changed. It’d be strange if I haven’t changed—I’m 44 and I hung up the mic a long time ago. There’s a lot to be said for MCs who hang it up at the right time. But back when I was the Prime Minister in my prime, I was still the same closet baseball nerd I am now.
J.P.:When was the last time you rapped before an audience?
P.N.: Off the record, it was a short freestyle I did at a neighbor’s birthday a couple of years ago. You can use that, actually. But the actual performances were probably … Serch and I did Woodstock 1999 in Utica, N.Y. … I think we played before Kid Rock and Funkadelic played. That was probably our last official show. Oh, and we did Tommy Hilfiger’s birthday party around that time. His brother [Andy] knew Serch, and somehow he asked us. We got some free suits out of the gig. Which I still have. The last tour we actually did was a European thing … a couple of festivals in Norway and Sweden.
J.P.:How did you know it was time?
P.N.: Well, one is when you’re not making new music. And when you’re married, and Serch at the time had one or two kids. It’s very hard to maintain that life on the road in a group and have a family. You reach a certain point when you become more mature and you have to move on.
J.P.:I recently spoke with the drummer for Blind Melon, who dismissed his band’s legacy as tiny. What about the 3rd Bass legacy?
P.N.: I mean … we definitely, for the genre we were in, we definitely could have done more albums and made more of a mark. But for the short time we were in the studio and performing, in terms of race relations … you can argue that the Beastie Boys were the first white group before us. But you can also say we were the first legit white group and the first integrated group. Those are feathers in our cap, in terms of race relations. And maybe it’s egotistical, but I believe we’re much more than a footnote.
J.P.: Do you listen to rap now?
P.N.: I do, but not to the extent that I’d know the album tracks. A lot of the stuff is just so … safe. Easy. The chorus with the singing … it all seems very plastic. But every once in a while I hear a hit that would stand out in any time period. Jay-Z clearly has those types of songs. I hear good work all the time, but I’m generally much happier listening to old-school hip-hop.
J.P.: You spent a lot of time touring with Public Enemy at the height of their popularity. What was that like?
P.N.: Amazing. Just amazing. We toured all over Europe at least twice with P.E. The crowds were absolutely ridiculous—people passing out, the places so jammed. Just nuts. The irony was that, at the time, P.E. was getting a lot of attention for the comments made by Professor Griff, and some of that drama that was turning some whites off—and here we were, white rappers on the road with them. And you know what? They were great guys. Great. I remember having a conversation with Chuck D in a hotel lobby. We were sitting on our bags waiting for the bus. He was asking about our new album, and this was when cassettes were still big. And he said, “You’ve gotta remember to make the A side of a single the same length as the B side, because when that happens the tape flips over at the end of the track and immediately plays the other song. It doesn’t give the kid listening any time to hear silence and get another tape. He was right on top of things—promoting, marketing. Just very smart and way ahead of his time. But at the same time he had to control Flavor Flac, who was all over the map. Man, did I love that guy. He was just … superb … would give you the shirt off his back. But he was also had this little problem called crack, and that’ll fuck anyone up. I remember one time, we were in a hotel in Scotland, and Chuck D got the phone bill for the trip and he couldn’t believe it—Flav had spent something like 10,000 pounds calling his different baby mama’s for two-straight days. He was nuts. He’d knock on our hotel door at 6 a.m. and ask me and Serch to follow him around town. He’d take 40 random kids to McDonald’s for breakfast. Just … because. When we were in an airport in Germany, Flav fell to the floor near the security check and went into convulsions on the floor and started spitting up loads of blood like he was dying. Chuck and the S1W’s were coming to his aid and all of a sudden Flav jumped up on his feet, and said “Fake blood, G! From the magic store with Pete and Serch! Yeah BOYEEE!”
PE had this strong social message, and it was rooted in black self-reliance. But it was also entertainment. We got along very well.
J.P.:Do you feel like you were in the heart of rap’s golden age, or did it come before or after you?
P.N.: I’ll have to be the grumpy old rapper and say it passed already—from the early-to-mid 1980s up until 1992-93. There were just so many innovative groups, in terms of creativity and things done with sampling, which you don’t see now. The things done with beats, the DJs so intertwined with music, vinyl records. On and on. Computers are great, iPods are great—but they can’t replace what once was.
J.P.: You guys had a pretty good beef going with Vanilla Ice, no?
P.N.: Nah, not really. We dissed Ice in Ace in the Hole, but that was the worst of it. A funny thing happened, though. A friend of our producer lived across from John’s Pizza in New York. When Vanilla Ice was in town for the Grammy’s, he—coincidentally–stopped at John’s Pizza. He got out of his limo, got a slice, waved to the press. Well, this kid opens his window and, from across the street, shoots Vanilla three times with his bb gun. Ice jumped back into his limo and drove off.
Really, our beef was with MC Hammer. He had dissed Run DMC in an interview. We were managed by Russell Simmons, we knew Run and Jay and DMC well. They took us under their wing when we were first coming up. Obviously they’re the godfathers of rap. So we were in the studio recording, and when we did the Gas Phase I said, “Hammer, shut the fuck up.” Then in The Cactus I said, “The Cactus turned Hammer’s mother out.” It was just a play of words on his song, not meant to literally offend his mother. But Calvin, his brother, called Def Jam, just flipping out. He started threatening us over the phone. Well, we went out to Los Angeles for an album party at the Ritz, and Russell comes to our hotel and says, “Hammer has put out a hit on your guys with a gang.” He was serious. They assigned all sorts of security for us, and we had to meet with a guy who had gang concoctions, and he called the hit off.
J.P.:So if Hammer shows up at your bar now, do you greet him warmly?
P.N.: Vanilla Ice—without a doubt. But Hammer put a hit on me. That’s sorta big.
J.P.: It seems like nowadays people accept white rappers as rappers—period. There’s not nearly as much quirkiness or, “Whoa, He’s white!” to the whole thing. What was it like when you were coming up? And do you think 3rd Bass being led by white MCs helped or hurt your music careers?
P.N.: I really don’t think people could relate nowadays to the landscape back then. When we were coming up in the game there was really no one else, anywhere. Serch and I were preceded by the first white MC, Lord Scotch aka Kid Benneton. I was in a group with Scotch called the Servin’ Generalz before I hooked up with Serch to start 3rd Bass. Serch and Scotch (whose brother is writer Jonathan Lethem) went to Music and Art and used to rhyme with Slick Rick and Dana Dane. Sure there was a “whoa” factor seeing a white kid rhyme, but that only lasts so long. Hits are hits. Being the mighty whiteys actually worked against us getting a record deal for a while.
J.P.: In 1994, you released your only solo disc, “Dust to Dust.” I’ve had two of my four books sorta flop, and it crushed me. How did it feel to have a CD not sell well? And, looking back, how would you rate the disc? In fact, how would you rate yourself as a rapper?
P.N.: Daddy Rich and I were very happy with that record and the critical acclaim it got, but in the record biz its all about moving the product. I’m not sure Russell Simmons really pushed our solo records—I think they just wanted a quick 3rd Bass reunion that never happened.
It’s good to have at least one record show up in the rare record bin. I’ll rate that record a straight B. Miss Crabtree gave me a B+ as an MC.
J.P.:I’m not just saying this because you’re here—you’re a helluva baseball writer. Great detail, rich analogies. To you, is writing writing? Is lyric writing and book/essay writing the same boat?
P.N.: Thanks. Writing definitely is writing, but writing rhymes offers a bit more of a creative release than my writing nowadays. I guess I’m putting the English degree to good use. Writing rhymes also requires less proof-reading. Baseball historian Dorothy Seymour Mills is nice enough to proof a lot of my articles, and her mark ups show that I should probably go back to school Dangerfield-style.
J.P.:Why the love of baseball? How do you explain such devotion? It’s just a game, isn’t it?
P.N.: Born in Queens and having a father who grew up close to Ebbets Field as a Dodger fan, it was hard not to get sucked into all the nostalgia and history—plus its just such a great game in its simplest form. Plus I had some early experiences that got me hooked. My Uncle Roger took me and my Dad to Shea for my first game against the Cubs in 1973. Uncle Rog was friends with Fergie Jenkins and I ended up in the visitors clubhouse with Fergie standing in his jock-strap giving me a Cubs team signed ball. Need I say more?
J.P.: You own a Boston bar, McGreevy’s 3rd Base Bar, with Dropkick Murphys’ band member Ken Casey. Operating bars/restaurants always strikes me as great idea/nightmarish reality. Agree or disagree? And do you permanently smell of Budweiser?
P.N.: We have managers who run the day to day, so I’m not pouring the ale. My problem is more in the weight department, eating too many Beckett-Burgers. We offer a huge burger with Josh and money goes to his charity, and the pounds on me.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH PETER NASH
• MC Serch and you agree to a 12-round boxing match: Who wins, and how?: How could I hit a guy with glasses?
• Same question, only insert “Vanilla Ice” for search: Can I use a Louisville Slugger
• Any chance—ever—of a rap comeback? Why or why not?: I almost thought you were asking if rap as a music form would come back. Yes, I will come back when hip-hop does.
• Would you rather spend two weeks in isolation with an eternally singing Celine Dion or a seven-headed cow who can’t control his bladder?: You could still milk the cow, right. Throw in two weeks worth of Lucky Charms and Capt. Crunch and I’ll take the cow.
A couple of weeks ago, as a belated Father’s Day gift, the wife took me to see The Book of Mormon on Broadway.
Through the years, the wife has treated me to some amazing presents: Mouth-watering meals, killer shows, the greatest wood swing known to humanity. She is the queen of righteous gifting—better than anyone I’ve ever seen.
This, however, blew everything away.
The Book of Mormon was nominated for 14 Tony Awards, took home nine of them (including Best Musical)—and is still underrated. The Book of Mormon would be underrated were it to last for 25 years. It’d be underrated were it named Funniest Musical of all Time. It’d be underrated … well, it’d always be underrated. Because there’s no real way to describe how insanely funny and beautiful and magical of a production it is. I’ve never witnessed a show that had me simultaneously crying and laughing. Never. The wife felt the exact same way—and our senses of humor rarely meet.
It was that good.
Though Scott Barnhardt is officially credited as “Ensemble” on The Book of Mormon website, he stands out as one of the straight-laced, too-pious-to-be-true missionaries sent to Uganda to save the natives. He’s a huge part of the production, and his singing/dancing background made him a seemingly perfect fit.
Here, Scott talks all things Mormon, as well as his theatre background, his love of Tommy John and why a mythical man named Scooter deserves to stand alongside Richie and the Fonz in Happy Days lore …
Hello, my name is Elder Pearlman. And I welcome Scott Barnhardt to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:I hate asking obvious questions on this site, but I’m about to ask an obvious question: How did this happen? I mean, please tell the story of how you landed a role in one of the most lauded productions in Broadway history. How’d you find out about it? The audition? Getting the gig? I have no idea how these things work.
SCOTT BARNHARDT: So here’s the story of how I got into The Book of Mormon. There had been several workshops and readings of the show over the past 3 years, and I wasn’t a part of them. I remember hearing about them around town, and thinking to myself “Oh, that would be the perfect gig for me.” But alas, the phone never rang. Then the producers brought on a new director/choreographer, Casey Nicholaw, for one last pre-Broadway workshop set for August 2010.
I had a full-plate of jobs that summer. I was going up to do a production of Plaid Tidings on Cape Cod, and choreographing for a summer stock in upstate New York. I had also started applying for some director apprenticeships. I was really trying to push my path towards more directing and choreographing. Mormon was far away from my radar.
Just as I was starting rehearsals in New York City for Plaid, I got a phone call from my agents. “Are you free for an audition on Monday for the Mormon workshop?” I wasn’t free, as I had a full day of rehearsal, but I worked it out. I ran over to the audition on my lunch break. Because everything with the show was so secretive, we weren’t allowed to have audition material sent to us. We could only read the sides at the audition site or at the casting office. So in that hour break, I got there, read the sides a few times over, went in the room and auditioned.
Happily, I had worked with Casey many years before when he choreographed Bye Bye Birdie at City Center ENCORES! So it was like a reunion of sorts. I was given a callback for the next day. But they needed to see more material from the show. So I was sent away with the song Man Up. I went back to finish my rehearsal for Plaid, and then went home and studied.
The next day, I still had another full day of rehearsals. It was a game of New York City human ping-pong or maybe more like Mormon Frogger. I started at rehearsal for Plaid, then popped down to the audition studio on my lunchbreak to read the new sides (even though I could take the song home, I still could only read the scenes at the studio). Then I hightailed it back to finish rehearsals, and then one final pop back to the audition studio at the end of day with the last appointment at 5:30, and sang and read for Matt, Trey, and Casey.
It was a surreal audition, but I made them laugh. I remember feeling very proud about that … even if I didn’t book the job, I could walk out of there knowing that I made Matt Stone and Trey Parker laugh. Not a bad day.
I got the call from my agents the next morning. I got the job.
It wasn’t until much later that I found out how I had even gotten the audition in the first place. Casey had just gotten his job as director of the show, and was driving down 8th Avenue in a taxi. I was standing outside of a Starbucks talking with a friend. Casey said to himself, “I have to remember to bring Scott in for this show.” And that’s how I got the audition.
Right place, right time.
We did the workshop in August, which was an amazing experience. So inspiring and cool to be watching the process of creating a show of this magnitude from the inside. Once the workshop closed, within a few days the vast majority of the cast were asked to join the Broadway Company. Dreamy.
J.P.:When did you first realize The Book of Mormon would be big? Like, not just a play that succeeded and worked—but big, big, big? Like, all-time big?
S.B.: There were different moments for me of understanding how epic this show was going to be. Day 1 of the workshop, where we did a table read-thru, was very telling. I was one of the few new people to that cast, and as we were reading this script I couldn’t help but react. The script was amazing, shocking, brilliant, and absurdly funny. And I quickly realized that all the newbies were being meticulously watched by all the returning cast members. Every time a great joke came down the pike, I could see the row of Mormon boys all turning their heads to see my reaction. They were thrilled to have new people responding to this material. That showed to me that there was real buzz and joy just within this company of actors, many of whom had done various incarnations of the show for 3+ years. I find that kind of joy and humor to be rare, especially on Day 1 of a rehearsal process. They were eager to share. And just hearing the words of the script and the lyrics and the music, I knew this team was onto something special.
The explosive reactions at the workshop presentations was another sign. We were in a large black-box studio at Julliard for 6 weeks, developing the show. It was a fully staged workshop, and I thought it was really beautifully done. But in a workshop setting there are no elaborate sets, lights or costumes. And yet, the workshop had uproarious standing ovations after every one of the presentations we did. I’ve seen and done a lot of workshops in my day, I had never seen a reaction quite like that. Another clue.
Then we started rehearsals in the studio for the Broadway run in January, and teched in early-February at the theater. As I saw all the physical elements coming together, I couldn’t help but get excited. Then we added the most crucial element to the show… The audience. As much as we knew how much we loved the show, there was no guarantee that the audience was going to feel the same way. We had only performed the show for no more than 100 people at a time. Now we were facing 1,060 people, eight times a week. It was daunting to say the least.
Invited dress, we were greeted with an insane audience reaction. But we all humbly chalked it up to the audience being filled with friends and family. Then our first preview. .. same reaction. We chalked that up to it being the really eager and excited fans of South Park and Avenue Q filling the audience, who wanted to be there for the very first public performance. Then the next night, and the next night … same reactions. It was somewhere in there that it all started to become apparent that we were a part of a juggernaut.
Then Opening Night (and the reviews), then box office records, then huge lines for the lottery, then the cast album hitting the Billboard charts and then all the awards!! It has been a crazy ride. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen or experienced before.
I still don’t think it has hit me as to how big the show has gotten. I mean, I understand the success logically, but because our basic job hasn’t changed and everyone backstage is so awesome, it still somehow feels very familiar and comfortable. I really like that combination of feelings.
J.P.:So while watching the show, I asked my wife this question: Do you think the cast members still find the jokes funny? She said No, I said Maybe. I mean, you’re now entering your fifth month in The Book of Mormon. You obviously know every word by heart. You hear it over and over and over and over again. So do you still find it funny? And how, after performing the same thing time and time again, do you stay inspired and excited? Do you ever think, “Man, I’m so bored of this …”
S.B.: This show is still funny. The show will always be funny. Even though I know all the jokes and the gags, my ear perks up to something new every few shows and I find myself giggling.
There is certainly a trick to finding your groove in a long running show. Partly because you are doing the same thing day-in and day-out.
The thing that I find breaks that monotony of a job is the cast you are surrounded by. Thankfully this cast is full of hysterical, insane and gloriously ridiculous people. There hasn’t been a day at the theater where I haven’t had at least had four solid belly laughs. Think about that. Four sensible belly laughs. I think that is remarkable. I’d wager to bet that my dressing room (which we lovingly call “Das Boot” as it is a long submarine-like room that fits five very funny Mormon boys) laughs more than any other dressing room on Broadway. My job rocks. That keeps me inspired.
The other trick to the monotony of a long run, is what I do outside the theater. I am always busy. I still have a handful of side jobs (including reading Textbooks on Tape and the occasional teaching gig). I love to travel. I am constantly seeing theater; seeing friends; seeing friends in theater. If you have good stuff going on outside of the theater, I think you’re bound to bring good stuff into the theater. And it helps me appreciate the amazing job I have with this show.
And the second I start saying, “Man, I’m so bored of this…”, well, that is the day to start looking for the next gig. It doesn’t get much better than this.
J.P.:You attended the Orange County High School of the Arts, then Wagner College. What is your life path, acting-wise? In other words, how did you get here? When did you know you wanted to act? And was there a breakthrough moment?
S.B.: The big story in my family, was me being 4-years old and seeing some Coca-Cola commercial on television that had tap dancing on it. I saw it and freaked. I wanted tap dance lessons immediately. That was the first clear moment that I knew I wanted to perform.
My parents held me off for about two years, but I kept begging. I was relentless in my pursuit. The big breakthrough moment was when I was about 6, I found out my brother’s teammate on his water polo team had a mother who owned a dance studio. Shout out to Val Weaver Dance Studio in Orange, California! I went straight up to her at a water polo match, introduced myself and asked how I could get started. Within a few weeks I was finally in tap lessons. That was the gateway drug for me and it only snowballed into a “theater addiction” of epic proportions that continues to this day.
Growing up in Orange County, California, I was exposed to a lot of theater. Aspects of the entertainment industry were everywhere. By the age of 10, I had started working at a lot of different professional regional theaters in the area and also had an agent in LA. The long and short of it, I was a show-biz kid. Anything I could do that was performance based, I was trying to be a part of it. And my parents were fully supportive of me in that endeavor, which I am eternally grateful for.
As I grew older, I knew I wanted to keep studying theater, so I begged to my parents once more. This time to go to the Orange County High School of the Arts (OCHSA). I knew I wanted to be around other like-minded kids, and the idea of regular high school terrified me. My parents agreed, and for my first two years of High School, I commuted 30-45 minutes each way to get to school, would be at school from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and often would rehearse for all of our shows until 9 or 10! (We ended up moving closer to school my junior year.) It was a genius place for a “Theater Junkie” like myself to go to.
As for college, I just knew I wanted to come out east. I had my eyes set on two of the big conservatories for theater, NYU and Carnegie Mellon. I was accepted to neither, and deeply heartbroken about it.
My back-up school was Wagner College on Staten Island. I had been initially disappointed about this situation, but Wagner ended up being the perfect training ground for me. I had gone through the rigors of conservatory training at OCHSA, so Wagner became a safe place for me to grow up, become a man and really learn New York City.
Wagner is a small liberal arts campus, so I was also able to indulge the academic nerd in me. I took so many courses that were not theater based … religion courses, sociology, business courses, ceramics! My favorite class to date is still a “Death and Beyond” religion course studying the rituals and afterlife beliefs of cultures and religions around the world (Shout out to Dr. Walter Kaelber!). And I think all of the variety academically, really informed my theater studies. It really opened my eyes to a world beyond the stage, and I was exposed to a group of people I probably would never have otherwise met.
And while Wagner fully supported my theater “habit” (I had just as heavy a performance load as I did at OCHSA), it did help me find balance for the rest of my life. And it has continued to train me long after I graduated there. I went back in 2009, to step in for a dear teacher who had suddenly passed away, to direct a production of The Who’s Tommy, and that experience has led me to actively pursue more directing work. I don’t know if that sort of opportunity would have been presented to me had I gone to NYU or Carnegie, but I am so grateful that Wagner College has given me as much as it has.
Also, going to Wagner made the transition to moving to New York City so much easier. I had a built-in network of friends in the city, tons of connections in the industry, and had 4 years of auditioning in the city that made everything much more comfortable.
And from there, I just kept plugging along. Nothing happened overnight for me. I wasn’t given a big contract right away. It was a slow and gradual process. I truly feel like I had to earn my spot in the industry, regional gig by regional gig, and figure out where I fit… mostly because no one else was going to figure it out for me.
But one acting job seemed to lead to the next, with lots of survival day jobs in between. And I’d like to think that perseverance and (on many days) struggle is what is keeping me grounded in light of all that is going on with Mormon. It is the struggle that has taught me how to be self reliant, resourceful and clever. I think it’s made me a much more interesting human.
And I think even the most experienced of actors (at least the actors open to it), continue to have breakthrough moments throughout their careers. I think it is the only way to survive and to stay inspired. I like to think of the breakthroughs as the road markers on an artistic “road trip,” and sometimes they take us on crazy detours, but it’s leads us to wherever we are supposed to be going.
J.P.: You’re credited as “MIT Student” in A Beautiful Mind. I thought, of all the MIT students in A Beautiful Mind, you were by far the most convincing. What do you recall of that experience?
S.B.: Thank You? Ha! Of course you call me out on my film credit as an extra! I just write “MIT Student” to make it sound fancier. Busted!
What I recall from this experience was that I had just graduated from college and I was poor! I had a SAG card from doing commercials when I was in high school out in California, so I signed up to be an extra just to make some extra money. I remember being dressed up in fancy old vintage clothes, being treated like high-end cattle, and being brought to a classroom in the Bronx to shoot. I also remember it being incredible to be directed by Ron Howard. I mean, extra or not, being in the same room as Ron Howard working on a film is freaking cool.
The truly coolest thing that happened on that set was they were shooting Russell Crowe’s shot of this particular classroom scene, and he needed a few students in the room for him to work off of, and to set his eye levels, etc. And I randomly got picked with three others out of the group of extras. It was a simple shot, but so neat to be able to watch the process unfold.
And then the movie came out, and there was a massive, unmistakably “That’s Scotty!” shot in the scene. To this day, I have gotten more phone calls and texts from that experience, then from any theater gig I have ever done (maybe with Mormon being a slight exception to that). All for a random day of extra work trying to make some extra cash.
My family thought it was really cool too … maybe even cooler than the fancy Broadway callbacks I was getting at the same time.
Not maybe. They most certainly thought it was cooler.
J.P.: I’ve read a bunch of interviews with myriad Mormons about the Book of Mormon, and they mostly offer some variation of this optimistic take: “This will bring more attention to Mormonism, and that can actually help us!” Uh … what? You’re in the cast—is there any chance someone leaves thinking, “Mormonism—sign me up!” And has your perception of the LDS church changed at all?
S.B.: I don’t know if this show is going to bring a giant uptick in Mormon membership per se, but it does give the religion a lot of exposure. And what I love more than anything about the show, is that it gets people talking about faith, how it works in their lives and what it does for them. This show isn’t meant to be Mormon bashing, but rather it uses the Mormon religion to make a bigger statement about the natural evolution of religion in general.
I also agree with Matt, Trey and Bobby’s opinion on this subject … the Mormons that I have had the good fortune of meeting are some of the nicest and sweetest people I know. I’ve never met a Mormon that I didn’t like. I also love so many of their core values. They are kind, resourceful, gracious, and giving people. Family is of the upmost importance to them. These are all traits that can be easily revered.
I have had the pleasure of working twice in Salt Lake City at Pioneer Theater Company (on the University of Utah campus, where I played Carmen Ghia in The Producers and Andy Lee in 42nd Street). That was the biggest exposure I have had to the Mormon church before this show, and as an outsider I was greeted with open arms, and made some great friendships with many LDS members. And despite being in The Book of Mormon, I am still in good standing with them and stay in contact with them regularly.
So I don’t know if the show has changed my perception of the LDS church, but I have certainly learned a whole lot more about it’s history and culture and it has also made me look inwardly toward my own sense of faith and spirituality.
J.P.:I have a friend who’s extremely religious. On her Facebook page she recently wrote, “So The Book of Mormon, billed as the most profane musical in Broadway history, took home nine Tony Awards. Figure in the recent success of the movie Bridesmaids, called both raunchy and disgusting even by those who loved it, and it makes me wonder: At what point did obscenity go beyond commonplace to the point it’s actually praiseworthy?” She also wrote, “profanity and gratuitous language/vulgarity is LAZINESS.” What’s your take on this?
S.B.: This is a really interesting topic. I have found that a lot of people with this sort of opinion about the show have not actually seen the show or heard the recording. I don’t know if that is the case here, but I think it’s fascinating nonetheless.
I have had the privilege of witnessing this show be created for the last year, so my opinion is full of knowledge about the process of how this show came to be. I could call this show many things, but ‘lazy’ is about the furthest adjective I would ever use to describe how this show was written and created.
Every word, lyric and scene was painstakingly written. Like with many aspects of pop culture, sure, we use profanity to our advantage. But in this particular instance, the profanity is highly calculated and used very specifically to allow the audience to go on a particular ride. These words have power to them, which is why we all react to them the way that we do. They are titillating. This show simply capitalizes on that emotional reaction. On that level, I find it to be laser-sharp writing.
Your friend didn’t see Matt, Trey and Bobby working tirelessly to make sure every lyric and line had the right balance within the structure of the show (curse words included … It’s amazing how many of them were actually cut!). She didn’t see Casey Nicholaw and his assistants (Jen Werner-Cannizaro and John MacInnis) dream up amazing dance steps and creative staging. She didn’t see our designers and crew build a beautiful world for us to play on. And she didn’t see this cast come together and tirelessly rehearse this show, and create characters that didn’t exist just a few months ago. And putting it all together, there were thousands of working hours that were spent on this show. Trust me, it was not a lazy endeavor.
And at the end of the day, I like to believe that we didn’t win acclaim because we used the words ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ cleverly. The show works because The Book of Mormon is a classically-structured, impeccably-staged Broadway musical comedy.
Everyone is entitled their opinion and this show might not be her cup of tea. I get that. She would not be the only one. There are a lot of people who don’t want to hear those words in any context. But I also bet, that if she were to see the whole show and understand its underlying message, she might have a fucking amazing good time.
J.P.:What are you thinking when you’re on stage? Take us through your brain patterns …
S.B.: Mostly my thought process is based on staying in the scene that we are in. And the show is so well written, that it isn’t too hard to do.
But now and again, there are the fun occasional thoughts that will pop in.
The big one for me lately is that I have a chronic fear that I’m wearing the wrong socks. Seriously. We change clothes so many times in the show, that I often get on stage and start a scene without having double-checked, and I have a mini panic attack. It is particularly bad in the group Baptism scene, when everyone on stage is dressed all in white. I am somehow always convinced that my black socks are on with my white suit, and that I will be found out as some kind of a Mormon fraud. Until I take a conspicuous glance down to see that I do indeed have the right socks on. It is such a random issue, but it still freaks me out.
The same irrational fear sometimes goes along with the Mormon name tag and the Mormon tie.
I also sneezed on stage recently. The thought process: “I’m going to sneeze. What do I do? What do I do? [sneeze] Oh, that’s what I do. [contemplative beat] Wow. I just sneezed on Broadway. That’s a first for me!”
The other thing that permeates my thinking is when someone fancy is in the audience. You can’t help but think about “something” when you hear that Oprah and Gayle are watching the show. We’ve got a few “hawk eyes” in our cast who can spot people within the first or second scene. It’s astounding the amount of fancy people who have seen the show. It also is a big factor in backstage chit-chat. Fun stuff.
J.P.:Best moment on stage/lowest moment on stage:
S.B.: Best Moment on Stage: Opening Night of Book of Mormon. Absolutely. Magical.
I would also include learning how to do the flip up the wall in Make ’em Laugh in Singin’ in the Rain, when I played Cosmo up at The Goodspeed Opera House. I worked my butt off to get that, and landing that every night was a personal triumph!
Lowest Moment on Stage: I don’t know if this was my lowest moment, but it was one of the funniest.
I did the National tour of Deaf West’s acclaimed production of Big River, which is the story of Huckleberry Finn told with a cast of hearing and deaf actors. It was a truly remarkable experience, one in which I traveled the U.S. (and Tokyo!) and also got to learn American Sign Language, as every hearing actor had to sign and sing their own lines at some point in the show.
I had a small speech in the second act, playing one half of the prissy Robinson twins, warning Mary Jane about her future. It was a speech that I had to sign as well as speak. I had done this speech close to 300 times. I knew this speech.
And then, one day, I did not know this speech. For no apparent reason, just as I opened my mouth to start saying the line, it flew right out of my head. I panicked and then I started ad-libbing, and riffing on some strange variation of the line I was supposed to be saying. Lots of words. I saw the cast around me, and their eyes were like saucers. It’s the type of reaction you would imagine if you were watching someone watch you have a stroke. I just kept talking and talking and trying to find a way to finish the line and get the hell off the stage. It felt like eternity.
But the remarkable part about it all, was I ad-libbed in sign language right along with my spoken line. I was just babbling in sign language, matching what ever crazy thing was coming out of my mouth. So even the deaf actors got to enjoy my misery as I stumbled along in sign and spoken word.
Luckily, I had a quick exit right after, and could leave the rest of the cast onstage with their faces turned upstage to hide their uproarious giggles. I also made the stage manager miss a cue, because he was laughing so hard about it.
A special moment for me.
J.P.:I have a theory—writers, actors, singers. In high school and junior high we were mostly geeks; the kids other students made fun of and mocked and called “drama nerds” and the like. Then we grow up, produce books and CDs and magical plays, and the asswipes from back in the day—now working as stock brokers and gas attendants—brag about knowing us. Do you fit into this category? And do you buy my theory?
S.B.: I was such a theater nerd. Honestly, I am still a total theater nerd. I know more random facts about old Broadway shows than is probably healthy.
But theater is my passion. I love it so much. And that love is what makes me a Theater Nerd. I love it enough that I’m not really concerned about how others view me. If they think it’s dorky—and let’s be honest, many people do—I’m not bothered by it. And I’ve been that was for as long as I can remember.
I always knew I wanted to be one of the adults that do just what you said: produce and write books and CDs and magical plays. Because it is magical! So I was super focused, since the age of 10, to figure out how the hell to make that happen.
I was a little boy who sang show tunes and tap danced for talent shows in elementary school. That was my bag. I was a natural target for bullying. And I guess I was made fun of to some extent, but it didn’t really matter to me. And because I didn’t care too much about it, and I was far more concerned about how I was going to get my next theater “fix,” I was left mostly to my own devices.
I still proudly wear the label “Theater Nerd.” It seems to have served me pretty well throughout life.
And yes, your theory about the asswipes who “knew us back in the day,” does hold some truth to it. Luckily, I went to a High School of the Arts, so most of my peeps understood me, even back then. I was naturally sheltered from a lot of the asswipes. But there are always a few who slip through the cracks.
My favorite comment from someone many years post-high school was, “Dude, Scotty, when did you get funny?!?”
“I was always pretty funny, you just weren’t listening back then… DUDE!”
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH SCOTT BARNHARDT
• You’ve done a load of regional theatre work over the years. You once played Scooter in the Papermill Playhouse production of Happy Days, and you played Garvin in Footloose at the Theatre by the Sea. I say this with all respect, Scott—I’ve watched Happy Days and Footloose 8,000 times, and I’m pretty sure there was no Scooter and no Garvin. Who are these guys?: Ha! This question made me laugh out loud. I totally LOL’ed.
Garvin from the stage version of Footloose is one of Willard’s friends in the number Mama Says. (a.k.a. That guy who belts real high and is a little bit nerdy.) It’s an actual character in the script, I swear.
Scooter is another story. He is a very special guy. No, he wasn’t in the series. No, he never jumped the shark. He is just a strange version of me.
Happy Days: The New Musical, had been kicking around for a few years, and they did a developmental run at Goodspeed Opera House. They transfered that Goodspeed production to the Papermill Playhouse. I was added to the Papermill company to help fill out the ensemble and to cover the roles of Chachi, Potsie and Ralph (Yup, all three of those names are on my resume too!)
This ensemble character needed a name, since no one had ever been in this male ensemble track before. So the director, Gordon Greenberg, looked at me and said, “Hmmmm … you look like a Scooter.” And so Scooter was born, and became very popular among the cast. People stopped calling me Scott and would only call me Scooter. I didn’t have a single line, and was never referred to onstage as Scooter … but Scooter lived in that show!
I would normally just put ENSEMBLE on my resume for a job like that, but Scooter seemed to be something special.
And when the character name Scooter made it into the liner notes of the Cast Album we recorded, I kept it on my resume. Scooter rules.
• Would you rather get a tattoo across your forehead with the Chinese symbol for canned pickles or spend the next year listening to Celine Dion’s greatest hits on an endless loop?: Since I am not a fan of pickles and I have a large enough forehead (a 5-head instead of a 4-head) and don’t need anything helping me point that out, I’m going to have to go with Celine’s endless loop.
• The line, “You have a lovely mudhut” had me laughing for days. What’s your singular favorite line in the show?: The one line that always makes me giggle is a Sound of Music reference in Elder Price’s big power ballad, I Believe.
“A Warlord who shoots people in the face … What’s so scary about that?” Brilliant.
• Five favorite Broadway productions of all time: This is so hard. It’s like Sophie’s Choice for me. And in no particular order …
Musicals: Avenue Q, Sweeney Todd, The Drowsy Chaperone, Ragtime, Into The Woods.
Plays: Next Fall, Little Dog Laughed, Angles in America, The Normal Heart, Journey’s End.
• Ron Guidry, Tommy John or Larry Gura?: You’re asking a gay musical theater actor this question … so I, in turn, asked my straight friend … he says Tommy John. I’m going with Tommy John. (And this is why I am the “secretary” for The Book Of Mormon Broadway Softball Team … I can keep scores and stats like nobody’s business.)
• If you could ask Tupac Shakur one question, what would it be?: “Is there music in heaven?”
• You’re on a first date. The person you’re with has a dried booger at the end of his nose. What do you do/say?: “Do you know The Golden Rule? Well, you can pick your friends. You can pick your nose. But you can’t pick your friend’s nose. So if we are going to be friends, I’m going to need you to take care of that dried booger at the end of your nose. Thank You.”
• You’re 5-8, 145 pounds. Have you ever—in your life—gotten in a fight? And if so, did you even come close to winning?: You’re not wrong, I am more of a lover than a fighter.
I remember being in a line for school in the fifth grade. A boy stole a button from the girl who was in front of me, and she was very upset about it. I knew what had happened was wrong. So I went up to the boy, took the button back from him and returned it to the rightful owner. It was all very chivalrous and noble. Very Robin Hood and Maid Marian.
Then the boy promptly kicked me in the balls, and I was sent to the nurse’s office with an ice pack on my groin.
Yeah, the whole Robin Hood fighting things clearly wasn’t for me.
But don’t let the small frame fool you, I’m a scrappy little nugget when I need to be. Especially if I have a pair of tap shoes on.
• Ever think you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details …: I’ve been flying since I was a few weeks old. Both my parents are from the East Coast, but I was raised in Southern California. So flying cross-country was always a part of my life to see family. I’m very comfortable flying…I sincerely don’t fear death in a plane.
I have a much bigger fear of death by standing in the check-in line or getting felt up by an unruly TSA agent. Does that count?