Friday, 18 May 2007

The Inspirations Project part 3

Matt Harrop as Riff Raff/Susan Egan As Sally Bowles (with Michael Hall)

“Discipline, Trust, Focus, Honesty, Passion, Being, Experiencing the birthing process of a theatrical living organism every night, Joy. Despair, Joy, again. The air we breathe.”

So Says Maureen McGovern as she describes what musical theatre means to her, and we begin the final instalment of The Inspirations Project (for now!)

After looking at the musicals that first got them interested in theatre, and then the performers and performances that inspired them later on we now move on to our groups own careers.

When we look at people who have inspired us it can quite often be those who we see from the audience, but for a performer it can often be someone with whom they share the stage.

Caroline Sheen” I have always thought Jenna Russell was the sort of actress I wanted to be. Her ability to create a sympathetic, lovable and moving character is brilliant. I worked with her at the Donmar (Warehouse) when I had only recently left college and she taught me so much. I am so pleased for her finally getting the appreciation she has deserved for so long. (Jenna Russell recently won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress In A Musical for the role of Dot/Marie in “Sunday In The Park With George”) She’s a top girl too!!!”

Maureen McGovern “George Rose was my theatre mentor. George played my papa, Major Stanley, in “Pirates of Penzance” on Broadway. He was extremely supportive to me as an actor and came to many of my concert performances as well. “

Susan Egan” Once I started working in the theatre I found inspiration in folks like Tommy Tune, Gary Beach, Beth Fowler, Fred Applegate and others. Folks who are immensely talented ... and also kind and enthusiastic about the art form. Many people become bitter, or are difficult to work with, or have forgotten why they entered the business in the first place. Not these ... they are joyous people, and it shows in their performances.”

Caroline “I have been very lucky to work with a lot of the top names in musical theatre – but I will always have the biggest soft spot for a certain Mr Michael Ball. He has the most incredible singing voice – instantly identifiable, and when he hits those ‘money’ notes it’s spine tingling. Working with him (on “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”) was one of the funniest experiences of my life and I often do concerts with him now. He’s a great company leader and a fabulous leading man.”

Of course Maureen McGovern’s career has taken her into many other fields beside musical theatre so it’s unsurprising that a major influence on her was legendary vocalist Mel Torme.
Maureen “I have been a fan of Mel Torme since I was a teenager. What a thrill it was to not only work with Mel and share his friendship, but to have him as my mentor for most of my career. He was one of the greatest singers to ever grace this planet...a lesson in every breath.”

As I ask our septet to look to their own careers it only seems right that I should ask them if they have had any particular favourite roles.

Anne Kerry Ford “It was great fun being Grace Farrell in "Annie" on Broadway when I was only twenty-four. What could be better than being in a great musical with sold-out houses, a wonderful cast, your own dressing room, and your name on the marquee? Plus, I got to work with the wonderful choreographer, Peter Gennero.”

Susan “I enjoyed "Belle" (In “Beauty And The Beast”) simply because it allowed me to connect with so many children -- people now grown who still hold the memory of that show in their hearts. Sounds corny, but it's true. But professionally, I enjoyed Sally Bowles in “Cabare”t the most, because the production (directed by Sam Mendes) was exquisite. The character is tragic, but she doesn't know it. The time period resonates. I love the play and I loved that cast.”

Maureen mentions three roles that she particularly enjoyed “The Countess Aurelia: “Dear World” -- Jerry Herman's gorgeous musical version of “The Madwoman Of Chaillot.” Philip Himberg directed me in his production for the Sundance Theatre Institute. His belief in me, his artistic integrity and his compassion and creativity as a director made for a completely joyous stretch for me as an actor. I loved playing Aurelia. Eleanor Bridges: Paris Barclay's “Letters From ‘Nam.” To portray the actual mother of an American soldier in Viet Nam, whose young life was needlessly taken in a senseless war was humbling and heartbreaking to me. To honour the strength and courage of the families and the soldiers, who witnessed unspeakable horror and were expected to mainstream back into society with precious little help and mostly contempt from the country that sent them, was a wrong that needed to be righted. This wonderful healing piece of theatre celebrates life amid the inhumanity and futility of all war. Marmee: “ Little Women, The Musical.” It was a joy to return to Broadway as the matriarch of the legendary March family from Concord. I was re-united with my very first theatre director, Susan H. Schulman and was blessed to have exquisite songs to sing by Mindy Dickstein and Jason Howland”

With the works of Stephen Sondheim having cropped up so often in this piece it’s not surprising that both DC Anderson and Caroline Sheen particularly enjoyed working on his shows.

D.C “Buddy in” Follies” I like Buddy and Sally's story - their relationship as it's exposed in song...”

Caroline “(It) would have to be playing Philia in “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” at The National. She was so ridiculously dumb and funny. A Brilliantly written character and I used my native Welsh accent for it which was an extra bonus as I am very proud of being Welsh!”

Matt Harrop “I think having been in the business for 10 years, I have been lucky, but not as lucky as I have been in the last 8/9 months... I have a brilliant agent, and having landed the role of Riff Raff in “Rocky Horror Show” has been a real eye opener... So I would have to say that this part has given me the most enjoyment as it is my first big role, and the atmosphere on a Friday/Saturday night on this show is ELECTRIC!! And I love every moment of it...”

As the least experienced of our collaborators AJ O’Neill has less roles to choose from but has found things to enjoy none the less “With my heady experience of.. well two shows since college, I enjoyed playing Man 1 in “Songs For A New World” in Ireland because I got to sing some of my all time favourite songs. In “Chicago” it's not any particular role I enjoy but the challenge of doing different ones.

For Matt too his early roles made their mark! “I have to mention the beast that is “Les Miserables”, my first job and a show that I have a great love for... And I loved playing Grantaire , the drunken student, a lovely small dramatic part....”

Since, initially, asking this question AJ has performed in a leading role on the West End stage for the first time as Amos Hart in “Chicago” so I felt it only pertinent to ask him for a few words on this experience. “I had been looking forward to eventually playing Amos for a very long time but when I finally had the chance, I was more scared of screwing it up because I had been looking forward to it for so long than screwing it up because I didn't know what I was doing. It was the fear of doing something you know so backwards that you might be overconfident with it and mess up because of that. But it went great, and I really REALLY enjoyed being the centre of attention (shocking I know) and I am looking forward to doing more lead roles if they ever let me again. Preferably Amos not Mary Sunshine.. though that was a singular experience. I'm looking forward to playing Jamie in the Irish premiere of “The Last Five Years” but at the moment it's only a pipe dream. Have to have some time off first. But it would be a great follow-up to playing Man 1 in “Songs for a New World.””

Having established their past highlights I was curious to see what roles they would like to play in the future and who their dream co-star might be. I wasn’t particularly surprised with their answers though as so many of the shows – and indeed performers – have already been mentioned.

It seems that Anne would like to follow in the footsteps of her co-star from “The Threepenny Opera” – a certain Maureen McGovern when she says “I would love to play Anna in” The King and I” with anyone capable of inhabiting the role of the king! (All offers will be considered)” and DC chose “Sweeney Todd” as the demon barber himself, along side Victoria Clark.

And in my opinion Caroline would be the perfect choice for her own dream role when she requests “Clara in “The Light In The Piazza” opposite Hugh Jackman please!”

And for Maureen we have a non musical dream role (or maybe a musical yet to be written?) when she offers “”The Lion In Winter” with Russell still my heart!”

Hmmm I make that two Australian hunks as co-stars!

AJ “Dream role?, at the mo, Princeton/Rod in “Avenue Q”. Or “The Scarlet Pimpernel”. Oh ambition... Dream co-star is blatantly Joanna Lumley. Met her before working on a movie and was actually star struck. And she hugged me. So clearly we'd work well together.”

Hmm I don’t know about you but I can’t quite imagine Joanna Lumley as Lucy The Slut!

Matt “Heh, I don’t have a dream role really.... I want to be a good actor, and be adaptable, and let people find roles that I can do, I never thought I would be Riff Raff for example, but I hope I am doing a good job!”

Susan” I like new shows, originating a role and being allowed to collaborate with the writers, so my dream role has yet to be written! I'd love to work with Gary Beach in anything. Meryl Streep would be a dream come true - I admire her greatly. Anthony Hopkins is a favorite as well.”

Matt “Ok, if you push me, I would love to go back to “Les Miserables” as Javert one day.....”

Many musical theatre performers have parallel careers as concert and cabaret artists so I also asked how much musical theatre informs this work.

Anne “ It is completely the same thing for me. The lyric is a script. Of course, in a concert, you are singing the song out of the context of the show, so you may have to "set up" the song to the audience so that it makes sense. But singing the actual song, there is no difference. I am always acting the lyrics. In cabaret rooms, it is the same, except in smaller venues I may have to play more "extreme close-up" and bring the emotions to a more subtle level to be effective.”

Maureen “As a singer, I approach a song as a musical conversation. In theatre, we are story tellers. So, my concerts have given me an ease, an at-home feeling on stage, while theatre has taught me to trust the material and tell the story.”

DC “I think they feed each other. As a cabaret performer I am in the habit of telling stories with song as myself, I am comfortable in my own skin in front of an audience. As a musical theatre actor I am in the habit of entering another's world and telling their stories through dialogue and song, filtered through either my own experience or a combination of my experience and imagination”

AJ” I try not to be too cartoony in my musical theatre work and try and bring whatever realism I use in my MT work to my cabaret and concert work.”

Susan believes it informs her cabaret work “ in as much as it's where I draw the music from -- but my cabaret work is based on my life experiences -- I simply find songs in the musical theatre world that describe those personal experiences best -- they may not be from shows I've actually done.”

Susan’s answer leads neatly into a further question, when I asked if there were any songs that had particular meaning either personally or professionally. For Maureen it was “The Music And The Mirror” as she mentioned in an earlier question, and Caroline selected a song from “The Light In The Piazza.”

Susan “I always loved “Patterns” from “Baby” -- rather sad, but beautiful -- about a woman wondering how her life became what it is. I think Sondheim hits the core with “Children Will Listen.””

Anne “I love the song “Move On” from Sondheim's “ Sunday in the Park with George” because it totally sums up an artist's journey. I also think Sondheim articulated the pain and fear and trepidation of love and loneliness in the song “Being Alive” probably better than any other song I have ever heard. It is a joy to sing” Being Alive” because it is such a TRUE song. (By the way, I think Sondheim had so much guts to call a song, Being Alive! That's a pretty big topic, isn't it? And he completely nailed it!)

DC - “You Don't Know This Man” from “Parade” (by Jason Robert Brown) - a concise, perfect example of true dedication and devotion to a life partner “

Matt “Mmm a song.... Well I can definitely say that a composer I love is Jason Robert Brown, and the song I love of his at the moment is called,” What It Means To Be A Friend”, pure and simple genius! From his new musical, “13”, it’s a child's view of what friendship is, and although it is deliberately naive, written from a 13 year olds point of view, I think it pretty much sums up what friendship is all about.. and maybe love!”

AJ -“” Why” from” Tick Tick Boom” (by Jonathan Larson) . Whenever things are shit I think what would I rather be doing, and in the end it comes down to... I'd not prefer to be doing anything else. This is me, for better of worse, for the time being. It's good to admit to yourself that you are who you are, regardless of if you're in the mood to be you.”

But what if he, and all the others, were doing something else? What do they think they would be doing?

AJ “Probably journalism. I got into a course but went to dance college instead. I've always had an interest in journalism anyway, I figure I may do it later with a theatre slant. If I remember how to type!”

Maureen “A Photographic Journalist!”

Anne “Gosh, I don't know. Writing for a travel magazine would be fun. Coaching actors for auditions? Raising border collies, perhaps? Or I might make a good stylist.”

Matt “Erm, maybe teaching... I did want to be one when I was younger...”

Susan “Research science.”

DC “I would love to be a casting director - I love the theatre and I love actors and singers and am thrilled when I see the successful melding of an actor/singers talent and a role”

Caroline “Crying!”

Without a doubt, whatever the future holds, musical theatre will play a big part for my interviewees. So I asked them to sum up what musical theatre means to them. The results ranged from the poetic to the pragmatic. Interestingly the British were pragmatic but the Americans were poetic which provided me with some wonderful copy to begin each of these three parts. So we have already heard from Anne Kerry Ford, Susan Egan and Maureen McGovern on this question but it’s time to hear from everyone else!

AJ “I have devalued it slightly through college - I used to think it was the be-all and end-all, and college made me realise that it's a job like any other. Well, not like ANY other, but it's important to know that it's a job. When it's stressful, and it's usually stressful, it's important to remember that there's more important things in the world. Like... most things. :-)”

DC “ It's a combination of all that I love - all that moves me - music, movement, story-telling”

Matt “ Oh Lord! Easy Question! To me, it means so much, my life has been defined by it, and sometimes it drives me absolutely crazy.... Well that’s the business side of it I guess, and the trials that producers and casting directors put us poor actors through! But I couldn't not have musical theatre in my life, I drive my friends crazy cause I still play musical theatre tunes all the time, and have playlists dedicated to it on my Ipod!”

But maybe Caroline finds the perfect balance between pragmaticism and poeticism when she says “Energy, excitement, fun and hard work!”

Well that’s almost it, but as AJ is just starting out I thought it only fair that I should ask our more seasoned performers what words of wisdom they may be able to offer him.

DC “Enjoy yourself - know the story and dedicate yourself fully to telling your part of it every night - avoid any temptation to leave the world of the play for your own or your cast mates' entertainment.”

Anne “Work as hard as you possibly can on your craft EVERY single time you go out onstage. It keeps the work fresh and keeps you from getting bored in a long run. Also, be nice to absolutely everybody, always be on time, and have fun. You have earned the right to have lots of fun.”

Susan “Don't get caught up in the politics or dramas backstage -- keep your joy and focus on the performance and the audience. It's easy to become submerged in other people's energy, especially if it is negative -- and there are plenty of those folks in the business. I find that staying light keeps me happy, focused, working at my highest level ... and you can help create a marvelous environment for your coworkers. This is not brain surgery -- we have to keep our senses of humour! AND don't believe your own press! The rave reviews or the horrible ones -- disregard them all.”

Caroline “Enjoy yourself, have fun, be disciplined – but above all don’t take yourself too seriously “

Matt “I wouldn't presume to know anything, except to say enjoy it, try not to stay in one show forever, move on and find more challenges for yourself after getting everything you can out of your present job..”

Maureen “Remember to BREATHE! I frequently tell this to myself when working on any new role.”

Now I inadvertently sent this question to AJ himself who, humorously, offered himself the following advice! “Always wear a clean jockstrap, you never know when you'll be hit by a bus. Or a flying female chorus member.”

And Matt actually asks AJ “Could he teach me how to do the splits?”

Well some questions it seems are to remain forever unanswered! All that remains are our customary handy household hints, and for me to say a few words of thanks. I am sure all of my readers will wish to thank AJ O’Neill, Matt Harrop, Caroline Sheen, DC Anderson, Anne Kerry Ford, Maureen McGovern and last but not least Susan Egan. How on earth she found time to answer my emails while caring for a two month old baby is beyond me! Hopefully, however, this is not the end of The Inspirations Project and it is just the beginning. My intention is to get together a much larger group of performers and see where their input leads me. So watch this space!

But In the Meantime………

Susan “Get rid of as much as you can! Donate or throw away things on a regular basis -- keeps your home from becoming deluged and it keeps new things coming in -- creates a great flow!”

AJ “The recycling bin doesn't smell. That's how you know the difference. In case you're so stupid you can't notice from first glance. This is at me, not anyone else.”

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