7 Broadway Favorites Who Balance Performing on the Main Stem and in Their Own Band

Interview   7 Broadway Favorites Who Balance Performing on the Main Stem and in Their Own Band
 
Be More Chill’s Gerard Canonico, Hercules’ Tamika Lawrence and more reveal what it’s like to perform on Broadway and lead your own band at the same time.
Tamika Lawrence and Gerard Canonico
Tamika Lawrence and Gerard Canonico

While there have been several Broadway shows whose subject matter have revolved around a band, numerous Broadway actors have also done double duty, playing in a band while performing eight shows a week. Others pick up their instruments in between theatre gigs, drawn by their love of live music.

For example, Tony winner Michael Cerveris has been singing and playing guitar with his country band Live Cattle for seven years, often performing in New Orleans when he’s not on the Broadway stage. But when he is—such as when he was playing his Tony-winning role in Fun Home in 2016, the band plays gigs in New York City.

Plenty of others in the theatre community find time to do both Broadway and play in live bands, including Sweeney Todd’s Lauren Molina with the comedy pop band, The Skivvies; Hand to God’s Steve Boyer and his band The U.S. Open; and Topdog/Underdog playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who fronts Suzan-Lori Parks and the Band.

Here are some others who find time for both their loves of live music.

Alice Ripley
Next to Normal, Side Show

Alice Ripley has 20 years of experience on the Broadway stage, including memorable runs in Side Show, The Rocky Horror Show and her Tony-winning role of Diana in Next to Normal. But for just as long a time, the actor has been the lead singer of her own band, aptly titled RIPLEY.

“When I started the band, it was a way to express my soul because I could tell my stories with the songs I was writing and the band was a safe place for them to emerge,” Ripley says. “I had the luxury of working in a Broadway show, which gave me free time to write music and rehearse with the band, and I could express that side of myself the audience wasn’t going to see through my just playing a character.”

RIPLEY recently performed at Feinstein’s/54 Below with original band members Christopher Schelling on piano, Kevin Kuhn on guitar, and special guest singer Jennifer Damiano (Ripley’s Tony-nominated co-star from Next to Normal).

“The majority of it [is] Alice Ripley original songs, but there’s always a couple I have in my back pocket, such as a Next to Normal tune or a Carlyle Floyd song from an opera called Susannah, that Chris has rearranged and we’d like to include,” Ripley says. “Jennifer [has] a lot to sing and take the lead on a lot of songs that I usually sing. That’s exciting for me.”

On the theatre stage, Ripley was recently seen in Out of the Box Theatrics’ production of Elise Forier Edie’s The Pink Unicorn, in which she played a conservative Texas parent inspired to fight for the rights of her child’s gender identity.

“It’s something I have never done before, sit up in front of people for an hour-and-a-half and talk without stopping,” she says. “I do feel like I am a voice for that community, and this is just the opening conversation.”

Gerard Canonico
Be More Chill; Almost Famous

Be More Chill played its last show this summer, and even though fan-favorite Gerard Canonico (Rich) quickly booked his next role—playing Dick Roswell in the upcoming Old Globe production of Almost Famous, he can also regularly be seen on stage in New York at some of its best clubs as part of his Blink 182 tribute band, Dude Ranch.

“Of all the bands that I’ve played with since I’ve moved to New York, this one is the only one that has had any type of touring traction. We can show up in any city, and people show up with Blink 182 garb on and see us play, almost without us even having to promote it because of how big that band is,” he says. “It’s been a nice way to see the country, play some music and not have any of the gross band politics of being in an original band.”

In NYC, Dude Ranch has played places like Mercury Lounge, Arlene’s Grocery and House of Blues—often with gigs beginning right after Canonico’s Be More Chill shows ended around 11 PM.

“I sing and play guitar, the Tom DeLonge role, and we try to capture the nostalgic ’90s, early 2000s vibe of them, because that’s when they were most popular,” he says. “We do their live show a lot of times.”

Canonico also guests in another band—Imperial Cities, a live request band which plays at Haswell Greens, and he’s performed with them several times after a two-show day.

“It was a lot of not sleeping and quite a bit of mental gymnastics,” he says. “It’s part of who I am. I’ve been professionally acting for so long, but I was a musician first. My heart is driving this and I pretty much use all of my free time to play as much as I can and try to learn new music.”

In fact, Canonico was ready to tour with the band, but then he got the call from Almost Famous, “which is going to be keeping me busy for at least the next year,” Canonico says. “My band never makes me feel bad and it’s always going to be a part of what I do.”

Syndee Winters
The Lion King

Syndee Winters has been part of The Lion King’s pride on and off since 2010 and currently plays leading lioness Nala. But musical theatre wasn’t her first love. She originally aspired to be a pop singer in a band.

“I grew up listening to pop music. My parents are from Jamaica, so I’m heavily influenced by reggae and R&B, and I was around the family of Bob Marley when I was growing up,” she says. “At 13, I started writing my own songs.”

Before getting to Broadway, Winters collaborated with hip-hop artist Grand Master Flash, and wrote three songs for his 2009 album The Bridge.

“It was after that, that I auditioned for the tour of The Lion King, and I realized that, though music is my number one love, the theatre community is such an inclusive community and embraces all voices and all genres,” she says. “Especially now, I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

But she hasn’t forfeited her pop dreams. While doing eight shows a week at the Minskoff, she had a residency in Harlem at Minton’s Supper Club, singing with her band as Syndee Winter and Suite Assembly.

“The key to do both is being organized,” she says. “It’s a balance I have tried to achieve for over a decade. On my off days, I go into the studio and dedicate time to my band and musicians, who are a main part of how my music is created. My core band is sick!”

Winters is currently working on a jazz album about the life of Lena Horne and her latest single, “Gold” was released in July.

Molly Hager
Waitress
Having been in the ensemble of Waitress since its Broadway beginnings in 2016—also understudying Becky at times—Molly Hager fulfilled a lifelong dream.

But another dream she always had was to play in a band. She’s part of a two-person band with Grammy-nominated engineer and producer Ian Kagey called Molly and the Memphis Thunder.

“Ian and I have great musical chemistry and it’s really fun for us. We are both creative in our careers, but it’s nice to set time aside to be creative for ourselves,” Hager says. “Also, singing with him publicly helped me find some confidence that I had lost. The constant rejection in this business really takes its toll whether you’re employed or not, and, in my case, I think I had forgotten what I loved about performing. It’s never not been scary to stand up in front of people and sing, but it’s starting to become fun again and I’m really grateful that people seem to be enjoying our stuff.”

Blending many influences including folk, Americana, country, and pop, their infectious songs blend tight harmonies with heartbreaking storytelling of love and loss, and she compares the group to a little Fleetwood Mac, a little early Bonnie Raitt, and a little Civil Wars.

The combination of Waitress and her own music has been an exercise in finding balance.

“It’s helpful to schedule band rehearsals between shows or between understudy rehearsals and shows so that I’m already out of the house,” she says. “Ian and I are people that thrive on deadlines and are both extremely busy, so the only surefire way we know we can get ourselves to rehearse is if we have an upcoming show on the books.”

For example, when the duo was working on their EP the way they made sure they were going to get it done was by scheduling the EP Release Show.

“It was like, well, if we are going to invite people to this publicly we better have something to show for it,” Hager says. “Our first official show back while I was on Broadway was at Broadway Buskers, a concert series held in the middle of Times Square. We recently played our second annual Buskers show and had an official EP Release show at Rockwood.”

Lauren Worsham
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

When she was in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Lauren Worsham played Phoebe, one third of the love triangle with Sibella and Monty.

In her professional career, Worsham is in something of a love triangle balancing her life with theatre and her indie rock band, Sky-Pony, which she started with her husband, SpongeBob SquarePants book writer Kyle Jarrow, before she ever got to Broadway.

“I kept it up while I was on Broadway, and we ended up playing some weird off times since Broadway shows don’t go down super early,” she says. “There were nights I would run out of the theatre, with my hair still in pin curls, and go to a club and perform.”

She tried her best not to book Sky-Pony gigs the night before a two-show day or a four-show weekend, so that made for a lot of Sunday and Monday night gigs.

“The two things were very different, and it wasn’t like I was screaming in either the band or Gentleman’s Guide, which is all soprano stuff, so the secret really is to take care of yourself and protect your voice,” Worsham says. “When you’re on Broadway, your whole life can’t stop, because eventually it will end. So this isn’t much different than someone doing a workshop or reading while doing a show.” Of course, the world collided back in 2016 when Sky Pony’s rock fairy tale played a hit run at Off-Broadway’s Ars Nova.

Currently seven months pregnant, Worsham is taking a bit of time off from all of it, but once the baby is born, she expects Sky-Pony to be doing gigs in California in no time at all.

Brittain Ashford
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812

While playing Sonya Rostova in the 2016 Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Brittain Ashford took a bit of time away from her folk band, Prairie Empire, but missed it more than she thought.

Great Comet is like a three-hour show, completely sung through with so much activity, so the idea of rushing out of there by 11 to go downtown to play seemed like a lot,” she says. “On Sunday nights after a matinee or on a Monday we would play, but doing double duty seemed impossible on most show days.”

Ashford was making music long before she thought about a life in theatre. She played in a handful of bands as a teen, and enjoyed the artistic control of writing and performing her own music as opposed to high school theatre productions.

“Now I’m trying to bridge the gap between the two,” she says. “I just put out two new singles and I’ll be releasing an album at the end of September under my own name, taking these show tunes and putting them in the style of Prairie Empire.”

And if she finds herself in another Broadway show which isn’t as demanding as Great Comet, she plans to continue to do both.

“At the end of the day, it’s just about time,” Ashford says. “You can’t plan a tour obviously, since you might get offered a really great role, and the show will always be my first priority. I love performing with my band, just as I do musical theatre, and I never want to hurt one for the sake of the other.”

Tamika Lawrence
Hercules

With a résumé that includes Gettin’ the Band Back Together, Come From Away and If/Then, Tamika Lawrence is no stranger to the Broadway stage. She most recently led the Muses in Public Works’ staging of Disney’s Hercules in Central Park.

When time permits, Lawrence dabbles in alternative rock, and will have her first solo single out later this month off of her new EP, Two Faced.

“It has a lot of spiritual references and hip hop references, and will be presented in chapters,” she says.

This past February, Lawrence had a sold-out gig at the Apollo Theater and plans to play live more once the EP is released.

Not that she’s giving up the Broadway stage. She’s another multi-tasker—but only because she prioritizes sleep, exercise, and proper diet.

“The key is stamina. You have to carve out time for music but also enough time for yourself,” she says. “I make sure I write every day and come up with a game plan for production as well. I want to be a rock star.”

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