STEPHANIE J. BLOCK
It's been an extraordinarily busy season for singer-actress Stephanie J. Block, who has gone from the land of Oz to the Boy From Oz within a few short months. Block, who is currently making her Broadway debut at the Imperial Theatre, was originally scheduled to be part of the company of Stephen Schwartz's Wicked. However, just before she headed to San Francisco for that show's out-of-town tryout, the actress with the beautiful, rangy belt, learned that she had landed the plum role of Liza Minnelli in another of this season's new musicals, The Boy From Oz. Not only does Block get to play opposite film and stage star Hugh Jackman, but she also has the chance to perform one of Peter Allen's finest ballads, the touching "I'd Rather Leave While I'm in Love." I recently had the chance to chat with Block, who spoke about her brief Wicked run, her Oz co-star as well as a quick encounter with Liza. That interview follows:
Question: How does it feel to be making your Broadway debut?
Stephanie Block: It's so awesome! [Laughs.] It's so, so great!
Q: How did you get involved with the production?
SB: You know what, I was actually so involved with Wicked that I truly wasn't even paying attention or keeping track of the auditions [for The Boy From Oz] or anything else other than my rehearsals with Wicked. But, I guess, the role of Liza was taking them quite a long time to cast. They actually call me 'the year and the day girl' because that's how long it took. We were in our final week here in New York, and my agent called me on Friday and said, 'Would you want to go in [and audition for Oz]? They're having difficulty finding [a Liza].' I told him that I don't do quote, unquote Liza. He said, 'Well, but they're not looking for an impersonator or anything.' I said, 'Well, okay.' Since I'm new to New York, I definitely want to get out there and sing for every producer and casting director and director that I can. So that's what I was looking at [the audition] as, just an opportunity to sing and act for people that I never met before. So I went on a Monday during my lunch break from Wicked, and it went very well. And they asked if I could come back Tuesday on my lunch break, and with that they taught me some movement from my big dance number, and they taught me a song. And as I was walking out, they said, 'Well, what are you doing next Monday?' And I said, 'I'm supposed to be on a plane to San Francisco.' And they said, 'Let's rearrange that flight, and we'd like you to have an hour or two work session with Hugh, and we'll see how that goes.' So, that's how quickly it went, and then after that work session I left the room, and about a half an hour later, my agent called me and said that they're offering me the role! Then, I literally had to pack my bags and get on a plane to go to San Francisco and finish what was going to be my last leg — at least for now — of Wicked. So it was a whirlwind actually. It was so quick. I heard of the project on a Friday, and by a week from that Monday, I was offered the role.
Q: Were you contracted for Wicked for Broadway? Was it difficult to get out of that contract?
SB: The universe must have known something that I didn't because what they had done — there were two separate contracts, one of which was for San Francisco. We had already negotiated and talked about the Broadway contract, but nothing was signed, and nothing was final.
Q: Were the creative team/producers okay about you leaving Wicked?
SB: Oh, my gosh. They were amazing! They were so excited for me, and just really, really, energetic and supportive about the whole thing. I walked in that first day of work, and I thought I was going to have to break the news. Well, I guess it had all been on CNN, and this phone call led to another phone call, and I was greeted with big ole hugs and kisses and congratulations. Q: Was it intimidating to try to portray Liza Minnelli? How did you approach the role?
SB: Yes, it was crazy intimidating. [Laughs.] The thing was, when I was doing the auditioning process, I guess I never really absorbed the fact of what sort of dilemma I'd be in, or what sort of weight this character would have. And when they offered me the job, I cried and I screamed, and I called my boyfriend and my family and my voice teacher back at home. And, when I was sitting on the plane going to San Francisco, I thought, 'What have I done?' [Laughs.] As I said to you before, I had always admired her work, but it's not something that I had ever incorporated in my career or had ever tried to do a Liza Minnelli impersonation, for lack of a better word. But the creative team kept saying, 'That's not what we're looking for. It's not the Liza Minnelli story. It's not the Judy Garland story. It's the Peter Allen story. So we're looking for a much more human and personal approach to this character because everybody seems to think they know Liza, but they know her from her performances and this star-powered woman.' The scenes that I do, they're really quiet moments with her mom playing cards or discussing things with her husband, and I don't think she would be over-the-top as we would envision her on stage when she closes that door and is at home in her own living room with her husband. So, little by little, I started putting in more inflections and mannerisms, and they were wonderfully patient. . . . Isabel Keating had done Judy several times and had been part of the [Boy From Oz] workshop. So when I watched her in rehearsals, and she had already embodied Judy Garland, it was like, 'Oh my word, do I need to put more Liza in the character!' . . . I think one of the main reasons why it's a different take and it's a little more delicate is because Liza is still alive. That is a very important reason why we can't 'go there,' so to speak, so I'm able to 'go there' when I do my big production number and become that Liza that people recognize. And, you know, I think it's staying much more true to who she was. I think a lot of people think of Liza in the last ten, twenty years, instead of going back to 1964. When I was doing the homework and watching this woman, or this girl I should say, grow into a woman, grow into a star. It's amazing to see her transformation. In all the homework that I've done, it's really when she met Fred Ebb and Halston that things started to change, and this woman that we know now was born. So, going back and watching 'Sterile Cuckoo' or Liza Minnelli on 'The Judy Garland Show' or any of the variety shows that she performed on — Michael Douglas, Merv Griffin — she always had this magnetic and star quality about her, but so vulnerable, so raw, so pedestrian, and that's what really I caught onto. That's what I thought I'm going to bring to this girl — this vulnerable, raw and needy girl — in the first couple scenes, and hopefully the audience will see the transformation from the girl to the woman to the star in the second act. What we see in the second act is closer to how we envision her today.
Q: Have you formed a relationship or bond with Isabel, who's playing Judy Garland?
SB: Oh, my gosh, I cannot tell you. It has become an amazing friendship. First thing out of her mouth is either — she's at the theatre and I go, 'Hi, Momma,' or she comes into the theatre and she goes, 'Hi Baby.' We rarely even call each other by our first names anymore! [Laughs.] I know that may sound quirky, but that relationship is so strong, and there's just a need that is between the two of us. It really is amazing. We spend most intermissions together, and I don't go on for the second act until the tail end, and she doesn't go on until the finale, so we're usually chatting until it's time for us to get ready for whatever number comes next. But it is definitely a relationship that I will keep well beyond the end of this play.
Q: Do you know if Liza's been to see the show?
SB: From what I know, she has not, but I did get to meet her about three or four weeks ago. She did a Carnegie Hall evening that was benefiting leukemia, but it was honoring Kander and Ebb, so, of course, she performed. A mutual friend of mine and hers, Jim Caruso, was also performing that evening, and said, 'It would be my honor if I could do the introduction between the two of you.' So, that's what happened. After the show I went backstage and got to meet her — it was a total of 40 seconds. But I'm telling you, what an amazing person! It's crazy to say that, but she stepped on stage at Carnegie Hall. She hadn't sang a word, she hadn't said anything, and she filled the space. And I thought, 'Holy mackerel, that's incredible.' And to meet her backstage, she still has that charisma, but all of a sudden it's so focused on the one person that you feel like you're the only person there in the room. Whatever that energy and accessibility is when she's onstage, it's like 100 fold when it's just between you and her. It wasn't anything deep, and she didn't give me any words of wisdom. It was kinda funny — he introduced me and she said, 'Oh wonderful,' 'She's in The Boy from Oz,' 'That's terrific!' 'And she's playing you!' And she looked at me, and she goes, 'She's playing who?' 'She's playing you, Liza.' And she was, maybe standing 5'2", and I'm wearing these stiletto boots that put me close to six foot! And she's looking at me from my feet to my head and she goes, 'She plays me?' Like this giant of a woman is playing me?! She hugs me, and I told her what an honor it was, and my eyes started to well up, just after investing so much in this person/character and doing so much homework, and there she was standing right in front of me, and I got a little emotional.
Q: Was it a surreal experience?
SB: Yes, it was totally surreal. She gave me this big hug and said, 'Oh darling, don't cry,' and wished me luck and then was on her way.
Q: Would you like her to come see the show?
SB: I would really like her to come see the show. It really paints a beautiful picture of her, a beautiful picture of Peter and Liza's friendship, and I think she'd be really pleased. Of course, I'm taking some liberties speaking on her behalf, but it's got to be difficult to sit in an audience and watch your mother — who is so eerily and beautifully displayed by Isabel Keating — and then Peter Allen and to go through the death of both of them and then not only to watch your life onstage but to have people watch you watch your life onstage. It's got to be a difficult position to be in, but I certainly hope she does come one day, because I think she'll be pleasantly surprised, and it would be so amazing to have her in the audience.
Q: Is Hugh Jackman as charming offstage as he is on?
SB: It's ridiculous how wonderful this man is. I mean, the intimidation was only there before I met him. I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I'm gonna be working with a superstar.' And then you start working with him and you go, 'He's talented and good looking and charming and has integrity and work ethic.' He really is this amazing man, who has found a complete balance between personal life, professional life, stardom. I really cannot say enough good things about him. It's been an absolute pleasure and dream to work with him.
Q: Where would you like to see your career go from here?
SB: Oh my word, well, I'll tell 'ya. I'm working on a one-woman cabaret act right now which I'm very excited about. Of course, Jim Caruso is helping me out, and Billy Stritch is doing the arrangements, so I'm very excited about that.
Q: Where do you think you'll perform that show?
SB: I think the first time we'll open it will be in the spring, and it will probably be in the King Kong Room at the Supper Club. . . We're looking at everything right now, everything form standards to musical theatre songs no one's ever heard before to wonderful folk artists. To me, it's not really the genre of the music as it is the lyric. To me that's the most important thing — What is this song telling you? What is the lyric of it? Is it going to touch you? Is it going to move you? Is it going to make you laugh? So, that's what we're looking at right now, not so much the melodies as it is what is this song saying. It's going to be a lot of work, but I'm very excited about that. And I am definitely with [The Boy From Oz] until September. From there I don't know because you're speaking to a girl who has done regional theatre — you work two, three months, and you don't know where you go from there. And then you're out of a job for two or three weeks, and then you find another job. But for me to sit with a show for a year, it's such a dream, I can't believe it!
Q: Is the reality of Broadway what you thought it would be?
SB: It really is. What I've been telling people is it's been such an honor. I had always dreamed of — my complete dream was to originate a role on Broadway. And I went, 'Well, I think I kinda did that and kinda not. Yes, it's an original role in an original Broadway show, but I am kind of re creating a person, I am not truly creating a role.' . . . But it has been everything. I can't explain to you how well this cast gets along and all the fun activities. It's amazing how many doors are opened to you, and you think, 'Wow, I've always wanted to — whatever it may be.' Even last week, I called my mom after we did the Gypsy of the Year competition on Monday and Tuesday and said, 'I just sang on the Palace stage of the Palace Theatre!' I feel very blessed and very lucky to be where I'm at. . . . I guess if I were to jump to another show. If and when Idina [Menzel] is ever ready and feels like she's ready to move on, I would love to do the role of Elphaba [in Wicked]. I was able to do it once in full production in San Francisco. Because I had been such a part of it — I had done all of the readings [as Elphaba] in L.A., so I've been part of it since February 2000. So when everything was being done in Los Angeles and being presented to Universal Pictures and whatnot, I felt like there was just an investment and I feel such an attachment to the piece. So, being able to do it that one night with orchestra and sets and costumes and sharing the stage with Kristin Chenoweth. It was a dream, and the night went over tremendous. Stephen Schwartz was in the audience and Winnie Holzman, who wrote the book, was there and Marc Platt, one of the producers from Universal was there, and they all had amazing things to say, and the response from the audience was overwhelming and I thought, 'Wow!' It's just a role that you just go 'Ooh, I really connect with this role.' So to be able to do it for a couple months and in a run here on Broadway, that would be amazing. I'm not saying that's the next step for my career — because Idina is wowing the audiences, and what an amazing gal she is — but I certainly know that somewhere down the road . . .
Q: One last question. Who were some of the performers or singers that you admired when you were a kid?
SB: Well, you know, it's going to sound a little silly but, honestly, Judy Garland. I can remember when I was as young as eight, nine or ten. There was a thing called the Family Film Festival every Sunday on Channel 5 back at home, and they would play old musicals and old movies — and I got a load of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, and I was hooked. I went, 'This girl makes it look so easy,' and even as a ten-year-old I thought I wanted to do that. I wanted to do what she was doing and she made it look — even though it's beyond difficult — she made it look so easy and so wonderful. And then as I got a little older, I started moving into Barbra Streisand, so I think my evolution is very similar to a lot of girls when they start in the business. It all begins with the beginning of MGM and the love of 'Wizard of Oz,' and you get a little more educated and a little more advanced, and it starts into Barbra Streisand. And then you start liking Sondheim. It just progresses into that. I had always loved musical theatre. I'd always known this was what I was going to do, probably from about the age of eight, nine and never looked back. I've always been blessed and never had to do anything else for a career.
(Stephanie Block co-stars in The Boy From Oz at the Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street. For tickets, visit Click here.)
IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK The first-ever cast recording of Sherry!, James Lipton and Laurence Rosenthal's ill-fated musicalization of The Man Who Came to Dinner, is due in stores in February 2004 and will boast the vocal talents of Bernadette Peters, Nathan Lane, Carol Burnett and Tommy Tune as well as a special appearance by "Saturday Night Live" alum Mike Myers. The CD will be released on the Angel Records label and will feature Lane as Sheridan Whiteside, Peters as Whiteside's secretary, Burnett as actress Lorraine Sheldon and Tune as Beverly Carlton. Film star Myers will play the role of Banjo, a character modeled on the late Harpo Marx. Others who will appear on the recording include Tony Award winners Lillias White and Phyllis Newman plus Siobhan Fallon, Tom Wopat, Keith David, Marian Hampton and the Manhattan Rhythm Kings. Song titles include "Why Does the Whole Damn World Adore Me?," "I Always Stay At the Ritz," "Whiteside's Prayer" and "Sherry!" . . . . Smokey Joe's Cafe Tony nominee Brenda Braxton will return to the Broadway company of Chicago in January. Braxton, who recently played Velma Kelly in the musical's national tour, will again play the merry murderess on Broadway beginning Jan. 12, 2004. Original Chicago star James Naughton also returns to the Broadway cast for a limited engagement beginning Jan. 6; film star Gretchen Mol begins her stint as Roxie Hart that day as well. (From Dec. 29, 2003-Jan. 4, 2004, frequent Roxie Hart, Charlotte d'Amboise, will again play Roxie on Broadway.) . . . Beginning Jan. 5, 2004, the King Kong Room will present the Marcy & Zina Show every Monday at 7 PM. Each week will feature songwriters Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler as well as appearances by various guest stars. The series begins with Cabaret's Kate Shindle Jan. 5; the following week, Jan. 12, will see Shindle and David Beach; and Norm Lewis, Julia Murney and Paige Price are scheduled for Jan. 26. There is a $20 cover and a $15 food/drink minimum for the concerts. The King Kong Room is located within the Supper Club at 240 West 47th Street. Call (212) 921-1904 for reservations. . . . On Nov. 3 at the Lamb's Theatre, a host of theatre favorites took part in a benefit for Only Make Believe, the non-profit charitable organization that brings the magic of theatre to hospital-bound children. "Jamie deRoy & Friends" will broadcast that benefit on two separate evenings; the first half of he benefit will be shown on Tuesday, Dec. 30; the second portion will be telecast Jan. 13, 2004. Among the stars who will be seen in the Dec. 30 broadcast are Brad Oscar, Lauren Kennedy, Alan Campbell, Joe DiPietro, David Bryan, Julia Murney, Chad Kimball and Marcy Heisler. A short film about the organization will also be seen. "Jamie deRoy & Friends" airs on Time Warner Cable, channel 67 (and RCN, channel 110) at 8 PM ET. Barry Kleinbort directs. . . . Wonderful Town fans have two reasons to rejoice this season. Not only is Donna Murphy giving one of the most celebrated performances of the season as Ruth Sherwood in the hit revival of Wonderful Town at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, but the Museum of Television & Radio will offer those interested a chance to see original Town star Rosalind Russell in the role she created. From Dec. 26, 2003, through Jan. 4, 2004, Wonderful Town lovers can head to the New York branch of the Museum of Television & Radio to catch the two-hour long telecast, which was filmed in 1958. The TV broadcast featured Russell as Ruth Sherwood, Jacquelyn McKeever as Eileen, Sydney Chaplin as Bob Baker and Jordan Bentley as the Wreck. The musical, of course, boasts a score by Leonard Bernstein (music) and Betty Comden and Adolph Green (lyrics); the 1958 TV production was conducted by Lehman Engel and includes such tunes as "Ohio," "A Little Bit in Love," "One Hundred Easy Ways (to Lose a Man)," "Conga!" and "It's Love." Wonderful Town will be shown at 4 PM daily. There is a $10 suggested donation. The Museum of Television & Radio is located at 25 West 52nd Street; call (212) 621-6600.
Liz Callaway in Concert:
Jan. 17, 2004 in Asheville, NC
Jan. 31 in Sibling Revelry in Boston, MA
Feb. 7 in Sibling Revelry in Riverfront, IL
Feb. 13 with Jason Graae in Salt Lake City, UT
Feb. 14 with Jason Graae in Palm Springs, CA
Feb. 26-28 with Jason Graae in West Palm Beach, FL
Feb. 29 with Stephen Schwartz and Friends in Wilton, CT
April 23 with Jason Graae in Sutter Creek, CA
April 24-25 with Jason Graae in San Rafael, CA
May 1 in Sibling Revelry in Orono, ME
May 8 in Sibling Revelry in Purchase, NY
Patti LuPone in Concert:
Jan. 23, 2004 at the Eissey Campus Theatre in Palm Beach Gardens, FL
Jan. 24, 2004 at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL
Feb. 27-29, 2004 at the Myerhoff Hall in Baltimore, MD
March 12, 2004 at the New Jersey PAC in Newark, NJ
March 13 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ
Christiane Noll in Concert
Dec. 31 Des Moines, IA with Des Moines Symphony & Brad Little
Louise Pitre in Concert:
Jan. 31, 2004-Feb. 8 in Sweeney Todd with the Calgary Opera Company at the Jubilee Auditorium in Canada
Feb. 13 at the Capitol Theatre in Windsor, Ontario
Feb. 28 at the Sanderson Performing Arts Centre in Brantford, Ontario
Feb. 29 at the Silverthorn C.I. Auditorium in Toronto, Ontario
Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching!