DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Little Mermaid's Heidi Blickenstaff Plus News of Shindle and Bean

DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Little Mermaid's Heidi Blickenstaff Plus News of Shindle and Bean News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Heidi Blickenstaff
Heidi Blickenstaff

HEIDI BLICKENSTAFF
It's been an especially exciting year for singer-actress Heidi Blickenstaff and her multitude of admirers, this diva lover included. Over two years ago, the big-voiced Blickenstaff was appearing at Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre in Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen's [title of show] — the four-person musical that would rather be nine people's favorite thing than 100 people's ninth favorite thing — but something magical happened when the show transferred to Broadway's Lyceum Theatre this past summer: Blickenstaff blossomed from a capable, dependable Broadway understudy into a bona fide Broadway star. In fact, her delivery of [title of show]'s "A Way Back to Then" was one of the great vocal moments of the season. And, let's discuss that voice: Yes, it's rangy — she sails from low to high with remarkable ease — but the sound is also wonderfully textured and beautifully controlled. Blickenstaff can belt to the rafters, but she also knows how to pull back, which makes her bigger sounds even more dramatic and exciting. Just a few months after [title of show] finished its Broadway run, the multitalented performer returned to Broadway in a true diva role: the evil, manipulating Ursula in the newest Disney musical, The Little Mermaid, at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Blickenstaff is playing a limited engagement in the part created onstage by Sherie Rene Scott through April 5. Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Blickenstaff, who made her Broadway debut in The Full Monty, about her experiences during the past year, including her final night in [title of show], her current role in Mermaid and her Carnegie Hall debut; that interview follows:

Question: Before we get to Mermaid, I want to go back a bit. Tell me about your final night in [title of show] on Broadway.
Blickenstaff: It was pretty overwhelming. I think all of us were kind of nervous heading toward that night because we were very emotional. We were so grateful to be there and really savored every minute of that and knew that it was kind of a magical moment in time. Who knew how long it was going to last? I think in such an exposing musical like that, where you play yourself, it was a different kind of goodbye. Also, because we were all involved in one way or another in developing the piece, I've never felt that [way] before. It wasn't just being an actor saying goodbye to a role. It was being a collaborator saying goodbye to a show that I helped develop. It was very personal and very scary. I know the days leading up to it, I felt like, "How am I going to sing 'A Way Back to Then' without losing my mind?" [Laughs.] I just kept reminding myself that I really wanted to be generous with that moment. It was never, for me, about indulging myself in that moment. It was more about giving it away. I just kept telling myself, "Give it away, give it away, give it away." The whole show sort of went like that. I think all of us focused on telling the story. There were people that night who had never heard of us, had never heard the cast album, who were there just to see a Broadway show. We got in our little powwow, in our little circle, before the show and said, "Tell it to that person who doesn't know us at all. Remember that there is somebody out there who has no connection to this at all and tell the story for them." That was very helpful. It sort of sobered us up. So we got through it, and then there were lots of tears, and then I had a glass of wine, or two or three. [Laughs.] The good news is that this collaboration will never be over. It's certainly not the end for [title of show], not even by a long shot. We definitely have some tricks up our sleeves, and we're continuing to write and meet. There are some really exciting prospects that are out there. All of us, in a little bit of a way, dispersed and are doing various other projects knowing that in the spring we're all coming back together to refocus and figure out what's next for [title of show]. So it was a beautiful thing that happened — it was sort of like Brigadoon. [Laughs.] We all were in the right place at the right time, and the time warp opened up and we got to do that show on Broadway and then it went away. But hopefully it's not the end of the story.

Jeff Bowen with Heidi Blickenstaff in [title of show]
photo by Carol Rosegg

Question: I know there are lots of rumors online about whether the show is going to return this season or…
Blickenstaff: I know. I have heard some of those rumors myself. Some of them make me giggle, and with some of them I think, "How did you know that?" [Laughs.] So we'll see! I'll keep my mouth shut about that for now, but it's definitely not the end of us. Question: You also made your Carnegie Hall debut not too long ago. What was it like stepping onto that stage and singing in that venue?
Blickenstaff: I was terrified, honestly, beyond nervous leading up to that. We had worked very hard on the piece — we did two pieces for that [evening]. We did one spoken-word with some musical accompaniment that Susan Blackwell wrote, and then I sang a song with Charlie Beal, who is the conductor and music director of the whole Gay Men's Chorus. I sang a Christmas song — I sang "The Christmas Song"… "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…" and I was just the definition of terrified. The days leading up to it, I again was feeling, "Who gets to do this? For some reason I do, and I have to figure out how to enjoy it, number one, and also not fall apart and be worthy of it and do the best that I can and not let my nerves get the best of me." And, something magical happened — we had a sound check the day of the show. There was all this chaos onstage. Everybody was saying, "Mic-check this" and "Where are we gonna stand?" Everything was just very chaotic and Charlie, who is a brilliant jazz musician in his own right, grabbed me and while there was all this craziness onstage, he said, "Just start singing with me." Not with the orchestra. He played the piano and he said, "Just sing." He is this super-gifted, sexy jazz pianist. He started playing, and I started singing, and I heard my voice slap the back of that horseshoe space and come back at me, and I was like, "I'm gonna be fine." The acoustics are just perfection in that place. Not that I was reveling in the sound of my own voice, but there was something about it that calmed me down. I was like, "I can do this. I totally can do this. As long as I stay calm, this is going to be a wonderful, wonderful experience." . . . Charlie and I were not miked at all. You could just hear the sound coming back, and there was something about it that just calmed me down and instead of being terrified, I got really excited. And then Susan and I got all dolled up, and that was super fun, and then we went out there and put on a show. I definitely was nervous, but I mean, who gets to do that? Did you see the Barbara Walters special with Hugh Jackman, and he was talking about his dad coming to see him at Carnegie Hall? I was like, "I sang there, too!" [Laughs.] Really amazing people have gotten to perform at Carnegie Hall and, for some reason, we got to be among them. [title of show] never ceases to amaze me, where we find ourselves. Whether it's PS 122 or Carnegie Hall, [title of show] magically seems to get invited to the party. We were very, very lucky to be there that night, and we had a really great time. I'll never forget a second of it.

Question: What was it like when those Carnegie Hall stage doors magically open?
Blickenstaff: Yeah, that was crazy! Those doors just open, and I walked out there by myself at first. The conceit was I started the song, and then the monkeys of [title of show] interrupted me with this story, and then after we told the story, then I go back into the song. So at first it was just me by myself, and I walked out there and … it was so big! The space is big, but the moment was big, is what I mean. I don't know. I'm not a youngster in this business, so I keep being amazed by these things that I get to do that shock me, that floor me. Just the opportunities that I'm getting to have in my mid-30s rather than a lot of kids who are on the rise in their 20s and their careers are taking off. I was totally happy with my career, but I kind of thought that that ship had sailed a little bit for me. Getting to experience this stuff a little bit later with a little more perspective, I just have such gratitude. I'm so grateful. These experiences keep coming, and I never take a second of it for granted. I feel lucky and thrilled that I get to do stuff like that. Question: Do you feel like your life has changed this year?
Blickenstaff: Sure, I think I'd be lying if I said that it didn't. In a couple of hours I'm gonna go be a diva singing in a spotlight on Broadway, and that is because of [title of show]. Before [title of show] on Broadway I was understudying that diva, and now I get to play her. So things have definitely changed. . . . What's that saying about opportunity and preparedness meeting at the same time? I feel like that's what has happened. I've amassed all my skills. I've gotten pretty seasoned out on the road and in choruses and understudying amazing people. I always knew that I had this in me but now, for some reason, the opportunity has happened, so all this stuff that I've been storing in me for the last ten years is getting let out. It's a really exciting time. Things definitely have changed. I think I'm a part of conversations in a different way now. Whereas before I was more of the go-to workhorse girl — which is a great place to be, and I was grateful to be in that place and I was proud to be in that place — but I think I'm getting different kinds of phone calls now. [Laughs.] I have to say, I don't know how long those phone calls will keep coming, so I'm very conscious of that.

Question: Getting to Mermaid, since you had been the understudy for the role, what was the rehearsal process like for you taking over the part?
Blickenstaff: Well, it wasn't much. [Laughs.] It was a little shocking actually, because the show had changed a lot. Kind of unusually, after opening, the show itself had changed. The entire ending of the show had been slightly shifted. When I saw it after they invited me to come back, I was like, "Oh, I don't know that scene. I don't know that blocking at all." It was different motivations, not to mention lines. Everything, the back third of it was completely different. I think because I had understudied Sherie [Rene Scott] before, my rehearsal time was not plentiful. [Laughs.] And also because, you know, I'm the workhorse go-to-gal for this kind of stuff, and they knew I could do it. I knew I could do it, too, but it was about a week-and-a-half [rehearsal time], and I wasn't rehearsing with any other actors. I was just with our associate director Brian Hill and our associate choreographer Tara Young and an accompanist. We were in various rehearsal studios all over town, and it was just me honing and getting in touch with my diva karma. It was crazy, and then I had one put-in [rehearsal] with the entire company. . . . I would say probably 60 percent [of the current cast] are original cast members. There were a lot of new people. I put the tentacles on. I had pretty much one shot with the tentacles. They were like, "Are you okay?" And I was like, "Well, I'd like about 20 more hours in them, but I think I'm gonna have to say I'm okay." I've always been a little bit of a let's-just-do-it kind of gal. I actually find it thrilling as an actor to — certainly I would never put anybody in danger — but when something is kind of rehearsed to death, it takes the thrill out of it for me. So there was a little bit in me that was like, "You know what? The magic of Broadway is going to take over, and my instincts are going to kick in, and I'm gonna get through it. And even if it's kind of raw, it's gonna be great. It's totally gonna be great!" And, indeed, my first night was — I made tons of mistakes — but it was still really exciting for me. They weren't the kind of mistakes that got any other actors in trouble, but for me, being a perfectionist, I was like, "Oh, darn it! I wanted to lift that tentacle up on that note!" [Laughs.] I had all of these grand ideas, but that's the great thing about being able to do this for the month that I've been able to do this is that now I've been able to develop her and do all of the wonderful little nuances that I had in my mind before I opened. Now, it's finally coming together. I keep saying, "I'm gonna have her totally down, and then I'm gonna have to go!" [Laughs.] And then Faith Prince will take over, and she'll call me in three months and say, "Finally, I got it!" It takes awhile. It definitely takes awhile to get comfortable with this grand octopus.

Heidi Blickenstaff in The Little Mermaid
photo by Jenny Anderson

Question: The makeup and the costuming itself looks like it must take awhile just to get used to that.
Blickenstaff: It does, it does. It takes about an hour to get into makeup and hair. I'm really lucky because I love the people that are helping me into that whole costume. I always say it takes a village. I couldn't do it without my dresser, Mel Hansen, and my makeup artist, Tiffany Hicks. They make my job so much easier, and they're lovely to hang around with, too, which is a bonus. I was telling Tiffany that I've never played a costume part like this, and I was very shocked that the makeup was so informative to who Ursula is. . . . Because I've never done a character like this, I've never had to be as broad with my face and my gestures. I've done more realistic things, and this is so magical and bananas. When I look at my face in the mirror after it's all put together, I am able to use my mouth and my eyebrows and everything, all the muscles in my face in a completely different way that I would never do outside of the makeup! I'm smiling in these terribly grisly, gruesome ways, but I feel so safe with the makeup on because it makes all the sense in the world that that character would do that. I've never had that kind of freedom. Ironically, the more makeup she puts on me, the more freedom I have to be this sea witch. Question: That's interesting. Is it a fun part to play?
Blickenstaff: Oh, my God! It is so fun! And I truly was not expecting it to be as fun as it is. I thought that it would be a challenge. I thought technically it would push my limits because I had never played a role like this before where it's like, "Okay you have to stand on this square at this moment and not two seconds before or else this elevator will not take you down." Everything is just so specific. "You have to pop the tentacles up on this note of the music and you have to say this word and don't say that word, because…" Everything is so rigid because it's such a technical role, and there are safety issues involved. I was a little bit like, "My God, this could not be more opposite than [title of show]." I was anticipating enjoying it but feeling limited by the technical aspects of the role, and I was so wrong. Once I got the reins on the technical pony, she is limitless. I don't think I will ever, unless I play another Disney villain, have the freedom that I have with her. She is everyone from Hannibal Lecter to Shirley Temple to the Cowardly Lion to Marilyn Monroe. As long as I remember — and this sounds super actor-y — the truth of the storytelling and make sure I don't go too far out of bounds with the antagonist that I am, I have a job to do, I have a function in the play. As long as I don't go too far out of bounds, she is really limitless. The further I push, the more the audience responds. It is just so fun to be able to sharpen these kinds of skills. I have never had this opportunity before. Usually I'm playing these very realistic characters where directors [say], "Heidi, just be more yourself and do less and just talk." This is the opposite of all of that, but ironically, even though she is so grand and out of her mind, she is quite vulnerable and quite human. . . . There are times when she does just talk. She has these very primal needs and desires and she's desperate, and she gets very human. She is just all over the spectrum, and so it has been juicier than I had ever imagined.

Question: How do you find the demands of the score?
Blickenstaff: That is challenging. I'm not gonna lie. This is certainly the beltiest role I've ever played. It is one belty number after the next. Sherie Rene Scott is one of the best actresses on Broadway, and she can belt her ass off! She built this role to the end of her range, so as I was learning it I was like, "Thanks a lot, Sherie!" [Laughs.] She's sort of magical though. Her voice just keeps going up and up and up. Though I can belt very high, it doesn't come as naturally to me, and I really have to take very special care of my voice during the day. It's a little boring actually: My life has basically just become about being able to do my eight shows a week. It's the same old story. Everything I eat… there's no drinking, except tons of water, no tomatoes, no dairy. Everything has to do with being able to hit those notes, but it's thrilling to sing them. It's really, really fun, and I definitely feel like it's a throwback to old-school Ethel Merman. I don't always play characters where it's like, "Whaaaaaa….!" It's so archetypal, just this big, belty, brassy, showstopper-y song after song after song. It's really super fun. As long as I can stay healthy, it's really fun and it's been a huge challenge for me. So far, so good.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment for Ursula in the show, something you look forward to?
Blickenstaff: I don't know what this says about me, but I have four entrances, and the first three are all very showy and big belty songs. The last entrance is when Ariel and I have the showdown. It's my favorite part that I get to do because I get to show her [Ursula's] desperation. The stakes are on display, and Sierra Boggess and I are just having this woman-to-woman talk onstage. It's really fun to have done everything that I have done before, just being this big, broad, crazy person, and then getting to boil it down to the essential meat. I give Doug Wright a lot of credit, who is the book writer of Mermaid. He transforms this wonderful, animated movie into a pretty high-stakes situation at the end. It is a pretty high-stakes scene, and it's really fun doing that with Sierra every night… all of the juicy tidbits of trying to trick her and manipulate her and trying to act like we are the same when we couldn't be more different. And I get to die! That's always super fun. I died in Bat Boy. I think that's the only other time I've ever died. So dying is super fun, and there's an elevator involved, so that's even better.

Heidi Blickenstaff

Question: I know you had mentioned the possibility of a solo recording. Anything happening with that?
Blickenstaff: I'm talking to a couple of music directors. It's kind of in the first stages. It's something that I've wanted to do for a really, really long time. Kurt Deutsch, who is the king of Ghostlight Records and also married to Sherie Rene Scott, he was talking to me about it. We had a long conversation about it, and he said, "If you do a solo album, you have to have something to say." I love that he said that, because I think so many Broadway singers right now are doing albums, which I think is fantastic. Sutton [Foster]'s album is so lovely. Kelli [O'Hara]'s album is great. There are beautiful albums out there. I think I know what I want to say, but I've been slowly getting it together. I think before Kurt asked me that, I was a little bit like, "Well, I'm gonna do a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and maybe I'll do some new composers and maybe, maybe, maybe," and that [statement] really focused me. I don't want it to be haphazard. I want it to be very meaningful to me and, hopefully, to other people. I am in the process of getting together some material and talking to a couple of music directors that I love. Hopefully we're going to get that going. Question: Any other projects in the works you can talk about?
Blickenstaff: [title of show] certainly is next, in whatever incarnation that's going to be. Like I said, I think all of us have left the spring open for whatever is next with [title of show]. There have been other things knocking at the door, but I think all of us have made [title of show] and whatever is going to happen with it the next priority. For all of us — and we're all very lucky that this has happened — we know we can split off from each other and go do whatever it is people are asking us to do. That's awesome, and we're really grateful for that, but I don't think we're done yet with [[title of show]]. And before we get too disseminated, I think we're going to focus on it. There is something super-specific that we are writing for that is not a huge thing, it's kind of a smaller thing, but we're still also waiting for all of our schedules to gel so that can actually truly begin to happen. . . . In the meantime, I'm still doing these children's television shows. I've become a voice on "Word World" and "Wonder Pets." That's been totally fun and another skill I've been developing. I love doing that stuff.

Question: How long are you in Mermaid?
Blickenstaff: My last show is April 5, and then the wonderful Faith Prince takes over.

[The Little Mermaid plays the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Broadway at 46th Street; visit DisneyOnBroadway.com for ticket information.]

DIVA TIDBITS


Kate Shindle

Legally Blonde's Kate Shindle and Grammy Award winner John McDaniel will join forces for a March 23 concert at Birdland. The evening at the famed jazz club is titled Classic; show time is 7 PM. Cabaretgoers can expect to hear Shindle's renditions of "Black Coffee," "See What I Wanna See," "Drown in My Own Tears" and "Slap That Bass," among others. McDaniel is music director. Birdland is located in Manhattan at 315 West 44th Street. There is a $25 cover charge and $10 food-drink minimum. For reservations call (212) 581-3080 or visit www.birdlandjazz.com. "Grey's Anatomy" star Chandra Wilson will return to Broadway this summer in the Tony-winning Kander and Ebb musical Chicago. Wilson will step into the role of Matron "Mama" Morton June 8 for a four-week engagement. The acclaimed actress will end her limited run at the Ambassador Theatre July 5. Visit www.ChicagoTheMusical.com for more information. Casting is now complete for the City Center Encores! production of Finian's Rainbow, which will play the famed Manhattan venue March 26-29. Joining the previously announced Jim Norton (Finian), Kate Baldwin (Sharon) and Cheyenne Jackson (Woody) will be Jeremy Bobb (Og), Philip Bosco (Senator Rawkins), Guy Davis (Sonny), Alina Faye (Susan Mahoney), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Billboard), Andy Weems (Sheriff) and William Youmans (Buzz). The ensemble will comprise Tanya Birl, Bree Branker, Meggie Cansler, Bernard Dotson, Leslie Donna Flesner, Lisa Gajda, Tim Hartman, Mary Illes, Tyrick Wiltez Jones, Denis Lambert, Kevin Ligon, Monica L. Patton, Joe Aaron Reid, Devin Richards, Steve Schepis, Rashidra Scott, J.D. Webster and Terri White. The production will be directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle with music direction by Rob Berman. For tickets, priced $25-$95, call (212) 581-1212 or visit www.nycitycenter.org. City Center is located in Manhattan on West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues.

Shoshana Bean, one of Broadway's acclaimed Elphabas in the hit musical Wicked, will join forces with recording artist Lucy Woodward for an upcoming concert at Le Poisson Rouge. Bean and Woodward will play the Manhattan venue April 7 at 10 PM. About her upcoming gig, Bean told me earlier this week, "[Lucy and I] are both soulful, girl-power focused artists, who are totally gonna rock Le Poisson!" Le Poisson Rouge is located at 158 West Bleecker Street, between Thompson and Sullivan. There is a $15 cover charge; for tickets click here. Bean will also perform and autograph copies of her new CD April 15 at 6 PM and the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble at 1972 Broadway. The event, which is free and open to the public, is part of the American Songbook performance series.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.