NIKKA GRAFF LANZARONE
It's been an extremely busy year for Nikka Graff Lanzarone, the triple threat who made her Broadway debut this past season in the world-premiere musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, based on the film of the same name, at the newly restored Belasco Theatre. Following that production, the actress was seen in the intimate environment at 52 Mercer Street in the Transport Group's first major New York City revival of Michael John LaChiusa's Hello Again, the musical that follows the sexual encounters of various lovers. Lanzarone and her co-stars received a Drama League Award nomination for Distinguished Performance for their work in that critically acclaimed production. And, now, following over a dozen auditions, the singer-actress-dancer has landed the role of merry murderess Velma Kelly in the long-running, Tony-winning revival of Chicago at the Ambassador Theatre. Earlier this week, following her first performance in the hit production, I had the chance to chat with the good-natured performer, who sprinkles her conversation with much laughter; that interview follows:
Question: How did your first performance in Chicago go?
Lanzarone: You know, considering, it went really well. There are always so many variables that you are not expecting when you finally go in, and there's the lights, and the sound, and all of the people, and everything that makes a show a show. But, getting shot out of that cannon was surprisingly not as nerve-wracking as I anticipated. [Laughs.]
Question: Is this the first time you've replaced in a show?
Lanzarone: It's the first time I've ever replaced in a principal track, yeah. I replaced in ensemble tracks, but it's a little safer there [laughs] — there are so many people around you, and they can sort of shove you where you need to be.
|photo by Jeremy Daniel|
Question: It's been quite a year for you, but first, I thought we'd go back a bit. Tell me where you were born and raised.
Lanzarone: I'm originally from Los Angeles, California — born and raised.
Question: When did you start performing?
Lanzarone: As a tiny, tiny child — in ballet class from when I was like two-and-a-half. I come from a long line of performers, so it was always something that was around and relevant. Question: Before you became a professional yourself, were there any artists you admired, any singers or actors who influenced you?
Lanzarone: Oh, wow — absolutely. There are so many to name. I grew up worshiping old-school musical theatre legends. That was sort of a thing that was important in my house. Obviously, the big ones — your Chitas and your Lizas and your Judys, but I was always so interested in the way that dancers worked together, and so they really became my heroes more than any one performer. It was more about the way that a show functioned as a whole, and the way that everybody came together every night and pulled it off. That was the real draw for me — that community feeling.
Question: When do you think performing changed for you from being a hobby to when you knew it would be your career? Or maybe you always knew it was going to be your career?
Lanzarone: Yeah, it was never a hobby — it was always going to be my career. [Laughs.] I remember I was six years old, and we were in New York on vacation because the only place we ever went on vacation when I was a kid, pretty much, was New York. My parents are both New Yorkers, and we still have a lot of family here, and my first Broadway show was Jerome Robbins' Broadway, and I remember still, sort of out of my six-year-old eyes, seeing these boys in the On the Town section just dancing, and I was like, "Wait a minute! What is this? Whoa! You can do that, for real?!" And that was it.
|photo by Paul Kolnik|
Question: When did you get to New York yourself?
Lanzarone: Six years ago. I graduated from Boston Conservatory and then moved right here.
Question: How did your Broadway debut in Women on the Verge… come about?
Lanzarone: I did the very last workshop of the show, and they invited me to stay along, which was quite kind. [Laughs.]
Question: Do you remember your first night on Broadway? I'm always curious as to how the actuality lives up to the expectations that were in your mind.
Lanzarone: I mean the entire show was so logistical and choreographed backstage — just as choreographed backstage as it was on stage — so for me it was really, really, absurdly thrilling to feel like I was getting to finally be a part of this thing — of this community, of this group of people — and then also trying really hard not to get so swept up in the romanticism of [it] that I would get run over by a phone booth backstage or something like that. [Laughs.] There's nothing like it. The feeling of: you get to do a show, and then go home to your own apartment, and sleep in your own bed because you are doing a show on Broadway, and you're at home. It's little things like that that I can't compare to anything.
|photo by Paul Kolnik|
Question: What was it like making your debut with that cast filled with so many theatre veterans?
Lanzarone: It was quite incredible. I had never really understood what "having a process" was before because I had never really played a principal role before, so I sort of got the crash course in the way that eight different, really incredible actors had a process. It really enabled me to watch what everybody was doing and see how they put together their characters, and how they built a person from the ground up, and it was an experience that I am so grateful for because it has absolutely shaped the way that I work for the rest of my life.
Question: Anything in particular about that process…
Lanzarone: Sort of knowing that you were allowed to just try things to see what would happen, because normally you put together a number, and you have a few hours to put together the number, and then it's basically done… I remember just watching people say, "No, no, no… It's not going to be like this, I just had to see what this was." And just to be like, "Wait, that's allowed? You can do that?" [Laughs.] It's thrilling, and then of course, there are those moments when I would look around and be like, "I'm the only person on this stage I've never heard of! What's going on?" [Laughs.]
Question: And, you also got to be part of Hello Again. What was it like performing in that space in such an intimate venue?
Lanzarone: It was so incredible. It was so, so… freeing — where a lot of people would be intimidated by having to do stuff, by having to perform material that is so very intimate, so close to people… It was sort of a permission slip to be free — because no matter what you were doing, somebody could see it, and somebody could hear it. It was almost like film acting. It was just one of those shows where you feel really stretches you as an artist, which I know sounds kind of corny to say, but being able to look for that side of me, and getting to know your cast mates very quickly. [Laughs.] It's such a beautiful show, and Michael John [LaChiusa] and Jack [Cummings III] were so receptive to anything we wanted to try or do or make happen. It was magical.
Question: With the audience so close, were there any memorable audience reactions?
Lanzarone: Yeah — there were always a couple of tables of people that didn't really expect what was happening, and they would certainly get the giggles, and sometimes they wouldn't be able to stop giggling, and you're trying to maintain a very serious, observant face, and you just want to pat them on the head and be like, "It's going to be okay. It's not going on for much longer. Sorry it makes you uncomfortable." Or people that would stretch out their legs in the middle of the space, and you would have to jump around them because they wouldn't move fast enough. [Laughs.] It's logistics that you don't necessarily think about when you are working in a standard proscenium stage.
|photo by Carol Rosegg|
Question: What was it like backstage with the cast?
Lanzarone: I don't know! I was backstage for so little of it because I was on stage most of the time, so they would be having a great time and laughing and telling jokes, and I would be like, "What's so funny you guys? I'm in the corner." [Laughs.] Question: It must have been exciting when the cast got the Drama League Award nomination.
Lanzarone: It really was. It's such a wonderful company, and I'm so happy that they are starting to really get the recognition that they deserve because they are doing some really brave work, and I think it's high time that that is applauded and encouraged, especially in New York, where it's oftentimes hard to try new things and get a theatre company off the ground.
Question: Getting to Chicago, how did this role come about?
Lanzarone: Well, this particular role was my 15th audition for Chicago! [Laughs.] I first saw the revival of Chicago in 1998, and it was one of those moments I wanted to turn around to everybody and go, "Are you seeing this? Do you understand what this is?" And just sort of hoping that it would run long enough that I could maybe be in it. I went in for the show 15 times over the last six years, and this is the one that stuck.
Question: When you finally were offered the part, what was your reaction after auditioning so many times?
Lanzarone: It was really, really sweet. I got a text from one of my agents saying, "Where are you? Can you come back to the office?" And I was like, "Oh no. Something horrible has happened — this was the last straw. They're going to drop me. Oh no! What am I going to do?" And I get on the train, and I'm running, running — and this was right after my audition, like hours after my audition — so I was in this work session with… the entire creative team that keeps this show running. I finally get to my agent's office, and I run in, and they had had the YouTube of the 1997 Tonys cued up, and I walked in the office, and they started playing "All that Jazz," and they were just standing there with huge grins on their faces, and I was like, "What? What?" And they just said, "You are going to be Velma Kelly on Broadway," and I was like, "No! You're kidding!" And then, promptly fell over.
Question: What was the rehearsal process like? I know you don't get that long when you go in to replace.
Lanzarone: I started in the middle of June. It's just you and dance captains and stage managers and music departments, and other people pop in and out at times — I was so fortunate to have some really great quality time with Gary Chryst and with Scot Faris, who are just the most magical people. It can be a little intimidating when it's just you and all of these people, and you're doing everything, and you're learning everything, and you're trying to be as full-out as possible, but at the same time you're kind of thinking, "I know a lot of these things are going to make a lot more sense when there are other people on stage, and that's why I'm standing here feeling like, 'I don't know what's going on!'"… A couple of things still didn't really, totally make sense until my put-in yesterday afternoon. Then, I'd go, "That's what that was!"
|photo by Jeremy Daniel|
Question: How would you describe Velma?
Lanzarone: I love her. I love her so much. The thing I love so much about her is that she just never runs out of ideas, and she's never sort of satisfied with the status quo. She is always thinking of something, or working on something, or trying to figure out a different angle to make her situation better, even as every time she walks out on stage, gets knocked down a peg. It's the kind of person that is yes, passionate enough to kill someone, but goofy enough and funny, and has a good enough heart to not let her situation get her down, even as it gets worse and worse and worse as the show goes on.
Question: What would you say is the biggest challenge of the role?
Lanzarone: Definitely pacing myself because I'm on stage and on stage, and then off for a little while, and then sort of every time you come back on stage, it's a huge number and it's a great big burst of energy, and you're in it to win it every time you're on stage. For me mostly, it's figuring out my pacing and stamina for the show on those breaks, and not getting tired, and sort of keeping moving and remembering everything. [Laughs.]
Question: Do you have a favorite moment for her?
Lanzarone: Oh, God. I adore doing "Velma Takes the Stand." It's everything that I love about musical theatre — I get to talk really fast, I get to be funny, I get to dance, I get props, I get boys. It's a perfect number. Oh, I love it so much!
Question: Tell me a little bit about working with Charlotte d'Amboise, who's done the show off and on so many times.
Lanzarone: Oh, God, it's unreal because she's Charlotte d'Amboise, for crying out loud, and she's a dream and so supportive and so kind and so willing to dispense advice, and I'm really enjoying getting to know her a little bit and working alongside her, and I just think she's a phenomenal person. The first time I met her was a couple of weeks ago, and completely forgot that I would be working on stage with her and totally, awkwardly hugged her like a super-fan, and then was really embarrassed about it for a couple of days. [Laughs.] I am so fortunate to be able to, you know, get my Chicago sea legs with someone like her, and [Christopher] Sieber.
[Chicago plays the Ambassador Theatre, located at 219 West 49th Street. Visit www.ChicagoTheMusical.com for more information.]
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.