DIVA TALK: Chatting with Chicago Star Kara DioGuardi

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Chicago Star Kara DioGuardi News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Kara DioGuardi
Kara DioGuardi

KARA DioGUARDI
Grammy-nominated songwriter Kara DioGuardi, who has signed such artists as Jason Derulo and Iyaz, was thrust into the limelight as a judge during the eighth and ninth seasons of the mammoth Fox hit "American Idol." DioGuardi was also the star of the recent Bravo songwriting competition TV series "Platinum Hit," and she is currently making her Broadway debut as merry murderess Roxie Hart in the Tony-winning revival of Chicago, now the fourth longest-running show in Broadway history, at the Ambassador Theatre. DioGuardi, who is playing an eight-week limited engagement through Oct. 30, is joined on stage by Amra-Faye Wright as Velma Kelly, Tony Yazbeck as Billy Flynn, Chris Sullivan as Amos Hart and Carol Woods as Matron "Mama" Morton. The day following her Broadway debut, I had the chance to speak with DioGuardi, whose publishing company, Arthouse Entertainment, boasts hits from Bruno Mars, Cee Lo Green, Eminem, B.O.B., Travie McCoy, Flo Rida, Whitney Houston and Sean Kingston. The singer-songwriter spoke candidly about her "American Idol" experience, her Broadway bow and more; that interview follows.

Question: Welcome to Broadway!
Kara DioGuardi: Thank you! I had such a blast last night.

Question: How did your first performance go?
DioGuardi: It was so fun. It was awesome. It was like the greatest experience ever. Of course, I was nervous, but I had a put-in the day before the night show. I made some mistakes in that, and I was able to correct them for the night show, so there was nothing that you would say, "She screwed up" or "She forgot a line" or "She tripped" — all the nightmares that you think about when you're first going on.

Question: What was going through your mind just as you were about to step on that stage last night?
DioGuardi: Well, I've been really lucky because the cast has been so incredibly welcoming that they made me feel really comfortable. They were like, "You've got this. Don't worry about it. It's going to be great." They made me feel confident about what I was going to do, so I think my main goal was just to go out there and give it all I had, and take some chances and not be afraid of it, and that's what I did. Hopefully, as time goes on, I'll get used to the audience and learn what works and what doesn't work. But, I think I have a lot of Roxie in me, so I can kind of bring a lot of myself out there. In the moment when she's like, "Oh my God! I always wanted to be in the papers," I can relate to that sort of enthusiasm or different things in my life. When I was a little kid, and I still am a huge Christmas fan, so I always think of Christmas — waking up, when I was a kid and seeing gifts — that moment of just enthusiasm as a little kid. I had that kind of enthusiasm that she has.

DioGuardi in Chicago.
photo by Jeremy Daniel

Question: When you were asked to come into the show, did you know Chicago at all? Had you ever seen it?
DioGuardi: I had not seen the play. I had seen the movie. When we went to Broadway, we mostly went and saw Annie or The King and I… I don't know why we never went. Obviously, I was older, but I think that everything on Broadway that appealed to me was sort of that old-school musical… When they started doing the revival, it looked a bit racier, so I never went with my family, who was usually who I went to Broadway with. I was like, "Let's go to a Broadway show." My parents would come and that was a big thing. I usually went with my parents to Broadway, even when I was older, and that was one that they never wanted to see. Question: Where did you grow up?
DioGuardi: Westchester.

Question: When you were asked about taking on the role of Roxie, what was your initial reaction?
DioGuardi: I've been in this position the last few years to have these incredible opportunities come my way, and I look at it like what a great experience. And, my reaction was, when they were like, "You have to dance," I was like, "What? What did you say? Dance? Huh?" [Laughs.] And, that's been the most challenging part of it. I remember when I first went to learn the choreography, I said, "Well, I'm not really a dancer," and they were like, "Don't worry about it. It'll be fine." And then when I got there, the guy's like, "5, 6, 7, 8," and I was like, "What are you doing? I told them I'm not really a dancer," and he was like, "Well, honey, you are about to be one." [Laughs.] I worked really, really hard on it, and now I love it. I actually adore it. It's one of my favorite parts of the whole thing.

Question: How long did you get to rehearse?
DioGuardi: Well, I rehearsed with them in New York City only about two-and-a-half weeks, and I lost four days due to the hurricane, but I had been taking some dancing… in L.A. before this, and then I practiced throughout the whole summer, so I've been working about four months on it, myself — learning the lines, practicing. My biggest thing was I have such respect for what Broadway actors do. I mean, the amount of hours and time they put into their craft and their discipline, and if I was going to do it, I wanted to absolutely spend as much time as I could perfecting at least what I could bring to it because I just felt that I owed them that much. If they were going to allow me to step on the stage with them, I owed them that much — to treat it as seriously and put as much time into it as they did.

Question: Had Broadway ever been a goal of yours, as an aspiring singer?
DioGuardi: Yeah… I was a singer as a kid. I had a lot of stage fright, and what's happened with "Idol," it has got me past so much of that. I never in my life dreamed I'd be on Broadway, but because I was faced with that 25 million people live every week, it prepared me for this, and it kind of prepared me for being under pressure and for going out there and taking risks. I felt like I got more comfortable on "Idol" when I just started being myself and not trying to be what I thought I had to be. And, similar with this role, they want you to bring yourself, of course within the constraints of the character, but it's about the action within the scene. In a particular moment, she's trapped, she's got to get out — how would you do that? She's trying to survive — how would you do that? She's ecstatic because her name's in the paper — how would you feel? It's more about that. You're playing to the action. You're not playing to the character.

DioGuardi and Amra-Faye Wright in Chicago.
photo by Jeremy Daniel

Question: How would you describe Roxie?
DioGuardi: I would say she is the ultimate survivor. She's a quick thinker. Unfortunately, she's one of those people who [is]… on an emotional rollercoaster. Someone referred to her as, "She's winning the emotional Olympics." She's all over the place. She kills, she gets caught up in the moment, and all of a sudden, she's shooting someone, which is obviously a terrible thing. But, she comes from a bad past. Abusive, probably father, boyfriends, but she's surviving it. She's trying to make it happen.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment yet in the show for her?
DioGuardi: I am obsessed with the courtroom scene. Obsessed with it. The way they do it. How fast it is... the pacing of it, and how you just get to ham it up because Roxie has learned all of the things from Billy, and she's just trying to remember everything and do it right, and she forgets certain things. It's just so fun. It's so playful, it's so in the moment, you have to be on your feet. And, the way they choreograph it. I mean, this play — every detail is perfection. From the writing, to the way it's been choreographed, it's just unbelievable.
 

Question: As a singer-songwriter, when you were starting out you were probably looking to get famous and then it sort of came overnight with "Idol." I wonder, did the reality of fame live up to what you had thought years ago?
DioGuardi: That's what's so funny about Roxie. That's what turned me off to her in the beginning. I had to learn to not judge her because I've never been that person who's like, "I always wanted my name in the papers." That was never my thing. I just wanted to be a singer. I think when I was little I had these notions about being a star, but when I started to really do it, I just wanted to have a career in music. That was my thing. I wanted to do what I loved, and make a living from it. I came from a very conservative family where that was always an issue. "How are you going to support yourself if you're not going to get married?" [Laughs.] How are you going to support yourself? So, I never sat there like, "I want to be famous." That wasn't my thing, and that's her thing. And, I think that's what a lot of people got clocked with me wrong — I didn't go out there and look for "Idol," it came to me. I was happy doing what I was doing. I loved being a songwriter. I dabbled with being an artist, and it didn't work out, but I wasn't crushed or in my bed not being able to move. I was so thankful and grateful for having a career in music.

DioGuardi and Katy Perry on "American Idol."
photo by Michael Becker/FOX

Question: What has the fame been like for you?
DioGuardi: Well, in the beginning it was really tough because I was under so much scrutiny from everybody. Nobody wanted a fourth judge. It was like an absolute change to the show. It's weird. When you see actors or you see people who you grow to love, you never see their beginning pilots or the things that they weren't great at. You only see them at their height. Here, you have me who had never been on TV, never done anything like this, and I'm thrown out there. So, I'm trying to figure it all out while people are judging me, so it was difficult to read what people would say about me in the press. But, as I got into being myself on the second season and being constructive, and people figuring out that I'd written songs and had a hand in some of the songs that they loved in breaking artists, and I had a publishing company where I had tons of hits from other writers I'd signed, that was nice because it put a face to what a songwriter does. And, it gave us all a moment because people don't really understand what songwriters do. They think the artists write their songs, and many of them do, but there are a whole army of people out there who are often in the day-to-day trenches of writing songs and coming up with material for a lot of artists — or at least co-writing it.

Question: When you look at all of the singing competitions now — there's "The Voice" and "X-Factor" is coming — do you think the music business can support all of these different winners of these shows?
DioGuardi: I think that what can be supported is great talent if they have great songs. I think you can boil all the failure down to one thing — not great songs. If you have great songs, you're going to have radio traction. If you have radio traction, you are going to attract more of an audience, people who may not know you from those shows. Just because you're a star on television doesn't mean that you can be a music phenomenon or an artist. You have to have the material to back it, and it's all about hit songs. I can name you every "Idol" winner and why they didn't go on to have success—their songs. The ones who have—their songs. Question: Who were the singers who influenced you growing up, and who impresses you today?
DioGuardi: I had so many different influences. Again, I came from a very conservative family, so in my house there was Doris Day, there was Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett. When I would turn rock music on, my parents would be like, "Lower that! What's that screaming?" So, I would have to sneak it myself. But the singers that I looked up to growing up [were] Aretha, Chaka Khan, I loved Prince. I loved what Prince did—I felt a real connection to his music. I've loved everything from the Eagles to Fleetwood Mac. To me, I fall in love with great songs, and then falling in love with great songs, I experience great artists. It's always been about the songs for me. The songs are how I could communicate my emotion. When I was growing up, I didn't have much of a handle on how I was feeling, but if I put a song on, all of a sudden I had an emotional experience. It was communication for me.

DioGuardi with Tony Yazbeck and company in Chicago.
photo by Jeremy Daniel

Question: Who today do you admire?
DioGuardi: I think Bruno Mars is a great example of a great voice and classic songwriting with a twist that makes it contemporary. I think he's done a great job of it. I think Katy Perry has undeniable songs for what she does, for that pop market. And, if we're talking in the truly pop market, I would say those two. I love some of the artists I'm working with at Warner. Neon Hitch is a new artist who is coming out. I love what she stands for. For me, artists today, they are more than just their songs. It's a different marketplace. They're almost doing more than songs today. It's branding. It's the way they look, the way they dress. It's everything, which can sometimes be a plus when you have someone like a Gaga who has the songs, too, but I think it's important that you still have the material. It can't just be about how will they look on TV, or can they do a film? It all comes from the material, and that's why Chicago is such a blast for me because the material is so great.

Question: Now that you're on Broadway, does it give you any thought about maybe writing for Broadway as a songwriter?
DioGuardi: Totally. I totally want to do something. Absolutely. It would be a tremendous challenge. I have to find the right property. I think I would love to do something that catered to women and daughters, mothers and daughters… Do what you know.

Question: Have you gotten to see any theatre while you're here or have you been too busy with rehearsals?
DioGuardi: I saw, earlier in the summer, How to Succeed in Business… I was blown away by his performance, Daniel Radcliffe… Phenomenal, and he also just learned how to dance, I think. He was so great doing it and he gave so much of himself, and that's the other thing you realize. These are the most generous people. They don't get paid a lot of money — not talking about Daniel — but these actors and actresses and dancers. They do it for the love, and they give 100 percent every night, and they are generous, amazing people. They are the best people I've ever met....

Question: Does playing Roxie make you want to originate a part in a show?
DioGuardi: Let's see how I do on this, but I'm having a blast. I've only been through one night. My second night, the blunders [might] start happening. I want to get to a point where, for me, [I can] run through and not stumble or trip and miss lines, and really be present in the moment. But, the whole experience you want to flow. You want to get more comfortable in your character, you want to take the notes, you want to do better and keep improving every night. I don't look at it as just opening night. I look at it as it's a two-month run and how can I get better.

[The Ambassador Theatre is 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 agans@playbill.com.

DioGuardi, with Michael Cusumano and Ryan Worsing, in <i>Chicago</i>.
DioGuardi, with Michael Cusumano and Ryan Worsing, in Chicago. Photo by Jeremy Daniel
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