DIVA TALK: Chatting with Shafrika and Avenue Q's Anika Larsen Plus Next to Normal on CD

DIVA TALK: Chatting with Shafrika and Avenue Q's Anika Larsen Plus Next to Normal on CD News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Anika Larsen
Anika Larsen

ANIKA LARSEN
Singer, actress, lyricist, librettist and Jaradoa Theater co-founder Anika Larsen, who was seen on Broadway in Xanadu and Off-Broadway in Zanna, Don't!, is currently preparing to star in the autobiographical Shafrika, The White Girl, which will play a limited engagement at The Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan beginning June 12. Co-conceived and directed by April Nickell, the production features book and lyrics by Larsen, with original music composed by Tim Acito, Joshua Henry and Janice Lowe. The musical, which will play the Vineyard through June 28, tells Larsen's own story of growing up in a family with nine brothers and sisters of various races. It's an especially busy time for the big-voiced singing actress, who will return to the Broadway stage following her Shafrika run: On July 6 Larsen will join the cast of the Tony Award-winning Avenue Q at the Golden Theatre, where she will step into the roles of Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut, parts she recently played in the musical's just-completed national tour. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of chatting with the actress, whose Broadway credits also include Rent and All Shook Up. Larsen spoke about her work in the Tony-winning Q as well as the upcoming premiere of Shafrika; that interview follows.

Question: Let's go back to the very beginning. Where were you born and raised?
Anika Larsen: I was born and raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Question: When did you start performing?
Larsen: I have nine brothers and sisters, so I realized very early on that singing loud got me attention, so I did it all the time! I started performing in my house for my family very, very young. My parents had Christmas parties where they would have us perform. Six of my nine brothers and sisters are adopted from all over the world. My mom thought we were the multi-cultural Von Trapps, so she would make us perform at the Christmas parties.

Question: What type of music?
Larsen: Christmas songs. She would have the whole group sing, and there would be duets and trios depending on each kid's abilities. But I always got a big solo because I wanted one and could handle one. I took it all very, very seriously. It was the best part of Christmas for me. I looked forward to it every year, so I think that's where I caught the bug, and I've kind of been hooked on the junk since.

Question: When did performing change from something you did for family? When did you know it would be your career?
Larsen: I think in high school is when I really got obsessed with musical theatre and when I wanted for it to be my career, but I still didn't think I could act. So I would just sing louder and hope that nobody noticed that I couldn't act. [Laughs.] It wasn't until I got to college [Yale University] that I took acting classes. I got in as a theatre major, and I started taking acting classes. Once I finally had the tools, then I realized, "Oh, I might be able to do this part of musical theatre, too." That was when I really decided that I was going to pursue it as a career, although I was always realistic and pragmatic. I was always highly aware of how hard it was, so it was important for me to have a BA, a college degree, to fall back on. Question: When you were younger and singing loudly, were there singers or artists that you particularly admired?
Larsen: I wanted to be Whitney Houston. [Laughs.] Who doesn't, right?!

Question: When did you get to New York?
Larsen: '96.

Question: What was your first professional production here?
Larsen: My first Equity job was — I got a call on a Tuesday from Rent saying, "On Friday, could you be in L.A. to join the L.A. company?," and of course I said yes.

Question: Where had you auditioned for the show?
Larsen: I had auditioned in New York City and I was living in New York City, but they needed an immediate replacement in L.A. I had done the whole thing with Rent, where everybody auditions eight times and it doesn't seem like you're ever going to get it, so I had sort of given up. This business is so crazy. I got this call, and three days later I had to move my life and my world. But, of course, I did it — it was Rent!

Question: What was your first Broadway production?
Larsen: Rent was also [my first Broadway show]. The L.A. company turned into the national tour, which I stayed in for about a year and a half, and then I came back and did it on Broadway for a little bit.

Question: What were you playing?
Larsen: It depended on which company. I was either in the ensemble or I was a swing.

Question: Do you remember your first time on a Broadway stage?
Larsen: I do. It was funny because it was sort of anti-climactic. I had done the show on so many other stages all over the country by the time I did it at the Nederlander, so it didn't feel all that different. Also, the very first time I went on in Rent, I was doing the swing track: You play the cop who pokes the homeless lady and gets mad when everybody's out on the street. They have their faces covered with masks, so you can't tell that it's somebody you've already seen onstage. So that was literally my Broadway debut, walking onstage for two minutes with a mask over my face and a police baton in my hand. Then you say the word "right" and march off .... Eventually I went on for Mrs. Cohen and others, and that felt more appropriately like my Broadway debut, [but] everybody backstage was so sweet. They were like, "Yay! Congratulations on your Broadway debut!" And I was like, "Yeah, I'm behind a mask doing something I've done hundreds of times before on other stages. It doesn't feel quite like the big moment." [Laughs.] But I think that's sort of emblematic of my entire career, which has been baby steps, which I think probably is the more realistic theatre experience. There's the movie version of the big break or the big Broadway debut but, I think, more often it's people who [have put in years of work]... I think it was Jonathan Larson's sister who said, when she accepted his Tony for him after he died, "It took Jonathan 35 years to become an overnight success." I think that's more realistically the way it happens. A lot of us have just been out there and paying our dues and pounding the pavement to make it happen.

Question: Tell me about how Shafrika came to be.
Larsen: Shafrika came after I had finished doing Rent on Broadway and thought, "Alright, I've been on Broadway. I've made it. Now what?" I didn't work again for two years. I couldn't even get an agent, which is so crazy. "But I've proven that I can make money. I've proven I can do this," and still I couldn't get an agent. It was the first time I realized that there's no such thing as making it and coasting. It's always a hustle. Every job is finite. You're always going to be looking for work the rest of your life, which is a wearying thought and is what, I think, sort of weeds out a lot of people.... [Then there are] those of us who are a little screwy in the head enough to feel like, "There's nothing else that I can do, so I have to keep pressing on."

It was during those two years of not working after Rent that I was roller blading around Central Park. I started the loop thinking, "Alright, what am I doing now? How am I gonna find work?" And they say, "If you can't find work, create your own." I thought, "Alright, what does that mean for me? I'm not a writer, but I've always been a good essay writer in school. I'm not a playwright, so I couldn't write a play, but maybe I could write my own show, like a one-woman show." And then I thought, "Well, they say if you are a first-time writer, write what you know." I knew that the stories of my family made me different and was a unique perspective. Also, I've gotten so good at telling them over the years that I really could hold the attention of a room. So I thought, "At the very least, people won't be mad at me for asking them to come see the show, because they won't be bored. The stories of my brothers and sisters are not boring, so they won't want their money back." I was terrified that it was self-indulgent. Being one of ten kids, it's very hard for me to ask people to pay attention to me for 90 minutes. So by the end of the loop in Central Park I decided, "Okay, I'm gonna go home, and I'm gonna write down every story that I can think of from my childhood." I did that and, I think, probably six months went by before I even looked at it again, but every once in awhile I would revisit it. This was probably in 1999 that that happened, so I guess ten years ago. God, that's crazy! [Laughs.] And, then shortly thereafter I met April Nickell, who is a director. We did a workshop together. She was so fantastic and smart and really one of the best directors that I'd ever worked with. We became immediate friends and collaborators, and she started to help me shape Shafrika and make it not just an evening of stories but an actual piece of theatre. It's developed and developed and developed over the years until last year it suddenly, somehow, became a big, old giant 14-person musical. We finally realized that the reason why it never quite worked as a solo show was because there had to be a lot of people telling the story of this giant family.

Question: Would you call Shafrika a musical or a play with music?
Larsen: That's an interesting question because it definitely functions as a musical, but not all of the music is original. All of the music that's in it grew really organically over the years out of, "What song best helps serve the story right now?" Sometimes it's stuff that existed out there in the world and were songs that shaped me or were important to me or had a specific function in my life. And, sometimes it was like, "We need a song here, so you've gotta write it." So I would write the lyrics to the song and then partner up with different composers that I'd worked with and loved.

Question: What is your family's reaction so far? I guess they haven't seen it yet...
Larsen: No, they haven't seen it, but they've all seen the script. Everyone who's still alive who is in the show have all seen the script. I didn't want anyone to be uncomfortable with or unhappy with anything I was saying in the show. They've all been tremendously good sports about it, and they're all actually really excited. My mom has rented a bus and is bringing 40 people down to a matinee. I think it's gonna be really strange for them to watch people playing them onstage, but they're all really excited. They're all definitely gonna be there in the audience on different nights.

Question: What has it been like for you working on a project that is so personal?
Larsen: I think the strangest thing about this rehearsal process has been how not strange it's been. I don't know why that is — perhaps because it's been so many years in development. There are, every once in awhile, moments where I think, "Gosh, if the Anika then, when she was living that, [knew] at some point it would be a musical, what would she have thought?" I don't have any idea what she would have thought. It's sort of all throughout the span of my life — so what six-year-old Anika would have thought, what college-aged Anika would have thought, I don't know. I have no idea how she would have been able to wrap her brain around it.

Question: Where did you fall age-wise in your family?
Larsen: I was right smack in the middle.

Question: What was that like being one of ten kids with some adopted and some not?
Larsen: The thing about kids is that they're learning the rules of the world as they go, so they don't realize they're different or weird until other people tell them they're different or weird. For me it was the only family I knew. It's like asking an only child, "What was it like to be an only child?" It was the only world they knew. I had a wonderful childhood. Having so many kids around, there were definitely lots more kids to play with but also lots more kids to fight with. As a grown-up now, I'm sometimes really good at sharing because of my family and sometimes really bad at sharing because of my family, so I don't know. I wouldn't trade it for the world. It has done so much toward making me the person that I am, and I think that's why I felt compelled to write this show — looking back and realizing how much my family has made me who I am, which is true for everyone. What's been really fun with this — I keep talking about what "they" say, the mystical "they" — [but] they say that what is personal is universal. I hadn't ever really fully grasped how much [that is true]. The greatest thing I've learned in terms of writing, since I'm a new writer, is that the more specific I got with my story, the more people would come up to me after I'd done a workshop or reading version of it and say, "I know exactly what you mean!" And their life would have been nothing like mine, but in some way we all grapple with issues of identity and of race and of assumptions that people make about us because of the way we work. So even though I'm talking about my brothers and sisters from all over the world, somebody else with a completely different history comes to see that and has felt, in some way, the same kind of feeling. And that is tremendously exciting and is, I think, why it's going to work as a show because there's a universality to all of the themes.

Question: The show is being presented by Jaradoa Theatre, which you helped found. Tell me about the formation of the group and what its goals currently are.
Larsen: April Nickell — we've been friends and collaborators for years now. She has been talking about this theatre company for years, this idea of having a membership company where there's a core group of members who are committed to both working on all of the productions and also to serving the community every month — but more specifically using theatre to serve, because we really feel like theatre artists have a unique capacity to serve the community using performance-based outreach. We want to find ways for theatre people to be able to serve that works around our crazy lives and our erratic schedules, because it's not easy for us to serve. I can't commit to 12 Thursdays in a row, but I know that probably next week I can commit to one Thursday morning. That's kind of what we do.

We find ways for theatre people to be able to go work with the elderly and with kids in public school or after-school programs or alternative-to-incarceration programs for teenage felons. We're going to be working with veterans soon, and we're going to be going to Riker's eventually. It's tremendously exciting for me and the best thing I ever did in my life. If you'd told me three years ago that I'd be doing this, I wouldn't have known what that meant. But now it has taken such a prominent place in my life and provided me with such a greater sense of fulfillment. It's an incredible joy to be able to alternate between doing theatre professionally and doing the theatre company. It fills every cockle of my heart. It's so exciting to be able to share it with my friends in the theatre community and have them get so much out of it. So often after friends or folks I know have come to do outreach with us, I go to thank them and they go, "No, no, no, thank you! I'm so glad I got to do this." It's so nice to be able to do that for people. I think the only reason we've been able to snowball as fast as we have as a theatre company — we've only been around two-and-a-half years — is because we really tapped a vein. There is such a desire to serve out there in the theatre community; it's just that people often don't have the time to figure out how. So we literally lay it in their laps. They're so excited to be able to just take it and run with it.

Anika Larsen in Avenue Q
photo by Carol Rosegg

Question: On a different topic, you were just recently in the tour of Avenue Q. What was the training process like with the puppets, and what was it like actually performing the roles of Kate Monster and Lucy?
Larsen: In order to even get a final callback, you have to go to puppet camp for two days, so that [the creative team] can see whether or not you have the capacity to learn it. And then I had three weeks to learn the show… and that's everything! All the stuff you usually have to learn for a show: your blocking, your music, your lines… and then, on top of that, the puppetry. It was really hard, I'm not gonna lie to you. A couple of my friends who have done Avenue Q, who were actors who then became puppeteers for Avenue Q, asked me throughout the rehearsal process, "Have you cried yet?" [Laughs.] Everyone hits a wall at a certain point where they just think, "I can't do this. It's too hard! There's too much of my brain required at every single moment to do all of this at the same time." You freak out a little bit because you know the day that you have to be onstage is looming and coming towards you, and you're terrified that you're going to look like a fool. The nice thing for me was that I was joining the tour, so I kept reassuring myself with the thought, "You don't know a soul in Fort Worth, Texas. If you're terrible, no one you know will see you be terrible." [Laughs.] The folks at Avenue Q are so lovely and helpful and wonderful, they had me entirely prepared by the time I was up onstage. Of course, over the eight months that I did the tour my puppetry got so much better. Doing anything eight times a week, you can't help but get better. Question: Was it an enjoyable show to do?
Larsen: It was absolutely one of my favorite shows ever. . . . and they've asked me to join the Broadway company. So a week after Shafrika closes, I'm joining the Broadway company [of Avenue Q]. . . . I screamed as I was walking down the street because I missed the show. It's such a well-written show. . . . If you just do what's written and get out of the way of the jokes and the poignant moments and the fun, all the work is done for you in the writing. The puppetry is so much more fun than I ever expected. I never expected to love it as much as I did. The best part is that my Princeton, Rob McClure, they've also asked him to [join the Broadway cast], so we get to be boyfriend and girlfriend again.

Question: Congratulations on the casting!
Larsen: Thank you. It's so perfectly-timed, too, that it's literally a week after Shafrika closes. It just feels like the gods are smiling on me.

[Shafrika, The White Girl will play the Vineyard, which is located at 108 East 15th Street (between Union Square East and Irving Place). Tickets are $18 and are available through www.SmartTix.com (212) 868-4444. For more information visit www.JaradoaTheater.org.]

[Avenue Q plays the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street. For more information visit www.avenueq.com; for tickets call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.]

FOR THE RECORD: Next to Normal (Ghostlight Records)
The new musical Next to Normal, which received 11 2009 Tony Award nominations, had a long, circuitous route to Broadway. Seen at Off-Broadway's Second Stage Theater in winter 2008, the powerful rock musical was revised for a limited run at Arena Stage's temporary home in Arlingtob, VA, this past winter. After further revisions, the Michael Greif-directed production opened to mostly rave reviews at Broadway's Booth Theatre, where performances continue. The original cast recording of Next to Normal is now available on the Ghostlight Records label and boasts what may be the best score of the theatrical season that just ended. With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, the talented six-person cast comprises Alice Ripley, J. Robert Spencer, Aaron Tveit, Jennifer Damiano, Adam Chanler-Berat and Louis Hobson.

Former Side Show and Sunset Boulevard star Ripley, who was Tony-nominated for her performance in Normal, heads the cast as Diana, a mother struggling with her personal demons. Ripley, who possesses one of the great Broadway belts, offers the performance of her career and, perhaps, the musical theatre season. She has also been handed some of the score's best tunes and mines all of the lyrics for their full emotional value.

What's particularly striking about the score is the abundant melody in composer Kitt's music. Not only are the major songs filled with melody, but the recitative — the dialogue-like songs between characters — are equally tuneful.

Each of the major characters gets the chance to shine on stage and on disc: Ripley scores with everything she sings, whether it's the aching "I Miss the Mountains," the accusatory "You Don't Know," the heartbreaking "I Dreamed a Dance" or the all-out rock number, "Didn't I See This Movie?" Also enchanting are newcomers Damiano — also a 2009 Tony nominee — and Tveit as, respectively, daughter Natalie and son Gabe. Damiano, who has grown tremendously in her role since the Second Stage run, sings with ease and is especially powerful in her duets with Chanler-Berat, who plays Natalie's boyfriend Henry. Her "Superboy and the Invisible Girl" is also a standout. Tveit's clear tenor soars remarkably in "I'm Alive" and "I Am the One," and Tony nominee Spencer, who succeeded Brian d'Arcy James as Dan — James was cast in the title role of Shrek the Musical following Normal's Second Stage run — does well with such tunes as "I've Been," "It's Gonna Be Good" and "I Am the One." The entire company also thrills in the show's moving finale, "Light."

The new two-disc recording boasts a color booklet featuring complete lyrics.

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

Aaron Tveit, Alice Ripley and J. Robert Spencer
Aaron Tveit, Alice Ripley and J. Robert Spencer