DIVA TALK: Chatting with Spelling Bee's Lisa Howard, Hair on Disc and Billy on Broadway

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Spelling Bee's Lisa Howard, Hair on Disc and Billy on Broadway News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Lisa Howard stars as Rona Lisa Peretti in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Lisa Howard stars as Rona Lisa Peretti in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Photo by Joan Marcus

LISA HOWARD

As I wrote a few weeks ago, if a theatre award for Vocal Discovery of the Season existed, I'd give my vote to Lisa Howard, who plays host Rona Lisa Peretti in the comical, charming and ultimately touching new William Finn musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Circle in the Square Theatre. Howard's voice can be big and belty, though never forced, and her sound is equally lovely in quieter moments. The singing actress has also been handed some of the musical's most melodic offerings, including "My Favorite Moment of the Bee," which repeats throughout the show, as well as "The I Love You Song," a trio for Howard, Celia Keenan-Bolger (as Olive) and Derrick Baskin (as Olive's Dad). Spelling Bee, which recently won two Tony Awards, including one for Best Book of a Musical (Rachel Sheinkin), marks Howard's Broadway debut, although the actress was seen in the national tour of Les Misérables — where she often performed the role of Madame Thenardier — and has also appeared in productions of Crazy for You, Cinderella, Das Barbecü, And the World Goes 'Round and Falsettos. I recently had the chance to chat with Howard, who spoke about her Main Stem bow as well as her modeling career and her upcoming introduction into the world of cabaret. That brief interview follows:

Question: When did you become involved with Spelling Bee?
Lisa Howard: I did the very first workshop at [the] Barrington [Stage Company] two Februarys ago.

Q: How much did your role change from that workshop to Broadway?
Howard: From then to Broadway [Rona] went through a couple different changes. When we were up at Barrington, all of the characters were more caricatures. She was more of a "grande dame" — a little bit more bizarre and out there. Now she's more of a real person. She's just been fleshed out — she has some of the old stuff, but she's definitely somebody people can relate to. Q: Did your music change much?
Howard: I had a big solo mid-show that was cut, but then "My Favorite Moment" — those three separate small songs that I have — those were added.

Q: What was the song that was cut?
Howard: It was called "I Don't Remember Anything at All." Principal Panch had just blown up, which is now in a different spot in the show. And I [say], "It wasn't like this when I was there." And the kids [ask], "Well, what was it like, Miss Janet, when you won?" My name was Rona Janet then and not Rona Lisa Peretti. "Oh, I don't really remember it" — and then eventually in the song she [says], "You know what, that's a lie. I remember everything, every detail, what dress I wore." Basically, [she says] that that was the best moment of [her] life . . . It was this big moment about her performer glory, which didn't really facilitate the show any further. [Laughs.] Which is why it was cut!

Q: This is your Broadway debut. Is it living up to what your dreams of that would be?
Howard: I think it's even surpassing it. You always think maybe the first show or two that you'll be in on Broadway you'll be in the chorus, probably a show that's [been] long-running. You never really imagine that the first thing you do, you're going to have a starring role in and that [the show] is going to be nominated for Tonys. It far exceeds any expectations I had. I'm like, "Things are going to be a letdown after this!" [Laughs.]

Q: What was it like performing on the Tony Awards telecast?
Howard: Incredible. [Radio City Music Hall] is immense, and I [thought], "Somebody pinch me. Am I really here? Is this really happening?" It was very exciting. We were all like a bunch of kids back there, screaming. Not loud screaming, but that "Aaahhhh!" — so excited before the curtain went up.

Q: Were you ever involved in spelling bees as a child?
Howard: No, actually, none at all. [Laughs.]

Q: You have guest spellers onstage every night at Circle in the Square. Has anything ever gone wrong with one of them?
Howard: Only one time was there a guy who we think had been drinking a little bit too much that night. He got up [onstage], and he started to dance. Then he took the mic out of the [stand], and he kept talking to people in the bleachers. He was the only troublesome one that we've really had. Some people get up there and try to act a little bit, which is a little cheesy, but they're not troublemakers.

Q: How did you handle the guy . . .
Howard: We basically just made sure we gave him a really hard word and got him out as soon as we could! Just tried to get him off the stage — that's all we can do.

Q: You have such a beautiful voice. When did you start singing?
Howard: Thank you. I started taking voice lessons in sixth grade and then half-heartedly did it through junior high, but I performed in all kinds of choirs. And, then finally in 11th grade decided this is really what I wanted to do. Then I went to school for musical theatre, but I started taking voice lessons and singing a lot in fifth, sixth grade.

Q: Were there any singers you particularly admired?
Howard: No, but growing up my mom always listened to Barbra Streisand and The Carpenters, so I was always listening to female singers. I find that some of my stylizations come from them, and I'm not even aware that they do, but I think it's because that's what she listened to when I was growing up.

Q: You also model as well. Tell me about that part of your career.
Howard: It was just something that I thought, "You know, I might as well try it" for some extra money. I do plus-size modeling. Today I'm working at Levi's doing their show room, meaning I wear the jeans and go in front of the clients who are going to be purchasing next fall's look for Levi's. It's great extra money, and I just happen to be the right height and right size. It just kind of works out, [and] it's been a lifesaver.

Q: How long are you contracted with Spelling Bee?
Howard: For a year.

Q: Are you involved in any other projects at the moment?
Howard: Tentatively, I might be doing something called Silence — The Musical in the Fringe Festival this summer, but they're checking on scheduling. I know they've offered it to me, [but] they have to find out if we [can fit the show in] around the Broadway schedule. If it goes well, that's my next little project. And I'm also working on a cabaret show of my own that I'm putting together — [I'm] hopefully either going to do it at Ars Nova or some other venue, like the Duplex, in August.

Q: What type of music will you perform?
Howard: There have been so many people, young composers, people who have kept me working and studying and getting my voice out there over the years. [What I want to do] is pay tribute to them and say these are the people who kept me going — these are the new talents, they're going to be writing the shows. I'm going to do a bunch of new composers [like] Rob Hartmann — he is one of the teachers down at NYU, [and] I've done a lot of his stuff. Of course, I'm going to do some of Bill Finn's songs . . . also, Scott Murphy, who's amazing, [and] Mark Small. A lot of these people have graduated from the graduate musical theatre writing program and some people have gone through [the] BMI [workshop]. A bunch of different people who I have worked with and think are very talented and their work should be showcased. I figured it would be a good way to nudge myself into doing [a show].

Q: Tell me a little bit more about Silence — The Musical.
Howard: [Laughs.] It's a parody. It's a musical version of "The Silence of the Lambs." It's hilarious. I was just dying laughing when I got the sides. I would play Catherine, the girl that gets kidnapped and put down the well. I do hope it happens.

[Lisa Howard currently co-stars in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Circle in the Square Theatre, 50th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200.]

FOR THE RECORD: Hair

Any recording that begins with Lillias White and ends with Norm Lewis — who possess two of the richest, most powerful and versatile singing voices in the musical theatre today — would be impossible not to love. So, it's no surprise that I wholeheartedly recommend the new Hair cast recording, featuring most of the performers who took part in last fall's Actors' Fund of America benefit concert. Recently released on the Ghostlight Records label, the 31-track disc will benefit the Actors' Fund and boasts a mix of established musical theatre stars — Liz Callaway, Harvey Fierstein, Sherie Rene Scott and Adam Pascal — as well as some of the most exciting up-n comers: Eden Espinosa, Euan Morton, John Tartaglia and Shoshana Bean.

Beginning with White's thrilling, riff-filled "Aquarius," the disc moves from one showstopper to the next. Among the many highlights: Ana Gasteyer, now starring in the Chicago mounting of Wicked, displays a great belt in "Dead End"; Laura Benanti once again delights with her beautiful, lilting soprano in "Initials"; Adam Pascal is simply electric in the upbeat, toe-tapping "I Got Life"; Gavin Creel impresses with "Going Down"; Raúl Esparza brings fire to the show's title number; "American Idol" finalist Jennifer Hudson, better than any of this past season's "Idols," wraps her powerful, rangy belt around "Easy to Be Hard"; Annie Golden charms with "Frank Mills"; Julia Murney scores with a beautifully built "Where Do I Go?," which may be the disc's most exciting track; Eden Espinosa lets her belt loose on "Hippie Life"; two consecutive tracks feature a wonderful belt-off between the gals of "Black Boys" (Kathy Brier, Orfeh and Ann Harada) and "White Boys" (Brandi Chavonne Massey, Ledisi and Shayna Steele); Sherie Rene Scott lends her hypnotic voice to "Walking in Space"; Liz Callaway brings her golden, rounded tones to a wonderful version of "Good Morning Starshine"; Darius de Haas and Paul Castree's dueling tenors do well with "What a Piece of Work Is Man"; and the aforementioned Norm Lewis pours out his vibrato-filled voice on "Let the Sunshine In."

Featuring musical direction and additional arrangements by Seth Rudetsky, who co-conceived the concert with the Actors' Fund, the "Hair" CD — with a playing time of over 70 minutes — is a must for musical theatre and diva lovers.

DIVA TIDBITS
I have to admit that Billy Elliot, which recently opened at London's Victoria Palace Theatre, is the first West End musical in years that has me anxiously awaiting a Broadway arrival. I've heard and read nothing but raves about the new musical, which is based on Stephen Daldry's film of the same name and features music by Elton John, book and lyrics by Lee Hall and direction by Daldry. Among the many accolades Billy has received: "The greatest British musical I've ever seen" (Daily Telegraph), "Brit Musical of the decade has arrived" (Daily Express), "The best British musical since Oliver" (Daily Mirror) and "Billy's a whiz. He'll lift your spirits, make you cry and send you home high with hope" (Daily Mail). There has been some discussion that Billy may be too British for American audiences, but hopefully this week's review in the New York Times will dispel that notion and hasten a New York transfer. In his write-up the Times' Ben Brantley said, "[Billy is] a sentimental slam dunk, the first musical since the New York production of Rent to exert such a complete emotional hold on its audience . . . . You have to go back a long time to find a musical as thoroughly integrated, perhaps all the way to the first production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, a musical as chilling as Billy Elliot is warming." Three different young actors (James Lomas, George Maguire and Liam Mower) rotate in the title role of the young dancer, whose show-stopper, "Electricity," will be released on a four-track CD single (performed by composer Elton John) July 11: "I can't really explain it/ I haven't got the words/ It's a feeling that you can't control/ I suppose it's like forgetting/ losing who you are/ And at the same time/ something makes you whole/ And then I feel a change/ Like a fire deep inside/ Something bursting me wide open/ Impossible to hide/ And suddenly I'm flying/ Flying like a bird/ Like electricity/ Electricity/ And I'm free/ I'm free." While the role of Billy may be the most demanding, the part of most interest to readers of this column would seem to be Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance teacher who spots Billy's talents. Created by Haydn Gwynne on the London stage, it sounds like the perfect role to bring Betty Buckley back to Broadway. Buckley, of course, triumphed in two London-to-Broadway transfers, Cats and Sunset Boulevard. (By the way, to listen to a preview of two songs from the musical — "Electricity" and "The Letter" — visit Click Here.) The 2nd annual Broadway Unplugged concert will be held Sept. 19 at Town Hall. Conceived, produced, written and hosted by cabaret critic Scott Siegel, the 8 PM concert at Town Hall will feature a host of Broadway favorites performing without amplification. Among those scheduled to take part in the microphone-free evening are Christine Andreas, Ron Bohmer, Chuck Cooper, George Dvorsky, Sutton Foster, Debbie Gravitte, Marc Kudisch, Norm Lewis, Rebecca Luker, Julia Murney, Christiane Noll, Brad Oscar, Emily Skinner and Mary Testa. Additional performers are expected to join the star-studded line-up. Town Hall is located in Manhattan at 123 West 43rd Street. Tickets, ranging from $25 $60, are available by calling (212) 307-4100.

More stars have been added to the upcoming tribute to composer Stephen Sondheim — celebrating his recent 75th birthday — at the Hollywood Bowl. Recently added to the star-studded roster of performers taking part in the July 8 evening are James Barbour, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Alexander Gemignani, Josh Groban, Anne Hathaway, Eric McCormack, Jubilant Sykes and Adam Wylie. These performers join the previously announced Jason Alexander, Carol Burnett, Len Cariou, Barbara Cook, Jason Danieley, Angela Lansbury, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, Donna Murphy, Bernadette Peters and Vanessa Williams. The Hollywood Bowl is located at 2301 Highland Avenue in Hollywood, CA. For tickets to Stephen Sondheim's 75th: The Concert, visit www.hollywoodbowl.org.

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

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