DIVA TALK: Chatting with Wicked's Shoshana Bean Plus News of Neuwirth and Ripley

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Shoshana Bean
Shoshana Bean

SHOSHANA BEAN
Earlier this week I had the chance to chat with one of the great high belters of her generation, Shoshana Bean, who made her Broadway debut as Shelly in the original cast of the Tony Award-winning Hairspray before succeeding Tony winner Idina Menzel in the demanding role of the green-faced, misunderstood Elphaba in Broadway's Wicked. Bean, who is one of the more acclaimed Elphabas, recently released her independently produced CD, "Superhero." On April 7 she will offer tunes from that recording when she joins forces with recording artist Lucy Woodward for a concert in Manhattan at Le Poisson Rouge. My interview with the big-voiced Bean follows.

Question: Since we've never spoken before, let's start at the beginning. Where were you born and raised?
Shoshana Bean: Olympia, Washington, and Portland, Oregon.

Question: When did you start performing?
Bean: At six or seven when I joined a performing group called Capital Kids in Olympia.

Question: When did you know that singing/acting would be your career rather than just a hobby?
Bean: I guess when it came time to choose a college. I thought I would go to a state school and major in marketing or something like that because all my friends were and maybe take over my dad's business. I was taking voice lessons at the time, and my voice teacher said, "You know, you can go to school for musical theatre?" And I was like, "Really?!" So I looked into it. I knew I didn't want to not continue [performing]. Not going to college was not an option, so it was a way to both go to college and continue [performing]. My parents totally supported it and believed in it, probably more so than I did at that point.

Question: Did you do all the musicals in high school?
Bean: Not really. I did two spring musicals. I did Hello, Dolly! when I was a sophomore. I only had a three-year high school, so sophomore year I was in the ensemble of Hello, Dolly!, and then junior year I was Lady Jaqueline in Me and My Girl. And then senior year they cast me in the ensemble of Will Roger Follies, and I thought, "I don't want to spend my senior year in rehearsals all day long for being in the ensemble." [Laughs.] Question: Where did you end up going to college?
Bean: The University of Cincinnati.

Question: What was your major?
Bean: Musical theatre.

Question: When did you come to New York?
Bean: Right after. Kristy Cates was my roommate, and she and I went and did the Muny that summer. We packed up and drove to St. Louis and did Annie and Meet Me in St. Louis there to get our Equity cards, and then we went back to Cincinnati and packed up this rickety U-Haul, and we drove to New York.

Question: What was it like for you your first year or two in the city?
Bean: It was good. I had that new energy: "I'm here in this new city!" I was just really energetic and really determined. I was there for not even a week before I got a NAMT Festival reading of Honk. So I did Honk and then about a month later we got cast in Godspell. I was lucky.

Shoshana Bean (left) in Hairspray
photo by Paul Kolnik

Question: Do you remember your first night performing on Broadway [in Hairspray]?
Bean: I guess it was our gypsy run technically. Before you open preview, you do your gypsy run. I guess I didn't look at is as "This is my first night on Broadway" because we had done the show in Seattle for awhile. I remember the biggest thing that hit me was "I'm tapping on Broadway" because we did a little bit of tapping in "Big Dollhouse." That was the biggest deal to me — "I'm in a Broadway show, and I'm tapping in it!" [Laughs.] Question: How did you originally get involved with Wicked?
Bean: I had gone in [to audition] a couple times for [ Wicked]. I think I went in for Nessarose one time. I went in for the original standby. I actually got cast in the ensemble in the original company. I was in the ensemble at Hairspray at the time, and I was covering a bunch of roles, so I felt it was a lateral move. I was actually getting ready to leave Hairspray to work on my music. I just thought I didn't want to get involved in a whole other show, so I didn't end up doing it, and Kristy Cates got it, so it was kept in the family!

And then when Eden [Espinosa] was getting ready to leave to do Brooklyn, they called [and asked] if I wanted to come and standby. That way I could kind of work — be at work technically — but still work on my music. Then I fell in love with the role, and I [felt], "I really don't want to leave," and then I got to take over.

Question: What was it like for you when you took over the role?
Bean: Frightening. Amazing. Incredibly educational. Life-changing really.

Shoshana Bean in Wicked
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: What do you think you learned from playing the role?
Bean: What didn't I learn? I learned so much about myself as a person, as a performer. I learned about drawing boundaries, priorities. I learned even more vocal technique than I already did know. I think there's a challenge not only in learning that role, but for me the challenge was I had to figure out how to replace somebody, which is a really tricky situation. Having been in Hairspray and seeing people replace before and having been an understudy, I just did my best to go on. You bring a little bit of your own spin to the role, but basically you have to fill a hole and make sure the machine keeps running. You can't make it your own too much, so that's how I felt when I first took over for Idina [Menzel]. I didn't want to make waves. I just wanted to make sure that the machine kept running and that I didn't upset anything. And that only took me so far because I couldn't re-create her performance as much as I tried to. . . .At some point I had to do the work and make it my own. I learned how to do that. It was all sort of extraordinary circumstances and incredible learning experiences. I still think that the amount of work that [that role] is and the amount of endurance [it takes is like] running a marathon or lifting weights. You just get stronger and stronger the more you do it. Experiences and opportunities like that just make you better and stronger. Question: Do you see yourself going back to the role at this point?
Bean: I never say never, but I think for now probably not. I think I was so lucky to go back and do the tour the second time around. It was only six months away, but it was enough time to get perspective and take a break. My gratitude for the whole situation was amped up. So many times you don't get a second shot at anything, so to get a second shot — that role is gigantic; you can never really crack the code to that role — to try my hand at it again was awesome. I don't think I'll ever walk away from that role and be like, "I did it. I really figured it out." I think I could go back eight more times and still not crack the code, but I'm very satisfied with the time I had there.

Question: Is there a bit of a sisterhood among the women who have played Elphaba?
Bean: There is! It builds as time goes by because we all share secrets on how we make it through. I remember Lisa Brescia called me when she first started. She's like, "How do you hit that low note in 'I'm Not That Girl'?" I was like, "Oh, sister, I had the worst time with that. Here's my trick." Or Kristy called me and said, "I had to finally call out at intermission. How did you deal with that?" They picked some of the strongest women out there — like Kristy [Cates] and Julia [Murney] and Stephanie [J. Block] and Eden — and they're some of the coolest chicks, too. Our paths cross very frequently. Eden and I just hiked last week, and Kristy's one of my best friends from way back, so it's a cool group of women.

Question: Tell me about your new recording. Are these songs you've written?
Bean: Yes, I co-wrote the entire album with other people. There are two songs I didn't write — one is an Aretha cover, and the other one Lucy Woodward wrote. [The CD] is R&B and soul — it's inspired by the music I was raised on and the music that I listen to. It's definitely contemporary R&B, but we really went organic with it — it's live horns and live drums. It's not that programmed, canned music that you hear more often than not on the radio. All live musicians. I wanted to combine my love of real, organic orchestrated music with the contemporary vibe. Our attempt in some small way was to retrain people's ears — I think we've gotten so used to dumb-downed stuff on the radio. I want to be able to give people what they're used to hearing — in a sense that it's hooky and relatable and it's contemporary sounding — but those are live horns. Question: Who were the singers that influenced you growing up?
Bean: Definitely Mariah Carey. When her first album came out I [thought], "Oh, this is what I want to do. I want to make an album like this." That first album is untouchable, and it did influence me a lot in making this [CD] — just being fearless in my vocals. . . .Definitely her, Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Aretha, of course.

Question: When did you realize that your voice was as big and as rangy as it is?
Bean: I guess I knew I had a little bit of soul. That was all I listened to growing up, and I guess I could emulate it well. And then the more I did that the more organic it became, less imitating and more authentic. But I think it really blossomed in college. I come from Portland, big fish in a little pond, and then I go to CCM, and in my class are Leslie Kritzer, Kristy Cates, Sara Gettelfinger — people just as if not more talented. I used to think, "Well, I can belt, but I can also sing legit." Well, everyone can! You have to find what is individual about [yourself]. I just found that [soulful high belting/riffing] seems to be my signature thing, and that's what I started doing — pushing my range. I remember calling my mom the first week crying, "Everybody's so good. I can't do this." And either my mom or aunt said, "What do you do? You play tennis with people better than you if you want to get better. You don't play with people worse." They're only going to inspire you to become better and better. . . . You think you're only capable of so much. I remember when I was scared to belt a C, and now we're in the Fs.

Question: Tell me about the show you'll be doing in Manhattan in April.
Bean: That is a show with Lucy [Woodward], and she actually was really inspirational. She was an artist who was signed to a major label for a long time, had a record out, and ended up leaving the label, and she did a whole second album independently. And it's such a great album. I actually sang back up for her a couple summers ago, and it totally inspired me to be confident in doing my [album] on my own. . . I haven't done a New York show in two years, a big one. I've done a ton of stuff, but I haven't done a show with my full band and back-up singers since Joe's Pub in 2007. I wanted to come back big, and I wanted to do a good venue, and I wanted to share the bill with [Lucy], a fierce, powerful woman, and her music has sort of the same, soulful vibe. We're each doing half-hour/45 minute sets with a full band and singers. It'll be rocking!

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Bean: To kick off Gay Pride out here in L.A., we're doing a huge show that Upright Cabaret is producing June 11 at the Ford Theatre. The first act [of the one-woman show] is a tribute to Barbra Streisand, and the second half is all my stuff. And then I'm doing Birdland June 22 — a show called Flipped. It will be songs you know and you love — old soul classics, and my stuff and probably some musical theatre stuff — in ways you've never heard it arranged or done before.

[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 at 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.] DIVA TIDBITS
The second annual 24 Hour Musicals will be held April 13 at The Gramercy Theatre in Manhattan. An initial list of artists who will be part of the one-night-only event has been announced: Idina Menzel, Bebe Neuwirth, Cheyenne Jackson, Alicia Witt, Rachel Dratch, Mo Rocca, Stephen Pasquale, Tracie Thoms, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Ted Sperling, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Tamara Tunie. The fundraiser is billed as "a celebrity charity challenge where stars from theatre, film, TV and rock unite to create four brand new musicals in one day." The evening, presented by Exchange, will benefit the Orchard Project. Show time at the Gramercy is 8 PM. A VIP after party will be held at the National Arts Club. For ticket information visit exchangenyc.org/24.

A concert version of Hey, You Know What Movie Would Make a Good Musical? will be presented April 6 at the Julia Miles Theatre in Manhattan. The 7:30 PM performance will feature the talents of Tony winner Cady Huffman ( The Producers), Elizabeth Stanley ( Company, Cry-Baby, Xanadu) and Celina Carvajal ( Cats, 42nd Street) as well as Maurice Murphy, Douglas Goodhart and show creators Ryan Bogner, Mishaela Faucher and Jason Michael Snow. The evening features direction by Travis Greisler and Austin Regan with music direction by Christopher D. Littlefield and choreography by Mishaela Faucher. The Julia Miles Theatre is located in Manhattan at 424 West 55th Street. Tickets, priced $20, can be purchased at the door or in advance at www.theatermania.com.

The original cast recording of the new Tom Kitt-Brian Yorkey Broadway musical Next to Normal will have a digital release April 7. The two-CD set, which features more than 30 songs, is scheduled to arrive in stores May 12 on the Ghostlight Records label. To celebrate the recording, cast members will perform at the Barnes & Noble Lincoln Center that day at 4 PM. The cast — including Alice Ripley, J. Robert Spencer, Aaron Tveit, Jennifer Damiano, Adam Chanler-Berat and Louis Hobson — recorded the CD Feb. 11 and 12 in Manhattan. Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records president Kurt Deutsch and Grammy Award winner Joel Moss produced the recording.

May the Schwartz Be With You is the title of an upcoming benefit for Project Open that will be held at Don't Tell Mama on Restaurant Row in Manhattan. The April 20 concert will showcase the songs of Stephen Schwartz and will also feature author Carol de Giere, who will share never-before-told stories about researching her recently published book, "Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz from Godspell to Wicked." The 7 PM concert will boast the talents of Carole Demas ( Grease, The Baker's Wife), Teri Ralston ( Company, A Little Night Music, The Baker's Wife) and Dale Soules ( The Magic Show, Grey Gardens) with Shorey Walker, Kathleen Hennesy, Lara Janine, James Reimer, Natalie Ryder and The Treats ( Brooke Lyn Hetrick, Katie Danielowski and Emily Zempel). Morgan LaVere will direct the benefit with musical direction by BJ Gandolfo. Don't Tell Mama is located at 343 West 46th Street. There is a $25 cover charge and a two-drink minimum. Call (212) 757-0788 (after 4 PM) for reservations.

(Diva Talk will be on vacation until Friday, April 10.)

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