PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Sherie Rene Scott; The Broadway Star Heads to 54 Below

By Michael Gioia
October 13, 2012

Sherie Rene Scott, a three-time Tony Award nominee for her work on Broadway's Everyday Rapture and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, goes "Below" Broadway to expose her deepest struggles in her new cabaret show, Piece of Meat.



*

Although Sherie Rene Scott never seemed to struggle with her career in musical theatre — originating roles in The Who's Tommy, Aida, The Little Mermaid, The Last Five Years, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and receiving Tony nominations for her performances in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Everyday Rapture, as well as a nod for Best Book of Rapture — she was dealing with a personal struggle.

After 26 years of a vegetarian lifestyle, Scott said her primal desires were surfacing. She craved meat. Feeling like there was nowhere to turn, Scott began to write. Writing turned into investigating, investigating turned into exploring, and exploring blossomed into song. Piece of Meat, her cabaret show that will receive its New York City premiere Oct. 16-27 at the new Manhattan nightspot 54 Below, tells her story in a humorous way — through music — with the assistance of musical director and collaborator Todd Almond. Prior to the show's debut, we caught up with the star, who shares insight into her inner conflict.

Before rehearsals began for Piece of Meat, had you been to 54 Below? Were you able to check out a concert this summer?
Sherie Rene Scott: I was able to see Ben Vereen there, actually, because [my husband] Kurt [Deutsch] wanted to see Ben Vereen. He got into college by writing a paper on why he thought Ben Vereen was one of the greatest American performers, and he got into like every college he applied for. He loves Ben Vereen, so we went to see him.

Was it after that concert that you decided to bring in Piece of Meat or were plans already in the works?
SRS: I was already going to do it there [and was] first approached about doing something before it opened. I was already getting this piece together [with music director] Todd [Almond]. I just wanted to make clear that my piece wasn't what people would expect from a typical cabaret experience. I was looking at doing it somewhere in New York only if it was a place that understood that it was going to be [different]. Todd and I have been forming it with 54 in mind over the last few months. We took it for an out-of-town tryout a little bit away from New York…which happened to be Australia! [Laughs.] That was the safest place we thought we could get a nice, objective view of everything. We had a blast [but had] enough time to cancel [in New York] if things didn't go well. [Laughs.] It could have been, "You know what, that was good. Now we're stopping. Australia is where it needs to have lived and passed," but instead it was the opposite. It went over really well. It's an odd piece, you know. And, I could see how I wanted to improve it and get it ready for New York, so that's what we've been doing since July.

Scott in Everyday Rapture.
photo by Carol Rosegg

Can you give me a sense of the piece? You've said before that it's about an evolved human being facing her base animal desires.
SRS: That's really what it's about. Desires can go both ways — the desire to be an enlightened, spiritual being and the [primal] desires that we have to deal with in this human form. It's a constant struggle. We want to be our highest selves, yet we have to be our highest selves in this human body, in this time, on this planet. [Laughs.] This has been one of my biggest struggles! It definitely manifested itself with this life-changing decision that I was faced with that I did not want to have to make, but I was bombarded with… After over 26 years of the happy, healthy vegetarian [lifestyle] — never having been tempted — I suddenly found myself faced with the overwhelming desire for meat. This was obviously something I wanted to keep very private, and I was having a big internal struggle with, and so I wrote about it. And, as Todd and I worked together, just wanting to put a show together of songs that we loved and enjoyed playing, Todd noticed how much the songs reflected [my struggle]… The songs had a storytelling aspect, and he said how much they reflected this personal struggle that I articulated to him, and I thought, "Oh, no! I'm not going to talk about that." [Laughs.] It was like one of the worst things I've ever gone through in my life — the most painful, confusing time. And then he reminded me that nothing is more humorous than people's pain and suffering. I realized I had to agree with that, especially when I [had] some distance from it. Once I started to realize that there was a lot of humor in my personal pain and suffering, I thought, "Well that's worth talking about!" [Laughs.] …If it's funny and sexy and interesting, which it ended up being.

This show is basically about all the investigating I did over this one piece of meat and how I felt like I had been a piece of meat at certain parts of my life. I identified with the meat. I identified with the animal and the prey, and I had compassion for that. To find myself on the other side, it was mind-blowing. And, I wasn't just an innocent fawn in the woods all the time. I had certainly treated others like pieces of meat. There were relationships I had where I was definitely with people because of their "piece-of-meatness," really… They had it going on, you know! That wasn't my most spiritual, evolved self that was in that relationship; that was my base animal desires and needs. [Laughs.] I had to look at all aspects… How could I let go of this way of life — of being? How could I contemplate letting go of something that I truly believed in and loved just because of my own physical, animalistic, bodily desires? To eat or not to eat? That is the question. It was as if I was giving up being a woman or something… It was a way of being that was just a part of me that was not even questioned or looked at. Anyway, that is a very long version, [but] the most important thing is that there was a lot of humor in it — in the struggle — that we're finding a lot of people can identify with… And, we sing about it.

Scott in concert
Photo by Matthew Murphy
I was Googling, and I came across a clip of you and Todd singing Annie Lennox's "Honestly." Do most of the songs in your set fall into this genre?
SRS: Basically. It falls into the genre of eclectic-mix, I guess. But it all — not just for the sake of it — suits the storytelling. We're not doing songs to reinvent them. They just seem natural to the piece and natural to Todd and I. Just being in the story, they're kind of reinvented. Being in the context of this evening that we're creating, you see them in a new way… Yeah, "Honestly" is an Annie Lennox song that Todd and I do in a duet. We do a Talking Heads song, a Paul McCartney & Wings, a Joni Mitchell, a Noah and the Whales, a Kate Bush song… And then we do some old song from the '20s — that kind of old-timey thing in a balls-to-the-wall kind of way. It's very cohesive to the evening, but they're very eclectic in and of themselves. But we were very conscious of everything. [We didn't pick] songs because we thought we needed an up-tempo, a ballad, a jazz… It just came naturally. We did a lot of investigating of songs over the course of a year and a half — sending things back and forth to each other… "Have you heard this song?" … "I hear it like this, maybe" or "I've always wanted to do this song in this way." Todd listened to songs that neither of us had heard. We're doing a song that's totally new to both of us — a couple of them. And, Todd was the first of the few people in my life that I would say, "I'm really attracted to doing songs by people who sing without any melody." [Laughs.] Like Talking Heads, where it's like, "I hear a melody in my head. They're singing in this monotone way that creates a melody in my head, and I want to sing that." And, I've tried that before, and other people are like, "No!" [Laughs.] Todd is always one to say, "Let's try it!" Things become clear as you're working on them rather than people just saying no from the get-go.

You mentioned performing songs you never heard before. How do you search out new music?
SRS: It's just research. You tune into one song that you dig, or one version of it, and then you explore that songwriter some more. Or maybe a song that you like…it's not right, but you explore that songwriter and start researching — what other songs did this guy do? Or [with] a singer — what other songs did this singer do versions of?

Scott in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
photo by Paul Kolnik

Have you used Pandora to explore different songs and artists?
SRS: No. I mean, I love Pandora, but more for while I'm working or writing…just to listen. But, I'm much more of a reader. I'll read something, and it will inspire me to start looking at things. Now that iTunes has that you can listen to songs for so long, I can get an idea if it's something that I want to purchase or download. I'm a co-owner of a record label, so I am somebody who does feel like I should buy music rather than just stream it. [Laughs.] If I care enough about it, I want to pay the price and own it and give the people their money.

How did you initially link up with Todd?
SRS: One of the reasons for looking for [a collaborator] was because of these base animal desires welling up in me, and I thought one of the reasons why I was having this kind of hunger for flesh was because I was exhausted from doing 15-20 years of Broadway shows — a new show practically every year. I thought, "I've got to get out of this." I was literally willing to give up doing Broadway shows if that meant I could stay a vegetarian. I was really trying to hang onto that. So I said, "I want to create, obviously, and write and sing. I want to enjoy singing again." I really wanted to get back to how I started singing, which was just with musicians and writing music and playing music that I love and [performing at] more intimate spaces where I could express [myself]. Somebody gave me Todd's name. He had some CDs out of his own music, and I started listening to some of his CDs online, and I thought, "I love his music. Would he be willing to work with me on other music, too?" He's so brilliant [that I thought] it would be boring for him to work with me arranging other music. But then when I talked to him on the phone I just loved him. He's like a sane, kind, brilliant, genius gentleman. And, he showed up! That's a big thing. He showed up every time and was ready to work and was interested in trying things.

Scott in Aida.
Photo by Joan Marcus
Did you consider yourself a vegan, a vegetarian…?
SRS: I have been all of those things, but basically, for over 26 years — since I was 19 — I had not had any meat. For a while, I was a complete vegetarian — no fish. For a while, I was a vegan. I think that lasted a year and a half. And, as it got old, I started eating fish…a pescetarian.

What prompted that mental shift at 19 years old, when you decided to stop eating meat?
SRS: Well, that's in the show, so I don't want to reveal that. The actual moment is told in a humorous way, but it was really that enlightenment — those epiphanies that come to people. Growing up in Kansas at the time when I became [a vegetarian], it was kind of tantamount to being a communist. Being a vegetarian, it was literally un-American, un-God. It was like saying you didn't believe in God. It was really a kind of radical, almost militant stance. I didn't feel that way about it at all. It felt like who I always was. I really, truly believe that there is a sea of compassion when you become a vegetarian and a seed of enlightenment that happens — you can empathize with all beings on the planet.

It's so interesting to put that struggle into a cabaret show. Most vegetarians are concerned for all creatures, and to have that desire for meat suddenly manifest itself — that's deep!
SRS: Thank you for saying that. I have chills right now! I can't tell you how difficult… It was a journey to get to this point where I'm like, "I just have to get this out." And, I have to trust that it will connect with people on some level because it was, for me, a very confusing, difficult struggle, and it continues to be… I kept calling it the piece. This is the piece. People ask, "Is it a performance piece?" And, I say, "I don't know what it is. It's a piece of meat. It's the Piece of Meat." I can't categorize it. I just have to do it and let other people categorize it. I don't want to turn people off [by them] thinking it's like a "spiritual journey." It's not really that. How do we live and enjoy this human body and celebrate it and, at the same time, try to live as our higher selves, which goes beyond the body? So yes, it's deep. And, I have guest appearances by the Dalai Lama and Sir Paul McCartney, so other well-known vegetarians make appearances. [Laughs.] We learn from my "relationships with them."

Are you anxious? This is not a role; it's you. You're baring a little bit of your soul for New York City.
SRS: Yeah… What's so great is that Everyday Rapture allowed that. We created the character for Everyday Rapture that I really enjoyed, was really comfortable being on stage and really dug it and lived for it. That actually made me more comfortable being on stage! [Laughs.] Less shy. Even though people don't like that word, it really is a feeling. Part of you feels uncomfortable when you're not inhabiting a character, but that's why I need to do this next level. There's always an amount of skill that goes on in that contract that you have with an audience — I'm up here, you're there, but we're going to connect… I want to minimize that space between the audience and myself. It's still there, but [I want to be] as authentic as I can in sharing with them.

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)