STAGE TO SCREENS: Syesha Mercado, the "American Idol" Veteran, Is Now "One Small Girl" of Once On This Island

By Michael Gioia
13 Jun 2012

Mercado and Adam Jacobs (background) in Once On This Island.
Photo by Jerry Dalia

Your first encounter with the material was in middle school?
SM: I auditioned for it in middle school, and I played the part of Ti Moune and was actually able to do a knee slide! [Laughs.] And, in high school I got the same role. Watch Mercado's middle school performance of "Waiting for Life" on her YouTube channel.

Wow — talk about full circle!
SM: That's why I had to do this! I was working on an album when I got the phone call [from my agent] about this, and I had to be there. I had to do this.

How did you land the role?
SM: Well, my agent told me they were holding auditions, and I [asked], "Are they auditioning in California?" That's where I am — that's where I live. When I looked at the email, it said New York, and I said, "I'm not going to be able to make it," so they told me to send in a video audition. Two weeks went by, and then Whitney Houston passed away… The day that I was supposed to record my video, she passed away, and she's my idol. I was in tears the entire day — listening to her music and mourning. I said, "I can't sing. I've been crying all day. I can't do this video." Another week went by, and then I finally just called the director, [Thomas Kail], and I told him, "I'll be in Philadelphia. Are you guys still auditioning?" He told me, "We don't have a Ti Moune yet," so I took a bus from Philly to New York, [and] I was almost late because I realized I didn't have a dress! I was like, "I need a dress to audition for Ti Moune! What am I doing? Oh my gosh!" I went in there, and the very next day, when I was on my way back home, I got the phone call that I got the part.



You have a powerhouse voice. It's obvious that you admire Whitney Houston. Who are your vocal inspirations?
SM: My mom is a singer, too. I grew up listening to her in church. Whitney Houston, my mother and Mariah Carey. I listen to them all the time… I think the strength comes with experience. There was a time when I was so nervous that the power I possessed inside wouldn't even come out because I was holding back. I was just too scared.

Mercado and cast on opening night
photo by Matthew Blank

The production is backed with a great cast and creative team. What was it like working with them?
SM: …I'm going to cry. [Laughs.] This has been the most life-changing experience for me. For the first time in my professional career, I'm working with an entire team who are so passionate. The writers and composers, [Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who attended opening night] — everyone is so supportive. There's no intimidation. There's no nervousness. It's just all love. I feel like I'm surrounded by love…and that's what makes the process easier. And, the talent that I learn from… In rehearsals, I would sit back and watch Kenita [R. Miller] and Darius [de Haas] and Kevin [R. Free] — everybody. They bring so much light to what they do.

Although you rose to fame on "American Idol," have you always been a theatre person at heart?
SM: Yes! I studied musical theatre, and I went to a Visual and Performing Arts program in high school. I went onto pursue it in college at FIU [Florida International University] in Miami. My dream was to always be on Broadway — always. I definitely want to put out an album, I definitely want to do film and TV — I've already done an independent film — but Broadway…! And, I lost that for a while. After I did "Idol," I thought, "Maybe I shouldn't do this anymore." I don't know… I felt like I lost myself doing that show. I wasn't myself. But this show brought that back to me.

Do you think that Broadway could be your next stop?
SM: Anything is possible — that's what I believe. And, I know it will come one day. I know it will.

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Once On This Island continues through June 24 at Paper Mill Playhouse. Visit PaperMill.org for more information.

(Michael Gioia's work frequently appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Write to him at mgioia@playbill.com.)

Watch highlights from Paper Mill's Once On This Island: