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

By Michael Gioia
June 13, 2012

Syesha Mercado, who placed third on the seventh season of TV's "American Idol," takes to the New Jersey stage, where she stars as fearless peasant Ti Moune in Paper Mill Playhouse's production of Once On This Island.



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It's not the first time that Syesha Mercado is taking on the role of Ti Moune in Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's Tony Award-nominated musical Once On This Island. It's the third. Mercado, an "American Idol" finalist who garnered attention in the theatre scene for her performance as Deena Jones in the national tour of Dreamgirls, has been "waiting for life to begin" (as orphan Ti Moune sings) since middle school. Now, about a decade later — and two turns as the optimistic island girl — singing actress Mercado stars in a re-imagined production of Once On This Island under the direction of Tony Award nominee Thomas Kail (In the Heights). Following the opening night performance in Millburn, NJ, we caught a few minutes with the show's leading lady, who talked about landing the role at Paper Mill, the late Whitney Houston and "Waiting For Life," her show-stopping musical moment in the show.

What was the opening-night show like for you?
Syesha Mercado: For the first time I was excited to open, and I wasn't nervous. I think that's because I'm working with such a friendly, supportive creative team and cast. Everyone is so talented, so helpful and just full of love. The energy is magnetic on stage — you can't help but have fun and just enjoy the process. And, it's also an extreme relief for me because tech week was so heavy… I had so much going on outside of my life. I was so drained and vocally tired. I'm just happy that God got me through the show [and] that my knees didn't give out on me because I have some injuries going on. I just feel really blessed to be here.

Mercado in Once On This Island.
photo by Jerry Dalia

I noticed that you had knee braces on. What happened?
SM: I tore my menisci. On my last tour, [as Deena Jones in Dreamgirls], I fell backstage, and it kind of got worse over time. So when I got the call to do this show, I was like, "Oh my gosh, what am I going to do? I don't know if I can dance. I haven't even been squatting down to pick up a napkin!" … It goes to show how far faith and believing in yourself and challenging yourself [can go] — this is an example of what you can do. This whole play has just been a life-changing experience for me.

In the show, you have "Ti Moune's Dance." Did you find it to be a challenge, considering the injury?
SM: I was able to get through it! [Laughs.] I feel like it's not always about how far you can bend your leg back [or] how high you can kick up your leg, but it's more about the emotion — about what you feel — and about bringing honesty to the dance and being interpretive. It's not always about certain movements, but it's about the feeling and emotion that you get.

Well, vocally, you stopped the show with your first number, "Waiting for Life." Take me through that moment.
SM: It was amazing. It brought me back to high school when I had no fear. Sometimes, with the bigger you get in your career [and] the more things you have under your belt, you can lose that sense of innocence and being green — doing something for the first time and just doing it for the love of it. This show brought that back for me tonight. When I sang "Waiting for Life," I was on Cloud 9. Nothing mattered to me. I was out there like I was in high school playing Ti Moune and middle school playing Ti Moune — just enjoying it. I was finally able to enjoy myself again.

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: