Direct from Heathers to National Television, Alice Lee Chats About Becoming a "Rising Star" on ABC

A month ago Alice Lee was starring as Heather Duke in Off-Broadway's Heathers: The Musical, and now she is competing for the title of "Rising Star" on national television. Get to know the contestant, a Broadway veteran and New York City singer-songwriter.

Alice Lee
Alice Lee

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Although Alice Lee has been seen on Broadway in Spring Awakening and Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark as well as Off-Broadway's Bare and, most recently, Heathers: The Musical, the actress has always loved to explore her pop side in performance. She has offered numerous free concerts at Rockwood Music Hall — where she debuted original material and performed alongside friends — she starred in the concert version of Alexander Sage Oyen's song cycle Moment By Moment ( check out her performance of Oyen's moving "The Ground"), and she's created comic, show-stopping roles in Off-Broadway's Bare (the not-so-smart Diane) and Heathers (the oh-so-bitchy Heather Duke). On June 8, she said goodbye to her fellow Heathers and landed two days later in Los Angeles (after a successful audition for "Rising Star" casting directors and executive producer Ken Warwick), where she now competes on ABC for the coveted title.

On "Rising Star" audiences vote (in real time, via a free digital app) for their favorite contestant to move on. A swipe right on the app pushes the contestant a step further in the competition, and a panel of "Experts" (pop star Kesha, country singer Brad Paisley and rapper Ludacris as well as host Josh Groban) offer feedback. In the first round, Lee performed Lady Gaga's "You and I." Although the "Experts" said she may be "too Broadway," she was voted through to the next round and competes this Sunday in a "Duel" against contestant Lisa Punch. Prior to this week's performance, Lee caught up with Playbill.com.

You just posted a picture that you sang at Capitol Records…!

Alice Lee: Yes, I was there yesterday. It was amazing. Basically, we got to be mentored by the three "Experts," so I was in there with Kesha, Brad Paisley and Ludacris — also known as "Chris Lova Lova!" [Laughs.] We sang a couple of our songs, got their advice about how we should do the next show, what we should work on and just kind of hung out and chatted a little bit.

Lee in Heathers
photo by Chad Batka

What was your biggest takeaway from them?

AL: Because they told me about being "too theatre" [after my first performance on "Rising Star"] — that was my big note — I think the best thing they said was, "Don't lose that. Don't lose the theatre" — because, obviously, it's a part of me — "but use that to your advantage and create a balance between theatre and that pop world." I think that's really cool because I love the idea of fusing [them] together. Creating that right balance will be key. That's something that I wanted to talk about with you — the concept of being "too theatre" for a reality singing competition. In your opening video, you introduced yourself as having a theatrical background and coming directly from Off-Broadway's Heathers. Do you think that talking about your theatrical background and/or coming off as a "theatre person" is a hindrance? Does it put us, as musical theatre performers, in a box?

AL: I definitely think, especially with reality shows, there is some specific perception of "theatre," especially if you say it off the bat, but I personally don't think it should hinder me. I take it as a compliment! [Laughs.] I hope I'm part of that group — theatre people are awesome. They're very good at what they do, and they can sing, so I kind of love it, but I still want to make sure that I bring [out my] pop side because I want to show that I can do different things and that I'm versatile.

Lee performs in the Broadway Loves the Spice Girls concert
Photo by Michael Hull

Did you pick your song yet for Sunday's performance?

AL: I did! I can't tell you what it is! It'll be a fun song. [Laughs.]

Would you ever consider doing a musical theatre song on television?

AL: Very interesting! I don't know. Did you see the last episode, where Gabby [Nicole] sang "My Man" [from "Funny Girl"]? She sang "My Man," which is amazing, and she killed it. I feel like if I did a musical theatre song, I would definitely want to put my own twist on it and not do it as a straightforward theatre song… If I get further along [in the competition], it's something I can figure out down the road.

If you can sing any theatre song on "Rising Star," what would it be? What is your go-to theatre song?

AL: I don't really have one! [Laughs.] The only one that I kind of thought about and that I might be interested in changing — even Brad Paisley suggested it during a commercial break… He said, "I'd love to hear you sing 'Let It Go.'" And, of course, that's a big, big song, but I think that could be a really cool idea if I made it my own — not the way Idina [Menzel] sings it because she's fabulous, but something different.

What is it like being thrust onto reality television and into a competition? You came straight from Heathers, which is a party in and of itself at New World Stages, but now you're on a sort of global party! What's it like?
AL: This global party — it's really surreal! I can't believe that I'm actually here sometimes. I finished Heathers, and a couple days after that I came over here… It just happened so fast, and I [thought], "I can't believe Heathers was only a week ago, and I was on that stage, and now I'm over here in L.A. and rehearsing for this." It's really awesome, though. I really think it's all part of this amazing journey that we all have, and I'm grateful for every single project that I do, and this is one of them. And, what a cool show to be a part of! I think the exposure is awesome. I love that I'm able to reach, definitely, a bigger audience. It's kick-ass!

Alice Lee

At the end of your performance of "You and I," when the "Experts" were giving you feedback and said you were "too Broadway," host Josh Groban offered to do a Broadway-style duet with you. Were you prepared?
AL: Oh my God! I wasn't "prepared," but I was like, "F*ck, yeah, I want to do a duet with Josh Groban!" [Laughs.] He was joking about it again during one of the breaks and said, "What about 'Suddenly Seymour'?" And, I said, "Anything. Whatever you want. I'll do it!" That'd be sick if he was for real. Tell me about the friendships you've made out there. What is it like to get thrown into a new gang of people, who aren't New York theatre people? What kind of relationships have you made thus far?

AL: Well, my roommate is Sarah Darling. She's the beautiful country singer, and I freaking love her! Our energies are just — it works. [Laughs.] But it's really been awesome. I feel like every experience is so cool because you get to meet all these people you would have never met otherwise — people from all different walks of life, in their careers and their personal life — and this is a very unique experience, and I think that we will all be in each other's hearts forever because we shared this show together. No one else will know what it's like to be a contestant on this show.

I love April [Lockhart]. She's like my girl. It's hard because you get to know people, and you hang out, and then you see people go home, and I think that's hard. When I used to watch these shows as a third party — at home — I'd watch people go home, and it's like, "Whatever." But when you're in it, it's definitely so different, and it might sound cliché, but it's actually really hard to watch people go. And, eventually each one of us will go except for one winner. I think it's just really about enjoying the experience and really having fun.

Lee at opening night of Heathers.
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Who were your favorite performers from reality singing competitions?

AL: Obviously, the classic is Kelly Clarkson! Can't go wrong — she's the queen. Also, Carrie Underwood — she's amazing. Even Katharine McPhee — she didn't win, but she's kick ass. Also, on "The Voice," I followed along when Sasha Allen was on it, and I just think she's amazing because I saw her in Hair, and I [thought], "How does that come out of someone's mouth and body?" Honestly, I give them so many props for going on shows like that. It's scary. It really is.

What's your main goal? You also explore your own music with Rockwood Music Hall concerts, and you've performed on and Off-Broadway. What's the finish line — not that there ever is one — but which direction are you looking to go in?

AL: I think you're totally right. There's never a finish line, but I think the dream right now is to definitely perform as much as I can — do what I love and hopefully write my own music. I want to record, become a recording artist and do big things. I want to be working — to always do stuff that excites me, that inspires me to do more, to do better — and I want to connect with people, whether it's through the TV or the theatre. I think that's what it's about. We do it because we want to connect to other people. I want to do that at the maximum capacity.

You just finished Heathers. In the movie, you see these roles portrayed by all white actresses, and I loved that they didn't type you out for Heather Duke because of your background. What does it mean to be an Asian-American actress and to not get typed out for roles like that? And, as an Asian-American actress, have you ever seen doors shut in your face because of your type or does it work to your advantage? Are you able to explore different avenues?
AL: That's something I think about a lot. I'm very, very grateful that, luckily I've gone in for roles that are both Asian specific and also non-Asian specific. With shows like Heathers or Spider-Man or Bare, it wasn't very specific, and I think that's awesome. There are times where I feel like it works to my advantage because diversity is in. I love that casting is a lot more open to colorblind casting. I think there's a lot more room for Asian actresses and singers in America right now, and I'd love to fill that role. I love Kimiko Glenn [from "Orange is the New Black"]. I love what she's doing, and I feel like she talks about that a lot — about Asian-American actresses. The roles now aren't so stereotypical anymore. It's not just the smart, nerdy girl; it's more realistic. I'm very proud: Korean pride [and] American pride. I really feel like I'm of both worlds. I love that, [and] I think America is ready for an Asian-American pop star! I'd love to be that.

Are you excited for Sunday? Anxious? Nervous?

AL: I'm really excited. I'm definitely excited to perform again. It's another opportunity to perform in front of America on such a massive scale… Definitely a little nervous, too. It's hard to be up against another contestant. We get to know these people, and we're friends, so I'm trying to think of it not as a "duel" — not that I'm up against someone — but I'm trying to get the best score that I can and just do my thing and not focus on anyone else and just try to give the best performance that I can.

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, features and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillMichael.) Watch Lee's first performance on "Rising Star":