DIVA TALK: Chatting With Newsies Star LaVon Fisher-Wilson

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14 Jun 2013

LaVon Fisher-Wilson
LaVon Fisher-Wilson

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LaVon Fisher-Wilson
Singing actress LaVon Fisher-Wilson, who made her Broadway debut in The Color Purple, is currently starring in the hit Disney musical Newsies at the Nederlander Theatre. The big-voiced Fisher-Wilson plays the big-hearted Medda in the Harvey Fierstein-Alan Menken-Jack Feldman musical based on the film of the same name. Motherly roles seem to be in fashion for the multi-talented artist, who will be seen as Big Mama in the upcoming Disney Channel musical "Teen Beach Movie" this July and as Mama Mazing in a reading of the new superhero-themed musical Chix6. Fisher-Wilson, whose Broadway resume also boasts the Tony-winning revival of Chicago and the new musical Lysistrata Jones, is also the mom of two young boys, Darrell and Darrien. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of chatting with the good-natured Newsies star, who spoke with humor about her many motherly roles; that interview follows.

Question: Since we haven't spoken before, can you tell me where you were born and raised?
Lavon Fisher-Wilson: I was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky.

Question: When did you start performing?
Fisher-Wilson: I went to a performing arts high school they have there. That's when I did Dreamgirls, and it was the first time I'd ever done any musical theatre because up until that point I wanted to be Whitney Houston. So that performing arts high school, The Performing Arts School of Louisville, introduced me to musical theatre.

Question: Were there any artists — other than Whitney Houston — who you admired or who inspired you at that age?
Fisher-Wilson: At that age just Whitney Houston. Then when I went to performing arts school, the first thing we learned was opera. I was big on Leontyne Pryce and wanting to listen to all of her recordings. And then, like I said, I got into musical theatre, and it became about Jennifer Holliday, and it just opened me up to the world of musical theatre.

Question: When do you think performing changed from a hobby to when you knew it was going to be your career?
Fisher-Wilson: I went to college, [but] I still hadn't decided. I went to Millikin University for musical theatre. They could tell that I wasn't disciplined because I really didn't know much about musical theatre. I was showing up late for rehearsals or classes — or dance class, I might not have had the right thing on — and they sat me down and said what is required for this career and that I had to decide "whether you're going to be in or not be in it. But if you're going to be in it, you're going to have to have the discipline. You're going to show up ten minutes before class because showing up on time is late. You have to have the proper clothing on. You have to study and do your general education classes." And, it really woke me up, and they literally, for a semester, had me showing them that I was going to show up and have that discipline.

Question: What was your first professional production?
Fisher-Wilson: My first professional production was Beehive The Sixties Musical — I performed it at the Hippodrome State Theatre in Gainesville, FL, and that's when I think I got my Equity Card actually, that performance.

Question: When did you get to New York?
Fisher-Wilson: I had a whole journey of doing a lot of regional theatre, a lot of co-productions, and I arrived in New York City in 2004. I played Mama Morton in Chicago, but it was an industrial of Chicago that was going to China! So I came here just to do an industrial of Chicago. It was strange because when I auditioned for the Broadway show of Chicago and got in, she said, "You look like you've done this before," and I said, "I did — in China!" [Laughs.]

Question: What was your Broadway debut?
Fisher-Wilson: My Broadway debut was The Color Purple [in 2006].

Question: Do you remember your first night on Broadway and how it was different or lived up to what you expected it to be?
Fisher-Wilson: Oh yes. As soon as I was hired in September, I rehearsed for a month and then I went in in October. I swung out five women in the show, so as soon as they knew I could do it, everybody went on vacation! [Laughs.] Every week I had a new role from someone that went on vacation, and I remember it just feeling like nothing else in the world. When you're in productions in high school, it's just a whole other feeling. I can't even describe it! You're sick to your stomach, with butterflies, but you just kind of illuminate all over and you don't want to be anywhere else.

Question: What was that like doing so many different roles in a short period of time?
Fisher-Wilson: It was very scary, it was very, very scary, but fortunately I had done a couple of regional theatre shows where I covered or was a standby for a couple of roles, so I had done that before. I think I did The Alberta Hunter story, and I played Alberta Hunter, the very young Alberta Hunter, and the other character was the older Alberta Hunter, who's the narrator. And I swung out for both those parts. So stuff like that kind of prepared me to jump into those different roles. I also did theme parks when I first got out of high school, Six Flags Great America, Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom, where we had to jump into different roles whenever people didn't show up for work. You had to add a song or jump into someone else's role, so I was kind of prepared for that. Oh gosh, it's another animal with Broadway because – one [person you're stepping in for] was an alto, one was a second, one was a soprano, one was a big belter, one was … So you had to really remember which one you were singing, and many times I was on for the gossips, the three Church Ladies. And, a couple of times I went on and two of us were singing the same note. I'm like, "Oops, that's not the note I'm supposed to sing today — oops!" [Laughs.] You kind of eased into the other part of the harmony, so I learned to be flexible.

Question: How did Newsies come about for you?
Fisher-Wilson: I got a call from Jeff Kalpak, who ended up being my mentor. He was the one who when I came to New York …told me, "Oh, you'll be on Broadway in a year." So he called me and said he knew a friend of a friend who told him that the role of Medda Larkin was going to be available soon. And he said, "I don't know if you're interested, but I think you'd be perfect for the role." All of a sudden my manager called and said, "The Medda Larkin role is going to be available, so do you want me to submit you for that?" And then it was crazy because different people called me and said, "Oh my God, you'd be perfect for this!" [Laughs.] So I felt I got some good energy from different parts of the theatre community telling me to be seen for this. So I did get an appointment last August, and I went in for it, and I hadn't seen Newsies at all. So I just interpreted what was in the script that they gave me. I got there, and I did it and Jeff [Calhoun], the director, laughed out loud. He just thought it was hilarious. And he said, "Okay, this is what I want you to do." So we changed the song and made it so it would be a belted song because I'm a belter, and he said, "Work on that." So a part of me knew that if he said, "Work on that," [that I was probably going to get] a callback. Like an hour later, I got a call from Telsey [Casting] saying, "You got a callback in a couple days and we want you to go see the show tonight because it's obvious you haven't seen it." I thought the little boy in my scene – instead of looking at the Bowery Beauty's legs, I thought he was looking at my legs! So it was a little more seductive than the original Medda. [Laughs.] But it was something that they liked, so I went in and saw that she was very much more of a lady, a little more pulled up, and I changed the outfit that I auditioned with, and I was a little more conservative.… And I changed it around a bit and I think the day after my callback, I got a call that I had gotten it, and that was just a dream come true!

LaVon Fisher-Wilson in Newsies
photo by Heidi Gutman

Question: How would you describe Medda now that you've played her for a while?
Fisher-Wilson: She is a mother to the Newsies. She provides that type of nurturing. She's not a mother, by any means, but that's what her role is. They come to her for safety, they come to her to be able to rally, and she stands up for them because she probably was an orphan herself and [went] from being an orphan to having her own business in 1899. So she knows what they're going through and wants to be that person that maybe she didn't have, that protector. At the same time, she's sassy and brassy, and she doesn't take any mess. [Laughs.] And, she's a performer, so she has her times when she kind of snaps them back and goes, "Wait a minute, this is what you need to be doing," and those times when she is "on," the way we're on when the spotlight hits us — it's a different kind of persona.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for her, anything you particularly look forward to?
Fisher-Wilson: Yes, I do. We call this my "sass moment." There's a little break in the song, and I do kind of like an audience-participation thing where I pick a guy in the audience that I'm describing in the song and I say, "Hey baby, I'm talking about you." And I have this moment with whatever audience member that is in what I call "The Sass Seat." It's so cute because I've had so many funny things happen. I've had the men look at me and not realize that I'm talking about them and just turn totally white. I've had them go, "Yes, sing to me!" And then I have men who have come with their wives who are asleep in that seat. And so the wife is like, "Wake up, you're in the show," and everyone around them is just dying. [Laughs.] So it's this moment where I get to connect to the audience and an audience member and I get to sing to him, and that's really fun for everyone around him. At the end of the show, I always give him a thumbs up like, "You did really well! You hung in there!" [Laughs.] He's always beaming at the end of the show. I love to just connect with my audience to let them know I'm not just singing above their heads. I'm speakin' to ya!

Question: You mentioned how Medda is motherly with the boys, and you have two young children, right?
Fisher-Wilson: I do, I do. I just put my three-year-old to bed for a nap, otherwise this would be a crazy interview of me telling him to sit down and stop doing things. I have a six-year-old that's in kindergarten now, so he's in school right now.

Lavon Fisher-Wilson in Chicago
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Question: How do you combine the demands of motherhood with the demands of eight shows a week?
Fisher-Wilson: Oh, I'm tired. I'm tired! [Laughs.] You know what, it's rewarding. It was tough this year. This year was the first year my son went to school, so I had to get up at seven o'clock in the morning, Monday – Friday. And then you get out of these shows, you're wired from 11 to two. And, then it's time to get up with them. So coffee is my friend, coffee is my friend. But I do cherish when I'm getting up in the morning to go out with them, the morning time that I have with my six-year-old getting him to school. And my three-year-old, we spent this morning collecting rocks and jumping in puddles that were left from the rain. So the morning time is my time with them, so I cherish it because, of course, I've got a show I'm doing tonight, and when I get home they'll be asleep, so I cherish the time I spend. It's a juggling act, but I do cherish it, and I'm blessed I have a wonderful husband, who drives trucks. He drives local trucks here in Jersey, so he'll be home before I leave, and he picks me up from the theatre at night and the kids are all in their pajamas asleep in the back seat, so I have a great husband. Yes, I have a good system working!

Question: Tell me a bit about the Disney Channel Movie you're doing.
Fisher-Wilson: Yes, it's Teen Beach Movie. It's like High School Musical but on the beach. These kids get swept away with this magical surfboard that takes them from 2012 — because we filmed it last year — into the sixties and to this sixties musical movie that one of the characters watches all the time. The longer they stay there, the more that they become a part of the movie — they start to sing everything. They're in the water, but their hair never really gets wet. [Laughs.] I play Big Mama. Big Mama owns a burger shack on the beach, and this is where they come to eat their burgers and come to do their dance-offs. The bikers and the surfers, instead of fighting, they dance. It's just a cool place for the kids to come, and Big Mama's the nurturer. I've had a lot of nurturing roles for the past two years! [Laughs.]

Question: Was this your first film role?
Fisher-Wilson: It was!

Question: What was that like for you compared to doing stage work?
Fisher-Wilson: Well, you know what, I took a couple of classes last year about the difference because I am big. My presence is big and even the way I talk. So I would do auditions and they would say, "Ok, now we can bring it down and you can make it natural." I would say, "Child, this is me!" [Laughs.] I had to kind of learn that the screen is different; it's different than performing so an audience of 1,300 can hear you. It's about making it small. It's almost like you're at a table having a conversation with somebody and you only want them to hear what you're saying. I had to take that and put it on the screen, and it finally started working for me, and that's how I got this role. So it was about making things more intimate. And, I still have my big moments because Big Mama's a big character. But it was about playing to those couple of tables that I was talking to as opposed to what Medda does. So it was fun, it was fun, I didn't have to do a whole lot of takes, so that was really nice. They felt like I nailed it in maybe three or four takes, and the rest of the time I was in the background, kind of dancing and serving my food at the burger shack, and whenever a dance battle broke out, reacting to that. I went back and they looped in a few more lines for me because they thought I was hilarious, which is a blessing.

Question: Since the Tony Awards were just on, I was wondering did you get the chance to watch?
Fisher-Wilson: I did. I enjoyed. I thought this was a fabulous Tonys.

Question: Was there anyone you were rooting for?
Fisher-Wilson: I was definitely rooting for Billy Porter. I had done Jelly's Last Jam at the Alliance with him a couple of months before I got married. And we were able to be on stage together. I was Gran Mimi, and he was Chimney Man, the star of the show, and we were talking about when his time and my time was going to come and his to come back around. When I went to see Kinky Boots, I was just in tears. And I was like, "Child if you don't get this Tony, I'm going to have to go say something to somebody!" [Laughs.] I screamed [when he won the Tony.] I was screaming. I think I woke up one of my children. They were talking a nap.

Question: Are there any other projects you're working on?
Fisher-Wilson: I'm doing a workshop soon, Chix6. It's a wonderful women's empowerment story. It's a relationship based on a girl who is an artist and she's dating this musician, and he's abusive. She draws these characters, these female superheroes, as parts of herself that she's maybe too insecure to be. So the night that he breaks up with her, she kind of has this breakdown, and when she has this breakdown, we all come to life. The character I'm reading for is Mama Mazing, and she's the character that allows her to love her body, love her curves, love the size that she is and find herself amazing in her own skin. I come to life to tell that story for her, and in the end, because of all of us, it empowers her and she becomes her own superhero. … So I'm doing that and being a mom and trying to juggle what I've been juggling, which is Newsies, which is a blessing, and my family life. There's a new series coming out on Cartoon Network called "Team Tune," and I'm playing someone's mom, too. [Laughs.]

[For more information visit NewsiesTheMusical.com.]

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