Lea Michele, who created the role of Wendla in the Tony Award-winning musical Spring Awakening, is currently living out a childhood fantasy.
The Drama Desk Award-nominated performer made her Broadway debut in 1995 as Young Cosette during the original New York run of Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer's Les Misérables; over a decade later, the singing actress is finally getting the chance to play the ill-fated, unlucky-in-love Eponine — a role she has coveted and nearly played in the recent Les Miz revival — in the eagerly awaited Les Misérables in Concert, which begins tonight (Aug. 8) at the famed Hollywood Bowl.
"All of the little girls [in Les Miz] wanted to play Eponine," Michele recently told be by phone during the fast-paced, two-week rehearsal process for the Bowl's Les Miz, which features a 55-piece orchestra. "When we were younger, we all said we were going to grow up to play Eponine. . . This is a part I've wanted to play my entire life, and all of a sudden, I'm doing it. It didn't really hit me until [July 30] when we staged Eponine's first scene. I was like, 'Oh, my God, I'm playing Eponine. That's incredible!'"
It was actually director Richard Jay-Alexander who cast Michele in her Broadway debut and who is now shepherding her through one of her dream roles. "Lea Michele playing the role of Eponine was a 'no-brainer,'" says Jay-Alexander, who was the associate director and executive producer of the original Broadway, touring and Canadian companies of Les Misérables and who is equally well-known for staging critically acclaimed concerts for Barbra Streisand, Bernadette Peters, Bette Midler and, most recently, Betty Buckley. " Victor Hugo described Eponine as an angel with a dirty face. Well, all we have to do is add the dirt," he laughs. "Lea played Young Cosette on Broadway during the time I spent working on the original Broadway production. When she was old enough to audition for the recent revival, they apparently wanted her, but she had put so much time into creating the role of Wendla for Spring Awakening that she just had to see it through to Broadway. I think she made the right choice at the right time, as originating a role is always more interesting to an actor than doing a revival — if you're lucky enough to be faced with such a choice!
"I interviewed Lea for a webcast during her time in the Tony-winning hit," Jay-Alexander continues, "telling her that I honestly felt she had been robbed of a Tony nomination for Spring Awakening and that I was sure her chances were not yet over to play Eponine — but, at that time, I never would have anticipated doing this production at the Hollywood Bowl, nor playing a part in the prophecy of her doing the part. She's so talented and so truthful, incredibly gifted and a very deep and sensitive actor. She has also grown from a beautiful child into a ravishing young lady. It's a 'trip' having an adult acting conversation with someone I used to speak with as a child actor. We have both been basking in the experience, albeit short, and have been laughing a lot. Also, that voice is glorious — just seamless. Lea works very hard and is very serious about 'the work.' I love having her here and so do the rest of the company, who are all quite extraordinary."
That starry company, a mix of award-winning actors from around the world, also boasts J. Mark McVey as Valjean, a role the actor has played both on Broadway and in London's West End; Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, the star of Broadway's Ragtime, Man of La Mancha and Kiss Me, Kate, as Javert; Melora Hardin, the singer-actress who plays Jan Levinson on TV's "The Office," as Fantine; Broadway veteran Ruth Williamson ( La Cage aux Folles, The Music Man) as Madame Thénardier; Jersey Boys Tony Award winner John Lloyd Young as Marius; Curtains' Michael McCormick as Thenardier; British actor Tom Lowe, whose West End credits include Les Misérables and Cats, as Enjolras; and Les Miserables' Michele Maika as Cosette with Sage Ryan (Robert Zemeckis' forthcoming "A Christmas Carol") as Gavroche and Maddie Levy ( Oklahoma! and Oliver! at The Downey Civic Light Opera) as Young Cosette.
Michele has nothing but praise for her co-stars. "On the first day [of rehearsal]," she says, "I was amazed by this cast. [Richard has chosen] everyone — from 17-year-old high school students that he saw in a production of Les Miz that just broke his heart to people that were in the original company. He handpicked every single person. Richard said [at the beginning of rehearsals], 'I know each individual character in Les Miz as if they're my best friend.' When he picked each person he thought, 'Okay, I'm not going to hire you because you're a great ensemble member and you'll also be a good Cosette understudy. We don't need that.' He looked at someone and said, 'You're perfect just for this part,' and every single person was handpicked by both [musical director] Kevin Stites and Richard Jay and our casting directors so wonderfully.
"When I got here and I saw John Lloyd Young," Michele adds, "I never would have thought [of him as Marius]. I think of him from his great success in Jersey Boys, but he, in my mind, is one of the best Mariuses I've ever seen, and he was born to play this role. Richard told me that initially, and I didn't believe him until I heard him sing, and I'm blown away by his performance. And, Brian Stokes Mitchell, as you know, is one of the greatest actors to grace the Broadway stage, and he is just an incredible Javert."
The young actress, it should be noted, is equally dazzled by her director. "We have such a long history," Michele explains, "and the passion and the dedication that Richard has for anything and everything he does is so incredible. Whatever he puts his mind to, whatever he is working on, he puts 100 percent into it. His knowledge and his passion for Les Miz is so extraordinary. He knows this show, he feels this show, he loves this show. In my opinion I think this is going to be one of the best forms of Les Miz that anyone has ever seen, really because he is such the heart of this [production]. He knows how it beats and [has put] together such an incredible piece."
It's also a reunion of sorts for Michele, who worked with Tony Award winner Mitchell in the original Broadway cast of the award-winning, epic Terrence McNally-Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens musical Ragtime — Michele was cast at age ten as, appropriately, The Little Girl with Mitchell in the lead role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. "I was talking to Brian Stokes [on the second day of rehearsals]. I said, 'Do you have a list of roles that you want to play?' And he's like, 'Well, I've been kind of lucky to play the majority of them.' He really has! . . . And, now I'm here, and I also have Richard Jay, who hired me [for the original Les Miz]. I have Marybeth Abel, who is our assistant director — she was my stage manager [for the original Les Miz]. Everyone who is working on costumes were the people who put me in my Little Cosette costume every night. A woman named Kathleen [Melcher] was my dresser. I'm literally connected to every single person in this production."
As for her current role, Michele says she is enjoying playing a character whose demands, both physically and emotionally, are a welcome change from Wendla, the Spring Awakening character she spent eight years either developing or playing. "I find Eponine such a heartbreaking character to play because she loves Marius so much . . . that she helps him and she stands by his side even as he falls in love with Cosette. In comparison to the characters I've played before and the character I just played, I'm loving her physicality, how spunky she is and how tough she is. Some of the stuff I'm getting to do so far I've never gotten to do before. Vocally it's incredible . . . [and I love her] attitude and her strength… It's that strength in [light of her] complete and utter heartbreak that I find is such an incredible meal, as an actor, to conquer . . . I feel like both Jonathan Groff and I have been able to leave Spring Awakening and go on to things that are completely different from our show."
|photo by Joan Marcus|
About her final performance in Spring Awakening, which continues to dazzle audiences at Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre, Michele exclaims, "It was the best night of my entire life! Spring Awakening was eight years of my life. It was a novel. If I could have written the perfect ending for that novel, that part of my life, that would have been it. I got to leave with my best friend Jonathan, and that was perfect! The response from the fans, the audience — I started the show, I stood on my chair, and I had a standing ovation, not only from the audience but from my fellow cast members as well. Just an incredible performance that absolutely made me leave with such happiness.
"When I left the show," Michele explains, "I made a final speech, and I talked about how the first day I started Spring Awakening in 1999 it was as if I'd placed a seed in the ground. And now leaving it, there's this huge tree, and I told all the cast members, 'Please take care of this tree.' That's really how I feel. I feel like I grew her, and I feel like I lived everything through her. I grew up with her as she grew. I was 14 when I originally started. So I was definitely at a place where I could say, 'Okay, we've lived it, now I'm passing you on,' but she'll always be with me."
When asked her thoughts about the many Spring Awakening productions set to open around the world, the charming actress says, "That's what I hoped for! I didn't know if it would actually happen. When we started out — [lyricist-librettist] Steven Sater, [composer] Duncan [Sheik] and [director] Michael [Mayer] and myself — we hoped for it to get to Off-Broadway. [We thought], 'Maybe we'll get to Off-Broadway in a cool little theatre.' And then when we got to Broadway and it became this huge thing, I thought, 'Now it has to go all over. Everyone needs to see this show. They have to hear this music!' Those three guys are like my family, and I want them to have everything that they deserve because they're so talented and so wonderful." And, Michele's thoughts about a Spring movie? "That would be fantastic, but they'll probably get someone from 'High School Musical' to play my part . . . but I would love to do it. Let's make that clear," she adds with a laugh.
As for more imminent plans, Michele will be making her West Coast cabaret debut following the Aug. 8-10 Les Miz concerts. "I'm so excited," she says. "It's going to be at Upright Cabaret in LA. It's basically the same concert that I did in New York — it's all musical theatre. I definitely plan on doing another concert that's not musical theatre at some point, which I've talked to Michael Mayer about, which he is going to help me direct, but this one is just my love letter to musical theatre. And, Richard Jay has offered to help me because when I put this concert together, I did it all on my own with my music director Deborah Abramson. He said, for out here, he's going to help me clean it up and do some things here and there to maybe LA-ify it. I just made that word up, but I like it! I'm really, really excited. It's going to be on the 15th and 16th of this month, and hopefully people will come and see it. If not, I can just ask my entire [ Les Miz] cast to come!"
The excitement of her West Coast cabaret debut, Michele admits, is mixed with a bit of anxiety. "Some people might feel more comfortable in a smaller atmosphere, but for me, the smaller rooms make me more nervous [than performing in a Broadway house]. But it's like therapy, kind of, doing a cabaret. I remember when I saw Sutton Foster's cabaret at Joe's Pub, I could tell that she was just living through these songs, and it was such an emotional roller coaster the entire night. But I knew, once she sang her final song, it's like the weight of the world just lifted from her shoulders, and that's really how I feel. I feel that I kind of go through an emotional roller coaster throughout the performance, and then I just leave with a little bit more strength than I had before I started. It really is very therapeutic for me." Future plans also include playing sister to Jesse Eisenberg in the film "Holy Rollers," which will shoot in Brooklyn in the fall, and "going out for some TV and film [roles], even though that's totally not of my world." But, fear not, theatre fans, Michele's heart lies with the musical theatre; in fact, when asked whether Wicked's Elphaba remains a role she'd like to play, Michele responds, "There are tons and tons of roles that I'd love to play. . . . People see me now for what I did in Spring Awakening, and whether it's Wicked or whatever it is, I want to be able to show people and show myself all of the other things that I can do. Anything that's challenging I'm not crossing out. There's nothing that I would ever say, 'Oh no, I would never do that' because I love Broadway. I love musical theatre and anything that's a challenge to me, then great! If it's Elphaba — if I find that to be a challenge, which, yeah I'd say it definitely is, then great, then sign me up. I'm ready for the challenge."
And for three performances at the Hollywood Bowl Lea Michele is more than ready for the challenge of playing Eponine. "I'm such a huge Les Miz freak," Michele concludes, "as is my family. So, for me, this is just the most incredible, exciting experience ever!"
[Show times at the Hollywood Bowl are Aug. 8 and 9 at 8:30 PM and Aug. 10 at 7:30 PM. The Hollywood Bowl is located at 2301 North Highland Avenue in Hollywood, CA. For tickets, call (323) 850-2000. Visit www.hollywoodbowl.com for more information. . . . For tickets to Lea Michele's West Coast cabaret debut Aug. 15 and 16 at 9 PM at Upright Cabaret in Mark's Restaurant (861 N. La Cienega Blvd. in West Hollywood, CA), click here.]
Ann Hampton Callaway will welcome two-time Tony Award winner Christine Ebersole on the season premiere of her PBS chat show "Singer's Spotlight." The half-hour program will make its premiere on WTTW11, PBS's Chicago affiliate, Aug. 21 at 8 PM with encore broadcasts scheduled for Aug. 24 at 5:30 PM and Aug. 25 at 3:30 AM. A national airing is possible. "The award-winning vocalist, pianist, composer, lyricist, arranger, and actress Ann Hampton Callaway hosts a new special showcasing classic songs and song stylists," according to "Singer's Spotlight" press notes. "Callaway welcomes her friend – and fellow New Trier High School graduate – actress and singer Christine Ebersole, as they sing separately and together, reminisce, and share fascinating insights on artistry and performance." Visit www.wttw.com for more information.
Judy and Me, which began life in 2002 at Rose's Turn and subsequently played the Arthur Seelen Theatre and The Producers Club, will open in a brand-new production this fall at Off-Broadway's St. Luke's Theatre. Directed by Charles Tolliver, Judy and Me will begin performances in early October with an official opening scheduled for Oct. 19. Garland impersonator Peter Mac, who also penned the autobiographical play, will head a cast that includes Elyse Beyer, Jean Ann Kump, Chris McCabe and Basil Meola. The role of Anthony has yet to be cast. "Addressing the issues of both homophobia and domestic abuse," the play, according to press notes, "recounts the true story of 16-year old character Anthony, trapped in the narrow-minded suburb of Elmont, Long Island (and the real hometown of playwright Mac). An outcast at Sewankawa High School in Floral Park, Anthony is the daily target of verbal and physical torment from his classmates. His life at home is equally tenuous, as his volatile, violent father is a constant source of pain to both Anthony and his mother. The teen finds his only escape in the music and entertainment of the iconic Judy Garland, who comes to life before his very eyes and counsels him through his daily struggles." Tickets, priced $47.50-$72.50, will be available after Sept. 1 by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.telecharge.com. For more information visit www.JudyandMe.com.
Linda Eder, the powerhouse singer seen on Broadway in Jekyll & Hyde, will release her tenth solo recording this fall. Entitled "The Other Side of Me," the single CD is scheduled to arrive in stores Sept. 30 on the Verve Music Group label. The recording was produced and arranged by Eder and Billy Jay Stein. About her new recording Eder says in press notes, "This isn't so much a departure as it is me getting back to who I really am. . .This is really me getting back to my natural musical self, the person I was before Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand came into my life and I went the Broadway route. This is the kind of music that moved me as a kid, when I first started playing my guitar and learning how to write songs, so it's a natural direction for me. I still love the Broadway stuff, and I don't ever intend to stop singing it. It's given me a wonderful life and a great career, and I still enjoy that music tremendously. But with those songs, it's more about playing a role, rather than being yourself. The standards call for you to be elegant, but I'm basically a blue-collar farm girl at heart. . . .These new songs, and this approach to singing, is a lot more natural — and so much fun — for me." The song list includes "Pieces" (Shaun Barker), "If You Believe (The Way I Do)" (Robin Lerner, Ken Hirsh), "Lifted" (Greg Wells, Cathy Denis), "If I Could" (Ron Miller, Ken Hirsch, Marti Sharron), "Back to Life" (Kara DioGuardi), "Other Side of Me" (Bily Jay Stein, Shaun Barker, Bill Grainer), "Waiting for the Fall" ( Linda Eder), "Prayer for Love" (Shaun Barker, Benjy King), "Both Sides Now" (Joni Mitchell), "They Are the Roses" (Paul Jenkins, Timothy Schoepf, Randall Van Warmer), "Ghost" (Emily Saliers) and "Make Today Beautiful" (Billy Jay Stein, Shaun Barker, Bill Grainer). For more information and a for a list of Linda Eder tour dates, visit www.lindaeder.com.
Gotta love the title! "The Unreachable Star: My Unauthorized Travels with Patti LuPone," author Maile Hernandez's new tome, was recently released by BookSurge Publishing. In "My Unauthorized Travels" Hernandez, press notes state, "shares her story of following a Broadway legend on tour with star-struck enthrallment and her struggles as a mother to an autistic child. . . . A lawyer-turned-overwhelmed-parent began to renew her old singing and acting career after realizing a long-sought childhood dream of seeing Patti LuPone live on Broadway. With poise and grace, Hernandez paints a vivid picture of what success is – as a wife, as a mother, and as a performer – and shares an inspired tale of what it takes to keep reaching for unreachable stars." "The Unreachable Star: My Unauthorized Travels with Patti LuPone" has a list price of $16.99. Visit amazon.com for more information.
South Pacific's Kelli O'Hara and Xanadu's Mary Testa will be among the performers singing the work of Ricky Ian Gordon Oct. 6 at Joe's Pub. The concert will feature composer-lyricist Gordon accompanying singers O'Hara, Testa, Elizabeth Futral and Jesse Blumberg on piano. Show time is 9:30 PM. Joe's Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets, priced $30, are available by visiting www.joespub.com.
Nikki Blonsky, who played Tracy Turnblad in the movie musical "Hairspray," will go it solo this fall at Feinstein's at Loews Regency. Blonsky, according to the club's official website, will make her New York cabaret debut Sept. 23 at 8:30 PM. The singing actress is currently scheduled to play the posh nightspot through Oct. 4. Also on the fall schedule are Michael Feinstein (Sept. 2-6), Ashford & Simpson (Sept. 9-20), Anna Bergman (Sept. 14, 15 and 21), Ron Gartner (Sept. 22), La Tanya Hall (Sept. 29), Sal Manzo (Oct. 5-6), Gianni Russo (Oct. 20) and Adam Pascal (Oct. 26-27). Additional performers will be announced at a later date. Feinstein's at Loews Regency is located in Manhattan at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street. For reservations call (212) 339-4095 or visit feinsteinsatloewsregency.com or TicketWeb.com.
The 2008-2009 cabaret season at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room has been announced. Grammy Award winner Jack Jones will kick off the new season Sept. 9. The singer will celebrate his 50th year in show business through Sept. 20. KT Sullivan, who has been seen on Broadway in the revivals of 3 Penny Opera and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, will return to the Oak Room Sept. 23-Oct. 11. She will be followed by Paula West, who will perform Oct. 14-Nov. 8. One of cabaret's leading lights, Andrea Marcovicci, will play her annual engagement at the posh nightspot Nov. 11-Dec. 27. Marcovicci will offer a sequel to her acclaimed Marcovicci Sings Movies program, Marcovicci Sings Movies II. She will be backed by musical director Shelly Markham on piano and Jered Egan on bass. The New Year will boast Steve Ross (Jan. 6-31, 2009), Tony DeSare (Feb. 3-21), Sheera Ben-David (Feb. 24-March 7), KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler (March 10-April 11) and Maude Maggart (April 14-May 23). The Algonquin Hotel is located in Manhattan at 59 West 44th Street. Call (212) 419-9331 for reservations; visit www.algonquinhotel.com for more information.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com