It's been a breakthrough year for Drama Desk nominee Christina Bianco, whose rapid-fire diva-impression videos went viral on YouTube, landing the singing actress on "The Ellen Show"; in fact, a handful of the videos by the star of NEWSical the Musical and Forbidden Broadway have garnered nearly 20 million views to date. Bianco, whose impressive impersonations of Bernadette Peters, Celine Dion, Kristin Chenoweth and Barbra Streisand, among many others, have earned her a devoted fan base, is now embarking on what may be her most challenging project to date: Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg's new comedy Application Pending, which casts the actress as a kindergarten admissions officer at a cutthroat Manhattan private school as well as the 40 administrators, friends and parents with whom she comes into contact. Directed by Sandberg, the limited engagement, which will officially open Feb. 10, continues through April 19 at the Westside Theatre. During rehearsals, I had the pleasure of chatting with the versatile, down-to-earth performer, who seems genuinely thrilled by and thankful for her recent success. Bianco spoke about that success, her impression techniques and her 40 new roles; that interview follows.
Question: This year was a pretty big one for you. What was it like when your videos went viral?
Christina Bianco: Well, it was a complete shock. [Laughs.] I've said this a million times, but it's true. You just never think that clicking one little button — that I've clicked many times before, putting up videos, mostly for friends and family and the few fans I thought I had at the time might enjoy — that it's going to very quickly reach so many people all around the world, so it was a complete shock. The fact that it happened sort of again — the first one went viral in August and then another one in May — was just unbelievable. You never know what's going to happen, and I've been able to really make the most of it and have some incredible opportunities come my way. I'm really grateful, not just for the basic exposure of it all, but I'm grateful because the success of my YouTube videos has translated into people coming to see my live concerts and my live shows and to me getting work that's obviously off the computer screen, so I couldn't be happier. I'm really thrilled.
Question: I know you've done Forbidden Broadway, but have you always done impressions?
Christina Bianco: Well, according to my mother, I "always did voices," as she would say, but I didn't know I was doing it. The quick answer is, I didn't actively start doing impressions until I decided I was going to audition for Forbidden Broadway about six years ago. I always, according to my parents, was mimicking friends and doing voices — I distinctly remember my mother saying to me many times when I was singing along to "The Wizard of Oz" or Annie or even country music, say, "Honey, don't sing it like the artist, sing it like you. Don't sing it like them." So there was something in me that found it quite easy to mimic, and I grew up listening to all different sorts of music. I thought, "Well, if I sing a jazz song, I can't sing it like I'm singing Annie, and if I sing a pop/rock song, I can't sing it like I'm doing musical theatre." So I always did try to find the tone and style to match the genre. I don't know if that's what helped my impressions later on. [Laughs.] I remember one of the first times I knew I could do an impression was when I was making my friends laugh just singing along with Celine Dion. She was saying something with a particularly funny pronunciation, and I just came out with it and I'll never forget it. They went, "Oh my God, you sound just like her. That's amazing! You sound just like her!" And I went, "Really?" I didn't think I sounded like her. [Laughs.] Because I didn't give myself ownership to.
So when I was older and working in the business as a true, professional Equity actor and I saw the ad for Forbidden Broadway, I thought, "Gosh, I've been listening to those CDs my whole life, going to see the show my whole life and always singing along with the cast albums." I went to see the show one more time and I said, "You know, I think I can do that. I think I'm the right age now and the right type, and there's no reason that I can't go to this audition." I locked myself in my apartment and I practiced all of the impressions that I think they'd done in the Forbidden Broadway cannon and some other ones, and I called my mom and dad and did it into the phone and said, "Hey, does this sound like Bernadette Peters to you?" And they were like, "Yeah! Yeah, it does." So that was what opened the door for me, but obviously, getting cast in the show and then very soon after getting reviewed in the show and everyone saying "impressionist, she's an impressionist," it certainly gave me what I didn't have before, which was confidence. It gave me confidence and it gave me motivation to try more, so it all did happen very quickly. It's only been about six-and-a-half years now that I've been doing impressions, but as I say, it's something that I was doing from an early age, but I didn't put a label on it, I didn't take ownership of it. And that's another reason the whole YouTube thing is so funny to me, because I couldn't have been more innocent about it. I wasn't like, "Yes, I should put YouTube videos out and do impressions, and everyone will love me!" [Laughs.] It was really just because it was something that I was enjoying doing and I wanted to share it with some of my friends and my loved ones, and it definitely changed my career.
Question: It's amazing how far-reaching it is.
Christina Bianco: It really is. That's what's so amazing about it, and to tie it into Application Pending and all that, I've always been a live performer, be it in musical theatre or just straight plays and now my own cabaret shows. It's been amazing to now travel, not just across America, but in various cities around the world and to go play those venues and have people show up, to have full houses. It's amazing. What I think is really cool — of course, there are some people that just turn on YouTube and turn it off – but there are a lot of people that are choosing to go to my YouTube channel and go to my website and sign up for my newsletter and then click buttons that eventually lead them to buying a ticket to come see me in a live show, and that's really special because that takes it beyond the "impressions" and beyond the screen. And so a lot of people have said, "Well, how do you feel about doing Application Pending right now, because it's not a musical?" And, for me, I've been a working actor for a long time, and I've done a few plays that are not musicals, but of course when you're known for doing musicals, that's how you sort of get labeled, not that it's necessarily the right word, but that's what you're associated with. It's a thrill for me to do a play, to do something where I'm not singing. Now, of course, I joke about it. I say, "Well, Application Pending should ease people into the fact that I'm an actor," and by "ease people in" I mean, I'm known, particularly in New York, for not just doing Forbidden Broadway but doing NEWSical for a long time, which is a multi-character sketch comedy, and this is a multi-character comedy. Although there is no singing and although I don't have the, I'm going to say "luxury" of leaving the stage and changing costumes, I think it's a perfect segue, to show that there's more to me than just impressions and there's more to me than, obviously, just singing. So I think it's really ideal timing.
Question: How did Application Pending come about for you?
Christina Bianco: I'd say about a year ago, I did a very small read-through of the show, really just for the two writers. … I believe [Andy Sandberg and Greg Edwards] both knew who I was from Forbidden Broadway, and they just knew, "Oh, she's game, she can do lots of characters." So we met and we got along really well. I think I did two readings of the show over the past year, and I wasn't in town every time they wanted to do a reading, so I actually am not privy to how many readings they did or how many actresses they used, but I'd like to think that because I was the first one to do it, that maybe they had me in mind when they were continuing to edit and write the show and all that. I'm very grateful. I was in London doing Forbidden Broadway on the West End, and I got a call from Andy saying, "We really would like to bring the show Off-Broadway. Would you be interested in doing it?" And I had two reactions. The first reaction was, "Oh my God, what a wonderful opportunity. How fabulous! I'm so grateful!" And the other reaction was, "This is going to be the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life." [Laughs.] So, of course, I said yes and I'm really grateful for this opportunity, but it is absolutely, hands down, the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.
YouTube Sensation Christina Bianco Offers Sneak Peek at New Off-Broadway Comedy Application Pending
Question: Tell me a little bit about the premise of the show.
Christina Bianco: I play a character named Christine, which is not confusing at all! [Laughs.] I play Christine, who was, up until the morning of the show, a kindergarten classroom assistant to the teacher, and due to a strange turn of events, has been thrust into the position of Admissions Officer, so she's the head of pre-primary admissions, which is kindergarten, at this very fancy, New York private school, where parents are absolutely dying to get their kids into the school. It's a humorous, funny take of this cutthroat world, truly, of kindergarten admissions at these very fancy schools. I play Christine, answering the phone, and I play every other person that calls. There has been one other play, I believe, that's similar to this, and that's the play Fully Committed by Becky Mode, and it's a really fun convention for the audience, and it's really fun for the actor, but in this show, I don't leave the stage for 75 minutes. I am in front of you, I am playing all these characters and I don't get the luxury of going offstage even for five seconds, having a sip of water and saying, "OK, what scene is this?" Usually there's a change of costume, and the new costume informs what scene you're doing, and I can't do that now. Usually you wait for someone to give you the cue, but in this case I'm giving myself the cue. [Laughs.] So if I do something wrong, it could mean epic plot holes. [Laughs.] It's really a challenge because I'm responsible for everything that happens on that stage. It's thrilling in that way, but there's a certain comfortability in having a partner onstage and having a scene partner and knowing that you're supported...I do a lot of my own solo shows, my own cabaret shows, and I'm very comfortable and I love talking to and commanding an audience, but this is very different, of course, because this is somebody else's dialogue and scripted plot. It's quite an undertaking. I'm very grateful that they have faith in me, that I can do it, but it is something that I have no frame of reference for how to go about preparing for.
Question: How are you going about approaching playing so many different characters?
Christina Bianco: You start with the big, bold stereotypes of how the character is written. Some of these characters are more cartoonish than others, and some are more realistic, based on reality — it gives the show a nice variety I think. If everybody was an epic cartoon, then the audience wouldn't be able to relate to the characters. Here, I think it's a healthy balance, and that way everybody sees a little bit of themselves — at least somebody they know — that's calling in the show. I made a list of these 40, 41, 42 characters. You sort of go for the general, big, I'm going to call it stereotypes … a lot of these characters call for maybe two sentences and hang up, and I have to change my voice, my physicality, my face enough that they can differentiate between these characters and sort of know them on-sight. You do need to look at the big picture and the main cartoony or stereotypical quality, but if I'm just doing that, then it's just a big clown show of stereotypes, it's just a cartoon— so then I build a backstory for each character. Obviously, with 40 characters, I didn't get to write a thesis on each one, but I make sure I have a picture of that person and where they're coming from, what their kid might be like and why they want their kid to go to this school. It's definitely taken a lot of time, and the hardest thing now, in the rehearsal period — again I'm the only one rehearsing — so it's not like I can say, "Ok, they're doing scene three, I'm not in that scene, let me go look at what I just did." Because I get home at the end of the day, and it's really true, no matter how studious you are, you do need to make dinner, take a shower and walk your dog...[Laughs.] By the time I do all of those things, I think there's not enough time left for me to review what we did earlier today in rehearsal. So I have a very hoarderish collection of note cards and post-its around my apartment, with little lines I might forget, transitions. I don't know if this system would be appropriate for any other show I ever work on, but I have little notes for myself all over the apartment, just to remind myself.
Question: I would think that once the audience starts coming, that will add a whole different layer to the performance, since you don't know when you're going to have to pause for reactions.
Christina Bianco: That's what we keep saying. It's a really interesting piece in that no matter what I do to prepare for it, when I'm live on that stage...it's gonna be a very different show for me every evening, and like I said, with nobody to really bounce it off of. I keep imagining, "Well, hopefully there'll be a laugh here..." but you never know. [Laughs.] You never want to assume that there's going to be a laugh anywhere. So the preview period is very, very important, and that's why I'm doing my best now to be as familiar with the whole script. With these 40 characters, many of these characters call Christine more than once, so even if I know the order of who calls, it could be one character's third call. Do I necessarily remember which call it is? I might know she's calling, but what is she talking about this time? I have to leave myself little clues — I've made all these little devices for me to remember who calls next, but it's definitely going to change as soon as there's an audience.
I'm used to being the sort of star student that comes in first day of rehearsal pretty much knowing the script, being off-book. I'm really like that, I like to have my hands free, I like to be able to dive into more full character choices and development than having a script in my hand, and that is not an option for me right now. The other thing is, mostly, I would have to be behind a desk for this show, but if I am sitting behind a desk for 75 minutes, the audience is going to be pretty bored and I'm maybe going to lose energy, get a little tired. So the other challenge is getting some of these characters up and figuring out how they get up and how that affects the rest of the scene and all that. It's just really fun to do, and then I just get a little nervous and I think, "Oh my gosh, it's fun right now, but I have to have all this in me, memorized." [Laughs.] I have faith that I will and everybody has faith that I will, but we've only rehearsed for five days now, and that's where you're getting me in this process. [Laughs.]
Question: Going back a little bit to Forbidden Broadway and the videos that you've done. When you're approaching a singer that you haven't impersonated before, how do you go about trying to get the sound down?
Christina Bianco: The very first thing I do, it sounds so silly, I just make noises. You know how a lot of singers begin a warm-up maybe with a siren, going from low to high...I do make a whole lot of funny noises, and much like I said, with the characters of Application Pending, you do look for the quick thing to grab out of it. What can be heightened about this person? With Kristin Chenoweth, obviously, very few people have a voice like hers because it's quite high, and people say, "Oh, it's like she's on helium." So then you take that extreme and you play with that. So very often, I play around with my voice and I go for the big, something that I look at that person and think, "Well, that's it." For me, with Whitney Houston, this is somebody I'm still working on. Whitney Houston, to me, always sounds a little throaty. To me I hear a throat sound, that's what I hear. So then I started making noises from the back of my throat. Obviously, I'm not going to do that if I'm trying to impersonate Kelli O'Hara, so I pull certain things, but I always say, it's a lot of making really strange noises and really strange faces and finding it. The next thing that I always do is I record into my iPhone a lot of my progress and process. Very often, it's a feeling. I have to know where Kristin feels in my throat, in my voice, in my head, in my mask because it's very different from my own voice. Because what I like to do is switching voices very often, very quickly, from impression to impression, I have to know, comfortably, where each person sits. So very often if I'm starting to work on someone, I don't even really remember the feeling, I'll remember the placement. Sometimes going back and hearing it from myself is helpful, and that's the main reason I record a lot of my progress.
Question: When you're singing in your own voice, you can sing over a cold. I would think to do the impressions you have to be in pretty great voice.
Christina Bianco: I would say you're absolutely right. [Laughs.] It's been really frustrating, a few times I've had to perform or do my own solo show or do Forbidden Broadway and try to do impressions when I don't have my full capability. Because I am manipulating my sound, I'm doing very different things with my chords, changing the speed of my vibrato, but mostly it's placement, and obviously if your throat is sore and you lose all the bottom, I can't do that. If you have a stuffy nose, I can't sing the top stuff and get the resonance. It's definitely a challenge and with the show now, it's not impressions but it's all the crazy voices. I have to keep very, very healthy and be more strict than I think I've ever been, particularly this lovely time of year, in the winter and everybody's getting the flu. [Laughs.] I have to be really careful because, unfortunately, I can't show up and do the show or do impressions when I don't have full use of my voice. I can change things around. If it's my own solo show I can alter, I can change things, I can cut certain people and do others, but obviously when it's somebody else's piece, you don't have that luxury and you just have to find ways. I really try to be warm and be safe with what I do, and like all singers, you have to go get checked out, and I've started doing impressions way more than I've ever done them in my life over this past year, so I recently said, "You know what. I have to go to the doctor, get the scope, check it out!" Luckily, I have pristine chords of steel, so we're all good, but it's definitely something I have to be aware of because it's not natural. Some people say, "Can you do this person? Or can you do Elaine Stritch? Can you do Joan Rivers?" I can't. I can't do those women because I have a relatively clear speaking voice. I don't have a lot of grit and rasp in my natural voice, so any singer or actor that has a bit of rasp or grit in their voice, I will never do. I hope I will never do them because that means my voice has changed to a point where that's there, so I definitely have limitations, but I don't mind those limitations. It typically means that I'm doing OK and I'm healthy. [Laughs.]
Question: What impression are you proudest of — one voice that was a real challenge that you feel like you've conquered?
Christina Bianco: It's two-fold here. I've greatly improved my Shirley Bassey impression, and she's not as big here in the States, but as you know, I've been spending a lot of time in the UK, and they know their Shirley Bassey, and I adore her. She's been a great influence on me...The first thing I do is I try to sing a song that Shirley Bassey sings, and once I've done that for a few Shirley Bassey songs, then I try to figure out how Shirley Bassey would sing, let's say the "Friends" theme. So once I feel comfortable enough with an impression, then I can apply it to something they don't sing. That feels really good to me. I've come to a point where everybody in the audience recognizes who that person, who I'm doing, even though they're singing something no one has heard them sing before. I'm very proud of getting Shirley Bassey down.
Now, the two people that I'm working on, and I work on them side-by-side for a reason, are Whitney Houston and Dolly Parton. I've done some of them live. There are some videos out there of me doing some of them, but I'm not particularly happy with anything in those videos. You have to do it, you have to practice it, you need to do it out in public with the amplification, and the reason I've been doing them back-to-back is because they both sing "I Will Always Love You," and so I'll be very honest and say right now, I don't think my Dolly Parton or my Whitney Houston would necessarily hold up on their own, if I had them each sing a different song that no one knows them singing. But back-to-back, each singing bits of "I Will Always Love You," it has now become in my live performances, a part of the show that most people tell me was their favorite, when I switch from Dolly Parton singing "I Will Always Love You," to Whitney Houston, and I think it's the contrast between the two sounds that makes it. This is not me being full of myself, but it makes it impressive to hear in the audience. But, for me still, I'm not there with either of them — just because I can do that one song, to me, does not mean that I've mastered an impression. [Laughs.]
Question: I think it's fascinating that you can get your voice in so many different pitches. I was so impressed with the Kristin Chenoweth one and Bernadette, too.
Christina Bianco: The last thing is, it really does come out of love and respect. Obviously, there are some people I do because they're popular, but I think it's quite clear when I do the impressions, the people who I really love doing, and it definitely helps when you're really familiar with them, and I'm definitely familiar with Bernadette Peters. She's always been my icon, my musical theatre role model and icon, so she was actually the first impression I tried and presented to the Forbidden Broadway people. And, let me tell you, when I listen back to my Bernadette Peters impression on that cast recording, I go, "No, no, no, you're doing it all wrong." [Laughs.] It was so early in my exploration of Bernadette Peters impressions. It definitely helps when you know them and love them...When I was young, I wished I was Bernadette Peters. It's been great getting to honor those icons.
Question: Have you ever heard from or performed in front of any of the women that you've done impressions of?
Christina Bianco: Unfortunately, no. I will say this, though. Kristin Chenoweth tweeted that she thought one of my videos, my impression of her was "incredible." I'm taking that one to the bank, I'm really happy about that. I have a lot of friends that have worked with her and are working with her now, so I'm sure she's aware of who I am. I'd love to meet her because she seems to really understand that it's completely done with love.
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Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.
Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.