DIVA TALK: Chatting With NYMF Stars Susan Blackwell, Annie Golden, Rachel Stern and Allyson Tucker

By Andrew Gans
July 5, 2013

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.



This week's column spotlights four of the women featured in the 2013 New York Musical Theatre Festival, which runs July 8-28 at various venues around the city. Diva Talk posed the same set of questions to each talented artist; their answers, via email, follow.

Susan Blackwell
Volleygirls at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center; July 15-27

How did you get involved with this production?
I did a reading of Volleygirls a few months ago, and I completely fell in love with the whole project--the creative team, the cast and the material. It brought me so much joy! And all that Volleygirls joy led me back to NYMF!

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of?
[title of show] played in the 1st Annual New York Musical Theatre Festival! Now, ten years later, I’m back with Volleygirls! It feels like coming home.

How would you describe the character you're playing?
Kim Brindell was a volleyball superstar in college. She made it all the way to the Olympics finals before making a terrible error during game point against Russia. She has lived in shame ever since--hiding her light under a bushel basket and teaching high school English. Volleygirls tells the story of how Kim and her team are freed from those fears that keep them guarded and small--all via the miraculous healing power of volleyball!

Why do you think audiences should attend this particular production?
Because I have excellent taste in material! If you like my esthetic, I’m betting you’ll enjoy this show as much as I do. It will make you feel like you’ve ingested fizzy lifting drinks!

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
Because any organization that fosters new musicals and creates a forum for people to get their creative work into the world is super important in my book. Of course, I am biased.

Blackwell previews Volleygirls.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

NYMF celebrates new musicals, but which role in a classic musical would you most like to perform and why?
When I was in high school in rural Ohio, I used to lock myself in my farmhouse bedroom and put on Len Cariou’s makeup from Sweeney Todd. Picture me as a 17-year-old girl, face powdered, eyes bruised with shadow, holding a curling iron above my head, screaming 'At Last — My Arm Is Complete Again!!’ In summary, I think I’d be fantastic as Snoopy in Peanuts.

What is your most memorable onstage mishap?
Take your pick. I’ve peed myself on stage in front of an audience, broken both my arms, fallen down a flight of stairs during a curtain call. I’m the embodiment of elegance and grace onstage.

What was your most enjoyable theatrical experience of the season (as a member of the audience)?
I just saw The Explorers Club at Manhattan Theatre Club and I laughed my face off. Super Bonus: Lorenzo Pisoni, Jennifer Westfeldt and David Furr are superhot nerds--I plan on going back just so I can look at them for two more hours. Also, Pippin completely made my month--it was so full of life! Gypsy Snider’s circus work in that show blew my ass right off my body. Fun fact: did you know that Lorenzo Pisoni and Gypsy Snider are siblings? That’s one talented family, and their work has brought me great enjoyment this season.

Do you have any other projects in the works?
Why, yes! I recently started Susan Blackwell & Co. I’m partnering with likeminded, compassionate artists and thought leaders to deliver inspiring educational offerings aimed at freeing people’s creative self-expression. We’re traveling the world, teaching people to slay their creative vampires, yo! Get into it!!

Annie Golden

Annie Golden
Marry Harry at the Signature Alice Brickman Theatre, July 19-28

How did you get involved with this production?
I am on board with this production thanks to our director Kent Nicholson, who invited me to play Debbie in Marry Harry and go with him to NY Stage and Film at Vassar College a few summers ago after we had worked together at Playwrights Horizons on The Shaggs!

How would you describe the character you're playing?
My character, Debby or Debbie, is the long-suffering "girlfriend" of the father of our main character Harry, Harry, Sr., who owns the restaurant where the play takes place: the family business!

Why do you think audiences should attend this particular production?
I believe audiences will enjoy this musical because it revolves around a father and son and takes place in the family restaurant, which is his father's legacy. The father doesn't seem to want to grow up and the son most definitely wants to grow up and out of the family business  — being a chef as opposed to a cook. He admires Lidia Bastianich and with all the cooking shows and chefs becoming stars in and out of the kitchen, this is a very timely piece! The music is wonderful  — it is funny and joyful and poignant and heartbreaking and original! 

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of?
I have done only one other NYMF in Mimi Le Duck as Mimi and one other Fringe show, an adaptation of Citizen Ruth, which won best musical of the Fringe that summer!

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
NYMF is important for new musicals and lining up our next projects...backers' auditions get a buzz going with an audience! Begin having people talk about your project!

Golden previews Marry Harry.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

NYMF celebrates new musicals, but which role in a classic musical would you most like to perform and why?
As far as a classic role I would like to play, I have said for years I would cut my hair off to play Peter Pan or Saint Joan...that ship has sailed! But I always felt I could be Georgie in The Full Monty until I was Jeanette! There is always Mrs. Lovett, yo, says Squeaky the other Sondheim redhead!

What is your most memorable onstage mishap?
Notable mishap? That's tricky: I was, of course, beside James Carpinello on that fateful second or third preview rehearsal day filling in for Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman, who [were on break] for lunch, and I was up on the bandstand in Xanadu when [director] Christopher Ashley… decided to tweak the finale number [and asked] if I could step in and he said: "Yes, please, honey, pick a muse!" And I found myself locked arm in arm with gorgeous, gifted James when he was heroically pointing out a potential problem in the trap crevice and down he went – breaking his leg in not one, but two places! Awful!

In The Full Monty I was also doing the finale for the "Let It Go" number when all the girls coming from the back of the house noticed — including our conductress Kim Grigsby — that the light rotation was off and so we knew that the boys would be in spotlight for the final "reveal"! Oh, honeys!!! The audience got a lot more than they paid for that performance!

What was your most enjoyable theatrical experience of the season (as a member of the audience)?
My most enjoyable theatre experience this season was, I think, my only theatre experience this season: Old Hats and also opening night of Lucky Guy! I saw Old Hats on Bill Irwin's birthday!

Do you have any other projects in the works?
Last night I did a presentation for interested parties in a revival of Inner City directed by Michael Boyd, and now I am going to a rehearsal of Unexpected Joy, a new show written by Bill Russell. I play Joy! I just finished a wonderful show called The Thing About Time with Betty Buckley, Stephen Bogardus, Lawrence Hamilton, and I was reunited with David Patrick Kelly [who played Claude in my first Hair revival]. My duet partner was Astaire Award winner Eric LaJuan Summers, who plays Jackie Wilson in Motown! The story is like the "Big Chill" meets "Ghost." Jerry Dixon is directing that and is the reason I am in such illustrious company on that one! I also have a Netflix Original Series available July 11th, "Orange Is The New Black" with musical divas Lea DeLaria and Beth Fowler, about women in prison... Speaking of prison, I plan to do my cabaret act (updated of course) at 54 Below called Annie Golden's Velvet Prison II (no hope of parole!)...if anyone is interested!

Rachel Stern

Rachel Stern
Legacy Falls at PTC Performance Space; July 16-24

How did you get involved with this production?
I auditioned like everyone else. I just happened to have a good one that day. The room was really friendly, and my energy meshed with the creative team. I’m getting really excited to start rehearsals!

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of?
I did a production called Therapy Rocks a few years ago. It was one of the most challenging and rewarding theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. I even won an award for my performance in the production.

How would you describe the character you're playing?
Well, I’m not sure yet. I mean, I know Fleur is a hungry, entertainment reporter. That kind of character can go in lots of directions. She loves to spill the scoop on what’s happening down at "Legacy Falls" (the soap opera extraordinaire)! I’m looking forward to painting her with some juicy, bitchy layers.

Why do you think audiences should attend this particular production?
Well, I’m a fan of soap operas in general. They’re so over the top and delightful and filled with sparkly jewelry and people! No matter how ridiculous a story line is, we eat it hook, line and sinker. It’s hilarious! If I wasn’t in this production, it would still be the first one I’d go see as an audience member.

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
I’m a huge fan of the NYMF. To have an opportunity for new musicals to showcase in full productions is priceless. It’s the time of year where there is concentration on new musicals, with the forgiveness of small budgets but realized ideas. Plus we actors, no matter how many shows we’ve done or not done, all want to be a part of someone’s ground floor project. It’s why I got into theatre in the first place. Creating new musicals!!!! What a gift.

NYMF celebrates new musicals, but which role in a classic musical would you most like to perform and why?
Classic musical? Does that mean it can’t be a rock musical? Well, tough. I’ve always wanted to play Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar.

What is your most memorable onstage mishap?
Only one? I have experienced some masterful booboos on stage. Some because of me, some in spite of me. Hmmm. Guess I should pick a funny one. Most of them are horrifying. Well, this was scary, but less so than many. I played Humpty Dumpty in Shrek. That costume ruined my life. I have no qualms about saying that. The way it was put together was out of some 1400’s German torture device. The height of the costume was adjusted like a giant umbrella holder. Ya know, with different clicks for different heights. Someone had messed with the height before the show, and when I quick-changed into the costume on stage, it covered my whole head and I had to dance out on stage with no sight, hearing or balance. I managed to squeak out my one solo and ran off stage, banging into people on the way, and had a delightful nervous breakdown. YAY! Live theatre!

What was your most enjoyable theatrical experience of the season (as a member of the audience)?
This season? Sadly, I haven’t been to see any Broadway shows this season, yet. I’m super poor right now. Oh! I saw Peter and the Starcatcher at New World Stages. I loved it. It was in such a wonderful, more intimate space, and it felt like I was back in college, experiencing that raw, hilarious, tender, honest theatre again. It really is rare when it comes to "upper echelon" theatre. Big budget doesn’t always mean giant spectacle. The work was giant, and I loved it. BTW, I love big, giant spectacles, too. I’m so easily awed and entertained. I really want to see Pippin!

What are your other projects in the works?
I wish I had some major news for you. My job luck hasn’t been so groovy lately. Many of the projects I was working on have either fallen through or did me wrong. It happens. I’ve been putting a lot of energy into voice overs and working on my own music. I’ve been writing music for 30 years and never had the guts to put it together until recently. I’m being very patient as far as my career goes, and auditioning, and staying positive. It’s not easy for about 98% of us out there. No matter how good or devoted you are. Sometimes, there are mean times. But, it’s important to realize you are bigger than the lull. I’m not going anywhere. This business is stuck with me!

Allyson Tucker

Allyson Tucker
Mother Divine at the Pearl Theater Company Performance Space; July 11-20

How did you get involved with this production?
I first learned of this production when my dear friend Randy Davis called me up to tell me that he had just booked a job as a choreographer of a NYMF show. I was (and still am) totally over the moon for him. We've been friends for a long time and I just love him to pieces. He's a wonderful performer, a devoted and loyal friend and has been interested in choreographing shows for a while. As we spoke about the show, he asked if I were interested in auditioning for the show. I told him that I would look at the breakdown for the show and if there was something in it for me, I'd love to audition. I do have a very strict policy about working with friends and family members: Our friendship stays at the door when we walk into the rehearsal room and that there are no hard feelings at all if I don't get cast. That has absolutely nothing to do with our friendship. I looked at the breakdown and initially I thought that I wasn't right for anything. I told him I would love to come in if I wasn't going to waste the creative team's time for the role of Ms. Handsome Is As Handsome Does, although I didn't quite fit the character description. Lucky for me, I got the part (thanks be to those that saw outside of the box) and to Randy's credit, he didn't tell me anything until after I heard from the casting director, Michael Cassara.

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of?
I am extremely excited because this is my first NYMF show. I have seen other productions in the festival over the years, but I haven't auditioned for a NYMF show due to conflicts or work. I am very excited to have this opportunity.

How would you describe the character you're playing?
Ms. Handsome Is As Handsome Does (great name, right?) is a pillar in her church community with a bit of a non-traditional past. She's a true believer and follower of Father Divine, but she has a lot of compassion, warmth and good intentions. She's a no-nonsense type of lady, but is willing to take people as they are without any judgment. She's convicted and optimistic.

Why do you think audiences should attend this particular production?
Mother Divine is a fun, feel-good, warm-your-heart and please-your-ears musical. It's based on a real ministry, but then we segue into fantasy and fun. Our music director, Julianne Merrill, has done some great arranging, our director Adam Hester is taking us on a great ride, the cast is ridiculous amounts of fun, and we're all held together by a fantastic and energetic stage manager Bernadette Schoenborn (and the rest of her team). And, Laurel Vartabedian and Bill Evans have written and composed a fun, joyous and heartfelt adventure. I have yet to see the set or costumes at this early date, but I have a feeling that they'll be spectacular, too. It's a fun night in the theatre and you leave feeling warm and fuzzy and just uplifted. We're having a great time as a company, and that is infectious when it comes to shows.

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
I think NYMF is so important to the theatrical community and to NYC at large because it's a festival that nurtures up-and-coming creative talent while giving more performers a chance to showcase themselves. It's jobs and in this economy, that's a beautiful thing. It's really hard to put up a show, and this gives people the chance to show a sample of what is and with a little imagination, what will be, if given the chance. It's also a great venue, since NYC is the leader in theatre, for NYers and non-NYers to see a show in the works. It helps to broaden people's views as to what a show is and or could be by exposing them to topics that they might not ordinarily consider theatre or musical material (Next to Normal comes to mind). It's an opportunity for audiences to really appreciate what can happen when/if people are given an opportunity to create and share their ideas. Who knows? Perhaps they'll invest in a writer or composer in their own communities who will end up writing the next great play or musical.

NYMF celebrates new musicals, but which role in a classic musical would you most like to perform and why?
There are soooooo many roles that I would love to perform! I would love to play Aldonza again (I was fortunate to understudy and perform the role in the last Broadway revival) because she's so strong yet vulnerable and undergoes such a transformation. She's open and because of that, her soul is accessed and she is able to be enlightened. Being open, vulnerable, truthful and wearing your emotions on your sleeve is such a wonderful feeling, but her journey is more than just raw emotion. There's a deeper connection for her in finding and accepting her vulnerability that ultimately empowers her.

Then, of course, there's Lola in Damn Yankees. Who doesn't want to be a seductress and dance like that?! It's a dream role.

There's Reno Sweeney from Anything Goes, which is just a tour de force role. And the music! Ahhhh!! I love a great score and am such a romantic!!!

And then there's Sweet Anita in Jelly's Last Jam. Always one of my favorite shows and the role is one of true strength and complexity.

Truly, there are just too many dream roles! This list goes on for quite some time, and I'm hoping I'll get the chance to do more of them!

What is your most memorable onstage mishap?
You're kidding, right? I'm supposed to answer this one and still think I can have a career? LOL!

What was your most enjoyable theatrical experience of the season (as a member of the audience)?
There were so many wonderful performances this season. I am blessed to be a Councillor of Actors' Equity Association (thank you all for re-electing me), and as such am a Tony voter. I just loved celebrating the artistry of everyone. From such performers (and friends) as Billy Porter, Ms. Tyson, Chita, Danny Burstein, Patina Miller, Judith Ivey, Richard Kind, Valisa LeKae, Holland Taylor, Andrea Martin and Charl Brown to the creative team members like Jerry Mitchell, George C. Wolfe, Santo Loquasto, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, Charles Randolph Wright, Jonathan Deans and Emilio Sosa — it was truly an embarrassment of riches. And that doesn't include the vast amount of regional theatre (Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, etc.) that goes on in this city. All of these shows have evoked something in me, and I have enjoyed the journey of each and every one of them. Live theater in NYC is alive and inspiring.

Do you have any other projects in the works?
After Mother Divine, I'm looking forward to my most important role as "Mommy." I have a few irons in the fire, but nothing concrete as of yet. But as the great Fats Waller said, "One never knows, do one?"

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