DIVA TALK: Chatting with Wonderland's "New Alice," Janet Dacal

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Wonderland's "New Alice," Janet Dacal
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Janet Dacal
Janet Dacal

Janet Dacal, who created the role of Carla in the Tony-winning In the Heights, heads the cast of the new Frank Wildhorn-Jack Murphy musical Wonderland - A New Alice. A New Musical., which reinvents "Alice in Wonderland" for the 21st century. The singing actress plays a modern-day Manhattan mom named Alice in the production at the Marquis Theatre. Dacal, who made her Broadway debut in the short-lived Good Vibrations, is joined onstage by a host of theatre favorites, including Darren Ritchie (Little Shop of Horrors, Thoroughly Modern Millie) as White Knight, E. Clayton Cornelious (The Scottsboro Boys, A Chorus Line) as Caterpillar, Jose Llana (Spelling Bee, Flower Drum Song) as El Gato, Karen Mason (Hairspray, Mamma Mia!) as Queen of Hearts, Kate Shindle (Legally Blonde, Cabaret, Jekyll and Hyde) as Mad Hatter, Carly Rose Sonenclar (Les Misérables, Little House on the Prairie) as Chloe, Edward Staudenmayer (Spamalot, Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me) as White Rabbit and Danny Stiles (regional productions of Guys and Dolls and Sister Act: The Musical) as Morris. The morning of the musical's first Broadway preview I had the chance to chat with the gifted performer, who spoke about her work in In the Heights and Wonderland as well as an upcoming solo album that she will record with the help of composer Wildhorn; that interview follows:

Question: Since we haven't spoken before, I thought we'd go back to the beginning. Where were you born and raised?
Dacal: I was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA.

Question: Tell me when you started performing.
Dacal: Well, I started performing very young. I was kind of a little ham around the house, so my mom quickly put me in voice and dance lessons and all that fun stuff, but [I started performing] professionally about ten years ago.

Dacal in Wonderland.
photo by Michal Daniel

Question: When did performing change for you from a hobby to a career?
Dacal: Well, I always knew that this is what I wanted to do. I just didn't know in what facet. I started as a dancer in school, and I went to a performing arts high school. I was very lucky because my parents were very supportive, and they encouraged me to do what made me happy. They quickly saw that I had a knack for this thing, and they pushed me along the road with lessons and master classes and all that kind of stuff. But I knew very early on that I really enjoyed the arts, and so I went to a performing arts middle school and high school in California, and I moved to Florida when I was about 17 and finished high school there and, again, got involved with the arts.

[I] started college in the theatre department but ended up with a communications degree. [Laughs.] But while I was there, I started working for Gloria and Emilio Estefan in their recording studio. Then I was kind of torn between theatre, if that was what I wanted to do, and I was introduced to the whole recording and music industry, and I really, really took a liking to it and started developing my voice. … Working there was unlike any school I could have ever gone to. It was just an unbelievable experience, and I was working for them during the Latin crossover phase in the music world. It was just a really interesting time to be there...seeing how everything worked. Eventually, I started recording background vocals for them, and I toured with a couple of Latin artists. So, that was a really fun time, and while I was there, a friend of mine had been working on a musical here in New York, and they brought the musical down to Miami and lost their leading lady. I hadn't spoken to this friend in a couple of years, but he found me asking if I wanted to audition for this … show, and I got the part, and the theatre bug bit and there you are! [Laughs.] That was pretty much the end of everything else. Question: What show was that?
Dacal: That was Four Guys Named Jose And Una Mujer Named Maria. … And it was done here Off-Broadway, I believe.

Question: What was your first Broadway show?
Dacal: My first Broadway experience was with Good Vibrations.

Question: Do you remember your first night on Broadway? 
Dacal: Oh, my God. It was a dream come true. You know, for a lot of us kids in the cast, it was [our] Broadway debut. We were all very young and very green, and we just had such aspirations for the production... We got so intimate so fast, and we became such good friends, and that in itself made the experience very special, and we're all still very close coming out of that show. It was magical, even though we were in bikinis in the middle of the winter. [Laughs.] It was just a wonderful thing, and it was bliss for me.

Dacal, with Eliseo Roman, in In the Heights.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: It seemed like In the Heights was a monumental show for everyone involved. I wonder what that show meant to you and if you felt that way as well.
Dacal: Oh, God! It meant the world, it really did. In the Heights was the first audition that I went on when I moved to the city, and at the time, it was just five songs. Lin-Manuel Miranda's father had asked him what he wanted for his birthday, whether he wanted to have a party or to put up a reading of his musical in New York, and thank God he took the latter! [Laughs.] Very early on, the music of the show had such rhythm and pulse and heart and passion. We knew very early on that it had something very special, very magical, and throughout the course of the entire time [I spent with the show] ... every time we got together and worked on it, when we had to leave those weekly development times, we would be so sad because we didn't know when we were going to see each other again, and so, whenever it happened again, it was just pure joy. That's what it always was, and I think that's something that transcended with the show throughout its entire life. When we got to Off-Broadway that was really, I feel, one of the most magical times because it was just so romantic. It was the hopes of it moving forward and really putting it up on its feet and having a real run with the show and really discovering what was happening with it, and then, when we got the news that we were moving to Broadway, it was unbelievable. And, aside from all that, the show, for me personally — it's the story of my family. My parents came from Cuba, and they sacrificed their lives so that their kids could have a future and do what they love to do. On so many levels, I connected with that show [and] the family that came out of that show as well. I know that I will have those people in my life for the rest of my life.

Question: Did your own family get to see it?
Dacal: Oh, absolutely! [Laughs.] Numerous times.

Question: What was their reaction to it?
Dacal: They [were] just overjoyed. My mother is from a part of Cuba named Navivora, which is [the area Abuela Claudia] sings about [in the show]. So, every time my mom would hear that song, she'd just fall apart and cry because it's everything that they experienced. It's coming here, learning the language, working, not knowing what their future was going to be. … It was always a very beautiful thing.

Question: How did Wonderland come about for you?
Dacal: While I was in In the Heights, this same friend of mine [laughs] was working on a music score with Frank Wildhorn called Havana, which is [still] in the works. They were recording some songs just for demo purposes, and he asked me if I wanted to come in and sing with him. I met Frank, and we very quickly connected musically, I think, because it was another Latin piece and I really feel comfortable in that world. I was able to bring some really interesting stuff to the table, and Frank asked me to start working with him on our own, and we started collaborating musically on new takes, arrangements on his old music. And, we've come up with this really interesting jazz/Latin mix to his arrangements, and that's something that we're looking to go forward in the future, but while we were working, he started introducing me to the Wonderland music and had me sing it. And, every time I got a new song, I just fell in love with it, and he fell in love with how I sang it. So, eventually, I came in for the creative team, and that's how I got the part of Alice!

Dacal, with Carly Rose Sonenclar and Darren Ritchie, in Wonderland.
photo by Michal Daniel

Question: Tell me about the character you play. I know the musical is described as a 21st-century version of "Alice in Wonderland." How closely does it stick to the original story?
Dacal: Well, Alice is a modern American woman. She's got her dreams and her aspirations and her responsibilities and real-life stuff that she's dealing with. She's got a family. Her marriage is falling apart, and she works a terrible job and she's just trying to keep her life up. I feel like there are so many people who can relate to that sort of lifestyle, juggling everything in order to make it happen. And, in the midst of all of that, she finds herself going down the rabbit hole via an elevator [laughs], where she encounters all of the characters that we know and love with a special twist. It's a contemporary retelling of Lewis Carroll's books, with a modern-based story. And, throughout the course of the journey, she encounters these characters who teach her lessons that are important for her in her life, and when she comes out of this dream, she's really come to terms with what she needs to do in order to move on and make the rest of her life what she wants it to be, which is something that I think that, again, so many of us can identify with — that we're the creators of our world. I think this is something that I do in my own personal life. I have a vision of what I'd want to do, and it's setting forward the wheels and taking the motion to go in that direction. I think that's something that [is] a beautiful lesson to be shared with the world. I think people will respond to it because they're going to see things on that stage that they connect with in their real lives. Question: I know the show has had several out-of-town productions. How much has changed since you have been rehearsing here for the Broadway production?
Dacal: It's changed drastically. I mean, every time we've done it, we've come closer to where we need it to be. And, making a new musical is such a massive effort. I don't know how it happens. [Laughs.] I really don't. It's really unbelievable to me, the fact that all of these people come together and create this thing and then try to clarify, to make it right and freshen up characters and [ask], "What are we trying to say here?" and "What's the point of all this?" and "Why do this?" The fact that a group of people can come together to make a musical is magical that way — it really blows my mind. We're so happy with where the show is now and how it's grown throughout the process, and, having our first preview tonight — we're exactly where we need to be. We're ready for an audience to see what we have and see what we need to continue to fix, and what needs to continue to be polished and what people are going to respond to and what they're not going to respond to. You know, this is the magic time. … I'm so involved and so sucked in and so immersed by it all of the time that we're ready to see how people are going to respond. So, we're really excited!

Question: Have any new songs gone in since the last production?
Dacal:Yes. I have a new song that I'm singing, which was a part of the last production but sung by somebody else. My friend says, "Making a musical is like playing a Rubric's cube. [Laughs.] If you change one thing, it affects everything else." These are the kinds of changes that we make during this time and during this process.

Dacal records the Wonderland cast album in New York March 6.
photo by Krissie Fullerton

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Alice?
Dacal: I do have a favorite moment in the show for Alice, but I don't want to give it away because it's kind of the whole point of the show! [Laughs.]

Question: Tell me about working with Gregory Boyd. As a director, what's his style like?
Dacal: Greg is just such a smart guy. He's just a wealth of knowledge, and I've learned so much from him. With who he is as a person, but also what he does creatively, it's pretty fascinating to work with him. It's been quite a journey, and we've gone through part of it. He's just really great and a wonderful person.

Question: It's such a great cast, too, with Karen Mason, Kate Shindle, Jose Llana. Is there a real sense of being a team, a camaraderie among the cast?
Dacal: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely! I think, again, with putting up something new and being original cast members, so much of it is up to us to make it the experience that we want it to be. That's something that I really learned from In the Heights, and after that experience, it's something that I feel is my responsibility to take with me and share, that this show is ours and that we're responsible for making it what we want it to be, regardless of outside forces. The truth is that we're in a Broadway musical and we're living our dream, and in a really good one. So, it's really up to us, and that's something that really resonates, not only with the other principals but the entire cast. We love what we do, and we're here because we want to be, and it's really great.

I would listen to [the cast album of] And the World Goes 'Round over and over and over, and then, all of a sudden, I'm in a room with Karen Mason. That's one of the most amazing things about what we do as actors, that we get to work with our heroes. It's just so amazing — I hear her sing, and she's just such a powerhouse. It's really marvelous, and she's fantastic in the role. And, Kate is another wonderful performer.  Everybody — Darren Ritchie, who's playing our White Knight, is gorgeous on stage, and everybody is just so good in their parts. So, we really have a great team here.

Question: Do you think the show has a message, or what does it say to you?
Dacal: Yes, the show has several messages, but one of the most important, and I think the most beautiful, that really resonates with me is this notion of time and how all we have is this moment right now. And, that's something that we're living in, with our reality right now. Right now, we're about to embark on this journey, and it's once-in-a-lifetime, and one day, the show will be done and we'll have lived the experience. So, I think it's really important for us to just be present and enjoy it because it'll be done one day, and, again, it's up to us to make it what we want it to be.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Dacal: Well, right now, [laughs] I have little time for anything else other than Wonderland, which is great. But, like I said before, Frank and I are hoping to collaborate musically in the future and put out a solo album. I'm really excited about that, and once the show has settled and things are a little more normal, then that's something that we'll definitely be pushing forward with. So, I'm very excited about that as well.

[Tickets to Wonderland - A New Alice. A New Musical. are now available through www.Ticketmaster.com or by calling (877) 250-2929, and in person at the Marquis Theatre box office, 1535 Broadway between 45th & 46th Streets. For more information on the musical, visit www.WonderlandOnBroadway.com.]

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

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