TS: Tell us about yourself and how you were bitten by the theatre bug?
SJB: I grew up in Southern California, Orange County. My father, Steven, worked as a welfare fraud investigator. My mother, Rosemarie, worked for our local school district and was later employed by American Title Insurance Company. Both of them sang during their high school and collegiate careers, but neither one of them pursued it as a profession. I have one elder sister, Renee. She was one of the premiere dancers and princesses at Disneyland but married quite young and started having a family right away. She’s now pregnant with her fifth child, and there isn’t a better mom out there. For me, singing wasn’t “a bug,” it was a passion. My parents recognized that I could carry a tune and sing on pitch at the age of three. I would sing with television commercials or jingles on the radio. I began singing at my church when I was 7 years old. And when I was 11 years old, I began taking private voice lessons. I trained with the most amazing teacher, Jill Goodsell. She is an absolute master, and I apply what I’ve learned from her, and continue to learn from her, every day.
TS: Did you know that this is what you wanted to be your life’s work once you took voice lessons?
SJB: I knew almost immediately that performing would be my career. I was involved with the local community theatres and talent shows. At the age of 14, I auditioned for a performance group called “The Young Americans.” We traveled around the U.S. and the world to perform at different concerts, corporate events and industrial shows. One of the directors of the Young Americans, David Green, approached my parents and said, “I really think that Stephanie should look into going to a high school of the performing arts.” So my junior and senior year, I attended the Orange County High School of the Arts located on the campus of Los Alamitos High School. Essentially, I was going to school from 7am until about 7pm. I still continued all of my private voice lessons, and through Jill Goodsell, I was awarded a scholarship to the Boston Conservatory of Music. The scholarship only supported arts classes, no regular curriculum. My family could not afford that school without a full scholarship, so the plan was for me to attend Orange Coast College the first two years and then transfer. I went there for five days. I felt like a lion in a cage. I looked at my parents and said, “Let me just try it out there in the real world. I want to jump in head first and start.” My parents hated the idea of me leaving college. But we made a pact. They were going to keep a really close watch on me, and if they saw me lose my focus or discipline, if they saw me stop growing in my craft or simply rest on my laurels, I was going back to college.
TS: So you started to work as a teenager?
SJB: I started to work onstage professionally by the age of 18 and was able to pay for my life. When I was 22, I attempted to move to New York City. I had done a lot of regional productions. I had an agent and was a member of all the actors’ unions (AEA, SAG, AFTRA and AGVA). I thought, “Ok, I’ll move to New York and see how it goes.” It scared me to death! Although everything seemed to be in place and I had plenty of on-the-job experience, I just wasn’t comfortable in my own skin in New York. I was intimidated by the city. I was intimidated by my competition. So about a year later I moved back to Los Angeles, continued to perform regionally and just do as much work as I possibly could. That whole time period was about finding out who I was. I needed to gain a true sense of myself and of my talent, so that no matter where I was, I had solid footing and a comfortable confidence.
TS: In 2000, things got rather interesting for you – correct?
SJB: In February of 2000, I got a call from Stephen Schwartz. He was out in Los Angeles developing a new musical. The story goes that he wasn’t familiar with a lot of musical theatre talent on the West Coast. He went to dinner with some friends and was speaking of his new project and the character of Elphaba. The amazing people he was dining with recommended me. I got a phone call from Stephen Schwartz on my answering machine. I met him the very next day and sang a bit from my repertoire. He played me a couple of songs from the show. And that’s how I was introduced to the musical that would change my life…Wicked. At this point in the process, I was to present three songs to the executives at Universal Pictures. It was going to be a very informal presentation with Winnie Holzman, who is the librettist of Wicked, explaining the plot while reading off index cards and Stephen Schwartz at the piano. That was the beginning. For the next 2 years, every several months I would get a call from Stephen saying, “We’ve finished Act I, would you come in and read for us?...Ok, now we’ve edited Act I, will you come back in and read with us?” Finally, I did an extended two-week workshop on the Universal Studios lot with Kristin Chenoweth. And I really thought that the role of Elphaba was going to be my way back to New York and my Broadway debut. Months and months later, I flew into NYC to audition for Joe Mantello. Days after the audition I got a call from Stephen saying, “You did a great job in the audition. We love you. However, you have no Broadway credits and we just can’t risk a multimillion dollar production on someone who’s never done a Broadway show let alone created a role on Broadway before. We want you to understudy Idina Menzel and stand by for her when we get to New York.” It was painful but that was the chance that I was looking for, to come back to the city with a job. Wicked led to The Boy from Oz, which then led to other shows. I’m now working on my sixth Broadway show. I’m very lucky!
TS: Let’s talk about The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In English music hall terms, the role of Edwin is called a “pants” role. Would you describe the role you played in The Pirate Queen as a pants role?
SJB: Not exactly. Grace O’Malley does have to disguise herself as a man to get herself on the ship. But I wasn’t ever playing the role of a man in The Pirate Queen. Now when I auditioned for Drood, I asked Rupert Holmes, the creator of the show, whether I should really take on the posture of a man, the voice of a man, etc. Rupert said no because in the Victorian music halls, the audience was completely aware that the leading boy’s part would usually be played by a well known actress of the time. It was one of the devices that they used. In fact, the songs that Rupert has written for the role of Edwin Drood are very much in a female vocal range. Having said that, as an actress I do have to believe that I’m a man or it’s just going to look silly.
TS: At this moment, you haven’t started rehearsals yet, but could you tell me what you think the challenges of playing this role will be? What kind of preparation have you done?
SJB: I’m watching a ton of old films set in the Victorian age so I can see other actors play “real men” in the late 1890s or in the early 1900s. The gait in their walk is very distinct. I am watching their specific postures and where they place their hands when they approach a woman. I want to make sure I address Rosa Bud and the other characters appropriately for the time period and for the story that we’re telling. For me, the challenge is that I not only have to play Edwin Drood, but there’s a section where I become Alice Nutting, the actress playing Edwin Drood. She is a completely different being when she’s herself. There is also another challenge. Because I play several different characters in Drood, I need to make a connection and impression on the audience with each one. The entire cast gets to break the fourth wall in this play. We bow to the audience and acknowledge their applause, or do an aside joke to the audience. Alice Nutting and Edwin Drood don’t necessarily get to do that as often as the other characters but I want to make sure that the audience is still able to embrace both Edwin and Alice. Especially with “The Writing on the Wall,” the number where I feel the character strips herself down and is really talking to the audience and is giving them wonderful words of wisdom: Every moment is precious. Take every moment and grab it as if it’s your last, fight for that last breath. I think that’s an important statement for Stephanie J. Block or Edwin Drood or Alice Nutting to make to the audience. So I want to make sure that it is completely heartfelt and impactful when I sing it.
TS: Will you talk a little bit about what you look for in your director, your musical director, and your choreographer?
SJB: I’m so excited to work with Scott Ellis, as I’ve heard and seen fantastic things! I usually come into rehearsals with some opinions as to how I see the character and how I feel the character serves the play. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that those are the most informed opinions. My homework and my backstory certainly help to form who my character is going to be, but it’s always amazing for the director to say, “I hear what you’re saying, now let me throw this at you.” I love a director that you can share with, a director that allows an open room for dialogue, experimenting, and play. I think that’s important. As for the musical director, Rupert has written very intricate and complicated melodies and harmonies. I can’t wait to see the notes on the page and to have every precise detail plunked out for me so I know how it fits with the other voice (or the three or four voices) involved in the songs and then begin to really interpret the music and lyrics. I haven’t had the opportunity to work with Paul Gemignani, and he is such a legend. He definitely goes beyond just “plunking the notes” and I am going to relish every moment with him and Rupert’s music. I also look forward to working with Warren Carlyle, the choreographer. It is going to be interesting because I don’t think I dance a whole lot in Drood. I’m sure there’s going to be quite a bit of movement and I think the movement will be very character specific. This is a brand new team for me. I’m excited to start.
TS: How do you keep yourself sane in this business?
SJB: One thing that keeps me sane is my family and my husband. But I also try to keep a certain perspective about what our world is. What we do on Broadway is important and I think it changes people’s lives. However, if you go beyond the twenty block radius in midtown, there’s a whole other world that if you mention Musical Theatre, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Stephanie J. Block, or even Wicked, they don’t know what you’re talking about. I try to maintain an involvement with those outside of the arts, people who need other things besides song and dance, people who are in need of food, shelter, clothing. I try to keep a level head and remember there’s a world beyond the blessings of the American theatre.
TS: When you read Drood, what did you think it was about?
SJB: I think it’s about the challenges in life… the mystery of life. There’s a lot of misguidance, dependence, jealousy and want in Drood. But even though the piece is dark at times, I think the genius of Rupert Holmes brings it back to the joy and humor of life. I think all good theatre has a universal message. And I think the universal message of Drood is very much about making your life worth something, hanging on to every breath of life and making it count.
2012-2013 Season, A Conversation with, The Mystery of Edwin Drood