Sunday, June 28, 2009

Singer/Actress Stephanie J. Block Steps Out With 9 to 5: The Musical

Exclusive Interview by Brad Balfour

With her powerhouse voice and incredible range, Stephanie J. Block is the most substantial singer of the trio that makes up the stars of 9 to 5: The Musical, a timely re-working of the classic 1980s movie. In both film and stage version, three women working in an office who occupy various roles--the hard-charging exec held back cause of her sex; the blond bombshell sterotyped because of her look; and the mousey home-maker forced to return to work after her ex- was caught cheating--stage a guerilla action against an egregiously sexist boss.

Given that the original film--birthed by activist actress Jane Fonda--starred country music mega-star Dolly Parton (who penned the hit tune for the film), it seemed natural for Parton to re-envision is a musical and create both songs and lyrics. Though some males critics have been slow to warm to the show, it has won a growing phalanx of female fans and spurred a raft of recent nominations for Tony Awards (Best Music, Best Actress, Feature Actor and Choreography) and several Drama Desk wins (for Best Musical and Best Actress--Allison Janney). The 36-year-old Block garnered her first major nomination--from the Drama Desk for Best Actress--and though she didn't win her career has surged ahead.

Now, a solo debut, This Place I Know, and performance dates--she will be doing Barnes & Noble in July and a July 13 Birdland concert with some of the composers joining her on the piano--enables this former Californian to further make her mark on the New York cabaret scene. If those dates are missed 9 to 5: The Musical can currently be seen at the Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway.

Q: With 9 to 5: The Musical, you define a character that everybody else will work with. You’re in effect creating this character, find the right marks, and that will be the version that people are going to see. How did you to get this balance?

SJB: That’s the challenge as an actor. Right off the bat, when you're called into an audition, there’s something about you as a person, as an artist. The casting director, director, or the producer sees the character in you somewhere already. It’s whether they always see the vulnerability, or "she’s a powerhouse singer," or "she’s a silly goofball."

With 9 to 5, we have the archetypes already. They were established with the movie, although drastically different from the musical because we are singing and dancing.

We’ve got the powerhouse woman in Lily Tomlin or Allison Janney’s role--Violet Newstead. We got the sexpot with Doralee Rhodes—Dolly Parton and now Megan Hilty. And mine, Judy Bernly, is this kind of frantic, tender, fragile character that Jane Fonda made so brilliant.

But in this case, [director] Joe Montello, didn’t want [us] to play Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton and Lilly Tomlin. Yet we had to stay true to the script. We had to service the play, we had to serve the storyline.

Once I hit New York six years ago, [I] was playing Liza Minnelli [on Broadway on The Boy from Oz], who’s this fiery creature in and of herself. She’s just this amazing powerhouse of a woman. Then there was Grace O’Malley [both pre- and in the Broadway's version of The Pirate Queen], who was fiery, and she, too, had a purpose and a power. Elphaba [in both Wicked on Broadway and the first national tour], we could say the same.

So to play this sort of vulnerability, I was very lucky that Joe Montello saw something in me, Stephanie, to say, “Let’s bring her in. I think she can bring something to this character”. I lucked out.

For me, the vulnerability is there in every character [I play]. If you're just balls-out, the audience doesn’t recognize themself in you; they don’t connect. They don’t feel emotion if you're just going gangbusters in their face. It’s too much.

So there’s always got to be a little bit [of vulnerability], but this one is far more so. Most of my [character] is in this uncertain place and really just tender. She’s going to fall apart at any moment, until the last 10 to 15 minutes of the play.

Q: Have you seen the film Nine To Five?

SJB: I saw it when I was very young, I was six or seven, and my mom would laugh, laugh, laugh and I didn’t quite know what the inside joke was. Then I saw it 10 years ago, on a whim again, on cable or something. And when I got the role, we got the DVD and I watched it a couple of times. Once I started rehearsals, I put it away.

Q: Even though it's a comedy, it turned out to be something bigger than that, having much more of a social impact. How many shows on Broadway are both a funny musical but have a social significance?

SJB: Jane Fonda actually wanted it to be a political statement, and [the idea] came from Jane. She went to [screen- and playwriter] Patricia Resnick and said, “Can you write this for me?” Then it became what it is.

[Jane] didn’t want to again throw it in people's faces, but she wanted to have an entertaining way to make a statement and say women are being mistreated. Sexual harassment—that hadn’t been defined yet—is happening. Aboveboard, all the time. We've got to make a statement. So that’s where the movie came from.

Q: And now given the current economic light...

SJB: There’s a whole other statement.

Q: You must get a kick out of that.

SJB: Oh my… In act two when I say, “No way, no head of a company would fake the books and steal from its stockholders.” The show stops, everybody starts clapping and laughing and we literally have to [pause]. It takes a good 10 seconds for the audience to regroup. Yeah, it touches on a lot of things. It’s not just with sexual harassment, which still is happening. It’s [also] about the big guy and the little guy.

And as Violet, Allison’s got a gorgeous speech at the end of the play that again stops the show. It resonates, it still resonates. So everybody starts clapping, because we know all the people that are taking our money that are lying to our face, that are saying 'invest in me' and buying mansions when we’re trying to put groceries in our fridge.

Q: When Jane Fonda came to the part in the film, she’d already been "Jane Fonda." She had won an Oscar by then…

SJB: If you look at the movie, she’s the title name. She was the big draw back in that day.

Q: Jane Fonda played this character who is a very un-Jane Fonda kind of character. You don’t have that persona over your head, so you can come in and shape that character. In a way that made it fresher for you.

SJB: There’s a great believability, because people adore Jane. But Patricia Resnick always used to say, as you just said, she has got a history to her that does have a strength and a fortitude and she has made statements along the way. So to see her as this fragile woman, the audience knows that's not necessarily Jane, it’s Jane playing a role.

With me, I think the audience can actually believe this crazy woman that doesn’t know even how to put paper into a typewriter, and then watch the growth through the course of 2 ½ hours.

Q: How did you bond with Jane?

SJB: We were completely excited, yet terribly nervous at the LA opening because that was going to be the first time where Jane, Lilly, Dolly, and Dabney [Coleman, the original Franklin Hart Jr. played by Marc Kudisch in the show] were all going to be in the audience. So we wanted to please them, we wanted their blessing, all four of them.

After the LA opening, they came backstage and I just remember going, "This is going to be very important." Because Jane is not is BS’er. Do you know what I mean? If she didn’t like it, she would not come back. If she didn’t like, it she’d say, “Congratulations, and I hope it goes well.”

She bee-lined right to me, held my hands, looked me in the face and then proceeded to say everything I wanted to hear or was hoping to hear from her. Which was, "You kept all the best bits, you made it your own, you’re taking care of our role. I’m so excited for you guys."

So it was everything we wanted, and we thought, “Ok, if these four have given us the thumbs up, then we’re doing something right.” So that was great.

Q: There’s one benchmark that never going to be repeated: to have Jane Fonda on Broadway at the same time your show is running...

SJB: Isn’t that something? It felt like a huge blessing, too. Just seeing her the other night again at the Drama Desk [Awards], it's really great. So to share this whole experience with her again on a different level, being in the same Broadway community, at the same time—I mean, it doesn’t get better.

Q: And what about working with Dolly?

SJB: Ok. I think this was two or three years ago, Dolly had her own band, her own recording studio. So she would go in with her six-piece band and she would sing her ideas and her melody. She would then send it to Steven and Joe Montello. They would say 'this is sounding right, the lyrics are good,' 'it’s not quite feeling right.' She’d go back [and] she’d do a little change.

Q: And this is before you got cast.

SJB: Way before I was even a part of it. But I got to see a lot of that similar creating when we were in rehearsal, because once we get it on its feet, [we see] certain lyrics don’t help the story move or don’t really make sense to the character at that point.

And she’s unbelievable. She’s got this talent to her where she could pick up anything and then take 20 minutes and give you back four different versions of lyrics that could possibly work. Then they would read, and go, "All right, well, these all could work. So Stephanie, what do you think," or "Let’s put all four on their feet and see how they flow."

Q: Seeing what Dolly Parton was doing in a movie when people thought that Dolly was this dumb broad with fake boobs and what not--that was the curiosity. She always was this uber country archetype.

SJB: She is still to this day.

Q: But she also she stood it on its head.

SJB: When people see Dolly, they see the sparkles and the glitter and the wig and the nails and the makeup. They underestimate this woman as a musician, as a businesswoman, and she’s unbelievable.

Q: She was the one that seized the country cliches but did something else with them.…

SJB: She seized it. She said she was very young—I think she was 15 or 16 years old when she started. They came out of poverty, and she went and did it. Nobody found her in her little cabin in Tennessee. She went and sought the producers. She would get in her broken down car—I think she would go with her uncle, and they’d go to Nashville, they’d knock on doors. She continuously wrote the songs, and kept knocking on doors. She was hungry and she went after it.

Q: Was Dolly giving input then?

SJB: Even then, Dolly stayed away. Megan would even go to her and say "Do you have any advice?" and she would say, "No, you’re doing fine." That was not her “place” there. She wrote music, she wrote lyrics, she supported us, she encouraged us. [That was it.]

Of course, if we were completely off the mark, you would see little hands over their mouths and whispering. And then Patricia would whisper to Joe. So we knew if we were completely going off in left field, and you'd have that team to direct you back.

Q: So you had some feedback?

SJB: I did have some great feedback. It's really great, this entire process, this collaborative effort. And the same thing with Patricia Resnick—she knew the script and these characters so well from writing the movie. The musical being a completely different beast, [we'd be] coming out of a song and then saying this line, we’d say, "It feels totally wrong."

And she would say “Ok, what do you think Judy would want to say there that could segue and make it a smoother transition?” We really have a lot of voice to what our characters would do and what would take it to the next scene or what would help transition things. It was lovely.

Q: Coming to this as a singer may be easier than to be starting as an actor in this framework. For some actors, it must be strange to feel that you are playing a part and then suddenly break into song without it feeling like hey, "I'm on Broadway and breaking into song."

SJB: You have to approach every song as a monologue or a speech or a soliloquy. If you don’t, it's just pretty notes that mean nothing. If you’re not getting the message across, it’s two minutes of crap. You know what I mean?

What we do the first time around is a table read, which is sometimes completely awkward. You read through the entire script, so even though it’s a song, you are sitting at the table with the entire cast, the director, and all the writers, and have to read it as if you are delivering it as an actor, not as a singer.

Allison Janney is the exact point for that. She is an actor, I believe who had only sung one time live before on the stage for some charity event. But you can see her breaking down each lyric, and of course, wanting to get every note right. She approaches everything like that.

Q: , Though Allison Janney is well known for her TV work, she’s not exactly a household name.

SJB: Bigger than The West Wing? She won the most Emmys, more than any other actor on that show. I think if you look at her body of work, even the way she controlled herself on The West Wing, she’s very efficient, she knows what she’s doing in an office, she’s direct, powerful, and she is woman. W O M Y N. Her body of work is that. So Joe saw the same thing [with her] that he saw in Megan. Allison could fill this role, the same thing he saw in me.

I don’t think it had anything to do with a gimmick here. I don’t think any of our casting was a gimmick to get people in the seats. I think once you have the title 9 To 5, and Dolly Parton is writing music and lyrics, you'd better just do some smart casting because [they had to carry the role].

And there were going to be reverberations from it. I mean we still get, "How does it feel to play Jane Fonda’s role?" Or, "How does it feel to play Dolly Parton’s role?"

You’re the first interviewer that hasn’t said that. We always stay true. When I opened the script, it said Judy Burnley, a fictitious character that as an actor I wanted to do something different with.

Now of course, Jane made amazing choices. And as an actor I would be stupid and silly to do her performance--because she made really great choices--so if I’m just trying to avoid that, I would be fine but I think I’ve put my own mark on [Judy] as a different actor. I think the other two or three would say the same.

Q: So do you define yourself as a singer who acts?

SJB: Yeah.

Q: When did you realize that you are a S.A.D. [singer/actress/dancer] and not a D.A.S?

SJB: I’m a S.A.D... a total S.A.D. I knew when I was 11. My sister, I had a gorgeous, gorgeous sister. She’s beyond beautiful.

Q: But she’s still there.

SJB: She’s still there of course, and her whole identity was beauty pageants and things of that nature. As a pre-teen girl, you’re trying to cry out, "Notice me, I’m trying to be good at something too."

So once I started to sing--it was in second grade, when I made my first communion, and the whole church went crazy--they started calling my parents and saying "They’re having an audition for Annie," or "The radio station is having a local talent competition, Stephanie should be in it.' That’s when I knew, "Ah ha, people are paying attention to me. This is great."

When I was 11, I started taking voice lessons privately and that was the answer for me. So I trained, trained and trained. Then I went to the High School of the Performing Arts, which then started to have acting and dancing. I started taking acting privately. Dancing was always just the gravy on top of the meat and potatoes for me.

It’s because of my height. I’m very tall--5’9’’. So I go to auditions and they see just my stature and say, “Oh, well, she must dance, you know.' Kind of was a sink or swim situation for that.

Q: So how is it to be a singer who has to dance?

SJB: It was okay by me because I did start so early. If I were in my 20s coming to New York and singing 16 bars, and then [they're] saying, “Ok, everybody, we’re going to learn a combination,” the panic in me would’ve taken over and I’m sure I would’ve sunk.

But because I did get started so early, I got really good at learning combinations. I'm not necessarily the greatest dancer, but I’ll give you a double turn—and I’ve got some good flexibility. I think my strongest suit, at least in that area, is that I pick it up very quickly. So I can do the moves and then give you the moves, and then give you a little personality on top of that.

Q: There are singers who start out in bars and clubs or bands and then find themselves on Broadway. It requires a very different set of muscles. Your muscles have always been nurtured for this. Did you always feel that you would end up on Broadway?

SJB: That was my hope. In fact, a lot of the auditions that came to Los Angeles--the casting directors for Les Miz or whatever--whenever we auditioned, they would be like, “What are you doing here?”

They felt that I was [so much of] musical theater, born and bred, that I needed to be on the east coast. But it was a hard [move to make]… I made a nice living in LA—doing regional theaters for six weeks, and then do an industrial for Firestone Tires, or whatever the case may be. I’d pick up a gig at Disney. So I was always busy, but [they were] jobs rather than a career.

I’ve done everything [laughs]. That is the God’s honest truth. I’ve climbed rung by rung by rung and I’ve made my way.

Q: How long have you lived in New York?

SJB: About 6 ½ years.

Q: Wow, you’ve done pretty damn good.

SJB: Yes, it’s been okay. But doing regional theater, I’ve been making a living at it since I was 18.

Q: You came from L.A to New York—usually goes the other way around.

SJB: I attempted to move here when I was 22 and my resume was good. I’d say my talent was pretty close to what it is now. But I’m always training and trying to get better. My spirit was not ready for this city then. It was intimidating, everything was scary.

I couldn’t imagine the number of talented women that were here. So within six months, I was looking for any opportunity to get me back out of the city, because I just wasn’t ready. And then I came back six years ago when I was 29.

Q: Now you have just released your album. How long has it been in the planning?

SJB: It all began back in 2006.

Q: But how much did doing this role shape or change this?

SJB: Not at all, not at all.

Q: What is the album supposed to represent to you?

SJB: It’s supposed to represent composers who have touched me, that were willing. To me, when composers sit down and play their music, they interpret it in such a way that it’s completely different than if you were to hire a piano player or musical director or anybody else. And I wanted to be part of that sort of creation.

That’s why I moved to New York. I was tired of doing regional theater, or "Let's do a revival of…" I wanted to come to New York to start from the ground up and create things. My big thing was that I wanted songs that had not been recorded. So 10 out of the 13 tunes here have not been recorded. I wanted to work with the composers and the authors of the music.

Q: So you got all of them?

SJB: I got all of them. They either are singing with me, or playing the piano. Stephen Schwartz is there. So is Stephen Flaherty, Marvin Hamlisch, Dolly Parton, Deborah Abramson, Scott Alan, Zina Goldrich, Marcy Heisler, Andrew Lippa, Paul Loesel, Steve Marzullo, and Claude-Michel Schonberg. They all were there and I thought, this is tremendous.

Q: You’ve got to give credit to one thing about doing this show: you probably would not have thought of Dolly.

SJB: No way, and in fact, when I started the show, every time I recorded a session with a composer, I’d walk away and go “oh, man, I gotta find a way to ask her.” But we had found such a friendship that I didn’t want to cross that boundary of saying I want more from you, because I’m sure you're…

But I finally just found the courage. Steven Oremus was arranging another one of Stephen Flaherty’s songs, and he said "You've got to ask Dolly." I said, "I don’t want to change what we already have, and I think if I ask her it’s going to change that sort of dynamic." He said, "No, no."

So I took hours, I composed what I thought was the perfect email. Right away, she was like, of course, I’d love to. So, that was that. And nothing changed, and she was gracious and she came in to the studio with me for about 2 ½ hours, I cried the whole time. It was incredible.

Q: What was interesting was how the song didn’t sound like a Dolly Parton song.

SJB: She said, "I don’t want it to be compared to Whitney Houston’s, I don’t want it to be compared to mine. Let’s find something so different." She said, "Tell me what you think."

I’d listen to the things I’d recorded and I’m also known for this big belting voice and I thought I want this one to be the gem that stays so quiet and precious and almost like a lullaby and not go to that big, you know, place where the sound is so large that it overwhelms the lyrics. Because the lyrics to me are heartbreaking.

Q: A lot of your songs on this album are not overwhelming kind of songs, they’re much more poignant.

SJB: They grow, but then they’ll come back down.

Q: Only one song starts with a cello; everything starts with piano. They always have a few, maybe eight bars of piano or four bars, no eight bars of piano that each song intro’s with piano. Why is that?

SJB: Because I wanted the listener to stop and listen before I came in. Because for me as a singer, the lyrics are more important. Not more important than the music, but I find connection with the lyrics. That’s how I chose every song, and that’s how I approach singing every song.

I wanted the listener to get into a groove, and be ready so that when that first word comes in, they’ve already taken the time with those first couple of measures to get introduced to the song and be ready for that first word.

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