Interview – Stephanie Block
Bruce Kimmel: Hello, Stephanie J. Block, and welcome to haineshisway.com and our Unseemly Interview. So, without further ado or even prior ado, let’s start at the very beginning, which is, after all, a very good place to start. Tell us about your beginnings — where you hail from, and what kind of childhood you had.
Stephanie Block: I was born and raised in Southern California…a native…not many of us out there. I loved growing up in CA. It was a very safe upbringing. I was always busy and involved. I went to a Catholic grade school and my first 2 years of high school were at an all girls Catholic high school. And then Junior year I transferred to a public arts high school (OCHSA). I went out of my mind…there were boys, I could wear any clothes I wanted, I had an unlimited choice in studies…it was crazy. Crazy and wonderful. Actually that transfer was a lot like me moving from Southern, CA to NYC…crazy and wonderful!
BK: Now, I happen to know that you started performing at a very early age. I happen to know this so do not bother denying it. Tell me how you first got interested in performing, and especially when musicals first started to appeal to you. Were you a precocious child, were your parents supportive, did you attend classes like dance and singing and acting – well, just tell us everything and hold nothing back.
SB: Yes, I was VERY precocious and always knew what I wanted. My parents knew something was up when I was 3 and could sing most any commercial on TV. I was on pitch, I knew all the words and I was selling it…I mean SELLING IT. And then about 7 years old at my First Communion I was asked to lead my congregation in song. I wasn’t scared (or maybe I was…looking back it all seemed so easy, but maybe as a 7 year old I was a little nervous). From there, my congregation got involved with my talent and would tell my parents about auditions they heard of, or would come out and support the Christmas pageants I was in, etc. So I dabbled, let’s say…Can a 7 year old dabble? Anyway, at 11 I started voice lessons. My teacher is still my teacher to this day. Her name is Jill Goodsell and she is AMAZING!!! She’s located in Yorba Linda so I don’t get many private lessons with her these days, but we still speak at least once a week and she is an integral part in my life. Actually, Since doing “…Oz” she has flown out twice to work on technique and keep me on course. I attribute so much of who I am to her. It’s not only my voice that she built, it is my sense of self and the ability to endure all that this business brings. I really can’t say enough about her. She is an angel!
And my parents were the reason for all of these opportunities. They were always supportive and always made sure I was really doing what was my passion. They didn’t like the idea of “half assed ” anything. So if they were going to commit their time and efforts, I had to be sure that I was ready and disciplined to see things through. They never pushed to a dangerous degree. But they also didn’t allow for 50%.
BK: So, what were some of the shows you did as a youngster, and do you have a favorite story from those years?
SB: I was in “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Peter Pan,” “Babes”…Gosh, there had to be more. But the most vivid memory was not of a show but of an audition. I was, of course, going out for Annie in “Annie” and there were a billion girls there. The audition went on for 2 days. And finally the end of the callback, it was me and Kim Huber (from “Beauty and the Beast”). And all of the parents and other girls were congratulating me and telling me I was a sure in for the part and I just couldn’t wait for them to announce that I got the role. When it was announced… I was given an understudy part for some minor orphan role and Kim was given an orphan role. The role of Annie was going to played by a girl who wasn’t even at the audition, but she had done the role before in another Civic Light Opera. This made no sense to me. How could a girl who wasn’t even there for the two days of rigorous auditioning get the part? Well, that was my first lesson in precasting and at 11/12 years old, it’s not an easy lesson to learn. I remember a lot of tears after that whole episode.
BK: All right, Stephanie J. Block, did you take drama all throughout your school years — where did you go to high school and college and what were some of the things you did whilst there?
SB: Yes…yes…yes! I was a drama gal. As I mentioned before I went to the Orange County High School of the Arts. I loved every minute. The school was just in it’s 3rd year, I believe and it was fresh and everyone was so passionate about the school and it’s growth. I was involved with a traveling performance group called “The Kids Next Door.” I was also heavily involved with “The Young Americans” (another traveling performance group). Looking back I can’t think of a better way to learn mic. technique, stage presence, being ready for anything at a moments notice. But it is funny and kinda “cheesy.” I really think this should be the core of Christopher Guest’s next movie. Anyway…I loved being with these groups! I formed friendships that are still the closest ones in my life and it gave me the chance to travel and perform and learn the art of quick changes:) I also was involved in every musical. I played Kathy Seldon in “Singin’ In The Rain” and Mama Rose in “Gypsy.” I think every 17 year old girl who is into musical theatre needs to play a role that’s written for a 50 year old woman. It makes for some great memories… not to mention video footage. Oh how I laugh when I see myself in those high school productions. But the quality of the shows were exceptional … it being an arts high school and all.
BK: Very well then, here you are, a young actress in a town full of young actresses — did you already have an agent and if not, how did you get an agent and start trying to work as an adult?
SB: I really started out as an adult (18 years old) at Disneyland. I played Belle in their “B&B” show. It was a great job for a teenager. This lead to a lot of benefits…free-bee gigs…etc… But those gigs eventually lead to paying gigs. A lot of my job offers came from people who had seen me perform or I was recommended. Of course I eventually got an agent in LA and that opened up even more doors. I really never stopped working. Whether I was singing in industrials, or working with a local Civic Light Opera. I never really was out of work. And that seems strange to a lot of NYC stage performers. They think that in order to do theatre you have to be here. I had 10 years of nonstop work from CA. Granted it was not Broadway, but I think there’s a misconception about where the work is. It’s everywhere!!! And I encourage young performers to work and work and work before jumping into the Big Apple. I made sure my resume had well known regional theatre credits with parts that would help set up my career here in New York. I’ve played most all of the big regional houses and that really helped to prepare me for Broadway.
BK: You have done a lot of musicals, Stephanie J. Block. Do you prefer doing them to straight plays, or do you like to mix it up. And what appeals to you so about doing musicals?
SB: I guess I enjoy musicals so much because it allows me to use all my strengths. Acting is so fulfilling, but when I sing…well, there are no words. It is who I am. And the dancing is just pure joy. I’ll tell you, though. When I was doing “James Joyce’s The Dead” I felt so classical and there was a certain respect that went along with doing that show. Even though it is considered a musical it’s based on a classical piece of literature and the songs are in no way presentational. So, to me, it was a straight play. That experience fed me and made me feel…classical. Does that make sense?!
BK: You’ve done lots of shows here in my hometown of Los Angeles, California for which you’ve won actual awards. Let’s talk about some of them, since they run the gamut — for example you won an award for Funny Girl and Triumph of Love, two quite different shows. Tell us about doing both of them, one an established show, and the other the West Coast Premiere of a Broadway flop.
SB: Well…let’s see, to me, “Funny Girl” is the ultimate female role. You get to do everything. It’s a marathon of a part and that’s what I love. I want to be able to do comedy, and cry in the same play. When you play Fanny you get to belt your face off and sing some of the most beautiful ballads. You get to be strong and vulnerable. No, it’s not the best show ever written, but it is one of the greatest roles ever written. And as for Corrine in “Triumph…” It’s all fun! I have no idea why this show was a flop in NYC. I think it’s such a charming piece and what fun!
BK: Before we move on, you have appeared in actual television programs. I know this, so there is no use in you denying it. Let’s start with the classic daytime soap, General Hospital – tell us how it is to do a soap opera, how it works, how much time you have to prepare, and any amusing stories you might have.
SB: First of all, If I ever do a soap opera again I will have to weigh 75lbs. to feel good about myself. I’ve never seen thinner actress in my life! And I’m not a big girl…tall,yes. Heavy, no. My stint on General Hospital and Port Charles was during the “Nurses Ball” episodes. I don’t know if you know what these are. But it is a week of the show (every year) that is dedicated to this fictional event called…”The Nurses Ball.” It deals with AIDS and actually raises awareness and funds for the disease. Anyway, the reoccurring characters get to perform in the show. But they hire “real” singers and dancers to make the acts look a little more polished. As Nurse Nancy (I can’t believe I’m discussing this…) I was in numbers such as “Jail House Rock” with Joshua Jackson, “Big Spender” with…oh gosh, I can’t remember the actresses real name, but her character is Lucy…and so on and so on. So we had walk-on roles to establish who we were in the hospital and then we’d do these incredible numbers that the nurses where to have put together. You know … in between the O. R . we just so happen to whip up this little diddy in full Fosse fashion. You got to love soap operas for stuff like that.
BK: Tell us about some of the other TV shows you’ve done, and leave nothing out about Behind the Scenes: The Unauthorized Biography of Three’s Company.
SB: Well, I was Sarah on “Life Goes On” with Patti Lu Pone. So long ago … not really great memories about this whole experience so I’ll move onto the “…Three’s Company….” First of all, I was there visiting my boyfriend, Bret Anthony, who played John Ritter/Jack Tripper. And how wonderful was he in the movie? (insert applause here) But it was a total fluke. I was on the set and the director pulled me and said that I was going to be playing the documentary reporter in that day’s shoot. OK…why not. I was whisked to the costume trailer. I was then whisked away to the hair/make-up trailer and was on set within the next hour. So there I am in my white polyester suit, rust silk blouse and my hair parted in the middle. Did I mention the blue eye shadow and away I went? Bret was there with his own personal video camera getting it all on tape and here he should have been preparing for his next scene. He was only the star of the movie. Hello! But he was so excited for me and wanted me to have it all on tape. He’s unbelievable like that. Love him!!!!!!
BK: You are a proud member of Musical Theater Guild here in Los Angeles, California, along with many of my pals, especially Miss Marsha Kramer – she and I go way back. Tell us about that organization.
SB: It’s a wonderful organization that works like a repertory company. The body of the membership runs the guild. There is a board of directors, but all in all the elbow grease and involvement of the membership keeps the organization running. We do 5 shows a year, elaborate “readings” of musicals that a rarely done (“The Grass Harp,” “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,” etc….) These “readings” are performed at The Pasadena Playhouse. The members audition for each show. But those that are not right for a particular play are still involved. There is a member who acts as producer, the rest of the company works behind the scenes … costumes, mailouts for the upcoming show/season, collecting tickets, organizing refreshments for the rehearsals. The duties vary depending on what the show calls for. We also have living room readings of new works. We have produced benefits honoring Stephen Schwartz, Nanette Fabrey, and many more…The membership is the top theatrical talent in Los Angeles and these wonderful performers are there because they LOVE musical theatre. I so admire everyone in the guild and their efforts to put up great work.
BK: All right, Stephanie J. Block, here you are, young and talented, working away, waiting for the show that will propel you or bring you to Broadway. I was at what I believe was the second workshop of Wicked at Universal Studios, in which you played Elphaba, our very own close personal friend Miss Kristin Chenoweth played Glinda, and Lenny Wolpe, whom I worked with on the cast album of Radio Gals. I thought you were quite marvelous in the reading. How was it to be part of a new musical being shaped for Broadway at such an early stage?
SB: Unreal!!!! Stephen was in town (Los Angeles) starting the beginnings of what was to become “Wicked.” He needed a girl to sing Elphaba (the wicked witch) for the first presentation at Universal Pictures. He went to dinner with several friends and my name came up as a recommendation to sing Elphaba. Others at the table agreed and the next day there was a message on my machine from Stephen Schwartz. He was so funny because on my machine he stared listing his credits explaining who he was.” I’ve written “Godspell,” “Pippin”…” My jaw was on the floor. I immediately called him back and what seemed to be a minute later, I was in his LA apartment learning 3 new songs he had written for “Wicked.” It was amazing, sharing a piano bench with Stephen, singing music that the world had yet to hear. It will always be one of my all time favorite moments. I continued with the “process” for two years. Stephen would call and tell me they had finished Act 1 and that they wanted to hear it read. So…Act 1… first time reading went a little over 3 hours. Needless to say, there were cuts and revisions. Months later there was another reading of Act 1. Then more time passed and I was asked to come back and work on the piece for 2 weeks. We would work on the Universal Lot and then present it to the heads of the studio. By this time the members of the “cast” had come and go. I was the only one still “standing” from that very first 3 song presentation. Lenny Wolpe and several ensemble members stayed with the project for quite a while, too. By now, we had Kristin and she and I clicked from the moment we met, not just as coworkers but as friends. Our chemistry together was nothing I had ever experienced with another actress. During the two weeks, the show changed quite a bit. I felt so blessed and I knew from that first moment sitting with Stephen at his apartment that I was a part of something big. I still feel such attachment to the play and the character of Elphaba. I was able to go as Elphaba in San Francisco and I can’t tell you the rush I felt. It was a tremendous night for me and I know that one day I’ll be back to play her again.
BK: Obviously at some point it was decided to have Idina Menzel do the role you’d done at the reading I attended. That is, I’d have to imagine, a difficult situation – but you decided to stay with the show and to cover the role. Tell us what you can about dealing with it (Jennifer Paz had a similar situation with Flower Drum Song, and I thought she was much better than who ultimately did the role – I know, sacrilege, but there you are).
SB: I’ll be honest. I was heart broken. I felt like I had invested so much time , and beyond that, given my heart to the project and the role. The response from those that attended the LA readings I performed in were overwhelming and I just felt like this role was everything I had dreamed of. Every step of the way I was getting more and more passionate about the project and more and more excited for it’s future. I also have been around the block once or twice and know that NOTHING is for sure or in “the bag” until contracts are signed and the curtain goes up with you on stage. So when Stephen called and told me that they were going with Idina because she had experience in mounting an original Broadway musical, I had no recourse. I didn’t have any Broadway credits. I knew in my heart that I was ready to do the role whether it was on the Universal Lot or The Gershwin stage, but the decision had been made. So, I accepted the role of her understudy/cover in hopes that when I went on, I’d be able to make an impression that would lead to the next phase of my career. I looked at it as paying my dues…AGAIN!!!!! But I also knew it was the opportunity to get me to Broadway and open more doors. It wasn’t just a job, it was a career move.
BK: So, there you are, in San Francisco, trying out a new musical entitled Wicked. The show received mixed reviews — what was the atmosphere like up there? Were changes made? Was the tension high? Stephen is such a pro that I’d imagine he remained calm throughout knowing he’d built in time to do further work. Tell us about that whole crazy thing known as trying out a new musical.
SB: Oh, it was crazy! We did not stop rehearsing and changing the play until the Friday before we closed in San Francisco. Most of the days were 10-12 hour days. It was a lot of work, but we all knew that going in. And we knew we were part of a worthwhile project, so you grumble and complain, but in your heart you know the work is going to pay off. The cast was amazing and everyone was so committed. I couldn’t have asked for anything different (better or worse) because I believe that everything works exactly the way it’s supposed to. When I look back, I know that experience has made me a stronger person as well as a stronger actress.
BK: So, you, Stephanie J. Block, are doing Wicked. Where in tarnation did The Boy from Oz come from?
SB: It was the last week of rehearsals for “Wicked” here in NYC. My agent called me on a Friday afternoon and asked if I would like to sing/read for the role of Liza in “…Oz.” and I really had no expectations because I didn’t “do” Liza. But, being new to NYC, I wanted to audition for every director, casting director, producer I had never met. I truly looked at this opportunity as just that. So on that next Monday I went in on my lunch break. It went well. They asked me to come back the next day. So Tuesday on my lunch break, I went back sang and danced a little more. They inquired about my schedule for Monday of the next week. I told them I was going to be on a plane flying out to San Fran. They asked if they could rearrange my flight so that they could bring in Hugh (Jackman) for a work session. A half and hour after I left the audition I got a call from my agent saying they offered me the role. So I packed my bags and got on my flight to San Fran. It was quite a whirlwind.
BK: You made the decision to do The Boy from Oz – tell us all about the rehearsal process for that show — hold nothing back.
SB: Well, rehearsals were “the norm.” Hugh and I would meet at 9am (at the rehearsal studio) for yoga….I guess doing yoga with Hugh Jackman contradicts the “norm” statement, doesn’t it? We were at the 42nd St. Studios…great place. And we worked our asses off. Phil McKinnley was one of the most prepared directors I’d ever worked with, but when creating a new show, you’re bound to change,change, change. It was a very creative process-meaning that the actors were allowed to really be a part of the creating. Martin Sherman, the writer would have us rehearse scenes that were not yet finished and just see where Hugh and I would take the scene. I so enjoyed those moments were we could just fly as Liza and Peter. By this time Hugh “had” Peter down since he was a part of all the readings and so on. I, myself, had read everything on Liza and seen everything she had done. So we both would take on the situation of the scene and go with it. Now, a lot of the time it really didn’t serve the play, but it was wonderfully fulfilling as actors. So the show was shaped there in the rehearsal space and when we moved into the theatre, things began to change even more…as they always do when you move from rehearsal room to stage. I think my character under went the most changes…No, I KNOW my character did. It’s a very delicate balance to build a character on a living, breathing icon. We wanted to be truthful to the story and to Liza’s life, but we also had to service the play and get the response from the audience we were hoping for. So my wigs changed over and over, my costumes weren’t set until a couple of days before opening and lines and songs were changing by the minute. So my 4 weeks of previews were a little unsettling. Of course, I wanted us to get the best product, but I also wanted a chance to live in a show that was set. My show was finally frozen 2-3 days before critics came. I’m not apologizing or making excuses, I’m just telling you about the process and the way things played out. It was one of the most challenging times for me…previews, I mean. But all the way through, Hugh and the rest of the cast were amazing and supportive and encouraging finding words of comfort. I would come to messages from William Ivey Long telling me he had never seen an actress undergo as “much” as I had. I appreciated that call so much! It reassured me that I was doing all the right things and inspired me to keep on working and take all the “punches.” I knew the light at the end of the tunnel was to far off.
BK: What do you think of the whole Internet musical theater boards thing and the way it’s caused the preview process to be looked at under such a microscope? My feelings on this are well-known – I think it’s harmful and I think some of the most vocal people on these groups actually are under the delusion that they wield some kind of power which, of course, they don’t. But the way the press feeds into it gives that whole thing a weird kind of validity. I think some producers actually worry about such nonsense, even though it’s always the same ten people doing it, and the same insulated group reading it. So, what’s your take on all that?
SB: I believe everyone has the right to express their opinion, but you hit it on the head when you commented about they way in which they express it. It is damaging. They speak with such authority and they really have no idea what is going on behind the scenes, especially during previews. For anyone to write about the future of a show after a dress rehearsal or preview performance is ridiculous. They obviously have not been a part of the process and have no idea of which they write. And the people that read these postings (or whatever they are called) should know that. I actually went on one day and read the boards. It was infuriating. I have no idea why people would want to expose their negative comments and ill feelings toward a show or performer for other strangers to read and comment on. What is the benefit of this? What purpose does it serve? I can’t imagine that producer’s read this and consider what is being said as valid. Audiences never lie. And if an actor is working in truth and a show is selling tickets, the Internet theatre boards aren’t going to change that. I think it’s a medium that is out there and will always be out there. I just don’t understand the need to share hate, you know what I mean?
BK: You, Stephanie J. Block, are working with Mr. Hugh Jackman – even though Oz got mixed reviews, Mr. Jackman came through unscathed. Tell us all about working with Mr. Hugh Jackman.
SB: He deserves every word of praise. He’s a wonderful talent with so much charm and charisma. His work ethic and discipline inspire everyone around him and he’s a dream to work with. I really can’t say enough good things. I’m so blessed to share the stage with him…all the while he’s telling us (the rest of the cast) how brilliant we are and how happy he is doing the show. Hugh has become a friend and is really the “father” of this show. The backstage life at “…Oz” is so happy and beautiful. He set the standard and everyone followed suit. It’s a joy to come to work. How many people can say that?
BK: You are playing Miss Liza Minnelli – is that daunting? How do you approach such a role, since it’s a role based on a living breathing person?
SB: I had to approach the role as an actress. I know that answer sounds silly but it’s the truth. I had to look at Liza as a character. I respect her to much to just take on her voice inflections and mannerisms and call that my performance. So as I mentioned before, I did homework…lots and lots. When the audience meets Liza she is 18 years old and she wasn’t the star we all recognize as LIZA now. She was vulnerable, a little awkward and shadowed by her mother. You have to remember that Fred Ebb and Halston hadn’t entered her life yet. It was tough to stay to this truth because the audience wants to see what they know, the “Cabaret” Liza the “Liza at Carnagie Hall” Liza. That character doesn’t show up until later in the play. There was also the issue that a lot my scenes are private moments- playing cards with Judy or having an emotional conversation with Peter. Not many people know that Liza either. I had to come up with what I thought she would be like behind closed doors, not onstage in front of thousands of people. Granted, I spoke with a few of her closest friends. I watched and listened to tapes, saw personal photos…all of her at home. And those that do know Liza (on that personal level) and have seen the show make it a point to come back and tell me “I’ve got her down.” That is the greatest compliment. Because I felt so strongly about not being an impersonator. I also know how much people love her and by just doing an impersonation…I’d be eaten alive. The critics were (as you mentioned) mixed, but the audience is really responding to the Liza in the play and that’s really what matters. I think she’d be pleased with the portrait that’s painted of her in the play.
BK: So, is being on Broadway everything you hoped it would be? Are you having a blast now that the show has settled in for what is probably at least a year’s run?
SB: A blast! The show is up and running. We have great and very vocal audiences. I can truly say I’m fed as an actress every night.
BK: Stephanie J. Block, I must ask this question – what is next? Do you have any interesting irons or any other metals in the fire? Have you, for example, ever done a cabaret act – does that interest you? Do you want to record? Have you done the cast album of Oz yet? Isn’t if funny that the last two shows you’ve done have been about Oz? Aren’t there too many questions all at once? Take your time and answer them all and, of course, hold nothing back.
SB: Coming from a regional theatre life, a year of work is like a lifetime. I’m just so excited to settle and pay off a little credit card debt and sit in a city for more than 2-3 months. I am one of those, though, that has to constantly be creating. So I am working on a one-woman show that should be up in the spring. Billy Stritch will be doing all the arrangements..and yes, he did work with Liza a lot. But this will definitely be all me. As far as life after “…Oz,” nothing is really “set.” I would, at some point, like to play Elphaba again. That character is just … something else and I can’t explain how I feel playing her. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before and I adore the music and the piece.
BK: Well, Stephanie J. Block, you have been an absolutely delightful person to interview and we here at haineshisway.com salute you with our beverage of choice, Diet Coke. Do you have any unseemly words for our dear readers before you depart for your show?
SB: I just thank your readers for spending the time and for showing their interest in the arts and for their love of musical theatre. There is no art without an audience to appreciate it.
Thank you for an enjoyable interview!