Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman offers his insights, opinions, and observations about the local scene. This week: Four local theater pros weigh in on Glee, Smash, and the burgeoning popularity of theater.
Anyone who's been here for even a little while knows that there's more to the South Florida music scene than our local rockers and rappers. I can attest to that personally, having spent a number of years working at the late, lamented Coconut Grove Playhouse. Our local theater professionals are second to none, as evidenced by the multitude of exceptional stage productions available for viewing on any given weekend.
Nowadays, musical theater is gaining mainstream attention, thanks in large part to television shows like Smash and Glee. So we asked four of South Florida's leading theatrical talents -- Avery Sommers, Wayne LeGette, Jodi Langel, and Shari Upbin (all of whom had participated in the recent Broward production of Broadway Live!) -- to offer their opinions on why Broadway seems to be making headway into the heartland and how the aforementioned network programs have helped -- or hurt -- awareness and appreciation for the Great White Way. They also offer a few suggestions for budding actors who aspire to make it onstage.
Director Shari Upbin
has been acting in professional theater since age 13, when she became a member of Actors Equity. Her show-biz roots go back quite far, in fact, given the fact that her father was a writer for comedian Jack Benny. A professional tap dancer and choreographer, she's a member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers. To date, she's produced and directed more than 50 productions throughout the U.S., including off-Broadway and regional theater.
"I think the recent crop of new musicals has brought recording and television artists to Broadway to attract a younger crowd, and that's why Smash is so popular," she suggests. "Katherine McPhee is an American Idol, Deborah Messing is a TV star, and of course Megan Hilte was in Wicked." As far as one's owns aspirations, she puts it succinctly: "It takes an enormous amount of dedication and guts and a driving force that is unstoppable to get a part in the chorus of a Broadway show where many artists have started. Making it on Broadway really constitutes what your last job was... You got to keep on getting them to 'make it.' If you want to make real money, though, try to get a national commercial -- the residuals are amazing!"
Avery Sommers replaced Nell Carter on Broadway in Ain't Behavin' and starred in Show Boat as Queenie. She toured nationally in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with Ann-Margret and in Chicago with Chita Rivera and Joel Grey. Her other favorite roles include Mother Shaw in Crowns, Bloody Mary in South Pacific, Alice in Big River, Katesha in The Hot Mikado, and Power Woman in Menopause the Musical. Her one-woman show, But Not for Me, was created and produced by the Caldwell Theater Company in Boca Raton, garnering a local Carbonelle Award as Best Actress for her performance. In addition to various film roles, she also created the recurring role of Regina Dansby on the CBS soap As the World Turns as well as the recurring role of Evelyn on the ABC Mystery Movie Series B.L. Stryker, starring Burt Reynolds and Ossie Davis.
"I feel it takes perseverance! And study," Sommers says, echoing Upbin's advice. "Take voice, dance, and acting classes. Go to every audition possible! Be friendly. Dress well... Hair and makeup are important. Look your best at all times. Have pictures and résumés, and keep them updated. Take small jobs at first if necessary, but always treat each job as if it's the 'big' one."
As far as Glee, Smash, and the burgeoning popularity of live theater are concerned, Sommers has her own critique: "They don't offer much reality," she opines. "I feel that Broadway is always trendy amongst Broadway performers, but social media has made the world smaller and opened the possibilities to many more people who may never have had the chance to 'strut' their stuff by putting themselves on video."
Jodi Langel premiered on Broadway in Les Miserables while still attending NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and later went on to accumulate other Broadway tour credits, including the role of Bertrande in the pre-Broadway tour of Martin Guerre, the narrator in the national touring company of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Grizabella in the national tour of Cats, where she was the youngest person to ever portray the role. She boasts numerous regional theater credits and an assortment of television appearances and appears throughout the country offering lessons on making it on Broadway, lessons she's gathered in a book she cowrote titled Making It on Broadway: Actors' Tales of Climbing to the Top.
That, then, was all the more reason to solicit her opinion on what it takes to succeed. "It takes determination, strong will, and good timing and luck," she surmises. Still, her opinion on Smash and Glee isn't quite as hopeful. "I don't watch them, unfortunately. I have a busy schedule and a 2-year-old, so these aren't my shows of choice when I do get a chance to watch TV."
Unlike her colleagues, Langel isn't convinced that Broadway has converged with Main Street. "I don't know if that is necessarily true," she suggests. "The life of a Broadway performer is not as glamorous and wonderful as it may seem. There are a lot of ups and downs. It's like a roller coaster; you keep getting on and going for the ride."
Which brings us to Wayne LeGette, a native Floridian who has performed in theaters all over the world. Moreover, he's a well-known actor in our local environs, having originated the title roles in Chaplin and Dr. Radio. He's also no stranger to accolades, having garnered a Broadway World award nomination, two Carbonell award wins, and six nominations. And you might have seen him in The Glades, the network series filmed here in South Florida.
"I've never performed on Broadway, so I'll answer that question in a broader sense," he says. "What does it take to make it in this business? It takes unflagging tenacity and belief in yourself. It's been said that talent is secondary and just continuing to pursue your career is paramount. I've found that to be true. With training programs being so good these days, hundreds of talented people flood into New York City each year trying to make it. The ones who refuse to give up and just keep on throwing themselves out there will be successful. Train well, believe in yourself, and keep auditioning. One day, it will pay off."
Consequently, his opinion of Glee (he says he's never seen Smash) may be somewhat predictable. "In my opinion, these shows are not geared for working theater people but for 'regular' folks who are fascinated by theater. Aside from providing joyful entertainment, hopefully they will inspire young people to pursue their dreams."
Finally, we'll leave it to Wayne to sum up the advantages of real theater. "There is nothing like watching a live performance," he argues. "Knowing that human beings are up there performing live is exciting and dangerous. The x-factor of 'This is live... Anything can happen' has got to be like a thrill ride at Disney for an audience. Theater truly can be magic, and with Broadway shows now bringing so many movie and TV stars to the stage, it's opened Broadway up to a whole new audience. Broadway is no longer just for the artsy types. It's for everyone. If you can afford to see a show, that is."
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