Thursday, February 28, 2008

Six Degrees Of Lea Michele

Nearly a year has passed since my first Spring Awakening experience. The winner of the 2007 Tony Award for Best Musical impacted me so deeply that I’ve since seen it six times since. I know that there are Guilty Ones whose attendance records are well into the double digits but then I’m not privy to the luxuries afforded to those with student discounts and 20-something lifestyles.

My love for the show has been the source of many laughs for those who know me, especially my husband. I can only imagine the water-cooler conversation he was having when he discovered that one of his co-workers grew up with Lea Michele. In fact, one of my favorite Lea Michele stories was at the stage door after the first time my husband saw the show (my fifth). He was trying to pass on well-wishes from his co-worker but butchered her maiden name. Lea stared at him blankly and then, realizing who he was talking about, corrected him in a flawless Italian accent. She sort of nodded her head, smiled and said a quick good bye. Then she dashed away, arm in arm, with her Altar Boy boyfriend Landon Beard. We affectionately refer to the experience as "the time that Lea snubbed Billy."

I have never seen anyone other than Lea go on for Wendla. I do enjoy what Lea brings to the role and I think that the music utilizes her vocal assets well. Even more so, I respect her (and her mother) for committing so deeply to this groundbreaking piece of theatre – especially at such a young age. Bear in mind, Lea’s been in the business for over 10 years. In fact, Spring is Lea’s fourth Broadway show and, in comparison to most of the other cast members, I think her sense of wonder has grown pale. That said, my stage door conversations with Lea have been minimal, albeit pleasant.

A few weeks ago, we got a phone call from my husband’s aforementioned co-worker. Apparently, the topic of her boss’ Spring Awakening-obsessed wife (that's me!) made it into a conversation at a recent family gathering. Lea’s parents subsequently urged our friend to invite us to their daughter’s solo concert debut at Feinstein’s on February 25th. Needless to say, this was an invitation that we eagerly accepted. Sometimes, the theatre gods smile upon you.

This was my first concert at Feinstein’s, an intimate supper club that has hosted some of Broadway’s finest talents over the last decade. As Lea’s family, friends and fans gathered, we were escorted to the “head table” and introduced to her parents. After thanking us for our support of the show, Lea’s mom hinted at the set list and promised that we were about see a bit of Lea’s lighter side as well. Funny, since I was just commenting on the trip in that it would be interesting to see Lea next project be something less dark. Her mother then explained that Jonathan was supposed to sing with Lea but wouldn’t be able to because he had been sick. She then emphasized that he would be sitting with them, cheering her on, but still wasn't able to sing. Clearly, Lea’s parents are very proud and they were obviously thrilled to have a room brimming with familiar and adoring faces, all there to see their baby.

Our table of nine was assembled in the corner by the door. This was a good spot to be because we had a bird’s eye view of the guests strolling in. Michael Mayer was the first notable to arrive as we sipped cocktails and ate overpriced food. Blake Bashoff, Spring’s Lost Boy, appeared and hung out by the door until dinner was over. Lea’s dad came by to check on us and bemoaned how long it was taking his daughter to get ready. He then casually mentioned that Frankie Valli was there before darted off to greet another guest. Our table, largely comprised of ladies in their mid-20s, spent the next 10 minutes pinpointing where they knew Frankie Valli from. Singing “Big Girls Don’t Cry” didn’t do it for them (God, I felt old). Jersey Boys ignited a few more sparks of recognition. Hold on! Wasn't he the Teen Angel in the movie Grease? No, wait, that was Frankie AVALON!

For the longest time, Blake stood there by himself. I was really tempted to abandon my dinner to ask him about Lost and Spring but Monday was his night off and there are boundaries. More importantly, that night was about Lea. Blake was soon joined by Spring alum Robi Hager, cast mates Kate Burton and Glenn Fleshler and, of course, Mr. Groff. Producers Tom Hulce and Ira Pittleman were also there to show their support.

While I did have my cameras ready to snap a photo or two, the pre-show announcement prompted me to scurry them away. So, I suppose, this review will have to rely solely upon memory.

Lea, bedecked in a navy Butter by Nadia goddess gown, breezed in with a decidedly light “Not For The Life Of Me” from Thoroughly Modern Millie. Afterward, she announced how nervous she was to be playing in a room where she’s seen some of her favorite performers, including Linda Eder. Her recollection of her stage door experience following Jekyll and Hyde elicited a laugh from Mr. Mayer, which prompted a shout-out from Lea. She then asked him if she’d be receiving notes on her performance.

She next sang an arrangement of “Once Upon A Dream” and “Someone Like You”, which musical director Deborah Abramson played from autographed sheet music. Lea’s sultry performance of “Easy To Be Hard” had me wondering if she wouldn’t be a contender for this summer’s Shakespeare In The Park production. I was also pleased that she and I share similar stories about Hair’s powerful ballad and being introduced to it at a very young age. Of course, I had to chuckle a little when the successful 21-year-old proclaimed that she was "ready" to do that song now.

Then Lea told that really good story. You know, the one about that time when she and her mom picked up and moved to Toronto to join the cast of Ragtime with some of theatre’s foremost talents. At 12, she was receiving vocal warm-up tips from Audra McDonald. Seems to me that being a part of Tony’s Best Musical of 1998 and saying Audra taught you how to breathe from your diaphragm really makes a suitable alternative to formal training.

Following her performance of “Waiting For Life” from another Ahrens & Flaherty musical, Once On This Island, Lea acknowledged what a tremendous experience being a part of Spring Awakening has been for her. She joked about how she had initially planned to steer away from talk of her current gig but clearly her forthcoming departure is making her a bit sentimental. Despite her jokes about receiving notes from him in capital letters, she sang a touching “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” for Michael Mayer followed by a haunting solo arrangement of “Touch Me”.

Lea next performed an original piece written for her entitled “Another Day”, co-written by Abramson and Amanda Yesnowitz. She followed with a joke about the front row being the “splash zone” and openly acknowledged the phenomenon that some of my online friends have coined Groff Falls. That made many Spring fans chuckle and nod (and I’m guessing a few cast members did, too). In fact, “making out all the time” and getting each other sick was what carried the blame for Jonathan’s inability to perform with her. However, much to the delight of Altarholics in the crowd, Landon Beard joined her onstage as she sang “Say It Somehow” from Light In The Piazza, which segued into the classic West Side Story duet “Somewhere”. Hmmm… Was Lea possibly lobbying for her and Groff to play the leads in the West Side Story revival planned for next year? I wonder…

Joking and speculation aside, it is widely known that Jonathan Groff is Lea’s best friend. The journey that they have shared over the past few years has undoubtedly created a bond that will last for years to come. Fighting tears, Lea explained how important their friendship is to her before she sweetly dedicated Sweeney’s “Not While I’m Around” to her co-star.

Deftly avoiding the schmaltz, Michele navigated her way to “The Wizard And I”, the showstopping ballad from Wicked. She stated that Elphaba was a dream role of hers and joked with Spring costume designer Susan Hilferty, “You designed the costumes for Wicked. You’ve got some pull over there, right?”

Lea closed her show with another one-two punch of Sondheim (“Not A Day Goes By” from Merrily) followed by Idina (“Life Of The Party” from The Wild Party). Lea then excitedly announced that she will finally have the opportunity to perform her dream role, Eponine, in the much-touted Hollywood Bowl concert of Les Miserables in August. So I guess that me she won't be doing Hair then. Wow, that was short-lived! We were then given a taste of what’s to come with a flawless performance of “On My Own”, which was met with a standing ovation.

While there were a few bumpy moments, Lea handled her cabaret debut with the charm, grace and talent that has already afforded her so many great opportunities. At this point in her career, I would liken Lea to a porcelain bell. She is a classic beauty, still quite young and fragile, with a voice that is at moments both pure and grand. Those moments seem to happen when she is singing material with which she is more comfortable and familiar. At 21, even though she is a seasoned performer, I think she is still discovering her vocal style outside of the confines of Spring or Les Miz. I hope that the next few shows she chooses to do will help her to further develop who she is vocally. Personally, I hope she tackles something brassier and bolder, something that will demonstrate and nurture her range. While revivals and Wicked have their undeniable appeal, I hope she attaches herself to another original project.

After the concert, we made our way back to Lea’s parents’ table to thank them for a wonderful evening. Everyone was anxious to see Lea, who her father explained was held up in the green room. As the crowd was moving by, I kept getting knocked into Groff’s backside, which wasn’t an altogether bad thing. At this point, Landon walked over accompanied by a distinguished looking gentleman in a camel colored coat. Lea’s dad turned to us and said, “I’d like you to meet my friend, Frankie!” After shaking Mr. Valli’s extraordinarily soft hands, Lea’s dad thanked Frankie for coming to the concert. He smiled and said, “Your daughter! My son!” and he patted Landon on the back.

Our friend’s family, most of whom hadn't seen Spring Awakening yet, were anxious to get going. When they started harassing Lea’s dad about how long she was taking, we were instructed to go into the green room. In fact, we were standing in the room when many of the photos on were taken! We even took a our own blurry backstage photo:

With cameras flashing in the background, we waited in the corner, with Kate and Blake. Again, I resisted the temptation to talk to them. Damn boundaries…! Plus they were busy talking shop. When the photo op was done, we finally got to say “hi” and snap a pic with the lady of the hour.

All in all, I had a wonderful time. If you ever have the opportunity to see any of the Spring Awakening kids performing outside the familiar territory of their show, I highly recommend it. Casting director Jim Carnahan and Spring's production team have a knack for finding young talent that is to be seriously reckoned with, Lea included. In fact, April 7th will find Lea once again performing at Feinstein’s. If you can afford the price of the ticket and the food, I’d say it is a reckoning worth witnessing.


Esther said...

Oh wow, what a terrific report! I felt like I was there. And I didn't know that Lea and Jonathan were best friends! I loved Spring Awakening, and I'm so glad I got a chance to see it with the original cast. The crowd at the stage door afterward was the biggest I've seen, and everyone in the cast made sure that all of their fans got autographs and pictures. They are truly as generous and polite as they are talented!

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...


This post really made me smile. Your appreciation and love for Spring Awakening ranks right up there with mine for another musical currently on Broadway. Now, when it starts to tour and finds its way to London, will you go see those, too?



agustina said...

Thanks for sharing that story.

I'm 17 years old and I live in Argentina. Over here Glee is just starting. I watched the first episodes and that's how I got to know Lea. SHE HAS AN AMAZING VOICE. After hearing her on Glee I started to search for more of her. Now I desperatly want to see Spring Awakening!! But she does not perform there anymore, doesn't she?

I read your post and I'm really happy for you. Watching Spring Awakaning six times must be awesome. I bet you would go ten times more if it were for you! I know cause I love musical theatre myself. Here we had Sweet Charity for a while and I went three times and I would have gone three more if I wouldn't have ended.

For my 15 (cause here we celebrate when we turn 15 not 16)I went with my parents to new york fro the first time. I went to see, Mamma mia, the phantom of the opera, legally blonde and Hairspray. and I enjoyed each and every show. It was the best trip ever!!
Now I'm arranging a trip with a friend so that we can go and watch Spring, Les Miz. Wicked and something else.
Although I won't be able to enjoy Lea's performace... I guess I will enjoy it anyway. But it's a disappointment...
I also would love to watch Idina Menzel perfom as Elphaba in Wicked. but that is not possible either. Although maybe in the future Lea's dreams will come true and she will play elphaba!!(thanks for the info ;) ) well that would be the best thing that can happen!!

So, I wanted to thank you very much for sharing your story with us that haven't met lea in person yet.. but wish we could.

Traci said...

You're so lucky you were there. They few vids that leaked out were amazing, but to have seen the whole thing. I wish I was you.