Those who were in the audience that night in October 2005 remember it well. The national tour of Wicked had hit the Music Hall at Fair Park for the first time and it was a sold-out opening. A huge Broadway smash (it's still playing to capacity crowds in New York), the musical prequel to the Wizard of Oz pits two young witches, good witch Glinda and green-hued Elphaba, against each other in a classic good v. evil confrontation. The girls eventually become friends, with Glinda, played here on that tour by Kendra Kassebaum, giving Elphaba, played by Stephanie J. Block, the confidence to seek help for her "condition" from the Wiz himself.
The 11 o'clock number in this show actually comes at the end of the first act, the soaring anthem "Defying Gravity." As Block tore into the song that night, it was clear something special was happening. The song climaxes with Elphaba, belting bigger and bigger notes, rising from the stage floor with her long witch's robe fluttering behind her. As Block sang, the audience started to react, clapping, whooping, whistling their approval of her kickass performance. By her last notes of "Defying Gravity," one of those goose-pimple producing song-gasms too rare in musicals right now, people were on their feet, many in tears (I was). It was the first time I'd ever seen a standing ovation at any show before intermission.
That moment and Stephanie J. Block's performance in Wicked are still talked about by Dallas theatergoers (and a few critics) with awe and reverence. She hasn't been back here since then until this week, when she joins an all-star cast Friday, March 23, for the one-night concert Do You Hear the People Sing at the American Airlines Center. More about the show and a phone chat with still-riveting Ms. Block after the jump.
The production this week, only the second performance (after one in Indianapolis) of this epic concert, celebrates the music of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, the legendary French composers of Les Misérables, Miss Saigon and The Pirate Queen (a short-lived Broadway musical that starred Stephanie J. Block in the title role).
Starring with Block in Do You Hear the People Sing are Lea Salonga, the original star of Miss Saigon, and Brian Stokes Mitchell and Terrence Mann, who both starred in Les Misérables on Broadway. The concert also will feature the Dallas POPS Orchestra, the Turtle Creek Chorale and a 100-person children's choir.
Some of the cast is already in town for rehearsals. Block, however, has just opened in the lead of the Broadway revival of Anything Goes (replacing Sutton Foster) so she'll be flying in at the last minute. The other day she took a few minutes by phone to talk about the big show in Dallas.
How do you describe Do You Hear the People Sing? Concert? Tribute? Opportunity for mass musical theater fan hysteria? Stephanie J. Block: It's hard to explain exactly. Bouberg and Loublil have found a way to put all their epic, soaring selections in one evening of music. They call it "an intimate concert" - but there's an 80-piece orchestra and 100-person choir. You'll hear their most recognized songs from their multiple scores. It's a thrilling evening.
With these performers, we're all very different in interpretation and the tone of our voices. We represent a certain side of their music. The audience will be pleasantly surprised. We sing all the favorites, with a wonderful narrative about how that song was written and how it may have changed over 20-something years. Some of the songs are sung in French, which is how a lot of their songs were composed. It's grand and huge and masterful but they make you feel intimate in that you get to know these composers.
Do you have a favorite Bouberg-Loublil number? I'm emotionally connected to all of the Pirate Queen music. It was such an amazing journey for me - a two-year journey for me. To do that in front of an 80-piece orchestra is really a spectacular feeling. It brings me great joy and a lot of beautiful memories.
You did this show in an opera house in Indianapolis. The American Airlines Center is an 18,000-seat arena. Can that really be "intimate"? It makes my stomach hurt to think of it. But playing their music in an arena just seems fitting. Their anthems are really gonna soar. Their love songs will fill the space.
You've been on tour with big shows including Wicked. What's that life like? It keeps you on your toes. Every city has a different energy. They're excited to have you. It's their first time to see the show. Every city is like an opening night. In New York City, you open and find a groove. On tour you're constantly opening and reopening. Those tangible butterflies in the belly never leave. Every couple of weeks you're off to another theater.
There are a lot of hardships to touring, as well. Different hotels. Different weather systems. Different mold in the theaters. You have to keep your allergies at bay. Keep the common cold at bay. What are your health regimens then? I do have tons of them. I rarely go out. Most leading performers will say that. Your life is dedicated to that leading role. You wake up, you test your voice, you warm up your body, you shower, you warm up your voice again, you steam. You do the show, cool down and go to bed. Then start the whole thing over. When it's the leading role and you have 10 to 16 songs, if you're having difficulty singing one, you're not going in for the night.
Over the length of my career, I have a pretty great track record for not missing shows. Some shows more than most. Most actors in the theater, we don't take a vacation within the year. It's notable when we miss a week's work. In a lot of other professions, you can take that week and people say "good for you." In live entertainment, that's not always the case.
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Dream role? Or has it been written yet? There are several. My one dream is to get Funny Girl back to Broadway. We were very close to doing that last year. It was supposed to be happening now. I have no idea if that piece will ever make it back. It's been well over 40 years. That would be one I would love to do.
I've just opened in Anything Goes, taking over for Sutton Foster in the role of Reno Sweeney. It feels like I've been hit by a car. There are certain roles that are definitely worth being "the replacement." This is one of those roles. It's such a wonderful thing to sing Cole Porter. I wanted to show New York again that I have tools in my tool belt. I have an 8-minute tap number. Feels like I'm an old-fashioned musical theater broad again. What's the state of the Broadway musical right now? I think live theater is always going to thrive. I don't think anything can replace it. It's a conversation between audience and actors, all involved in that moment, living and breathing and unable to be duplicated. I do think we're making a shift. I think a lot of television and movie stars are coming into the Broadway scene, which generates some great ticket sales. On the other end, you see a lot of magnificently talented and trained actors missing out on opportunities. It's a Catch 22. And I'm choosing my words carefully. With theater, there are ebbs and flows. There are changes and cycles. We are going through the "let's bring in the big movie or TV star" cycle. If that's what keeps the ticket sales going and keeps more plays and musicals opening and running, I have to applaud it. It allows us all to be employed. I just want casting to be done based on merit, not on past TV and movie credits.
It's such a different discipline, television. Some people think it's a "step up." That's not necessarily the case to all actors and how they feel. I've done TV and the whole process is so different than what happens in live theater. You have to make the choice of what fulfills you as an actor. Right now live theater and the energy between audience and actor - I'm very happy being in control of my performance, knowing the outcome. If it was highly successfully or didn't hit the mark, it was all up to me.
Tickets for Do You Hear the People Sing, performed March 23 only, are on sale now at the American Airlines Center box office, all Ticketmaster outlets, by phone at 800-745-3000 or online at Ticketmaster.com. Ticket prices range from $35-$85 with a select number of VIP seats also available.