An Interactive Performance Series Channels Your Inner Broadway Diva by Kelsey Marden
It was dark in the Motor House theatre, all except for the stage. A young woman with bouncy red hair stepped up and faced us. Her excitement was palpable. After taking a deep breath, the keyboardist began to play, and then she invited us to “fade in on a girl with a hunger for fame.”
Emily belted out the TV show “Smash’s” leading song as if she was Karen Cartwright reincarnated, pleading for her listeners to “Let Me Be Your Star.” The choice of song from the 2012 ABC show shining a spotlight on the inner-workings of a Broadway production seemed appropriate for what was unfolding. It was as if she too was auditioning for her big break on Broadway and she didn’t seem too far off.
This is one of the purposes of Broadway Live: to make Broadway seem accessible. Created by musical theatre veteran CJay Philip, this newly developed monthly event in Baltimore gives both Broadway fans and musical theatre professionals a chance to shine.
Split into Act I and Act II—one for children and one for adults—this event hosts games, featured performances, and a Q & A session all surrounding the theme of Broadway. And for anyone who can hand over some sheet music and tolerate a spotlight, the open mic portion is the highlight.
“I love the way that Broadway can bring people together… what it can do to connect people… I love that. To me that’s what it’s about,” Philip said.
Philip’s foot began to tap and shoulders shrug forward as she started to teach us the choreography from an actual Broadway show number. Her smile swept broader and bigger with each move. You could tell that this was what brought her to life. And the audience, too, started to come alive with each move.
Philip has lived her life much like how she dances: with lots of joy and little fear. “It was always what I did. It was what I was good at,” Philip said. At the age of 21 she began her journey to Broadway.
While other girls displayed symptoms of insecurity before auditions, Philip waited in fearless expectation. She never understood their angst. “Not only did I learn to audition well, I loved auditioning. I had a blast. I enjoyed it,” Philip said. “I would go to four, five, six auditions a week in New York for shows I wasn’t even right for.”
Her secret was using her auditions as classes and trial performances while her wallet for lessons ran dry, and the casting directors took notice. As she entered her auditions, it began to feel like something out of a “Cheers” scene.
Everyone knew her name, casting directors perked up at the sight of her, and a standing ovation wasn’t foreign to her. One casting director even took the initiative to write a letter thanking her for her audition. He went on to tell her that her audition was the top five he’s seen in his 25 years of musical theatre.
This is the woman who is making herself available to the general public, and only for $6 a ticket.
After a decade in the field, she craved something more meaningful, and an experience performing for the New Federal Theatre in New York altered her path. “That planted a seed in me of maybe I want to do some smaller venues and maybe even a smaller city in order to dig deeper,” Philip said. That smaller city became Baltimore.
After her move in 2008, it didn’t take long for her to notice the needs of our diverse neighborhoods. She started dreaming of ways to connect the chasm between cultural and generational differences. And what better way than through music and dance?
“Don’t laugh,” Cleveland Wills, Jr. said right before leaving our table to perform a duet with his wife Shannon.
He’s not a singer. He’s never even dreamed of being on Broadway. He was singing for his family, and I bet he’d be lying if he said he didn’t enjoy it. But Wills’s appreciation goes deeper than the talent and passion the event hosts.
“… That’s a very amazingly talented woman who could still be doing plays, who could still be directing, who could still be acting on Broadway, but she’s got a heart conviction… This woman is incredible and yet she’s giving her time to do something like this,” Wills said.
“CJay is so entrenched in the community. Not only is she deep in the theatre community and the arts community in Baltimore, but she has a passion for the… inner-city community. She’s connected to it,” said Andre McRae, a fellow Broadway veteran who is a supporter of Philip’s broad reach.
Founder of Dance & Bmore, Philip has jump-started several programs that reach children, adults, and seniors within these communities.
“It’s rare. It’s a difficult thing to do because you have to be able to have passion for both communities. I think there are very few people that are able to sort of bring both communities together because they are connected to one or the other. But, because she’s so well connected to both, she knows how to bring them together,” McRae said.
Philip’s reach goes beyond the Broadway community and artsy district surrounding the Motor House Theatre. She reaches areas and people that are often avoided.
“She doesn’t just go to the safe places… I’m from West Baltimore I know some of these places,” Wills said.
“There’s not a lot of activities like this for people who aren’t in privileged areas… being a former inner-city kid, if you don’t have a lot to do there’s a lot of stuff you can find yourself doing and it may not necessarily be the most positive things.”
With Broadway Live’s children’s act, Philip’s offers a different path: a path to discover who they are and inspire them to find their own voice.
“You never know who she’ll inspire through this,” Wills said.
Two girls bashfully approached the stage at the realization that it’s their last chance. Barely audible at first, their voices grew louder and more confident as they sang “Let It Go” from the Disney movie “Frozen.”
Act I gives children a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity, one that Lisa Tinch‘s 9-year-old daughter Amber gladly takes advantage of: the chance to learn from Philip’s Broadway expertise.
Amber Tinch has had her bags packed for New York City and her heart set on Broadway for four years now. Navigating the highs and lows of casting directors either accepting or rejecting a young girl can be devastating, which makes Broadway Live’s children’s program an oasis.
“My daughter loves it… she looks forward to it,” Lisa Tinch said.
“It’s adding to her confidence and even performing on a stage. She’s been in plays. Of course, that’s what? Probably like 12 weeks of rehearsal and maybe two shows, where Broadway Live is allowing her… at least monthly to get on stage in front of people that she might have never seen before. And I think that’s helping her.”
The true treasure is getting to glean the wisdom and coaching from Philip herself.
Philip’s advice had been a source of encouragement after New York auditions seemed fruitless. “Do your best, but leave a piece of you in the room… One of the things that often CJay told her was that with each audition she was getting more experience, and look at it like that,” Lisa Tinch said.
Philip believes personal security is not contingent on if the directors or choreographers or audience want you. “If you don’t know how to live life, this business can break you down,” Philip said. Instead, her wish is to build people up.
But children aren’t the only ones in need of refuge.
Emily got up again rather spontaneously. This time, she handed a selection to the keyboardist, a song she had just learned from the musical “Brooklyn.”
When she came to the chorus, the audience chimed in with their own vocals.
“You can fly above the rain clouds
Close your eyes
Let the melody carry you
Leave all your fears behind
You can float across a rainbow sky to once upon a time”
In the middle of the lyrics, Emily paused. “Wait… what’s the next part?” She asked this seemingly un-phased by forgetting her lines in front of us—as if she was in her own living room singing to close friends. She was having fun, and the last thing she needed to fear was judgement.
As Emily approached the song’s ending, reaching some insanely high notes that alone deserved applause, her voice swayed during an impressive final belt. “Nope, didn’t get that one. But I got the rest of them!” Emily said.
“If someone’s going to be judgey, don’t go,” said Chelsea Paradiso, a Baltimore musical theatre professional brought by her voice coach, local director and choreographer Quae Simpson. “Because judgement, there’s no point. There’s no reason. You judge yourself way too harshly anyways. There’s no point for other people to do it for you.”
Also a voice student of Simpson’s, Emily was brought for this exact purpose: to forget about performing and just be herself.
“…I just want them to get a chance of when it’s no pressure from me, necessarily. I’m not keeping tabs on them. I want them to go and have a good time and try different things,” Simpson said. “It’s a place for people to perform without worrying about performing.”
A place to just perform, make mistakes, and find their voice.
“It’s always good to have a place where you feel you can perform and work on your craft. Because, yeah, I go to a voice lesson every week when I can, and it’s great, but sometimes it’s nice to have feedback from an audience and have a microphone and a piano and just perform to people,” Paradiso said.
One of the challenges theatres in Baltimore face is bringing everyone together. “Everyone stays with their own people,” Simpson said. But Broadway Live connects.
“It definitely does bridge the gap. It brings all other theatre communities together that’s in Baltimore because everyone’s in their own little area… Baltimore’s a small… big town in a sense because it is quite expansive… but at the same time it has a small-town feel… they all have their little theatre things that go on.”
And in an industry where networking can land you that next audition, this opportunity is big.
Who knows? You may even find the next object of your Broadway obsession.
“I really liked the guy who had the little Han Solo in his pocket,” said Paradiso.
“That was fun.”
He grasped the tiny figurine that he just pulled out of his pocket: a miniature Han Solo that caused every Star Wars fan to perk up. His eyes suddenly widened with excitement, and a big, cheesy grin plastered his face. The lyrics that followed immediately made sense of the tiny prop.
“I want to take a shower with Han Solo.
Yes, Han Solo,
The dude from Star Wars.
Tear off his holster.
Get him slip’pry like a seal.
Okay, he’s out of my league and not exactly,
But I want to take a shower with Han Solo.
And Princess Leia can go eat her big fat hair.”
His character came to life on stage where seconds before he was just another body in the audience, taking in the night’s agenda like the rest of us. But the man on stage was bursting to share his secret, beckoning us to listen to his deepest, darkest desire: showering with Han Solo.
“He’s an example of a seasoned performer, but an example also of, he has his own show, so here he gets to try out one of his pieces in front of everyone. He’s fun, seasoned, but he also gets to work on his craft by just performing,” said McRae.
“There’s so much great theatre in Baltimore. So many talented people,” Philip said. And if Philip had it her way, she would highlight all of them.
“I want this to be a safe space and a haven for performers to come and be their wacky, performing selves and not have any responsibilities. And they can be as irresponsible and wacky and zaney and no one will think they’re crazy. That the folks who sing in the shower and the show people can sort of come together and just be fun.”
Our table flipped over the card laying in the center revealing the name “Aladdin.” Everyone hesitated at first to come up with a game plan. We had to successfully stage a scene from the show for the audience to guess our name.
Cleveland Wills’s idea was to use the tablecloth as a prop, posing as the magic carpet by hiding beneath it with his wife Shannon. I secretly wished that I had come up with that idea.
We stepped up onto the stage. Cleveland and Shannon Wills took their places flapping beneath the tablecloth and exposing the magicians beneath it, appearing more like a friendly ghost than an enchanted rug. Their son Christian sat with arms crossed and legs genie-style. I pressed my arms out in front of me and shifted my weight into my toes, trying to find my balance flying high on my magic carpet while being shown the world by my imaginary dreamy fugitive, Aladdin.
Somehow, the audience guessed it.
I’m not a performer by any stretch of the word. In fact, spotlights make me sweat and I would much rather be making the magic happen behind the curtain. But I enjoyed how Broadway Live creates a unique sense of oneness with a mix of performers and non-performers who have never crossed paths before.
“It’s very interactive. The games that you have, everyone’s actually interacting with one another. So it’s not even just you’ve got folks in their separate areas. They force everyone to be in community with one another. Everyone comes together which is huge,” McRae said.
And if you are a performer, good.
“Playing all the games and stuff kind of loosens you up and you’re like, okay, now I want to perform because it’s a room of people who want you to succeed and they don’t expect it to be perfect,” Paradiso said.
And then there are those who exceed any expectation.
The audience was silent, zoning in on the man in front of them.
“In light of such a crazy time in our country… we need freedom.” The music book collection in the corner could have fallen without a flinch from the audience while he sang “Free At Last” from the musical “Big River.”
Andre McRae and Philip’s go way back to their musical theatre days, when she was Lorrell and he, C. C., during their “Dreamgirls” tour. When Philip’s asked McRae to kick off the first Broadway Live event with something from his new play “Chasing the Wind,” he said yes without hesitation.
“When I have the opportunity to work with her, I love it,” McRae said. “It was an easy sell. She didn’t have to sell me at all, she just asked.”
McRae and several of his cast members came and performed a few songs from the show he’s been writing for more than five years, and Broadway Live provided an excellent platform to try it out, another aspect of the event that Philip takes pride in.
“When you’re writing a new show—and I’m a writer, I’ve written three or four musicals and plays and things—you need a place to try stuff out. And that’s what we want Broadway Live to be for people too: trying out new ideas, new works,” Philip said. “So if someone has new work, then that’s something they could utilize Broadway Live for: to test, to show, and also get good feedback that gets them excited about continuing the work they’ve started.”
But to McRae, it wasn’t only about testing new material.
“It offers the community art which is huge. Art is a vital part of the community: art brings life, art shows us who we are, art shows us our humanity, art teaches us, art trains us, art shows us beauty.” McRae said.
“I hope that someone that comes out to it, it will open their eyes to there are so many possibilities in life, there’s so much in life to see. And a lot of times when you’re in just one community, whether you’re stuck in that community or that’s the only community that you know, it can be so hard to sort of take your blinders off—this is all you know, this is all you see. But any kind of art especially theatre, music… I hope that it opens people’s eyes that there’s more.”
A family man unfamiliar with the stage. A young girl dreaming of Broadway. Theatre professionals tired of performing for everyone except themselves. And a former Broadway pro working tirelessly to spread her love of music. Broadway Live offers these people and the whole of Baltimore a theatre opportunity unlike any other.
An opportunity to bring all of these people in Baltimore together through Broadway, so that it isn’t too far off.
Next Event: Broadway Dance on Saturday, January 13 at 11 AM – 12:15 PM at The Motor House.
Check out more dates and opportunities at http://danceandbmore.com.