Stephanie J. Block is rediscovering the joys of performing live.
The Tony Award-winning actress has appeared in a vast of array of Broadway shows including The Boy from Oz, The Pirate Queen, Wicked, 9 to 5, Anything Goes, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Falsettos, and most recently, The Cher Show. However, after not performing live for a year and a half, Block is now returning to the stage with a renewed sense of love and appreciation for her craft.
This Saturday (August 21), Block will headline two intimate concerts hosted by Berkshire Theatre Group (Pittsfield, MA). Held under an open-air tent in The Colonial Theatre parking lot, BTG’s summer concert series boasts an unmissable lineup that also features Norm Lewis, Krysta Rodriguez, Kelli O’Hara, Carolee Carmello, Kate Baldwin & Graham Rowat, and Rachel Bay Jones.
Chatting on the phone, Block and I discussed this weekend’s concerts, staying creatively fulfilled during quarantine, her forthcoming Christmas album, Atlantic Theater Company’s upcoming musical adaptation of Sarah Silverman’s memoir The Bedwetter, and more.
What can fans expect from your upcoming solo concerts with Berkshire Theatre Group this weekend?
They’re going to hear a lot of the big 11 o’clock numbers that I’ve been desperate to sing these last 16 months. They’re going to hear a lot of songs that are drenched in heart and emotion. I’m going to be very open, because I think that’s what people need. They need connection, honesty, and authenticity. Even though we try to show that during Zoom meetings or whatever the case may be, sometimes you miss that live connection. Therefore, I’m going to be a ridiculously open book.
How are you curating your setlist for these shows? Is there a particular story or narrative you’re telling with these songs and how they flow from one to the next?
There is! The show is called Coming Home, which I think is a theme that a lot of us live performers are finding. It’s a variation on that same theme. It’s just how much we’ve missed it, what we’ve learned about ourselves. Giving everybody a bit of grace, as we re-enter the world. How we start anew, and how hopefully, it will be a lot of the beauty and familiarity from before. But, here’s a clue, we can never go back to before. We have to start fresh.
How has coming out of quarantine impacted you as a solo performer? In other words, how are you a different performer today than you were before the COVID-19 pandemic first hit?
I’ll be honest, I think I took the great privilege of performing live for granted. I think it became so much a part of the fabric of who I am, that somewhere along the line, it just became expected. It became part of the mundane. It’s what I did. It’s what was available to me at any moment. Somewhere along the way, I lost the understanding that that is a massive honor – and that the security of that could go away.
So now I have this unbelievable knowledge of 36 years of experience, but with the awe and the wonder of a 12-year-old girl who only wants to be stage. Now, I’m being able to do that again. It’s amazing. I’m very happy about it.
What are some of the things you did to feel creatively fulfilled and/or pass the time during quarantine?
My answer to this is very silly but very true. As the mom of, when the pandemic started, a five-year-old, my day was more creative than any rehearsal for a Broadway show. My child woke up at 6:30 in the morning, she went to bed at 7:30 at night. For those 13-15 hours a day, I was anything from a singing oyster to a unicorn that pooped rainbows to a baby burrito that only liked Del Taco and not Taco Bell. It ran the gamut of every masterclass or college program for improv. So that kept me super creative, although there was no paycheck or applause at the end of it. I also started to write a lot, a lot of children’s books.
We also got to do a lot of Zoom concerts. My husband and I wrote a little cabaret show together. We were able to do that at corporate Christmas Zoom events. And of course, performing with Seth Rudetsky, who’s just a great advocate for all of us artists.
Also, raising money. Whether that was Actor’s Fund, or Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, or Covenant House. There’ve been a lot of charitable opportunities where we could use our talents and keep us connected to the arts.
What type of creative itch does getting to perform on stage as yourself versus as a scripted character scratch?
For me, I love when I can break the fourth wall and I can allow the audience to come in to be more than just spectators to a story that we’re putting on. I never thought I would be happy as myself on stage. I loved the safety and security of a musical and working within the boundaries of a book and character. But when I did allow myself to start a solo show or cabaret, and then I was able to be in the moment, once I was out of my head and really in my body, I could hear the audience respond. People got really excited and would talk to me and I would talk back to them. There’d be this commentary, and this real communication between me and the audience. You’re exactly right. It is an itch that for me, and it is so much of a joy. It only happens when you banter back and forth and that banter changes nightly. It’s a living, breathing thing. So, even at Berkshire Theatre Group, I have two shows. The thread through which I tell my story and connect the songs will stay the same, but I guarantee that the banter will be different because of what the audience collectively and individually bring to each show. And I feed off of that!
You’ve played some pretty big gay icons throughout your career. What are some things that playing Liza Minnelli and Cher taught you about yourself?
I think it’s more or less who I was at these different stages of my life. Liza taught me to trust my instincts and to speak up more. There were so many people circling around me as an actress and informing my performance when this little whisper in my belly was telling me to make some different choices. It wasn’t until I found the courage to speak up to that little whisper that my performance really took off. It taught me, as a woman in my 20s going into my 30s, that I have a place in the creative process. As long as it’s coming from an informed and respectful place, that voice can be used to create something that is all mine in the storytelling.
With Cher, as a 46-year-old woman, it was about really embracing the physicality of who I was. That if I couldn’t embrace what I looked like, how I carried myself, the confidence that I needed to exude at this age, if not now, when? I grabbed that—pardon me—shit by the horns and went “It’s happening. It’s happening now. I’m not letting any more time pass without embracing this physical form that I live in, every day.”
They taught me big things. It was hard to embody both of them. It was hard to grapple with how I would be received in playing them. But once I took the lessons that they were giving me, Stephanie J. Block, it was a huge shift.
After your Berkshire Theater Group concerts, where can your fans catch you next?
Well, the very next day, I’ll be up in Provincetown with Seth Rudetsky.
Then, I’m going to go back to New York for a couple of weeks to work on a new musical with Sarah Silverman. It’s her autobiography, The Bedwetter, which has been made into a musical. The Atlantic Theater Company is going to mount it in the spring. So for me right now, I’m just dipping my toe in. It’s been a while since I’ve been in New York City. I’m looking forward to getting to be back there and just, again, being a little more gentle with myself and the people around me. I’m not putting any expectation on what that workshop’s going to look like. I just want to really take note and pay attention to, what does this feel like? How are we creating this new chapter after what I call, the great pause? If all goes well and all feels right, then I will be with the company at the Atlantic Theater Company in March of 2022.
I’m also working on a Christmas album. The first couple of tracks should drop before the end of the year. I also started a brand new podcast that I’d love for people to tune into. It’s called Stages Podcast and is about how you can use artistic tools and things that we have learned as professional artists in every stage of your life – through every transition, every tragedy, and through every triumph. We have five episodes out already. It drops every Sunday, and you can get it on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. We have LaChanze, Jason Graae, Keala Settle, Sakina Jaffrey, and James Lapine out already. We have everyone from writers, to casting directors, to dance companies. We even spoke to a gorilla doctor in Rwanda. It’s a really diverse group of people. The focus of how we use our artistic lens and bring that to every stage of our life makes for some really beautiful conversations.
What aspects of Broadway reopening are you most looking forward to? What are changes you’d like to see made on Broadway when theaters reopen?
First of all, just the gathering of people. The gathering of creative minds and the conversations that revolve around creating, which to me, all happen with a higher energy and pitch. I think in the last year and a half, there’s—rightly so—been talk about our emptiness, our lack, our want. When people get together and then start to speak about creating, evolving, and working together in a collaborative form, it just takes on a different life of its own. I miss that. I miss that a lot.
With Broadway, the great plight is beyond just gathering safely again. That word “safely” has taken on a new definition. Being safe in the workplace means inclusion, means kindness, means welcoming the BIPOC community in a different way, and hearing their needs. It means welcoming the LGBTQ community in a new way, and hearing their needs. It means making sure that everyone feels safe in the room. Our goal is to have everybody feel safe at all times. I want that to be the mindset when people walk into the room. To have open conversations about people’s needs, so that they do feel safe to create. That’s what I’m hoping for and looking toward. I think for everybody from the producers and theater owners down, that’s everybody’s goal.
Going off of that, how do you think that The Bedwetter will be a different production in 2022 than it would have been had it opened in 2020 like originally planned?
Our company went through a great shift because we lost our lyricist and our composer, Adam Schlesinger, to COVID. I know he’s going to watch down on us and bless the production. We’re all coming in with a heart and a memory of this voice who was such an integral part of creating it. Right there, I think there is an understanding, an empathy, and an honor that will be dripping in the walls of the rehearsal space.
Nontraditional casting has already happened. This was able to happen because Sarah’s story takes place from when she’s 10, 11, and 12. They had cast girls in those ages. And whether you’re a little she, he, or they, you change within those years. Those are really big years for change. But a lot of these performers have already grown out of that age range. So it allowed the creative team to come back and rethink what non-traditional casting looks like. I can’t speak more to that because I would be going outside of my liberties as to what they have in mind, but I can tell you that nontraditional casting has taken place.
I believe they have also looked at the creative team itself, and have made some difficult, but necessary phone calls to say “We need to release you and we hope you can see why. We’re inviting a different way of thinking, other cultures, and different creatives behind the table.”
I really honor the Atlantic Theater Company because they’ve been at the forefront of this movement. Because of how they work, they have afforded their space to all different belief systems, colors of skin, and religious understandings. They’ve always had that be part of their mission statement. I’m really proud to be a part of the Atlantic Theater Company in this moment.
You originated the role of Elphaba in the first reading and national tour of Wicked. What are your hopes for the upcoming film adaptation and how do you think this musical will translate to the screen?
I think it’s going to translate beautifully! If you have any relationship with The Wizard of Oz, it touches you in a way that is surprising, beautiful, and all inspiring. But it also goes well beyond that. It is a musical about relationships. It’s a musical about going beyond physical appearance. It has so many different layers and I hope they capture it correctly.
My prayer is not to just do stunt casting. If you need names, that’s fine, but I don’t believe the story needs any box office names. I think the material holds its own. I think the characters have such a legacy coming from The Wizard of Oz, they will get people in there. Plus, the musical itself now has such a following.
I just want to see women and all walks of life alike that can sing and act the crap out of these parts. I hope it’s not going to be manipulated, auto-tuned or edited in such a way that the live performance of it doesn’t come through. A lot of the times, when you have the ability to cut and paste, or to edit within an inch of its life to make it this perfectly polished product, it loses the heart, it loses the humanity, and it loses what really makes this story real.
I think if you can get actors that can do it in one take or two takes, or they can get a full body performance without all of these nipping and tucking and fixing, you’re going to have something really special on your hands. It takes a certain kind of performer, because neither the acting or singing are easy acts.
Who do you consider to be some of the most exciting and innovative musical theater composers at the moment?
Oh my gosh, what a great question! There are these two young women that are a Tik Tok sensation and wrote the anticipated Bridgerton musical, Bare & Barlow. Sara Bareilles, to me, hits all the genres. When it comes to storytelling, I find her to be so remarkable and succinct. Her thoughts are really crystallized beautifully and she touches me greatly. Pasek and Paul are at the forefront always. Lin-Manuel Miranda is constantly bringing something really special, and he’s forever surprising me. Also, Anáis Mitchell, who created Hadestown.
I’m sure there’s a litany of people that I haven’t even been introduced to, because quite frankly, Alex, I’m starting to become an old woman! When you say “new artist,” I go back to Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens because when I turn on their stuff, it makes me cry. This most recent revival of Once On This Island, I mean, wow! They may not be “new composers,” but when their music is done in a new way or reinterpreted, it sure feels new to me. That again goes back to live theater. You can take music or a book and reimagine it, bring it to life, and present it in a different way. Then you’ve got something pretty special. You’ve got a medium that will never lose its freshness, even though some may perhaps consider it antiquated. It’s always fresh, because like I said before, it’s a living, breathing art form.
What are some of your musical theater bucket list dream roles?
Well, I’m too old now, but they just announced Funny Girl is coming back. That casting seems really exciting. But for me, Mame. I know that’s old school, but I think because I make wacky choices, it’d be a really good fit for my sensibility and how I interpret music. I’d also love to be Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. I think it may be surprising for my fans to be like, “Oooh, she’s going that dark.” But again, I have some quirky choices that I would love to infuse into that Sondheim musical and that character. Which interestingly enough, I am just now coming to terms with, are both Angela Lansbury roles.
If they ever make a Golden Girls musical, the Bea Arthur part is mine! It’s mine, I will fight anybody for it. But I always believe that something new that has yet to be created might be the perfect musical. Therefore, it could be The Bedwetter and I just don’t know it yet!
What advice would you give to a young person today who dreams of making it on Broadway?
I’m real apprehensive to give advice to anyone, especially in this day and age, because our walks are all so different. Our way to get to our dreams are so different. I am even in a position of redefining what my dreams are. I will just say, going back to what playing Liza taught me, listen to your instincts. Listen to that voice that constantly is whispering to and inspiring you. If you follow that compass truthfully, you will end up exactly where you’re meant to be.
CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to see Stephanie J. Block this Saturday, August 21 at 2pm and/or 7pm Outside Under the Big Tent in The Colonial Theatre Parking Lot (Pittsfield, MA).