Broadway hoofers Mo Brady (The Addams Family) and Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) didn't really know each other when they decided to collaborate, but, as in most creative cases, something just clicked. Self-proclaimed podcast junkies, they're putting together a show that sheds new light on the hardest-working players on a Broadway stage: ensemble members. The Ensemblist, available for download via iTunes, explores the behind-the-scenes goings-on in the life of their fellow hard-working Broadway mainstays. With their first show being released July 8, we sat down with Brady and Lanzarone (who chatted with us from Chicago where she currently appears in The Jungle Book) to discuss life as an Ensemblist and their inspiration for this potentially groundbreaking production.
I feel like I'm going to learn a lot that I didn't know from this podcast…
Nikka Graff Lanzarone: That makes me really happy!
Mo Brady: There are a lot of pieces that are really similar from show to show that don't necessarily get talked about by either the general fan or the theater student who hasn't worked on eight shows a week. There are a lot of aspects to the life that we can shed some light on.
Where did the idea come from?
NGL: It came from Mo. He and I— we were friendly but weren't super close, but we started following each other on Twitter and social media. We met a few times, then one day I got a message from him that was like, "I have an idea and I think you're the person I want to share it with."
MB: The reason I reached out to Nikka was that she's a big podcast fan, and I've known that from following her on Twitter. As am I. She seemed like someone who could marry these two things, the art form of the podcast with Broadway stories. I was doing The Addams Family on Broadway and we were in the middle of summer and I had settled into doing the show, and I was like, "What am I going to do with my time? Well, there's this other passion I have: podcasts." I think they're a really interesting art form, a really interesting way to tell a story in an engaging format, but there aren't really any podcasts about Broadway, about this experience. At that point, 2011, I was going to create something and it didn't click in the same way.
At what point did it click?
MB: It wasn't until a few years later that I was like "Let's take this from the other side." So instead of one person's experience in a variety of different ways, we take individual parts of an experience and speak to that. So it's less Fresh Air and more This American Life. We take a theme and we give you a variety of stories about that theme. That was the idea I came to Nikka with and she was so excited about it.
NGL: Well it's a really good idea.
Who are "Ensemblists"?
MB: Ensemblists are people [who] work a lot, go from show-to-show, and have all this insight that is not just educational, but also fascinating.
NGL: It's a huge bunch of people who are really able to create a middle-class lifestyle for themselves by doing what they love. I feel like Ensemblists get this reputation of being really young or being really flighty, or that it's a young person's game. And all of the people [who] we know are so smart and so on top of it and have really built incredible lives for themselves doing what they love and what they want to be doing.
MB: The word "Ensemblist" came from— I have this visual image that a Broadway show is like a pocket watch. If you opened it, you would see all of the cogs inside. A pocket watch is very beautiful and artistic but then you open it and it's very mechanical. A Broadway show is the same way. From the outside, it's this pretty package, but when you open it, there are a lot of mechanisms going on. I liked the idea of a scientific discovery of this very creative artistic process. It's something that people haven't heard before, but once you've heard it, you know what it is.
Tell me about the show itself.
NGL: The very first episode is going to break down what it's like to be in a dance partnership in a Broadway show. We are talking to a couple who is currently in Cinderella, Peter Nelson and Stephanie Gibson, about what that process was like for them. And then our other interview is with Cameron Adams and Marty Lawson, who have partnered together in nearly everything you can think of. We talk to them about what that process is like, and how you have to change what you're doing for each kind of choreographer and for each kind of show. And then we also have an interview with Mark Stuart, who is a wonderful choreographer known for his really incredible partnering work, about how you tell a story that way and what kinds of dancers go well with each other.
MB: He had a really interesting perspective on it. It was serendipitous that we found those two couples. Steph and Peter had only done one show together, and they only do one number. Their insight is very contained, versus Cam and Marty, who have done four shows together, plus the workshop of Brigadoon, plus the workshop of Leap of Faith, so their answers were much broader. I think it was a good pairing that we didn't necessarily plan on, but I thought it was very well done. [laughs]
What are you hoping to get out of this experience?
NGL: I hope that I get to learn about what interests people about what we do. It's been so amazing getting to listen to different aspects of my friends' stories, stuff that I knew but didn't really know straight from them. It's been really fun getting to interview people I've known for years and years and getting to find out how they do what they do, and how their individual process works.
MB: I think the technical aspects are interesting to us. Nikka and I are people who like to know how stuff works. We look at this as "We don't know how to host a podcast…Okay, great! Let's look at how to host a podcast." That's exciting to us. I'm excited about learning people's stories. It's partly that we get to shine this light on our friends and their experiences, which feels good. But also…The second episode is about swings, and we have four guests: Sara Andreas, who I knew, Samantha Shafer, who Nikka knew, and then Christopher Rice and Clay Thomson, who neither of us really knew. But to be able to learn more about them and their stories and the shows they're in, how life is backstage at Book of Mormon, I don't know. We get to learn about that. We get to learn about life backstage at Matilda, which is fascinating to us.
What are you hoping the community gets out of this?
MB: We are excited about the possibility of engaging with the community. We're excited to hear about what people want to hear about. We have this great perspective being in this world. We know the people to ask and the questions to ask, but we don't have the perspective of the theater fan who doesn't get to live in this world, so we're welcome to suggestions. If people have topics or ideas that they want to know about, we encourage them to connect with us on our website and offer those suggestions.
NGL: We have an easy comment form on the website.
MB: We're happy to do the work and get that information to them.
The inaugural edition of The Ensemblist will be released July 8. The next edition will be available starting July 22.
To learn more about The Ensemblist, click here.