Elena Shaddow has a lot of Broadway credits to her name. She's appeared in La Cage aux Folles, The Woman in White, Fiddler on the Roof, and Nine, and, most recently, she served as Kelli O'Hara's standby in the demanding role of Francesca Johnson in The Bridges of Madison County (she also played the role in the show's tryout at Williamstown Theatre Festival while O'Hara was pregnant).
Now, Shaddow is gearing up to pay tribute to her favorite contemporary composers in her debut cabaret show, Always Better: The New Golden Age of Musicals, which will come to 54 Below on September 6 at 9:30pm. In a conversation with TheaterMania, Shaddow shared her feelings on the new generation of songwriters as well as on the continual improvements in the art of theatrical music, and, in a complete change of pace, she discussed her experience acting in NBC's 2013 live broadcast of The Sound of Music.
The title of your show is Always Better, which is a nod to the finale from The Bridges of Madison County, right?
That's the only song I'm singing from Bridges, and I wanted to use one of the titles of one of the songs I'm singing in the show. It really is in reference to the idea that I think our art form is continuing to evolve and grow in a way that is always better. Every season it feels that we are creating new and better art, and not just on Broadway. We have to keep looking forward and finding what's new and hearing new perspectives.
So your entire set list is based around new material from new musical-theater writers?
I've got some of the old standbys as well, but I think it's important to keep fostering new work. We set a very specific time frame, the last twenty years, so I couldn't dip into the 1980s or the 1970s. That narrowed it down a bit. From there, it was just about what story do I have to tell about myself and how can I weave all of this together, while honoring this new golden age of Broadway.
Do you have personal relationships with all of the songs you chose?
Many of the songs are new to me. I wanted to challenge myself in a way I haven't in a while. I was pretty strict with myself to not go, "Oh, I'm just going to sing this song that I've always sung." It's exciting because I'm discovering new things every single time I sing them.
What composers are on the bill?
I'm singing some of Maury Yeston's music. I was supposed to be in that revival of Titanic that was meant to come to Broadway this fall. I was cast as Caroline Neville, and they were going to add this song that had been cut in previews of the original, so I'm singing that just to have a little closure. Three of my songs are by Georgia Stitt, who is my musical director. Prior to this, I didn't know her music. We had become friends through the Bridges experience [Stitt is married to Bridges composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown], and then she and I became better friends doing The Sound of Music Live! — she was the music supervisor and got a cameo as one of the nuns. She and I have really bonded. I love her voice as a female writer.
You played Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music Live! Tell me about that experience.
It was complicated. It was incredible. Just the melding of the art forms. My responsibility was pretty true to what I do all the time…but it was different for me because, once we got onto the set, we had to do camera blocking for a musical…It was a huge task. We rehearsed it like a musical and then we got to the set, a huge airplane hangar in Long Island, and that was a whole other thing…It was amazing to see Audra McDonald work up close and personal, and to watch Laura Benanti and Christian Borle and the way they played so beautifully. We all rallied around Carrie Underwood — we knew she was out of her comfort zone and we saw her put in the hard work all day…There was a lot of criticism afterwards, but the experience itself was just incredible. It felt so big and I didn't grasp the scope of it until I watched it, and then I realized what a really big deal it was.
Going back to your concert, you're performing alongside two of your Bridges castmates, Caitlin Kinnunen and Jessica Vosk. Give us a preview of what you'll be singing with them.
We're singing a trio of Georgia's called "Before I Lose My Mind." It's about the trials and tribulations of being a female. The three of us are on even playing field, and it's really fun. Jessica Vosk is singing a duet with me as well, a Sara Bareilles song. She can harmonize like nobody's business. She's a musical genius.
Ultimately, what do you, as a performer, hope to get out of this experience?
I'm proud of myself for going out of my comfort zone and putting myself out there and not behind an ingenue character…I have a lot of life behind me, and I'm excited to share my story.