Stephanie J. Block Is In a Good Place!
The Broadway star talks about 9 to 5, her new CD This Place I Know, her upcoming show at Birdland, and performing on the Tony Awards.
THEATERMANIA: Did you always have the idea of having songwriters play for you on this CD?
STEPHANIE J. BLOCK: No, that concept didn't come until later; it kind of came out of the shows I used to do at Birdland. In 2006, I asked Stephen Schwartz to accompany me on "Making Good," which was cut from Wicked, and we had such a great experience that I immediately felt that it's what I needed the CD to be. But then it took over two years for everyone to say yes; and the composers sent me a lot of different pieces that would sit in my voice well, and it was hard to choose among them. For the most part, I wanted things that hadn't been recorded before, although I did specifically ask Stephen Flaherty for "The Human Heart," because, let's face it, doesn't everyone want their own backup choir?
TM: Considering that you played Elphaba, why did you select "Making Good" rather than, say, "Defying Gravity"?
SJB: Stephen called me in 2000 when he first started working on Wicked and asked me to come to his apartment, and he played "Making Good" for me back then, so recording it made it come full circle. But instead of just doing it with piano, we decided to use a similar, more souped-up arrangement to the one we came up with for the Wicked fifth anniversary celebration. In the end, it's a song to which I'm emotionally connected.
TM: When did you ask Dolly Parton to be part of the CD?
SJB: We started working together on 9 to 5 in June 2007, but she was the last composer I approached. We had built up this great working relationship and become friends, and I decided I didn't want to overstep those boundaries and ask her to give me a song. But our musical director Stephen Oremus told me she would do it if I just asked, and I eventually I just had to find the cojones to do it. Actually, I wrote her an email -- it took me days to draft it -- and she wrote me back overnight, and said she'd do whatever I wanted, but suggested "I Will Always Love You." Then, she asked Stephen to arrange it, and we decided to make it like a lullabye; we wanted a quiet simple moment where you can really listen to the lyrics. The first time Dolly came into the studio, she listened for over two hours to what we had already laid down, and then she started doing her little Dollyisms -- her hums and her back-up vocals -- and it made me cry that she would give me not just this song, but so much of her time and her heart. And we know a lot of people are so used to hearing the song the other ways it's been recorded that it takes a couple of listens for some people to appreciate our version. But the more people listen to it, the more they tend to love it.
SJB: First, this music is so joyous to sing. Plus, with Boy from Oz, I had to alter my voice to sound like Liza Minnelli, and for Pirate Queen, I had to use an Irish overtone. But Judy is just my voice; I don't have to flip it around. And I loved being with Allison and Megan and Dolly in the studio and having the sense we were really sharing this music. Of course, it was only two takes per song -- I call it churn and burn -- so you cross your fingers that it comes out okay. And my big song, "Get Out and Stay Out," is a little tricky. I've heard that they decided to use the first take in its entirety, and didn't use the second one at all.
TM: That song gets a pretty amazing response in the show. Is that great for you?
SJB: Absolutely. I think it's because for the first 45 minutes of the show, Judy is more of a spectator -- it takes her a while to become part of it all. So then to be able to let loose in the 11th hour feels so amazing and so freeing -- not just for me, but for the audience who has followed Judy in her journey through the past two hours. I think they get the same release as I do.
TM: When you were trying the show out in Los Angeles last year, there was a lot of trouble with the set. How do you feel about it?
SJB: The set is what we call the beast; it's almost a character in show. And, yes, it's always a little nerve-racking for all of us when a swing or new person has their first show with the set. But our director, Joe Mantello, really wanted the show to feel cinematic -- like the camera is constantly panning -- which is why we have 47 scene transitions. But it's all running smoothly now. And you know, the tourists and the out-of-town crowds are awed by the set and they're kind of pleased they can see the money they spent on tickets on the stage. After the show, they keep telling us that 9 to 5 is what they think a Broadway musical should be.
TM: What was it like performing -- even so briefly -- on the Tony Awards this year?
SJB: Honestly, it was bittersweet to be there. Of course, it's such a thrill to be on the stage of Radio City; but still, we wore these t-shirts at the rehearsal that said "We feel like bastards at the family reunion." When you work this hard, you desperately wanted to be acknowledged by the Tonys, and it was hard not to be nominated for Best Musical. But the good news is that the crowds are going wild for the show, and we're going to last. People are leaving happier than when they came into the theater, and that's our goal.
TM: So what can audiences expect to hear at Birdland on the 13th?
SJB: About half the show will be songs from the album, and the rest will be tunes from the same composers I considered putting on the CD, and some of the composers will be there. And I'll have back-up singers. But I am not sure about Dolly being there; that lady is very busy.