Interview with Tony nominee Stephanie J. Block
Tony nominee Stephanie J. Block is currently starring as Trina, the female lead, in the Lincoln Center Theater's revival of Falsettos, alongside Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells, at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre until January 8th, 2017.
Stephanie picked up a Tony nomination in 2013 for The Mystery of Edwin Drood. She made her Broadway debut as Liza Minnelli in The Boy From Oz in 2003 and went on to star as Elphaba in Wicked, Grace (Grania) O'Malley in The Pirate Queen, Judy Bernly in 9 to 5 and Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes on the Great White Way.
Stephanie kindly took the time to talk to us about possibly the most anticipated musical revival of the season.
Thomas Hayden Millward: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me, Stephanie. If we could start with the title of the show, how do you interpret the title ‘Falsettos’ yourself?
Stephanie J. Block: That’s an interesting question because I, on the very first day of rehearsal, asked William Finn, who wrote the show, what it meant myself. I had come up with an interpretation of my own and luckily, mine was very similar to his. Falsettos is the place in the voice of a young man, who has yet to reach puberty or manhood. A lot of the characters in our show are still trying to find their way and grow up. They’re still trying to grasp responsibility and larger themes of life. So Falsettos relates to that – a young boy turning into a true, full-fledged man.
THM: Well, I’m glad to hear I wasn’t a million miles off the mark too then, because I also thought it related to some of the adult character’s lack of maturity and that symbolically their voices hadn’t broken yet...
SJB: You were not a million miles off at all!
THM: So, working with James Lapine, who wrote the book, as your director in rehearsal, as well as musician and lyricist William Finn, must have been such a gift. What were their main pieces of advice to you and the rest of the cast?
SJB: It’s really a beautiful thing to be in the room with the composer and the writer, who in turn is also the director. Both were so involved with the creation of the piece 25 years ago. Their investment in and their love of this musical translated 25 years into the present day. Having them there we not only create a new way of telling the story, but we have their backstories of how the show was actually developed. If we had a question about a lyric or if wanted to try something new, their intelligence and their depth of the material helped us bring it to life. They’re both some of the smartest people you will ever meet artistically and their connection to the piece allowed us to bring the whole show to a different level.
THM: Despite it being such a male-dominated musical, initially I found it so much easier to empathise with your character of Trina, whose desires are totally justified in my opinion, compared to Christian Borle’s character of Marvin, who I felt kind of wanted his cake and wanted to eat it too…
SJB: That’s exactly right! My character of Trina gets to be the eyes and the ears of the audience. Somehow because of the lyrics I get to sing and the point of view from which I get to watch these men change and grow, the audience connects greatly with my character. It’s really quite something! I guess 25 years ago there was great humour to ‘Falsettos,’ which we still have, but now that we’re removed a bit from the raw feeling of the AIDS crisis, we’re able to go a little deeper and able to get a little more emotional. Having done it 25 years ago in the midst of the AIDS crisis, I don’t think the story would have been as affective at that date and time. But now in 2016, we are able to tell it in such a way that we can go a little deeper because, as you say, audiences can stand in Trina’s shoes and view the male characters from her point of view. They can find empathy and weep with her as they watch the story unfold through her eyes.
THM: And talk about balancing the humour with the emotional, your “I’m Breaking Down” number was a real show-stealer!
SJB: Thank you! That number is a real balancing act! Now, it’s the greatest gift I’ve ever had in musical theatre! When I was learning it, it was more one of my greatest fears in musical theatre because the character really walks such a fine line. You want to show the heart of Trina as to why she is breaking down. You want the number to be based in the truth of the matter. But the manner in which the song is performed, whilst she’s cooking her Banana-Carrot-Surprise (laughs), and the ridiculousness of the props and the food element and having a butcher knife in her hand – all these things that seem so mundane and innocuous – and then you add that with the lyrics and her state of mind and it becomes a real feat. I’m so glad that the audience is able to kind of stay on that balance with me. They can still see the tragic part of the song, but also laugh out loud and, luckily, roar at the end of the number.
THM: Now that AIDS is much more widely documented and it isn’t the mysterious killer it was 25 years ago, what do you think is the musical’s main impact and main message today?
SJB: That’s such an interesting question. I think that the beauty of ‘Falsettos,’ even though of course it moves towards Andrew Rannells’ character of Whizzer getting ill and contracting HIV/AIDS and then ultimately – Spoiler Alert! – passing away from it, this musical has taken on so many different themes in this political climate. You saw the show in the week when the world took a turn in our presidential election. Lyrics like “I’m tired of all the happy men who rule the world” take on a different weight and meaning. I also believe there is a beautiful message of what defines family and what true family means to people, whether that is your biological family or strictly your logical family – people in your life who love you, accept you, support you and stick with you through all the hard times. When ‘Falsettos’ was first written AIDS didn’t even have a name at that time. It was just called “gay cancer.” Moving into 2016, we are able to still address that message, but on top of that, there are messages of family and love and the fracture of family and the fracture of our world and understanding towards people. It’s quite a multi-layered piece.
THM: I left the theatre thinking about my own family and my friends’ families. In particular, I thought about my two lesbian friends who have their second child on the way and I think it’s wonderful how non-traditional family units are being depicted on a Broadway stage. Finally, Stephanie, could you summarise what our readers could expect from a visit to ‘Falsettos’?
SJB: That’s the beauty of it. If you have never seen ‘Falsettos’ before, you are not gonna know what to expect. I think that is the greatest theatrical experience – walking into a theatre, sitting down, knowing you’re going to be emotionally moved and emotionally charged, but you’re not quite sure where the next scene or the next song is going to take you. Then, the final scene, regardless of who you are or what you’re taking away from the piece, you’ll find yourself thinking about your life or shedding a tear. I can guarantee you - you’ll be emotionally moved in some way.