I’m writing this column, finally, from New York! I’ve been in Provincetown all summer and this is my first Sunday back at my house with my sweet doggies. Next week, however, I’ll be writing this column from a cruise going to the Norwegian Fjörds. Stay tuned for stunning photos!
Anyhoo, last week I had two fabulous shows with Stephanie J. Block at the Provincetown Art House. If you don’t know, Stephanie had to add the J to differentiate herself from another Stephanie Block who is a preacher. More specifically, the “razzle dazzle preacher.” Stephanie told us she started getting letters asking for scripture advice or furious at her for protesting abortion clinics and Stephanie realized she had to have a more distinctive name. Hence, she added the “J”. She grew up in Orange County and went to the same art high school as Susan Egan, Matthew Morrison, and Lindsay Mendez. Her triumphant role senior year was Mama Rose, during which her own mother was with her backstage! Not because her mom worked at the school, but because Stephanie was what some people call a “perfectionist” and others simply summed up as “no one wants to be your dresser,” so her mom took on the job.
Speaking of her mom/Mama Rose, she changed Stephanie’s birth certificate so she could work at Disneyland at age 15. She and her sister both joined at the same time and her sister got cast as a glamorous princess. Stephanie was psyched to be performing with her, side by side, but that was not to be. Instead she was cast in Three Little Pigs as one of the titular pigs. She eventually worked her way up and played most of the Disney princesses…until she auditioned for Pocahontas. She got into full regalia including the long dark hair and was told she was wrong for the part. Why? Because she looked too much like…CHER! The full circle part is: She is now about to star on Broadway as Cher in The Cher Show. One of those amazing stories where what you think is something bad about you turns into a huge plus. (Speaking of Cher and Provincetown, here’s the brilliant Varla Jean Merman in her version of “Dark Lady.” I love it!)
One day, when Stephanie looked in her bathroom and saw a plethora of colored contact lenses, one pair for each princess, and she realized she’d been at Disney too long and left. Stephen Schwartz was out in L.A. writing his new musical Wicked and Stephanie was recommended to him by a bunch of people. He called her, met with her, and she soon started doing readings of the show playing Elphaba. They continued readings with Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda, but near the end of the pre-Broadway phase they told Stephanie that they didn’t want to use her for the Broadway company because she didn’t have any experience carrying a show. They offered her the standby. It was a really hard decision for her but she decided to do it because it could be a great way to break into Broadway.
While she was in San Francisco (as the standby for the pre-Broadway engagement), she wound up going on for Elphaba. After her performance she was told she could replace Idina on Broadway or lead the first national tour. She decided to lead the tour because she thought having a whole rehearsal process with a cast would be a great way to really dig into the role. It paid off in more ways than one (stay tuned).
But, at the same time, while she was in San Francisco, she flew to NYC to audition for the role of Liza Minnelli (really!) in The Boy From Oz opposite Hugh Jackman. She got the part…and decided not to stand-by for Elphaba on Broadway and take Boy From Oz instead. Stephanie said it was really difficult because audiences didn’t quite know who she was when she entered. Young Liza’s look was not familiar in the public eye’s memory. Isabel Keating would do a Judy Garland number as “late Judy” with the look and all the gestures we associate with Judy and then Stephanie would come on with long straight hair and say “Mama!” and no one knew who the H she was. Soon they gave her the Liza short and sassy wig, but they didn’t think that was enough. Then came the giant eyelashes. And one day she did it with old-school cardboard eyelashes—a.k.a. a fire hazard. Finally, Hugh Jackman told them to put a stop to changing her performance every day and they froze her Liza. Here’s some B-roll of her “Liza with a Z” type song.
Even though Stephanie didn’t standby for Elphaba on Broadway, after Boy From Oz, Stephanie did get to do the Wicked first national tour. During her final two months on tour, they brought in a new Fiyero, Sebastian Arcelus. Stephanie knew what that meant: rehearsals. Ugh. She was exhausted from playing the role for so long and didn’t want to spend the end of tour rehearsing with someone new but she knew she had to. For Sebastian, however, the feeling was different. He met her and then called his mom and said, “I just met the woman I’m going to marry!” They became friends (she was dating someone else) and at one point she was walking around NYC and went to a jewelry store to treat herself to a ring she saw in the window. Once she put it on, however, she realized it was an engagement and didn’t buy it. She was gabbing on the phone with Sebastian while she was in the store. After they hung up, he figured out what store she was in, called and spoke to the manager (“There was just a tall brunette looking at a ring …”), went to the store, and bought her the engagement ring before they were even dating! That is a combination of commitment and a Jeanne Dixon-esque psychic ability. It’s also basically a real life version of this song:
As for my comment about Stephanie choosing to do the national tour instead of replacing on Broadway, she says “Idina won the Tony…and I got my husband!”
Here she is on the big Act 1 finale and you can watch her full Live From Lincoln Center concert here.
Now they’re married and, as Stephanie says, “We have three children. And her name is Vivienne.” Yes, her daughter is a handful and sounds hilarious! She’s only three-and-a-half and I’m obsessed with her turn of phrase: When the whole family went to Chicago for the out-of-town tryout of The Cher Show, Stephanie didn’t realize what a hard adjustment it would be on a toddler. On the day they moved back from Chicago to New York, Vivenne asked, “Are we finally leaving this house of disappointment?” Brava on the poetic verbiage! In conclusion, go see Stephanie in The Cher Show this fall! Previews start November 1 at the Neil Simon!
And finally, let me remind you all that I’m doing a show with the amazing Judy Kuhn this coming September 15 at Molloy College on Long Island. Tickets and info here.
She has so many brilliant songs to choose from. Here she is sounding amazing with Lea Salonga and Michael Ball in Les Misérables. Judy has to hit that terrifying pianissimo B flat at the end of the song…and she nails it! Watch it here.