Chester Gregory has remained a steady Broadway fixture since making his debut in 2003 in Hairspray. A replacement in the role of Seaweed, the Gary, Indiana native began a streak of supporting principal roles that included Terk in Tarzan, Dupree in Cry-Baby, Donkey in the Seattle tryout of ShrekThe Musical, and James “Thunder” Early in the Dreamgirlsnational tour. Now Gregory is back on Broadway playing (Sweaty) Eddie Souther in Sister Act—the noble police officer who sends lounge singer Dolores (Patina Miller) to hide in a convent from her thug pursuers.
Gregory earned raves in 2000 when he starred in Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater’s production of The Jackie Wilson Story. When the show toured in New York at the Apollo Theater, Hairspray creators Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman were taken by Gregory’s energetic performance and immediately cast him as Seaweed in their hit musical. Since making his Broadway debut, Gregory has earned an adoring fanbase, but his stage journey has had notable low points. Tarzan opened to terrible reviews, Cry-Baby only lasted 68 performances, and the industry buzzed when Gregory was not cast as Donkey in Shrek’s Broadway transfer, after creating the role in Seattle.
Despite these potential setbacks, Gregory plunged forward, giving a well-reviewed performance in the national tour of Dreamgirls and creating a slick R&B/soul solo career. Gregory sat down with Stage Rush in his dressing room at the Broadway Theatre (coincidentally, where the musical about the ogre played) to discuss Sister Act, his history with the Apollo, and what happened with Shrek.
How did Sister Act come into your life?
Sister Act came into my life by way of my son’s mother, Kimberly Herbert Gregory, who is an actress as well [last seen in By The Way, Meet Vera Stark]. She saw the production in London and recommended I audition for it. Read more
What did you find most surprising about my interview with Lynne Shankel? Have you seen All About Me? Did you think Michael Feinstein held his own, or was he just one of Dame Edna’s props? Please leave any questions or suggestions for topics in the comments!
If Raul Esparza is making audiences swoon with a Spanish rendition of “O Holy Night” or a boy band causes an audience to crack up with their humorous religion-infused pop music, it means Lynne Shankel is doing her job. As a music director, Shankel is in charge of shaping a production’s music into the correct tone, style, and interpretation. Having worked on Broadway (Company, Cry Baby), off (Altar Boyz), and on countless concerts at venues like Joe’s Pub (ASTEP’s New York City Christmas) and benefits around the country, Shankel is a go-to musician for producers and performers who want their shows and showcase concerts to hit the right notes. You can have a peek at these guys if you are a music enthusiast.
The Kansas City native studied piano performance at the University of Michigan, but much to the chagrin of her professors, she soon drifted from her classical studies and gravitated toward the theatrical. Playing piano in numerous college productions, which involved future Broadway stars Hunter Foster and Jennifer Laura Thompson, as well as Vanities composer David Kirshenbaum, Shankel’s passion for musical theater was established. She moved to New York in 1993 and has been working ever since.
Shankel kicks off Stage Rush’s Broadway Brain series, focusing on the behind-the-scenes masters of New York theater. The 39 year old opens up about Broadway’s triumphs and disappointments, nursing a show’s score from start to finish, and keeping the creative juices flowing.
Explaining it to me as if I’m a 3 year old, what does a music director/supervisor do?
The first thing you do as a music director is you work with the cast before you even start with the musicians. You teach them the vocals for the piece. I work on tons of new pieces. When you’re working on something new, it’s not like putting together The Wizard of Oz, where the actors have heard the cast recording and they know how it’s supposed to sound. With a new piece, the score is constantly changing and developing. Even before that, you work with the creative team to develop the piece. For a new show, I develop it through as many readings as we decide to have. Once we get past that point, I work with the composer, director, and choreographer intensely to figure out what the piece is, musically. What is the style we’re going for? From there, we hone in on the vocals and work on not only the sound and the style, but also the interpretation of the lyrics. A big part of what I do is coaching the actors through a song so that it not only has a musical arc, but a dramatic arc as well. Once I get through working with the cast, then it’s time to add in a band. If it’s an original piece, then I also work with an orchestrator, because the music hasn’t been played before. Sometimes there can be a bit of trial and error, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. I work out the dynamics, style, and articulations, so that we have a piece that feels cohesive. Then we get into the theater and it’s a whole other ball of wax with technical elements and conducting the show.
***VIDEO AFTER THE JUMP: Lynne Shankel describes her strangest day working in the theater*** Read more
Coming to you from Los Angeles this week! Please excuse the wind interference—we weren’t aware of it until we had finished (low-cost equipment here). I had a real, live soldier of the Hollywood entertainment industry collaborating with me this week—my good friend Michelle Mogavero . Having a “crew” was very exciting.
Rush FAIL: The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
Upcoming interview with Lynne Shankel, former music supervisor for Company, music director for Cry Baby and Altar Boyz.