BEHIND THE GREASEPAINT with THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES

This is an exciting time for all of us here at Tidewater Players. After being afloat in limbo for two years while our home of the last three decades at the Havre de Grace Opera House was undergoing extensive renovations, and fresh off our wildly successful debut homecoming concert during the week of opening activities, we are ecstatic to open our 2017-2018 season back in our home as the resident theatre company of the new Cultural Center at the Opera House.

Our first production of the season is a very special show. Without a home for those two years, it was difficult to mount and travel shows to other host venues. But in the fall of 2015 we premiered The Marvelous Wonderettes, a journey through the lives of four high school seniors in 1958 from their senior prom to their ten year class reunion in 1968, seeing the women they have become as they tell their stories through the soundtrack of their lifetime. Directed and choreographed by Dickie Mahoney and music directed by Stephanie Carlock Cvach, this show has had a journey of its own with Tidewater, being a sort of mini touring production that kept Tidewater Players active until we once again had a home. Thus, after entertaining audiences throughout Harford and Baltimore Counties, it seemed only right that we end that tour right back where we started, with our inaugural production at our home theatre for our own audiences to enjoy.

In this installment of BEHIND THE GREASE PAINT, in my first blog interview, I spent some time with the delightful cast of The Marvelous Wonderettes (Emily Elborn, Natalie Knox, Stephanie Mahoney, and Sarah Sickels) to learn a little about them and their time together with this wonderful production over the last two years.

Thanks for meeting with me. This is kind of momentous for Behind the Greasepaint because you guys were one of the topics in my very first introductory blog when we relaunched our new website two years ago. You’re our first time revisiting a topic of another blog. You’re our first “Where Are They Now?” So welcome back! Now you’ve all been part of the Tidewater family for years. Before we get started, can you list a few of your favorite Tidewater credits, where our readers may recognize you from?

SARAH: I was Olive in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and Clair in Proof.

STEPHANIE: I was Marcy Park in Spelling Bee, of course, because that show like this one kept coming back and coming back. Also Julia in The Wedding Singer and Linda in Blood Brothers.

NATALIE: Little Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods will always have very special place in my heart as my first Tidewater show and as a show that I love. I’ve also been Magenta in The Rocky Horror Show and Holly in The Wedding Singer.

EMILY: I was Eponine in Les Misérables, Amber von Tussle in Hairspray, and in lots of the old Tidewater Teen productions–a decade ago.

And I’ve worked with all of you here at some point. In Spelling Bee, The Wedding Singer, Into the Woods, and Hairspray, and both productions of Annie (Emily in the 2003 one and Stephanie in the 2012 one). Let’s start with an easy question. In this show, tell me about the Wonderette you portray and what she means to you.

NATALIE: Cindy Lou Huffington is a sassy, flirtatious, spunky girl with a serious love of boys. She wants to be an actress when she grows up and she goes to LA to pursue that. Her best friend is Betty Jean, and she’s proud to be the prettiest girl in Springfield High.

EMILY: Betty Jean is….

NATALIE: You.

EMILY: She’s dorky and a tomboy who has great school spirit. She’s also in love with a boy named Johnny who doesn’t love her back.

SARAH: Suzy Simpson is the happy one. Everything’s going to be fine, sunshine and rainbows. She’s the one who steps in and tries to keep the peace, always the peace maker. She’s the first one to get married. She’s been dating her boyfriend Richie for three years and they get married right after high school. And she loves bubble gum.

STEPHANIE: Missy is the type A of the group which I can relate to because I’m the type A in life.

NATALIE: True dat.

STEPHANIE: She wants everything to go perfectly. She lays out a plan and wants it to go just as it’s supposed to. She’s the perfectionist of the group.

SARAH: She’s the Leader of the Pack!

The music in this show is epic. The 60s girl group sound is one of my all time favorite styles. With so much amazing music in the set list, what’s your favorite song that you get to perform, and your favorite song another cast member gets to perform, your favorite to sing back up to?

NATALIE: my favorite song is “Maybe” [the Chantels], because it is the most relatable song. It’s the most real, after all she went through, events that I can relate to.

BTGP: I want to interrupt here that you do a wonderful job with that number, and you should seriously make it an audition piece.

SARAH: I say that too!

NATALIE: My favorite song I sing backup on? Gosh there are so many. But I really like, probably “Shoop”

EMILY: What song is that?

BTGP: “It’s in His Kiss”. Also known as “The Shoop Shoop Song”[Betty Everett].

STEPHANIE: Isn’t that what Cher called her version?

NATALIE: Is it? I don’t know. All I know is I just sing “Shoop shoop shoop shoop”!

EMILY: My favorite song I sing is “That’s Where the Tears Start” [the Blossoms]. My favorite song someone else sings is “Maybe”

SARAH: I guess it would be “Rescue Me” [Fontella Bass]. Because it’s my favorite melody I have. And then I was going to say “Maybe” also for backup.”

STEPHANIE: I don’t know. I don’t have a favorite song that I sing.

SARAH: I made up an answer, you can too.

STEPHANIE: I really don’t know….

SARAH: Oh, I love “Leader of the Pack” [the Shangri-las] for back up too!

NATALIE: “Teacher’s Pet”!

EMILY: Yes!

SARAH: I like “Teacher’s Pet” too! Actually I should have said that for the backup.

STEPHANIE: Yes, “Teacher’s Pet” [Doris Day] is really good. As for the backup, “Stupid Cupid” [Connie Francis] has a little place in my heart because my niece Charlotte loves it. She came to see the show and that’s all she talks about. Everytime we’re in the car, she wants to listen to it nonstop. “Again! Again!” But the most fun is “Leader of the Pack”. It’s just kind of silly, but fun with the choreography and all.

SARAH: We did a lip sync to “Leader of the Pack” when I was in middle school. Every year they had a lip sync competition, and we did “Leader of the Pack” one year. We came in third place. We lost to nuns.

Who were your musical influences? The Wonderettes obviously had strong musical influences, but who did you listen to growing up? And are there any of these artists who you’ve discovered an affinity for by exploring their music, three times now?

STEPHANIE: I remember growing up listening to the oldies station with my parents. They played a big part in my love for the music because they loved it, the doo wop groups and such. So I’ve always loved the old music. So this was really fun because it reminded me of my childhood. I grew up loving this music more than any contemporary influences when I was young. I mean I had a favorite band growing up…

BTGP: New Kids on the Block?

STEPHANIE: Yes, but nothing that influenced me like this music did.

BTGP: So you had a head start with the score.

NATALIE: Our dad really influenced us with the 50s-60s doo wop stuff. But I had so many influences growing up. I mean I love girl groups! Being in the Wonderettes reminds me of all the powerful iconic female singers of my youth, like the Spice Girls, Bette Midler, Cher, all the way to others like Michael Jackson. I’ve just had so many musical influences.

STEPHANIE: It’s funny one of the tapes my mom got was Lesley Gore, so we knew “It’s My Party” and “Judy’s Turn to Cry” years ago. (she sings a few bars of the chorus) Before we even did this show, we knew Lesley Gore by heart.

BTGP: Yeah, Emily, there actually is a sequel to “It’s My Party”. In act 3, Betty Jean wins.

SARAH: When we started singing the music, I don’t remember growing up with this era of music, but I just remember knowing all these songs. My parents were very musical people. We grew up with Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston, and Gloria Estefan. Billy Joel was a big one. My dad grew up listening to folk music, like Peter, Paul, and Mary, in high school. But musicals were also a main thing for us. I remember putting on winter gloves and being a Cat in the family living room. We would go on family trips in August and listen to Les Mis in the car and sing four part harmony. So much of this music is just fun. and it just makes me happy.

EMILY: Wow, you guys have all these elaborate answers. And I was just going to say Hanson.

As women of today, you and your world are very different from the characters you portray. And you play them ten years apart, as teenagers in 1958, then as the women they grow up to be in 1968. And that was a pretty critical decade for women socially. What would your 1968 self tell your 1958 self, and what would your 2017 self tell either of them?

NATALIE: 1968 Cindy Lou would tell 1958 Cindy Lou, “You are a bitch. And you need to kick rocks.” Today, I would tell 1968 Cindy Lou…well, “You are a bitch. A nasty bitch.” Can we print that? No I would say stay sweet and don’t try to grow up too fast. And stop being a bitch!

SARAH: Well my 1968 self is pregnant, so I don’t think she would give any good advice. My 2017 self would definitely tell Suzy to stand on her own two feet.

NATALIE: And don’t rush it.

SARAH: Well, you know what though? In the end, she’s happy. Things are OK and yes, she’s going to have a baby, but they’re happy together again. But I also wouldn’t let my husband treat me the way Richie treats her. Richie, when I say your name, you flash the damn lights! [a reference to a sign of affection, or lack therof, in the musical, where Suzy’s boyfriend turned husband operates the light board for their concerts,]

STEPHANIE: My character is a little bit different. I mean unlike BJ and Cindy Lou, who definitely have issues, my biggest issue is dealing with not being married to who I have a crush on. Missy, being the type A she is, even though they all make fun of her for trying to be perfect, I don’t think it bothers her. It’s not come back to bite her in a negative way. Maybe I’d tell her to relax a little bit, but it didn’t affect her negatively. So maybe just be a little more patient.

SARAH: Five years. She’s only had to wait five years to get married.

BTGP: Well, she had no patience, she learned patience, and she got exactly what she wanted.

STEPHANIE: And I think she did exactly what everyone with that personality does: becomes a teacher and bosses everyone around.

SARAH: Hey! [Sarah and Emily are also teachers]

STEPHANIE: That’s what I did. I went to college after high school and I studied, and that’s what she did. I don’t know if that was common for women back then.

BTGP: Actually, back then, if a woman went to college in the late 50s/early 60s, she studied one of three tracks: education to become a teacher, nursing, or some broad liberal arts so she could kill time, meet a husband, and be well versed in cocktail conversation at his business parties. Those were your options: teacher, nurse, or housewife. Very few women went on to higher education.

EMILY: I think 1960s BJ would tell 1950s BJ to reevaluate her friendships (she looks at Natalie) like Cindy Lou.

STEPHANIE: I think you should also tell her to love yourself. I mean she lets people do horrible things to her.

SARAH: And dump Johnny!

EMILY: I was going to say, that’s what 2017 me would say to both BJ’s.

NATALIE: Yes, dump Johnny

SARAH: Dump Johnny!

BTGP:Yeah, we all know his story. He is kind of a loser.

Your characters each have a signature color in the show. As an artist, I think in color, and color speaks to me. Do those colors influence your character? Why do you think your character likes that color? Is there some connection between why the creators of the show have selected these particular colors to represent each Wonderette?

NATALIE: Yes I totally think there is. Cindy Lou is pink, and I think pink is the ultimate girly, sexpot color. And she wants to be prom queen. When you picture a 60s prom queen, she’s in the big, fluffy, pink dress.

BTGP: Right, classic pretty in pink. And you especially go from 50s baby pink to 60s hot pink, which I think definitely says something, intensifying it all.

NATALIE: Oh yes.

EMILY: Betty Jean is green, but I don’t really associate that with being a tomboy, but maybe?

STEPHANIE: I associate green with envy, and you are jealous of Judy, and Cindy Lou. That speaks to me.

NATALIE: I definitely think of green as being tomboyish, or at least the least feminine color. I mean, you see orange and it just vibrates and feels neurotic. and blue is very childlike and calming.

SARAH: Yes, blue is vary calming, and Suzy is too. She goes with the flow and she’s the peacekeeper. And I think in contrast, orange is a very intense color.

BTGP: That’s how I feel, The expected color flow after pink, blue, and green would be yellow, or maybe another pastel. To go to orange says something. When I’m designing costumes for a show, I never use orange. It’s too visually jarring, too intense like Sarah said. I save orange for very special costumes. When you use orange, you are making a statement. And back to Betty Jean’s green, I do associate it with being a tomboy. Being outdoors, climbing trees.

EMILY: Or maybe it’s just because she has brownish-reddish hair, and it’s to go with that.

BTGP: Or it could be that.

I want to make something clear so that people understand. When they see this show, they think, well you have three songs, and you have four, and you have three, but what they don’t realize is no, you all have 28 songs. Even though you’re not singing lead, you’re singing backup, each with your own line of harmony for every other song in the show. You never get a break like in a traditional musical. How do you handle the vocal damands of this piece?

STEPHANIE: We’ll find out if we don’t have a show next week because the three teachers are losing their voices!

NATALIE: Everytime I do this show I forget how vocally demanding it is. Like after the first sing through and my voice is exhausted. And it doesn’t get easier.

BTGP: It is a very deceptive show because you never stop singing. You can’t pull back and let the ensemble sing like in a traditional songs.

NATALIE: Especially after intermission because you get that little break then have to come back and do all the 60s belted stuff.

You guys have had a unique experience. You’ve had the opportunity to portray these characters three times over with the same cast. Originally, in 2015 at Towson University at Harford CC, again in Baltimore County at Essex CC in 2016, and again here back home at Tidewater in Havre de Grace where it should have appeared all along. Very few people get to revisit a role let alone the original company three times. It can be a luxury, but also a drawback. Is there anything you’ve gained by revisiting these familiar characters, or the music?

SARAH: Dickie was talking to us about that, about not getting stale, and trying to find new things in what we’re doing. And he says he sees some new things, some new emotions in songs, some new comic bits.

STEPHANIE: It’s unlike all the other shows of its kind. I’ve done The Taffetas, but that’s just those girls putting on a radio show. But these characters, you watch their lives unfold.

SARAH: They’re dimensional, and they’re imperfect.

BTGP: Yes, the most analogous show I can think of, which I stumbled upon decades ago and love, is Beehive, and it’s the same music but it’s a chronology. It’s six girls and it starts with the girl groups and progresses through the pop princesses like Connie Francis and Lesley Gore, through the English girls that followed the Beatles over, like Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark, through stronger women of rock and roll like Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, and Aretha Franklin. But it tells the story of how women emerged and found their voices in pop and rock music. You tell four very personal stories of these girls who lived that music. I just love the show, and think it’s so cleverly written. You spend the whole first act setting up all the characters and their friends, boyfriends, all the people in their world, where they work, even birthdays, and then we see them all come back in the details of the second act as the punch lines to those jokes you set up 45 minutes ago. It’s a deceptively complex show.

STEPHANIE: I like how the music tells the story.

BTGP: What I liked about the initial production was that it was all new. It’s kind of like Mamma Mia, where the music and how they use it is the joke.. You don’t what’s coming next or what the songs are going to mean the first time you see this. After that you can still appreciate the humor and the music, but the first time is the magic. I also loved the opportunity to do it in the cafeteria setting, because it was very immersive for the audience, with the tables and the balloons all set up for prom.

NATALIE:It felt like I was doing it in a high school

BTGP: I felt like I was at prom! And I miss that a little bit. But from the producer’s angle, I have to say the thing I like about opening our 2017-2018 season with this show is that it’s a show that I’m proud to have inaugurate the new theatre. I’m excited to bring The Marvelous Wonderettes home to the people who should have seen it to begin with, and to have the ability to flesh the show out a little better on stage, like we had wanted to do all along, to give you guys a more impressive physical production. But I have to say that I miss that immersive quality. The first time just sucked me in. Hell, I was so immersed I was Billy Ray, the preacher’s son. And I really enjoyed that.

NATALIE: And I’d like to say it’s pretty cool to be the first production in this new theatre. So we have this memory of the past, then being the first new memory in the new theatre.

SARAH: We were also the only Tidewater production that happened while out of their home space. So we’ve been part of every transition, and that’s been cool. But I think this is our farewell production.

BTGP: First of all, to me, you’re a very important show in the landmark history of Tidewater, and I’m glad that our home audience finally gets the opportunity to see this show that I as a Tidewater board member am so proud of. And as for that farewell production, don’t be so sure…we’ll see. There are more stories to tell in this saga. I really want to tell the Christmas story (The Winter Wonderettes), then the graduation story (Wonderettes: Caps and Gowns), and Missy’s wedding (Wonderettes: Dream On). There is a whole cycle, and I want to bring the Wonderettes back every season with a new episode. If this is your farewell show, I’m hoping it’ll be like Cher’s farewell tour that went on for seven years and spawned two more tours.

STEPHANIE: Yes, I’ve never read the scripts but I know they all have the same wonderful music.

BTGP:Yes, I want the Wonderettes to come back and continue to make appearances, That’s why I want our readers to know them, so that they eventually become like family.

In the beginning Dickie was explaining this show to me and I’m like, Ok, sounds cute. I love me some girl groups. and the 60s sounds. But from the minute I saw the first dress rehearsal–and he told me the story but I just couldn’t get it until I saw you all fleshing it out–and I thought to myself, “This is so freaking wonderful!” And I still think that. And I need you to know, on behalf of Tidewater Players, we are so proud of you guys and this show, and so very happy to have it not only as our inaugural show in our home space, but as the official premiere theatrical production at the new Cultural Center at the Opera House. You guys are officially a small piece of local history, forever the answer to a local trivia question. And I couldn’t be happier and prouder of the show you’ve give us to debut with. Thanks so much for taking time out of your rehearsal schedule to meet with us. Best of luck on a stellar production, which I must say lives up to the title–Marvelous.

Tickets to Tidewater Players presentation of The Marvelous Wonderette are available at the link above.