Finally! “Un-Block The Music” brings you my extended interview with the talented Melissa Errico promised to you earlier this summer.
As this blog continues to grow, I find that while all artists are different, they also come from a similar place in their heart. I hope that reading “Un-Block The Music’s” (UBTM) interviews during the last 6 months has played a tiny part in keeping your spirits up. I have most definitely realized that people are more similar than they are different, if you just take time to look. I will now get off my high horse and get back to Melissa.
Melissa has really got it all. She is beautiful and her talent is…well…extraordinary, and what struck me about her is that she knows what she wants and she goes for it! Growing up in Long Island, NY, Melissa said by the time she was 12 years old she wanted Broadway! It was in her blood. “My grandmother was an opera singer, and her sister was discovered in New York City by Florenz Ziegfeld and became an actual Follies girl!”
And that’s not all, the creative genes go beyond. Melissa’s mom is a sculptor and painter. “She was always dressing beautifully, filling my head with jokes, creating something in her studio. Her statues were often mechanized and moved and even made sounds. She taught me that creativity is an end in itself.”
Melissa’s father, the doctor, is a classical pianist. “There was something of the mad scientist about him. You might say my home was a bit like the play You Can’t Take It With You. You know, the play with the grandfather in the basement inventing things that occasionally blow up, and the little sister doing ballet all over the house? I was the ballerina for sure.” (UBTM’s daughter played the ballerina in a production of that show…LOL…And, one of my favs, Annaleigh Ashford won a Tony for that role. Check it out: https://unblockthemusic.blog/2019/05/14/annaleigh-ashford-teams-up-with-her-friend-will-van-dyke-for-live-from-lincoln-center/)
Always loving theater, and attending theater camps like French Woods, Melissa eventually went off to Yale. During her freshman year, she took trips to Manhattan to audition for summer regional theaters, wanting to make sure she had a musical to perform that summer. “While auditioning for Rhode Island Theater By The Sea, I was seen in a hallway by the director of Les Miserables. He asked me to step in to the audition room, and before you knew it, I was cast as Cosette! I dropped out of Yale and went on the first national tour for 15 months!”
Melissa did eventually go back to Yale and during her senior year, she did the pre-Broadway workshop of a musical called Anna Karenina at The Circle in The Square Theater. It was directed by the theater’s co-founder Theodore Mann and choreographed by the great Pat Birch. (The book was written by Peter Kellogg who has been interviewed more than once by UBTM. Check it out: https://unblockthemusic.blog/2019/04/26/on-a-day-as-lovely-as-today-un-block-the-music-experienced-a-reading-of-the-rivals/).
“In a stroke of luck, I auditioned for and… played Anna!.” Melissa said. “How that happened is still something of a dream. I came to the workshop audition completely dressed in a long green, serious dress with a high neck marked by a cameo (which I borrowed from my mother), and I carried a little piece of luggage into the room. I had read the novel and I had a deep affinity for romantic Russia. (She studied Chekhov at Oxford.) Somehow that came across, and they cast me.”
Melissa was very inspired by that workshop. The director thought she was too young to play Anna. Melissa scoffed! “I seemed to have some kind of angst and sense of her world and her longings. I loved that she lost her senses and ran off with Vronsky! Anyway….. When the actual Broadway show began rehearsals, they moved me to the ingenue role and I understudied Anna. I loved playing Princess Kitty and was thrilled that it directly led to My Fair Lady. It will sound like it was all too easy, but I will defend that I had to fight like a cat for the role of Eliza Doolittle. I had 13 auditions!” If you have actors in your life, you know that auditions are truly torture!!!
To be so successful in theater at such a young age is no coincidence and not at all easy. Most casting directors will choose a 30-year-old to play a teenager, but Melissa had great mentors. “None of them are like calm friends I would sit around with an have glass of wine. I would like mentors like that honestly… in fact now that I think of it, some are rather brusque with me!” And, she says, they are the same mentors she continues to have. She talks of Charlotte Moore from the Irish Reparatory Theater as well as her singing teacher of 30 years, Joan Lader. Both challenge her and have made her a better performer, she says.
Another of Melissa’s mentors was Broadway choreographer Donald Saddler, a legendary dancer who was often dancing among the likes of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. “He always gave me advice that only a dancer could give—ways to carry myself physically in a role, general health tips. Donald had a sense that a theater life is to be delighted in. He definitely taught me that one never stops performing. He was on Broadway in his 80s, and when I visited him at the end of his life (at 100 years old), he was sitting in a wheelchair with his eyes closed. I asked him where he was, and he said ‘when I close my eyes, I am dancing. I am dancing in my mind.’”
Costume and Set Designer, Tony Walton became a director many years ago and cast Melissa in many plays. “He stayed on as a mentor, and is as funny and lively a man as ever. He always loved me as the person I am. He was married to Julie Andrews, and knew more than anyone about the life and experiences of musical theater and being a leading lady. Given what Julie went through, Tony always cared about the health of my voice.” (After having vocal surgery to remove nodules, Julie Andrews was left with permanent damage that destroyed her four-octave soprano voice.)
UBTM asked Melissa if she has had any obstacles that she wanted to talk about, especially during this crazy pandemic when art has pretty much been put on hold. She said, “I am made up of many obstacles that I have turned into fuel like my EP, Two Spring Songs For Summer.” I spoke to Melissa in July when she was about to release it. https://unblockthemusic.blog/2020/07/01/women-wednesdays-melissa-errico-joins-seth-rudetsky-sunday-just-a-hint-of-her-projects-during-co-vid-19/
In addition to her EP, Melissa’s name was also associated with a virtual release party in July of the live recording of Our Table. Melissa’s involvement with the show began in a 2015 workshop. “I had often sung and loved David Shire’s music, but I was especially intrigued by the idea of Adam Gopnik. What was this highbrow New Yorker guy doing writing a musical? So, I joined the company in the role of Claire and was quickly captivated by the songs and the story and the soulfulness of the show about a couple’s struggle to save their little restaurant in Manhattan.”
While Melissa was not able to be part of the show when it opened in Connecticut (Anastasia Barzee played Claire in this production), Melissa said she never left the show spiritually. “I urged Adam to do a concert version and then this wonderful concept album that just came out. The show is only more relevant now, in the midst of the pandemic, when every restaurant in New York is struggling to survive and every day we try to negotiate between necessity and idealism. I’m sure it will get another production. Musicals never seem to really end, just get occasionally abandoned.”
What’s on Melissa bucket list now? “The true bucket is how much I care about the theater world right now, and how it is really cracked and suffering. I want to do anything to save our stages, and to support my peers and our community. I have reached out to teach, and I am willing to do a lot of charity work. I can’t really even imagine what I want as a person. I want the whole circus to be strong and healthy again. I can’t worry about my own trapeze act. “
Melissa’s interview was so heartfelt, UBTM couldn’t bear to leave anything out. At shut-down, Melissa was about to do a 6-month international tour featuring songs by Michel Legrand; “Legrand Difference: Melissa Errico Sings The Music of Michel Legrand.” Sadly, like all tours, it has been cancelled. But, during the interview she talked extensively about her magnificent relationship to the music of Michel Legrand.