If I have written this before, forgive me for repeating myself, but it is something I believe so strongly. If you always want to be working, create your own work! “Un-Block The Music” had the pleasure of speaking with Leandra Ellis-Gaston who is the Swing/Dance captain for Tina: The Tina Tuner Musical on Broadway. But, she is way more than that! Leandra is a budding producer and most definitely a “Woman Wonder”. Recently, alongside her friend Zhailon Levingston (Associate Director on Tina), Leandra co-produced Broadway’s Black Voices of The Future, a virtual concert sponsored by the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. I called her immediately because A LOT of women were represented here. Low and behold, I also found out she was born in Mt. Vernon, NY! So was I!!! That town has produced amazing women..LOL!!!
Broadway’s Future Songbook Series, presented by Arts and Artists of Tomorrow, offered this free concert that spotlighted up-and-coming Black composers and lyricists, including Zhailon Levingston, Nik Alexander, Nehemiah Luckett, Tracey Conyer Lee, Sissi Liu, Kirya Traber, Alex Hare, Derrick Byars, Tia DeShazor, AriDy Nox, and Brandon Webster. Leandra performed!
Leandra said, “we got great feedback from the concert. Everyone is excited to see some new material. I am a concept development person and have realized if I want to be specific about the work, I want to be part of, I need to make sure that work is created. If it’s not there, I have to refocus my energy and create the space!”
Confident women are a big focus for “Un-Block The Music,” and when I was speaking to Leandra, I got the sense that while she builds her career and discovers new facets to that career all of the time, she already knows who she is, and that can be attributed to her mom! When Leandra was about 7 years old, Leandra moved from Mt. Vernon to Columbia, S.C. She was exposed to music in church and was involved in band and chorus in school.
“When I was in 6th grade, there was a school audition for Annie. I was cast as Miss Hannigan,” she said. Leandra remembers being excited to perform, but before inviting family and friends to see the show, she only wanted her mom to see it first. Her most vivid memory of that night has to do with the apple she was rewarded with after her performance. “I was walking on stage for the bow with an apple in my hand. My only attention was on the apple, not the bow at all. And that’s when the whole audience stood up and applauded. It hit me at that moment, this is something I am supposed to do. At that moment it clicked.”
Leandra and her mom were astonished. “People were going up to my mother, saying, ‘Leandra needs to do this!’ So I started training and performed in school and throughout the town.” For college, she went to the LA campus of The American Musical and Dance Academy (AMDA) and earned a BFA.
As her mom taught her throughout life, try everything! In addition to performing, Leandra used her artistry elsewhere in the theater. “I worked in the costume shop. I was close to the stage manager, and loved working behind the scenes. I learned so much more about the characters I would play and I learned more about the human I wanted to be!”
After graduating AMDA on Saturday, she moved to New York on Tuesday and that Friday (less than a week after graduating) Leandra booked her first job; the international tour of Hair. “I booked the job in July, but it didn’t start til January. I had to figure out what to do until then; had to find side hustles and ended up using the skills I had that I didn’t use on stage. From being in the costume shop at AMDA, I learned how to be a stylist for example. I did that for two months. And I booked another gig for 2 months leading up to Hair.”
“Un-Block The Music” particularly loves Leandra’s journey to Beautiful, The Carole King Musical. It was an absolute journey, audition after call back after audition…9 times! They always loved her, but for the part… “not this time.” Leandra was confident about her talent, but one day she thought it was about time to enter a new phase in life. She told her friend Zhailon, it was time to cut her hair. “I had so much of me attached to the hair I had since 5th grade. When I let it go and I walked into a different lifestyle…I booked the job!”
The casting team said, “when you walked in the room with no hair on your head and sang the song…the job was yours! There are so many other factors to booking the job besides talent. It’s about the extra thing that makes you special or makes you stand out!” Leandra said. While on the tour of Beautiful, she booked Tina!
“Un-Block The Music” thinks it interesting that Leandra’s two biggest roles so far are associated with two really strong women, Carole King and Tina Turner! She doesn’t think that is a coincidence. “My whole life, I have been inspired by amazingly strong resilient women, from my grandmother to my mother. So, when I audition for shows about women, there is something in my DNA that makes me relate and stand out!”
Carole King and Tina Turner are women of a comeback, Leandra says. “Un-Block The Music” says, Leandra is also a woman of comeback. Just as she was ready to take the stage as Tina (she is the understudy to Adrienne Warren), the pandemic hit and Broadway shutdown that very week! She had been working closely with Music Supervisor Nicholas Skilbeck on finding her inner Tina (in a different vein than Adrienne). https://unblockthemusic.blog/2020/12/14/music-supervisor-nicholas-skilbeck-from-broadways-tina-talks-about-honoring-tina-turners-live-performance-legacy/ “When we closed down, we thought it was a month…I was still training to be Tina, then we realized this was not going to be three weeks as we originally thought.”
Leandra was excited when her friend Zhailon originally reached out to her about performing in the Black Voices concert. “We then had a conversation and thought, maybe producing was an even better choice.” She wants to be part of the movement that leads art and theater in a new direction. While producing that show, Leandra said, “I realized how many African American Artists are out who have never had the opportunity to do a project at Lincoln Center. I found how much harder it has been for them to get into competitions or receive fellowships. I wanted to give a voice to them in front of a new audience.”
She continued. “We thought it was essential to have the same amount of women in the show as men.” Actor/lyricist/librettist Tia DeShazor was part of the show, and Leandra thought it was very important to include her as she is the founder of BOLD whose mission is “to build up Black women in the performing arts for the restoration of culture!” https://www.iamaboldwoman.com/
“Un-Block The Music” can’t wait to see what Leandra does next! Praying with every inch of my soul that Broadway gets moving by Fall. I have spoken with so many amazing artists involved with Tina. It’s the first show I want to attend!
For information about tickets to Tina, go to https://tinaonbroadway.com/
“Un-Block The Music” has also done several stories about the teams behind Beautiful…type that in the search bar at the top of the blog.