Theater Interview: LISA VROMAN (Appearing in “Ingénue….Ingé-not-so-new” at CVRep)

Post image for Theater Interview: LISA VROMAN (Appearing in “Ingénue….Ingé-not-so-new” at CVRep)

by Gregory Fletcher on August 3, 2023

in Interviews,Theater-Palm Springs (Coachella Valley)


Lisa Vroman, celebrated as one of the greatest crossover sopranos of this generation, makes her Coachella Valley Repertory debut Thursday, August 10, 2023 at 7 in CVRep’s 2023 Summer Cabaret Series.

Vroman is best known for starring on Broadway, Los Angeles and San Francisco (where she won a Theatre Critics Award) as Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera. Her career spans decades and includes 64 different theatrical productions, 29 opera/operetta roles, and hundreds of concert appearances around the world. She has played Rosabella in The Most Happy Fella at New York City Opera (with Paul Sorvino in the title role) and Charlotte in A Little Night Music with Michigan Opera Theatre, starring Leslie Uggams and Ron Raines. She starred as Lili Vanessi in Kiss Me Kate with both Glimmerglass Opera and the MUNY Theater of St. Louis. At the Bushnell Theatre in Hartford CT, she played Marian in The Music Man with Shirley Jones playing her mother and Patrick Cassidy as Harold Hill. Lisa appeared on PBS as Johanna in the Emmy Award-winning production of Sweeney Todd and performed with Utah Opera, New Jersey Opera, and premiered (and recorded) two comic operas by composers John Musto (Bastianello) and William Bolcom (Lucrezia) with the New York Festival of Song.

Stage and Cinema’s Gregory Fletcher recently spoke with Lisa about her many triumphs, being a teacher, and her upcoming cabaret at CVRep in Palm Springs.

Lisa Vroman as Johanna in a concert performance of Sweeney Todd
with San Francisco Symphony (Julie Plasencia/The Chronicle)

GREGORY FLETCHER: Just a few months ago [April 16, 2023], The Phantom of the Opera closed on Broadway. After years of employment of playing the female ingenue Christine, what kind of impact did this have on you?

LISA VROMAN: My husband and I attended the final performance! It was quite a weekend of celebration that began Saturday evening at Sardis where about 200 Phantom alums squished into the second floor of the famous restaurant. Many of us had worked together over the past 35 years. To see each other, the people you loved so much and worked with — that was so nice — the best reunion ever. And then on Sunday for the final show, we cheered for every single magical moment. Even the monkey music box stopped the show. It was just a crazy, thrilling time. And after the pandemic, I hadn’t been back in the theater much, so it was doubly special. At the curtain call, Andrew [Lloyd Webber] came out and spoke, and Cameron McIntosh, and Sarah Brightman were there as well as an appearance of the original company. There was one more sing along, and as “Music of the Night” began again, a screen lowered to honor Maria Björnson [production designer], Gillian Lynne [choreographer], and Hal Prince [director]. Then a slideshow began of all the past Phantoms and Christines. It was a surprise seeing my photo with all the others, one after another. With the audience cheering, it was pretty emotional.

Closing night of Phantom on Broadway

GF: How long were you with the show?

LV: Almost 10 years.

GF: When did you first join?

LV: I joined the first bus and truck tour in 1992. Four months later, Hal [Prince] moved me to open the San Francisco production, and I stayed for the entire five-year run. I then bought a house in Pasadena and, of course, that’s when they ask if I was interested in doing the London production. But I’d just settled into my new home and got a puppy, and it was too much to move so far away. And I’m glad I waited because a month later, both Christines in New York got pregnant, and I was offered the Broadway production for nine months. Later, it happened again, and I went back for another couple years.

Hal Prince and Lisa

GF: In what year was your last performance?

LV: The end of 2003.

GF: Did you have any trouble playing the role that long? Eight performances a week, week after week, seems like a huge undertaking.

LV: The role of Christine has an alternate, so I only had to do six performances a week. The alternate did the other two. The biggest challenge for me was the heavy Victorian costumes — 30-35 pounds on your small frame is no joke. I found it more of a challenge physically than vocally. It’s like any professional athlete who does something repetitively. That became the game — the physical conditioning and maintenance. Of course, I took vacations and time off when needed, but I had to take care of myself in every way. I loved the job. I respected the job. I loved the time period and all the detail. I think I have a good personality for repetition. Maybe that’s just what was needed to sustain. For me, this long-term role felt like having a security blanket. As the pandemic taught us, it can all go away in a flash at any time. So, know how precious it is to have a job and honor that. I try to reflect that with my students. We don’t know what’s going to happen with this industry.

Lisa Vroman and Howard McGillin in Phantom of the Opera

GF: Where are you teaching?

LV: AMDA [College of the Performing Arts] in L.A. It’s a two-year AOS or a four-year BFA. I’m on the Voice faculty, so I teach one-on-one. During the pandemic, we were all on zoom, and I ended up having 26 students. That’s 26 hours a week I had to face my own fear and loss of work, and get in front of them with a smile and keep them moving forward and staying in the game. We were all freaked out and nervous and scared — what were we going to do? We were home. But it ended up being inspiring on both ends. Had I not been doing that, I don’t know if I would have kept myself in condition and kept going. On the flip side, taking a two-year break isn’t a great thing for any athlete. So, I felt like teaching kept me inspired, conditioned, and able to sustain. We were doing breathing techniques, and all the stuff we do to keep ourselves healthy and emotionally grounded. Those breathing techniques along with resonating sound in our bodies was really healthy for us. And it helped us maintain and get through that time. My family are all teachers, four of them in the arts, including my undergrad degree in Music Education.

Lisa with AMDA students

GF: Now that the pandemic is calming down and seemingly under control, what else has opened up for you along with the teaching?

LV: During my time in Phantom, I was evolving into the symphonic world of concerts, and that has started back again. I’m faced with teaching and traveling. This last spring, I was juggling too much and now have to weigh how much I can afford to teach and keep myself healthy for singing and touring.

GF: Where did you go to school?

LV: For undergrad, in SUNY Potsdam at the Crane School of Music. And then at Carnegie Mellon for my Masters in Voice Performance. I loved Pittsburgh and had supportive teachers who called me in the summer, when I was doing summer stock, and ask if I was coming back to finish my degree. I wasn’t sure about committing to opera as a career. They just wanted me to finish my degree. Believe me, having an MFA helped me hang onto my self-worth when I first arrived in New York and waited on tables.

GF: And certainly, the classical training gave you what you needed to sing the role of Christine. Tell me about the cabaret you’re currently doing in Palm Springs. Who created it?

LV: My husband and I developed all of it. He orchestrates all my symphonic scores, runs our music library, and basically does everything. And he can cook, too.

GF: How long have you been doing this cabaret?

LV: This will be the third performance. The first two were at the Green Room 42 in New York City. With 40 years of stories, I realized I had a lot to tell. And with so many theater people in New York and Palm Springs, I won’t have to explain most references. The desert has a pretty eclectic group of people, so I’m looking forward to bringing this show to CVRep.

GF: What’s the cabaret called?

LV: Ingénue….Ingé-not-so-new. I’ve been using that line for years. It goes on a journey with lots of fun, really good music. My pianist is Chip Prince who was on the Les Miz tour with me before Phantom. I’ve known him for so many years, and lucky for me he and his partner now live in the desert. We are also birthday twins. Same year, same day! He’s a delight and a wonderful musician. We’re looking forward to making music together.

GF: Do you hope this cabaret will tour around the country?

LV: You know, I won’t say no. I’m doing it again in October for a concert series in Hemet [California]. But other than that, I don’t have any further tour plans. We’ll see what happens. If I’m teaching, it may be kind of difficult to book. To tour and teach … I don’t know.

GF: But now that you’ve established you can teach on Zoom, can’t you do both?

LV: There’s nothing like being in person. When we went off Zoom and were back in person, it was so emotional. It was like, “I can hear you; I can feel your sound.” It’s hard to really hear resonance on Zoom. Zoom is not nice to singers. You get a certain frequency or a pitch, but when it’s high or intense, it buffers the sound, and I’d be like, “How did that feel? Because I couldn’t hear it.” But we’d get around it by doing self-tape, and then we’d watch it together on the shared screen. We’d make it work.

GF: Is it hard going from a symphonic hall concert to a cabaret space?

LV: There’s a casual, comfort level in a cabaret space that’s not in a symphonic setting. A heightened intimacy in the smaller space. In the classic pops genre, which I often perform with symphonies, there’s certain protocol on and off stage. You’re sharing the stage with mostly classical musicians. The transitions are shorter; yet you still must connect with the audience. I like to bring a theatrical level of intimacy to the symphonic world. In cabaret settings, I may say things I probably wouldn’t say in front of a symphony. Cabaret has a smaller crowd so sometimes it feels like I have the ability to be more spontaneous. With a symphony orchestra, I’m wearing gowns, which is still the uniform for that kind of event. In cabaret, I get to dress down and be more casual. I’ve seen people wear everything from sneakers and jeans to whatever makes a comfy, fun atmosphere. Also, the cabaret audience is drinking cocktails throughout, so they’re in a very good mood, seated at tables vs. auditorium rows of seats.

GF: Let’s add musical theater to the mix.

LV: Well, with musical theater, you’re doing a play. Somebody else has structured the script and score. You’re playing a defined character. When I’m doing a symphonic concert, I’m not portraying a particular character of a particular age; it’s just me interpreting the music.

GF: Which do you prefer?

LV: A balanced mix of it all. Eight shows a week is very hard physically. I was asked recently if I was interested in touring with a new show, and that means traveling on top of eights shows a week. I’m not sure I want to do that anymore. My life is set up in a way that I just don’t want to jump up and leave. When I’m traveling to do a symphonic concert, it’s typically a five-day commitment including travel, and then I go home and rest in between. For a theater tour, my husband could be on and off the road with me, but not my dog, that would be very difficult.

Lisa Vroman, husband Patrick, and Barber

GF: What kind of dog do you have?

LV: He’s a big boy. A 75-pound Shepherd, Husky, Cattle dog — all rolled into one. And I refuse to have him checked in as luggage.

GF: Are you taking him to Palm Springs?

LV: Oh, he’s fine in a car.

GF: But what about the heat?

LV: Oh my God, no, he’s not happy with the heat. But we can walk in the evenings and get up early before it’s too hot. He’s nine years old, so he’s a little less active these days.

GF: How many performances will you be doing of the cabaret?

LV: Just one. As it’s called in the concert world: one and done.

GF: You’ve had so many different experiences, what’s left on your wish list? What would you like to do next if you could choose?

LV: Gracefully age? Stay healthy. I’m lucky my voice still feels very buoyant. Hmm, a wish list. I guess it’s to keep singing well the next few years.

GF: Any roles you want to play?

LV: The mom in The Light in the Piazza [by Adam Guettel]. This role perfectly suits my voice at the moment. That would be at the top of my list.

With Dick Van Dyke

GF: I’m guessing many of the roles you’ve played fill the wish lists of many other people. Too many to list, but I can only imagine a highlight must’ve been playing Mary Poppins alongside Dick Van Dyke at the Hollywood Bowl.

LV: And dancing the Poppins sequence with him — oh man, that was something else! At the 13-bar break in “Jolly Holiday,” he said to me, “Julie and I did this little goofy step in the film.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I know that goofy step!” So, when we got to that point in the number, and he hadn’t danced yet or moved, we started doing the goofy step, and the whole place exploded like a bomb went off. 18,000 people screaming! And I thought, Does it get better than this?

Lisa Vroman, Patrick Cassidy, and Shirley Jones

GF: And it does. I wish I could’ve seen your Marian in The Music Man with Shirley Jones playing your mother, when she herself originated the role of Marian!

LV: That was a pretty epic experience. The very first day, when we started doing a sing-through, I started singing “Good night, my someone, goodnight my love,” and she started to get weepy. Before I knew it, the director was sniffling, and the chorus kids were wiping tears, and then I lost it. After tissues were passed around, I looked at her and said, “Shirley, you can’t cry. You just can’t. I’ll never get through this if you do.” And she said, “Oh, but it’s just so nostalgic for me.” I looked at her and said, “For you?!!” We all cracked up, and that broke the ice. After rehearsal, she asked me over to her hotel for a martini. She said, “Bring the dog.” She loved dogs. It was my first one — a mere 55 pounds. I adored Shirley, and also her son, Patrick [Cassidy] who played Harold Hill. He was wonderful, and so good to his mom.

Patrick Cassidy, Lisa with her doggy, and Shirley Jones

GF: And you pinched yourself and asked, “Does it get any better than this?”

LV: You know, things pop up just when you think things are over, and all of a sudden the universe brings about another opportunity. These days, I’ll let things fall where they land, but I remain so grateful for what I’ve been able to do thus far. And this puts me in a really nice place.

GF: A very calm state, trusting in what comes your way.

LV: I think you have to let go and trust what happens. Trying to control the future just brings about anxiety. The lesson is — you don’t know what life will throw your way. What you get, you get. The more you try to control it, the more it causes angst, which affects your performing and eventually your voice. We want everything to be perfect. We want to do the best we can. We want to get the role, but there’s a certain level of angst that comes from all that. I think you have to grow out of it at some point. I mean, I feel really good about what I’m doing. And far less worried. It’s an ongoing process of letting go. After the pandemic, I thought, well, maybe I’ll retire. And then I found out I didn’t have to.

GF: That’s a hard thing to teach, I bet.

LV: My students are in their 20s. Their whole life has been reflected on their cell phone and social media. It’s been in their face since day one. The false image of what perfection needs to be, and they’re emotionally encumbered by that. I’m trying to get them to develop their own personal level of artistry instead of a homogeneous copy of what they see on social media. Just because someone has a lot of likes doesn’t mean they’re great. Your instrument is not going to mature until you’re in your mid-to-late 20s. So, relax, take a breath, and just reflect on you and your authentic voice and what it can do. And when they let go, they start calming down and realizing, “Oh, that feels good and I’m improving. I can do this.” That’s a hurdle, and they’re just so encumbered by what they see on social media and wanting results right away instead of doing the work to get there.

GF: Like your costars Shirley Jones and Dick Van Dyke, you’re not ever going to have to stop working.

LV: Oh, please, let me stop at some point.

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photos courtesy of Lisa Vroman

Lisa Vroman: Ingénue….Ingé-not-so-new
Coachella Valley Repertory’s Summer Cabaret Series
CVRep Playhouse, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive in Cathedral City
Thursday, August 10, 2023 at 7
for tickets ($45), call 760.296.2966×115 or visit CVREP
follow Lisa Vroman at Lisa Vroman, Instagram, and Facebook
find Gregory Fletcher at Gregory Fletcher, Facebook, and Instagram

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