The This is Lincoln Center podcast offers listeners intimate, enlightening moments with some of the great artistic talents of our time. Hosted by Live From Lincoln Center producer Kristy Geslain, This is Lincoln Center features the musicians, dancers, actors, creators, and thinkers who make the magic happen on Lincoln Center's famous stages.
Kristy Geslain: Although by some measures, the award-winning Broadway star Stephanie J. Block didn't find her niche until later in life, she always knew she had a gift. After putting in the time and the work, she now realizes her career has blossomed exactly the way it needed to. I spoke to Stephanie—who is one of four artists featured in Live From Lincoln Center's upcoming PBS special Stars in Concert—about her path to success, her musical partners, and how she tells the story of her life through song.
This is Lincoln Center with Stephanie J. Block.
KG: Stephanie Block, welcome to Lincoln Center!
Stephanie J. Block: Thank you, I love being here.
KG: So nice to see you today. We've all been so excited. We've been in the edit room watching your show for Live From Lincoln Center come together and I can't wait for it to be on TV. For all of our listeners at home, tell me about this show.
SJB: So this concert for Live From Lincoln Center literally was born for my concert specifically. I knew there were some songs that I wanted to pull from other concerts, and the type-A Virgo in me wanted to create a show that was linear and kind of took me from when I was young until, you know, my final performance on my last Broadway show. So I must admit it took on different shapes and it morphed quite a lot in the year that we were putting this together. And it did take me about a year from start to finish when I finally went, "Okay, this is the concert I wanna present, and I feel proud doing it, knowing that it's gonna live, you know, forever."
All of the songs still have such an impact on me from the moment that I heard them, until this very day. I certainly hope the audience can feel that, and can also track my life, because I think that's kinda fun and kind of important—to see where someone started, and then what led them where and then what brought them to their next chapter. So I tried to do that with as much humor and honesty not only through the songs but through the banter, which... as you can tell, I'm a talker and I love to just keep on talking.
KG: Just a couple days ago Ben Cohn, your music director, was here. Tell me a little bit about how you found each other and why you have clicked.
SJB: I found Ben through the world of Wicked. We both had been with the project for so long. His musicianship is just stellar. His kindness—which, for me is always kind of the ultimate test—you know, who do you want to stay in a room with for hours on end and call early in the morning and say, "I just got an idea"? And he's just this open human being but so smart, so kind, so...
You know, there... I always say every single one of us is crazy, you just have to figure out what crazy matches your crazy. And his crazy matches my crazy on kind of all levels. I've of course heard him play the piano many times. He also composes some great stuff with his partner Sean McDaniel, who was on the drums with me during the concert. They have written a couple of musicals of which I lent my voice and loved their material. So that's what kind of introduced me to him, beyond that of a terrific accompanist.
Then I started to just get to know him, his family, and when your worlds start colliding like that, I knew that I wanted to be part of his life on different levels, and we always came back to music and that language. And he and I, again, our crazy matches each other. You wouldn't know it to meet us, but when we're sitting in a room together for hours on end, this is a relationship that I think will go on for a very, very long time.
KG: We did a podcast interview with him all about the show and other projects he's working on, too. I asked him to tell our listeners why they should tune in, and he said all sorts of wonderful, glowing things about you, as you would imagine. But he also said, "Stephanie's also one of the funniest people I know and it really comes across in this show." And it's true. Your patter, your banter, is very funny. And very warm and everything else. How did you figure out what to tell and how to tell it?
SJB: The funny thing is, every time we tried to time this show, because it had to be very specific for air. It had to be under a certain amount of time, and I am not used to working under that—I lovingly say "constraint"—because if you're doing a live show it could be anywhere from 60 to 75 minutes, and that gives me that 15 minutes of playtime, which I love. This, I had to listen to everything coming out of my mouth and keep editing within. But, yeah, I'm a bit of a silly girl. Things that I say come from a different time and place. Half the time, my husband's like, "Where did you come from and what decade are you living in?" Because, you know, I'll say things like "slacks" and "trousers" and people don't… my language is just from a different place.
I don't know where my silliness comes from. I think any young person who doesn't necessarily find their niche until a little later in life, they dapple in a whole lot of things, and for me it was attention. I needed attention from a bit of shenanigans here and there. So that started pretty early and continues throughout, so it makes me laugh when people are, "Oh, wow, you're always this pillar, and such a strong woman onstage," and everybody who really knows me knows that I'm a complete moronic!
KG: In hearing your story more as we were developing this show and hearing you tell it in the rehearsal room for the first time, it struck me every time just how interesting and notable it is that you really didn't get, what you would call, I guess your "big break" or your "big break-in moment" until relatively later on. Or at least, it's a little bit different than the stories we usually hear about kids coming out of college or high school or whatever. Talk a little bit about that.
SJB: Well, it's interesting, because finding my niche—it was in me. I knew at seven that I could sing and that I could affect people with this big voice that was God-given at the time, I hadn't trained. By eleven I was pretty serious and focused on what I wanted to do with this gift. But you're right, it took me a long time to get to New York and it took me a long time to get to Broadway.
I say in my concert, by the time I knew what I wanted to do, and by the time I stepped on my first Broadway stage, it was nineteen years. So everything for me, as it was happening, I felt like everybody was passing me by and reaching their goals and their dreams well before I was making it there. And as I tend to do, I just steadfastly continued to train and would journal and would kind of reassess, "Am I doing the right thing? Is this really my purpose and where I'm supposed to be?" ‘Cause you can feel it inside, but if the rest of the world isn't necessarily acknowledging it in a particular way that allows you to continue to progress, you do start to doubt a little bit.
And I was lucky enough in the sense that I always had about six or seven pots that I would stir constantly, constantly, and one would pop up, and allow me to work and pay for that particular bill or that particular month of bills, and then just keep stirring and working and stirring and working. But for me it was always kind of two ladder rungs up and one back. Three up, two back. And I do look back now as kind of a grown woman and a working artist, that I can say with pride that has not just had a job, but now I'm making a true career out of it, that I look back and go, "For me, that's exactly the way it needed to happen." If it was a quick, skyrocket to a leading role on Broadway when I was nineteen, which is exactly what I wanted, but I just I don't think I would've been ready to then look into my life the next thirty, forty years and say, "Now it's gonna work out this way."
I wasn't ready, my spirit wasn't ready. And you can have your equity card, and you can have all the voice lessons, and you can feel as though everything's aligned for you to stand center stage and deliver, but if your person and your spirit and your entire tool isn't ready, it's gonna creep up on you when you least expect it. And luckily, mine kept progressing, and stepping back, progressing and stepping back, which allowed me to really sit still and focus a lot on who I needed to be before what I needed to be.
KG: What brilliant advice too for young people coming up, or even people who are a few years out of school and beginning to doubt themselves. Because it's just not the story that you hear often enough, I think, in the industry.
SJB: And there's a lot of success out there, you know. It's not defined by Broadway or an award. If you are doing something you love, and you're doing it at the community theater level or the regional theater level, or whatever level, that's a great success. If you're happy and able to pay for your life, you're doing it. You're making it.
KG: So now, by a lot of standards out there, you have made it. You're on Broadway, you're being nominated for major awards, you're on Live From Lincoln Center and PBS. What are the challenges now? How have the obstacles or challenges changed? Or is everything perfect now?
SJB: No, it's not. I mean, I am certainly a blessed woman. This I know. Things have changed, I think, with expectation. You don't know what shoes you're supposed to fill because of whatever last gig you did or whatever last note I belted. I want to start every new project just as I said: new. I want to start it new. Coming at it from a place of learning with my other fellow actors, figuring out the material, learning who I am in the material, and not let what happened before define me and define what this new role or new experience might be.
And when you do hit a certain level, there is quite a bit of noise. When there is not necessarily a long resume or any sort of idea of who you are and what you bring to the stage, you just get to play. And that sort of unexpected humor, song, you touch somebody in a brand-new way. Now, we've laid a little groundwork and so people do want certain things and certain boxes to be checked off. And I'm hoping to always change those boxes to surprise people in a way. I do feel proud in the sense that I've never been—other than a belter—I've never been pigeonholed into any one character or archetype or anything like that. And as an actress, I'm very grateful for that. And I hope to continue that.
But I mentioned the noises before and the external noises are just as loud as the ones in my own head. I'd love to say that they are no longer there, that because I have grown into this adult woman and think I know who I am and where I'd like to be... I think anybody who's an artist has doubts and every single time the last curtain comes down you think, "Am I gonna work again?" It's a constant debate with oneself. I read a quote the other day that said, "Don't always believe what you think." I thought, "Oh, my gosh, I totally need that in my life, because it's all that rolled into one, and you start second-guessing everybody else, and start second-guessing yourself: "What are you and what are you creating?" Clear it. Shut it out and just get to work.
KG: So let's talk a little bit about some of the individual songs featured in the show. So I want to start with the big one, with "Defying Gravity."
[Excerpt from "Defying Gravity"]
KG: What is it like taking a song like that, that you're so known for, taking it from the Wicked stage and now performing it on a much smaller stage in a cabaret environment?
SJB: In choosing to sing "Defying Gravity" in this particular concert, I knew that it would have a different feel, even if that's internal. Every time I sing "Defying Gravity," which now—it's been eighteen years. The first time I heard "Defying Gravity" was February of 2000 and that blows my mind. You know, and I've done it in board rooms when we were developing the piece. We've done it at the Gershwin and I've done it throughout the country in these massive theaters that seat 5, 6,000 people. But when you do it in more of a cabaret or concert setting, it's such a powerful anthem, so you're never gonna lose the intensity that's just innately in the song. But your delivery does have to change a bit. And when you're not painted green, some of those, you know, some of that body language and stuff isn't going to translate, or it might look a little false or put on.
So I always go back to the word "intensity." For me it does have to have a beginning, middle, and an end just within the framework of the song. I'm also gonna use that word "anthem" again. For me it is that. It's: "Don't define me, don't label me." I think it's one that people certainly—it resonates with any audience that you sing to. People are always gonna put their personal story on it. But that sort of empowerment of, "It's time for me to rise above. It's time for me to know my greatest good, and it's time for me to use it"—it doesn't matter where you sing that particular intention. It's gonna come across and it's gonna come across pretty powerfully.
KG: Let's also talk about "I'm Breaking Down."
[Excerpt from "I'm Breaking Down"]
KG: And that has a whole other set of challenges, I can imagine. You don't have your little kitchen set up and your stuff. So can you talk a little bit how you break down "Breaking Down" for the cabaret stage?
SJB: When you, when one, when I performed "Breaking Down," that was a tough one, and that was a song that I really debated if it could actually be done outside the context of Falsettos, outside people knowing Trina's journey, this housewife that is falling apart. It's a very funny song, but there are so many specifics to this particular song, and without the costume, the props, the backstory, you're never quite sure if this song is gonna land, and yet it does land. I think this one, you have to let go a little bit of the "Stephanie J. Block performing for a crowd," and you do have to infuse yourself with a little bit of character. You have to find that freedom of who this particular character is and you gotta let yourself loose a little bit. Even in the concert, this is the one where I use the most real estate on stage. I have to get rid of the mic stand. I may even drop to my knees at one point. I can't quite remember exactly my physical use. But you do have to embrace this song, or else the audience is not gonna buy it. They're not gonna go along with you. It can't just kind of be this "I'm gonna be tailored, and poised, and sing at the mic stand, and deliver the humor with which Bill Finn has written the song." You gotta let it go, you gotta let it loose.
I don't quite remember how I delivered the song—which is always a good thing for me, when I leave myself and I'm not editing. I walk offstage and go, "Well, I'm not quite sure what happened out there, but snake eyes, let's hope for the best." And that was one of those numbers that it definitely was a snake eyes, so we shall see if it works.
KG: Well, as someone who has watched it many, many times by now, I can tell you it works. It works. Audiences will love it for sure.
SJB: Hooray! Thanks.
KG: Are those songs still fun to sing?
SJB: Yes. Both those songs are still fun to sing. And you know, I really do believe that with live theater, if you're listening to what's coming out of your mouth and you're responding to your day and what's happening with your audience, it's always gonna be fun. I mean, I really do believe that every time I open my mouth to sing a song that's been in my repertoire for forever—"Don't Rain on My Parade" has been in my repertoire for thirty-some years and I still find great joy because it's never going to be the same sort of interpretation. Even if it's on a molecular level just for my own being, it's always a little different. And that's why I think stage and singing live will always be my meat and potatoes, my food. It feeds my soul.
KG: Let's talk about a song that might be a little more unexpected. I'm thinking of "Move On" specifically.
[Excerpt from "Move On"]
KG: I'd love to talk about it for two reasons. One, why you chose to perform it the way you did, and two, your special guest for that number.
SJB: This song of "Move On" really touches me on so many levels. I can be moved by it when I'm sitting in an audience and I can still remember... I believe it was Roundabout that revived it. And it was just breathtaking. And Sebastian, my husband and I, sat in the audience. And everybody's leaving, and everybody's leaving. And he and I just felt like we were in a holy place and we did not want to leave this theater. We spoke about not only the score but how it really affected us as a couple. But why I decided for this particular concert to flip the parts and flip the genders, is because at home, my husband is constantly encouraging and supporting me and telling me I am a much deeper well than I ever believe that I am. And his words are "Give us more to see."
And so when we chose the song, we thought, "Is this going to be..."—you know, you always want to question, "Are we doing it for the right reasons? Are we telling this particular story for the right reasons? And are people going to understand its level of intimacy in the same way we feel it or is it going to be just kind of a little cheesy?"
And we were so fearful that what we were sharing, this sweet little secret that he and I have, to share that through music might not have the same delivery or sort of special notes that he and I feel. So I said, "When are we gonna be able to do this again? And when are we gonna be able to stand onstage as a married couple with ten cameras capturing every angle and every emotion, yours and mine? And I think it's gonna be done with the greatest integrity that if we don't do it now, I think we're gonna look back, and we're gonna be really sorry that we didn't capture. Even if it's just a simple Valentine between you and I, if we don't capture it, I think we're going to really be remiss."
And so we decided to do it. As you can tell see it brings me to tears even when I talk about it, because the depth and level with which the score for "Sunday in the Park" and especially "Move On" touches us, it's very real. So we didn't want it to come off as a gimmick. You know, a lot of people will just say, "Oh, well, let's just move this arrangement around or let's just change genders and see how that might be musically. And it'll be fun, it'll be quirky." And for us it was much more of... so that's why I decided to have my special guest and that's why we decided to flip the parts. There was meaning behind kind of every song choice. And this one, as I'm fiddling with my wedding ring... and this one, I think, took on the greatest meaning.
KG: Well, let's talk about the other love of your life, Ms. Vivi. This is a spoiler alert, so anyone who hasn't seen the show, close your ears if you want to. But there's a moment when we actually hear, this sweet, little, beautiful voice come in and sing a bit in your show. And it makes me teary as a mom. My little one can't sing yet, she's still working on talking, but just when I heard that little voice come over the speaker in that first rehearsal session, I thought, "Oh, my goodness." So tell me about her, tell me about being a mom. Tell me about that part of the show.
SJB: Vivi is everything. She… it's so interesting how, you know, having a little life that walks about you but was part of you changes everything, right? So I honor her in so many ways. People laugh because I say, "She's given me life, and yet she's taken so many years off my life, I can't even tell you!" But it's true. I am more fearful but more in love. I am more ambitious and yet more homebody. Everything is a contradiction in terms when you have a little person. She's extraordinary, she brings me to my knees every day. She tests me every day. But this little spirit, she's a strong, strong spirit. And I'm so grateful for that, that she's going to be a woman of passion and force and she's going to be vocal. I don't worry about Vivi at all. I just need to kind of protect her and keep her safe and just keep helping mold this little spirit, because I think she already knows who she is and where her place in the world is.
Her little voice. She has sung for as long as I can remember. She sings all the time. Even her teachers have said in school, "All she does is make up songs and poetry, words that don't even make sense but they rhyme." The first song that she learned and the first movie we introduced her to was of course part of the Disney canon. It was "Cinderella," and she really started to hum "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes," and then she started to learn the words, and then we would sing it together. And Disney being such a part of my life and my early years performing, I really thought, "Wow, this is like an extension of who I am, of my music, of my breath, and if I could get just a little bit of her singing, that would be awesome."
And I just, I looked at Ben, I said "How can we get either get this into a medley, or have her start the song?" But her pitch just doesn't exist in any sort of musical lexicon at all, so we kept trying to figure out how to make this recording, which took us forever to get without her knowing. It just wouldn't fit anywhere. So I thought, just in dead air, let's have it just float and let the audience kind of not know what this sound is or where it's coming from. And then I can jump into my song. And I think it really worked. She won't know what it really is until a couple years from now.
KG: But won't that be amazing? When you can tell her, "Three-year-old you made your Lincoln Center debut"?
SJB: You made your debut! Yeah. At thirteen, she'll be like "Oh, mom, you're so embarrassing." But I think through five to ten, she'll love me for it.
KG: Yeah, yeah. Well, I hope you have many, many more shows together in your future.
SJB: Thank you.
KG: So let's just close with a little plug to our audiences here. Why should they tune in? Why should they watch this show?
SJB: I want you to watch this show because it is truly all of me. I put in my blood, sweat, and tears. You do get to see a lot of silly. I warmed up like mad so I could hit the high, big notes for you people. It has been captured beautifully. My entire family, nepotism, at its finest is part of this show—husband, child, everybody's in there. And I couldn't be more proud of the hour that we've created of music and storytelling and, I hope, a whole lot of humanity.
KG: Beautiful! Stephanie J. Block, thank you so much!
SJB: Yes, thank you.
KG: This is Lincoln Center is hosted by me, Kristy Geslain, with production help from Gillian Campbell, Eileen Willis, Hannah Lyons, Haghi Suka, Craig Friedman, and Ian Goldstein.
Our theme music is provided by freemusicarchive.org.
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