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WHEN MUSIC POPS, WE TURN IT UP

CHATTING WITH SHOSHANA BEAN!

A POPBYTES EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH SHOSHANA BEAN!
May 19, 2016 ALEX NAGORSKI

Shoshana Bean is ready
to take center stage again.

After being Idina Menzel’s original replacement as the green-skinned heroine of Broadway’s Wicked, Bean has spent the past decade primarily focused on her career as a singer/songwriter. But following an acclaimed star turn last summer in Beaches, a musical based on the beloved film and novel, Bean is ready to take the theater world by storm again.

Next month, she’ll be fulfilling a lifelong dream of headlining Funny Girl, playing at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts. As she gears up for her debut as the iconic Fanny Brice, Bean spoke with me about her history with and excitement surrounding Funny Girl, her aspirations of returning to Broadway, her illustrious career as an independent recording artist, and much more.

NAGORSKI: Funny Girl is such a landmark musical. What’s your first memory of seeing the show and/or movie?

BEAN: Well, I’ve only seen the show once, so my only memory of actually seeing it on stage was when Leslie Kritzer did it at Paper Mill Playhouse in 2001. That’s my iconic visual of the production. But the movie? Oh my gosh, it goes so far back to early in my childhood. I remember that it was a repeat watch, for sure. And then I got the vocal selections. To have that sheet music as part of my collection was such a big deal to me.

I guess my first memory would be that “I’m The Greatest Star” was the song that stuck out to me the most. My grandma introduced me to the movie and she would sing that song with me. Who could forget Barbra’s little sailor outfit and those bangs? It was such a powerful song and I just felt like it spoke to me, even at that very young age.

I was always involved in theater, but I was never really front and center. I always had the most amount of energy and probably sang the loudest, but I definitely was never chosen as the star, so I already could identify. My career started at 6-years-old, and I could already identify with Fanny Brice not being given her opportunities.

So is “I’m The Greatest Star” the song from the show that you’re most looking forward to singing every day on stage?

I mean, yes, but mostly, I’m looking forward to singing the entire score! There’s not a bad apple in the bunch. But music that makes me dance is by far and away my favorite, so that’s one that I know I will revel in nightly.

You’ve sung back-up for Michael Jackson and alongside huge names like Brian McKnight. But it’s Barbra Streisand who you’ve most often referred to as your biggest musical influence. What is it about Streisand that makes you look up to her so much and how does it feel to be tackling what is arguably her most famous and defining role?

It feels terribly intimidating because my fear at this point is how ingrained Barbara’s performance is in my body and in my voice. Now that I’m older and I’ve done my research on Fanny over the years, I’ve realized how important it is to be really mindful of the fact that this show is about Fanny Brice, who is a totally different performer than Streisand and the way that Streisand interpreted her.

I’m intimidated and I’m a little scared because I really want to make sure that I do justice to Fanny. I need to ignore the fact that people will come in ready to compare me to Streisand. Her portrayal and star turn became a much bigger deal than the story of Fanny Brice. So I feel mindful and I have trepidations about taking on the role.

As far as how Streisand has been an influence to me, it started because she was a big part of my upbringing. “The Way We Were” was the catalyst. It was the first song of hers that I can remember hearing. Her music and her voice were something that my grandma and I bonded over. I mean, she has an instrument unlike any other. Growing up, I remember being so inspired by her because she was a woman who not only tackled musical theater, but who also tackled pop and jazz and who was actually considered very soulful. She collaborated with many other R&B and blues and jazz artists of the time.

To me, she was a woman who crossed all of the boundaries. She directed, she starred in movies, and she did everything that a performer could possibly do. And she did it with non-traditional looks and a voice that was unlike anybody else’s! So at a very early age, I identified with the fact that she could do anything, did do everything, and did it despite what critics may have predicted or deemed impossible. She has a monstrous hunger and the resolve to do anything she sets her mind to. She’s never stopped inspiring me in that way.

What is something new or specific that you’re bringing to Fanny to give her that unique Shoshana twist?

There’s nothing new or different to bring to it except that I am just a different person. I read a Fanny Brice biography and highlighted and dog-eared so many pages. Because whether it was a direct quote from Fanny or whether it was a review of her performance, I think the thing that made her so special was her pedestrian-like approach to things. Everyone kept saying that she always had a very special relationship with her audience.

That was the best reminder for me to just do what I already know to do. It reminded me that the most important aspect was engaging with the audience, and not to get too in my head about the fact that it’s Fanny Brice, and it’s Barbara Streisand, and it’s Funny Girl, and it’s this big moment for me because it’s this huge dream come true to play this role.

Do you still find parallels between your story and Fanny’s? If so, how will those connections inform your portrayal of her?

I do think that I’ll be bringing who I am and my story to the table, which is not unlike Fanny’s story or the story in Funny Girl. I can relate to so much of that and I’m so grateful that I’m getting to do this later in my life. I don’t think that Shoshana five or ten years ago would’ve understood a lot of the stuff that’s going on a really molecular and soul level, you know?

Really I think that my challenge will be just letting go and being who I already authentically am, and not feeling like I have to prove something or be somebody else. I do really want to honor some quirks and some trademark characteristics of Fanny’s. I keep watching her movies over and over to try and get some of her schtick in me – like the specific faces that she makes or the way that she speaks.

I have to tell you, one of the most riveting parts of watching old clips of her is what an amazing listener she is. There’s this one movie called Be Yourself and it’s her and this guy, and watching her scenes with him when she’s not speaking or performing and the way that she listens and engages is incredible. Because typically, when someone is known for being a physical comedian, you’d think her schtick would be all about stealing the limelight and chewing the scenery. Except it really wasn’t about that, so I was blown away. That was another good reminder for me of the heart of the character. It’s not going to be about me just trying to find funny things to do every five seconds, you know?

That may sound silly, but there are a lot of pressures that come with doing this show. I mean, if you’re going to be in Funny Girl, you’ve got to be hilarious and sing like Streisand, right? But initially, the show was written about this woman, and to me, she’s the person I want to honor in the best possible way.

You just wrapped up the starring role of CeeCee Bloom in Beaches in Chicago. What was that experience like and do you plan to continue being involved with the production when it ultimately comes to Broadway?

Yes, I hope to! I don’t really know what’s going on with it right now. I literally just heard from Iris Rainer Dart, the book writer, the other day. She sent me an email about something else and was like, “I just did a bunch of rewrites, I’ve got some juicy stuff for you.” You know, we recently lost our other book writer, Thom Thomas. He passed of cancer.

Oh, I’m so sorry.

I think that because of that, everyone kind of just felt a little icky about moving forward. I know that probably hurt Iris a great deal. But the experience of that show was certainly amazing. It was my first real run of a show since Wicked. It had been almost 10 years since I had been on stage and in a show of that magnitude, and it was awesome. So much life has been lived and so much experience has been had since Wicked that I feel like I’m a different person when I come to a role. I’m grateful to have experiences to bring to these characters because I can relate to them. CeeCee is not unlike a Fanny Brice type of a character, so it was awesome. It was a lot of work! It wore me out. I was like, “This is why I love this!” but at the same time, “I’m cool on eight shows a week for a while.” Eight shows a week can be so hard. And I wasn’t used to doing that anymore, so I was like, “Why am I comatose? Why can I not get out of bed on my day off?”

That show was a marathon for me. It made some of the other roles I’ve done look like a piece of cake because between 20 costume changes and dancing and tapping and singing, it was just a monster.

Yeah, I bet!

But don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled that I did it. I had the time of my life! It was a blast.

Aside from hopefully Beaches, do you have any other plans of returning to the Broadway stage in the near future?

I would absolutely love to! I don’t know what’s coming down the pike or what would be a great fit, but yes, I would definitely love to come back to the stage, and specifically Broadway. Beaches definitely bit me with the bug again.

I’m at the point in my life that I’m just so grateful that I’ve been able to do what I love to do for 20 years now. Basically, whatever you want from me, I’ll do it. I just am so happy to be able to do what I love. I had all of these huge goals that I wanted to achieve in years past. But at the end of it, I just look back and think that while you can make your plans, life is ultimately going to take you where it takes you regardless. So I’m just kind of really embracing that and going along for the ride for the first time in my life.

Anyone that knows me will say, “She has decided where she’s going and she will force her way into that place and she won’t care what you have to say.” But now, while I of course definitely still have plans, goals, and dreams, I’m much more open than before. For example, I never would have told you that this year would’ve brought me Funny Girl at North Shore Music Theatre. I never would have guessed to put that on my plan. But the opportunity came and I was immediately like, “Absolutely! There’s no question that I’m not going to play this role.”

Going back to Wicked – in addition to being the very first Elphaba in the show’s national tour, you were also the first actress to play the role on Broadway after Idina Menzel. You even took over for her a few days earlier than planned when she sustained a terrible injury during what ended up being her final performance. What was her advice for you on your opening night? Did what happened to her make you nervous?

Well, I don’t think that she gave me any advice on the actual opening night. I think that I learned a lot by watching her and by being around her when I was standing by. But her best advice came to me when I was probably a week or two into the run.

Keep in mind, this was at the top of 2005 and YouTube was just taking off. People were putting up clips and bootlegs of the entire show, and people were talking shit about my performance. And I made the mistake of watching every video and reading all the comments. I didn’t know it was a mistake to do that, but who knew it was a mistake back then?

I would literally spend my days off or my nights emailing people and being like, “Please take that down. I was sick. That’s not fair.” I would try to go head-to-head with these nameless, faceless people. So I emailed Idina and was like, “I’m losing my mind, how do you do it?” And she said to me, “Shoshana, don’t do it. Don’t look at the videos. Don’t engage with those people. Don’t read the comments. You will literally spiral and spend your life in bed with chocolate. Do not do it.”

From that moment on, even when I post my own videos, I don’t read the comments. I realized right then and there that she was right and that if I’m going to keep any level of sanity, I have to completely ignore what’s being said – whether it’s good or bad. There’s a Maya Angelou quote that says, “Don’t pick them up, don’t lay them down.” Meaning you can’t take the good stuff and ignore the bad. It all exists. So the best thing you can do is just do your job the best you can, right? That’s probably the best advice I got from Idina.

How has being such an integral part of such a blockbuster musical shaped your career?

At that point that I took over, right as YouTube was ramping up, the show was already a huge success – but it wasn’t the monster that it is today. I don’t think I knew the scope or the massiveness of what I was involved in at the time. It was obviously a very big deal, but I think I made it less of a big deal in my own mind so that it wasn’t so intimidating, threatening, or terrifying.

But now, 11 years later, I truly believe that it is the reason that I have a career. Because of Wicked and because of YouTube, I get to do concerts all around the world, and people know who I am because of that. That’s so huge! I hate to give it all of that credit, but it is definitely the driving force behind it.

Of course I’ve done other things, and there are other things you can find on YouTube that are not just Wicked. But there are so many independent artists like I am, and who make their own music and make their own records, but they don’t have that fierce and loyal following that I got from being involved in Wicked. So I’m very lucky.

Oddly enough, it’s not even always the people who knew me from 10 years ago. It’s like 13-year-olds, who were three-years-old at the time, who just found a video the other day, and are now like, “I’m a Shoshana Bean fan!” Which is wild but then I’m like, “Well I haven’t done Wicked in 10 years, but I’m thrilled to have you along for the ride!”

That show created this following of people who are interested in the people who have been involved in it. And I am no fool. I absolutely am aware that that’s why I’ve been able to do a lot of what I’ve done and have gone where I’ve been able to go.

That’s incredible! As a solo artist, you already have two albums, an EP, and various singles under your belt. Do you have any plans to release more original music soon? If so, what musical direction will your new material be heading in?

Well, I have a project I’m about to announce shortly. It won’t be original music. So it’s a project that I’m going to do in the interim before my fourth original music record. But yes, I’m in the process of writing the fourth record. I’m struggling a little bit to figure out stylistically which direction I’m going in. I’m in the process of it and of evolving it into what it will ultimately be.

Shoshana BeanI just did a show Saturday night at Hotel Café in LA where I debuted some of the new stuff. It was terrifying! I didn’t know how the hell it was going to go. But I’m in the in-between phase now, so I just thought, “Why don’t we just share where we’re at? Let’s just be honest about it. It could totally suck. No one can vibe with it, or they can totally love it.”

So yes, while I am working on a fourth record, I would say I’m only about 40% there. I’m not even half way to the point where I can say, “Okay I get where I’m going and what I’m doing.” Therefore, in the meantime, I am going to do this other project that I’m super excited about. I love being in the studio. I love putting out products. I love having something new to give to people. And in this digital age, people’s appetites are insatiable. You put out a record, and they’re like, “What’s next?” Meanwhile, you’re like, “I just put out a record! Yay!” So yes, I will always keep doing that.

I just got off the road touring with Postmodern Jukebox all over Europe and that was such a ball. Getting to meet their crazy audiences and not having to be in charge? That was super fun. And now I’m doing Funny Girl! So it’s like I said, I’m just open and just enjoying that being a performer takes me in all kinds of different directions. It’s rad.

Speaking of Postmodern Jukebox, how do you go about selecting the songs that you cover with them? And what is it about these experiences that make you want to keep working with them again and again?

I got involved with Postmodern Jukebox when they moved to Los Angeles, and in the beginning, we just did one video. That came from creator Scott Bradlee and I just brainstorming. He ultimately decided on Backstreet Boys and that’s how “I Want It That Way” became our first video. He was set on doing something from the 90s and so we landed on that one. We’ve now done four videos together and it’s always a great collaborative effort.

Sometimes I bring stuff to the table, like when we did Justin Bieber’s “Sorry.” I asked if he had already planned to do that one and when he said no, I just said, “let’s do it!” And then this most recent one that we did, Demi Lovato’s “Stone Cold,” I went to him and explained the concept and the idea I had. That one’s on their new record, but the video hasn’t come out yet.

But really, the way that this all started, I acted as a kind of musical liaison. They came to LA and they did this residency, and I just kept introducing them to other musicians and songs, and then they just started coming to me for recommendations. So I kind of felt like the fairy godmother of their talent. And even when they went on tour, I held down their residency in LA and did all of the booking and stuff like that.

More than anything, it just started as a collaboration between friends. I had never gone on the road with them, and frankly, I hadn’t ever really been interested in it because I’m the girl who wants to do her own music. I didn’t think I was interested in going out and doing other people’s music. But they came to me when they needed a pinch hitter for this European tour. Someone got sick so they needed someone to jump out for a month. I saw that they’d be going to all of these European cities that I’d never gone to, and that’s amazing. Plus, I had a month to kill, so why not go have fun?

When you are your own boss, and you are the driving force behind your music and your band and you’re booking the people, and you’re selling the merch … it’s exhausting. By the end of last year, after all the shows I did overseas and stuff, I was like, “I don’t care if I never do another solo show again. I’m so tired.” So the thought of going out with them and just having to show up on time and getting up on stage and nothing else was just like, “Yes! Fantastic! I’d love to go.”

I’m so glad that I did because I had the time of my life. Their audiences are amazing! I played venues that I’ve only ever dreamed of playing, and I got to see what tour life is really like. I got to see so many amazing cities in Europe and it was just the best. They’re an amazing family of super talented people.

I’ve never done shows back to back every night except for in a musical, but in a musical, it’s frozen. Meaning the script is what it is, the music is what it is, you don’t stray from it, and you kind of do the same thing every night. This was so different because it was only loosely frozen. Like we do the same material every night, but since it’s a pop show, I can take a break here, and I can make this back-and-forth with the audience go longer, etc. There are living, breathing, changing, and evolving elements to it. Doing that every night was such an education for me as a singer and a musician. And to be on stage with such talented people, it was just beyond incredible.

It sounds like it! Funny Girl wraps up its run on June 19th. Do you already know what you’ll be doing after that? Are you going to be joining Postmodern Jukebox’s upcoming U.S. tour? What else do you have lined up?

I would love to integrate myself and pop in on a couple of dates on their U.S. tour. I definitely want to play in my hometown, Portland, and I already told Scott how badly I want to play Radio City Music Hall with them when they go to New York.

But I don’t yet know that I can. I’m very grateful that my schedule is really packed right now. I am going to Australia after Funny Girl for two weeks to do a bunch of solo shows. Then in the fall, I’m back in Europe again. I’ve got some shows in London, Germany, and Spain. There are a bunch of shows that have popped up, so a good chunk of the rest of the year is already spoken for. Plus, I’ve got this other project that I mentioned before.

All that is to say that while I don’t know, I love it. Shit always pops up out of nowhere, and you’re like, “In two weeks I’ve got to pack up my apartment and move.” You never know.

Recently, you inked a deal with ABC Signature for a new musical pilot that you co-created and for which you will be composing the music. What more can you tell me about this show? What’s the premise, when do you expect it to air and will you performing on it as well?

Well, we’re in a little bit of a holding pattern because my writing partner just became a staff writer on Fuller House. So her time is completely spoken for as of now. We got our rewrites from Signature at the top of the year and we made our changes. We have our studio, but now we have to pitch to networks.

The TV show is based on a musical we wrote called Dear John Mayer. We originally wrote it for me as a star vehicle. So in a perfect world, I would’ve thrown my hat in the ring to be the lead. But one of the first notes we got was, “Can you make the character not in her early 30s? Can she be in her early 20s instead?” So of course we were like, “Ok, there goes that.”

I don’t know what my involvement will be beyond writing the music. But I don’t know what the timeline is either. I think that she’ll have some time off this summer, so maybe we’ll be able to dig in more at that point. Hopefully they don’t give up on us!

You’re good friends with pop superstar Ariana Grande. Any chance that the two of you will put out some music together someday?

We did a show together at the top of the year, and she hit me up after and was like, “I want you to hear the new record and whatever your favorite song is, we’ll sing it together.” I was like, “This is my best life! I get to sing and I get to hear the record!” And then of course, we never got it together. I’d be like, “What’s up, how’s this week?” And she’d be like, “I’m in New York!” We just never coordinated, and now the record’s coming out this week and I haven’t heard it.

But yes, I love singing with her. She blows my mind. It was such a treat to be able to be on stage together when we did in January. I’m just proud of, not just the artist she has become and continues to evolve into, but also the person that she is and how she has handled a lot of pressure and being in the spotlight and being a woman – and being a beautiful woman at that. You know, you just can’t win. No matter what you do, they give you shit. So I’m proud of how she’s handled it all. And I’m so proud of the music that she’s making because I know that with this record specifically, she definitely took more control and definitely asserted her opinions and her desires more than she has on her previous records. So I’m proud of that. Of course I hope we get to sing together again at some point. Are you kidding? She’s got the most unbelievable voice.

Well, so do you.

Oh, well, thank you.

Thanks so much, Shoshana! Is there anything else you want to talk about that we didn’t discuss?

I don’t think so! You’re very thorough. Thank you so much, doll!

You too! I can’t wait to see the show!


Click here to purchase tickets to see Shoshana Bean in Funny Girl, playing at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, MA from June 7 – June 19.

Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he primarily focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. After growing up in Poland, Germany, and Russia, Alex spent several years living in New York before moving full-time to the Berkshires in Massachusetts. To read more from Alex, check out his blog, Headphone Infatuation, and follow him on Twitter @AlexNagorski.