Sierra Boggess is singing a new tune.
After catapulting to Broadway fame in 2007 as the titular character in The Little Mermaid, Boggess has spent the past decade cementing herself as a contemporary musical theater icon. Having originated roles in shows like Love Never Dies, It Shoulda Been You, and School of Rock, as well as appearing in Les Misérables, The Secret Garden and several incarnations of The Phantom of the Opera, the soprano has become one of the most sought after vocalists of her generation. Even her role in Master Class had her singing throughout most of that production, despite the fact that the show was not a musical.
But just like Ariel, Boggess is now navigating a new challenge – not using her singing voice. In The Age of Innocence, adapted from the classic novel by Edith Wharton, she is showing off her acting range by performing in a straight play. As the free-spirited Countess Ellen Olenska, Boggess is playing a woman who has fled her unhappy marriage in Europe and returned home to New York in 1870. What ensues is a scandalous love triangle that explores class, the morals of society, and the power of human attraction.
I spoke with Boggess about working on The Age of Innocence, her passion for animal activism, returning to Broadway, her solo music, and much more.
ALEX NAGORSKI: Growing up, who or what were some of your biggest influences that made you want to pursue a career in theater?
SIERRA BOGGESS: Barbra Streisand! I have to always start with Barbra Streisand. She was my first role model in the theater. After I saw the film version of Hello Dolly, she continued to be a huge inspiration in my life forever. Julie Andrews made me want to do this as well.
As I grew up, on the spiritual side, I was influenced by people like Wayne Dyer, Marianne Williamson and Brené Brown – people who have helped me think about life. That sort of thinking helps me as an artist even more, instead of just in my small artist circle, if that makes sense.
You tend to perform in musicals over straight plays. Why did The Age of Innocence seem like the perfect fit for your latest theatrical endeavor?
When the project came up, I read the play and was immediately in love with it. I had never read the novel or seen the film before, but I understood the character of Ellen right away. I was really, really excited to try and sink my teeth into it!
The other thing was that the director of this production is Doug Hughes. I had just seen Junk at Lincoln Center, which he directed, and I was like, “Who directed this? This is so incredible!” All of a sudden, I saw that he was directing The Age of Innocence and I wanted to work with him so badly.
Douglas McGrath is the playwright for this – he adapted it for the stage. He is also extraordinary. It was just a whole experience of “I want to work with these people!” and I really wanted to play this part. Luckily, they cast me, so I feel happy!
Countess Ellen Olenska is often regarded as a fierce and independent woman who was far ahead of her time. As an actor, how do you think this character differs from your previous stage roles? What have been some highlights of bringing her to life?
Well, one thing is that she doesn’t sing everything, so that’s a major difference! I try to find myself and tell my truth in whatever character I’m playing. I haven’t even been thinking about how she is different because I think a lot of the characters I’ve played are actually quite fierce in their own ways.
What I love about bringing Ellen to life is that she is trying her best. She’s not coming into this world trying to be difficult. She’s just doing the best that she can with the tools that she’s been given, and that’s not good enough for the people that believe in New York society in 1870. She’s just bringing herself to the table and always trying to be accepted by being truthful and by being herself.
I think one of the most heartbreaking lines that she says is, “Does no one here want to know the truth?” That’s what’s been fascinating to play because it’s incredibly vulnerable. She’s a woman in this time, she is alone, she is thinking things that other people don’t think and doing things that other people don’t do. It’s not to be like, “Look at me, I dare to be different!” It’s more that she’s just trying to be her most honest and authentic self. I love that about her.
How much are you relying on the novel to find your interpretation of Ellen? Will this production explore your character in ways beyond what is known of her from the source material?
It does! Edith Wharton wrote so beautifully, but Doug McGrath has really smartly added some things into the play so that you are never confused about what someone is thinking or feeling. He pays such homage to her work and I think the viewers are going to be thrilled. It feels almost seamless. For example, you see how the love between my character and Newland happens – how almost accidental it is just because they’re being their authentic selves.
I was relying on the novel before I started rehearsal, just to help myself with research. What was great about that is Edith Wharton describes 1870 very vividly, so you know exactly what’s going on and what is expected of a person in society. That was very helpful. It’s been really interesting to do research about that time, especially since I’ve lived in New York for 15 years. Researching what New York was like then has just been so cool.
Edith Wharton became the first woman to ever receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction when she won for The Age of Innocence in 1921. Prior to signing onto this show, were you a fan of hers? What do you think it is about her work that has made it so timeless and such a staple of American literature?
Isn’t that so cool? I think it’s the honesty of how she speaks about that time that she was living in. In a way, it makes you feel sorry for her, because she was just so aware– if that makes sense.
I think she maybe feels herself in Ellen a little bit – where she can see that something doesn’t feel right and is wondering why no one is talking about what’s actually going on. There’s a great line that she wrote that’s also in our play, and it’s something like, “Knowing things makes people think that you don’t have to talk about what’s going on.” It’s basically saying that if we know something is happening, we don’t have to talk about it. But that actually creates loneliness!
To me, that’s what makes her so interesting. She’s commenting on her own society at the time when she’s living in it. Plus, the way she describes things and her use of language is just stunning. I mean, it’s got to be that.
Although it’s set during the Gilded Age, The Age of Innocence is still very relevant to contemporary audiences. Is there a primary takeaway that you hope audiences leave with after seeing this show?
Doug Hughes talked to us a bit about this when we started. He’s calling this sort of a memory play. It’s Newland’s memory of what this time was. I think that’s why it’s relevant, because people still have these types of pulls today. It’s called The Age of Innocence, but it’s almost like it’s about integrity. It forces us to ask if we are choosing things based on being right or on being kind? Do we do things based on our integrity, based on what our gut is telling us to do, or are we just freely doing what we want because it feels good for us? The play really makes us ask and wrestle with those questions. I hope people walk away thinking about that.
What I keep coming back to is the underlying river of integrity, and how deep and passionate love makes us feel invincible – but also crazy and psycho. If we can ground it in integrity, then we can sort of get our answers of what we’re supposed to do. I feel like I’ll become a better person just having done this play.
Do you have plans to remain involved with this play beyond its world premiere in Hartford? Are there plans for future regional productions and/or to bring it to Broadway?
Yes, there are! I don’t know what I’m allowed to say, but yes, there is definitely one other production happening that we know of.
On your website, you describe yourself as “an avid yogi, vegetarian, and animal rights activist.” What are some ways that you encourage people to help with animal rights activism and what is it about this cause that makes it so important to you?
I think that we’re their voices. There is nothing better on this planet than animals. They are all beings of love. I’ve even brought my cats with me to Hartford! Actually, a lot of the actors and people involved with the play also brought their cats and dogs. I think that’s so important! As actors, a lot of us have animals. They are always there to remind you that the present moment is all there is.
There’s nothing that breaks my heart more than people who abuse animals. All this stuff goes on, like trophy hunting. I love the Humane Society and think that they’re really great. They tend to always talk about the good things that they’re doing, as opposed to always inundating us with “look how bad people are abusing” or whatever. That positivity is very important to me.
Bernadette Peters on Broadway has come up with Broadway Barks. I love that so much – being able to raise money, help animals, and promote an “adopt don’t shop” message, and stuff like that.
I hope to eventually have a platform big enough that I can make real changes for these amazing creatures that we have. I really believe that as humans, we’re supposed to take care of and protect them.
You created your “I Am Enough!” initiative as a way to engage with and help your fans/followers embrace their full potentials. Can you please elaborate a bit about what this initiative consists of and what your goals for it are?
When I was doing The Little Mermaid, I was getting a lot of mail from people. This was the start of fan mail for me, 10 years ago. It was funny because it wasn’t just, “Hey, I love you, can I get an autograph?” It was, “Here’s my life story.” People talked to me about all sorts of stuff – some were suicidal, some were dealing with self-harm, eating disorders, all kinds of stuff.
I realized people were writing to me because I was representing Ariel, a character who believes they were born in the wrong body or the wrong time. That realization was very deep for me. I think people often didn’t even realize that’s what they were connecting with. The same can be said about my Phantom of the Opera character, Christine Daaé. People were relating to this girl who is representing someone who loves the unlovable.
What I realized is I can’t write everyone back and fix everything that they were talking about. But what I cando is write simply, “You are enough! It’s unbelievable how enough you are.” To me, the idea that we are put on this planet is enough. It’s what we do with that trusting of our enough-ness that makes us go on many different journeys. I encourage everyone to start from the place of “I am enough! And now I can answer my questions of what I should do or who I am.”
As I was writing back, “Hey, whatever your name is, you are enough. Love, Sierra,” that in itself was enough. Now, it’s turned into this huge movement! I feel like it’s my responsibility to keep reminding people, as much as they need to, that we can start from that place. I think that will help us with a lot of different self-harm or disorders or things like that. It doesn’t necessarily fix anything, and those thoughts will often come because at the end of the day, we are human and self-doubt is there. But if I can help remind people of that, then that, to me, is good.
What’s amazing is when I’ve toured, even in places like Australia and Japan, I will start to say “You are enough!” and people in the audience will start saying it with me. I think it’s just incredible to see that message have that kind of reach all over the world. I love being associated with that as much as I love being associated with characters that I’ve played.
Last spring, I interviewed your friend and frequent collaborator, Ramin Karimloo. He mentioned that part of why he loves working with you is that the two of you have a shorthand and a real trust with one another. He said that in particular, working on The Secret Garden at Lincoln Center with you was a real highlight. From your perspective, what do you think it is that makes you such a captivating pair on stage? And what’s been your favorite collaboration with him so far?
It’s exactly what he said. We do have a shorthand and we do trust each other. We know how each other works, we know the things we each struggle with and the things we’re really good at. But at the core of it is trust. The first time that we met, there was an instant onstage chemistry within just minutes of meeting each other. That is very unique, I think. There was also something where we just got each other right away. That meeting was to do Love Never Dies in London, so I will always love and be sentimental about that, since it was our first collaboration.
Another favorite was the 25th anniversary of Phantom at Royal Albert Hall. I feel like we almost left our artistic souls on that stage with each other for a while. I felt like I was hungover after that experience. I wassofulfilled doing that with him. We just really trusted each other for that show. I’m glad that it was filmed because if ever in my life, I want to reflect on that time, then I will be able to. That was a very special night for us. It’s so cool that it was preserved.
Speaking of The Secret Garden, it’s been confirmed that Warren Carlyle will be directing and choreographing the first Broadway revival of the show later this year. Do you plan to be a part of that production in any way? If not, what type of show and/or role would you like to tackle next on the Great White Way?
Well, I would love for The Age of Innocence to come to Broadway. I think that this is a play that people are ready for, especially in this time that we’re in. I really, really hope that we do get a chance to do this on Broadway. It would be nice to do another play on Broadway. The last time I did a play was Master Class, but that almost doesn’t feel like a play because I sang so much in it!
With The Secret Garden, I love that show. I make no secret about that. It’s one of my favorite scores. The revival will be a different production and different team than the one Ramin and I did at Lincoln Center, so I don’t know. I would be thrilled to be involved in that production, but regardless, I’m going to be thrilled because that score will get to be revived!
This year, there are multitudes of celebrations of Andrew Lloyd Webber – including (but not limited to) the release of his memoir and new retrospective album to the debut of a new musical revue to television specials and more. Having appeared in multiple iterations of The Phantom of the Opera and originating roles in both Love Never Dies and School of Rock, you’re often referred to as a muse of the iconic composer. What is it about your work together that keeps drawing you back to one another? And how are you planning to celebrate his landmark 70thbirthday?
Well, I’m doing this play at the time of his actual birthday, but I will definitely be celebrating!
About us working together, I just love the way that he writes. I mean we alldo! His music is accessible to all of us. There’s also something about the Phantom score that I just never feel done with. He’s very special and I feel really lucky to have the relationship I have with him.
I’m thrilled that this year is celebrating so many aspects of his life. As long as I’m available to celebrate him, then I will be there. If I’m unavailable, I’ll still be celebrating. I’ll always just celebrate him!
And what a cool year for him! There are also the Alan Jay Lerner and Leonard Bernstein centennials, so there are a lot of big things happening this year.
In 2013, you released your debut solo album, Awakening: Live at 54 Below. Do you have any plans for a follow-up solo record?
I do, yes! I’m always talking with a friend of mine, who wants to produce it. It’s just figuring out the timing, but I definitely want to make another album. We’re always talking about it, and just trying to find the time.
As a child, you played the flute and were a competitive figure skater. If you weren’t a theater performer today, would you still be pursuing one of these passions or would you be doing something else?
I really did want to go to the Olympics. For a long time, I couldn’t even watch the ice skating portion of the Olympics because it was just too painful. It hurt so badly. But skating was such an expensive sport that we just couldn’t afford it anymore. I remember that being a huge heartbreak for me when I was younger, but yes, figure skating is what I would have definitely still pursued.
Springtime often sees the debuts of numerous new shows on Broadway and this year is no exception. Purely from the standpoint of a fan, what new show(s) are you most looking forward to seeing over the next few months?
Oh, well I’ve got to go see Carousel! That’s not a new show, but I have to see the new revival. My friend Lindsay Mendez is playing Carrie Pipperidge. I’m also really excited about Frozen!
Another show that opened this season that I really love is The Band’s Visit. It’s so powerful and I just loved it. It’s incredible! The woman who’s the lead in it, Katrina Lenk, is so amazing. Everybody in that show is. It’s so different than anything that I’ve seen, so I loved that. I recommend that show for all people.
What are some dream roles on your musical theater bucket list that you’d love to play?
It’s funny because with whatever role that comes up, I’m like, “Oh, that’s my dream! I didn’t know this was my dream!”
I think I want to do some revivals now, because that’s the stuff that I love and that made me want to do theater. I would really love to do Sweet Charity. I would actually also love to do Camelot, because I love that score so much. That score is just really incredible and I think that maybe people forget that. It’s due for a revival. But I’m up for whatever!
Thanks so much, Sierra! Is there anything else that you would like to talk about that we didn’t discuss?
I have to say that The Age of Innocence is really beautifully done. I can’t say enough about our director, Doug Hughes. I can’t think of anyone better to direct this piece. He is an absolute dream come true. He’s everything that I had heard about him and had dreamed about working with. What he’s done with this piece is really incredible.
And I also want to say how incredible the cast that I’m working with is. We just finished our first week of rehearsals, and are beginning to put it on stage here in Connecticut. We did a week of rehearsals last week in New York, and this is now the end of our second week. It’s one of those casts where we are all so lucky that we’re getting to work with each other. I’m really thrilled about that. They’re all such incredible actors, and specifically incredible play actors. They’re such a great team of people. I feel really honored to be among them.
CLICK HERE to purchase tickets for The Age of Innocence, playing at Hartford Stage in Connecticut from April 5 through May 6.