The other day I was perusing some online pages about original Broadway companies and I saw the cast list for the first New York production of ‘Les Miserables’. I remember on my first trip to NYC that I tried to get tickets for the production and was told by the box office ‘What planet did I live on as I was to return in five years?’ I laugh about that now as that was the same response the Toronto box office used to give for the original Canadian company of ‘Les Miserables’ as well.
As I reviewed the New York cast list online, it was great fun to see Colm Wilkinson’s name (who later played the Phantom in the original Toronto production) and then I came across Randy Graff’s name. She had originated the role of Fantine. It suddenly dawned on me that I remember hearing Randy sing the titular ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ on the original Broadway LP album.
I thought, well, why not try to get in touch with Randy through her webpage to see if she would be interested and available for an interview. And I am grateful she responded in such a timely manner and welcomed the opportunity for the interview.
I encourage everyone to visit her website as she holds an extensive resume in the performing arts industry. Randy has been an instructor for the past four years at Manhattan School of Music. She also received the Tony award for her work in CITY OF ANGELS (another hell of a good show, by the way). Randy has appeared on the Broadway stage, off Broadway, regional theatres and concert halls. She has appeared in such productions as ‘Moon Over Buffalo’ and ‘Laughter on the 23rd Floor’.
Randy now appears in the Original Broadway cast of 'Mr. Saturday Night' opposite Billy Crystal.
We conducted our conversation via email as she is one busy lady right now in her work as an active arts educator. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer questions, Randy:
As an active arts educator and instructor for the past four years at Manhattan School of Music, what has been the most challenging moment of your teaching during this pandemic?
There have and continue to be a few challenges about teaching musical theater performance during the pandemic. The first was purely technical. How to use Zoom? I had never even heard of it. Fortunately, we have great tech support at MSM. They offered us workshops and tutorials, and really invested in getting the faculty ready. I'm less of a luddite now. A little pandemic perk.
But, what continues to be a challenge is how I keep my students engaged when we are not live in the classroom. How do I keep them excited about learning on a screen, when they're taking class from their bedrooms, dorm rooms, bathrooms and parent's cars? When we went into lockdown last March it was a little easier because I had already been working in the classroom with my students since September. I knew who they were as people and artists. The start of this school year, with a brand-new group of students. was one of the bigger challenges for all of us.
We're six weeks in and now, I feel like I have more of a sense of who they are, and I think, they do of me.
As a professional educator, what words of wisdom and sage advice have you been sharing with future artists given the unknown and uncertainty of the live performance industry? Have these messages been positively received?
Ahhh, I want always to be honest with them. This sucks! It's hard and depressing, so go ahead and allow yourself to feel all those things. Then remember, this is temporary. You are always going to have down time in your chosen profession. This happens to be an extraordinary pause, and we are still uncertain about when live theater will return and how it will return. I never say if, because I am certain it will, and my students need to hear that truth from me.
So, ask yourselves what you want to do with this time, and remember there is no wrong answer. You can stay connected to your art, or you can decide to get a real estate license or become an architect. What feels right to you? If you have chosen to be in school, then work hard at your craft. There is much to be learned about expressing yourself through the Zoom platform. More on that later.
I find that when I don't lecture my students about what they should do, regarding Covid, they feel empowered to make their own decisions, and then my words are well received.
As an artist and educator, do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?
On a personal note, the pandemic has taught me to be more present. To take life one day at a time, and to be even more grateful for the wonderful friends, family, and colleagues in my life. It's taught me to take better care of my health. It has reinforced what I already know about live theater. We need it. Desperately. To unite us, teach us empathy, and when the day comes where I can sit in a packed house and watch my favorite performers on stage, some of which may be my very own students, I will cry buckets of happy tears.
As an educator, I see my students finding imaginative ways to connect with each other and with students all around the country. Some are doing Zoom play readings, their own work included, and having group discussions after. Many are using the time to self-tape monologues and songs and get them up on their websites. They've started Youtube channels and some are Zoom directing as well. All motivated by the pandemic. They have acquired mad techno skills!
Honestly, some of these tapes are so impressive! They look like mini independent films, and their own acting/singing work has deepened. The multitudes of feelings they live with on a daily basis, because of life during the pandemic, has absolutely fueled them as actors.
As an artist and educator, what kind of impact will Covid 19 leave on the Broadway industry?
This is a tough question. I don't know how it's going to impact our industry. When it comes back, when audiences are willing to gather inside a Broadway theatre, I suppose there will have to be a new financial model so a show can sustain itself. I trust that our unions and the Broadway League will figure it out.
This much I do know; there will be an appreciation for the work by and for everyone who is responsible for it, onstage and off, that is so filled with love and joy. I might want to bottle and sell it. I need to think of a name. Any suggestions?
Share with us your honest opinions about online streaming and You Tubing dramatic/musical work for others to see. Will streaming and You Tubing be the new media for the future artist going forward into the unknown?
Honestly, I'm grateful for the live streaming right now. The opportunity for a young kid in the middle of nowhere to see "Hamilton" or the National Theatre's "Frankenstein" is awesome. I've also participated in Seth Rudetsky's "Stars In The House" with two cast reunions; the OBC of "Les Mis" and "City of Angels."
It was so wonderful to see everyone in their little squares, and all donations go to the amazing, what would we do without them, Actor's Fund. I watched the "Sondheim 90th Birthday" live stream celebration in tears and loved BD Wong's "Songs from An Unmade Bed," which I saw on YouTube.
As far as going into the unknown future, we, as educators, have a responsibility to prepare our students for it emotionally and practically. I do think it will continue to be a part of our art form. Streaming and YouTube are great platforms for artists to get their work out there to entertain, inspire and educate. Of course, it's not the real thing no matter how well it's filmed and watching them does have a twinge of "oh, I wish I was in the theatre." I do feel that there needs to be some payment made for people's work, and that's complicated, maybe even prohibitive, considering all the people who should be compensated.
On another streaming note, I'm a Netflix addict. So there's that. Have you seen "The Queen's Gambit?' Fabulous! (Joe agrees it is a wonderful series)
Despite all of the tension and drama surrounding the live entertainment industry, what specifically is it about performing that Covid will never destroy for artists now, the mid career artist and the upcoming and future artists?
I'm going to quote Arthur Miller on this, because his words are far, far better than mine.
"There is a certain immortality involved in theater, not created by monuments and books, but through the knowledge the actor keeps to his dying day that on a certain afternoon, in an empty and dusty theater, he cast a shadow of a being that was not himself, but the distillation of all he has ever observed; all the unsingable heart song the ordinary man may feel but never utter, he gave voice to. And by that he somehow joins the ages."
To learn more about Randy, visit her website randygraff.com or her Official Fan Facebook page: Randy Graff