You don’t always know the names of the working actors who make up the vertebrae of Broadway, even if you’ve scanned them in a dozen Playbills over the years. They may understudy the leads while lingering in the chorus, or anchor the tours, until that call comes offering a path to stardom. Or doesn’t. Stephanie J. Block, a Tony nominee for her performance in this past season’s acclaimed revival of Falsettos, has paid a ton of dues and spent plenty of time both in the spotlight as well as upstage. She made her Broadway debut in 2003 playing Liza Minnelli opposite Hugh Jackman’s Peter Allen, in the biomusical The Boy From Oz, which is not a bad place to start, even if it came in the wake of heartbreak, as you’ll see below.
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In Falsettos, Block played Trina, whose husband Marvin (Christian Borle) has just announced that he is leaving her and their soon-to-be-a-bar-mitzvah son Jason (Anthony Rosenthal) to move in with Whizzer (Andrew Rannells). The show – with a score by William Finn and book and direction by James Lapine – is set in 1979, at the beginning of the AIDS crisis and proved to be as poignant in 2017 as it was in 1992, when it was first produced on Broadway. It earned Block her second Tony nomination; in 2013, she played the title role in a revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But it all started in 1992, when she played Belle in the Disneyland version of Beauty & The Beast, not far from where she grew up in Orange County, CA.
We spoke recently about a career that has been full of high peaks – and deep valleys.
Deadline: You have a longstanding relationship with Elphaba, in Wicked, that didn’t start out as you’d planned.
Stephanie J. Block: Wicked has always been my highest of highs and some of my lowest of lows. They were developing it in California, and after all the freebies and basement readings and dinner theater I’d done, my name came to
the table several times over. I had come back from my first foray into New York and was living a comfortable life where I knew my bills would be paid. We spent two years developing Elphaba. But then when it came time to cross the finish line, it was [composer-lyricist] Stephen Schwartz who had to pick up the phone and say, “We love you but you have no Broadway credits and I don’t think we can risk a multimillion dollar show on someone who has not been on Broadway, let alone been at the helm of a big Broadway show, so we’d love for you to stand by for Idina.”
Deadline: That was Idina Menzel, who went on to win the Tony for her performances as the misunderstood Wicked Witch. That must have been a blow to the ego.
‘Kristin Chenoweth [who played Glinda] and I really befriended each other. We kept nudging each other with what we thought the future was going to bring. So when that didn’t come to fruition, it hurt.’
Block: I have no qualms about saying that was a huge kick in the gut. I understand show business but the heart of an artist never wants to grapple with the business part of it. Still I’ll get emotional. I fell in love with the character, and my final days in the two-week workshop was with Kristin Chenoweth [who played Glinda]. We really befriended each other and we kept nudging each other with what we thought the future was going to bring. So when that didn’t come to fruition, it hurt.
Deadline: But that wasn’t the end of it for you. Wicked became a global sensation. You did the national tour and then a long run on Broadway.
Block: Idina was genius, she brought something completely different to it. But when I finally did get to become my own Elphaba, it was quite fulfilling. I chose the tour because by that point Wicked was a well-oiled machine and I wanted to get in on the ground floor with [director] Joe Mantello and create something new. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It felt a bit like a rock concert, in every city there was that ovation you can’t believe you’re a part of.
Deadline: And when you closed out that chapter, you went right into the title role of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s The Pirate Queen.
Block: That was epic – and such a flop. There were a lot of creatives with a lot of input, and everybody wanted to have their voice recognized and implemented. Somehow we lost track of what it was. Two strong voices in the producers from Riverdance and of course Claude-Michel and Alain. And Frank Galati, who is the most diplomatic director I have ever worked with, which may have worked against us, because our boat wasn’t steady. She was slow to start, it took people 15-20 minutes to settle in, and by then it took us even longer to keep them invested.
I loved it, I loved her, it certainly gave me the confidence that, as an actor, I can do a lot. Twenty-three songs and sword-fighting and walking through fire and climbing, oh my God! So that was another kick in the gut, where New York just did not want to embrace any of it. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done. After two and a half hours of being onstage from start to finish and taking that bow – as we like to say, The crowd went mild! You just go, “Crap, I wish they’d gotten it.” But the ’90s were over and Broadway was going in a whole different direction.Was it flawless? Absolutely not. But there was a lot of good to it.
Deadline: I imagine your experience with Falsettos was happier. That was a producing collaboration between Jujamcyn Theatres chief Jordan Roth and Lincoln Center Theater’s André Bishop.
Block: Jordan said this was his bucket list musical, and that’s how it all came to be. Then Lincoln Center came on board; André and Ira Weitzman, who’d been with it since Playwrights Horizons, it was a treasured piece for them as well. So it was scary for them and for us – we wanted to carry the torch for them and make them proud and get similar results, especially emotionally, to what happened 25 years ago.
Deadline: And working with James Lapine?
Block: The phone call came a month after I’d given birth to my daughter and I really wasn’t ready to come back to work. But it was one of those scores and parts it really would have been hard to walk away from. And – divine intervention – it was put off and I got an extra year.
I’d worked with James during Little Miss Sunshine. He’s one of the quirkiest, most lovable geniuses I’ve ever worked with, and I tell him I want to be part of his repertory company. Any time he’s got something new, I’m going to try to jump on the bandwagon. When the time finally came, I told him, “The gal you worked with on Little Miss Sunshine, who had it all together and could tell you what that other person’s line was? That person is gone, I’m messy, I’m a little all over the place, I’m dropping balls left and right.” And he said “Bring it, I think that’s going to be perfect for Trina.”
Deadline: So what’s on your bucket list?
Block: It constantly changes. But I have to get into a room with Stephen Sondheim, being in a rehearsal space and singing one of his songs with him guiding me. There’s a rumor that they may do Company with a female Bobby and I think that would be just great, to play Roberta. And Into the Woods, God I have to play the Witch in Into the Woods! I would love for Kiss of the Spider Woman to make its way back. Falsettos was on my bucket list, you know. For us, when the phone rings, you never know what’s on the other end, and it changes your life.
The Tony Awards will be telecast live by CBS June 11, beginning at 8 PM New York time.
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