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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 6, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 06
Laura Griffith gets ready to ride the Carousel
Arts & Entertainment
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Laura Griffith gets ready to ride the Carousel

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

CAROUSEL
THE 5TH AVENUE THEATRE
February 5 - March 1


Laura Griffith has been seen in several different performances in the Seattle area, but she is anything but common. A face as beautiful as her operatic range, she's played some of the most beloved musicals bringing new life into well-known roles. After appearing in several Broadway shows, Ms. Griffith now calls the Pacific Northwest home and returns to The 5th Avenue's stage in Carousel, one of the most cherished musicals in American history.

Eric Andrews-Katz: Who were your earliest influences in becoming a performer?

Laura Griffith: I started performing when I was in second grade. I used to watch The Wizard of Oz over and over again, so Judy Garland was somebody I saw a lot. I watched as many of her movies as I could, so I'd say that was my first influence before I even thought of a career as acting. Sometimes it was a show I was obsessed with, like Annie. As a kid, I wanted to be Annie and never got the chance to do it. In junior high school I was fascinated with The Phantom of the Opera. At that age I started imaging myself in that role as Christine. We went to Paris (when I was a girl) with my family and to the Paris Opera House. I wandered away trying to get into the basement of the theater.

Andrews-Katz: What was the first show that gave you the 'Performance Bug'?

Griffith: That was definitely The Wizard of Oz. I used 'Over the Rainbow' as an audition song in second grade and the entire room went silent. I thought, 'This is something I can do.'

Andrews-Katz: You've performed roles that are considered traditional musical theater and roles considered operatic. What kind of voice training have you had?

Griffith: I did study opera in high school. I had a teacher that pulled me aside and said that I had this part of my voice that I wasn't using. I started training in opera and competed in the Los Angeles Center Music Spotlight Awards. Part of the prize was I got to sing at the Dorothy Chandler and the Aspen Music Festival. It was an incredible opera program and a great experience to get my toes dipped into the opera world. As I started to see musical theater and opera in New York, I realized my heart was more in musicals.

Andrews-Katz: Your first show (with several more following) on Broadway was The Sweet Smell of Success. What was your audition like?

Griffith: That's a good story! I was the last person to be cast in that show. The casting director saw me here [in Seattle] performing in A Little Night Music [with Hayley Mills]. Mark Simon asked me to come in and audition for the final part they were casting in New York. They were not sure if they wanted more of a dancer or a singer, but they knew they needed an understudy for the lead. I was brought in and asked how my dancing was. I realized they wanted a dancer, but they had me come in for the final call back - which was the day before they started the first rehearsal! It was a nerve-wracking audition. I sang my 16 bars of 'I Could Have Danced All Night' and finished on the high 'C.'

Andrews-Katz: What brought you out to the Pacific Northwest and how did you get involved with The 5th Avenue Theatre?

Griffith: I moved here about a year and a half ago. I spent a year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012. When I finished there I was going through a re-evaluation of my life, and didn't want to go back to New York. I was pretty sure I didn't want to go to L.A. either. I came to Seattle to do The Music Man [at The 5th Avenue] and afterwards was chatting with David Armstrong. I mentioned that I was looking for a change and he was encouraging. It felt like the right thing. It took about six months to make that decision. [Seattle] is somewhere I could call home and find a balance between my personal and my private lives.

Andrews-Katz: Which do you prefer and why: modern or more traditional musicals?

Griffith: I prefer the traditional ones. Doing a show like Carousel literally makes you appreciate how Rodgers and Hammerstein became masters of their craft. That tradition has fallen away - in some ways for the better - as today's musicals seem to follow forms outside of the box. But I think finding a new musical with a great book is really hard these days. The art of the libretto has been lost. The score [to Carousel] is such a real treat to work on.

Andrews-Katz: After performing in Richard Rodgers' musicals (Carousel and Oklahoma) and those of his grandson Adam Guetell (Light in the Piazza), what do you notice as similarities and differences between their works?

Griffith: I think Adam really understands certain structural elements that Rodgers and Hammerstein used. R/H always started off a musical with a small, two-person intimate scene. It's a glimpse into these two important people and their lives, and how they go on from there. Then the plot blooms into a bigger world and we are drawn in by further intimate moments. Adam did that with Light in the Piazza; it was just the two women on a huge stage sharing a very intimate moment. Then he blossomed and the audience sees the world around them. It's a great way to draw the audience in as opposed to a big flashy number. That can grab an audience's attention too, but doesn't necessarily draw us into the psychology of what is to come.

Andrews-Katz: What do you think are the excitements and challenges of performing in a pre-Broadway musical like A Room With a View?

Griffith: It's the hardest thing I've ever done in show business. I've been through out-of-town tryouts, and pre-Broadway productions, but that's really hard. Nobody really knows which direction to go in, and you end up trying a lot of them. As an actor, you have to be willing to change everything you based your character on with a day's notice. You get handed a different song, or a new scene that changes your character's arc. I saw others do that with their shows. Kelli [O'Hara] in Sweet Smell of Success went through that. They changed it frequently, as happens, but she handled it with such grace. I learned a lot from her. That's how I try to go into it, it's all part of the job to come in every day, take those new pages and learn them. I had them spread out all across my dressing room. Sometimes before a scene, I'd go through new pages for the next scene; not exactly what you want to be doing as an actor but it's all part of the job. The biggest challenge is to keep both feet on the ground and rise to the challenge without panic. It's better to make something up [and improvise if needed] instead of forgetting and grinding everything on stage to a halt.

Andrews-Katz: Carousel made its debut in 1945. What makes the show so enduring?

Griffith: I think it's a complicated show for some people. I've always had mixed feelings about it. I think the revival [1994, Lincoln Center] proved how timeless the show is, and while it feels uncomfortable to do a show that characters behave so badly in, it can be a lot for people to take in. We've [the members of The 5th Avenue's production] talked about how it is applicable today. It's not condoning or romanticizing these characters and their behavior, but it is telling a story that highlights important issues. The show deals with domestic violence, to a degree, and crime. To judge it from a modern standpoint is easier to do if you romanticize the issues. It's not saying Julie [the female lead] is correct, it's more like saying there are people that get caught in situations and don't know how to get out of them. It's also about how a community views domestic violence. It's something that strikes a nerve with people. It can be an incredibly dark show, it really is. But one thing I look at is how tough these characters are, and how resilient they can be. Julie isn't just a pretty ingénue; she's a tough girl.

Andrews-Katz: If you could play any role - regardless of any limitations - which would it be and why?

Griffith: Off the top of my head, when I was doing Light in the Piazza I was thinking: I would love to play that role, Margaret Johnson. It's an incredible role and they don't write a lot of them these days. I'm sure there are male roles too, but I can't think of them off the top of my head.

Laura Griffith has appeared on Broadway four times: Sweet Smell of Success (with Kelli O'Hara, John Lithgow, and Brian D'Arcy James), Oklahoma! (with Patrick Wilson, Shuler Hensley, and Andrea Martin), The Light in the Piazza (with Kelli O'Hara, Victoria Clark, and Matthew Morrison), and South Pacific (with Kelli O'Hara, Danny Burstein, and Matthew Morrison). At The 5th Avenue Theatre, Ms. Griffith's credits include: The Lady of the Lake (Spamalot), Lucy (A Room With a View), and Marian (The Music Man) among many others.

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