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Sarah Rice Interview: The Evolving Expression Of Art

Sarah Rice is well known on the Broadway scene with over 40 years of performances and accomplishments behind her.  She is perhaps best known for her roles in the Steven Sondheim productions, A Little Night Music and the original cast of Sweeney Todd, but her extensive repertoire has won her many honors and distinctions over the years.  Now, this remarkable artist continues to expand her horizons as a singer, musician and animal rights advocate by hosting award winning cabaret series and concert events throughout the New York area.  To our delight, we found a lover of electronic music and a digital media entrepreneur, as well as a gifted Theremin player!   We found Sarah to be an inspiring agent of change and a wonderful example of how artistic expression can be released in so many directions.  We hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as we enjoyed doing it.

The curtain rises!

LBFH: When did you first know that theatre and singing was something that you wanted to do?

SR: Well, I started out wanting to be a ballet dancer.  I saw a magical production of Swan Lake   and I thought, oh my God, this is amazing and I must do this!  So I grew up wanting to be a dancer.  I did all sorts of shows in the local community and then puberty hit, and it became obvious that I wasn’t built to be a dancer.  But I was singing and dancing and performing anywhere I could and we had a wonderful community theatre so I had lots of performing opportunities.  So the singing sort of evolved over time.

LBFH: Did you get a lot of encouragement along the way?

SR:  Some, and then some not.  I got a lot of encouragement by just doing.  I did a lot of productions; I didn’t care if it was the smallest chorus part or if it was the lead, as long as I was out there doing it.  The fact that people cast me was encouragement.  But no one in the high school ever said to me, oh my god; you’re going to be a star!  I was happiest out there performing.  When I was in college, I had one teacher that told me; well dear, you’ll have a career because you want one so badly, you know, not because you’re so incredibly talented, but because you want one so much.  You get a lot of no’s.  I had a teacher tell me that if a no is going to stop you, then you shouldn’t be doing this because you’re going to hear a lot of no’s.

LBFH: I think some artists thrive on rejection.  Do you feel that it makes you more resolute to succeed?

SR: Sometimes.  Not for me, I don’t like rejection! (Laughs)

LBFH: Did you study theatre and voice?

SR: Yes, I still study voice twice a week.  With voice and especially classical singing, it’s like an Olympic event and it’s easy to get into bad physical habits that you don’t realize you’re doing.  So you always need an outside eye, someone to tell you, you know your jaw is pulling a little to the left or your chin is wobbling.  I have a wonderful teacher.  Her name is Laura Thomas and she’s been incredible.  The trick for me is that if I’m not growing than I’m decaying.  Things don’t stick.  Like any instrument you have to keep working at it.


LBFH: When you came to New York, did you have a specific intention to work in the theatre?

SR: Yes.  I had a won a singing contest in Arizona but they wouldn’t give me the money until I left town.  Yup, get out of town.  They didn’t want me to use the money in Arizona; they wanted me to use it to start a career.  It gave me a one way plane ticket, which you can’t do today.  People will think you’re a terrorist if you buy a one way ticket.  It also paid my first month’s rent.  I went with a friend and she had been in New York before, so she was able to kind of forge the way ahead.   I left college early; I wasn’t getting the support I needed.  This opportunity came up and it was like, well I’m going to do this, at least I know casting directors are fair out there in professional land.  You know, in college, they tell you it’s for your own good as they mess up your mind.  There are so many good performers out there that are just so good, but it’s like the college just didn’t get what it is they do.  You know they have their agendas to fill.  When you’re in a large community, like in the professional world, there’s always going to be someone who likes what you do.

LBFH: You are also a Theremin player?  Tell us a little about that and how you’ve been broadcasting your performances

SR: Yes!  I love it.  I play it classically which is a lot of fun.  I also love electronic music, but it’s a costly passion, like a never ending candy store.  I do jazz Theremin and Celtic Theremin, too.  I broadcast my shows from an application called, Broadcast Window.   Christine Lavin who’s really big in the Folk world turned me on to it.  It’s a broadcast service that you can do right from your laptop in your living room and people pay to see you.  They can pay as little as a dollar, but they have to pay something to get on to it and to see you.  I’ve been doing these with the Theremin for about 2 or 3 months, it’s great.  It’s just streamed under a general license.  At first I had to get a new pc and then upgrading the microphone.  But right now I just advertise it on Facebook.  I have people that tune in from all over the world to watch, I have people from Amsterdam who tune in, and it’s great!  This is a good way to build a fan base that’s not like You Tube.

LBFH: Do you use social media a lot?

SR: Yes but its good and bad.  Being of the older generation, in internet time, I’ve seen things change very much.  In the old times, you had more control over what went out and what people had access to.  Recordings did not go out unless they were pristine.  Photos didn’t go out unless they were retouched and in beautiful shape.  Now, it’s like you’re on the toilet and it gets out there somehow.  Good bad or indifferent you know every double chin photo is out there.  You know I’ll be out in a cabaret playing the Theremin and then you see all of the cell phones come out and you know you’re about to be posted on YouTube.  Whether it’s a good night or a bad night or whether you played in tune, it’s all out there.  I’ve learned that it’s beyond your control at this point.  I belong to a Theremin group and most of the members are older, and they’re just horrified that there’s all this out of tune Theremin playing out there.  Social media makes performances seem like family snapshots, you like a day of singing out at the beach.  It’s interesting, but hard to reconcile.  I just did a concert Saturday night and the sound guy was recording it, just for his own archival purposes.  And one of the performers got very, very upset and she said, how dare he record this without my permission!   You have to get used to.  No matter where you perform now, people are going to record or tape.  If you really want to get people’s attention, post a picture of a cat!

LBFH: In the early days, did you just start cold calling for auditions?

SR: The girl that I came to the city with from Arizona kind of knew the ropes.  She knew that if you but the trade papers and you start auditioning, I wasn’t equity or with any union yet so, you know, by day I was selling sun glasses at Saks Fifth Avenue and working in a deli and then just auditioning.  It was very upsetting when I didn’t get the job; I would come home and cry.  My friend said, look, auditioning is like putting nickels in a slot machine.  You just keep putting the nickels in and eventually you hit, but if you’re going to be upset every time you don’t get something then all your going to do is be crying.   That image stayed with me the whole time.  You just keep putting it out there and putting it out there and then eventually you just hit.  It’s just a very logical way of doing it and one thing will lead to the next.  I did a  showcase for no money, it was a musical version of The Miser, I got a manager out of it and the girl that was playing the lead had been doing The Fantasticks, down on Sullivan Street and she had been thinking about leaving and she said, why don’t you go down and audition for them. You’d be right for it.  So I did, and I got it!

LBFH: That must have been like a jackpot at the time getting a regular paycheck?

SR: Oh my god, it was $125.00!  But I was rich, it was so much money to me, I’d never made that much money before.  It was a lot of money in those days.  My rent was $120.00 split 3 ways, so I’m sounding like my Grandmother now (laughs).   Back then it was a lot of money, you couldn’t carry $20.00 worth of groceries in those days.  I thought, OK, I’m rich.  I loved it.  I was with the show for 2 years.  It was a show that I was dying to do and I couldn’t get the part in Arizona, so to come to New York and get it and work in the original production was wow!  I got the chance to work with Tom (Jones) and Harvey (Schmidt) the composers and they were very encouraging.  In fact, they were very supportive of my whole career, they were really wonderful.  So that was like a dream come true for me.

LBFH: It must have been a wonderful opportunity to work in the Sondheim productions.  Can you talk a little about that?

SR:  Oh, yeah.  The good part of it (Sweeney Todd) is that they are incredibly crafty people.  The whole team, you know Hal Prince, Sondheim, Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou that for a young person to see how they operate, not just the show but as people.  Generous, they want everyone to succeed.  Angela made everybody down to the last prop guy to the gut that got coffee for the swing crew feel important.  Everyone was treated with respect and made to feel important and part of the show.  And that was an incredible thing to see, that the happiness of the company comes from the top down.   It was interesting but people didn’t know what to make of Sweeney Todd, you know the way he orchestrated it with the heavy drama, it felt very much like an opera to me.

LBFH: The way you handled your numbers in that production was just superb.  It is very operatic.

SR: Well thank you!  The role has been done a lot of different ways in different productions and people put their own stamp on it.  It’s all valid.  That’s one thing I learned in The Fantasticks, your one girl in a long line and each very different.  Everyone has their take on it and there is no one way to do it.  You know, it’s like a piece of music, the way each person sees and hears it is going to be very different.  I’ve seen a lot of different performances of Sweeney and I’ve found them interesting.  In fact the girl that took over for me when I left had a very different take on the role and a lot of people really liked that way, even better than mine.

LBFH: Did you find it challenging to work in the studio to do the cast recording?

SR: Yes, it was totally challenging because the way that they did in the old days was you had your day off right after the opening.  The day after, you don’t really get a day off because your exhausted after being up all night and you go into the studio for 16 hours from 8 in the morning until midnight and then if you’re not done, you come back the next morning at 8:00 and do another eight hours and then you go directly to the theatre.  Because Len had laryngitis, he had inhaled the potting soil that was in the grave they were recording around him, until he got tired, and then we would step in and record our parts.  So you never knew when you were recording.  That was very hard and I was scared silly.  I was like, oh my god this is going to be for posterity, you know, I was 20 years old and holy moly, how am I going to do this.  I’m going to die!  Jonathan Tunick who is Sondheim’s orchestrator took me aside and out to lunch and he was so kind and so wonderful.  He said, Sarah, you’re going to be fine.  Don’t worry about it, it’s all going to be ok.  You know a grown up saying, it’s going to be ok, got me through it.  I have always been grateful to him for having the kindness and sensitivity to do that for me.  There were no strings attached, nothing weird, it was just lovely and kind and thoughtful for him to do that and it really helped me. That recording session was tough and hard to get through.

LBFH: When recoding the songs, do you move around as you would in the play or do you just stand in front of a microphone?

SR: You have to stand in front of a microphone, but what Tom Shepard did, which was so brilliant and he I think he was one of the first engineers to this with a cast recordings was to make the spatial relationships so you can hear it on the recording, for example to adjust the recording to make it sound like I was on a balcony and far away.  We were in the old RCA studio, which doesn’t exist anymore, unfortunately, where it was an all wood studio where you recorded in the middle of the orchestra, which is so cool because you got to perform with the orchestra and not in an isolation booth so it really has a live feel to it.

LBFH: Do you still seek theatre roles or have you moved more into music performance?

SR: I still have my Soprano voice, I still sound like what I sounded like, hopefully better only I’m not twenty years old anymore so there’s not a lot of calls for it for me.  So, cabaret has afforded me the opportunity to perform without worrying about an expiration date.  I’m able to still do what I do.  I’ve worked very hard to keep myself in very good vocal shape.  But the roles I would go up for, the voice wouldn’t match the physical part anymore.  You know when you hit 35, your time as the leading lady is up.  But I’ve been doing a lot of stuff at 54 Below, which is called Broadway’s night club.  I do a monthly series called, Sondheim Unplugged which is comprised of like 10 performers who originated roles in Sondheim shows, mixed in with young people.   It’s technically not unplugged if you use a microphone, but I sing Green Finch without a microphone.  It’s been a lot of fun because I have to learn new Sondheim songs, so that keeps me growing.  It really is a wonderful series and has been winning awards, so it really is nice to be a part of that.

LBFH: Do you utilize any home recording or electronic music technology?

SR: I love computers and embrace technology, but it’s very hard to keep up with.  I’m pretty computer savvy, but this technology moves pretty fast.  For example, Facebook is for old people now, young people have moved onto other things.  In internet time, 2 years is like 10 normal years.  Even Twitter is for old people now.  That’s fine, but I enjoy it.  As a performer, you have very intense relationships with people for a short time and then you move on to other things.  Facebook is like a cocktail party in your Jammie’s.  When I do my invites, I have to make sure you don’t invite dead people.  What’s really weird is when dead people friend you.  I understand about memorial pages, but I don’t friend dead people, (laughs).

LBFH: Do you find that young people seek you out for advice?

SR: Occasionally I will, sometimes young people who are being cast for the role of Joanna (Sweeney Todd) and want advice, but everyone’s path is different.  Try to say yes to as many things as you can.   Many people like Beyonce and Stephen king are doing it for themselves these days with self publishing and self production; you have to utilize everything you can to self promote.  I myself have got jobs through Facebook.  I got a job in a major tribute to Angela Lansbury that way.

LBFH: What projects are in the mix for you now?

SR: In addition to the Sondheim Unplugged and the Broadcast Window, I’m co-hosting an open mic at the West End avenue lounge.  It’s awesome and a lot of fun.  Its 2 hours of sharing music.  All genres are welcome.  It’s very low key.  Check the site for times and dates.  I also do several monthly series.  Once a month at the West End Lounge, we’ll be doing a concert performance to benefit animal rescue.  It’s called the Twilight Bark, from 101 Dalmatians and it will help raise money for people who can’t afford vet bills.

LBFH: Sarah, it’s been a true pleasure speaking with you today and we wish you the best of luck!

SR: Thanks, it has been a pleasure!

End Interview

About Thomas Mangano

Musician, Composer, Columnist


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