The Scottsboro Boys’ Christian Dante White: The Sky’s The Limit
by Adryan Russ for GRACE NOTES, May 25, 2013
A cast member of The Scottsboro Boys, by John Kander, Fred Ebb and David Thompson, now at LA’s Ahmanson Theatre — Christian Dante White is a force to be reckoned with. Bright, articulate and talented, he was in on the ground floor of this show, in its first reading, its off-Broadway and Broadway productions, and is now on tour with the production.
Says Christian, “I did the first reading of the show at New York’s Vineyard Theatre – we rehearsed for a week and read the piece with chairs and music stands in July 2009. I got a call to do a full production off-Broadway in 2010. We rehearsed for four weeks before opening off-Broadway at the Vineyard, which led to our out-of-town tryout at The Guthrie Theater; then I did the show on Broadway. I was grateful they kept me on the train.”
How did it all begin for him? “I had just booked The Wiz at New York City Center, a huge production with Ashanti, Orlando Jones, La Chanze, playing the Scarecrow, and got my Equity card. I got called to audition for Kander, Ebb and Thompson and I thought, there’s no way I’m going to get this, but went anyway during my lunch break and didn’t think I had a good audition at all. But I got a call after rehearsal and couldn’t stop laughing because I got in.”
After The Wiz and the reading for The Scottsboro Boys, which he participated in simultaneously, Christian was supposed to appear in Jersey Boys in Las Vegas, but was called, literally at the airport, asking him to come back to be in The Scottsboro Boys. Luckily he hadn’t signed anything yet. In the meantime, he appeared in Lost in the Stars at New York City Center, a failed pilot in Los Angeles and a workshop of Big Fish, scheduled for Broadway with Susan Stroman. Then the Book of Mormon here at The Pantages last Fall, which he left to return to Scottsboro Boys. “So here I am again,” he smiles. After this production they go to London’s Young Vic.
Says Christian, about the role of Charlie Weems, “Whenever you’re playing a villain, you can’t judge the character. If you do, you won’t find the truth in him. You have to find the humanity in the person. For me, this role is about survival, and that’s what I hung onto. I also found the fun in it. People who saw the show have said, ‘We loved to hate you!’
About director Susan Stroman, “She has grace, poise and pulls the best out of you. She has an eye for detail, does everything with a smile and gets you to do your best because she’s doing her best. I am fortunate to have worked with her on two shows. She’s the best director I’ve ever worked with – love being in the same room with. To me, you’re only as strong as your leader.”
Asked about how the show personally affects him: “There are so many holes in history about these guys. If you Google their names, you don’t find much, which is sad. Eugene Williams – we don’t know what happened to him. He could still be living, for all we know. It’s devastating. Clarence Norris we know died in 1989, but most of them – like my character, Charlie Weems, there’s nothing about him. It’s sad for me that they are not known as individuals but as a group – the Scottsboro boys.
Future plans? “You know what? The sky’s the limit. I’d love to be like Audra McDonald and Kristen Chenowith – across-the-board artists — concerts, theater, TV and film. Other than that, I’m enjoying the show, and encourage people to come and see it, stay with it — the first half is heavy — but there is a huge arc that takes you to the end, so people should ride it out. That was our ultimate goal – to get people to research and talk about ‘the boys. For me, as an actor, it’s a privilege to be able to tell and uplift their story.”
Steven Landau is music director/conductor for Jekyll & Hyde, heading to Los Angeles’ Pantages Theater Feb. 12 – Mar. 3, and then to the Marquis Theatre on Broadway in April. He’s been to Broadway before, music directing/arranging Big River for Deaf West Theater/Roundabout Theatre Company; conducted several national tours: Titanic, Big River, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas; associate conducted The 25th Annual Putnam CountySpelling Bee and Young Frankenstein. For the Mark Taper Forum, he music directed and arranged for Pippin; for Ford’s Theatre, Parade, 2011 Annual Gala, Shenandoah; and at the Hollywood Bowl played keyboards for Hairspray.
GN: How did you get started in music?
Steven: I’ve been playing piano since I was a child. I made up my mind that I wanted to do something with music professionally when I was in high school, and fell into theater finding it to be a nice niche.
GN: How did you “fall in”?
Steven: I started doing shows when I was in my 20s in what used to be called “Equity waiver” and now called “99 seats” in Los Angeles — small piano trios. A few years later I was on the First National Tour with City of Angels as an actor and singer. After that, I got back into music directing and worked as a pit conductor for the San Bernardino Civic Light Opera. From there I made connections that took me to Music Theater of Wichita for three summers, made more connections there, eventually landing an associate conductor position on the First National Tour of Titanic, which I did for almost two years, then got bumped up to music director for the last four months of the tour. I’ve been lucky.
GN: Lucky and obviously talented. Is it a good life? You travel a lot.
Steven: I do. It’s hard to be away from home, away from my partner. He’s a stage manager and has done his fair share of touring over the last 10 years, so now it’s my turn again – he’s working on Jersey Boys in Las Vegas.
GN: Your experience with Big River is amazing.
Steven: I started it with Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood; from there, we were picked up by Center Theatre Group and moved to the Taper, then a Broadway run for the Roundabout, then the tour; followed by another production at Ford’s Theatre, which I couldn’t music direct because I was still on the tour, but I got the tour set up as music supervisor.
GN: Quite a ride! And, as we speak, you’re closing Jekyll & Hyde in Denver, then heading our way.
Steven: I am. Then we head to Broadway in April — the Marquis Theatre.
GN: What size cast are you working with?
Steven: It’s 22 or 23, I believe.
GN: And you have an 11-piece orchestra?
Steven: Yes, I travel with three musicians. I conduct and play keyboards, I have an associate conductor who plays another keyboard, and we travel with a guitar player and drummer. In every city, we pick up seven local musicians – two violins, a viola and cello, a bass, woodwind player and French horn.
GN: It’s great for each town that you hire local players, although that obviously adds to your workload.
Steven: It is nice, but it definitely makes for a lot more work. The first Tuesday in every city is quite a long day — I start at the theater at 7:45 AM. There’s a setup of the orchestra, which then rehearses from 9 ‘til 2. We move everything into the pit, then I get a couple of hours off before our sound-check. Then we do the show. It’s my job to represent music supervisor and arranger Jason Howland’s vision as well as I can. He was the music director and conductor of Jekyll & Hyde when it was on Broadway.
GN: Are there differences in playing, arranging and/or conducting a Maury Yeston show, Stephen Schwartz show, Frank Wildhorn show?
Steven: You have to approach them all differently — according to the composer’s wishes and what style you’re going for. The style of this show has changed from its original, because of Constantine Maroulis (Tony-nominated for Rock of Ages), who’s a rocker, and Deborah Cox (Aida on Broadway) who’s R&B. We’ve made the score more rock oriented than it used to be. There’s a harder edge to it.
GN: What are the most important things you’ve learned music directing, conducting and arranging?
Steven: First, you have to listen to the creators and the director, and be in tune with their vision; and second, you need to treat the material well to support your actors.
GN: Sounds like perfect advice.
GN: Congratulations on the new production of Cathy Rigby is PETER PAN heading to The Pantages for two weeks, then on tour. You’ve been to Broadway, on TV — you’ve won Emmys, been Tony Award nominated — what inspires you, after all this, to do it again?
CATHY: I’m flying, singing and playing in Neverland, and the joy comes from watching generations of families come with me. And, like Peter Pan, it helps me believe anything is possible.
GN: You and Peter Pan are ageless and timeless. You’re doing this role having just celebrated your 60th birthday.
CATHY: When you love something as much as I’ve enjoyed doing this show, if I can do it better than before, and be believable… that’s the hope. I wondered, will I be able to do this?
GN: Clearly, the answer is yes.
CATHY: When you can find more spontaneity, mischief and joy, it becomes a better show. There are changes. Costumes and sets have changed; some dance elements – you’ll see Tiger Lily on a kind of Cirque de Soleil silk that looks like a hanging vine. The flying is more athletic. I now have a single and double harness. They’re connected so I can fly on a single or double wire, which allows for more acrobatics, flipping, spinning, horizontal flying. The heart of the story has evolved dramatically over the last 30 years, especially the last six months.
GN: You were the first woman, at age 15, to win a medal in the World Gymnastics competition, constantly competing and winning medals.
CATHY: I was an obsessive person, and I loved gymnastics. If I could’ve slept on the balance beam at night, I probably would have. My parents found an outlet for their hyper little girl who was jumping off the roof using my parents’ bed sheet, hoping it would open like a parachute – they thought gymnastics would be safer.
GN: Gymnastics requires great discipline, but the character Peter Pan seems to be completely opposed to discipline.
CATHY: I think it’s true – Peter has probably saved my life and my creative process for that very reason. Children have this boundless energy that isn’t always focused but is almost always creative, inquisitive and mischievous. If you can harness that in a show as an adult – it’s great therapy.
GN: You are working with the wonderful Brent Barrett.
CATHY:. It’s nice to be ending this Peter Pan in April with Brent Barrett, with whom I did Annie Get Your Gun 20 years ago. We’ve always talked about our doing this together – he’s been busy, doing Phantom, Chicago – this time he was available. He’s my nemesis this time instead of my husband.
GN: Do you have a favorite Peter Pan song?
CATHY: “Distant Melody” (by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green). It’s a song where Peter and Wendy try to remember what their mother said to them when they were younger. It’s a turning point in the show — Wendy decides to grow up and go home, and Peter decides to forever stay a child. As a mother and grandmother, dramatically and emotionally it resonates with me. In the show’s opening, Wendy picks up a flower and gives it to her mom, who says, “If only you could remain like this forever.” We all want our children to grow up and experience life, but there’s something lovely about that parent-and-child moment of innocence and connection where you want everything to stay the same.
GN: In addition to all your accomplishments, including mothering four children, you’re a motivational speaker. What’s the essence of what you teach?
CATHY: My top goal, from the Olympics to Broadway, has been finding the balance between going for the gold at any cost and allowing myself to enjoy the process and live every day without the fear of making a mistake. I used to white-knuckle life – in both athletic competitions and onstage. I got a great review once, which taught me a lesson. It said, in Peter Pan, for Cathy Rigby every “t” is crossed and every “i” is dotted, and she’s as predictable as her balance beam routine. That was about 25 years ago. It changed how I approach everything: You can work hard and be the best, but if you white-knuckle everything you do, it’s never going to be as brilliant as it could be. At some point you have to allow things to happen and let go. I think maybe that’s why Peter Pan has become more successful as I’m getting ready to close it – I have a sense of freedom. And that’s very Peter Pan-like.
Cathy Rigby is PETER PAN runs Feb. 15-27 at LA’s Pantages Theatre.