Randy Graff has had a long and enviable career as a perfomer. She was the original Fantine in the Broadway production of Les Miserables, as well as originating the roles of Girl Friday Oolie in City of Angels (for which she received the Tony and Drama Desk Awards), A Class Act (for which she was nominated for Outer Critics, Drama Desk and Tony Awards), Laughter on the 23rd Floor and Moon Over Buffalo. She played Golde in the 2004 Fiddler on The Roof revival, and was also in the casts of Falsettos and High Society. She has performed on stages all over the country as well as in numerous cabaret and concert performances. Ms. Graff is also a respected teacher, on the faculty at Primary Stages Einhorn School of Performing Arts (ESPA). And starting this Fall, she is an adjunct instructor at NYU for the Musical Theater Voice Department at Tisch headed by Michael McElroy.
With so much experience creating new roles in musical theatre, we wanted to ask Ms. Graff a little about about her process and how she teaches her students to break down a song. Below are her answers to the interview questions we emailed her:
As a performer you’ve had the privilege of originating a lot of roles in new musicals. What are the challenges/joys of working on new material for you?
The only difference I see in creating a role as compared to reviving a role is this: When you are originating a role, the authors are there to write on you and that is exciting. Neil Simon wrote a speech for me during “Laughter On the 23rd Floor” because of something I did in rehearsal that inspired him, and he wrote on me for my sense of humor. Cy Coleman and David Zippel wrote the verse to “You Can Always Count On Me” on a break during tech rehearsal when they felt that “something was missing.” You don’t have that luxury when you are reviving a role because it’s pretty much set in stone, unless the authors are around and want to make changes. Bock and Harnick wrote a new song for the 2004 FIDDLER revival. Having said all this, the exploration and discovery of the character’s moments come from YOU in both cases. I’m inspired by whoever came before me in a revival. I do listen to cast recordings… and I do my best to check the ghosts at the rehearsal door.
You were the first person to sing, “I Dreamed A Dream” in the U.S. Looking back on that song and that role, how did it change the trajectory of your career?
Les Miserables was definitely a game changer for me career wise. It opened doors and lots of people saw it. I became “known.” I am humbled and honored to have originated Fantine on Broadway and I actually wasn’t aware that I was the first to sing “I Dreamed A Dream” in the U.S. I’m glad. That would have made me nervous!
It’s been said you know how to get to the “heart of a song.” When you get a new song, what is your approach to breaking it down?
I’m pretty zen about working on a song. I listen to it musically and lyrically several times. I sing it quietly to myself or just say the words when I am in a relaxed state of concentration, and this is ultimately how I find my way in. It plays me, and this is how I find the moments and my point of view, and it’s a little different each time. Putting it on its feet sometimes involves other actors or an audience in a cabaret setting, and that takes it to other places. A director will take it to other places. But it all starts with me finding my “personal in” and that happens organically by simply letting the song “do me.” I hope that makes sense to you all.
When you teach, you focus a lot on the song lyrics. How do you help your students analyze the text?
The first question I always ask is “does this song have meaning for you?” And I mean personally. We can look at what the song is about on its own or within the context of the musical, but I am mainly concerned with my students personalizing their songs. I recently had a 16 year old student sing “On My Own.” It was clear she had no connection to what she was saying. So I asked “Does this song have meaning for you?” She said “Not really.” She and her boyfriend were doing great and she was not in an unrequited love situation. She said that she should probably channel Eponine. I said how about we find something in your life that would liken you to Eponine’s loneliness and despair. For instance, what if her boyfriend who was going off to college just told her he wanted to break up and see other people. How would that feel? Well, that did it. That hit close to home. The song just “did her” and it was so moving. Beautiful.
How is performing a song in an audition situation different than a performance?
Oh, it’s harder! There’s no one there to work off of so you’re not in your own head and self conscious. That’s where technique really helps. I chose a person to sing to…put that person over the desk and imagine the moment before. I visualize something specific or hear something in my head to make me have to sing. I call it a “trigger phrase.” These are basic tools for acting a song and they are super handy in the audition room and help with nerves as well.
What are you up to next?
I’m doing some concert work. I have my own show called RANDY GRAFF…MADE IN BROOKLYN that will be playing at The Kennedy Center in October and I’m thrilled about that. The Kennedy Center is my favorite place to work in the U.S. You can check it out at RandyGraff.com. I will also be teaching at NYU, for the Tisch School of the Arts. It’s a wonderful program created by the great Michael McElroy, in Song Performance. I’ll be teaching Juniors. Very excited to be part of the adjunct faculty. We’ll be doing Sondheim all Fall semester!
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