Thanks to the management of the beautiful Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia for arranging for me to meet the two stars of Hairspray.
Part 1 – A podcast with Amy Toporek
It’s been an exciting journey from Edison, New Jersey for 24 year old Amy Toporek, from playing Grandma Tseitel in a camp production of Fiddler on the Roof, to the Shabbatones, to auditioning and finally nabbing the role of the spunky, zaftig dancing sensation Tracy Turnblad in the National tour of Hairspray.
Amy talks about playing Tracy in the newly re-conceived production of the Tony Award winning musical now playing at the Walnut Street Theatre, her obsession with Broadway tunes, the frustration of coming so close to getting the role of her dreams and how a broken ankle gave her the biggest break of her professional career.
With Hairspray’s themes of integration and civil rights permeating the Walnut Street Theatre on the first night of previews – which was also election night- Amy describes what it was like backstage and the cast’s response when they learned Barack Obama won and how the showstopping number “I Know Where I’ve Been” has extra meaning for her now.” All of a sudden we heard screams coming from downstairs and we stopped, and we all cheered and everyone was crying.And then we went downstairs and watched his acceptance speech in the green room, and again more crying..and we changed the lyrics to “Welcome to the 60’s” to “Obama! Welcome to the White House!”
How is she handling the demanding role of the teenager who is onstage for the entire 2 plus hours of the show? “The hardest dance number is You Can’t Stop The Beat, Those dances created by choreographer Mary Jane Houdina are very intense to get through..a lot of Ponys, The Boston, the Madison and jerks. It’s even more than the (national) tour.”
“I’m still really new with the acting business, but I seem to be fitting in so far, and I’m really enjoying every second of it, and I really can’t see my self not singing and not performing for the rest of my life. Singing is the thing I think about in the morning when I wake up, and I sing myself to sleep sometimes.. I just want to sing forever.”
Listen to the podcast here.
Part 2 – An interview with Michael Walker
Joel: You played Edna recently at the Warner Theatre. Brad Hathaway in Potomac Stages said this about your performance: “Michael Walker was in as the mother, and he was having such fun it was infectious. He makes the emphatic line “For Me!” in the opening number of the second act seem like an Ethel Merman moment, and his work on the charm song of the show, the duet “(You’re) Timeless to Me” with Dan Ferretti as the love of her life is delightful.”
Michael: I HOPE it was infectious. This show has the ability to really carry you along and it’s very easy to get swept away by it. I know I do every time I step out onto the stage. The show is so much fun to do, It’s not work. Dan Ferretti will always be one of my favorite actors to share the stage with. He is extremely talented, loving, and a very kind soul.
Joel: How many times did you go on as Edna when you were at the Warner Theatre?
Michael: I was on in DC as Edna a total of 6 times. (Note: Greg London played Edna on opening night. See Tim Treanor’s review of that opening night):
Joel: How were the audiences in DC?
Michael: The audiences in DC were AMAZING!! First of all, the Warner theatre is an incredibly beautiful space to perform in. Everyone there treated us like royalty. And every night when the show was over, the audience was on their feet dancing and singing with us.
Joel: When did you first get bitten by the theatre bug?
Michael: I am originally from Huntsville, Alabama, and I officially got bitten by the bug taking a summer workshop at a local community theatre when I was 6 years old. We did Winnie the Pooh and I was Pooh. But my love of theatre was a gradual process. Huntsville has always had lots of support for the Arts, so I grew up seeing the National tour of The Sisters Rosensweig, Robert Goulet in Camelot, and tons of local theatre.
Joel: When was the first time you stepped on the stage to perform?
Michael: The first time I did a “real” play on the stage was with Fantasy Playhouse, a local children’s theatre in Huntsville. They were doing Beauty and the Beast and I was the moving chair. I wore upholstery for two and half hours and LOVED it. Huntsville, Alabama is a very special town. When I was growing up there were 6 community theatres along with 4-5 Broadway National tours coming through. TLS, a major US theatrical lighting company is based there. So theatre is a big deal to a lot of people in Huntsville, Alabama.
Joel: There is a fabulous video of you singing “You Rule The World” from The Full Monty on YouTube . How are the characters of Dave and Edna similar?
Michael: I think Dave and Edna are similar people. Both are very shy about their weight. Both are driven to over come their weight and accept themselves for who they are. The only difference is that Edna driven by her love for her daughter and Dave is driven by the love for his wife. But at their core, these are two people who are influenced by what society and culture says is not beautiful.
Joel: Are there any roles that you haven’t played yet, that you want to play?
Michael: The two roles right now that I am dying to do are Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Franz Liebkind in The Producers. Both of those roles would be so much fun to do. I love the song “Free” in Forum and the song “Have You Ever Heard the German Band?” is one of my all time favorites.
Joel: What’s it like working at Walnut Street Theatre?
Michael: Working at Walnut Street Theatre is a dream come true. This really is the best theatre I have ever worked at. Everyone at this theatre has made my experience here fun and very satisfying. I would love to come back and work here again.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take away with them after leaving Walnut Street Theatre after seeing Hairspray?
Michael: I hope that the audience leaves our theatre with three things. One – a song in their heart. I hope everyone walks out humming “You Can’t Stop the Beat” because it’s one of my favorites. Two – I hope everyone walks out having burned up some calories laughing at the script. This show is a gut-buster. And finally, I hope everyone walks out with the messages of the show; that all people are equal: fat, skinny, young, old, black, or white. This show is about accepting yourself and loving yourself. It’s about experiencing change and about forgiveness.
Music clips from the podcast courtesy of Walnut Street Theatre.
Production photo credit: Brett Thomas