Recently I sat down with Aisha de Haas, jazz chanteuse, Broadway singer, and repertory actress. I had just watched her performance in Metro Stage’s Josephine Tonight! where she’d knocked my socks off playing both Josephine Baker’s mother, Carrie, and “Big Bertha Smith”, Josephine’s vaudeville mentor. I wanted to learn more about this powerhouse singer.
DCTS: You come from a strong musical family. Can you talk about growing up and the influences family had on you as a singer?
Aisha: Yes. Dad is the jazz bassist Eddie de Haas and is Dutch-Indonesian. He grew up in Holland and played jazz all over Europe. He got to the States to play with Peter, Paul, & Mary, but his heart was in jazz, and he played with Miles Davis, Von Freeman, Chet Baker—everyone. My brother Darius is a singer and performer and he went to New York ahead of me, so kind of gave me a nudge. My first memories, though, were of my mother’s music. She sang with Andy and the Bey Sisters and traveled through Europe in the forties and fifties and recorded a few albums. I remember my mother’s voice with the Big Band singing “The Trolley Song.” That song is still a favorite of mine.
You’ve performed on Broadway (Rent, Bring in ‘da Noise…, Caroline, or Change), in film (“Across the Universe”), and in many theatres regionally and abroad. Do these different media and styles of music change your approach or attitude?
Aisha:I had some great teachers all my life. In high school I had Lena McLynn . She taught me bel canto type of singing. We did opera. We wrote musicals. We did everything, and I learned so much. Then I went to Columbia College in Chicago when the theatre and music departments were one under Sheldon Patinkin. At first, I just studied and wasn’t interested in putting myself out in auditions. I knew what I wanted and what I wanted was to learn theory and how to read music. There, I also learned that all the great jazz songs were actually written originally by these great composers for musical theatre.
In Broadway musicals, this is the muscle you are beating up, doing shows eight times a week. But then I worked with Jeanine Tesori on Caroline, or Change. I had to work differently, what they call “legit singing.” She wanted a high floaty sound. I had to go back to basics and lean on my training. It took me a good month to feel confident. The challenge was that opera singers rarely sing back to back shows. Their focus is different. They’re “high art” and we’re “low art”. (laughs)
And now you’re in the musical Josephine Tonight, a musical about the early years of the phenomenon Josephine Baker. Any special challenges or memories you take away from this process?
Aisha: Well, [Director/Choreographer] Maurice Hines – he’s such a national treasure – working with Jim and Mel Johnson, who came in as co-director, they were so helpful. And Sherman [Yellen], whom I didn’t know at all… But there was no one there to really work the music — Wally Harper passed in 2004 – and the script had changed. It was a lot of work. Sometimes it was frustrating to get the music and the book to coincide. But Sherman was always accommodating. It helped enormously.
What defined Josephine? What made her the phenomenon she became? Talent? Will? Or just being at the right place at the right time?
Aisha:It’s confidence I think. It’s taking pleasure in what you do. It’s knowing what you do you do better than anybody. She swept them up in Paris and then she had the talent to back it up. Her smile, plus eyes, plus chutzpah. She was a force of nature.
Sherman’s lyrics are terrific, so witty in parts and at other times so poignant. To my mind, he’s written some of his best songs for you. Interesting, that the writer had such a strong affinity for writing songs for your characters.
Aisha:I felt like I was singing way too much initially. A couple of things of mine were cut, and I think that was good. The show is Josephine’s story. We had challenges as you always do in putting up a new show – and without the composer around. I never met Wally, but I feel as if his songs were written for me, for what I do. I love the variety. The blend of Sherman’s lyrics and Wally’s music is so well done.
What did you draw on in your life and actor “tool box” to find the truth inside these complicated relationships?
Aisha:Well, my mother was not a Carrie! But there were things I took from different women in my life, a certain sternness but a hint of playfulness. I understand there I am and the conditions I’m in, and I knew Carrie had to keep it together with this headstrong girl. And yet wanting to do what her daughter gets to do.
Bertha is a bit of me. She’s the bit of me without inhibition. She’s older, been around, and she has – is it a façade? – the feeling “ I’m fantastic!” But later I’m getting old. Josephine and her ilk are going to take everything away. The song “Pretty Is” is bitter sweet.
Remember, we also had the perspective of Maurice Hines, who had met Josephine Baker. But for that song, he let me find it.
How do you go about learning a song? Where do you begin?
Aisha:I listen to it a lot. That helps me. I like to write down the words. But I always like to have the music. I like to learn it note for note. I think you must, to be respectful of the composer. And, coming from a musical family, I always wanted to learn a song backwards and forwards. You know, even when I started out and was singing in clubs in Chicago, I knew I had these people out there who knew my folks and I couldn’t let them down.
What advice would you give young singer-actors?
Aisha: You need to learn everything you can possibly learn in school so when you go to New York if that’s where you’re headed and you’re up against a gazillion people all your type, and the show’s going up in five days, you’ll be able to sight read or whatever they need. Others may not have put the time in. I used to regret that I waited and took my time before going to New York. But first time I went, I had a role. I went with a show I was invited to do. And I felt really prepared by everything else I’d done.
A lot of young people get there too soon and they can’t handle eight shows a week or, like the “American Idol” kids, who are used to singing maybe one song, but they can’t build a show. You have to be very disciplined.
There were a lot of people in Rent that came and went. Rent is “balls to the walls” singing. I get hired a lot for that kind of thing because I can get a lot of power.
And work. Last summer I did a little reading. I played a character kind of like Carrie. Maurice came, and I think that’s where he saw I could do the Mother role, and he had confidence in me. I was fortunate.
What’s next for this work and you?
Aisha: I don’t know what’s next for me. I go back to New York. I do backup singing. Recently, I did a demo for “Smash,” the new TV series about life in the theatre. I don’t know if Josephine Tonight! is going to get picked up. Maurice thinks so. A lot of people are interested. But you never know.