By Rob Hartmann
A conversation with Sheri Sanders about adventures in reality television, NYMF, and telling the truth through music.
After reviewing her book, Rock the Audition: How To Prepare For and Get Cast In Rock Musicals, I was interested to hear more about Sheri Sanders’ work and point of view on music and theater. She starred in the pilot My Time which aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network in September, and is currently appearing in Rock the Audition In Concert as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival [Ed. note: Rock the Audition in Concert was cancelled due to illness]. We met last month while Sheri was rehearsing for a reading of a new show: I ordered the fish and chips; she had the sautéed spinach.
RH: So you have a reality show on the Oprah Winfrey Network. How did that come about?
SS: So this is what happened. Backstage heard about my rock class – this great guy named David Finkle came to the rock class, and he was totally overwhelmed by it, by everything I was doing. And it was funny because, he’s a guy who’s been reviewing and writing about theater for years, but he was overwhelmed because I was tapping into all these crazy things in this room. And the article he wrote was overwhelmed. He literally tried to describe everything that went on in that room. Anybody who read it was like, this is a little much, this interview, because he just tried to tell everybody everything. But after that came out, I got a phone call from the Oprah Winfrey Network, and they said, “Listen, we read your article and we want you to come in for an interview. We’re doing a new reality TV show and we’re interested in you to create the pilot” – based upon this totally overwhelmed interview.
So I came in, and they said, “All right, here’s the deal. We’re interviewing a bunch of teachers who do different things. The idea is that we would pick you, potentially, and you would get a subject, and you would have to transform their lives in five weeks.” So they would, say, give me somebody who always wanted to be a performer, but never got a chance to. And then I’d have five weeks to turn them into a professional performer. So I had three on-camera interviews, and then Oprah hand-picked me and this other woman. And we created the pilot. I shot it a year and a half ago. [My Time premiered on the OWN Network on September 25th.]
Have you ever seen the show Made on MTV? So maybe there’s a kid that nobody’s friends with, and he’s like, “I want to be the prom king.” So he gets a “prom king coach.” And then they have the prom and make him the prom king, and everybody’s like, “You’re amazing!” And all the girls are like, “You’re cuuute.” And that’s the show. So – it’s the same producers, but the reason why it got accepted onto the Oprah Winfrey Network as opposed to being another show on MTV or even VH1, is because when you have a grown adult who has always wanted something, as opposed to a thirteen year old who wants something, they have all these years of sabotage mechanisms built in. So my subject was a woman who wanted to be a jazz singer, but her life had been too difficult. So that made for exquisite television.
I basically went in and said, all right – I’m going to give you all the right steps to be a performer. She doesn’t know how it works, she just wants to go someplace where she’s onstage and there’s some sort of a producer in the audience who says, “Yeah, you’ve got what it takes!”
But I had to give her all of the necessary steps. Like, number one: how to communicate with a musician. How to listen. How to express yourself. I had to teach her all of the steps it took so that when we did do a performance, the performance wasn’t just about her, it was about how to be with other people. It was about how to listen and communicate, how to find your uniqueness. What’s special about you? And how does that come through your music?
It was everything I teach – how to communicate with a pianist. How to treat your piano player with respect and dignity – how to understand that that person is the most important person, not you.
I called in a whole bunch of different people to help. That was one of my challenges– which people do I pull in to give her the most well rounded training? It went from teaching her basics on the piano – to taking her to a Meisner class. The acting class was to teach her how to be impulsive with another person but present, noticing what they’re giving her and responding authentically. I gave her a Harlem jazz tour, we talked to the head of booking at Dizzy’s – we did a bunch of cool different things to give her a clear picture of everything that’s involved. And Janice Lowe – you remember Janice?
RH: Of course. [Composer Janice Lowe is a graduate of the NYU Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program.]
SS: I had Janice come in and write a song with her, because she’s such a great jazz writer. They wrote a beautiful song together. I’m in the Broadway gospel choir, Broadway Inspirational Voices, so I brought her to rehearsal, to teach her about dynamics.
I taught her that it’s not about the result – it’s about all the exciting things that happen when you put care and detail into things. So that’s what that is.
RH: Talking about putting care and detail into things - let’s talk about your concert in the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
SS: The concert is October 11th, 12th and 13th. It’s basically my rock class, but I sing instead of having other people sing. I do a very, very loose story on how I figured what popular music was to people emotionally, and why it’s valuable. And for me it started through listening to Lite FM with my mother in the car. I talk about it in the beginning of the book.
So I start with that, and then I make it more personal: how, when I started to research different artists, I started to find out more about myself. And because I did that, so many things happened to me artistically and professionally. It poses a question: I wonder what would happen to you if you took the time as an actor to study the eras and how people were expressing themselves and why it matters. Think about the empathy and the consciousness and the point of view that you could build inside of yourself – while now you’re generic because you were told in college, oh, you’re an ingénue. And it made you generic. Think about what would happen to you.
RH: I’ve never seen people so terrified as when they have to go to a rock audition or pop audition. It just makes -
SS: It makes people twitch. It’s petrifying –
RH: - in the same way that stand-up freaks people out, because it’s you, it’s not something else.
SS: Yes – you can’t hide in anything. But when actors run around saying, “Nobody’s hiring me, I feel like nobody sees me, I feel like I go to these auditions and I feel like I’m one of five hundred and I’m no different than anybody else to these people” – well, why? Don’t blame the people behind the table. I mean, yes, they’re not really looking at you, they’re overwhelmed, they’re not really looking. But trust me when I say, something will happen and they will look up when they hear and see you making choices.
RH: It’s about - who are you, and what do you have to say?
SS: Yes. What do you have to say, and why is the way you say it important?
RH: I think there’s something similar with writers – wanting to hide in something, or feeling the terror of being specific and personal rather than generic. I remember one of my composer students [at NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program] coming up to me one time and saying, “Well, this is all fine, but I want to write something really commercial.” And I asked, well, what’s ‘commercial?’ “Well, you know, something people really like.” I asked, what do you think people like? And he started naming off titles of currently running shows. So I said, okay, if you started writing today – let’s assume that that hypothesis is correct, that if I go to see Hairspray, that I’ll want to see ‘imitation Hairspray’ next door – let’s even assume that that’s right. If you start today, it’s going to be five years before you finish, and guess what? The world will have moved along in five years, and what you might feel in your soul might be the exact thing we need to hear then. But you wrote ‘imitation Hairspray’ because that was popular five years ago.
It comes from fear – “What I have to say isn’t good enough, I better imitate this other thing.”
SS: It’s like watching a YouTube video and copying one of the singers as opposed to finding your own interpretation.
RH: I think we so devalue our own points of view – it’s because, we live inside it. It’s like a fish in water – we don’t see our own point of view, because we’re living it constantly. We don’t understand that we actually crave stories from one another. Why do we want to hear someone else tell a story? Because we want to hear their spin on it. We know ourselves too well – we’re no longer remarkable to ourselves, so we think “How can I be remarkable to anyone else?” But we do want to hear that story – that truth.
It’s trying to get to the point when you can make a connection and talk about the truth as you see it, and let that be enough.
SS: That’s really what I’m saying with the concert. It’s just what listening to pop music and studying pop culture did to me as a human being and as an artist. And what it could do for you.
RH: Which is huge.
SS: Which is huge.
Rob Hartmann is a composer/lyricist/bookwriter on the faculty at New York University’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program. Sheri Sanders is a performer, teacher and author.