Sunday, January 15, 2012

Showstopping Broadway dancer Rachelle Rak talks about life, her one-woman show, getting her start in Pittsburgh, taking notes from Gwen Verdon, and why she’s called “Sas”

By Rob Hartmann

I spoke to Rachelle Rak by phone. She’s having a busy month: she premieres a new video at Marty Thomas Presents: Diva at Industry Bar on January 16th, and her one-woman show, I’M IN, runs January 22nd and 23rd at Le Poisson Rouge. (Complete details below.) On top of all that, she just performed in a reading of Flashdance the Musical.

ROB HARTMANN: So how did Flashdance go?

RACHELLE RAK: It went well. This is one of the final readings – I ‘ve done a couple table readings where we read Act One and they were writing new songs. Sergio Trujillo – this is, I think, his directorial and choreographic debut - he’s choreographed so many things [Jersey Boys, Addams Family, Memphis, Next to Normal…] He has his own take on the story, because he’s a dancer. It was a lot of fun – Gavin Creel plays Nick, and Emily Padgett played Alex. A lot of talented people were in the room, and the composer, Robbie Roth, wrote some great songs. It was a backer’s audition – we did four presentations, so I am burnt. My character is Tess – she’s an old stripper – just like me [laughs.] It’s fun to be kind of sassy – I mean, I get to sing “I Love Rock and Roll” in a club – it couldn’t get better than that. If it’s any way to end my career, you know, in a dancing way, I’m in.

I’m really grateful – Sergio called me out of the blue and said, “I want you to read this part, Tess” – and they keep on keeping me, so I’m hoping I’m doing something right. But there’s no guarantee, as you know, in show business. You could be written off right before they come to New York – so I do not marry anything anymore after A Chorus Line, that’s for sure. But who doesn’t want to dance in Flashdance? Like – “What a feeling--!” [Laughs] Flashdance was a lot of fun – it’s high stakes. You only have 29 hours [to rehearse an Equity reading.] Sergio did a dance lab – they have this new thing called a “dance lab” where he could choreograph a prologue and opening number. Because, for the producers, you don’t want to just come out and say – like, the last reading, he came out and said, “Well, there’ll be dancing.” And for people who aren’t dancers or who aren’t in musical-land, they need to see something. So he created this entire prologue with street dancers – it was great, I just sat there cheering the dancers on. And then we went to the story. The story is solid and, you know, who doesn’t want to root for the working man, especially now? It has that heart. And, I’m from Pittsburgh – hello! So every time they said “steel mill” or “sahside” [that’s ‘southside’ in a Pittsburgh “Yinzer” accent – RH] I just got all tingly, it’s ridiculous. [Laughs]

RH: I know that your mother ran a dance school in Pittsburgh, is that right?

RR: She actually just retired. 58 years she ran a dance school. Rosalene Kenneth is her name. 58 years. It’s unbelievable. She taught me everything. I actually went into the business right from her school. The national casting tour of Cats was coming through Pittsburgh and auditioning. I was a senior in high school. I wanted to just go to the audition, it was a big deal just to go. And so I went, for practice. At the time, I wasn’t set on any college – I didn’t know what I would be doing. You know, then it was the 80s, everyone didn’t go to college for musical theater. It was very different. And for whatever reason, they picked me. And I remember I got an offer a few days later to go out on the road.

I didn’t know what it was to “swing” a show [understudy multiple roles]. My mother thought that the salary was for the month – when they said, “You’ll make $900 plus per diem” or $700 or whatever it was, who knows, she said to me, “You must be confused, that’s for the month.” So we were kind of clueless, naïve – I was a teenager. I had to get permission to leave my senior year of high school to go do Cats, and they gave me a personal day at Cats to graduate. And the people on the road, they were so good to me, but I’m sure they were thinking, “Out of all the people in New York City, they had to go to Pittsburgh and pull a girl out of high school?” You know, like – really? So there I was. And that’s how it started.

And then I paid my dues after. You know, you’re like, “Oh! This is show business.” I did a terrible tour of West Side Story where I was on a bus in Europe eight hours a day and I ate Toblerone. I came back and I think I weighed – I weighed in at not my Cats weight, let’s just say.

RH: And your Broadway debut was when you came in to Cats on Broadway for a few months.

RR: That was it, ’96. I mean it took all those years to get a Broadway debut. And that was three months in for Marlène Danielle, who had been in a car accident. And she was fine, but she was taking a leave of absence. So that was my debut. 1996. Crazy.

And then, after I went on the road with Smokey Joe’s Café, I auditioned in L.A. for Fosse. I remember this specifically, because it was, like, randomly flying from the road, wherever I was in Smokey Joe’s, to L.A. to make sure I was there for this audition. And I didn’t wear black like everyone else, I wore red. I was so f****** clueless for some reason. But then when I went to the callback, I made sure I was in blllack. And they offered me a swing position to come into Broadway. And, I will say this: I said no. Because I knew the heartache that goes with swinging. People thought I was nuts. I remember my mom saying, “Are you sure? This is Fosse. This is the opportunity to be a Fosse dancer.” She wasn’t sure about saying no. I just remember saying, I will be so miserable standing on the sidelines. I will be miserable. And I couldn’t do it. Better to not be there, than to be terribly miserable. For whatever reason, my fate changed the next day, and they said, “We’ve made a spot for you onstage.” That was it.

I talk about Fosse because it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. When it started off, I was in three numbers. Three numbers. “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” “Big Spender” and “Sing, Sing, Sing.” It took me months on the sidelines learning Fosse style. And then, for some reason, Gwen Verdon had a day in Toronto when she wanted anyone that knew any understudy stuff – anything that they knew, she wanted to see it. And I did “I Gotcha” for the first time for her. It planted a seed of some sort – and when the opportunity came about [to take over that number], she gave it to me. The fact that I get to say, Gwen Verdon gave me notes – that is a big part of my life as a dancer. I really am grateful for all of it. Especially for starting out with Fosse.

[You can see Rachelle Rak’s electrifying performance of “I Gotcha” on the 2002 DVD of Fosse.]

And then things seemed to keep coming. But people told me, that were older, “You know, Rachelle, it’s not always going to be this way.” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” You know, just cocky. “Well, that’s your story, sweetie.” Hello? And then – all of a sudden – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels closed, A Chorus Line didn’t hire me, and I couldn’t f****** get a job. I mean, I couldn’t get anything. And it was like ten years straight. You know, when you’re on a good ten year run, you’re thinking, “This is just gonna last and last.” I can laugh now. I was crying a lot then. [Laughs] It’s all funny now.

RH: The Chorus Line  movie [Every Little Step, the documentary about the casting of the 2006 revival of A Chorus Line]  was just heartrending in so many ways. [Ms. Rak makes it to the finals for the role of Sheila, but is not cast.]

RR: Tell me your thoughts on seeing that.

RH: I found it really difficult because knowing so many performers and what they have to go through, I almost couldn’t stand to watch it.

RR: Me too. [Laughs] It stirred up something in you.

RH: For my friends who are not in theater, they understood a little bit more about what people go through on a daily basis. So it was good for that. But for everybody in theater, it’s like a dagger in the heart.

RR: I have a friend, my old dance partner from growing up, she’s still one of my dearest friends, she’s a nurse anesthetist. When she saw it – and this is a twenty year friendship – she said, “I finally get it. I get it.” And yes, we sometimes are like [melodramatic voice] “Oh, you have no idea what we go through,” but when you really see it on the screen, and you see the vulnerability -- ? You are just waiting for someone to say you’re good enough. Constantly. Waiting for them to pick you. And to be perfectly honest, I have had it with that. I will go in, I will be me, I will give you one thousand percent of my being, but if you don’t pick me in the end, it’s not because I’m not good enough. That lesson was learned. You know when you learn a lesson and you’re like, “That one’s done”? It goes for me, because I’m the only person I can speak for – but when you do the work, and you go in and you’re prepared and you give them your all, that’s all you can do. But at the time, then, I was not the Rachelle I am now. I was broken down. It creates doubt and fear  - “Why can’t you do what you did?” [In the documentary, at the callback she is asked to “do what you did last time” … which was eight months earlier.]  The s*** that comes up when someone asks you to repeat a day – it would be like me saying, “Can you repeat what you did today?” Like – who can remember?

That was a time when I just wanted to get out of town. I didn’t want to see anyone. By the time the movie came out, I had kind of healed. The best part of that whole movie was the gypsies all around, on Facebook or to my e-mail, saying “Sas, you spoke for all of us. Finally somebody spoke up and said, no, this isn’t good enough. I need to know now.” [in the film, she asks the production team for their decision on the spot.] For some people, doing that made them very uncomfortable. Some people, I’m sure, were thinking, “Who does she think she is?” But to have the ability, after eight months of giving everything, to say, “I’m gonna need an answer” – as actors, we’re so used to backing down and waiting, and nobody ever calls you. If you didn’t get something, they don’t call you. You just went in and gave your entire soul, and that’s it. You just wait. We get so numb.

RH: The power imbalance. That’s what makes that very hard to watch.

RR: I fell in love with the idea of being that part. And when that didn’t happen, it was a like a breakup that you don’t know if you’ll recover from. It was like a love affair – that was how I felt about it at the time. [joking, back to melodramatic voice] But bit by bit I’ve pulled myself back together… and the next thing you know, she’s on a pole in Flashdance.

But then I did an off-Broadway show called Sessions which completely rebuilt my confidence. A little 72 seat house on the Lower East Side – I got to do monologues. Doing a show in a little space, without the elaborate sets or the luxury – it makes you better. I got better. I highly recommend it. After that, I choreographed a musical called VOTE! in the Fringe Festival. I was on survival mode for five years.

The best thing about my whole career is that I have been on the ground floor of all these musicals from the first day of rehearsal – the first reading – and you get to see it happen. Good or bad. You get to see it happen – you see the writers let go of their songs, you get to see the choreographer let go of an idea – it’s really something. And even if they’ve flopped, that part of my career has been the best.

At Flashdance, Sergio said, “I’m going to have to put you on a pretty strong leash.” I guess because I like to ‘Sas’ it up – some people don’t want me to go too far. [Laughs.]

RH: So tell me about that nickname, “Sas.”

RR: I was on the road with Smokey Joe’s, and I could never remember any of the crew guys’ names, and I started to say, “Hey Sass.” It was very familiar, very friendly. And some electrician turns to me and says, “You’re the Sass.” And because I would always call people “Sass” they would say it back to me. So I became “Sas” – my last name has three letters, I figured, cut the extra “S”, who needs it? And that’s it. I became “Sas” on Smokey Joe’s Café in 1996. And now it’s become a thing.

RH: How did you get into doing music videos?

RR:  I met Daniel Robinson [the director of Ms. Rak’s videos and show] at Broadway Bares. He came up to me, and he was like, “I love you.” I remember it very clearly, like – who is this young man, hmm? Daniel – he also ended up being in the musical VOTE! that I choreographed – said to me, “I want to do your reel.” And I was like, yeah yeah yeah. You know how many times I’ve heard people say they want to do something for me, and then it’s done in that moment? But he was persistent. And we started working together, and we had some kind of electrifying energy. He said, let’s go down to the pier, and just make a video. I just want to have you moving, about where you are right now. And that was it. It was not about dance steps. We had no idea. I think the lesson is, it stopped becoming about the result. It stopped becoming about anyone liking it – it just became what it was. It’s never been about the result.

RH: And your new video, “Snapshots”, is premiering Monday night.

RR: Yes! Monday night. Marty Thomas at Industry does a show on Monday nights called Diva, and it’s really so good. These chicks are so talented (and him!) They do these songs – all this four part harmony – I sit there in awe. Everyone is so willing to help you, when you ask. That’s what I didn’t know. Marty said, you want to do it here? Absolutely we’ll play it!

RH: And your show I’m In plays the next week. Tell me about that.

RR: I’ve learned a lot – the ‘big business’ part of show business is a lot. No one in the business has the right to tell you, at least for me, after all these years, where you stand or how good you are or how much work you’ve put in or how much heart you have. Only you can decide that. And for my show, I hope that people want to hear what my story is. I hope I don’t bore them to tears. I hope they laugh a little, feel a little, and think, how does she do that? People say to me – like someone today said to me – “How do you do that? How do you physically do that?” I think they want to say at the end “–at your age” you know, but they don’t. [Laughs] I swear to you, I just said: it’s will. I will it. I will it. This body does not want to do what I make it do. I just go full out! [Laughs]

I’m In is all Rak, one hundred percent everything that I have. Story, life, heart. Some video, two back up singers, a full band. I’ve never done a show with a live band, only to tracks. This is all new to me. I have no idea what happened. [Laughs] Sas is about to speak her mind. [Laughs.]

RH: Do you have any advice for the young dancers you work with or teach?

RR: I want to say – “If you could only listen.” I listened a lot when I was young. I definitely listened. I was willing to do a thousand percent, and dance on number ten. [referring to the stage numbering system that marks centerstage as zero and works outward.] I worked my way to zero. I worked really hard to get there. Nobody handed it over.

That makes you who you are – that you’re willing to go that far. I always say to my stepson, who’s ten - you have to learn how to lose well. Keep your chin up.

My mother always says, “Would I do it differently if I knew I was going to lose my daughter to show business at seventeen?” All the people in my town, they grow up, they have their daughters there with them. My mother was never one to coddle me. She did say, “You’ll be fine. You’ll get ‘em next time.” But she never told me I was the best, the prettiest. She knew I was going to have to fight. She just knew. I thank her to this day. This morning she called me, she left a message. And maybe it was because today I was doing Flashdance which is about the dancer from Pittsburgh, but I’ve had a couple of moments of tears. It’s who I am – fourteen years old, watching that movie, living in Pittsburgh, believing that dream, believing in something. My mother was tough and she made me work really hard – and it paid off.

Rob Hartmann is a composer and writer who teaches in the Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at New York University.

Marty Thomas Presents DIVA hosts Rachelle Rak video release party, SNAPSHOTS, 1/16/12. Marty Thomas Presents DIVA performs every Monday night at 11 PM at Industry Bar in midtown Manhattan. There is no cover charge, arrive early to get prime seating.  You must be 21 years of age to enter. For more information  Follow

Rak can be seen in her new one woman show I'M IN, an intimate look at the path of a Broadway starlet.  Shows are Sunday, January 22nd at 7:00 PM, and Monday, January 23rd at 10:30 PM at Le Poisson Rouge, 165 Bleecker Street.  Tickets are $40 for premium seating (limited availability) $30 for reserved seating and $25 for general admission.  Please visit the Le Poisson Rouge website to purchase tickets  Reservations recommended, running time is 55 minutes.

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