Rock, Paper, Sanders
Rock musical master and author Sheri Sanders teaches us a thing or two about Broadway with effusive energy and an arsenal of Laura Nyro albums.
You may have seen the bubbly actor/singer Sheri Sanders rock the roles of Kitty in the off-Broadway drama The Screams of Kitty Genovese and Little Becky in the national tour of Urinetown. She’s belted it out in Hair, The Full Monty, Betty Rules and scores of other shows. But she’s equally at home teaching musical styling in her signature master class, Rock the Audition, at colleges, universities, and performance schools. The multitalented musical theatre veteran whips it all into a book of the same name, the first of its kind on rock musical auditioning.
Sheri recently chatted with GO about how she plans to spread the music across the world—one rock anthem at a time.
GO: You’re quite the Jane of all trades: actor, singer, teacher and author. What inspired you to branch out beyond performing?
Sheri Sanders: I’ve been a musical theatre performer for most of my life, and I’ve had a really fun, cool, diverse career. I started to notice that the trend had shifted from traditional musical theatre to all rock musicals—and because I can also sing rock, I created a class that was specifically for all the musical theatre performers I’ve worked with who had no idea how to sing rock music. They didn’t understand it or didn’t know anything about it, because none of the musical theatre training programs offered a class about singing rock songs. Eventually the class I started got too big for me, and that’s how I wound up getting a book deal. I want the project to take me around the country and show teachers how to instruct this material as I work with their students.
Why do you think so many musical theatre students are reaching a sort of impasse with the rock style now popular on Broadway?
I think a lot of musical theatre people were so busy listening to Les Mis and Guys and Dolls growing up that they never realized there was another way to study and learn, and that could excite them and help them grow as performers.
Describe a typical day in your “Rock the Audition” class.
I pick two contrasting rocks songs and teach students how to properly cut, arrange, vocally style and interpret the poetry of an rock song. When people sing for a musical theatre audition, the song comes from a play, so the story’s already spelled out for them. They understand the character and his or her relationship to everything. But a rock song is a track on a disc, so I try to teach the performers that they can make the song whatever they want, because it’s not based on a character, it’s based on them. No one’s going to say it’s the wrong interpretation—rock is more about whatever it means to you.
You’ve also done a lot of acting, both off-Broadway and in regional theater. What’s been your favorite role so far?
I think my all-time favorite was an opera that we did in the city based on the murder of Kitty Genovese. She was brutally murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens in 1964 and all these people heard and saw it and nobody did anything about it. Kitty Genovese was a lesbian; nobody really knew that about her because it obviously wasn’t accepted to be out at the time. I’d seen several other incarnations of the story before and I remember thinking, “I want to play that role;” I looked it up and found out that she was gay. And she was tough. When I first saw the show performed, I saw a beautiful actress but she was very waify and looked like a stiff breeze would blow her over. I thought, “You know, [Kitty] was a dyke and she could put up a fight.” I thought if you knew this woman was really going to fight for her life, it’d make it a much more exciting and scary thing to watch. I went for the part and I got it, and this was my favorite role because I’d never channeled anybody before and didn’t even know that I could. I feel like she was very present in my experience.
I read in one of your past interviews that you’ve interpreted versatile singer-songwriter Laura Nyro’s music and you’re a huge fan of hers. How has her style influenced your own?
A lot of people don’t seem to know who she was, and I think that’s why it’s been so important to me to help put her music out in the world. I mean, everybody was influenced by her in her time. The way I found out about Laura Nyro is actually a great gay story! I used to be a bartender at Rubyfruit [now RF Lounge] when it was still Rubyfruit. I was 23 years old and when I got the job, Debbie [Fierro, the former owner] said, “You know who you remind me of? Laura Nyro.” I was like, “Who’s that?” So the staff told me to play “Stoned Soul Picnic” on the jukebox; I put a bunch of her songs on and got hooked on her.
She had one of the most emotive voices in all of rock.
Not a lot of people responded to her voice at first. I guess she could be shrill sometimes, and was just going for that pure form of expression. Unlike Barbra Streisand, whose voice is gorgeous technically but so careful and calculated. But Laura was just feeling and didn’t give a shit what she sounded like, and because of that, I felt such a response to her—I knew she wasn’t censoring herself. She’s really the basis for how I teach people to move through their feelings in a rock song. She was such a pivotal influence on me.
You’ve related rock music to the Kinsey scale, which sex researcher Alfred Kinsey devised in the 1940s. It rates a person’s sexual orientation on a scale of one to six: One is totally heterosexual, six is totally homosexual, and varying degrees of bisexuality fall in the middle. So how is music like human sexuality?
When it comes to expressing yourself sexually, there’s totally straight, totally gay, bisexual and so on. I figured that you could compare that to performing rock songs because some songs you need to do totally straight. For example, if you’re singing [John Lennon’s] “Imagine,” you can’t act that song, you’ve just got to feel what it could be like if there was peace and capture the essence of what the song is. It’s a one—totally straight. The six is totally gay. To me, totally gay is putting an unbelievable, dramatic, brilliant, hysterical, funny take on a song.
What’s an example of a totally gay song?
There are so many. Look at the lyrics for [Stevie Wonder’s] “Superstition:” “Very superstitious/writing’s on the wall/very superstitious/ ladder’s ‘bout to fall.” If you take that song and you think rather than being superstitious you’re actually paranoid, and treat it like all these bad things are happening to you because you’re scared of them, that’s taking a song and doing it literally. The idea is to figure out how to put a comedic spin on the lyrics. A bisexual song is in between, where you’re capturing the essence of the song but you’re also doing some sort of storytelling, too. For example, you’re doing a song from the ‘50s or ‘60s like in an audition for Hairspray. I want to know that you can capture the essence of the era—that I can hear the ’50s and ‘60s in your voice—but I also want to know that you can tell a story.
Speaking of the Kinsey scale, where do you fall on it?
I actually consider myself a five. I’m totally gay but it’s been known that when I’m between girlfriends, I maybe will kiss a boy. I call it “Brigadoon” in the book—it’s a magical day that comes around once every hundred years and the next day it completely disappears into thin air like it never happened!
How do you feel about playing gay?
Kitty Genovese was gay, but she wasn’t considered a gay character and it wasn’t a part of the actual performance. It was a fact about her and there were questions about whether or not we should bring it to the surface, because it’s unclear whether people didn’t help her because they knew she was gay. But that would have added another element to the script. So I am dying to play a gay woman. Dying! I feel like I’d have a lot to bring to it.
When people think of the theatre, they usually associate it with gay men. Have you noticed more lesbians making their mark on the stage?
Definitely! Our beautiful lesbian sisters have always done cool stuff like producing, directing, lighting design—our techie sisters. But I’ve been noticing that more and more we’re finding our way into the community as performers. It’s really great, because when we meet each other, we’re like, “I’m so glad to know you! Another lesbian in the theatre, that’s awesome!”
What audition would you most want to rock?
I’d love to play Janis Joplin!
What else is on the front burner for you?
Besides the book, I recently shot the pilot episode for a new show on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). It’s called My Time and it’s kind of like the MTV show Made, but for adults. I got a phone call from the casting director who said they were looking for a performance teacher. I had a couple of online interviews and got hired to shoot the pilot. I was given a woman who has always wanted to be a performer but had a really hard life. I spent five weeks with her in hopes of transforming her into a professional performer.
When will the show air?
It’s supposed to air right sometime right before my book comes out on May 24. I’m just so thrilled that I got to have an opportunity like that, to be out in the world talking about the things that matter to me, like being a great listener and communicator. Those were things that I worked on with the woman in the pilot because those are the things that are most important to me. They just make you better at everything! My hope for myself is that I can lead by example.
To learn more about Sheri Sanders and “Rock the Audition,” visit rock-the-audition.com.