Voice to the Stars
As a woman known for her ability to morph into many different divas, it's hard to know what to expect when you're about to meet the real Christina Bianco. But what you do find, behind the sweet New York Italian facade and bubbly persona, is a woman as creative and complex as any prima donna of old. One who has single-handedly forged a career in a notoriously temperamental industry without the crutch of large-scale shows or celebrity status. Christina's story is one of big dreams, an uncanny ability to impersonate, a lot of drive and the business-savvy to utilise one very viral YouTube video.
“I did my first play at 7,” she begins. “A production of the Wizard of Oz. I wanted to be Dorothy, but I got cast as a munchkin. However, they gave me a solo singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow at the end. How spoiled was I? That was it. It was the only thing I only ever wanted to do and, growing up near New York, it didn't seem impossible. But I very much wanted to sing as well as act, so I began going to concerts and cabarets– jazz and rock along with theatre. My idea was that when I couldn't act I'd pay the bills with singing in bands and other things.”
Determination, as many a stage performer will know, often plays as much a part in a successful career as talent. Christina's led her down a rather unconventional path, into creating her own work, rather than just giving voice to other people's. Does she think this spark of entrepreneurialism is now essential to the modern performer?
“It depends on the person,” she muses. “I will say this: In no way can it hurt to present the public and the industry with something that is your own creation. Because a lot of people just wait to be told. And a lot of casting people, especially in theatre, they'll go online and see who this person is. But it's not about having lots of fancy videos, they just want to get to know you a little bit.
“For me, the YouTube thing took me outside the world of theatre. Even though I do a lot of musical theatre and it's my base. But the video opened doors for me in TV, commercial, film. Those connections happen. And even if it doesn't help you get other work, it helps you as a performer and as a person. It's so easy to create your own product now and it's so immediate; the possibilities are seemingly endless with what you can do and how you can make a name for yourself. It can never hurt to be creative, take the initiative and see where it takes you.”
“Taking the initiative” is one of Christina's most inspiring qualities, in an industry where, famously, actors spend more time out of work than in. But waiting by the phone was never for her – perhaps because her voice and ear were always eager for more than just the 4 walls of the theatre. With a father working in radio, she was exposed to all genres even before they officially hit US shores (“I knew Shakira when she had brown hair, know what I mean?”). And as a woman who can leap from coloratura to contralto in a breath, who inspired her on the road from aspiring Dorothy to Broadway diva?
“A bunch and they were all over the map,” she laughs. “I love the band Heart. I wanted to be Ann Wilson, to sing and scream like that. The swing singer Nancy Wilson is also a big influence of mine, in fact that whole swing era – I've often thought I was born in the wrong time period and that's where I should have stayed. So I always loved old school singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Eydie Gormé. I looked up to Linda Ronstadt because she was always touted as someone who spans genres. Celine Dion was one of the first times I heard a voice and thought 'that's the greatest singer ever!' I was always listening to these different singers, but I went out of my way to go to a lot of concerts and loved when performers would really put on a show. So Bette Midler was a huge influence on me. She's not a stand-up comic, but she can deliver those really funny lines with a big band behind her and really gives her audience everything.”
But the desire to “give the audience everything” doesn't always translate well into the rigid regimentation of the music classroom.
“Some people have one way and one method, but I never did. I think that's because from a young age I was interested in so many different forms of music. When I went to a voice teacher, I'd learn classical training. But I'd take that and apply it to rock 'n' rollor country, which obviously the teachers didn't like. But I like to think that's one of the reasons I can sing so many different styles of music comfortably and safely. It's not for everybody, but that's how I was excited to learn and led me to where I am.”
And Christina's road to success has been anything but conventional. While she's quick to praise the training she's received, striking out on her own was a natural part of her development. While freely admitting that she “never aspired to be a technician,” she retained the utmost respect for practitioners of classical voice, while knowing that her own instrument was leading her down a rather different path.
“I was always a big belter and I finally developed a soprano, discovering I could go quite high. So my teachers put a lot of work into developing me there. But I was also good at that pop-rock sound which was becoming very trendy, so I really wanted to work on my mix. Teachers just wouldn't help me. They figured if you could belt and soprano, that was enough. But I was determined to learn. I knew where it was supposed to be and it just wasn't there yet. I'd listen to Susan Egan on Beauty and the Beast going from belt to mix on the song 'Home' and I'd drill the bridge of that song over and over again and one day, finally, it came out the way I wanted. A lot of it was just going for something I knew my voice was capable of that it hadn't done yet. A teacher couldn't have done that. I feel that there are certain things where you have to do your own work. But I'm sure Susan would be horrified by how many times I listened to that recording!”
She laughs again at that, a sound so infectious you can't help but laugh along with her, as any viewer at one of her many live shows will attest. But behind the giggles lies the steely creative determination, coupled with a self-given freedom to explore, which has left Christina with a slightly alternative career compared to many of her contemporaries. While she is now comfortable with the road she's on, she does take a moment to regret missing out on the more conventional path; confessing that her refusal to conform to a set theatre “type” makes it difficult to get some of the opportunities she wants.
But when it comes to the realities of the industry, she's pulling no punches as to how tough it can be.
“For the typical actor, getting an agent, going on auditions – it's incredibly hard. The business is – I guess the word is 'fickle' – but there's just not enough work to go around. If you're be-all and end-all is to do Broadway shows then you have to know how short-lived a lot of those productions are, because of the way the industry is run. But we do what we do because the positive parts win out. What I have liked most is the surprise. Doing one off-Broadway show got me a concert in a very reputable venue, which got great reviews, which spawneda YouTube video, which went viral, which got me on TV, which got me to London, and now I get to perform all over the world. It's the fact that people in all of those different areas have been so accepting that I don't just do one thing that makes me love this industry.”
While she may regret not being attached to some of the big name shows, it's perhaps even more impressive that she's built her own name from the ground up. A name which may not have graced the Playbill of Hair or Wicked (yet), but has moved from the mega mainstream of The Ellen DeGeneres Show to niche off-Broadway plays. Her difference and refusal to compartmentalise are the very reasons she has rightfully earned her own recognition. Yet while becoming known online for being able to imitate Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand and more has opened up doors, does she ever have trouble losing her own voice amongst all the great divas she impersonates so well?
“Not at all,” is the short answer. “My voice can sound very different from style to style, genre to genre. But it's my voice and I've lived with it far longer than I've been doing impersonations, so there's no problem in keeping it separate. And the audience who come to see me live also like hearing me sing as me, so I get to do everything I love in one show.”
And who are her favourite divas to impersonate?
“Bernadette Peters and Celine Dion, for two reasons,” she states. “One, they are truly favourites of mine. I feel like I know their '-isms' better than others, as I grew up listening to them. When I impersonate, I also try to get my head into their phrasing and vocal choices. The other reason is that Bernadette and Celine's vocal tone is similar to mine. The speed of our vibratos are similar, so it doesn't require as much manipulation as others. They also have very distinct speaking voices and moves when they sing. So it's a full package performance.”
At a petite 4 ft 11, Bianco may lament her lack of Celine's statuesque legs, when it comes to sharing a diva's headspace for a day she'd go back to Bette Midler.
“She has a career that I'd die to have. Someone who's recognised and respected in so many areas. I'm trying to do it on my level, so it would be interesting to be inside her head and see how she does it. She's a very smart businesswoman as well.”
And Christina's next business venture will bring her back across the pond for a full UK tour, taking her to new cities, and new fans.
“I'm way too excited to see more of the UK,” she exclaims. “The architecture, the countryside, but mostly just the people. It still boggles my mind to think that there are people in Manchester or Leeds who want to come and see my show. I'm really doing this show for the fans, and that's not part of an ad campaign. I'll have lots of tweets and questions for my UK followers on what they'd like to see, and each show will have different unlikely interpretations from people in that audience.
“I love that sort of performance because there's an engagement that isn't always there in other forms of theatre; looking out there and seeing how that live audience is different every night from show to show. They affect me and I affect them. There's something about the spontaneity of it. I see each show as a conversation and, in my own show, I have full control over how much I interact with them and our shared experience. I won't just be singing at them, and that's my favourite thing about it.”
Yet while her voice and talent have garnered her over 20 million views, Christina remains grounded about how her stroke of success came about – but it's what she did with the opportunity which re-wrote a story of musical success.
“It was just luck to have that Total Eclipse of the Heart video go viral,” she emphasises. “But what you can do with that 15 minutes of fame is very tricky. Most people who are popular from a YouTube video can't do a concert tour off of it. I had a show ready. When I got the call I had a million options to give them. I worked to make the most of it. And so far, so good.”
Hear Christina live as she tours the UK with her triumphant new show “Me, Myself and Everyone Else”. Don't miss theatre's most diverse diva: Book your tickets today!
Jeremy Jordan: Stages and Storytelling
When Jeremy Jordan enters, guitar case in hand, greeting everyone in the room with a self-effacing shyness, the memories of his somewhat larger-than-life characters seem all of a sudden banished. The reality, behind the talent which has seen him move from Broadway to TV to film and back again, is quite simply a man who loves to tell stories.
And it's precisely the reason why, behind TV hits and theatre shows, he loves performing a more intimate kind of evening.
“I do the cabaret thing but it's little more personal and spontaneous,” he says. “I try to have fun with the audience as well. I sing a wide variety of numbers, from musical theatre to contemporary to stuff that I've written and some of the more old school numbers. I try to keep it varied and keep everyone excited.
“I'm always a big fan of an intimate concert over a larger venue because I like the idea of connecting with people. You remove the fourth wall and get to interact. That's what makes cabaret so exciting. They really get to know you. Big shows are fun, but for me, I feel like I can't tell the stories I want to tell and really connect to people the way I want to.”
On British shores, many fans were first introduced to this triple-threat US export via the hit TV series Smash. Focusing on the “beauty and heartbreak of Broadway”, it was a TV show which looked beyond the seduction of the footlights to some of the harder realities of a career on the stage – unemployment, unfairness and rampant nepotism to name just a few. Does Jeremy think that this was an important angle for a show about show business to take?
“Totally!” he exclaims. “I think showing the truth is one of the great things you can do with film and theatre. And we only got to glimpse a part of it, as it's really a very watered-down version of what goes on backstage. You have a lot of cooks in the kitchen with a show like that, and I kind of wish we could have gone a little further, as we really only touched the surface. It's great for fans who are lovers of theatre to see what goes on behind the scenes.”
Entering in the second and final season of the show, Jeremy played the role of Jimmy – a former drug addict who's dark past threatens to overwhelm his future. With his character suffering from a host of demons and mental health issues, does Jimmy think it was an important portrayal both for actors and young viewers to see?
“I think for that character, it's a very big departure for me and from what I personally am,” he muses. “It was an exploration of those other aspects of life and how I'd deal with them if I ever got into that zone. In terms of making it important and relevant in modern society I think you have to have those kinds of characters – dramatically they're very important. And I think the cautionary tale aspect is always a good dramatic device.
“I do feel that it's super important not to have everything super glitzy and glamorous. I'm also happy that Jimmy had a redemption towards the end, as when we meet him he's really just a nasty person. And super self-centered. I loved that he just didn't care. But after a while, you start to realise that you have to find something to root for in this character. Else, people are just going to cringe every time he comes onscreen. So I was glad that in working with Karen and Kyle and all these other people who have a much more positive spirit about them, he started to learn the true meaning of what it is to exist and not have the whole world be against you.”
With a Tony award nomination under his belt for playing Jack Kelly in the 2012 musical Newsies, and an evident devotion to the dramatic integrity of his roles, when did Jeremy first discover a gift for performing?
“I always knew that I could sing, but I was not a good actor at all. I was making faces and thought that was acting,” he laughs. “I could always sing for as long as I can remember. But I was super, super shy. My Mom made me audition for choir, so I got into that. Then one day in high school I got cast as a mute character in a show. What that did was it made me start to listen when I was onstage. I realised that I'd never done that before – I'd just made faces. And as soon as I discovered that, everything just clicked into place and I discovered the actor side of me.”
While Jeremy describes Newsies as the project which put him on the map and his proudest moment to date, the movie The Last 5 Years comes in at a close second. Playing opposite Anna Kendrick, Jeremy took the role of Jamie Wellerstein, a rising young writer whose literary career takes off as his wife's dreams of acting slowly crumble.
“I think the biggest challenge was taking something that was meant to be a solo, standing onstage by yourself with nobody else, no scenery or anything, and to put it into the real world. So we had to come up with really creative ways to do that. It was a great process for us because we all loved the show before the movie came along, and for us to get to create a completely different landscape for it was thrilling.”
And from film to TV, Jeremy currently features in CBS series Supergirl – a project which leaves the image of the theatre boy behind.
“Supergirl is Superman's cousin,” Jeremy explains of the series. “She has superpowers but she's afraid to use them. My character is Winn, her best friend and co-worker, who is secretly not-so-secretly in love with her and who she confides in. Escapades follow! We're going out to shoot the next season in around a month.”
With a career which has seen him move through so many mediums and search out fresh challenges, Jeremy's biggest so far has been exactly that – not falling into one category or becoming a victim of the dreaded type-casting. As [Erich Bergen] (link to interview) also stated, it is a stigma which those who graduated from a Broadway background sometimes have to shake off.
“A big challenge for a while was trying to have people look at me as more than the straight guy who can sing. But I got Supergirl, which is a comedy with no music at all, so that was a big hurdle for me. I think the biggest challenge now is to round out my career. I want to be able to do more theatre, but I also want to do films and TV as well. I'd love to be well-balanced. I've done more Broadway than anything else, but but's been almost 4 years so I'm very ready to go back to the stage.”
Erich Bergen: More than a cabaret
Some actors may fear the dreaded typecasting, but for a performer as diverse and talented as Erich Bergen, it has been easy to avoid.
“It's a balance,” he admits. “I'm someone who is sort of obsessed with working. I'm not very good at vacationing. I've been obsessed with entertainment and show business for as long as I can remember. I'm always working on something.”
But whether that work is playing the loyal assistant Blake Moran in hit TV series Madam Secretary or taking a star turn in Clint Eastwood’s film version of Jersey Boys, Erich approaches each role with obsessive dedication – as they represent part of a world he longed to inhabit from his earliest memories.
“I was obsessed with MTV growing up in the 80's,” he recalls. “I had a lot of energy and not a great ability to focus. All things rock and pop became my world. And I'm talking at 3 years old. My parents brought me to my first concert in 1989 when I was 3, which was Whitney Houston at Madison Square Garden. I remember that night so vividly because of the effect that it had on me. It wasn't until I was about 10 that my Mom brought me to a Broadway show, which was the musical version of the movie BIG. It was a big flop, but when I saw it I fell in love with it because there were kids in the show my age, who were dancing and singing and acting. Just by watching that I immediately became interested.
“My parents sent me to Stagedoor Manor, which was a theatre summer camp in upstate New York, and I went to that summer camp for 7 years. So I always knew that I wanted to be a performer. But what exactly that was has morphed a couple of times over. I thought I was gonna be a rock star, then I thought I was gonna be a boyband guy. And then I discovered theatre, which changed my whole world. I never saw myself on television, that's just something that happened after I went to Los Angeles to start auditioning. So each part of my career is something that's developed in time, I didn't know it all immediately.”
A chance spotting at a youth performance led to signing with a talent manager, who Erich stayed with for the next twenty years. Auditions, the finer points of acting and industry lingo, he admits, were learned on-the-go. Yet while a youth spent in after-school stage clubs and theatre camps fostered a love for the Broadway stage, did he ever worry that the focus on theatre was closing more mainstream doors in TV and film?
“I had that said to me a lot when I was first going out to LA. What I found out was that it didn't end up being true,” he recalls. “I was out in LA for the first time when I was on the national tour of Jersey Boys. At that time we had a Hamilton like buzz around us and I was able to get into a lot of rooms, and I found that the TV executives and casting people all came from the theatre world in New York and loved theatre people. I think the proof is when you look on American TV and see the number of shows filled with people who started out or are currently on Broadway.
While his daring and dedication have led to him treading boards and studio halls across the United States, he remains painfully aware of the harsher aspects of a career in performing. But, he says, the solution is a relatively simple one.
“I have a lot of friends who feel stuck with their careers – can't get auditions and can't get jobs,” he states. “The only piece of advice I've ever been able to give out to people who feel like they are in a rut creatively or professionally in this industry is to create your own work. Write your way out of the situation. I started writing and amazing things happened. As actors, we've put ourselves completely at the mercy of other people to eat. As soon as you can write your own stuff you've immediately given yourself control of that. That's always been the best, and frankly, the only advice I could give.”
With simply following the directions given to him as an actor not enough, Erich began flexing his own creative muscle – by putting together his own act and building up new projects. An entrepreneurial trait shared by fellow New Yorker Christina Bianco [link to her interview] and Something he believes every performer worth their salt should be trying if they want to step themselves up the ladder.
“There's an element of what I do that wasn't being explored – that was as a live concert performer,” he emphasises. “I wasn't finding a way to bridge that world. Jersey Boys was the perfect job for me because it gave me the chance not only to sing that rock and pop music I grew up loving but it also gave me the opportunity to act. It merged all of my worlds together. So I began to create these club acts – I hate the word 'cabaret' – which I always wanted to do. I put together songs and told stories. As soon as you can say 'I have something', with a little bit of pushing people will usually say 'great – let's see it!' Then I started to write music. I was living in Las Vegas and I had just been dumped by my girlfriend at the time. I was feeling so alone, sitting at home completely bored. So I started writing songs as that's how the feelings naturally came out. Because of that, I was able to start putting out albums. One thing led to another.
“Now I've done the same thing with a TV show. I'd always wanted to write a script of some kind. But I never really had the guts to finish one. One day last year, I had a few days off so sat down and started writing. Three days later I finished a pilot script. Now the TV show is in the hands of producers and we’re pitching it to TV networks. So if you just do it and finish it you're so many steps ahead.
“If you're an actor and only an actor you're at the mercy of everyone else – producers, writers, directors, choreographers. You are a tool for them and you're waiting on them to give you a job. So as soon as you add one of those things to your name you get to have a little bit more control.”
Spanning creative disciplines and musical genres with ease, how does he feel about performing his own work compared to that of other composers?
“When it's something I've written I don't have to approach it. It's just there,” he muses. “If I'm performing a song I've written I don't feel that I have to think about anything, because the words and thoughts are already on the tip of my tongue. The opening chords of certain songs will take me back to a particular place. So I don't really have to do that work. Whereas, if I'm singing a song by someone else, I have to take a moment to think 'What does the writer want to accomplish and how do I make this sound the best?'”
But as a performer who enjoys stepping out of character to tell his own stories, I can't help but ask, why the dislike of branding himself as a cabaret act?
“When I think of cabaret I think of a woman wearing a dress with too much shoulder padding singing Sondheim songs very badly,” he laughs. “Also, it has multiple meanings to different people. You say 'cabaret' and to some, that means a strip club. Even for people who think of it as a small club with a mic and a piano – I don't want them to think that's what this is. That is not what I do at all. My concert may be in a cabaret venue, but I bring an 8 piece band and we're doing funk, RnB, rock, pop. Yes, we’re telling stories and doing medleys, but it’s not in any way what people would think of as cabaret. It's a concert, except you don't have to stand all the time.”
It's a philosophy which is reflected well in the performers he idolises – Peter Allen, Barry Manilow, and Donny Osmond. “People who come from a theatre background but aren't necessarily singing theatre music,” he states.
With the strong desire of differentiating himself as an artist and drawing inspiration from his multi-platform past work, Erich looks forward to gracing London with his own unique brand of live concerts. It will, he emphasises, include material to please all ears.
“I keep it eclectic. There's stuff from the musical theatre world but there's stuff from the pop world and from the movies. I cover everyone from Billy Joel to Elton John to Michael Jackson. I approach singing the same way I'd approach a scene on television: from a character place. I don't think of it as a melody line – I think of songs as wherever the character is at that time.”
Yet while he still dreams of playing Bobby in Company or King George in Hamilton, Erich seems most at home when pioneering his own ideas. It's a philosophy he readily passes on to anybody who wishes to follow in his footsteps.
“If you have a thought or an inkling, go do it. Because that's going to be the thing that saves your life and saves your career.”
Come and see theatre's most diverse leading man as he takes to the stage at The Hippodrome Casino. Don't call it cabaret – it's so much more! Buy your tickets now.