BY CARY GINELL
Last month I went to a private showcase of music from the musical Hamilton. The showcase was organized by pianist/arranger/singer Justin Ramos, former director of vocal music at Newbury Park High School who is now living in New York. For his cast, Ramos utilized some of the more talented singers he worked with during his tenure at NPHS to make the showcase happen. Marlie Rodriguez played the role of Eliza, Alexander Hamilton’s wife, and got an outpouring of applause for her singing from the invitation-only audience. We got together a few weeks later to talk not just about the singular honor of performing songs from Hamilton, which has already revolutionized Broadway, but how she has reached a crossroads in her still young career in musical theater.
VCOS: When I first heard you sing in that Hamilton concert, it made me think, “How does a singer get this good?” And then I thought that there are three kinds of singers – there are gifted singers, there are singers that really work hard at their craft and get good, and then there is the singer that doesn’t get anywhere no matter how hard they work. We’ll rule out the third one, so which of the first two are you?
MARLIE: I’d say I worked really hard. I started voice lessons when I was in ninth grade – my freshman year in high school. I was about fifteen. I was in choir and I just loved singing. I always loved singing, even in middle school. I took band in middle school and played flute for three years. I was good at the flute and my parents wanted me to keep going but I met a friend who was in choir so I decided to switch to choir class. When I told my parents they said, “No! You’re so good at the flute, stick with that.” So we came to an agreement, my parents and I, that if I really wanted to switch to choir, I could do it starting when I went to high school. So I stuck with the flute until eighth grade and switched. I haven’t picked up the flute since.
VCOS: Did you always have musical theater in mind as a goal?
MARLIE: Honestly, I didn’t consider musical theater as something I would pursue as a career until my second year of community college.
VCOS: Was there something that triggered this?
MARLIE: Kind of. It was more like a bunch of little things that lead up to one day. One of my best friends is in a band. She didn’t go to college after high school and has been working and working with her band for quite a while. She schedules out her life by herself, independently, and she’s getting a lot done. She’s already gotten into some festivals, so she kind of inspired me. My boyfriend knows a lot of people who’ve made it to Broadway, so it was really surrounding myself with people who are hard-working and I just decided to do things on my own as well.
VCOS: Where did you go to high school?
MARLIE: I went to Agoura first and then switched to Calabasas for my senior year. I wasn’t really active in my school theater program, I performed in community theater. I was shy at the time I was in high school. I had some friends who were in Class Act, a small, intimate theater, and that was a lot of fun for me. One of my best friends was in it and she heard me harmonize with some pop songs one day and she talked me into auditioning for a show there. They were doing Rent, so I considered it and started going there. It was such a fun thing to do after school and a place where I felt safe and where I belonged.
VCOS: Were you in any shows at Agoura?
MARLIE: I was in Jekyll and Hyde when I was in tenth grade. At Calabasas I was in Charlie’s Aunt.
VCOS: You mentioned harmonizing. How did you learn to do that?
MARLIE: I’m not sure. I don’t know if that’s something you’re born knowing how to do, but I was able to do that when I was little, before I even started taking voice lessons. I could just hear harmony and understand it.
VCOS: Was there a point when you realized that you had a special talent and not just because you like doing it?
MARLIE: I think I knew I had a special talent when I started working with Class Act. I was getting lead roles and getting great feedback from the audiences. So doing the shows helped me realize that.
VCOS: Did you have a mentor?
MARLIE: Not so much. I think my voice teacher in high school was my teen mentor. Right now, it’s Terri Weiss, who is my voice teacher now. She’s stretched my range.
VCOS: You went to community college, is that correct?
MARLIE: Yes. Moorpark College.
VCOS: And you’re not going there now.
VCOS: That decision to leave formalized schooling, was that a tough decision to make?
MARLIE: Yes it was. I had known that the school system wasn’t the easiest for me as a person. I always knew that I was an artistic type but the school setting always gave me a hard time. At Moorpark, I tried majoring in psychology and communications and then even tried being a music major because at that point I hadn’t been in a show in a long time so I went out for vocal performance in the music department. I did that for a while and it just wasn’t happening.
VCOS: You and conformity don’t get along.
MARLIE: I guess not. I was pretty stubborn. The first time I decided to leave, I asked my parents. I talked to them, I opened up a discussion and they said, “We’ll support you so long as you go hard and pursue it every day.” So I looked up teachers outside of school and auditioned frequently and that was my life and I scheduled it myself. At first, I was really scared and I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll just stay at school, because it’s easier.” You know, it’s all planned out for me, so I stuck it out a little bit longer at Moorpark. Then I had a long talk with Charlotte Fontaine, my best friend, who is in a band called the Fontaines. She’s the one I was talking about earlier who schedules out her life. I told her that I really, really wanted to pursue musical theater but I was scared. And she said that it’s a matter of how much you want to do it. If there’s a will, there’s a way.
VCOS: This brings up an interesting dilemma for people your age. There are several schools of thought. Some say that you should never overlook the experience of going to school – first, to get “proper” training (and I use quotes there), and second, to get a “fall-back” career going. And there are others who say that if you’re sure what you want to know, the school of hard knocks will get you the experience you need.
MARLIE: That one has felt right for me.
VCOS: How old are you now?
MARLIE: I’m twenty-one. And I started in November of last year.
VCOS: Have you worked professionally yet?
MARLIE: Not yet. Since I left, it’s been a trial and error figuring out who my trainers, my acting and dance coaches, will be, while auditioning. The goal this year is to get an agent. So this year, I’m going to be learning a lot about the business side of things.
VCOS: So tell me about Hamilton. What were you expecting when you went into this showcase and what happened when it hit you as to how different this show is?
MARLIE: Hamilton is a really special show to me. My friend, Justin Ramos, is an incredible pianist, and before the music score was published, he was so passionate about the show that he was charting it out himself just so he could play it. But Hamilton is special, especially for something with a mixed ethnicity background like me. I’m half Ecuadorian and half American. All the female roles in Hamilton are incredible, but I especially love Eliza Hamilton, who is my character. Justin described her as the “heart” of the show, because she respects and cares for everything Alexander Hamilton dreams of. There’s a strength to her that helped her live on after he died and preserve his legacy. Her singing part is stunningly beautiful. It’s something special when a character can sound beautiful and angelic but also be gritty at times.
VCOS: Did you get any rap parts in your role?
MARLIE: No rap parts, but I did beat-boxing, which is fun. Angelica is a great role, too. There are swings for all three female roles in that show. They’re all similar vocally and all strong women roles.
VCOS: Of the three things required for working theater actresses: singing, acting, dancing, which is the most problematic for you?
MARLIE: I think that dancing part has been a struggle for me. I’m taking jazz dance classes now at the Debbie Reynolds studio and although I’m a two-left-feet kind of dancer right now, I’m hoping to get better. I just want to at least be able to pick up choreography so that I won’t crash and burn during a dance number (laughs).
VCOS: Well, everybody has their strengths and their weaknesses, but if you’re the type of determined person that I think you are, you’ll attack your weakness and conquer it.
MARLIE: That’s what I’m doing. I’m taking six dance classes a week!
VCOS: What’s your goal for the next stage of your career?
MARLIE: I want to move to New York by the end of the year. I will probably be living with roommates and working for a nannying company for the time being, but I have a lot that I want to do out there, auditioning, singing gigs. And there are auditions going on every day there for so many different kinds of things, so I think that they best thing to do is to audition as frequently as you possibly can. I want to train like crazy this year and I’ll keep training when I get there. I just want to get there.