BY CARY GINELL
Last week we spoke to Claire Adams about her role as Gertie in Cabrillo Music Theatre’s production of Oklahoma! Now that Oklahoma! has concluded its run, we conclude our discussion with Claire about her background and her next role: Squeaky Fromme in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins.
VCOS: With all the other young actresses out there competing for parts, how do you stand out from the pack? What makes you special, in your view?
CLAIRE: Well, I don’t know yet. Oklahoma! was my first professional audition. But I think one of the things I really pride myself on when going into an audition is just being myself. I really try to come in and show them who I am as a person.
VCOS: Your bio says that you grew up singing show tunes in the car when you were going somewhere with your family.
CLAIRE: We listened to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – always. Phantom – all the Andrew Lloyd Webber shows. Singing in the Rain, and then when I was a little bit older, Wicked, West Side Story, and then we also listened to the Beatles and U2 and things like that. I started doing theater when I was four. From fourth to sixth grade, I did two shows a year at Calvary Community Church. They would do these big 350-kid productions. It was split by age, with kids on risers on either side, and in the middle would be a show: one at Christmas and one at Easter. And whenever a song would come on, there would be a Greek chorus of sorts and everyone would sing along and do hand motions. I took a break in middle school, but when I was in eighth grade at Oak Park High School, I saw them do Little Shop of Horrors and ended up seeing it three times. When I saw that show, I knew that I wanted to pursue theatre in high school. Ironically, the first show that I did at USC was Little Shop. So I did shows all through high school and made my decision in my senior year that I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
VCOS: Tell me about the master classes you took.
CLAIRE: In my freshman year at USC I did a master class with Jason Alexander. I was in a musical theatre audition class. We got to sing for him and he would make adjustments and notes here and there. Then I did one with Emily Kinney, who was in the original cast of Spring Awakening, while I was in the show. For that, we got to pick her brain on what it’s like to be an actress on Broadway; lifestyle questions. Then, one of the highlights of my entire life was getting to do a master class with Stephen Schwartz, which was unreal. They picked three students from the Thornton School of Music and two students from the School of Dramatic Arts, which was where I got picked. I had to prep a Stephen Schwartz song, which was t-e-r-r-i-f-y-i-n-g. To sing a song by someone who is so famous and to have to sing it for him – I was never so nervous in my entire life. I sang “Spark of Creation” from Children of Eden. And it went really well! He was super complimentary, which was a shock. He fixed some little things, like he said that I wasn’t making “spark” enough and needed to work on that particular word. So we played a little with holding it out a little more; little dynamic things like that.
VCOS: Were there any grand pieces of wisdom that you got from any of these people?
CLAIRE: That is the one thing that I will say. In that master class and also in “L.A.’s Next Great Stage Star,” which I did in the spring, the thing that was really resounding was that my acting training at USC was really good. You always question, when you’re in a non-conservatory program, or you’re not in New York, if you made the right decision. Should I be not in school and should I be doing different things? Well, I didn’t hear anything at these different master classes that I hadn’t heard before. I think that is a credit to the acting program because I think that one of the things about musical theatre is that songs are monologs that are sung, which means you have to work on it like it’s an acting piece. So, any song you are singing tells a story, and that’s the difference between musical theatre and any other music. So going to school as a theatre major and not a musical theatre major was really helpful to me. And I had to pick out acting beats and treat a song like a monolog. For example, in the Stephen Schwartz master class, he worked with all the music students on their stories. All of them. Because they were music students and they weren’t thinking acting first, they were thinking music first.
VCOS: How did the “L.A.’s Next Great Stage Star” come about?
CLAIRE: It’s not as known as it should be. It’s a really wonderful program. Basically, you audition and they pick ten men and ten women and you compete for eight weeks. Every week is a different theme. This year we had a Sondheim week, we did Jerry Herman, every week was different. We did seven weeks, and then in the eighth week, it’s split up into two acts. In the first act, everybody sings, your points are all tallied, and the top five people get to go to Act 2. They then wipe everyone’s points and then they each sing one song and they get ranked first through fifth, based on that one song. The winner gets to do a cabaret. What happens is, every week you sing your song and you are critiqued by a panel of four judges, who are agents, casting directors, choreographers, and directors. And they talk to you after your song, give you pointers, and notes. It’s separate from USC but USC students dominate it. It’s for 18-30 year-olds, but it has really turned into a USC thing.
VCOS: So that’s how you got your agent?
CLAIRE: Yes. It was a dream come true, signing with someone before I even finished school.
VCOS: As much as you love live theatre, would you drop it if you had an offer to go into film or TV?
CLAIRE: I’d like to think that I can do both always (laughs).
VCOS: Of course, but say you get cast in your own sitcom and you have to do that primarily with no time for anything else.
CLAIRE: I adore experiencing film and TV as mediums but they’re not my first love. But if the right script presented itself and I had the opportunity, absolutely I would do it. Voiceover? 100%. I would love to do voiceover. It’s a harder world to break into than musical theatre, let me tell you.
VCOS: Let’s talk Assassins. How did you get to know Squeaky in order to play her?
CLAIRE: I watched every YouTube video of her that’s in existence, read many articles, and actually, I’m in the middle of reading The Life and Times of Lynette Alice Fromme by Jess Bravin. It’s been incredible. Very enlightening. It makes you think: how could someone who was a part of the Manson family be someone that you can empathize with? And then you read her story and you get it. You totally, totally can. And you can understand how someone can be in love with Charlie Manson – I got this kind of light bulb into her world. She’s a complicated character. She’s very vulnerable, even though I think she puts up a facade that she’s not. She went through a lot of very difficult things and came from an abusive home.
VCOS: But then you have to do Squeaky through the lens of Sondheim. How is that going?
CLAIRE: Right! I went into my first rehearsals this week and that was one of the first things I had to talk about with my director because I was playing her like it was a biography and I was trying to get her voice right and her mannerisms right and all this stuff. And he said she’s the inspiration for the character that they created for the show. So that was a switch that I had to turn off because I had done so much dramaturgy on her. But now I needed to let all of that go because really, all that is is a base.
VCOS: Sondheim’s Squeaky is a nut job, pure and simple.
CLAIRE: Totally nutty and very different. I think at the core, that kind of raw sensuality and manipulative nature, very commanding, those things are very true to the actual Squeaky. I’m playing Squeaky but I’m not playing Squeaky. It’s a challenge, as all Sondheim shows are.
Assassins, with Claire Adams as Squeaky Fromme, plays at the Pico Playhouse from August 21 to September 27. For tickets, visit their website: http://assassinsmusicalla.com