BY CARY GINELL
Any time a high school theater department takes on a Stephen Sondheim musical, the intensity level cranks up a notch. So when drama teacher Joseph Donia took on Into the Woods, which the school last did in 2008, he needed some extra expertise behind the scenes to deal with Sondheim’s uniquely difficult vocal score. Enter Kayla Bailey, a graduate of Oaks Christian High School (2007), Cal Lutheran University (2011), and a former Miss Ventura County (2012), who has been seen locally mainly as a performer. Donia chose Bailey to be his vocal director despite Bailey never having served in that capacity before. But when, as the saying goes, opportunity knocks, you go for it, and Bailey, who has a uniquely positive spin on life, leaped in feet first and has been having the time of her life. We spoke with Kayla in between performances about this unique experience, one which has already had a major effect on her career outlook going forward.
VCOS: You’re from here, but you went to college somewhere out of state, didn’t you?
KAYLA: Yes, I did a year at Indiana University but it wasn’t a good fit for me and I’m a California girl through and through so I finished my degree at Cal Lutheran where I got my bachelor of arts in music and also minored in theater. Then I went to graduate school at CSUN where I got my master’s in vocal arts, which is what they call vocal performance.
VCOS: I think the first thing I saw you in was The Addams Family in Simi a few years ago. You were fabulous.
KAYLA: Thanks! Yes, that’s probably right.
VCOS: How long have you been performing?
KAYLA: Probably for eight or nine years. A lot of the musicals at Cal Lutheran were done at the Scherr Forum. I did my first production of Into the Woods there; I was Rapunzel. I’ve been actively involved in community theater in Ventura County only about two or three years. I’ve done Into the Woods twice now. The other time I played the Baker’s Wife in Simi.
VCOS: So, vocal directing. That’s a new thing for you. Why now?
KAYLA: Well, I wanted to focus on performance, so right after graduate school, I booked a cruise ship contract and went sailing off to Europe, singing, which was a whole adventure in itself. When I came back, I put the pedal to the metal and focused on auditioning and performing and opened a private voice studio. I have twelve or thirteen clients right now. That was more of a side thing, but when you hit your late twenties, you start to re-evaluate what’s important in your life and what your passions are. And passions can change and grow into different things. I’ve always had a passion for music. That’s always been clear, but what’s been happening lately that has been really exciting is the passion for giving back to the next generation. So with the studio growing, an opportunity came up to vocal direct for T.O. High and I was at a time when the timing worked out right, and after having the studio up for about four or five years, I felt confident enough in my abilities and just went for it.
VCOS: Would you consider yourself classically trained?
KAYLA: Yes. With classical training, there is more of an importance placed on technique. The nice thing is that the opera genre is kind of moving away from that lately. Local opera companies have been inviting more theatrical directors to step in and create a fresh vision for the next generation so that opera can stay fresh. But there is an audible difference between someone that is classically trained who sings musical theater versus someone who is musical theater-trained, who are more versed in pop music and contemporary musical theater, and I think that the new compositions in contemporary musical theater are very conversational, where the lining and phrasing of the songs are almost like having a conversation like I’m having with you now.
VCOS: There’s a lot more looseness with regard to meter and rhyming, isn’t there?
KAYLA: Right. There’s a very heavy emphasis in classical music that says, “Sing what’s written.” But with musical theater and pop you can put a little more of your own spin into songs.
VCOS: How does that work with Stephen Sondheim?
KAYLA: Sondheim, I would say, is definitely a little bit more classical, where you have to sing what’s written, because the brilliance about Sondheim is that he’s written the conversation into the music already, so the music he offers is the best solution, so why would you even think of straying? (laughs) Especially with Into the Woods. You look at his music and at first it’s very intimidating because, rhythmically, it’s very difficult. Zach Spencer, who is our rehearsal pianist and plays in the orchestra for this production, said to me that “Sondheim is just flat-out difficult to play and difficult to sing, but once you spend enough time with it and get to know the score, it starts to feel second nature.”
VCOS: From the perspective of a teacher and a student of Sondheim, how are high school students handling this kind of advanced music?
KAYLA: It’s definitely a unique opportunity. The score for Into the Woods is a bit of a beast.
VCOS: Pun intended?
KAYLA: Yes! (laughs) It’s a beast and a challenge for high schoolers to take on. But for kids in high school theater, grades nine through twelve, I think the most important thing is to have the right support system around you. So even though the music is more difficult, with Joe Donia directing, with Loretta Reinhart choreographing, with Zach helping with accompaniment and basic music direction, and me coming in and giving the vocal coaching, I feel that the kids had a really well-rounded support system to make the music less difficult. I know that when we were casting, we definitely made sure to select students who we knew would take the score seriously and commit to the show a hundred per cent.
VCOS: Is it more understanding what he’s doing rather than having the chops?
KAYLA: I wouldn’t say it’s one or the other, I would say it’s the perfect blend of those two things.
VCOS: Is the music vocally difficult or is it the rhythm?
KAYLA: It’s kind of a package deal. It can be vocally difficult because a lot of the lines leap around, and with the teenage voice, where the vocal cords haven’t been fully developed yet, that can be a bit of a challenge, especially with the boys we were working with in the show. “Hello, Little Girl,” the Wolf’s song, comes to mind, where it’s very much up-and-down and all over. At one moment he’s down in his bass and the next he’s up in his tenor, but the main difficulty in the score is the entrances. I know with both of the “Midnight” songs – “First Midnight” and “Second Midnight,” you know, “the harder to get, the better to have,” the timing of it, those are the numbers that we rehearsed the most.
VCOS: I would have guessed “Your Fault” would be the one, because of all of the rapid switching off of lines.
KAYLA: No! Ironically, I think we only went over “Your Fault” twice. It was one that the kids definitely were more concerned about, but fortunately, since they were worried about it, they worked harder on it on their own, and when I came in, they had almost had it down. I would tell them that there’s a balance between knowing your part and knowing your reactions and entrances based on someone else’s line. You can listen for that line to come in for your entrance, but if an actor misses it, you have to come in on your own and help recover.
VCOS: Was reading music an issue with the students?
KAYLA: With this production, a majority of them could read music, but there were some who didn’t fully rely on it. I came into the process a week or two after rehearsals began, because I had a prior commitment, and Zach had a big hand in plunking out parts and having everyone record their particular songs on their phones so they could learn on their own. As vocal director, I would polish and give clarification for certain character motivations, like why do the princes interrupt each other in “Agony” and why the Baker’s Wife was having such a hard time with her “and” and her “or” in her solo piece, or why Cinderella left her shoe behind. I came in and helped coach their songs because with a better understanding of the character, they have a better understanding of how to approach a song vocally. Reading music is definitely helpful and it speeds the process along but it’s not absolutely vital.
VCOS: When you have someone with the ability of Kristen Wisneski, who is your Witch, does that bring everyone else up or does it intimidate them?
KAYLA: She’s very gifted. This was my first time meeting Kristen and working with her. I found that the faster one learns the music, the more opportunities I had to dig deeper into the character, their motivation, and to give more acting beats and try things; play with it vocally. We have students who are very strong actors and some are strong dancers but are not as strong vocally, so with them, it was all about making sure they were confident with their notes and lines and had basic character motivation. Since Kristen is a very gifted singer, I was able to dive more deeply into the Witch and challenge her a little bit more.
VCOS: Give me an example.
KAYLA: We were able to put some lovely colors and layers in “Stay With Me,” because the most important thing to know when you’re singing a song is why you’re singing it. Otherwise, musicals would just be straight plays. In “Stay With Me,” there is an urgency to convince Rapunzel to stay instead of running away with the Prince and entering the real world. So we would give Rapunzel different obstacles and the Witch would have to use different strategies to get what she wanted. The first part goes, “Don’t you know what’s out there in the world? Someone has to shield you from the world.” So the first element was this layer of protection. Stay with me. I will protect you from everything bad. And Rapunzel rejects that. Then she says, “There are princes in the world, but there are wolves and humans,” so the next method was to scare Rapunzel a little bit into staying. When that didn’t work, it was “I’m all you have. What out there can love you more than I?” So we got to put all these different colors in, the way she would belt and mix her voice, sing out to the audience in one part – Joe let me play a little bit with blocking them on their solo numbers and then have that little beat in their head when she changed her strategy. In the end, Rapunzel still wants to go.
VCOS: Mothers protecting their children is quite a pervasive theme in the show, isn’t it? It’s not just about wishing for something you don’t have.
KAYLA: It’s also about family and realizing the blessings that you have in your life instead of just wanting more. For me personally, being involved in this show and navigating through life as a performer, we know that this career isn’t the most steady one you can pick, but in order to stay sane, you have to find moments where you’ve got to count your blessings and be happy with what you have or could have had if you had made a different choice. There’s a line in the movie Under the Tuscan Sun that goes, “Regrets are a waste of time.” The past just eats at some people. So I feel like with the career I’m trying to follow, you just can’t look back. You have to look forward and move on to the next project. Like my agent keeps telling me when I don’t book something: “Onward and upward!”
VCOS: Is it possible for someone in your position to have a grand plan, or are you forced to just go whichever way the wind pushes you?
KAYLA: I think every performer has an individual approach to how they navigate their career. Some set short term goals with a long-term goal of Broadway in their mind. Others kind of see where the auditions and the work leads. I’ve always taken to the advice, “Follow your voice.” See where your voice wants to lead you. Your gifts and your talents. So I’ve been exploring more studio singing and vocal direction and teaching because I’ve discovered that I’m not that much of a gypsy, I don’t like to move about too much. I did that for a bit and it was great, but now I want to plant some roots and stay where I am. I took a trip to New York and realized I don’t like New York, so that changed my plans a little bit (laughs). I just don’t like New York, as a city. Broadway is the most magical place in the world. I L-O-V-E Broadway! My first Broadway show was Mary Poppins. I bought a ticket five minutes before curtain. I asked for the cheapest ticket they had, because I’m poor, so I got a ticket for sixty dollars and he gave me a box seat. When they walked me to my seat I thought they were kidding. It was the most magical night of theater ever!
VCOS: Who in the Into the Woods cast surprised you?
KAYLA: There were one or two. Zac Mundwiller, who plays the Wolf, surprised me. He was very good. Poor guy; he’s more of a baritone, but for him to hit the high tenor notes was difficult, but with everyone, I taught a technique called “grounding your sound.” A lot of high schoolers will sing from their throat and tilt their head up, and I’d say, “no, no, no, you can’t do that.” You have to tilt your head down, bend your knees, feel it in your lower abdominals and your legs; it’s like you’re a tree. A tree can’t live just with its branches and leaves, it’s gotta use its roots, too. And that’s what breath control is all about, especially for Zac when he hits his howls and when he sings, “And when you’re talking to your meal.” He really had to ground himself. And he got there. Gabe Warburton, who played Rapunzel’s Prince, did a great job. He had a positive attitude and put a ton of work ethic into it, and he was able to hold his pitch and his rhythms and I was just so proud of all the work he put into it. Megan Ragone as Jack’s Mother did a really great job. We were able to dive more into her character, which was wonderful.
VCOS: She was able to bring out a lot of parallels between Jack’s Mother and the Witch, didn’t she?
KAYLA: Yes! Exactly! But with slightly different methods and thought processes. Emma Roth as Little Red – she walked into the audition room and we all looked at each other and knew she was our Little Red. It’s hard to belt those high notes and I was really proud of her work with that. But everyone did a wonderful job. This has been a fantastic first project in building my confidence and recognizing my strong suits and things that I’m not as strong at. For instance, I know now that I need to have a pianist come with me because I’m not an accompanist. I can read melodic lines, but I can’t sit there and play piano, especially Sondheim. So if I were to do this again, I would need to have a pianist to collaborate with.
VCOS: Now that you’ve had a taste of vocal directing, are you ready for another show?
KAYLA: (giggles) I wish!
Into the Woods concludes its run at Thousand Oaks High School for three more performances, May 17, 18 & 19. Tickets are available at the school’s Performing Arts Center box office. For dates, times, and directions to the theater, see the VC On Stage Calendar.