GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Alysha Umphress of 'On a Clear Day You Can See Forever'
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by Adrienne Onofri
Alysha Umphress got it backwards. You’re supposed to appear in Broadway musicals first, then become a gay icon. But Umphress had her gay following before she ever performed on Broadway. In 2005, still pretty new to New York City, she won “XL Star,” an American Idol-style singing competition at the now-closed Chelsea bar XL. Among her prizes: a monthlong engagement at XL and the cover of gay men’s magazine Next. She then began performing at other gay bars around town, including Splash, the Duplex, Vlada and Industry, as well as the Tides and the Ice Palace on Fire Island, and went on to be one of the original cohosts of the After Party, a weekly late-night show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre for the theater crowd.
Currently Umphress is playing psychiatry student and all-around mod gal Paula in the On a Clear Day You Can See Forever revival, starring Harry Connick Jr., at the St. James Theatre. A year ago she was performing at the same theater in American Idiot, the show in which she’d made her Broadway debut in the spring of 2010. For the past few months, while she’s been seen on stage in New York, she has been heard in theaters around the country in the new Bring It On musical. Umphress sings “Legendary,” a song that plays during the big cheerleading competition, in Bring It On—a film-to-stage musical scored by Tony winners Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda that’s in the midst of an eight-month national tour. She also does some voiceover work in the show.
Umphress was already a well-regarded nightclub singer in NYC prior to her Broadway debut in American Idiot. In addition to the gay bars, she’s performed at such jazz clubs as Birdland and the Iridium and was nominated several years running for a MAC Award as Best Female Jazz Vocalist. She’s also been a Nightlife Award nominee in the category of Best Piano Bar Entertainer.
She admits to being, in her words, “torn between two lovers” as far as jazz singing and musical theater are concerned. Jazz has been part of her repertoire since her voice teacher introduced her to Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald when she was a teenager. She sang with her high school’s jazz band—a gig that one year included opening for Diana Krall at the Fujitsu Jazz Festival in northern California (where Umphress is from)—and later, as a student at the Boston Conservatory, she audited jazz classes at Boston’s Berklee School of Music. But compared to theater, “breaking onto the jazz scene is even more difficult,” says Umphress, “because nobody buys records anymore, and nobody makes money from jazz. That’s going to be my labor of love.”
Which is not to say she’s merely settling for musical theater. That’s been part of her repertoire even longer—since she was a 6-year-old cast member of Annie at Crazyatrics, a Bay Area troupe (now named Belasco Theatre Company) in which children perform classic musicals. Umphress, who was born in Concord, Calif., and grew up in nearby Martinez, performed throughout her childhood at Crazyatrics and other local theaters, such as Pittsburg Community, Piedmont Light Opera, Center REP and Willows Theatre. She did such shows as Once Upon a Mattress, Into the Woods, Hello, Dolly!, Show Boat and The Wizard of Oz. And Annie—three times in all. After two go-rounds as an orphan, she played Annie the third time (in that first Crazyatrics production, one of Umphress’ castmates was Sara Darneille, now a dresser for On a Clear Day).
Umphress had her first professional job while just a freshman in high school: the principal role of Sue in Fab!, a musical about 1960s teenagers (known as A Slice of Saturday Night in the U.K., where it originated) that was presented at San Francisco’s Alcazar Theatre—next door to The Phantom of the Opera at the Curran. Her performance as Sue, a plus-size girl who longs to look like Twiggy, earned Umphress a Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle award.
As an adult, Umphress’ first big theater job was costarring in Funked Up Fairy Tales at Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires in the summer of 2007. That Kristen Childs show was produced by Barrington Stage’s Musical Theatre Lab, which is run by composer William Finn, who’s been quite an advocate for Umphress. He cast her in a few concerts in the “Songs by Ridiculously Talented Composers and Lyricists You Probably Don’t Know But Should...” series that he curates for Barrington Stage, as well as a concert of music by Nikos Tsakalakos produced by the Musical Theatre Lab.
In late 2007 Umphress understudied the two women in Make Me a Song, a four-person Finn revue that played off-Broadway and was nominated for Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards. She got that part without performing any Finn numbers in what was a hastily scheduled audition; rather, she gave them a Lou Rawls song after she’d been called while she was home cleaning out her closet to come immediately for an audition. Finn, says Umphress, is “a champion for people that he likes and believes in.”
She’s discovered that having such champions is invaluable to theater performers in New York. “The thing I’ve learned the most about this business,” Umphress says, “is it takes talent and it takes hard work and perserverance, but once you get to a certain point I think it’s who you know.” She worked on Bring It On thanks to composer Tom Kitt, who’d been the musical supervisor on American Idiot. “If I didn’t work with him in American Idiot, I still would have been right for the Bring It On job, but they wouldn’t have known me and he would have recommended somebody else he knows,” she says, adding, “I’ve been on the other side, too: I was up for shows when I was ‘nobody.’” She recalls, for example, auditioning for the role of Enid in Legally Blonde while she was still making her living as a singing waiter at Ellen’s Stardust Diner; Natalie Joy Johnson, who got the part, had been around a few years longer. “If you’re at an audition and it’s between you and two other girls and you know everyone behind the table and they could go with any of you three, they’re going to give it to you because they know you and like you,” Umphress says. “I don’t think that’s a shitty thing to say, I think it’s really realistic.”
Someone she knew from Barrington Stage, music director Carmel Dean, tipped Umphress off about a musical in the works by Green Day—a rock group Umphress had been a fan of since their 1994 breakthrough album Dookie. “It was huge everywhere, but especially in northern California because they’re local boys,” she says. “They’re from two towns away from me.” Following Dean’s tip, Umphress had her agents look out for any casting notices for the “untitled punk project,” as American Idiot was known in development. “I worked my ass off to get American Idiot,” Umphress states. At the first audition, where they were mostly screening for types, she sang “What About Love?” (“Every girl sings a Heart song for rock auditions”). For a callback, she had to create her own interpretation of a Beat-era poem. Umphress chose “America” by Allen Ginsberg, and says what she did with it “was the scariest thing I have ever done in an audition room either since or before.” Her performance encompassed opening windows and doors of the audition room and screaming out of them, pushing the accompanist away so she could play the piano herself, and singing the poem’s words. She knew “either this is going to be a huge success or a major disaster.”
It was, of course, the former, and Umphress had a role in all the American Idiot workshops and then its fall 2009 premiere at Berkeley Rep, not far from her (and Green Day’s) hometown. She was home watching the 1989 movie Parenthood that Christmas Eve when American Idiot producer Tom Hulce—coincidentally, a costar of Parenthood—called to tell her the show would be opening on Broadway in the spring. In 2010 she performed with Green Day and the American Idiot cast at the Grammys, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the New York Jets’ home opener and on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
Physically, the show was a “car wreck” for its cast, says Umphress. Performers usually warm up on their own, but every rehearsal for American Idiot began with a mandatory one-hour physical warmup—be it circuit training, yoga, calisthenics, etc. There was much hard-charging movement and scaling of the multitiered set during performance as well. Umphress says she lost 40 pounds while working on American Idiot, and has not regained it.
American Idiot ran a year on Broadway, with Umphress in it the whole time. Her follow-up, On a Clear Day, will be shorter-lived, as the revival is set to close Jan. 29, seven weeks after opening. Director Michael Mayer’s attempt to rectify what has always been considered a problematic show—despite an admired score by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane—was not well-received, and the New York Post’s vicious Michael Riedel frequently harangued it in his column. “Have your opinions—I get it—but he lies,” says Umphress. “He’s said, like, ‘Harry looks so miserable, hopefully the show will close just to put him out of his misery.’ Harry couldn’t be more positive and couldn’t be happier to have this job, and more invested and more committed, and he is lovely to be around and infectious. That’s what makes me angry, when I read stuff like that. It’s like, You don’t even know what you’re talking about!”
On a Clear Day’s failure should not, according to Umphress, tarnish the reputation of Mayer, a Tony winner for Spring Awakening who also directed American Idiot. “The thing about Michael Mayer is, at least he is always pushing boundaries,” she says. “He’s not just making another revival and putting a star in it and calling it a day. He’s taking something that didn’t work but has a beautiful score and trying to make it work so that it has another life. Nothing’s ever been done with a revival like this before. American Idiot—nothing had been done like that before. Spring Awakening—nothing had been done like that before. I admire him so much for always doing something different and trying to say something new, which is what we should be doing in musical theater.”
Originally produced on Broadway in 1965, On a Clear Day is a rare “old” musical for Umphress. Apart from her childhood roles and a college portrayal of the Old Lady in Candide, she’s only done contemporary shows. Mayer worked on reconceiving On a Clear Day for over a decade; Umphress was involved the last few years, participating in readings of it at Roundabout and the Vineyard Theatre, among other places. In those readings, she had the lead role of Melinda. When New York Stage and Film gave the show a concert staging at Vassar College’s Powerhouse Theater for one weekend during the summer of 2010—while Umphress was in American Idiot—Melinda was played by Anika Noni Rose. Umphress was called at the last minute to fill in for Rose when she unexpectedly had to miss a performance. There was no problem getting Umphress out of American Idiot, as the shows had the same producing team, and they sent a car service to whisk her upstate—where she played opposite Brian d’Arcy James (in the role Connick has on Broadway). Umphress has been understudying Jessie Mueller as Melinda in the Broadway production.
Meanwhile, working with Connick has allowed Umphress to bridge the theater and jazz worlds in a way. “I really appreciate how, like a true jazz singer, he sings whatever he feels; it’s always different,” she says. “I love jazz so much because you get to express yourself that way: You can sing whatever you’re feeling in that moment, and you never sing anything the same. Whereas, in musical theater, typically you’re supposed to sing everything the same every night. I like that he’s sort of broken that mold. I don’t know if they just let him do that because he’s Harry Connick or this show has the freedom to do that.”
First Green Day, then Harry Connick—but Umphress was performing alongside music stars well before them. During her senior year in high school, she sang with Carlos Santana in a benefit concert for the school. Santana’s son Salvador was a fellow student at School of the Arts (SOTA), a public school in San Francisco that Umphress attended for three years. SOTA had a very limited enrollment, and gave priority to kids who lived in the district (which Umphress didn’t), but luckily her “lineage buff” paternal grandmother had discovered the family had Native American ancestry, so she applied as a minority. (Her maternal grandmother is Italian, hence the “Nonna” she salutes in the On a Clear Day Playbill.)
For college, Umphress attended Boston Conservatory. Unlike most of her classmates, the musical theater major did not do summer stock; she needed summer employment that paid more, since she was responsible for her college expenses outside of tuition and housing. She went back home to California and worked three jobs—theater camp counselor, Starbucks barista, waitress—sometimes all in the same day.
Umphress moved to New York in 2004 after graduating from college. But she’d already gotten far in a major Broadway audition. During her junior year, she went to the open call for Marissa Jaret Winokur’s replacement in Hairspray. She was called back repeatedly and made it into the final group of 10 or so actresses being considered for Tracy Turnblad, along with Carly Jibson and Kathy Brier, both of whom would play Tracy on Broadway. Umphress recalls being the only one who wasn’t short, and eventually she was cut. “I don’t want to say it was me, but ever since then, in every breakdown for that [character], it says ‘5'3 or shorter,’” she points out.
Getting that far in the auditions gave Umphress confidence to pursue her career, and she got an agent from her senior showcase in New York the following year. Once she’d settled in New York, she did put in three years singing while serving burgers and shakes to tourists at Ellen’s Stardust Diner in Times Square. At the same time she was getting known for her singing in cabarets and clubs, and she recorded a live album of her show at the Laurie Beechman. It includes a set of Dinah Washington songs that’s dedicated to Joe Barnett, her voice teacher when she was growing up, who’d first suggested she might be suited to that type of singing. (With her mother a Barbra Streisand fan and her father into classic rock, “I didn’t have a jazz influence in my household,” Umphress says.)
Now Umphress has making a studio album on her to-do list. She’d also like to act more on television. She had a couple of lines in a 2010 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, playing a college student in a bar lying to her mom on her cell phone that she’s in the library. And she has a bigger part in an episode of Nurse Jackie scheduled to air in April. “Every single person was so lovely, and I had the best time,” Umphress says of working on the Showtime series. “I actually got to do scenes with Edie Falco, who couldn’t have been nicer. Everybody, you could tell, loves their job and was really cool, so it made me want to do that more.”
On the big screen, Umphress portrayed a friend of Evan Rachel Wood’s in the prom scene, set to “Hold Me Tight,” of Across the Universe. Online, she had a recurring role in the theater-themed web series The Battery’s Down, which produced two seasons in 2008-09. Umphress still performs in viral videos created by Battery’s Down star and creator Jake Wilson; check out their latest, an original song called “You Must Be Joking,” here. (You can watch all episodes of The Battery’s Down—which featured such guest stars as Andrea McArdle, Cheyenne Jackson, Matthew Morrison, Mary Testa, Sutton Foster, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Celia Keenan-Bolger—here.)
Back in live theater, Umphress has recently been involved in a couple of high-profile properties that are aiming for Broadway, including a reading of the Diane Paulus-directed revisal of Pippin and a backers’ presentation of Bare, where she had the principal role of Nadia (with Shoshana Bean as Ivy). And on Feb. 6, Umphress will headline the annual A-T Children’s Project benefit, hosted by Priscilla Lopez. Featuring songs by Sammy Buck and Daniel S. Acquisto (Like You Like It, ...And Then I Wrote a Song About It), the concert raises funds for the A-T Clinical Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, dedicated to fighting ataxia-telangiectasia, a congenital disease that attacks the nervous and immune systems. Click here for more details about the event.
Photos of Alysha (from top): in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, with Zachary Prince; at a premiere late last year; left, with Rashidra Scott (July’s Gypsy of the Month) and Christy McIntosh in Funked Up Fairy Tales; with songwriter William Finn; left, entertaining Jets fans with American Idiot castmate Rebecca Naomi Jones and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong; right, in a scene from American Idiot; second from left, performing with American Idiot on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon; on the cover of her live album.