The limitless Lauren Worsham.
Photos from laurenworsham.com.
It’s hard to imagine two works more dissimilar than Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland and David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s Dog Days, but on April 27, when Master Voices performs Toyland in concert at Carnegie Hall, one woman will connect the two. Soprano Lauren Worsham — whose shattering performances as Lisa in Dog Days rank among the finest I have ever seen — will take the ingénue role of Jane. She may not yet be the music-theater equivalent of Kevin Bacon, the necessary link to everything and everyone, but give her time.
Her limpid, vibrant voice commands attention, and she knows how to use it to project the kind of innocence that’s equally appropriate in Little’s Dystopia and Herbert’s Toyland. Already she’s excelled in operetta at New York City Opera and, on Broadway, in an acclaimed turn as Phoebe in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, warbling her heart out and picking up Drama Desk and Theatre World awards and a Tony nomination. She runs an opera company, the Coterie, and is the lead singer in Sky-Pony — a rock band — while also appearing in concert and in cabaret. To this observer, it seems there’s nothing that doesn’t interest her, and nothing she can’t do.
“I definitely try to do many things,” Worsham says, calling herself “a jack-of-all-trades and not necessarily a master of any of them.” (I beg to disagree.) “How did I get to the point where I can? I think it was more that I decided that I wanted to. I didn’t want to focus on one thing. As with most things in my life, my path found me.”
“Mirror, Mirror”: As Lisa in Dog Days.
One of the most astonishing performances I have ever witnessed.
Growing up in Austin, Texas, Worsham sang the music that was in the air around her, rock and blues, and her first voice teacher was a blues musician. She also sang in her high-school choir, and her interest in musical theater led her to audition for a college production of Candide. After graduation from Yale (cum laude, because of course) and a stint in the first national tour of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, she found herself playing Cunegonde again, this time in New York City Opera’s revival of Candide, in 2008.
Worsham had begun to broaden and deepen her understanding of opera, with which she’d been only somewhat familiar. But she says, “I love narrative and I love drama, and at that point opera wasn’t focusing on those things in the way that a college student would have been aware of.” In NYCO’s late, lamented VOX program for new work, Worsham met Little and Vavrek, who were about to change many people’s notions of narrative and drama in opera. “Dog Days is the greatest thing I’ve done, maybe the greatest thing I’ll ever do,” Worsham says — adding, “until the next time I work with David and Royce!”
For City Opera’s Candide, “They double-cast me with a more trained singer,” Worsham remembers. “They set me up with a voice teacher, and I credit her with helping me open up my classical voice.” This training strikes me as crucial to her multifaceted career: the desire to do many things and the talent to persuade people to allow you to do many things will take you only so far if you don’t have the technique to pull it off. (My hat is off to Worsham’s teacher, Virginia Grasso.)
Worsham also respects “good vocal hygiene.” The main thing for me is not yelling in bars. [Presumably when she’s performing with Sky-Pony.] There’s a difference between doing something one night, or every night of the week. Everything requires a different kind of maintenance and paying attention to your body. I definitely learned that the hard way with Gentleman’s Guide.
“When I first started, I had a high, nasal speaking voice for Phoebe,” she continues. “For the first eight months, it was fine, but then it started to catch up with me. In the same way that if you woke up every morning and bend your knees, you’ll get more flexible, but if you sit at a desk all day, you’ll lose flexibility. Using that voice gave my larynx bad habits. I’d never done a show that many days a week for that long. There’s a difference between a long game and a short game.”
While Worsham’s rock voice doesn’t sound precisely like her operetta voice, it’s recognizably the same instrument, and just as irresistible. Her approach to any piece of music, she says, is rooted in character: “Different characters have different ways they carry their body and different ways they use their voice. Different songs have different characters and different textures. Sometimes it’s a choice: ‘This would sound good.’ When it comes to opera, that’s a matter of technique, but when it comes to something like pop music, a lot of the time for me it’s a matter of letting go, of trying to be ‘on the voice,’ just trying to tell the story.”
Story-telling is always her principal concern, though “in opera I’m also focused on continuation of the voice and on technique.” Recalling her harrowing aria from Dog Days, she says, “In the same way that I think I wouldn’t be telling the story we’re trying to tell if I belted ‘Mirror, Mirror,’ singing pop songs with perfect technique and vowels wouldn’t tell the story that song wants to tell, in that sense.”
Master Voices likewise believes in “The Art of Musical Storytelling,” and Babes in Toyland has told many over the years. At the time of its premiere, in 1904, it was customary to change the materials in American operetta, to drop one number and add another, or to re-work a scene to suit a particular performer. As the two movie adaptations show, the material is highly flexible: there’s no Laurel and Hardy in Disney’s Toyland. But there’s not really an Ur-text, and Toyland hasn’t seen a major New York revival in generations. Master Voices artistic director Ted Sperling has prepared a score and, with Joe Keenan, cobbled together a script. “It’s hilarious,” Worsham says, comparing it to classic movie scripts. “Everyone seems to have some zingers … there’s no straight man.”
Sperling has assembled a spectacular cast for Toyland, led by another soprano who straddles both Broadway and opera, Kelli O’Hara. Jonathan Freeman adds another villain to his résumé (he’s played Aladdin’s Jafar in every medium you can name) with the role of Barnaby; and Jay Armstrong Johnson, a Broadway favorite who sang the title role in NYCO’s most recent revival of Candide, is Tom Tom, Jane’s love interest. And with the master clown Bill Irwin as the Toymaker and the irrepressible Christopher Fitzgerald as Alan, Jane’s brother, “I’ll be focusing on trying not to pee my pants with laughing,” Worsham says. “I’ve really got to be at the top of my game with those two.”
The audience can expect “a lot of fun, more than anything. I’m looking forward to that,” Worsham says. “I think we need it. Gosh, reading the news every day, it seems as if a little escape is harder to get to these days.”
Master Voices presents Victor Herber’s Babes in Toyland in concert at Carnegie Hall, April 27 at 7:00 pm. For tickets and more information, click here.