Somewhere between winning Best Original Score Tony Award for IN THE HEIGHTS in 2008 and two Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize for the blockbuster Broadway musical HAMILTON, wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda collaborated alongside Tom Kitt (NEXT TO NORMAL) and onetime Nashville songwriter Amanda Green on the music and lyrics from the musical stage adaptation of BRING IT ON. On Friday, August 11, Circle Players, Nashville’s longest-continuing theatre company will open its 68th season with the regional debut of BRING IT ON, directed by Jason Lewis. Onstage at The Looby Theatre (2301 Rosa L. Parks Blvd, Nashville), BRING IT ON runs through Sunday, August 27.
Earlier this week, as the cast and crew readied for opening night, I had an opportunity to speak with the show’s director, as well as one of the show’s choreographers, the company’s cheerographer (yes, it’s a thing) and three of the show’s principal cast members for the latest installment of my recurring interview feature, Rapid Fire 20 Q.
RAPID FIRE 20 Q WITH CAST AND CREW OF CIRCLE PLAYERS’ BRING IT ON
RAPID FIRE WITH BRING IT ON DIRECTOR, JASON LEWIS
JONATHAN PINKERTON: You know I always like to know the genesis of a collaboration…How did you directing BRING IT ON for Circle come about?
JASON LEWIS: Well I had BRING IT ON on a short list last year, so I did ‘slip my interest in’ during last year’s pitch session but…given my dad’s ailing health I made JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR a priority, so I could say my goodbye with his favorite show. Given the overwhelmingly positive feedback I got from SUPERSTAR and that a friend of mine (Ariana DeBose of HAMILTON) had originated one of the roles, I’m sure they could realize it was already on or mutual radars. Circle entrusted me with my 2nd local premiere in a row (following Act 1‘s REEFER MADNESS) and I’m honored for the opportunity.
JP: I’d hazard a guess to say that a lot of people, even those familiar with the 2000 film upon which the musical is based, might not realize that Lin-Manuel Miranda collaborated on the music and lyrics for BRING IT ON between his early success of IN THE HEIGHTS and the mega-hit HAMILTON. What’s it like to be directing a show from such an acclaimed theatre darling of the moment?
JASON LEWIS: My friends will tell you I am late to the game on HAMILTON. I didn’t care for it much at first but certain songs are growing on me. I’ve never even seen IN THE HEIGHTS. I actually believe that musically, BRING IT ON is his best work because of the eclectic intermingling of hip hop/pop/cheer chanting and rap with traditional musical theatre. That said, it’s a lot of pressure to do Lin’s work justice but I think he’d be proud with what Randy Craft (the show’s musical director) and I have created.
JP: What is it about BRING IT ON that you think will resonate with the audience?
JASON LEWIS: I want people to first know that they are NOT coming to see a musical stage version of the 2000 film. The musics borrows from the 3rd movie in the BIO series (headed by Hayden Panettiere and Solange Knowles). A cheer musical may seem campy and ‘surface’ at first until you notice the underlying themes of racial/class warfare, the unintentional abuse of friendships and the importance of asking forgiveness of those we wrong as well as the universal need all humans require in regards to believe in yourself when stepping out of our comfort zones.
I also want audiences to embrace the same gender/body type blindness that is shown amongst the Jackson High School students. La Cienega is a popular and fearless transgender student that bigger-girl Bridget learns to have confidence from. Their connection is one of my favorite parts of the show.
JP: With BRING IT ON, you’re working not only with Tosha Pendergrast and Ashley Danielle as choreographers, but also with Haley Sue Pearson as cheerographer. How much input do you as a director have with the choreography and, in this case, cheerography?
JASON LEWIS: You know me, I’m going to have input across the board whether people want it or not! LOL. I may have tilted focus towards directing as of late, but I do have a degree in dance and although I was never a cheerleader, my past experience as a high school drum major has definitely been an asset. So so did have some input, but I also want to respect choreographer vision. I did technically choreograph the It Ain’t No Thing number, but it’s not a huge dance routine. I had zero input with cheer apart from “throw somebody in the air right here.”
Tosha and Ashley’s individual styles shine through each and every number but given the workload and demands of the show, I have to give it up to Haley Sue Pearson and Daniel Carrasquillo (our asst. choreographers/dance captains) This show would not be as polished without their insight and hard work. Haley is an actual cheerleader so she made sure our production was authentic and (major) injury-free. Daniel is our show’s knight in shining armor. He is beyond a triple threat and I am honored to work with him so early in his promising career.
BRING IT ON is such a physically demanding show that MTI (Musical Theatre International) has a special bell that gets rung whenever it gets licensed. I’m a demanding director and I surrounded myself with an equally demanding creative team. I’ll put our production up against any others. Any. Day. Of. The. Week. I don’t treat my actors as “community theatre performers” and they don’t give me those performances in return. I am truly blessed and humbled by the talent of my cast.
RAPID FIRE WITH BRING IT ON CHOREOGRAPHER, TOSHA PENDERGRAST
JP: How familiar were you with BRING IT ON prior to being brought in as the show’s choreographer?
TOSHA PENDERGRAST: I actually wasn’t super familiar with BRING IT ON before I got involved. I had heard a few of the songs before but I hadn’t seen the show, and I hadn’t extensively listened to the soundtrack myself. But I knew it was hype and I was excited to do it!
JP: Is there a particular choreography moment you’re particularly proud of in this show?
TOSHA PENDERGRAST: There are a lot of huge dance numbers in the show so I’m not exactly sure if there’s one moment in particular that I’m proud of. I’m really fond of the opening number of the show. I think it’s a really powerful, yet fun way to start it off. Also, Bring It On, the Act 1 closer, was super fun to choreograph. We were able to finish it with Daniel Carrasquillo’s help, and it turned out awesome. Choreography for the show was a major group effort and I’d say we all rocked it!
JP: For this show, there’s choreography provided by yourself and Ashley Danielle, and also cheerography helmed by Haley Sue Pearson. What’s it been like for you and Ashley to collaborate with Haley?
TOSHA PENDERGRAST: Haley Sue was amazing to work with. I was only vaguely familiar with some cheer stunts and so when I described loosely what I wanted she immediately responded with “Yes, I know what you’re taking about. Awesome! Let’s make it happen”. And every single time she was able to lead the cast into executing the stunts amazingly. Her cheerography for Legendary is in fact, legendary!
RAPID FIRE WITH BRING IT ON CHEEROGRAPHER, HALEY SUE PEARSON
JP: So, this is not only your first production with Circle Players, but I’m also guessing your first time to act as choreographer for a stage musical. How has the experience been so far?
HALEY SUE PEARSON: This experience has definitely been one for the books. The people of Circle Players have been so supportive and welcoming during this process and this cast is honestly one of the closest and most loving that I’ve ever been apart of. As stressful as it can be, being a first time choreograpgher, it has been so fulfilling watching it all come together and to see the show blossom in an incredible way.
JP: A quick read through your bio reveals that you’re no stranger to cheerleading. For the past few years you’ve coached a local high school’s squad. What’s more challenging…coaching a group of actors playing high school cheerleaders, or actual high schoolers?
HALEY SUE PEARSON: If there’s one thing in life that I love more than anything it’s coaching. It is the most fulfilling but also challenging thing I will ever do. I was raised by two coaches (my father was a football coach and my mother has coached cheerleading for close to 30 years so I grew up in the gym) so it’s in my blood to have the “coaching bug”. I do think I can say that coaching actors to be cheerleaders is more difficult for a few reasons. Most people who cheer in high school have some experience but we were starting almost completely from scratch with everyone in this cast except a select few. Cheerleading also requires you to use a whole different set of muscles and do completely different types of dance than what 90% of actors are used to, so that in itself creates an interesting set of challenges. Also, having to sing and lift someone above your head while smiling and doing it for 2 hours is just extremely physically exhausting. Although, these challenges have made our successes all that more rewarding.
JP: Just prior to our conversation, I chatted with Tosha Pendergast, the show’s choreographer. I asked her about collaborating with you, so I’ll as you the same. What’s it been like to work with Tosha?
HALEY SUE PEARSON: There really aren’t words to describe what it’s like to work with someone like Tosha. She is incredibly talented and is always on top of her game but also is incredible to collaborate with. We also took on an assistant choreographer, Daniel Carrasquillo, who is also in the show and has been in dance for years. He also has experience cheering, so adding him to our team was a great bridge for both Tosha and I to bounce ideas off of since cheer and dance can be so very different. I would walk on hot coals to work with both of them again.
RAPID FIRE WITH BRING IT ON’s CAMPBELL, KAILEY MADISON
JP: OK, I gotta know…were you a cheerleader in high school?
KAILEY MADISON: Absolutely not. I had no idea how hard it actually was … I was on the dance team so I knew how to be spirited… but stunting and being thrown in the air (while singing) is a whole different ball game. But I’ve definitely learned to love it.
JP: Tell me a little about BRING IT ON’s Campbell?
KAILEY MADISON: Campbell is a girl who has known basically one thing her whole life. Cheerleading. She dreamed of being captain and winning nationals with her Truman squad her whole life so when her life starts going a way she didn’t envision. She starts seeing more to life than just cheering and starts getting an open mind to the life around her and actually finds ‘herself’ in the process.
JP: Like a few of your other cast mates, BRING IT ON marks your debut with Circle Players. What’s it like to be part of Nashville’s most storied theatrical company?
KAILEY MADISON: It’s been an amazing experience. Everyone is so supportive of each other and it’s such a collaborative process in all aspects. We have definitely become a family.
JP: You hail from Destin, Florida, but currently live in New York City. How did auditioning for a show in Nashville come about?
KAILEY MADISON: I have tons of family here and have always loved Nashville so I was thinking about taking a little break from NYC for the summer anyways ,until my cousin sent me a link to the auditions and thought well might as well audition. I had always been obsessed with the music from the show so I was super hype about it.
RAPID FIRE WITH BRING IT ON’s DANIELLE, MIRACLE HAM
JP: With two Circle Players’ shows under your belt, do you feel like an old pro with the company?
MIRACLE HAM: I wouldn’t say I feel like a pro with the company because I’ve learned a lot from from Circle Players with each show. However, it is definitely much easier this go-round because I have a better feel of how things operate. It’s great to see some familiar faces. With all of the love and support from Circle Players, it has made this particular experience extra special.
JP: You’ve worked with director Jason Lewis previously, having been amongst the ensemble of last year’s JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. How is he as a director?
MIRACLE HAM: Jason Lewis is absolutely fantastic! For both productions, he was nothing but supportive and encouraging to each and every actor. He is such a visionary and wows me every time his creative mind goes to work. I love the fact that he is such an amazing director and hilarious person, and at the same time he gets right down to business and makes sure the production is a success.
JP: Danielle is the no-nonsense leader of the dance team for the school where Campbell is transferred. In one of my personal favorite musical moments from the show, she’s quick to point out, We Ain’t No Cheerleaders. While she’s more than willing to share the difference between the dance team and traditional cheerleaders, what do you see as their commonality?
MIRACLE HAM: Both traditional cheerleaders and dance teams work extremely hard to be the best at what they do. They work hard all season long to hopefully make it to those final competitions, win it all, and go home with bragging rights. Long hours of practices and dedication is expected from both. Although physically they move in completely different styles they both require the same amount of work ethic.
RAPID FIRE WITH BRING IT ON’s La CIENEGA, TORYN BROWN
JP: Because of the company’s longevity, I’ve asked a few of your cast mates about being part of Circle Players, but I see from your bio that you’re a member of The Fisk Jubilee Singers, so I gotta ask…what’s that like?
TORYN BROWN: Being a Fisk Jubilee Singer is one of the most thrilling experiences in my life. In 2015 I was apart of the first groups to travel and perform in the U.K. since the original Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1873. Needless to say it was one of the most fulfilling thing I have ever done in my life. I will never forget that moment, our sound. It was magical!
JP: While researching in preparation of chatting with you all, I discovered the character of La Cienega marked the first time in Broadway history that a musical featured a transgender high school character. With trans rights at the forefront of society right now, do you feel an added responsibility to portray La Cienega a certain way?
TORYN BROWN: I feel honored, yet obligated and to portray La Cienega a certain way. I play a very dominant part in making sure that when I play this role people who are not apart of the LGBTQIA community can see a difference between a transgender woman and a drag queen. To often when a man play a trans role out of ignorance they tend to look through the lens of a drag queen instead of looking through the eyes of a woman which leaves people to think that they’re one in the same. Hopefully I can enhance the audience’s minds while paying tribute to so many brave transgender women that live their lives unapologetically everyday.
JP: BRING IT ON, on the surface, seems like it’s about the eternal high school struggle of fitting in, but on the other hand, maybe it’s more about standing out and being yourself. In your estimation, which is the harder lesson to learn?
TORYN BROWN: I think they both go hand-in-hand, but if I had to choose I think it’s harder to be yourself. The reason why I would initially say they both go hand-in-hand because you can’t really fit in if you’re not yourself. I mean of course you can go with the status quo but eventually you’ll be exposed as a fraudulent individual, so with that being said when you are being your “best you,” which is very challenging, you’ll naturally fit in where you are suppose to be, and sometimes it might not the big crowd but it could be that beautiful intimate crowd that makes you a better person, and I personally think that is the better option.
BRING IT ON: THE MUSICAL runs August 11-August 27. Being the first show of Circle’s new season, Season Tickets are available in two options. There’s a Thursday Season Package (a set of five tickets—one ticket for a Thursday performance of each of the season’s five shows) for $45. There’s also a Friday, Saturday, Sunday Season Package (a set of five tickets—one ticket for either a Friday, Saturday or Sunday performance of each of the season’s five show’s) for $75. Of course there’s always Single Show Ticket options as well. Thursday tickets are available at a special $10 per ticket price, with Friday, Saturday and Sunday tickets only $20. CLICK HERE for Tickets or more information. Follow Circle Players on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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