Triple Threat

The Straz Center’s Manager of Special Events Nicole Stickeler dons a bum roll to change into her next role for Opera Tampa.

Nicole Stickeler in costume and make-up for Opera Tampa’s Madama Butterfly.

In show business, you’re considered a triple threat if you can sing, dance and act.

In the performing arts, you’re considered a triple threat if you can sing, act and raise money.

The Straz Center’s Manager of Special Events Nicole Stickeler plans TASTE @ The Straz, the Broadway Ball and the Opera Tampa Grand Gala as well as 27 other special events designed to raise money for The Straz’s many programs and educational efforts. Then she warms up, hits the Rehearsal Hall and auditions for Opera Tampa. A trained opera singer but also someone who has a full-time day job, she jockeys for roles in the chorus often landing a few roles a year. You’ve probably seen her over the past few seasons in Tosca, Romeo and Juliet, Madama Butterfly and Die Fledermaus although our costume department does a fantastic job of rendering her (almost) unrecognizable. This week, she suits up for the grand finale of the opera season, La Boheme, which runs Friday evening and Sunday afternoon.

Nicole’s first “audition” happened accidentally, when, on our President/CEO/General Director of Opera Tampa Judy Lisi’s birthday a few years ago, Nicole stood around the corner of Judy’s office and sang “Happy Birthday” dramatically in Italian while our VP of Development lip synched in the doorway. The gag worked like charm—it was a great birthday surprise, but the biggest surprise was the effect of Nicole’s voice. Nicole had just started a position as our development coordinator, so no one knew she could really sing. Judy, who happens to be a trained opera singer and Puccini expert herself, took Nicole’s arm and suggested she try out for the next chorus auditions for Opera Tampa.

Nicole did, embarking upon a pretty amazing side hustle. Caught in the Act sat down with Nicole to talk about her artistic life, her admin life, and what it’s like getting to perform her artistic passion while doing critical work for the performing arts as well.

Nicole at her “day job” at The Straz.

Caught in the Act: Where did you study? Did you have ideas for a vocal career, but then you ended up in fundraising? What was your path?

Nicole Stickeler: [dramatically] Well, it started on a snowy day in New Jersey … [laughs] No, I’m just kidding. I mean, that is actually how it started, though.

CITA: We’re intrigued.

NS: I probably really started singing in middle school.

CITA: Did you know you had a good voice?

NS: No. The first time I sang was fourth or fifth grade, and I auditioned for the chorus. It was literally like stand there and sing for the music teacher. I got in, but you could only do one extracurricular. I had already said yes to being a patrol, and so I chose being a patrol over being in the chorus.

CITA: A patrol? Like a hall monitor?

NS: Bus patrol.

CITA: Oh, okay. Yeah … we totally understand why you would want to choose that versus starring in a show …?

NS: [laughs] I guess I liked telling people what to do. But, in sixth grade, I chose chorus for my elective. That’s probably when I learned I had a good singing voice. I got my first solo in seventh grade and surprised my mom. I didn’t tell her that I got a solo.

CITA: Really?

NS: I was so nervous, but I got up there and sang. She was so surprised … You sing along when you’re doing stuff at home and all that, but I don’t think she knew I was a singer.

Nicole in costume for La Traviata.

CITA: Is she a singer?

NS: My mom is not a singer. My dad’s not a singer. My grandma sang, but there are not many musicians in my family. My sister did music. I think I saw her and thought, ‘oh she’s good, let me try it, too.’ For college, I ended up auditioning at the University of Florida, and I really liked their music school. I auditioned for vocal performance, which is classical voice studies. I had diction classes and music theory classes. I had my private voice lessons, and everyone had to be in a choir. Then I also took an opera workshop class. Every year we would do one big opera. I got a major role my sophomore year when we did Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah.

CITA: What role?

NS: I was one of the mean, old ladies—the ones who are mean to Susannah. I remember the line that was always really funny and ended the first act. At the church, they have this gathering, like a potluck, and everybody comes. Susannah brings black-eyed peas or something. At the end I’m like, [singing] “I wouldn’t touch them peas of hers!” Blackout! [laughs] My junior year we did The Magic Flute, and I was one of the three spirits, so that was fun. Two of my roommates and best friends were the other two spirits. So that was a lot of fun. My senior year we did Die Fledermaus. I was Prince Orlofsky. It was first “full pants” role. That was also a lot of fun.

CITA: Were you in Die Fledermaus here this season?

NS: I was. I was in the chorus.

CITA: Was that a full circle moment for you, or were you like ‘I was a better Prince Orlofsky’?

NS: [laughs] No. Sara [Nordin as Prince Orlofsky] was fantastic! But it was kind of full circle, like, ‘oh my gosh. I did this in school. It’s so much fun to be doing it again, and on a bigger stage and with a bigger audience’. It was neat just to relive the experience.

Opera Tampa’s Die Fledermaus. (Photo: Will Staples)

CITA: What about a career just in music? Did you consider that after college?

NS: I did think after undergrad that I was going to go to grad school and continue studying music. Then, it just didn’t work out that way. After I graduated I moved back home to Brandon. I got an email from UF that they were starting a graduate certificate program in Arts Administration via distance learning. It was all online courses, and I was kind of figuring out what I was going to do working my part-time job I had back in high school. I thought, well, why don’t I do this? The last course was doing a practicum in arts admin. That led me to start looking for internships, and I found one in development with the Orlando Philharmonic. During my interview process, the general manager noticed I had a background in opera. At the time, there was no opera company in Orlando, so the Philharmonic was putting on operas. They were getting ready to do Madama Butterfly. He had asked if I wanted to be a second assistant stage manager on it, which would start before my official internship with development there. So, I did.

CITA: It’s different being part of the crew on a show. It changes your understanding of the big picture, how hard it is to make a show work without incident.

NS: Yes, I have a huge respect for the crew. They have the biggest responsibilities. Actually, in that show, I had my first orchestral debut. But, then it got cut. [laughs] They wanted me to do the chains for when the ship comes in.

CITA: You were the chain player?

NS: I was, but I don’t know how to read percussion. I tried to move these heavy chains to go with the sheet music. I got to do it during the first dress rehearsal. Then the director was like, ‘Um … I think it’s better without it.’ [laughs] But I got to play with the Philharmonic, if we can call it that.

Invitations from just a few of the special events that Nicole has put on during her time at The Straz.

CITA: Did development speak to you in some way? Were you like, ‘wow, I’m good at this’ or ‘I like this’ or ‘oh my god this is an incredibly important part of arts administration’?

NS: Honestly, before doing the certificate program, I didn’t even realize that arts administration was a field to get into.

CITA: It might be common that people don’t understand arts administration is a thing.

NS: Yeah. There are so many different aspects to it, too. While I didn’t really know it was something that existed before the internship, I really learned to enjoy it. After my internship, I got a job there. I was their assistant director of development. That was a great experience, working with the Philharmonic and learning, not only about the ins and outs of arts admin, but also learning more about orchestra.

CITA: How’d you get from there to The Straz?

NS: I had previously met Frank McClain from Opera Tampa here. I was almost going to work for him but it was only a part-time, seasonal job, so I took the job in Orlando. But, when I saw the development coordinator position open, I applied. The rest is history.

Nicole’s Madama Butterfly costume.

CITA: Did you know that there were going to be performance opportunities if you took this development job?

NS: It was a bonus. I knew we had Opera Tampa here, but I didn’t know I would ever have an opportunity to work with them. When I got my first job with Opera Tampa, they were doing Madama Butterfly. It was the first opera I stage managed, or assistant stage managed, but the first professional opera I performed in, too.

CITA: That’s cool because it was the first opera that Opera Tampa produced for the Straz Center as well. So, your first performance with Opera Tampa was five years go because Butterfly was part of the 20th anniversary season, and we’re having the 25th anniversary next season. Have you done an opera with Opera Tampa for every season since, or you just pick it up when you can?

NS: I’ve pretty much done one or two operas every season, except last season because I had to organize so many events. We do a lot events around opera.

CITA: That’s true.

NS: What has been great is that even though I’m in this admin role, I’ve still been able to keep up with my singing. Getting to be on the stage, in an opera, and getting to wear the costumes and be with all of the people that love what I love is really special.

CITA: For anybody’s who’s going to read the blog who’s not an opera person: What does it mean to be in a chorus of an opera? What do you actually do?

NS: Basically, it’s the ensemble. If you think of a musical and all of the additional people on stage who are singing in a group format, that’s what the chorus is in an opera. In an opera, you’re not a choir, you’re not trying to blend and sound like one voice. Everybody’s their own individual person on stage. You don’t change the way that you sing just because the person next to you makes maybe their vowels a little bit different or something like that.

Nicole showing us the props for La Boheme.

CITA: What’s your costume for La Boheme?

NS: I have two costumes.

CITA: Are you a poor bohemian, or do you get a fancy costume?

NS: In the second act, where it’s Christmas Eve and everyone’s in the plaza, it’s a grand time. I am a flower vendor, so my costume is pretty nice. It’s green with a high neck and giant hat. I mean giant hat, so, that one’s a little fancy. Then in Act III, I’m a milkmaid. There are only six of us doing that, so it’s fun to get to do something a little bit different. Now that costume is frump city. Of course, there’s always the petticoat with the overskirt. That costume doesn’t have the bum roll, but the first costume has a bum roll.

CITA: Oh, you get a bum roll! We’re jealous.

NS: Yeah. For the second costume, no bum roll. There’s just a super baggy frumpy dress that also doesn’t reach the floor. It’s too short.

CITA: Poor, French milkmaid.

NS: Then there’s the apron to put over that. There’s this coat with a scarf, and then these gloves without the fingers. Then, this little bonnet.

CITA: It does sound adorable but not at all sexy.

NS: No, it’s not.

CITA: So people can get their milkmaid fantasies right out of their heads this moment.

NS: Indeed.

One of Nicole’s costumes for La Traviata.

CITA: Of all the operas you performed, which has been your favorite?

NS: That’s a good question. I feel like just because it was also the first, Madama Butterfly, and it was also Puccini, which it was just … He’s got beautiful melodies and everything. Plus, getting to the makeup for Madama Butterfly was fun because it’s all the white powder, and the eyeliner, and the red lips. Getting to do the party scenes La traviata was fun as well.

CITA: Do you have any advice for somebody who wants to get into the opera world but maybe doesn’t want to be a career singer? Somebody who wants to be like you? How would you advise that person to achieve their dream?

NS: Ultimately, getting a voice teacher, a voice coach, that’s always a great first step. They’ll help you learn and hone your craft. They’ll know what’s best for your voice, what type of voice you have, what to learn for your voice, and all of that. The bottom line is: If it’s something you’re passionate about and you want to make the time for it, go for it. While sometimes when I’m in it, and I’m putting in these long days of working and rehearsals, I wonder why I do it. In the end, it’s just so great to be on the stage. That feeling you get when the curtain rises and the lights are shining on you … it’s worth it.

See Nicole and all the hardworking people of La Boheme this weekend. The opera runs for two performances only, so catch it while you can.

Wink, Wink; Nudge, Nudge

Broadway offers a passel of snortingly good times with its unending parade of parodies. The latest on our roster of roastables is Spamilton: An American Parody, which opened last week and runs until May 12.

Behind every iconic work of entertainment lurks a laughing matter waiting to be born. Whether those matters manifest as films like Airplane! or stage productions like our current hit Spamilton, a nothing-but-love full-length jibe at Lin-Manuel Miranda’s magnum opus, the parody stands as an art form all its own—and one that has seen a spike in popularity since the shocking success of Evil Dead: The Musical.

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The cast of DISENCHANTED in Tampa, 2014. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

At The Straz, we’ve hosted quite a few of these side-splitting skewerings. Maybe you saw 50 Shades! The Musical Parody, or its distant cousin, Spank!. We produced DISENCHANTED, a peppy, adults-only side-eye of a show geared towards examining the princess culture of a certain animation company. This list also includes the one-or-two-man-complete-works-of spin-off parodies like Potted Potter (all the book plots performed by two guys), and Charles Ross, who launched One-Man Star Wars and One-Man Dark Knight, both of which played in the Jaeb. Ross also created One-Man Lord of the Rings and performs all the shows under the One-Man Trilogy package, which manages to heroically blaspheme the major fantasy canons of the 20th and 21st century in one fell swoop. (Batman pun intended.)

The general rule seems to be that if something is really popular, then someone should probably make fun of it. Ergo, Off-Broadway has seen shows riffing on Friends (Friends!: The Musical), Back to the Future (That 80’s Time Travel Movie), Harry Potter (Puffs: Seven Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic about the Hufflepuff house) and Game of Thrones (Shame of Thrones: The Rock Musical—An Unauthorized Parody).

 

Of course, we return to that parody of parodies, the old chestnut Forbidden Broadway, which takes uproarious pot shots at our beloved blockbusters from the Big Apple. We love the show—most Broadway buffs do—so much we’ve brought it to Tampa several times over the years and had the show here last in 2017.

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Despite its rib-poking and raspberry-blowing nature, the parody must, to some extent, be a love letter to the source in order to hit the right notes with the audience. You’re having fun at the original’s expense without hurting anyone’s feelings. The parody is like the annoying little brother, chasing after the big sibling he admires so much. With no genuine respect for the source, a parody transforms into a vicious satire, which may be funny, but satires generally leave us feeling smug whereas the parody leave us feeling a little happier about things in general.

To wit, LMM blessed Spamilton just as Sam Raimi, director of the titular film, blessed Evil Dead: The Musical.

So, it’s okay laugh; although, with a parody, you never need permission. And, that, dear readers, is part of what makes them so much fun.

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The Seuss Is Loose

Approaching 30 years since his death, Dr. Seuss sits poised to publish a new book from his perennial throne on the bestseller lists (WHAT.). Meanwhile, the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory musical theater department rehearses Seussical, Jr. down stairs from the blog office for its run in the TECO theater April 25-28. Why do we love this whimsical rhyme-every-time mastermind?

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Theodor Seuss Geisel, “Dr. Seuss,” working on a drawing for How The Grinch Stole Christmas, 1957.

Okay, so first we’re going to call out a line from Dr. Seuss and then you say what book it’s from (answers at the bottom, no cheating!)

“Don’t give up! I believe in you all. A person’s a person no matter how small.”

“I will not eat them in a house. I will not eat them with a mouse.”

“From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.”

“And then something went BUMP! How that bump made us jump!”

How’d you do? We’re willing to bet you know you got at least three of them right without even having to check.

green eggs and ham

If you were ever a toddler in America, some grown up introduced you to the world of Theodor Seuss Geisel, “Dr. Seuss,” partially to build your reading comprehension skills and keep you entertained but, also, that adult wanted a socially acceptable reason to be reading The Cat in the Hat. We spend a lot of time in the world of Dr. Seuss, as children, students, teachers, parents … chances are—if you’re a parent of small children reading this blog at home—you can look up and see Geisel’s early childhood canon littered along the floor.

Seuss gave us the Lorax, Things 1 and 2, Mulberry Street, Horton, Daisy-Head Mayzie, Yertle, a fox in socks and a wocket in a pocket. He helped us discover the joys of feet, sleeping, learning our ABCs and the myriad ways to hop on Pop. Seuss extolled the places we would go and taught us the very valuable adage regarding those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.

Seuss’s first success, like many creative folks of his era, was in advertising. He won a big contract for Flit, an insecticide. His tag line, “Quick, Henry, get the Flit!” went viral, becoming a popular phrase at the time. He entered the waters of children’s lit with And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, a story he invented on a cruise ship as he started writing in his head to the sound of the engine.

What happened next in Who-ville was nothing less than a carefully calibrated literary coup de grace overthrowing insipid Dick-and-Jane primers for more imaginative, more important teaching texts. In 1955, the book Why Johnny Can’t Read debuted, exposing the scandalous data that European children outpaced and outperformed their American cohort at alarming rates. In the United States, schools used Dick and Jane readers that were, as noted in Why Johnny Can’t Read, “horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, [and] tasteless” pictograms of unnaturally clean white children experiencing “dozens and dozens of totally unexciting middle-class, middle-income, middle-IQ activities.”

dick and jane

Why Johnny Can’t Read explained the fundamental problem: America believed children learned language through memorization only. Incorrect. Children needed phonics—the ability to group and comprehend words built on common sounds. That way, when a new reader encountered an unfamiliar word, she could draw on contextual knowledge of like-sounding words to memorize meaning faster than memorizing in a vacuum.

After all, this was Cold War 1955, and there was no way in hell American children were going to be dumber than the Russians, especially with the launch of Sputnik on the horizon and threats to democracy everywhere. Not gonna happen. American kids needed to get smarter, like, now.

Houghton Mifflin publisher William Spalding directed their education division when Why Johnny Can’t Read made headlines. Spalding invited Geisel to dinner, gave him several of the first-grader word lists printed in the back of Why Johnny Can’t Read and begged Geisel to give him a page-turner for a seven-year-old. Keep in mind that Dr. Seuss already had the two Horton books and a few notable others under his belt by this working dinner with Spalding. However, he’d never been issued such a challenge before: Spalding wanted him to write a whole kid’s book only using limited words from the lists. Spalding planned to sell the book to school systems as a reading textbook—a reader that would enthrall first graders and rocket boost their intellect.

Geisel chose 199 words, realized he couldn’t get an entire story out of the ones he chose, so he added twenty-one others of his own. The tasked proved almost too much for the great Dr. Seuss. Flummoxed, frustrated and on the verge of quitting, Geisel decided he’d make the title out of the first two words he saw that rhymed.

“Cat” was first. Then, “hat.”

As New Yorker writer Louis Menand noted in his excellent 2002 article on this subject, “The Cat in the Hat is 1,702 words long, but it uses only 220 different words. … Geisel put the whole thing into rhymed anapestic dimeter. It was a tour de force.” Most notable, Menand concludes, “it killed Dick and Jane.”

The takeaway here, people, is that Dr. Seuss not only wove us into his psychedelic world of trippy trees and loveably drawn cat-people with socially conscious messaging, but he obliterated a reading method that did not work. He tried, using all the gifts he possessed and then some, to give us the opportunity to make ourselves better by being smarter, more caring of ourselves and our environment (social and natural) and rhyming like our lives depended on it.

Audrey Siegler, the theater managing director working on the Patel Conservatory’s production of Seussical, Jr. says, “Dr. Seuss’s works speak to a vast audience ranging over all ages and backgrounds. His stories promote social and educational skills while challenging readers to expand their imaginations and explore a world of new possibilities. Some sad, some nonsensical, some inspirational; Seuss integrates emotion with language through unique characters and invites readers to learn through play. Producing Seussical, Jr. is a complete joy.”

The other egg about to hatch (Horton reference) in Seuss-land is Dr. Seuss’s Horse Museum, the next in a series of seven Dr. Seuss books published posthumously. The original but incomplete manuscript was found in Geisel’s La Jolla home in 2011 and features the illustrations of Andrew Joyner, who used Geisel’s sketches to bring the book to life. Random House plans to release Dr. Seuss’s Horse Museum on Sept. 3, 2019.

Let’s hope the rhymes center around “horse” and not “museum,” yes?

Answers:
1) Horton Hears a Who; 2) Green Eggs and Ham; 3) One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish; 4) The Cat in the Hat

One More Time from the Top

The explosive partnership of Broadway star Gwen Verdon and choreographer/director Bob Fosse finally goes mainstream in a new miniseries from F/X starting Tues., April 9.

Even if you know absolutely NOTHING about Broadway, you know about “jazz hands.” And if you know a little about Broadway, you know the man responsible for crystallizing the impact of jazz hands in a musical is Bob Fosse. If you know A LOT about Broadway, especially Broadway dance, you know that Fosse is kind of a god, kind of a sad sack of a boy-man, and completely credited with inventing the modern musical on stage and screen.

And if you really, really know a lot about Broadway dance, you know Fosse’s jazz hand style came straight from Al Jolson and the Nicolas Brothers and his ascension into mythical status wouldn’t have happened without Gwen Verdon. (Or dancer Joan McCracken, but that’s another miniseries for another time.) In other words, Fosse didn’t happen in a vacuum, and there’s a lot more to his legacy than the man himself.

Around here, we don’t care how much or how little you know about Broadway history, but we do get excited to see such an important story in the evolution of American art get the royal treatment from a major network—and a gigantic advertising budget to ensure the word’s getting around.

On the off chance you’ve been distracted by other news lately, we’ll bring you up to speed: Sam Rockwell (Charlie’s Angels; The Green Mile; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri among a million others) plays the cigarette-booze-pill-and-sex-addicted mercurial, enchanting and inspiring Bob Fosse. Tony-winning evergreen ingenue Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain, The Greatest Showman and the play Blackbird) stars as redheaded triple threat and saving-grace-guiding-light-hard-as-nails-showgirl Gwen Verdon. The series, Fosse/Verdon, starts on Tuesday, April 9. The series plays out over eight episodes, taking audiences through fifty years—thirty of which center around the Verdon-Fosse creative collaboration that overtook their lives and changed the American entertainment landscape forever.

Verdon and Fosse were colleagues (she was a huge Broadway star when he was an up-and-coming choreographer with only The Pajama Game under his belt), then lovers, then spouses, then parents, then separated. During that time, the combined force of Bob’s visionary genius and Gwen’s dancing/comedic/technical/personal brilliance delivered Damn Yankees, Redhead, Sweet Charity, Chicago and Cabaret to name a few. Their daughter, Nicole Fosse, co-executive produced the miniseries and guided much of the artistic interpretation of the source material, Sam Wasson’s metaphorically and physically heavy biography, Fosse.

The Fosse/Verdon production involves current Broadway game changers. Lin Manuel-Miranda also produces the show, and Dear Evan Hansen writer Steven Levenson penned the teleplay. Seasoned fave Norbert Leo Butz stars as Fosse’s intellectual pal, the playwright Paddy Chayefsky, and previous Chicago stars Susan Misner (a.k.a. Stan Beeman’s Wife from The Americans) and Bianca Marroquin play McCracken and Chita Rivera, respectively. Newcomer Kelli Barrett (Getting’ the Band Back Together) landed the choice role of Liza Minelli, and we’ll get to see Ethan Slater (SpongeBob in the selfsame musical) tackle Joel Grey. A few newly-minted recognizable faces from hit television shows also make an appearance, namely the lithe and lovely Margaret Qualley as Ann Reinking, Fosse’s ultimate girlfriend-of-girlfriends after the split with Verdon.

In all, it’s a heck of a cast, a dynamite production team and a timely moment in entertainment history to attempt a more authentic look at the disturbing behaviors that drove such a towering creative partnership. It’s also time for Gwen Verdon to get her due for the living generations of Broadway fans who know Fosse but say “Gwen who?”

Another note, since we’re talking Fosse, is that we decided to name our Straz Center coffee shop after the very dance that made Bob Fosse a Broadway name—Steam Heat, from the eponymous dance number everyone loves in The Pajama Game. It’s also worth noting that one of Ann Reinking’s students, Kelly King, now directs our Patel Conservatory Popular Dance Program.

Students posing with Ann Reinking at the Patel Conservatory’s ground breaking in 2004.

So, grab your ultra-sheer black tights, garter belts and French cut leotards for what we hope to be a *fingers crossed* riveting immersion into all that jazz.