Inclusion, Interview, The Human Connection, Wise Words

I Want Adventure in the Great Wide Somewhere: A Conversation with Susan Egan

It should come as no surprise that I am a ginormous Disney fan. If you really stop and think about it, the Disney films of the ’90s were more widely-accessible animated musicals. I have wanted to be many a Disney character growing up; I could recite any Princess movie, perform any production number from start to finish, and if Halloween counts, I’ve been many different Disney princess and heroines. As I got older, I started watching the Disney Channel Original Movies, and wanted to be many of those characters, too. I vividly remember one in particular, Gotta Kick It Up!, which was about a dance team. I was already dancing, so I wanted to be a part of this world too, but I wanted to know why I thought the coach in the movie was so familiar. Why did I know her, and even more, why did I Iove her? I came to find out that I was watching Susan Egan, whose voice I recognized as Belle in Broadway’s Beauty and the Beast and Disney’s Hercules. This was the first time I realized the expanse of acting—that you didn’t have to fit neatly into a box labeled “theatre actor,” “film actor,” “voiceover artist.” I could choose “and” instead of “or,” and I learned this thanks to Susan Egan and the intersection of three of my favorite things. Suffice it to say that speaking with Susan was an absolute delight. We spoke about the variety her career as a performer allows for her, gaining a better understanding of the collaborative process, and so much more.

StageSLP: How did you get into theatre?

Susan:  I always loved musical theatre. I started out figure skating, and when we would drive to the ice rink, we’d listen to musicals. Every time I got to perform it was always to a song from Annie or something. So, when I decided to stop skating, my best friend, who was always the star, got me to try out for the school musical. Then I started taking lessons and did shows and it changed my life around. I went to school for theatre instead of something more stable, and I loved every minute of it.

S: How did voiceover work come from that?

S: It’s funny. My first Broadway show was Beauty and the Beast with Disney. And live theatre is ethereal—it’s there and gone by the time the curtain comes down. Through this show, I became more aware of animated features, since we were adapting one. To be a part of one, is to become timeless, and I wanted to do that. For the features Disney had been doing recently, the characters had two voices, one for singing and one for acting, so it only made sense when they started looking at Broadway to hire one person who could do both, and I wanted to be a part of that. The description for Meg in Hercules was Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve—fast-talking and sassy. And I’m playing Belle, who’s the good girl, with a higher voice, the total opposite. What no one knew then was that I am a fanatic for those movies, and they’re just the best. They wrote the script to fit the era of the 1930s and 40s rate and tone in terms of Meg. I was really annoying in my pursuit of that audition, and they finally let me. It was a room with people I had worked with, and I started doing Meg’s opening scene, and it just worked. It’s where I live, my brand of sarcasm. They used the tape and tested it with animation, and they went with me. And that opened doors to working with Miyazaki and John Lasseter. Meg got me my start in voiceover

S: You know, that’s funny because I see both Belle and Meg as so strong.

S: Yeah, but there’s no other character like Meg. She’s not the moral compass that Belle is, because that’s Hercules’ job in the movie. She’s not a princess, and she’s not a villain.

S: I think that’s why I like her so much.

S: What’s you work with masterclasses and arts education like for you?

S: It started by going back to my high school, Orange County High School for the Performing Arts, and did a talk-back and I loved it. Most performers love it. I was the interim artistic director at the school for a few years and Ralph Opacic wanted real master teacher to come in and talk to these students. I had suggested Jerry Herman, and I called and asked and he said yes. I think people don’t know to ask, but people should ask, because these kids are so hungry and excited and respectful to hear and learn and try new things. It’s exciting to see the next generation come up. I try and do it whenever I can, it’s so rewarding. I now do a class called Onstage With Susan, and the students get to see that it’s one thing to do a masterclass in the safety of a school classroom, but it’s something else to take that and then put it onstage.

S:What advice would you give to the next generation?

S: With all of my heart, I say be yourself. And it’s the hardest thing to do. A lot of kids get into this because they want to be somebody else; I did. I wanted to be Belle, I wanted to be Sally Bowls, I wanted to be Meg. The mistake a lot of people make is that they listen to the cast album of, say, Wicked, and they try to be Idina Menzel and they try to be Kristin Chenoweth, and that’s not it. Find who you are, and then sing the work. I do this in masterclasses—I don’t want your Belle to sound like my Belle, it’s yours, and it’s different. It seems simplistic, but it’s very hard to know who you are at a young age. I think we as adults miss that a lot of the time, and because of that, miss what’s interesting about ourselves. Sometimes it takes an outside source to say “That’s what makes you awesome!” and fly with that.

S: You know, I say that in the speech room all the time. And I’m working with students younger than those who attend your classes.

S: Yeah, but it’s really hard. The kids you have are probably listening to Frozen and singing “Let It Go” in a way that they’re just pushing their larynx however high it’ll go, instead of singing what they can sing.

S: Okay, you just brought me to my favorite subject of vocal health. As a speech pathologist, vocal health is a large part of my job, and because I’m not an ENT, no one thinks about my job in that way. How do you take care of your voice?

S: That’s funny, because my dad is an ENT. You know, I learned a lot by doing things wrong. I knew how to sing correctly, but then I’d want to growl a line or belt in a song, multiplied by eight shows a week and then I’d be hoarse. So, I had to start training about how lightly you need to sing with your voice—oh my goodness you know this! —those chords only need to meet to make sound! You don’t have to push them together or press them together. Make wise choices. And if you feel like you have to do that to make an interesting acting choice or singing choice, you’re wrong. You can sing healthy, you can act healthy and you can be fantastic. Being a theatre actor is much more like being an athlete than being an actor. You have to keep your voice and body healthy. And warming down—everyone should warm down, just to put your voice where it needs to go back to.

S: And the worst thing you can do is whisper—seriously, it’s just damaging.

S: Oh my gosh yes. Do you realize how much air you’re just blowing through your chords? No, it’s not the best choice.

S: You got to sing a little bit with the Broadway Princess Party team when the live action version of Beauty and the Beast was released in theatres. How was that?

S: It was amazing and ridiculous. I love the princess girls. I hope I would have done that when I was their age. And they’re so gracious and fun, and Ben Rauhala is such a great guy. They were so sweet to an old Princess. I was lucky to be part of a show that created an appetite for these musicals, like Aladdin and now finally Anastasia. Those girls are glorious and I love Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty; that’s the next show I need to see.

S: Honestly, it was my favorite of the season.

S: I took my kids to Aladdin and Newsies and Hamilton. That’s their way into theatre. It took Hermoine Granger becoming Belle for my girls to find their way to Beauty and the Beast.  I love the live-action version. Look at what they can do in CGI! They couldn’t have done it 10 years ago.

S: Funny story, I found out on social media, that you were in the audience at Aladdin the same night I was, and I was so excited to be in a room with so much Disney royalty.

S: Okay, so how great was James Monroe Iglehart, though?! I had seen him in an out of town production of the show before it went to New York, and he didn’t know yet whether or not he’d be getting the job in New York and I told him I was calling him in a year to congratulate you on your Tony award. And he said, “No way!” And I was right!

S: You called it! And you were right! Such a well-deserved Tony win for him!

S: How would you encourage collaboration among kids? This is a skill my students find particularly difficult, and everything you do in your line of work requires collaboration. How would you encourage them to be a productive member of the group?

S: Before you begin doing anything, and this is actually a Girl Scouts exercise, now that I’m a troop leader, have everyone write down three things they think they’re good at. You determine skills before you determine jobs and delegate tasks. Find out what they think their good at and what their peers think their strengths are. Then see if there’s a way to divide the tasks based on their skills, it’ll boost their confidence. And then, have them Identify skills they’d like to improve, and if the work allows it, pair them with a student who has that strength. This way, they get to learn from each other. Don’t talk about the job, talk about the group. Then everyone’s invested.

S: Every week I give a challenge to my readers and my students to get outside of their comfort zone. What would you challenge them to do?

S: Take a song you’d never be given, and ask them to overdo everything, I mean like melodrama. I do this in my masterclasses. For me, If “I Were A Rich Man.” I would never get that role—no one should ever cast me in that role; I’m not big, I’m not male, but to just overdo it for fun and then something in my book to bring me back. This way, you’re out of the box and it doesn’t matter how well you do, because you’re free and enjoying the process. The authenticity they’d find when they came back to what they’re working on and what they’re good at would be amazing.

S: I can’t wait to give that to my kids, especially just to get them to loosen up.

S: I think this exercise, because it’s so ridiculous, just works because you’re not uptight about what it is you’re doing. You’re right to want to get them to stop caring so much, you just have to find those side doors that make the kids comfortable. It might take a few times, but it’s so much fun and it’s a real performance, too. It helps the more timid kids to come out, and the other kids get so excited for them, and that’s the real reaction we want.

This conversation was just such a treat, and I am so grateful that Susan was so generous with her time. I am so excited to give my students her challenge and share the results with her. I’m eager to see the difference in group work based off of her advice for collaboration, because I think it will make a world of difference. If any of you ever get the opportunity to take one of her masterclasses, I’d strongly recommend it. As for me, I got to learn even more from the actress who taught me to think outside from the box from a very young age, and that’s just priceless. I look forward to seeing everyone’s response to how the challenge made them feel after they’ve completed it.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP



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