This story was originally published March 12, 2006.
NEW YORK – Heidi Blickenstaff is a theater veteran. She’s played many roles: Vicki Nichols in “The Full Monty” on Broadway. Shelby Stevens in the national tour of “Steel Pier.” The mom in “Bat Boy: The Musical” at Theatreworks Palo Alto. And, of course, her first big break: belting out “Tomorrow” in the 1983 and 1984 Good Company Players productions of “Annie.”
But tonight, she’s playing someone new.
She’s playing Heidi.
On stage in the intimate Vineyard Theatre just off bustling Union Square – the off-Broadway venue where “Avenue Q” got its start – her character delivers a line that could pretty much sum up Blickenstaff’s career.
“I’ve been in this business since I was 7, and this is the first role I’ve ever originated,” she says, explaining to the on-stage composer that she loves the process of adding and cutting new material. “I’m usually an understudy or replacement. For once I don’t fit the mold. I am the mold.”
If acting is all about convincing the audience that you’re playing a real character up there on stage – if it’s about illusion – then it shouldn’t really matter if it’s based in truth. But deep down, it does. There’s something profound about the way Blickenstaff delivers the line: wistfully, tenderly, with a hint of regret and, even more importantly, a shiver of excitement.
We’re watching a weird collision of life and art. Knowing that the actor behind the character has really felt this line – really lived it – makes it all the more powerful.
Such is the appeal of “[title of show]” – which you could call a meta-musical: a musical about the making of a musical. In this case, the creators take the concept to the extreme.
“[title of show]” is all about the creation of this particular show as an entry to the New York Musical Theater Festival. (When it came time to fill in the blank on the entry form for the show’s title, the creative team of Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen shrugged and thought: “Why not just call it that?”)
In the opening scenes, the pair sing about the moment they get the idea to write something for the festival, and then they agree to submit whatever they come up with. We watch them recruit two friends – Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell – who agree to collaborate. We’re shepherded through the festival itself, where the show gets raves, and then through the inevitable artistic compromises made with financial backers to get the show up and running.
It’s very, very insider in terms of musical theater. If you know who Emily Skinner is, you’ll probably think the show is hysterical. (The Tony-nominated actress appeared in “Side Show”; the running joke is that Bell and Bowen would dearly love to get her in their show to give it a “big name.”) And if you get a kick out of the idea of a musical about making a musical – if you laugh at the process itself – it can be a scream. This is the kind of show in which one character orders a turkey burger, then ponders: “Will this line be in the play?” (It is. And the burger actually gets delivered in a later scene.)
Yet there’s something small and sweet about “[title of show].” It’s genuine. Warm. Unpretentious. Grounded.
“It’s for dorks, by dorks,” Blickenstaff says with a smile after the show.
Musical theater fan
It’s taken her a long time to get to a place in her life when she can revel in her own “dorkdom.” A graduate of Duke University, which she attended after Roosevelt High School in Fresno, she doesn’t have to pretend anymore that she aspires to more classical dreams: to be an opera singer, say. She lives, eats and breathes the arcane details and insular world of musical theater.
“I find that the older I get, the closer I am to what I was like as a child: more free-spirited, more comfortable,” she says.
There’s still a lot of that little girl – a lot of Heidi – to be found in Blickenstaff. At one point in “[title of show],” the four characters learn after a performance that someone “important” was in the audience. They excitedly rattle off some names: Was it Christopher Guest? Lynda Carter? (Bowen has a “Wonder Woman” fixation.) Linda Barry? Winnie Mandela? Some names we recognize, others obviously are more personal.
Especially if you’re from Fresno.
“Dan Pessano?” asks Blickenstaff in a worried tone, adding the name of the Good Company Players founder to the list.
“We wanted to include the people who would make us really nervous,” she says.
She was 11 at the time, cast as “Annie” at Good Company Players, when the stage fright first hit. (As a little girl, she’d been a constant performer, always saying, “Look at me!” her mother recalls.) As she remembers it, the idea was for Blickenstaff to get up on stage and sing a song from “Annie” to preview the show when it opened in a couple of weeks. She’d belt out a song, look cute and sell some tickets.
Her mom was concerned. Barbara Blickenstaff talked to Pessano. They had her work with a vocal coach to convince her she had enough air to hold the notes. After a few days rest, Pessano put her on stage again.
“I was certainly there that night, “ her mom says. “He stood behind the curtain. He told her she didn’t have to sing it loud, that she just had to get through it. And if something goes wrong, he’d be behind her.”
She made it through. But the anxiety lingered. Throughout the run, Heidi Blickenstaff says, she’d hyperventilate sometimes.
“That certainly wasn’t the end of the stage fright,” her mother says. “It comes and goes.”
The funny thing, Pessano says, is that he barely remembers the incident – and thinks of the young Heidi as “without fear” and willing to go on even when she wasn’t feeling well. “She played hurt so many times,” he says.
Yet he acknowledges that many younger performers, when reaching their early teens, deal with some sort of stage fright. “Sometimes the kids hit a little bit of a wall that it isn’t quite as easy it was,” he says.
For Blickenstaff, the nerves didn’t go away. Her parents told her she didn’t have to continue if she didn’t want to. She wanted to. But she paid a price in terms of stress. At first, it might sound like an oxymoron: a professional entertainer who gets nervous. But it also can give an actor an extra spark, says her mother.
“People who perform need a little edge,” she says. “It just makes her who she is. Her vulnerability comes across.”
Blickenstaff agrees. “If I didn’t ride that wave of terror, I wouldn’t be as sparkly,” she says.
The young Heidi had lots of performing experience. She started out at Cynthia Merrill’s school, playing Toto in “The Wizard of Oz” as her first role. She was blessed with wonderful teachers and mentors through the years, she says, including Kaye Migaki, Elizabeth Fiester and Clytee Ramsey.
Still, she had some shaky times. Sometimes, after she left home for college and a professional career, she’d call her mom and tell her that she’d “gulped” during a performance. That was shorthand for the stage fright.
“I was more nervous in ‘Full Monty’ the day I closed that show than the day I opened that show,” she says.
It isn’t something she’s talked about much in public. Her mother is surprised when she learns her daughter brought up her stage fright in an interview. But it’s a sign that her daughter is coming to terms with it, she says.
In “[title of show],” Heidi – playing herself, remember – admits to the audience that in the past she’s been nervous on stage.
But not in this show.
“I don’t get nervous,” she says. “It’s been my medicine. I can’t hide.”
It’s the week of previews. Just five days until opening night. Blickenstaff sits in a French cafe at 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue eating the prettiest egg-salad sandwich you’ve ever seen. This is her home turf. Every morning, she walks her dog, Olive, in Central Park. She looks at the Manhattan skyline and thinks, “I can’t believe I’m living here.”
She’s been in New York almost 12 years now. She met her husband, Robert Vargas, a producer for Nickelodeon, while both were waiting tables at Ellen’s Stardust Diner. (Turns out he was a Fresno boy, too.)
In a sense, she’s a survivor. She makes a living as an actor. It can be a tough life. But she has her husband, friends and family.
“Theater is guaranteed unemployment, at least some of the time,” she says. “I haven’t had that big break yet in New York. We can’t all be Audra [McDonald, the three-time Tony-winner from Fresno]. Sometimes it’s harder when you’re getting older, and you’ve pounded the pavement for so many years.”
She talks about a career as a membrane: something you can break through into another realm, where producers consider you a “name” star who can open a show.
“I haven’t had that one opportunity that’s pushed me through,” she says. “If I do, great. But if not, that’s OK, too.”
Could “[title of show]” be that break? Maybe. It’s a small show, a theater-centric show, that might struggle in the world of commercial theater. You never know.
Yet Blickenstaff, 34, has something else going for her in terms of career: She can play older roles with ease – which is why she was cast as the mother in “Bat Boy, “ for example. She has that sassy, belty, best-friend demeanor that might not serve her so well in ingenue roles but comes in handy for character work.
For now, she’s caught up in the excitement of being in a new play. Her little show, which started as a lark, has become a big deal. (”We have a stage manager, and we also get paid now.”) She even has two sets of costumes, so she doesn’t have to take her clothes home to wash between performances.
A few nights later at the opening-night party, Douglas Aibel, the artistic director of the Vineyard, reads the first reviews on his BlackBerry. (The cast is too fragile to read them.) Word filters down: They’re a hit.
Charles Isherwood in The New York Times calls the show “zesty and sweet.”
The next day, the run at the Vineyard is extended two weeks. “[title of show]” will play through April 9.
For now, all that’s left is to enjoy being on stage. Blickenstaff will no doubt play many more roles in her career, but none will be as personal as this one. Late in the show, Blickenstaff sings a gorgeous ballad titled “A Way Back to Then.” (If you attended the Junior Company reunion concert in December at Roger Rocka’s, you heard her sing it.) It’s a memory song. She’s 7 again, back in Fresno:
Dancing in the backyard
Kool-Aid mustache and butterfly wings
Hearing Andrea McArdle sing from the hi-fi in the den
I’ve been waiting my whole life to find a way back to then.
Her mother and father got to see the show in New York last weekend.
“You always get a frog in your throat when you hear her sing about growing up,” Dale Blickenstaff says. “She did have a lot of fun in our backyard. She certainly wanted to be watched.”
Many friends and family have made the trek to New York. This isn’t just any role. It’s Heidi.
And today, at this afternoon’s matinee, another special guest plans to be in the audience:
“I can’t wait to be there, “ he says.
She’s ready for you, Dan.