Fynsworth Alley: Michelle Nicastro: Still Toonful After All These Years

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.

Michelle Nicastro

Michelle Nicastro has a wide array of credits that span television, film, Broadway, recording, and beyond. Michelle made her Broadway debut in the not-so-magical Merlin. She was there When Harry Met Sally. She made soap bubbles in Santa Barbara. She won audience and critical acclaim for her year and a half as Eponine in the Los Angeles company of Les Miserables, and she even dubbed the singing voice of “Callisto” for the memoralbe “Bitter Suite” episode of Xena. All the while, she was recording four albums with Bruce Kimmel: Toonful, Reel Imagination, Toonful, Too, and On My Own.

DL: Let’s start talking about how you got into show business. You do so many different things – television, movies, music… When you started, did you have an idea that you wanted to do any one specific thing?

MN: To be honest with you, I was kind of confused. I didn’t know quite which way to go, and I remember I was looking at colleges and I thought about maybe going into the music department. However, even though I had studied some opera, I really didn’t want to become an opera singer, and that was really all they offered at these schools. And I remember talking to a person at Northwestern University, where I eventually ended up going, and they said, “Well, you really have to think. Do you want to be a singer who acts or an actor who sings?” That just brought it into focus for me, and I thought I’d rather be an actor who sings. That way it could help me in a lot of different directions.

So, I wound up going to Northwestern and getting a theatre degree there – not a musical theatre degree, just a regular theatre degree. I studied a lot of acting and really studied no singing at all there, to be honest with you. But I think what has always been good for me is trying to dabble in a lot of little things. That has kept me afloat because, you know, when you can’t sing, I’ll do a little movie here or tv, and then some singing here. The path life can lead you on is very strange, and you can just allow it to take you to different places.

DL: So when you graduated, you were in Chicago. Where did you go from there?

MN: I got my Equity card my Junior year there. I did a show at the Candlelight Playhouse. They did Fiddler on the Roof. And then I came to Los Angeles, because my boyfriend at the time (whom I also married) wanted to get into radio/tv/film, and it’s harder in New York. And I thought, “Well, hopefully I can have a career here” and two months later I landed a job in a Broadway show. So I moved to LA to get cast on Broadway! Then I moved to New York, and I spent a year there doing Merlin. When that closed, I moved back to Los Angeles.

DL: Did Merlin last a year?

MN: It did, with rehearsals and everything.

DL: So musical theatre was always in the cards.

MN: Always. It’s always been in my heart. It’s my favorite thing to do. Although I have to say, I really enjoy working in the studio too, because it’s just no pressure. It’s just you and the microphone – and your producer, obviously – but it’s just you and the music, really. You kind of close your eyes and go into singing-land.

DL: So when you did the soap operas, were they New York based?

MN: That was when I came back here. They had offered me a role on Days of Our Lives. I had filmed like a week, when I got offered Leave It To Jane and The Boys From Syracuse for literally a quarter amount of money. There wasn’t even a question as to what I wanted to do – I left Days of Our Lives right away.

DL: It seems like there are a lot of soap opera people who end up going to Broadway or touring with musicals. From the inside, did you see any kind of reason for that, or is it just a weird coincidence?

MN: I can’t say I can think of anything specific causing that to happen. But I have to say, the one thing that I never wanted to happen to me… There’s this stigma about television people who start to sing, and people are like “Oh, yeah, right, can she really sing?” And so I was always timid because of that. But on the other hand, I never wanted to be thought of as a singer so that when I started to act, people wouldn’t say “Oh, she’s just a singer.” It’s difficult to bridge those two and be taken seriously in both mediums.

In fact, when I came out to L.A. after Merlin, a lot of people didn’t know I had done a Broadway show. I didn’t tell casting directors I was a singer. They took me seriously as an actress when I first came out here, but that was painful because the thing I enjoyed doing more than anything was singing. I would go to shows and sit and cry at every musical until my husband got sick of it. And then I auditioned for Leave It To Jane and I got it, and that set me in musical theatre here, at least for the time being

DL: How did you make the leap into doing albums?

MN: I think when I met Bruce, I was doing the voice of The Swan Princess. Interestingly enough, though, I wasn’t doing the singing. Liz Callaway was doing the singing. As beautiful a singer as she is, it made me feel sad because it was what I loved to do and my dream always was to do an animated movie. And then Bruce came along, and he said he had seen me singing in a benefit or an awards show or something like that, and he asked me if I would come in and talk to him. I was like “Oh, sure,” I was thrilled. And then he called me the next day and said “I really want to do this album with you,” I thought “Oh, yeah, right.” I couldn’t believe it – I really couldn’t. And he was good on his word. And then Toonful did really well, so I wound up doing quite a bit more studio work.

DL: So when you did Toonful, was the idea to do these songs from animated films based on your experience with The Swan Princess?

MN: No, it was just that Bruce asked me what kind of music I liked. What kind of music suited me? Was there a specific composer or genre, and I said, “You know what? Bruce, I’ve got to be honest. I really love the songs from animated movies. I love the Disney stuff, and at the time, they had just done The Little Mermaid. And what I liked about it, is it’s not like “heavy” Broadway. It’s more like a pop-Broadway. It has its own thing to it. It’s a little bit pop. And it suits my voice right. I think that I have a little more pop edge, even though I’m not Fleetwood Mac or anything like that. I just felt really comfortable in that world. And I think it just clicked with Bruce. When I said it, he said, “Wow, I think that is an interesting idea.” And we were among the first – I mean, there were a couple others, but we really rode the crest doing the Disney stuff. And we didn’t do just Disney, we did all sorts of animated features.

DL: Did you just get a lot of mileage on your Blockbuster card? How did you pick the songs for the album?

MN: There were songs that I knew that I liked, and Bruce had a couple of songs that he liked. It was really a collaboration between me and Bruce and Lanny Meyers, my musical director and arranger. You have to balance it between uptempos and ballads, making sure you have enough funny numbers. A lot of stuff ended up on the floor, and then we picked them up for Toonful, Too. Believe me, there’s a lot of stuff that’s still on the floor, there’s such a wealth of stuff to choose from.

DL: When you were doing this album, did you have any idea how popular it would be? I don’t know if you know this, but it remains the best selling album of all the albums Bruce has produced.

MN: That’s what I’ve been told. It did really well here, and also really well overseas, too. No, I really didn’t even take the time to think about it when I was doing it. I really just made sure that I did the best job that I could do, and that it would be a nice, well-packaged album that people would enjoy. And then people started calling me. I remember I got a phone call from Universal saying, “You’d better get a publicist. You’d better do something – we’re getting orders like crazy!” And I was taken aback, saying “Really? Really? Great!” That’s when I met Michael Caprio, who was working at Universal at the time. I hired him as my publicist, and then Michael Caprio went to Varese at that time and started promoting all of their albums.

DL: After Toonful, when you did Reel Imagination, why did you decide to switch to the non-Animated films?

MN: We just thought it would be different and unique. Nobody (to the best of my knowledge) had done an album like this. Bruce told me to look up a movie called The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, and that’s when I really started renting stuff. A lot of the Disney stuff I was aware of, but these live-action pictures I hadn’t seen in so long, I didn’t remember much of the music in great detail. But I really love a lot of stuff on that one.

DL: You had just given birth to your first daughter when you were doing Toonful. By the time you did Reel Imagination, you had some time to be a mommy. Did that change anything?

MN: Let me think about that one. I don’t think it really changed the recording. My daughter was a week old when I was recording Toonful. I was certainly euphoric when I did Toonful. It was just an amazing thing to have my first child. And then when I did Toonful, Too, I was about seven or eight months pregnant with my second child. When I was taking some of those deep breaths, it wasn’t quite as easy, I’ll tell you that.

DL: So when did you do Les Miz? Was that in between…

MN: No, Les Miz was right before.

DL: You were in that show for a really long time – a year and a half – which is pretty amazing not only for you, but also that the show stayed in Los Angeles for such a long time. Why do you think it clicked like that, not only for the show in LA, but for you to stay that long?

MN: The role [of Eponine] was so deep, and the music was so beautiful, I have to say, it was really easy to do it for that length of time. I can’t say I wasn’t worn out by the end of it. I can also say that I’ve played a lot of ingénues in my life, and I’ve always felt trapped playing an ingénue. I was always trying to do more with an ingénue than anyone really wanted to. My hand would get slapped sometime. I remember when I did Leave It To Jane, it’s a very old-fashioned show. I tried to make her a little gutsier, a little smart… a little too smart, I guess. I remember The LA Times said “Why is Michelle Nicastro trying to make more of this ingénue? She may think she can play it this way, but she can’t.” I always try to look for the deeper, the more intelligent way to play them. I never find it interesting to be vacant. Then I did A Little Night Music, and I played Anne, and I guess what works with Anne is just making her pretty vacant. Honestly, I have a hard time doing that. When you play them that way, they’re really grating. When we did “Every Day A Little Death,” I tried to make it a deeper moment for Anne. It was really hurting her, what she was going through – not just pretend tears. I mean it really was emotional for me. And the same thing happened to me there!

So when I did Les Miz, I think it was so fulfilling because I really got to pour something else more – what I really felt gave the character her due. And it worked. I ultimately think I get cast as ingénues, but I don’t think I necessarily am. That’s why I think it really clicked. I was so happy to be the dirty, scruffy one. I was thrilled to play someone with an undercurrent of meaning, and I could give her intelligence, or an edge, or whatever, and it works. I know this sounds really corny to say, but it was a dream come true to play that. It actually ruined me for other roles since. A lot of roles fall flat in comparison.

DL: Did you ever do that role anywhere else? Or after a year and a half here, was that enough for you?

MN: No, I never did it anywhere else. Never did. I never got asked to do it anywhere else. I guess that was just my time with Les Miz, and I loved every minute of it. They are also going very young on Eponine, as well. I was offered other roles from those people – the tour of Miss Saigon, some Andrew Lloyd Webber tours – but I don’t like to stray far from home. I have kids, I have a marriage and that’s all really important for me. I can’t even say if that works for some people. It’s really hard when you pick up and you leave. I’ve been called for shows on Broadway, and I say you know what? I’m happy now, why would I risk it? The other problem is that at the time, there were more shows coming out here. I could always count when there was a show that was a hit on Broadway that it would come here and I’d get a chance at it. But really since Les Miz, there really hasn’t been much of anything. Even when they did Beauty and the Beast, they brought out most of the New York cast, and now it’s just touring companies that come through here. We’ve taken a big blow, theatre-wise out here.

DL: Was the time in Les Miz the motivating factor in doing the album of songs from contemporary Broadway?

MN: Absolutely. When I did that, I really realized my niche, and where my voice felt good. I hadn’t seen any other albums like that. I think at the time, we were looking at doing a Schoenberg and Boublil album. I had written to Alain and said, “I’m really interested in doing an album of your music,” and he had written me back saying “Oh, that would be great, and I’d love you to do an English version of this song that I’d written a long time ago…” And he gave me a contact, and I couldn’t get through to his contact to get the music. At that point, Bruce said “We’re going into the studio in a month! There’s no way we’re going to be able to get all this done. So, why don’t we do this?”

Bruce had wanted to do things that were all done this year. I said, “Why not just do songs with a contemporary edge?” He agreed, and that’s how that album came to be.

DL: Over the last few years you’ve been doing workshops of Masada, you’ve done an album of it… what’s the story behind that show?

MN: Oh, gosh, I started with them about four years ago. Davis Gaines had recommended me, because they were looking for someone with the range that I have. He thought that I would be right – I had the kind of voice that they wanted. A “contemporary Broadway” voice. I went in and auditioned for it, and when I got it we did the concept album. They were supposed to take me to Israel, we were going to be at the base of Masada for the anniversary, but the trip got canceled because they thought it might not be safe for us to travel there at that time. So, I didn’t hear much from them, other than on and off “we’re going to do this or that.” And then they did a concert version at the Shubert in Los Angeles, a one-night thing about two years ago. And they didn’t ask me to do it. I was a little hurt – after all, I had been working with them for two years, but they had specific things they had needed, and when it was over, they called me again to come do this and that for them. Always tinkering with it. And then they said they were going to do a second CD, so I went back and recorded the whole CD again with new lyrics. They were supposed to do a production of it up in Las Vegas in a tent or something next to one of the big hotels, and I was like “Oh, sure, okay… Good luck” Roll with them. And I never heard anything about that. And then Anita Mann, from the Anita Mann dancers called me out of the blue and said “I’m doing a huge backers’ audition for Masada, and we want you to be a part of it.” So I said sure, and it ended up being a great experience. We went to New York and we performed it. And they have the money now, and the backers, and they’re getting it together to bring it to Broadway.

DL: If they asked you to go to Broadway with it, would you go?

MN: I can’t say for sure that they would ask me, although I think they’d want me to be a part of it. Of course, there are so many things that can happen, and I understand that. I couldn’t go for any long period of time. I could go for a certain amount of time. I have my kids, they’re in school… It would be hard to take them out of school, because they would most definitely come with me. I don’t know what my husband would say to that! But it would be hard to turn it down, because it’s like a grown-up Eponine. It’s an incredible role. It’s an incredible role. She’s a heroine. She’s strong. She’s intelligent. It’s the kind of role that women would just clamor to have. So we’ll see. That’s on the backburner.

I just did another show, the music of Charles Fox, and they’re talking about bringing that to other situations. It was a concert evening of his music. Paula Abdul directed it and choreographed it. We had unbelievable dancers. His music is great. Let me tell you – he wrote “Killing Me Softly,” the Roberta Flack song. He wrote “Take a Chance Again,” the Barry Manilow song. He wrote “I’ve Got A Name.” He wrote the theme song to The Love Boat, Love American Style, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley. He’s got this really eclectic body of music.

The Masada project and this both turned out to be such pleasant surprises. There’s a lot of stuff that’s just like a nightmare, and you don’t know, you really can’t tell in advance. But everybody in these past two shows was so great to work with. No egos. Anita and Paula and Charlie Fox, the people just cared about actors and singers. They wound up being two great experiences.

There’s always somebody that causes a problem, in any business, in any show, a negative person or something. We all were marveling, in this last show especially, that there was nobody like that, and how we all got along really beautifully! It’s just great when that happens.

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