Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.
Tami Tappan is one of our most frequently asked about singers. Who is she? Where did she come from? What has she done? Rather than ruin the surprises in this introduction, read on and find out! If you are already lost, you can hear Tami on The Stephen Sondheim Album, The Paul Simon Album, and The Fynsworth Alley Christmas Collection.
DL: How did you get started with your career in musical theatre?
TT: I went to Carnegie Mellon University, and I was in the music theatre department. It was the music theatre in the drama department, so it meant that no matter how well you sang or danced, if you didn’t pass your acting classes, “bye bye.” I actually liked it for that aspect, because in Washington, D.C., where I grew up, much like Emily Skinner, I was forced to go into professional theatre, because there was no community theatre in my little hometown of Laurel, MD. I became a character actress there, really. I got into one show in DC, so then whenever a director needed a fifteen year old, they would think “let’s call her and her and her,” so I was able to go literally from musicals in dinner theatre to dramas downtown. I had received a Helen Hayes award for a John Guare show I did downtown. That was my impetus to get into acting professionally. I thought, “if they think I’m good enough, I guess I should give this a shot.”
When I auditioned for CMU, I originally auditioned under the acting program, because I didn’t want to take these “Dick and Jane learn to act” courses, which is what I thought they would have [in the musical theatre program], so I was just going to take voice lessons on the side. But then I ran into Billy Porter at the auditions, and I had met him a few months earlier at an arts scholarship competition audition, down in Florida. And I knew he was from Pittsburgh, so when I saw him at the audition, he asked me what I was auditioning under. I told him I was auditioning under acting, and he said, “What?! Are you crazy!” I said, “Billy, I want to take serious acting courses,” and he said, “Honey, you’re in the same class with the acting program. You just take more classes, it’s like a double major.” So I thought, “Oh my God, I’m so stupid!” I didn’t bring any sheet music, so he went home and brought back “Home” from The Wiz, which was one of my favorite songs at the time – ask anybody, I sang that song at every audition at the drop of a hat – and “Another Suitcase” from Evita. So I have Billy Porter to thank for getting me into the musical theatre department at Carnegie Mellon.
DL: When you graduated from Carnegie Mellon, was the next step to immediately move to New York?
TT: Yes. I was poor, but I was really lucky that within my first three weeks, I got an agent. And actually, it wasn’t through the League. After our League presentation, I went and did Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and got my Equity card.
Ty Taylor, whom I knew from Carnegie Mellon, helped get me an audition for The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, which was a national tour with Michael Crawford. This was all in my first week, so I was very, very lucky. But those first three weeks – I looked at Backstage and went to three auditions a day, I didn’t care what it was for. I actually went to the Crazy For You open call, where they said you must be at least 5’7”, and I was just the short, round shrimp. And I swear to God, I felt like such an ass! I think they just brought a measuring stick to me and said “Thank you” before I even got to sing. I got typed out immediately, and I was so humiliated, but I just laughed at it. We all have those auditions.
It made me so ready for future auditions – now I’m like “You want a soprano? Great. You want a belt? I got it. You want an old-style? A modern? No problem.” I just have my book, and because I was auditioning every day, I was ready. I think the more you audition, the less nervous you get about it. So I was honed and ready for the Andrew Lloyd Webber audition.
DL: So you went to New York and then you immediately went on the road?
TT: Yes, I guess I can’t really say that I lived in New York for three years, because the entire first year I was out touring. We went for five months throughout the United States, which was so great. We were in a different city every week, sometimes two a week, which isn’t so bad. Living out of a hotel, rooming with other singers, you know. It was great to go back to my hometown of DC on that tour and see my friends.
My local paper, The Laurel Leader, had followed me in high school when I started acting, when I was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award, and then when I got it, and then when I came back. It was so silly, but it’s really sweet. I got a good review in the Post. They’ve always been very supportive; I’m glad to have a good hometown. I really treasure DC’s theatre scene, and I find more and more people who have worked in DC or even won Helen Hayes Awards even out here in Los Angeles. I’m doing a show right now – Triumph of Love at the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera – and one of my costars won a Helen Hayes Award the same year I did! Washington, DC has a very good theatre scene. I’m quite proud of DC and what they’ve done.
And then after those five months on the road, we went to Japan – actually with Sarah Brightman. The show changed a bit – solos that we had were no longer ours, although my song didn’t change because it was the country song from Starlight Express, not really her style. Then we went on to Australia and England, and then we came back to Radio City and ended about a month after that.
DL: What a way to start your career!
TT: Truly! Couldn’t be luckier, and it was really hard to come off of, let me tell you, making salary and per diem on the road. Suddenly I was back in New York and had to watch my money.
DL: What was next for you?
TT: Next was Cyrano. That was my first Broadway show, and I got that a little less than a year after I came back from that tour. Cyrano was a lot of people’s first Broadway show – I think they purposely cast a lot of newcomers because they wanted people who were fresh, who weren’t jaded, and who were so excited they’d do anything for the show. And they couldn’t have been sweeter to us. Joop Van Den Ende was the producer. I still get a lot of questions about it, because for theater aficionados, a failed musical is the most fun to talk about.
DL: Especially one there’s no recording of, since it’s all the more shrouded in mystery.
TT: That’s really the tragedy. I have a tape, of course. Do you know that my Act II was stolen out of my car? I was survival jobbing out here in LA in a hotel with a really bad parking lot. My car got broken into, broken window, blah blah blah, it happens all the time. I had a cell phone on my dashboard, not taken. What was taken was my Cyrano Act II tape. And I thought, “Some Music Theater Marge broke into my car!” I was in West Hollywood, so I guess it’s not that unlikely. They probably walked by and saw it and thought, “Oh my God, this is so rare!” They’re going to be disappointed, though, because it’s the night I went on for Roxanne, and it’s not Anne Runolfsson. Isn’t that weird?
DL: Maybe we’ll put the call out and someone will be able to replace it for you!
TT: I understand there’s this whole underground little system of people with the tapes and the videos… Particularly with Miss Saigon, the fans are just so devoted.
I’ll tell you, Miss Saigon gets a bad rap because it was after the Chandelier musical, and the helicopter was just another chandelier. And we know that’s what they wanted, another big moment like that, but the story really is beautiful. And a lot of stories in music theater have been reproduced. I remember going to see the show the first time very skeptical, but going to support Billy Porter when he was in the ensemble, and I was so taken by the story. I’m a pretty emotional person anyway, but I was just blubbering! Crying so hard! And you know, my friends are looking over at me, and I felt like such a jerk, but it was so sad, I couldn’t help it!
And then, I was the fourth Ellen on Broadway, which is funny, because when I saw it on Broadway with Liz Callaway, I never imagined it as a role I’d be doing.
DL: That’s funny, because just last week Liz said when she went to see the show in London, she never imagined it as a role she would do!
TT: See? Isn’t that funny? Their casting just got younger and younger, and by the time I played Ellen, I was 24 or 25. Who’d have known they would go so young? It was fortunate.
DL: Now, playing that part, you’re only on stage for about twenty minutes. How did you spend your off-stage time?
TT: I read. A lot. And I spent a lot of time on the phone in my dressing room. I always knew when the helicopter landed it was time to make my way through backstage, which is a maze in and of itself. Gotta weave around Ho Chi Mihn, get around the Cadillac. It’s amazing how small the backstages are of all those theaters, because they’re all old vaudeville houses. Some of them have been remodeled, but only a few.
DL: Since we’re talking about the road, I think the next obvious question is what is a musical theatre person like you doing in Los Angeles?
TT: That’s my most often asked question. Even my friends still say, “When are you going to come back to New York?” I sometimes get sick of it – and my agents even know this – if a show brings me back to New York, I will absolutely go. I’m actually doing a show right now with Stephanie Block, and she’s left New York too. (She replaced Alice Ripley in The Dead when Alice went into Rocky Horror.) She even asked me in rehearsal the other day, and I said, “You know, I just like my life here.” And she said, “Ah! Me too!” We know, it’s so expensive to live in New York, and the sad fact of the matter is that my standard of living here, just doing regional theatre, is the same as when I had a Broadway salary in New York.
DL: What brought you here originally?
TT: Originally it was Miss Saigon. Cameron asked me to come here, and what, am I going to say no to Cameron? And I had never been to LA, and I wanted to try TV and film. I did a couple things, and I tested for a TV pilot, but I’m used to eight shows a week, I’m used to something regular, constantly working. I want that. Money-wise, you need that. I still realized even after my first year here that I still love music-theatre, and I did toy with moving back but… My first five days here were the days of the Malibu Rains, January 1995. It rained for five days straight. But that sixth day, the sky opened up and fro my apartment downtown I saw Mt. Wilson, and I just thought, “I’m here.” I didn’t realize what a tie to nature I had until I moved here. It’s funny, because even my family wouldn’t have predicted it. They all said, “We thought you loved New York.” And I loved New York when I was there. But I realized what a contrast my personality was, living in New York and then moving here. I think LA is a little like DC: it’s a low, spread-out city; very suburban/urban; you need a car, and I really like having a car, being able to drive to Mt. Wilson if I want, being able to drive to the beach if I want. I still want to do more TV and film, but I also found that in New York, you’re not always doing a Broadway show. If you’re lucky you are, but a lot of the in-between times, you’re doing these regional productions. Well, there’s a lot of regional theatre here on the West Coast.
DL: You recently did Forbidden Broadway here…
TT: I understudied.
DL: But you went on!
TT: Me and my friend Tim Miller are just the biggest Forbidden Broadway hounds, and yet I never saw it until Y2K/LA – isn’t that strange? It was running at the same time I was doing Miss Saigon out here, and I never did get to see it, and I never saw it in New York, but I have three of the CDs! So I’ve always loved it. I’ve loved the spoofs and I could sing you any of the parodies! So I was prepared when I went to audition. And I thought, I would love to be a part of this show, just to watch and learn. So I was totally willing to understudy. I just wanted to be a part of the show!
DL: Do you have a preference for that kind of show versus a serious show like Miss Saigon? Or for the revue format versus a book show?
TT: Well, I’ve done a lot of revues, and I think… well, it’s just how I was brought up. Just when I got sick of doing a musical, I got offered a drama. And just as I wanted to sing again, I got to do a musical. I was very lucky both in DC and in college. I went from doing a Randy Newman revue to doing Elektra. I like the both for their merits. I think each medium has its merits, and believe me, another show in itself was watching Forbidden Broadway backstage. Jason [Graae] was schitzoid man! They had him doing so much – changing his clothes and doing the Zach spoof over the PA for the Cats/A Chorus Line spoof, as he’s taking off his shirt, he’s fumbling with the microphone, “Again! Scratch! Lick! Purr! Purr! Kick! Scratch! Again!” I thought that was great! And to realize how precise Christine [Pedi] and Susanne [Blakeslee] are about researching the actors they spoof. They are very exact about things like, “Julie Andrews always sings with her upper lip way tight over her teeth.” And Gerard [Alessandrini] was very specific about some things, and I got to feel better about some of my characterizations than others.
DL: Is that a harder show to understudy than your average show?
TT: I think so. I think it’s probably your understudy nightmare. I’m blessed with a really good memory. I’ll remember a movie quote from a movie ten years ago, really random stuff, and I don’t know why. I can still name you all the colors in Joseph’s coat from doing the show when I was fifteen. I’m kind of lucky that way, so this was a good show for me because I can memorize so quickly. It’s the improv stuff doing Liza that was tough. It’s pretty scripted, but Christine strays a bit from the script sometimes because she has Liza down. That’s where I went, “Oh my God, I’m so scared!” But once you go on, trial by fire is the best way to do it. I actually feel better about my Bernadette Peters than my Liza.
DL: At what point did you get involved with Bruce Kimmel?
TT: It was out here in LA. I think David Galligan directed Blame It On The Movies at the Pasadena Playhouse, and Bruce had come to see that. He said that he liked my voice, and I think that’s when he did The Paul Simon Album, so he asked me to sing on that CD. That was the first thing I did with him, and I was thrilled because I loved his CDs and had always wanted to sing on one of them.
DL: Primarily, do you think of yourself as a singer, and actress, or both?
TT: You know, I think most of my work has been as a singer, but I enjoy music theatre because you do get to express yourself in all aspects. My training was primarily in both, at Carnegie Mellon, the attitude was, “Okay, great, you can sing, but what is your character thinking at this point?” I know that my bread and butter is through my voice, but the acting is the most important part of it to me. I do love recording, but I find music theatre and being on stage ultimately very satisfying in terms of wrapping yourself around a character and telling a story.
DL: So how do you get ready for a performance?
TT: Smoke a lot of cigarettes. No! I’m kidding! Well, I’m working on Triumph of Love right now, and I still do a lot of things I learned at school. Write down all the things my character says about herself, what other characters say about her. Find my objectives… Is that what you mean, or at 7:00 what do I do?
DL: That’s another interesting question.
TT: I’m kind of on the later-end of the theatre, and luckily because I have shorter hair, there’s not much to do with it, so I don’t need as much time. I’m pretty quick with the makeup – I can get it on in about fifteen minutes and I’m done. I try to warm up at home because you just don’t want to… Of course, you hear a lot of people around the theatre shrieking, but I prefer to do that at home or in the car. And my warm up is kind of unorthodox, it always has been. I usually put on Heart’s Greatest Hits and sing everything in a falsetto. Let me tell you, I was on a ship last year and found Heart’s Greatest Hits and thought, “I’ve always loved Heart!” I truly am a little rock and roller. I listen to rock more than I listen to music theatre.
DL: Who are your favorite?
TT: Ann Wilson. I think I learned to sing by Donna Summer. I had every disco 45 of hers. I think she taught me how to belt. I also listened to Barbra, as I think every woman on the planet does. But also my dad had this great album that I memorized, which was Vaughn and Violin. It was Sarah Vaughn, produced by Quincy Jones in like 1960 or 61. And we listened to that ad nauseum. Another early influence was Johnny Mathis, who was another of my dad’s favorites.
Later, it became Kate Bush. I loved her because she was a pop person using her soprano voice. And I was just developing my soprano at college, so I was thrilled! I thought she was just so inventive. And I love Paula Cole. She has this song where she goes into that falsetto where you think she’s just not mixing well… but let me tell you, it’s a choice, and it’s a great choice. It’s the moment in the song when you think she’s going to cry that she uses that, switching into that not-very-eloquently, and it’s very emotional. And when I heard her do this live, she was belting a D, an E, hammering the piano wailing, and I’ve been a fan ever since! It’s her music, and she knows when to use what kind of voice where, what’s going to make the most impact and what’s appropriate for the piece.
DL: When you’re not singing, what do you do for fun?
TT: I love reading. I’m trying to go back to the classics, but I’m also a huge Harry Potter fan. And I’m becoming a little crossword fan. I’m still juvenile. I find the New York Times way too hard. I’m getting better, but the LA Times is just about my capacity. My husband loves crosswords too, and a lot of times we’ll fall asleep doing the crosswords in bed. Really romantic, eh? Newly married in September and we’re already doing crosswords in bed!
Triumph of Love runs until February 11, at Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera.