Nashville’s Stephanie Rothenberg to star in The Sound of Music at the Stratford Festival of Canada
By David Grapes
Last week begins a new theatrical adventure for one of Nashville’s most talented songbirds. Stephanie Rothenberg, daughter of arts patrons Joyce and Dr. Mace Rothenberg, packed up her bags in New York City and left the Big Apple for the small industrial town of Stratford, Ontario, where she will star as Maria in the Stratford Festival of Canada’s eagerly anticipated summer musical The Sound of Music. Already a Broadway veteran (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), the young Miss Rothenberg will spend the next 8 months rehearsing and performing with the largest and most prestigious theatre festival in North America.
Staring opposite the wonderfully versatile Ben Carlson as Captain Von Trapp, Stephanie’s production of The Sound of Music will join a trio of Shakespearian offerings that include Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew and Love’s Labour’s Lost on the Festival’s large thrust stage.
Directed and choreographed by the ever inventive Donna Feore, The Sound of Music begins its previews on April 21 and opens on May 26. The musical will then be performed in rotating repertory through October 18.
Performance dates and ticketing information may be found online at http://www.stratfordfestival.ca or by calling the Festival Box Office at 1-800-567-1600.
A couple of weeks ago I spoke at length with Stephanie via telephone as she prepared to leave New York City and begin rehearsals in Stratford.
David: First, in the interest of full disclosure, it turns out that you and I have a Nashville connection from when I served as the Producing Artistic Director at Tennessee Repertory Theatre.
Stephanie: Yes, you hired me in 2004 to be the understudy for the role of Anne in the Tennessee Repertory Production of The Diary of Anne Frank. I was just 14 and it was my first taste of what it was like to work in the professional regional theatre world.
David: I hope that you had a good experience.
Stephanie: I loved everything about that experience. I remember how nicely Nicole Winston, the Equity actress from New York City that you brought in to play Anne treated me. I also remember how friendly and warm that cast was to me. It was such a gift to work alongside great Nashville actors like Denice Hicks, Matt Carlton, Nan Gurley, Evelyn Blythe, Cecil Jones, Jeremy Childs and Kevin Haggard. In fact, I am still in contact with many of those folks from that production.
David: Don’t you find it just a bit ironic that The Diary of Anne Frank is also a part of your inaugural season at Stratford this year?
Stephanie: I do and I am really looking forward to seeing that production. The play contains such a powerful message and I can’t wait to see all those great Canadian actors bring those characters to life.
David: Let’s talk about what brought you to this moment in your career? When did your love of the theatre first manifest itself?
Stephanie: It began when I was 7 years old. This was prior to the family moving to Nashville. We were living in San Antonio at the time and I had been cast in the Jewish Community Center’s production of Charlotte’s Web as a Rooster. I believe that I had one line. I remember the director asking the cast if anyone had any questions or concerns regarding the production or their parts in it. And to this day, I still can’t believe that I did this…but I summoned all my courage and marched up to the director and in my seven year old voice told him that I was unhappy with my part and could I please have a larger role. To my surprise, rather than turning me out on my ear, he made me the brother, which was a much larger part. That was the day that I knew that the theatre would be my life’s work. Shortly after that, my father came to Nashville to work as an oncologist at Vanderbilt hospital and I began to immerse myself into acting, dancing and singing.
David: You were a 2008 graduate of Harpeth Hall were you not?
Stephanie: Yes, Harpeth had an amazing performing arts program led by Janette Fox Klocko and Stephanie Hamilton
David: Didn’t Reese Witherspoon and Amy Grant also attend Harpeth Hall?
Stephanie: Yes they did.
David: Looking at your Nashville resume it appears that you performed with almost every theatre in town, Circle Players, Chaffin’s Barn, and Tennessee Repertory Theatre among others. What are some of the productions you remember from those years?
Stephanie: I remember lots of musicals – Annie, Gypsy, Grease, Footloose, Guys and Dolls, Thoroughly Modern Millie and a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night where I played Viola for Denice Hicks.
David: Around that time you also began a recording career as well did you not?
Stephanie: Yes, when I was in Middle school I began to record for Disney Junior, which were productions being licensed to school groups by Music Theatre International. That work introduced me to one of my early mentors Bryan Louiselle, which in turn led me to another mentor and friend, Jen Rudin.
David: So tell me about the transition from Nashville to New York City.
Stephanie: My senior year of high school I decided that I really needed to know how I stacked up against other performers, so I researched the top theatrical programs and was accepted into the Tisch School of the Arts CAP 21 Program at New York University.
David: How did your big Broadway break come about?
Stephanie: Well that is a story in itself. Once I was studying and living in New York, I reconnected with Jen Rudin who was working with Tara Rubin Casting. I was a junior then at NYU and was simply pounding the pavement like everyone else in my class. In June 2010 she set me up with an audition and then callback for director Rob Ashford who was going to stage a revival of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying with Daniel Radcliffe. I had a great audition but I never heard back so I thought that I had been eliminated from consideration. Then one day on the subway platform I ran into David Chase, the show’s musical director, and he started giving me tips for a callback that I did not know that I had yet. That callback landed me the part of Rosemary’s understudy and a member of the ensemble. In true show business fashion, the actress playing Rosemary got sick on the third to last preview and they put me on. I still remember attempting to get into her costumes. She was 5’ 2” and I am 5’ 7”. As if going on with no rehearsal wasn’t enough pressure, I remember that Nathan Lane and all of the producers were also in the audience that night. I thought to myself… well if I go up in flames at least I had a great three weeks! Fortunately the cast pulled me along and the show went great that evening. Later I was offered the opportunity to take over the role and I performed it until the production closed in 2012. So it was opportunity mixed with preparation.
David: Did you return to NYU?
Stephanie: No, I never finished my senior year.
David: So after How to Succeed you did a number of new musical projects?
Stephanie: Yes, I had the opportunity to play the Audrey Hepburn part in a musical version of the film Roman Holiday at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.
David: What do you like best about working on these types of projects?
Stephanie: It’s the thrill of creating a character and making her live for the first time. Making my own choices and not recreating a role, trusting my own instincts and choices. I really think that it was during this project that I really found my voice and who I was as an actress.
David: Which brings us to Stratford and The Sound of Music. Had you attended a production at Stratford before you were cast.
Stephanie: No. I certainly knew of the Festival but my first experience came last year when I had the opportunity to see the production of Crazy for You.
David: What were your impressions of that production?
Stephanie: First, I was blown away by the production values. The sets and costumes were certainly Broadway caliber and the performances were amazing. I also loved the thrust stage and how close the audience felt. My director Donna Feore’s husband Colm told me that no audience member is ever more than 60 feet away. That is certainly not the case in a big Broadway theatre.
David: Given the iconic nature of The Sound of Music, what do you feel that you will bring to the musical?
Stephanie: It is an honor to play such a strong and sometimes headstrong woman. The role also carries with it great history and responsibility. Of course, Donna will guide me but I think Maria could also be girlish, joyful, socially awkward, searching for her place in the world and perhaps even a bit goofy. I am not interested in doing what others have done but in finding myself in the text and the music. I want to create something unique and memorable. I can’t wait to work with Ben and Donna and begin the journey.
David: It is a long way from playing a rooster at the JCC to headlining at the largest theatre festival in North America.
Stephanie: Yes it is…but I am ready.
David: Another instance of opportunity meets preparation
Stephanie: I hope so.
David: I know that you still consider Nashville to be home. What do you miss most about Tennessee?
Stephanie: I miss the outdoors, the beautiful, distinct seasons, and the people. Nashvillians are the warmest and most welcoming people.
David: Anything you what to say to those Nashvillians?
Stephanie: Come to Stratford this summer and see The Sound of Music. It truly is a magical place.
David: Thank you for taking the time to reconnect today. And you can certainly count on seeing this former Nashvillian at a performance of The Sound of Music in August.