What's New on the Rialto
Interview with Sam Gravitte
By Michael Portantiere
Sam Gravitte: It was a magical night, but I was very anxious leading up to it. It was the first time I had performed a concert by myself, and curated the music and the stories and everything. When I first said yes to doing it, I was so excited, but then you run into the fact that it's so much work to put together a show like that. So I was very nervous right before the show. But then my band started playing before I entered for the first song, I remember walking past all these familiar faces, and I said to myself, "This is a room full of love, a room full of people who are here just to lift me up." And that's what it felt like all night. It was like my extended living room, with so many friends and family.
MP: The house was definitely packed.
SG: Yes, and that was great for me and for my parents. I tried to shape the show partly as a tribute to them, and sort of as a gratitude practice for helping me to arrive where I am right now. My mom and I had performed a number of times together at Birdland and other cabaret venues, so for a while she was, like, "Am I going to be in this show?" But I said, "You know what, I just want you to not have to worry about performing, not feel obligated to collaborate, so you can just sit back and enjoy and receive this thing like the rest of the audience." So that's what she did.
MP: But a few weeks later, when your mom did her show at Birdland with Stephen Schwartz as her special guest, you sang in that.
SG: Yes! I did "Love Song" from Pippin with Lindsay Pearce.
MP: I understand you're going to have the same team for your August 1 performance as you had for the first show?
SG: Yes. I'm lucky enough to have Solea Pfeiffer back to sing with me. And again, Jake Landau will be my music director, I have Ravi Campbell on guitar, Kanoa Mendenhall on bass, and Zach Mullings on drums. I was emailing with them all today, and everyone is scattered across the world right now, but we'll have the whole team back at Birdland.
MP: How much notice did you have that you were going to reprise the show?
SG: Actually, I think it was a week after the first show that Jim Caruso [who books the Monday night shows at Birdland] asked us if we wanted to do it again. I finished Wicked on May 22, so now, the past week or so, I've thought, "I should start singing again to get back in shape for an hour and a half of singing on August 1." The show will be largely the same as the first one; we're looking at adding a couple different songs on guitar, and maybe another duet. I grew up playing sports, I played lacrosse in college, and one of the ways that you get better is you watch tape of yourselfa replay of the game, or sometimes you even watch tape of yourself in practice. In performance, I think a lot of times we're allergic to watching ourselves, but I have the footage of the Birdland show, and I'm trying to use it as a gift this time. Part of gearing up for the redux version, the reprise, is studying that footage to see where I can tighten things and where I can loosen up a bit.
MP: I saw you perform "As Long As You're Mine" on the Today show for the reopening of Wicked on Broadway. That was a nice showcase for you.
SG: Talk about feeling anxious. I had to wake up at 5:00 a.m. on the day of our reopening to sing at 7:30 with Jenny DiNoia, the incredible standby over at the Gershwin. So I was like, "Okay, I'm going to wake up really early, try to get my voice to start working before 8:00 a.m., then I'll go home and take a nap, and then we'll reopen the show on Broadway."
MP: Also, I would think it's a bit unnerving to sing in that situation, live on TV, with all those people standing around in Rockefeller Plaza.
SG: That was the easy part. Jenny is such a spectacular scene partner, and that song is so intimate, you can just be with the person you're singing with, and the other stuff sort of melts away. I feel like the unnerving, tricky part was to try to get my voice working at 7:00 a.m.
MP: Well, you both sounded great, the camera work was excellent, and I saw that you got some compliments online for your form-fitting costume.
SG: Yes, they tailor us well over at the Gershwin!
MP: I know you were in Almost Famous pre-Broadway at the Old Globe, but you're not continuing to Broadway. Can I ask you about that?
SG: When I took over the role in Wicked originally, it was going to conflict with the dates for Almost Famous. Obviously, those dates got changed when the pandemic happened, but they had already recast the role. I have nothing but respect and love for that show and the incredible humans involved in it. I'm so excited to see it on Broadway. Hopefully, Solea will get me tickets for opening night.
MP: I believe you said in your Birdland show that it wasn't till the pandemic that you started writing songs?
SG: Yes. I went out to Los Angeles in January of 2021, because I was feeling really stagnated in New YorkI wasn't auditioning a lot, and there wasn't a lot of work to be had period. So I went to L.A., not so much to audition but to change my environment. Out there, I sort of started flexing these different creative limbs that I had been meaning to strengthen for a long time, and one of them was writing songs. I had written literally one or two songs when I got to L.A., and then in February I did this writing challenge with my buddy Kent Coleman, a guy I grew up with. I said, "Let's each write a song every day for a month and just see what we can come up with." And we did. It was a nice way to stay sane and feel like I was being creative and productive. Of course, if you write 28 songs in February, 20 of them are nonsense. But all of a sudden I had eights songs that I thought, "Hey, I might actually play these in front of someone someday."
MP: Do you always write both music and lyrics?
SG: For the songs that I've written, I've written music and lyrics, so I'm a solo act in that way. But I'm very interested in collaboration.
MP: You went to Princeton as an anthropology major. Why anthropology?
SG: I was an athletic recruit to Princeton, but there's no theater major there. So I did a theater minor and a music theater minor. At Princeton, everyone has to do independent work, and I was drawn to anthropology because it was much less restrictive than other departments in terms of what you could write about for your independent work. I did a lot of anthropology of theater, and I was able to find new perspectives on theater from a scholarly point of view.
MP: By the way, I think you should play Lt. Cable in South Pacific. He went to Princeton.
SG: Yeah, I thought of that! So, what shows have you seen lately? Do you get to see everything?
MP: Not everything, but pretty close. I haven't seen Into the Woods on Broadway yet, but I saw it at City Center.
SG: Me, too.
MP: The audience response was incredible. I've rarely seen anything like it.
SG: Yes. That was one of those nights when I sat there and thought, "This is why I do what I do." It's everything that you want theater to be.
MP: As I was watching the show, and all of the jokes were landing big-time and the audience was wildly cheering and applauding after every number, I thought, "How thrilling it must be for those people on stage to get a response like this."
SG: It's the greatest feeling in the world. How are you feeling about the upcoming season?
MP: I'm not sure. What are you excited about?
SG: Well, there are a lot of musicals transferring in. I'm nervous about the marketliterally, getting asses in the seats, in terms of having a robust 35 shows running and having a market for 350,000 people to come to Broadway every week. I know there are much smarter people than I working on that stuff, but right now it seems like there aren't many shows that are doing particularly well. It's a strange landscape.
MP: Agreed. Well, I hope they keep making movie musicals. That would be a perfect medium for you.
SG: Yeah, right? Fuckin' A! I'm hoping to make that transition soon, to movies and TV. [Leans into microphone of digital recorder] Do you hear that, Hollywood?
MP: And what's on the horizon for you after the reprise of your show at Birdland?
SG: I have some workshop stuff that I'm doing, but right now, the universe is open. So we'll see if Hollywood calls!