Piccadilly Circus Panorama, Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
With all this media attention on London for the 2012 Olympic Games, it’s fitting to take a closer look at the music scene in London’s West End. Located conveniently at the core of the city, the West End features some of the finest theater productions in the world.
You’ll find a good mix of classic and modern entertainment in the West End—from Shakespeare to nightclubs, cinemas to musical theater productions and more. Many theaters are located in Leicester Square and the Piccadilly Circus, though many others are speckled throughout the city. (This makes the term “West End” a little deceiving, since many productions associated with the term aren’t actually located in the geographic region of London.)
You can find classic shows as well as new productions. The musical We Will Rock You, featuring music by Queen, opened in 2002.
The West End is on par with Broadway in New York in terms of the quality of musical theater shows. Which is “better” depends greatly on the show and the cast. (I tend to prefer the singing in New York shows and the acting in London shows, though again, this depends greatly on the show and the cast.) For the price-conscious theater goers, there are many ways to get cheaper tickets to West End shows.
For opera fans, The Royal Opera House at Covent Garden fits the bill, showcasing the classiest opera shows you’ll find anywhere. As one of the most coveted opera companies in the world, the Royal Opera Company sets itself apart with its year-round opera season: September through July, taking just one month off in August! The Royal Opera Company is appropriately titled because it’s partially subsidized by the British government.
Her Majesty’s Theater in Haymarket is one of the most famous theaters in the West End. The Phantom of the Opera has been playing in this venue since its debut in 1986. The modern theater is the third in its series, while the original Her Majesty’s Theater housed famous artists like Haydn before burning down in 1867.
London’s West End has something for everybody. Whether you’re more inclined toward classical music or modern, you will likely find a superb performance to satisfy your personal tastes.
Sometimes while chasing our dreams, we actually wind up at a better destination. Nina Stone set out for the Big Apple with the intention of launching her musical theater career. What she didn’t expect was to fall in love with the life of a children’s entertainer. Ms. Stone has since transformed herself into Miss Nina, the singing, songwriting, enormously entertaining party host for children’s groups in the New York area.
As Nina shares with us her fascinating story, she reveals how pursuing her music dreams led her to find her true calling in life.
Our Interview with Nina Stone (aka Miss Nina)
Tell us about life in the big city!
What initially attracted me to the New York area was Musical Theater. I moved here to pursue a career as a singer/dancer/actress, and found myself to not be very skilled at waitressing. So my “survival jobs” generally ended up being some sort of kid-related service—and I LOVED it. So after a few years of performing, I decided to go to Grad school at NYU for Educational Theater. And I have just stayed in NYC ever since.
There is a wonderful, supportive Mommy Culture here. A couple of groups come immediately to mind like Mommy Bites and Big City Moms. These organizations offer weekly luncheons and/or outings for moms new moms and expectant moms and a lot of new moms meet this way and then form their own mommy friendships and playgroups that meet once a week or so. This “Mommy Culture” presents the perfect opportunity for entertainers such as myself to hook up with these new moms and entertain at their groups. These groups often start with children 6 months old, as “playgroups” that give the moms and opportunity to chill and socialize a bit, as well as provide music and games to connect with their babies. And then time goes on and the kids get a little older, moms go back to work or have second children and the groups develop into music and play classes focused on the children. I have a really cool thing going on right now where I have one group of 2-year-olds and their moms & nannies who I’ve taught since they were 6 months old. And in the fall they will all start preschool, and I will be starting another group with the same moms and their second children! Very cool.
I think the biggest challenge I come up against is space. Often I have interest from people to do a group, but no available space. (And what makes doing playgroups a wonderful thing for an entertainer is that one doesn’t have the overhead costs of renting a space.) Typically, we might switch apartments from week to week in a group where everyone takes turns hosting, or if everyone lives in the same building there is often a “party room” that is available for them to reserve, and we use that weekly. But sometimes there’s no party room, and no one has an apartment with enough space for a group of 10 kids and 10 adults. Figuring that out is always a challenge.
How did you start?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, I was originally pursing a theater career and I got this job at a place called WonderKamp. It was an indoor kids’ play space that had everything from a huge indoor climber and ball pit, to a karaoke room, to arts and crafts. I would lead a different activity every 20 minutes: acting out a story on the Main Stage, Leading a kids’ dance party, etc. On weekends I’d lead a Birthday Party or two. I LOVED this job, so much so that when I was out on my first professional theater gig in Europe doing 42nd Street, I actually missed my day job! So over the next few years, I continued performing in theater and also started teach drama class here and there, dance classes here and there (WonderKamp closed, sadly). Eventually this all lead me to getting my Masters Degree after which I worked for some great companies as a Teaching Artist and eventually found myself at Gymboree Play & Music as a teacher. I remember one Saturday morning, sitting in a class full of moms and dads and their kids, leading them in a round of Old MacDonald and I thought to myself, “THIS is awesome. Is there any way to do specifically THIS with my life?” The feeling of community and love and fun was infectious and wonderful.
So, I worked at Gymboree for a few years and would also entertain at their Birthday Parties on weekends. And when I left there to go teach at a preschool, I started getting calls where people would ask if I would come sing a their child’s birthday party. And I remember being psyched that people wanted me to do this, but had no idea how to go about it. At that point I didn’t play guitar, so I bought some shakers and some scarves and started creating a 45 minute kind of music class party. The more I did it, the more I loved it. Eventually I bought a guitar and started learning some basic songs, and just started developing my “thing” more and more.
I know you draw a lot of inspiration from popular children’s stories. What else inspires you to write your songs? Do you follow a particular method when composing?
It seems like they always come to me in a different way. But one thing I found is that melodies and/or rhythms often come to me when I’m walking. And I’ll have to stop and get out my phone and sing the melody into my voice recorder so I don’t forget! So, from this I have created a discipline of song writing that involves going for a walk and then setting aside time to write. I decided to dedicate my most recent Spring Break to songwriting for my upcoming CD. And my “method” was to get up and go for a walk in the park, and then come back and spend two hours writing. It didn’t have to be monumental. It might be writing lyrics or fooling around with rhythms on Garage Band…but I just made it a point to set aside 2 hours, no matter what, to show up for songwriting. And I definitely had 3 songs come out of that process.
As for inspiration: it’s really the kids and parents. I am fortunate to work with young children daily and I get to see what delights them, what they struggle with, what they like to hear. I don’t necessarily write for them in a prescriptive way, but being in touch with them on daily basis definitely informs what I create.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Singing and dancing! I mean how many jobs are there that you get to sing and dance all day?! And I love creating an environment of fun. As adults we often lose touch with of the importance of having fun and even HOW to have fun – and I love watching a group of people relax, loosen up and have fun with their children and with each other within 45 minutes. I can’t fully put it into words – but it really feels like a blessing to be able to do that and I often find myself in the midst of a playgroup or party just feeling so grateful.
What’s your least favorite? Be honest!
Honestly I think it’s doing the grown-up-money part. My relationship with the adults can be tricky because on the one hand, here we all are, hanging out all chill in their living room, feeling like friends, and then at some point it turns to business and that’s a tricky boundary to negotiate. Along those lines, too, I absolutely loathe when people ask for discounts. As a woman, it’s been a struggle to own my worth and really ask for what I’m worth. And I know this can be a struggle for most women. So when a woman asks me to discount myself, I feel really insulted. But I do realize that we are all just conditioned by the culture we grew up in and that it’s not actually a personal attack. Still, it’s always uncomfortable. (Yet, I’m starting to feel better and better about the way I handle it.)
The nature of what you do is so dependent on your cheerfulness. How do you manage to stay positive each day? What do you do when you feel down but have to put on a good show for your clients?
Wonderful question! Self care is so, so, so important. And although I’m not really the Queen of Balance, I strive to be. It’s definitely difficult to be positive if I haven’t had enough time for myself. When I’m all filled up – have had enough sleep, time with my husband, have worked out, been eating well, had time with friends for some fun, I feel great and am overflowing with positivity. And that’s the best place to give of myself from! So, I try to be sure and get enough sleep, to follow great nutrition, work out daily, and be sure I’m enjoying my life. However, when I’m a little deficient in these areas, how do I manage to stay positive and what do I do when I feel down but have to put on a good show? Honestly, music and singing really is the best antidote for when I’m feeling bad. Making music and being with children require that a person be 100% present, and often for me, that’s the way out of myself: getting present and putting my focus on serving others. And then also…..there’s something about singing. I don’t know if it’s the vibration of sound in the body, or an endorphin release or what….but singing, especially children’s songs, always makes me happy, no matter how I was feeling before I started.
Do you find it challenging to market to both children and their parents? How do tackle this challenge?
I’m really just starting to understand this important distinction now. For the past few years, aside from Miss Nina LLC, I have also taught a mommy & me program at a private preschool. Miss Nina LLC often benefits from meeting families through that program. At one time I simply thought that if the children liked me then the parents were sold. And this is partially true. But sometimes the children attend class with a nanny and no matter how bonded me and their child are, the parents may never really know or understand (or care about) that. I mean, generally speaking, if a child is enjoying something it makes the parent wildly happy. But as I now venture out to widen my audience I am learning that, well, the kids may love me, but they don’t have wallets! So, I HAVE to market to the parents and have a love affair with both of them.
I am very much about the children. There are some kids music artists out there who are more about entertaining the parents with kid appropriate material—which is also a wonderful, wonderful, thing. But for me, my passion is really in creating a joyful experience for children through music and movement. So, I’m learning to create for the children, but to market and speak to parents. It’s definitely tricky. But getting this clarity about myself is very helpful. And getting clarity about what’s important to parents makes it easier to market to them, because, really, we both want enriching, joyful experiences for their children.
What do you find children respond well to in your work? How about their parents?
Yesterday, I just got a comment on one of my videos from a parent. She told me her baby loved my videos but asked if I could “do more silly movements and noises like I had done in Row, Row, Row your Boat” because her baby loves that. So, although I love to work on developmental themes, and create great songs, children LOVE my silliness! We may do a song slow and then “super silly fast”, and they just love it. That mom is 100% on target; anything with silly movements and noises are great. I mean, kids love slapstick. But here’s one the thing that my clients have told me they respond to: I do not patronize or talk down to the children. I don’t speak in baby voices or pander to them. And that mix of regular speech and silliness seems to be the perfect combination.
They also love my book songs. It’s amazing to see a group of kids riveted to a book while I sing it.
I think their parents respond to the same things. I think, again, they feel comfortable with me because I’m—well, real, and don’t pander. I think they love that I get their kids to laugh and that I get them and keep them interested in books and reading. I also think the parents and I like each other and respect each other. I know they appreciate that I have a structure to my group, but that I’m flexible and understand that moms need the playgroup time to socialize, too.
And of course, we can’t forget the pink guitar! The kids really do love it.
What is the future for Miss Nina?
What a big, exciting question! So first, in the very near future I hope to offer an online playgroup so that I can reach and connect with people in other areas outside of NYC.
Beyond that, as I finish recording this next CD, my dream is that it has very wide reach, and that I may have the wonderful experience of playing my music at concerts and big venues all over the country. I love what I do, but at the moment I work A LOT. I reach small groups of people several times a day. So, I would love to be able to reach larger groups of people all at one time, enabling myself to work less hours on the daily!
And my even bigger vision? I would love to host an educational children’s television program. I am a product of Sesame Street and Mister Rogers and Romper Room, and I would love to be a part of something like that. Most people have the one-named icon, Oprah, on their Vision boards. But the one-named icon on mine is Elmo.
What advice do you have for students considering a career in children’s live entertainment?
Hmmmm… I think it’s really important to understand the children you aim to entertain. If you study primarily music, or theater, be sure to take a course or class or at least research a bit of child development. It will help you in planning activities and how to engage the kids you are entertaining.
And buy a microphone and amplifier! I know that sounds really silly – but I found that using a microphone at kids parties really switches the dynamic from free-for-all to performance, gives you an appropriate amount of command, lends to a sense of occasion to the event, and will save your voice!
The True Miss Nina
Nina Stone’s love for entertaining children shines through her Miss Nina persona. Her sparkling personality delights kids at her parties as well as their parents. Though her musical journey has taken her to a much different place than she had originally anticipated, Nina is happy with her career and has never looked back in regret.
Nervous about your next audition? Take these tips from an experienced director.
Whether it’s for musical theater or opera, the audition process is a way of life for singers. However, some auditioners unconsciously sabotage their chances of landing a role by doing something that irritates the director. Here are 10 tips to follow to make sure your next audition is a smash hit.
1) DON’T wear revealing clothing. (Even if you’re auditioning for Naked Boys Singing.) But DO wear comfortable, professional looking attire. Nothing skin tight or see-through. The panel does not need to see the tattoo you got on a drunken night during spring break.
2) DON’T chew gum. Well, if you’re auditioning for the role of Cow # 2, it MIGHT be okay.
3) DON’T arrive late for your appointment. Don’t set a precedent for tardiness. My mantra is: “If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re late, that’s unacceptable.”
4.) DON’T sing anything from Wicked. And while we’re at it, don’t sing anything previously recorded by Barbra Streisand; unless you can completely “own it.” But why take a chance?
5) DO write the title of the song you’re singing at the top of the music excerpt for 16 or 32 bar auditions. This helps the accompanist have an inkling as to whether or not they know the piece. I require an entire song with my company and TWO song selections that I get to choose from. So being prepared is always advisable.
6) DO mark tempos, dynamics, etc. As well as any “pauses” and fermatas. Just because the audition accompanist is good, doesn’t mean they can read your mind.
7.) DO be respectful. It reflects how you’ll be during rehearsals. Many companies post ‘spies’ in the lobby to observe behavior. Also, be respectful of the company representatives. The performing arts world is a small one. Word gets around. I have a colleague who wouldn’t even give a certain soprano an audition time because of her lack of professionalism and attitude with me. We talk. About you. So play nice.
8.) DO recover from mistakes. If you messed up, don’t worry, the panel probably noticed. But that’s okay, just keep going. Mistakes happen all the time, especially in live theater. You’ll impress the panelists a lot more if you recover gracefully..
9) DO Sing something appropriate for you AND your voice type. If you’re a man, don’t sing “I feel pretty” for your audition. You’ll never be cast in the role, so don’t audition with it. Likewise, if you’re a Soubrette, don’t sing one of Lucy’s arias from The Telephone.
10) Learn as much as you can about the show, the company, the director…Every company and director has their own way of doing things.
Joey Calkins began his career as a recitalist in 2001. In 2009, he founded the Utah Idaho Performing Arts Company (UNIPAC), in which he directs and produces shows in two states. He currently lives in Salt Lake City. For more information visit www.joeycalkins.com and follow him on Twitter @unipac150
An inspiring musical called Shelter is coming to New York this fall. Loaded with emotional songs and a powerful message, the show was chosen among hundreds of entrants to be featured this July in the New York Musical Theater Festival.
What began as a project to improve theatrical roles for women led to the creating of a musical that seeks to obliterate homelessness issues. Composer Brittany Bullen shares the story behind her musical Shelter.
Our Interview with Brittany Bullen
What inspired you to create the musical Shelter?
Shelter was, at first, the answer to the question, “Why are there so few shows with great roles for women?” I started putting together an outline in the summer of 2010. At that time, the show was just going to be vignettes about specific characters, like Cats. Actually the first thing I did was look at the cast list from Cats and many of the characters we have now were inspired by those descriptions. As it evolved, though, it became clear pretty quickly that we were going to want a plot.
What do you hope your audience takes away from watching the musical?
I think the overarching message of the show is that homeless people deserve help and that one person really can make a difference. Even if we can’t entirely make homelessness go away, it’s still worth trying if for no other reason than the fact that it makes our own lives better.
I would hope that people start to realize that your average panhandler on the street is not the typical person you see in a shelter. Often, people in shelters are people who are really trying to get a new start on life. Due to difficult circumstances, they find themselves in situations they can’t get out of– it could just as easily happen to anyone. These are people who deserve a chance. Even those beyond help are still human beings and still deserve, in the very least, a warm place to sleep at night. I hope to open people’s eyes to that and empower them so that they know no matter how limited their resources are, they can still make a big difference in someone’s life.
Can you tell us about the Festival?
The New York Musical Theatre Festival takes place in July of this year. They heavily subsidize all aspects of producing the show there, and our show is at the PTC Performance Space on 42nd Street between July 26-30th. We’re putting the show up in Salt Lake and bringing the cast and crew from here, and my brother-in-law and co-composer, Newell, is assembling an orchestra on the east coast that will meet us there.
Tell us how your dream came true!
I submitted the show to the festival in the fall of last year and we were notified in January that we might possibly be given a slot. It was literally five months of waiting after that! More and more of the actors I knew were already making plans for the summer and it was looking less and less feasible. Literally, the day before we were accepted we had decided to turn it down, even if they offered… but then they offered. It was then, in doing some more research, that we realized what a huge deal this festival really was and that we’d be stupid to pass up the opportunity, so we said “Here goes nothing!” Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve had a second between then and now for it to really sink in because we’ve been working non-stop since!
How does your home in the Salt Lake area inspire your artistic creativity?
As far as I’m concerned, Salt Lake is the best place to be a musical theatre performer. Utah audiences love musicals, so there are always shows going on at every level of professionalism. In general, if you’re interested in being part of uplifting, family-oriented shows, this is absolutely the right place to be. If I were looking for more modern, edgy material, I might consider a different location.
How did you first get involved with music and theater?
I’ve been singing and writing since I was very young. In fact, I wrote my first “musical” when I was about eight, with oldies tunes in place of the show’s songs woven together with what I’m sure at the time seemed like a very intricate plot. I had the kid I had a crush on come in and audition for me, but sadly the production never panned out. I actually didn’t start acting until college; my sister was into it so that was her thing, while I was a choir nerd all through high school. I always loved musicals more than anything, though. My Dad took me to New York when I was twelve to see some shows and I’ve been a musical theatre junkie ever since.
What motivates you to sing, act, compose, and to pursue your dreams?
I like to joke that I have a lot of feelings… I often feel like there’s a melodrama going on inside my head, but I try to act like a normal person most of the time– that’s why I need musicals. Sometimes those feelings get so big, you either have to sing them, write them, compose them or just have a complete nervous breakdown. I think the creative option is much more pleasant.
What is your dream as a performer?
Every musical theatre nerd worth her salt wants to go to Broadway. That’s always going to be the dream. But, truth be told, fame in and of itself has never really been my goal. I just want to keep doing what I love to do.
What are your main gifts as an artist?
That’s a tough one. Well, I love to write dialogue, that’s for sure. I love the way you get started on a scene and it almost seems to write itself– like the characters are having a conversation and I’m just taking down dictation. That’s always been easy for me. As a performer… I guess you could say I can sing pretty loudly! I always say that the biggest mistake a singer can make is to get nervous. I remember I had a turning point in my early twenties where I learned that if you can be fearless, you can pretty much sing anything. That was a fun day.
Finally, what is your advice to musical theater performers out there?
I love musicals. A lot. But the thing that keeps me grounded is remembering that in the end… it’s just a show. It’s not everything, it’s not life. There are a lot of things that are more important. In the right frame of mind, performing should enhance our enjoyment of real life. Performers should always remember that while being up on stage is thrilling, the greatest thrills in life happen offstage!
Changing the World, One Life at a Time
True to her message, Brittany stays involved in tackling the homelessness issue. Her website, ShelterMusical.com, has a page where visitors can donate to homeless women and children through Women In Need, Inc.