This season on Broadway is a banner one for two Pleasant Valley High School alums.
Whitney Bashor, a 2001 PV graduate (who earned raves for her appearance in the 2014 Broadway musical “The Bridges of Madison County”) started previews this week in the new “MJ: The Musical,” about pop superstar Michael Jackson.
Bashor plays Rachel, a documentary filmmaker who looks back at the career of Jackson (1958-2009), as he prepares for his 1992 “Dangerous” world tour.
“MJ: The Musical” (originally planned to open in 2020) is directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, featuring a book by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, and is scheduled to formally open on Broadway Feb. 1, 2022.
A New York Times piece Tuesday noted the musical “depicts Jackson at the top of his game — the King of Pop, with astonishing gifts as a singer and dancer — but also suggests that he was facing financial woes (mortgaging Neverland), was overly reliant on painkillers (he was prescribed Demerol after he was burned while filming a Pepsi ad), had considerable emotional baggage from his upbringing (his father is shown hitting him), and was besieged by reporters fixated on everything but his artistry (remember Bubbles, his pet chimpanzee?).”
Bashor (appearing in her second Broadway show) earned the 2014 Clarence Derwent Award for most promising female performer on the New York metropolitan scene. This is the oldest award on Broadway, established in 1945 by an actor and former Actors Equity president, and voted on by New York theater critics.
Bashor was recognized for her Broadway debut, in which she played dual roles and understudied the lead, Tony nominee Kelli O’Hara. Less than two weeks later, though, the critically acclaimed Jason Robert Brown musical “Bridges of Madison County” closed after just 100 regular performances, later winning the Tony for Best Original Score.
“It will be one of those great mysteries. I didn’t know why we didn’t have us pulling in New York audiences,” Bashor said in a 2014 interview. “Within the theater community, it was very well loved and well received. The box-office grosses weren’t enough, and it was a financial decision. It is a business.”
A Variety review of the musical noted that Bashor, who played Robert’s first wife, Marian, didn’t have a single line of dialogue, but said, “The ethereal Whitney Bashor materializes for one exquisite song, ‘Another Life,’ sung from a broken heart.”
After PV, Bashor earned her bachelor’s of fine arts at the University of Michigan, and her theater credits include Off-Broadway: “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” “Ordinary Days,” “The Fantasticks,” Regional: “Bridges of Madison County” (Williamstown), “Merrily We Roll Along” (Wallis Annenberg; Ovation Award Nominee), “Fly By Night” (Dallas Theatre Center), Light in the Piazza (Philadelphia; Barrymore Award Winner). Television credits are “Manifest,” “FBI: Most Wanted,” “Law & Order: SVU,” “Boardwalk Empire,” and “All My Children.”
Samantha Pauly hits it big in “Six”
Sam Pauly, a 32-year-old Bettendorf native, is lighting up Broadway in “Six,” which opened on Oct. 3, 2021. It originally was scheduled to open March 12, 2020, the night Broadway shut down due to COVID.
“Six” is a British musical by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, which premiered in 2017 at Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s a modern retelling of the lives of the six wives of King Henry VIII (1491-1547) as a high-tech pop concert. The brief synopsis on the show website says of the wives’ fates – “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.”
“From Tudor Queens to pop princesses, the Six wives of Henry VIII take the mic to remix five hundred years of historical heartbreak into an exuberant celebration of 21st-century girl power!” says sixonbroadway.com.
Before the “Six” previews started on Broadway Feb. 13, 2020, Pauly had performed as Katherine Howard in “Six” productions over 100 times, in Chicago; Edmonton, Canada, and St. Paul, Minn.
“I would say our previews that we did in New York last year were the absolute craziest,” she said this past May. “That was when the first week of previews when we had the actual stage door out in the street — that was the first moment that I had of like, oh my God, this is Broadway. This is wild. Just like people overflowing onto the street, it’s just madness.”
A review at vox.com noted “Six” reopened Sunday, Oct. 3 before a masked, vaccinated audience. “Remember us from PBS?” demanded Katherine of Aragon, and a “whole horde of people in the theater — teenage girls in glittery princess dresses and tiaras, sober-suited bankers, cynical-eyed millennials in jeans — screamed back in response,” the review said.
“The spectacle and the glitz of Broadway is back at last, and joyous, messy Six has joined the party. This show can deliver a blast of the energy and exuberance that Broadway at its best excels at, the energy that everyone in that theater has palpably longed for over the past 19 months.”
The New York Times wrote that the show “isn’t a philosophically incoherent jumble; it’s a rollicking, reverberant blast from the past. I don’t just mean that it’s loud, though it is; you may clutch your ears even before the audience, primed by streaming audio and TikTok, starts singing along to the nine inexhaustibly catchy songs.
“I also mean that though gleefully anachronistic, mixing 16th-century marital politics with 21st-century selfies and shade, it suggests a surprising, disturbing and ultimately hopeful commonality,” the review said. “Which shouldn’t work, but does.
“True, it sometimes works too well; the brand discipline here is almost punishing. What began as a doodle devised during a poetry class at Cambridge University is now as tightly scripted as a space launch….As if designed by a marketing expert in a spreadsheet frenzy, each is also equipped with a recognizable look, a signature song genre and a pop star ‘queenspiration.’”
A Charles Isherwood review at Broadway News said: “As Katherine Howard, who was accused of dallying with other men, Samantha Pauly has a fine, steely, to-hell-with-the-judgers edge.”
Pauly – who played Elle Woods in Circa ‘21’s production of “Legally Blonde” in 2012 — portrayed Eva Peron in Jamie Lloyd’s 2019 critically acclaimed West End revival of “Evita” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
She began working professionally after receiving her BFA in musical theater from Viterbo University. Pauly has starred in many regional productions in Chicago, including Betsy in Honeymoon in Vegas, Eva Peron in Evita, Jovie in Elf the Musical, and Amber von Tussle in Hairspray.
As Katherine Howard in the U.S. premiere of SIX the Musical at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, she received a Joseph Jefferson Award. In the summer of 2019, Pauly was hand-picked by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jamie Lloyd to play Eva Peron after an international search for the “Evita” revival.
The production went on to receive nominations and wins at The Evening Standard Theatre Awards, the WhatsOnStage Awards, and the Oliviers. Pauly’s TV credits include: “Chicago PD” (NBC), and ads for Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Purina, and T-Mobile.
The two women stay humble
“It’s really easy to stay humble, when you go to that dance call and kick a girl in the face accidentally, and you go to your Broadway show and you go on the subway to go home and there’s someone like peeing on the subway,” Bashor said in a Nov. 30, 2020 panel of PV alums.
“Yeah, this is the reality. It presents as this very glamorous career, but behind the veneer of the lights and the costumes, and those two hours you spend in the theater, every other part of it is very hard,” she said. “You’re humbled by the realities of your career. And also, like your friends and your family, all these other things you feel your life with also ground you and humble you.”
“I still love going to Broadway shows and love seeing the magic and get very emotional,” Pauly said then. “What I think about is, how devastated I would feel if I ever met one of my theater idols and they turned out not to be a great person, like how disappointing that is.”
“That’s also the magic of theater – we dress up and put on these fancy things, but I also like to go home and put sweatpants on and eat chicken nuggets after a show,” she said. “I get on the subway and nobody has any idea who I am, like it doesn’t matter. We do important work and it’s really magical, and it gives people an escape for a couple hours, but we’re not like saving the world. I feel like that brings me back down.
“We’re doing a job; I did my job for the day,” Pauly said. “Theater is important, obviously, but there plenty of times where I’m like, I’m not saving a life today like a doctor…It’s that simple; it’s easy to be nice.”
“I get hired for my voice over other things,” she said. “Along comes a show like ‘Six,’ if I watched it before I was in it, I’d say ‘I cannot, I could never.’ But if you’re making yourself take a couple dance classes here and there and try to stay on top of things, you’ll be fine. You will go to dance calls and you will embarrass yourself, and feel like a fool. That’s OK.
“There have been dance calls I’ve been asked to go to, tap ones, that ‘Anything Goes’ is not my show,” Pauly said. “They say come in anyway, it’s a singers’ dance call, and it’s still been really bad. That’s OK; it’s gonna happen. Just like, try your best and have fun. In the end at a lot of these dance calls, they want you to have fun. There have been so many where I’ve stopped mid-dance call and say, nope, not even close.”
“There are still plenty of things you can do,” she said, noting “Six” has the most dance of any of her shows. “Find out what you’re good at and focus on that, on those shows that will really show who you are.”
Bashor knew she wanted to work in musical theater since she acted at PV.
“It was the thing that made me feel the most lit up when I did it. Like I didn’t feel like I was working when I did, but I felt I was collaborating and playing, and when I realized there was a world in which someone could get paid to do that, I thought that sounds really amazing,” she said.Advertisement
“I was encouraged by really good teachers in high school and I was encouraged by really good teachers in college,” Bashor said. “But I think it honestly has less to do with how good you are and more to do with how tenacious you are. I don’t think people necessarily don’t work because they’re not good enough.
“But I think a lot of people stop working because they’re tired of how hard the profession is. I think you have to just keep re-assessing whether or not you want to put yourself through the realities of the business, and there is no shame in ever saying, ‘I’m tapping out, I’ve had it.’ Your tenacity will be tested again and again, and it’s something you’ll have to revisit your whole career,” she said.