When we met Sierra Boggess on a rainy New York City morning, within five minutes it became clear that she’s a woman who has given a lot of thought about who she is and how she wants to be in the world (she even managed to do this during the now standard, “It’s nice that it’s not freezing out, but also it’s kind of creepy,” small talk). Sierra is currently starring as Rosalie Mullins, the principal in School of Rock. Last season she appeared in It Shoulda Been You. Other Broadway credits include Master Class, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, and she made her Broadway debut as Ariel in The Little Mermaid. She’s also crossed the pond and starred in the West End production of Love Never Dies. We talked to Sierra about her evolution throughout these productions, how she’s balanced her personal development while also working in the theatre, and how all of this has now taken root in her current role in School of Rock. Her astute exploration of her relation to her profession and her roles (both on and off stage) is just the sort of conversation that we think is important to have.
When you hear a song, do you immediately have an emotional response to it?
For sure. Even when it’s on the radio. Even when it’s mundane or “it’s just a pop song,” I think we as humans respond. It’s actually very scientific that we’re responding to the beat or the high notes. But I really respond to when I can hear, going back to this theme of perfection — I mean I’m obsessed with this whole thing and how much it’s in our lives — as the music industry has grown and people have tried to get this one way to look and one way to sound, it’s stripped away all of this rawness. As everyone by now knows, I’m the biggest Barbra Streisand fan. I discovered Barbra Streisand when I was a kid through my mother, and she had a record player and she would play her records, and the sound of her and the rawness… It’s so funny how Barbra has this reputation of being difficult to work with, and I guarantee you it’s because she’s a woman who speaks up for herself. I guarantee it. Because she knows what she wants. I’ve heard stories of her going back into the listening room and they’ll have mixed up something that she’s just recorded and she’ll be like, “Where are my breaths. You can’t hear my breaths.” Because they tried to strip it out and make it sound perfect and like you’re not a human singing—but she already doesn’t sound like a human singing because she’s freaking extraordinary—but she’s asking for the realness to be put back in. Obviously I don’t know her, I’m talking purely from an admirer standpoint, but that’s what I responded to as a kid: this raw sound, this real sound. It’s imperfectly perfect.
And Barbra’s so germane to what we’ve been talking about, not only in terms of her voice, but what she’s done for women in the industry.
Completely. And she still does. She’s so relevant to me. I use her so much within my show. On my wall, I have her [photo] because she’s my role model, and then I have Stevie Nicks too for Ms. Mullins. I have these two super powerful women in their respective industries. And what the show means to Stevie Nicks… Stevie has come to our show twice and she’s going to come back again. She loves the musical and she loves the movie. She said when she first saw the movie she was watching TV and it was on and she was watching and then her song came on and then she was like, “I must have signed off on this at some point” — that’s when you know you’ve made it, when you’re like, “I guess I signed off on this.” But she said she’s been struck by being the only female rocker represented within the entire show, School of Rock. We’re celebrating rock and he [Dewey] references all of these different people within the show that are his inspirations, and Stevie Nicks is the only female represented in the rock world. It makes me want to cry just thinking about it. So, no wonder [it had an impact on her]. And she’s so relevant in that today. And I love that Rosalie gets to be the one to bring her to life and that she’s her inspiration.
And since for so long that singularity went sort of unnoticed and uncelebrated. Or not even being able to have the discussion of what it’s like to be the only one in a boy’s club.
Right. Can you imagine? I’ve thought about her so much, and at that time wanting to become a rocker and what that stigma was, it’s fascinating to me. I would love to talk to her about it.
Yeah, and that thing of how you do that without having anyone to look at and go, “Oh, okay, that’s how you do that.”
And I think that’s, subconsciously, what Rosalie Mullins is relating to is this woman who has paved the way. Going back to the character, I love her so much, and what I keep learning about her, to be a woman of the age she is — I’m in my early thirties — and she’s the head of one of the most established, prestigious schools and all of the other teachers are older than she is. And as a woman to be holding this up and the responsibilities and the pressures that she’s under to show up a certain way, that informed how I walk and how I talk. That goes back to the [idea of] coming from a place of truth. All of the expectations that there are on her, as a young woman, to be running a school of that caliber, it’s a lot.
Right, we usually think of women, if they’re in roles of authority, as being older or super tall and British.
Exactly. And there are clues within it. She says that no one has asked her to go out in six years. So six years ago she was twenty-eight years old, she went out to the teachers convention, had one beer, got drunk, and started coming alive singing Stevie Nicks. All of the teachers remembered it and will keep remembering it, but it’s the last time she did it and allowed herself to be free and vulnerable. And my acting teacher and I, when we were analyzing the scene in the bar and when Dewey gets her to go on a date with him, my acting teacher said, “This is a boundary she’s maintained for six fucking years.” And now this guy is coming in and asking her to come out of her comfort zone and the only time she relaxes is when she hears Stevie Nicks playing — her kindred spirit. It’s psychologically fascinating to me. Again, as a woman, can you imagine if any of them knew that she went out with this substitute and all of this stuff? I could go on.
Well, it so relates to women in our culture in general. Like how women get, “Oh, are you the assistant to the principal?”
Or, “Let me talk to who’s in charge.” “No, I am.”
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Victoria Myers / theINTERVAL / Monday, December 21, 2015