I think it is no coincidence that Savannah Wise has the last name that she does. It was a month or so ago when I was fortunate enough to interview her on the telephone. Over the hour that we spoke I was continuously blown farther away by her responses, as she answered every single one of the questions with savvy, unique, and informative answers… not like I would expect anything less from this “Broadway baby” (in the most literal sense due to the fact that both her parents were Broadway performers). Still in her twenties, Savannah has graced “The Great White Way” multiple times and is currently a cast member of NBC’s hit TV show Smash. So, without further delay from hurricane Sandy or my rambling, read for yourself Savannah Wise’s own words of wisdom.
When did you catch the theater bug?
I always wanted to be a performer. Well, I wanted to do a lot of things, but performing is what I’ve always done; it was what I was good at.
I also looked up to my parents a lot. I think as a kid it was really impactful that they were such good and successful performers.
What kind of influence did your parents have on you to go into show business?
They were definitely an influence, but they sort of always wanted me to do something else. Show business is really hard so my mom and my dad always said, “Do something else. Is there anything that might be easier on your heart?”
Show business is a really hard business and I think they recognized that when I was a kid and wanted a different kind of life for me.
They did instill a lot of “how to be a performer” in me. Like, if you’re going do it you’re going to do it this way and do it right and take these classes. If you’re going to be a performer, don’t half ass it. At the time I resented it a little bit but I tend to call my mom and my dad on a fairly regular basis and “eat some crow” and say, “Yes, you were right! Thanks so much for making me do ‘such and such’ because it was the right choice.”
You made your Broadway debut at only eight years old! What do you recall about your Les Mis experience?
Obviously, it was an amazing experience and something I will never ever forget, it was a blast, and the people involved were so fun.
I didn’t have the crazy “stage parents” so I wasn’t living that crazy child actor lifestyle; they really wanted me to be a kid.
It really was just play and fun time. So much so that I used to get in a lot of trouble because I was supposed to do all my homework at the theater and I wouldn’t do it because I was too busy playing card games and hanging out with the other kids. It’s funny because it didn’t feel like being in a Broadway show, it felt like hanging out in a Broadway theater.
Once you finished playing Young Cosette I know you did a lot of dancing. What else did you do growing up to feed the performer in you?
You know what’s funny [Savannah laughs] I mean I did do a lot of dancing, but I have to say it was never something I did a ton of. I didn’t do it while I was in Les Mis, obviously, because I didn’t have time, but when I got older I stopped taking dance in intervals for long periods of time because my mom said that if I was going to take dance it had to be ballet…and I HATED it. So, I just stopped it for long periods of time so I could just do other shows.
I did a professional production in New Orleans of Ruthless for a little less than a year and won the performing award in New Orleans for child performance. I used to do these summer camps where my aunt was a choreographer, so I would do those in the summers. I just did a lot of performing in local and community theater.
I took singing lessons all the time, that’s something that was very consistent. I had a teacher named Flo, in New Orleans, who was the bomb. She’s the reason I can sustain the way I can now—she was really fantastic.
Would you mind talking about your time at University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and what training you did there?
It was a tough program. It was all sorts of training; it was everything. I can’t exactly remember my schedule, but freshman year was completely memorable because it was so frickin’ hard. We would have to wake up at 7:30 then go to an 8 am music theory class or sight singing and I was always kind of wretched at it and I made it through by crying [Savannah laughs]. Then you’d run to an academic class, then an acting class, then a ballet class. It was everything—from modern dance to acting for the camera, and like I said, the academics were mandatory which I really liked because I always liked learning.
Do you think the school prepared you for professional auditions?
Yes and no. Yes in some ways because I certainly knew how to audition. I had some experience in college and I became a better performer there.
I am becoming someone who advocates for a more liberal arts education for performers because there are a lot of people in show business that don’t go to these conservatory programs and are fine. It really is how hard you are willing to work. And that is the thing that you learn at a conservatory like CCM. But, I don’t think you can be fully prepared to go into the professional world, especially because you aren’t being taught by people who are a part of that world every single day.
I’m a little disappointed, frankly, this is my one gripes with musical theater conservatories and colleges, they don’t prepare people for the business of what they’re doing. They prepare them to sing and dance but people coming out of these conservatory programs don’t know about contracts or the business of show business… they just don’t know it. They are just, sort of, coming in blind. They don’t have to. There are a lot of resources out there for actors that these schools don’t really tell you about… and a lot of my friends that have gone through these programs feel the same way.
What was your first job back in the business? How did it come about?
I did work professionally in college, for example, summer stock work. But the first thing I did when I got to New York was I got an agent after my showcase. Then I lived with my dad for a little bit, and after that I moved to St. Louis and did three shows there, and then I finally moved to New York to start auditioning there.
The first thing I did when I got to New York was this show called Go Go Beach at the NYMTF. It was this really cute 1960s musical comedy; that was the first job that I got. And the funny thing is I wasn’t supposed to audition for it. The reason I got is was because the person I was dating at the time was in it, and they lost the person who was supposed to play this role, so they asked me if I would come in and sing.
How soon after that did you audition for Rock Of Ages?
I auditioned for Rock of Ages a few times. The first time I auditioned was the summer of 2006 and before that I auditioned for a [script] reading [to read for Sherrie], which I didn’t get. And I always really liked the role, the show, and the music, so I was really bummed about it. I went and saw it with a friend of mine, and thought it was hilarious.
Then I went out of town, to the Goodspeed [Opera House] where I did Happy Days, and while I was there they had auditions, and I auditioned for Sherrie, and they liked me but they didn’t think I was a fit for the character. They asked, “Well, you can dance right?”
And I said, “Yeah, I can dance enough.” So, they brought me in and they ended up liking me for an understudy. That’s how I ended up in the show Off-Broadway, which would later turn into a Broadway gig.
I read that at the dance call for the show you dressed up in ’80s attire. Obviously, it’s a show that takes place in the ‘80s, but did you do it to stand out or just for fun?
I’m sure it was a little bit of both. I do like dressing up; I think it’s hilarious, I find it very enjoyable, but also sometimes it just helps me to look the part. I feel like my auditions get better when I feel like I dress like the part. So, I just thought, “Why not? It’s a fun show with fun people and it’s my time to go be me and let my geek flag fly.”
I showed up and it was me and this other girl who was really nailing it with our attire. I think it definitely helped me stand out, but it was more for my own enjoyment then to help me stand out.
Obviously your outfit was a good decision because you booked the job! How was it getting back and working in NYC?
It was really great getting to work back in New York again because I had missed it. I have always loved New York and to be working on something like that was a real blast.
One of the many cool things you got to do while being in the cast of Rock Of Ages was performing at the Tony Awards. That must have been a very special experience…right? Especially because your dad has a Tony Award of his own.
It’s funny, because I have my history in theater; I was like, “Yeah. This is what happens, and this is how you open a Broadway show.”
And opening night was exciting, but I was like “Yeah. This is what opening night parties are like.”
But performing at the Tony Awards was the first time I was like, “Oh, wait! This is really cool! This is it! I’m really doing it now!”
It was a crazy, crazy performance, too. Of course if I was going to be on the Tony Awards there was going to be drama, I mean there was this whole scandal; Brett Michaels got hurt… we “broke” him apparently.
Also, my best friend from college was there performing with Guys and Dolls. It was just a really, really cool experience to be a part of. It was a dream come true type of thing.
After being in the show for a while you took over as the lead, Sherrie. What did you have to do as an actress to make the part your own after watching someone else play her every night?
I was really lucky in the sense that I had seen three different people play Sherrie, two Off-Broadway and then Amy Spanger on Broadway. The good news was I didn’t have just one person’s performance stuck in my head, so I couldn’t just repeat someone else’s performance off the top of my head.
I went on for Sherrie the second performance that we had on Broadway. Not the second performance after opening night, the second performance after previews. I had been playing Sherrie on and off, understudying it, probably a little less than 1/3 of the performances already, which was insane. To have to do my part then her part, then her part on some days, and especially during previews, you’re rehearsing during the day and performing at night.
Oh my gosh! I don’t understand how that’s possible?
It is no joke. And the girl who understudied me, her name was Erica Hunter, I would rehearse as Sherrie because the person wouldn’t be there and Erica would rehearse as my role. She would come up to me and say, “Hey, I just put this in so this changed in your role.”
I would have to learn my part while Erica was learning and then also be learning Sherrie.
I have to say that on Broadway I always really had my own thing going on as Sherrie, anyway, because I was doing it so often. I think that the real challenge that the director, Kristen Hanggi, and I worked on was grounding it and making it very real. When you’re doing it as an understudy there is a certain amount of manic craziness that happens; you don’t get comfortable. You’re always wondering, “Am I in the right spot?”
No matter how many times you do it, you always know you are just covering somebody and just hitting the marks that they hit; that is your job. So, when I eventually took it over I had to break that mentality in my head and learn who this person was for me, not who this person was for Amy Spanger. There was nothing to copy anymore, not even a little bit. I had to really find out who this person was within me.
After Rock of Ages you went to star in the critically acclaimed Ragtime revival. What was your favorite part of the job?
Ragtime was just more fun than I could possibly say. It was an amazing cast of people…it was a huge cast. I had gone from a really small cast to a HUGE cast of people, which was a blast! It’s really fun to work with such a huge cast especially with kids. We had our own group of actor kids in the show and they were so great… I had such a great time with them.
I’m a little bit of a girly girl when it comes to costumes and wigs, and I have to say my favorite part was just getting to wear those cool costumes. They were unbelievable! And the way that they’re built is insane. It’s like wearing a piece of artwork. I had seen the original Broadway musical and I loved Evelyn Nesbit, of course because she was the only glamorous thing in the show, so I was obsessed with that role. I was wearing the same costumes with her name in them and I thought that that was the coolest thing on the planet.
I mean, it was amazing to me that I even got into the show because originally they cast Evelyn Nesbit a little bit older, especially because I have such a baby face. I look young in person so I look even younger on stage… I’m small and I have younger features so I couldn’t even believe that I booked it. When I auditioned I was like, “Oh I’m too young for this. Nobody would cast me in this.”
So I was FLOORED when they offered me the role.
Currently you play Jessica on NBC’s Smash. How did this job come up?
Well, I auditioned for the pilot as one of the main characters, and I didn’t really fit any of the main characters; neither of the two girls [Karen or Ivy] was really me. I had a great audition though, and I think they remembered me so when they had this sort of smaller featured recurring character come up they called me in. I had one audition then waited a week and a half and found out that I booked it and started working.
They thought that I would start working in episode four and I got a phone call three weeks earlier before I was supposed to start working being like, “Hey, we’re going to add you to episode two so could you come on this day?” And then the head writer of the show came up to me and said, “Your role is expanding, so we’re going to shoot a scene for you in the pilot and we’re going to put you in episode two and three and continue on your character.”
It was really amazing how it all worked out because it seemed like everyday I never knew what was coming. I thought it was going to be this three episode thing, maybe, best case scenario. And it turned out I was in every episode.
My boyfriend would always laugh at me because every time a new episode would come up I would be certain that I wasn’t going to be in it. I would be like, “Oh I’m not going to be in this episode. Oh I so worried, so scared because I’m NOT going to be in this episode.”
And that continued on through the entire season to the degree that by the end of the season I was like, “I wonder if I am gonna be in the next season. The show is getting rid of all these people. Am I gonna be in the next season?”
[Savannah laughs] So it has been crazy being a part of it and that’s how it works sometimes.
How have you had to alter how you get into character? Meaning, in live theater you perform the show straight through whereas on a TV show I have heard it is a lot of waiting and starting and stopping.
What I always tell people is that the biggest difference between the two is that when you are doing a stage production it is like a marathon. You have to have the stamina to be in character and go all the way through…you are a marathon performer.
When you work in film and television you are a sprinter…you have to be ready at a moment’s notice. You have to be prepared for, “Quick, get into character, be on point, and get your stuff done.”
It is especially on television because they don’t want to do a lot of takes. They don’t want to take a lot of time. You’re on a schedule so you have to be ready when it happens.
I think it’s a mental state you sort of have to be in. Both take concentration. One takes more intense concentration in shorter intervals and one just takes up more time.
That changes my preparation because when I’m on a set I have to make sure I will be ready to focus when I need to be focused. When I’m at I theater I have to psyche myself out at the beginning of the show and be like, “Okay, Here we go; here goes the next two hours. I am ready to be ‘this’ for two hours.”
The whole cast of Smash is so incredibly talented! How has working with such amazing performers improved your craft?
I feel very lucky that my role is as it is because I get to be on set and I get to do a lot observing. I am definitely someone who learns by observance because of my history with theater and watching my parents do it, that’s sort of how I’ve always learned.
On Smash I learn and I continue to learn. I watch Anjelica [Huston], Debra [Messing], Jack Davenport on set and am like “How are they doing it? Because they look awesome. What are they doing that has kept them working and working so well for so long? ”
What are the similarities and differences between actually making a Broadway show and what Smash depicts?
There’s sort of one thing that I can’t believe hasn’t been brought up…agents! I guess it’s because it opens up a whole big can of worms and it’s just a whole other series that’s happening within the series. They never talk about agents! And I’m always so confused by that, and I’m like, “Are you kidding me? Agents would be involved in all of this.”
And maybe sometimes they bring them up in passing but I have to say that my agent and my manager are a huge part of my life. So, it’s crazy to me that they don’t talk about it. Although, like I said they make reference to it.
But, I think the only difference is… but I wouldn’t even say it’s a difference, they could not possibly fit everything in the show that happens in real life. It’s impossible to represent it all. Everybody has to just go along for the ride and know other things are happening that you don’t know about [Savannah laughs]. They talk a little bit about the unions but, there’s always an Equity Deputy in a show and they don’t talk about that. The first day of rehearsal there’s always a meeting with the Equity representative of the show… they don’t talk about it. So, it’s not necessarily what’s different it’s just what’s not included. That’s about the only thing that I find crazily different.
What is your pre-show/on set routine?
I sort of have this morning thing that I do. I like to meditate in the mornings…it just calms me down. But, I don’t necessarily have an on set routine, and Kat [Katharine McPhee] was teasing me about this the other day, I’m always reading on set.
My attention span is a little bit short [Savannah laughs] so, I always have to have something to do or I start going crazy or causing trouble, or getting in people’s way. So my routine is to try to stay quietly busy. It’s very easy to be like, “Oh, this is so much fun, this is fun time” even though this is actually your job and you are making your living.
What advice do you have for aspiring Broadway and TV performers?
My advice is always the same. Everything that you can learn how to do, learn how to do it. I don’t consider myself a dancer, but the fact that I took so many dance classes helped me SO much in my life and allowed me to have so many more jobs. When you’re working as a performer it’s about staying employed. When someone asks you if you want to learn something, say yes. Just do it, just learn it, and practice it.
The other piece of advice that I have is something that is sort of my new mantra, “Are you working as hard and you can be working?”
Most people cannot answer that question, yet. In a business like show business you have to be the hardest working person in the room and the hardest part about that is that in acting the trick is to look like you’re not working. So, you have to figure out how to work the hardest you ever worked with looking like you aren’t.
What’s you current favorite Broadway show?
This is the least creative answer in the world but it’s true. The Book of Mormon is genius. I loved it and I still feel so lucky that I got a ticket when I did because you cannot get a ticket now. I’m just so impressed by it.
How about all time favorite play or musical?
I’m such a sucker for Sondheim. Into the Woods is my favorite musical ever. Oh, and I love Sweeney Todd, as well. I just think he [Steven Sondheim] is brilliant.
Do you have a dream role?
I don’t have a dream role. There are roles that are around that I think, “I would love to play that.”
But, I think ultimately something that hasn’t been written yet or something that I don’t know about, yet. I feel like I will know I when I find it. I don’t have any shows that I need to do before I die, but there are a lot of roles I want to play. I just hope I get to play some cool ones. ♦