Keala Settle on her Tony nomination for ‘Hands on a Hardbody’ and future goals

Keala Settle

Keala Settle

From her home in Hawaii, to a few national tours, to a Tony-nominated role on the Great White Way, Keala Settle’s journey to New York has definitely been a long and worthwhile one! She was most recently seen in the Broadway musical Hands on a Hardbody, and has since made a name for herself in New York through her phenomenal performances and humble disposition. As the Tony Awards ceremony quickly approaches, Settle was happy to talk to Stage Door Dish about her career experiences, stage door interactions, current obsessions and future goals.

 SDD: I’m sure many fans at the stage door told you that your performance in Hands on a Hardbody would earn you a Tony nod. Did you think that this would happen?    

KS: Well, EVERY actor dreams about it, for sure! But you never really know until you get that first phone call of the morning once the announcement’s been made…and then it becomes REAL! And you realize that your peers, your colleagues, went on that journey with you onstage. Very humbling.

SDD: How would you compare your stage door experiences of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Hardbody?

KS: HA!!!! In Priscilla, I went out the alley doors!!! I BOLTED!!! I LOVED showing up to the Palace Theater every night, playing 7 different characters, singing and dancing my face off, and running away!! I have a fear of people and crowds, and it used to be almost debilitating. But it’s actually gotten a lot better, simply BECAUSE of Hardbody! I remember walking out the stage door after our invited dress rehearsal, ready to turn to the left and head towards 8th Avenue and go home. NOT EVEN. There were people there cheering and smiling and laughing and teary eyed…and I said to my cast mate, “Where did these people come from?” And she said to me, “They’re here for us!…For YOU!” I was stunned! And instead of bolting to the C train, I stayed. And I signed playbills. And I talked to those people in the crowds. And I have slowly become less and less afraid of people after a show.

SDD: What made you leave your hometown in Hawaii to get a college education in Utah?

KS: The university I was headed to (Southern Utah University) was attached to one of best Shakespearean Festivals in the nation, and Shakespeare is my first love. It’s how I was introduced to theater in the first place, by entering a Shakespeare competition in high school back home in Hawaii. Up to that point, I’d spent almost my whole life in Hawaii and I was ready to GO…to chase my dreams. So I applied there and was accepted.

SDD: You’ve said before you thought Hardbody was a play when you first heard about it. Looking back on your experience with the show, do you think that Hardbody‘s book has the emotional depth to stand alone as a play or does the music help the guide the story along where the words leave off?  

KS: I think there are a LOT of musicals that could (and already DO) stand alone as plays. And I think this show has the capability of holding its own in either medium.

SDD: How did it feel to have “Joy of the Lord” featured in many of the promos? Many people must have come to the show based on that one song!

KS: BAAHAHAHAHA!!!!  Because of my initial fear of being “in the front”, it took me a VERY long time to be ok with just HOW BIG this song potentially is and has become.  I also realized that, for character purposes, the song had to “go there” to let the audience in on who this woman really is; beautiful in every way on every human level with a faith that could move mountains or, in her case, win her a truck.

SDD: Have you kept in touch with Norma Valverde?  

KS: Unfortunately, I have not. She and her husband Ramon are quite busy, along with the rest of their family…living their lives to the fullest.

SDD: How did it feel to tell Norma’s story? Do you share any similarities with her?

KS: It was an HONOR and a PRIVILEGE to tell this woman’s story. She is so simple and her life is equally so. In that simplicity lies the beauty of who we all are, and that simplicity was what I loved sharing with audiences every night.  To me, she represents HOPE and an immense capacity to truly LOVE, which is the trait that she and I share, I believe. I want to believe…

SDD: What are your future goals? Would you ever like to try straight acting in plays?

KS: I would LOVE to do a play/TV show/Film with NO MUSIC in it…someday.:) But I also know that I love doing all of it.  I’ve been singing ever since I can remember, and I know that when I can’t find the words to convey what’s on my mind and my heart, the music takes over.  As it should be.  The constant for me in this moment is that I WANT TO DO IT ALL!!! And, God willing, I will be able to.

SDD: Tell us about The Last Ship workshop. How did you get involved with that? What was it like working with an icon like Sting?

KS: Another gift of a show…the heart and soul of Sting who, just as Doug Wright had done with Hardbody, was paying homage to the people he grew up with, whose lives have influenced his own.  It was a blessing to be able to go from Hardbody to The Last Ship in that sense; there is so much heart in the story alone.  And then there’s the music.  When I walked in the audition, there was Joe Mantello and John Logan with open arms! For those of you paying attention, that’s THREE INDUSTRY AWARDS being represented IN ONE PRODUCTION – The Tony Awards (Mantello), The Academy Awards (Logan) and the Grammy Awards (Sting).  “The Three Musketeers” I call them, all working their craft towards the honesty and truth of this story…let’s just say I can’t WAIT for the world to see this show next year!

SDD: What was your experience like working on A Christmas Carol? How did you breathe new life into such a classic story?

KS: Christmas Carol was a BLAST!!!! I have always wanted to play Mrs. Fezziwig and fortunately I was given the chance to do so.  The production itself was so beautiful and had so many levels to it, thanks to the director Karen Azenberg. And the Fezziwig party was THE place to be every night, let me tell you!!!  The gentleman who played Mr. Fezziwig (Robert Anthony Jones) was THE LIGHT of my experience!  I think what is so great about the show is that people have seen so many different versions of Christmas Carol, so as performers we have to fight against the familiarity of it by infusing as much of ourselves as we can into the piece without compromising the truth of it all.  And RAJ helped me do that…well, let’s be honest. THE WHOLE CAST did.

SDD: Would you ever consider going back and re-exploring your R&B roots or is it safe to say that theatre is your home now?

KS: That’s funny…I’ve never thought of it as having a “home” in this industry, per se.  As the great Nanny McPhee said, “I go where I’m needed.” Music will always be my life. And imitating life is my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE THING to do.  Sometimes the twain shall meet, sometimes they won’t. What I do know is that wherever they all exist, individually or collectively, I want to be there.  Amidst all of it until it’s time for my dirt nap.

SDD: You’ve performed in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Hands on a Hardbody, South Pacific, and Hairspray. If all of the characters you played in that show competed in a hardbody contest, who would win? What about a sing-off?

KS: SING OFF! HYSTERICAL!!!  In Priscilla, one of the ensemble characters I played was an old woman who was a maniac at her slot machine during the number “Boogie Wonderland.”  Her unofficial name was Myrna.  Her husband had left her and, ever since, she had spent the rest of her time at the casino, chasing the slots.  SHE would win the truck, for sure.  As far as the sing-off goes, it would absolutely be Norma!

SDD: Give us five words or less to describe your experiences in New York.  

KS: I never stop learning.

SDD: Are you aware of the impact Hardbody had on fans? Did you expect such a strong response, how do you feel knowing Hardbody was so influential?

KS: When I signed on to this project two years ago, I knew full well that what we were doing was somewhat experimental and extremely thought provoking.  I also knew that, because of the story itself, we would be making a permanent mark in the history of musical theater.  That’s the beauty of it, even now.  I’m extremely proud of what we’ve done, and honored to have been included in the piece as well as recognized for it by all of my peers in this industry.

SDD: As our video blogger at Stage Door Dish would say, “Let’s Talk Tonys!” Have you picked a dress? Who are you most excited to see? Who are you cheering for to win?

KS: YAAAAY TONYS!!!  I DO have a dress being designed and made for me by Westervelt Studios…I’m very excited about it!  What I’m most excited to see at the Awards are all the designs that people will be wearing.  Even though I don’t look like it, I follow fashion like a hawk on its prey.  C’mon, I’m a total GIRL!!!  And I’m cheering for Bertie Carvel, he’s incredible.

SDD: Where did you receive your vocal training?

KS: In the shower at my house in Laie, HI!

SDD: Did you ever think your career would go in the incredible direction it did?  

KS: Like I said, we all dream about it happening.  Once it happened, though, I was a deer in headlights!  Kind of still am, unfortunately!

SDD: If you weren’t a performer, what job would you most want to have?

KS: Pastry chef.

SDD: Do you have any hidden or secret talents?  

KS: I don’t know if it’s a talent, but I can install an orchestra pit all by myself!!!  (The IA will understand that one! WOOHOO Local 122!)

SDD: What’s something people would be surprised to know about you?

KS: I have a pet Flemish giant bunny named Tincy.  She’s 18 pounds and my mum and dad look after her while I’m here.  And she turns 5 years old the week of the Tonys!  HAPPY BIRTHDAY MY BABY!!

Keala Settle and Norma Valverde

Keala Settle and Norma Valverde

SDD: Describe yourself in five words or less.

KS: I am what I am.

SDD: What are you currently obsessed with?

KS: Fashion.

SDD: Would you ever enter a hardbody contest?

KS: Hell no!

SDD: Which cast recording or album have you been listening to lately?

KS: Boyz II Men Twenty because I AM that girl!

SDD: If you could delete any song from existence, which one would you choose?

KS: Not a single one.

SDD: What’s the last great show you saw on stage?  

KS: I saw the closing night performance of Jekyll and Hyde at the Marriott Marquis a couple weeks ago.  I’ve never seen it and I love the original story and I’m a huge fan of Frank Wildhorn‘s music.  It was CHURCH!!!!  That cast was fantastic!!!  The design and look of the show was SO inventive.  What struck me as refreshing was that the show wasn’t trying visually to attack my senses every 5 seconds.  The director let the story and the actors do the work as the music moved it all along.

SDD: Who is the last person who made you feel star struck?

KS: TOM HANKS!

SDD: If you could trade places with anyone on Broadway, who would you choose?  

KS: Jennifer Cody. THAT woman is FOREVER WORKING!!!

SDD: If you could have a drink with anyone on Broadway, whom would you choose?  

KS: Maura Tierney.

SDD: Do you have a phrase or motto you live your life by?  

KS: Everything is exactly as it should be. :)

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