School of Rock star Mamie Parris discusses the fun of being mean to Tony nominee Alex Brightman

Mamie-ParrisAs Patty Di Marco in School of Rock, Mamie Parris is outspoken about her loathing for Dewey Finn whom she views as a freeloading bum. The role of Dewey is played by current Tony nominee Alex Brightman.

In real life, Parris is much sweeter but still manages to make her voice heard. Her Twitter is filled with views on the current election and other equally controversial topics. Her ability to speak her mind is as admirable as her onstage talent.

Parris is a Broadway veteran whose former credits include The Drowsy Chaperone and the revivals of 110 in the ShadeRagtime, and On the Twentieth Century. Additionally, she has starred as Judy Bernly on the national tour of 9 to 5 and has been transformed into a green-skinned witch on the Wicked national tour.

The Texas native spoke with Stage Door Dish about playing a control freak in the Tony Award nominated musical, organizing Broadway for Hillary, and the lessons that can be gleaned from working with kids.

Let’s start with the big question: is Patty just a really smart voice of reason with an type-A personality or is she kind of a total bitch?

In my opinion, she’s just a type-A personality who craves control, who does not understand how someone can live the way Dewey lives. That’s a big part of it. She’s got these controlling aspects and these type-A aspects. We all know people who have those kinds of personalities, but the thing that’s missing for her is compassion. She doesn’t have patience for Dewey messing around and screwing up her life. I think that’s the only aspect that really makes her a villain in this case. The real fact of the matter is that Dewey is our hero, so we want to love him and anybody who is going to criticize him is going to be the villain.

Especially when Dewey is played by Alex Brightman, who is adorable.

Exactly. He’s so likable, and it makes anyone who challenges him unlikable. But she also a bit shrill, come on. If we’re being totally honest, she doesn’t realize how loud she can get.

How fun is it to be mean to Alex?

It’s very fun. The great thing is that Alex and Dewey both have a confidence that drives them no matter what’s going on in the scene. I’m calling Dewey out on things that most people would say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m sorry about that. I’ll get to the rent.’ But Dewey is like, ‘Hey, my world is the most important world. Battle of the Bands is the most important thing in the world, and I’m sorry if you cant understand that.’ It’s fun to be mean to someone when you don’t run into any danger of hurting their feelings.

Patty does come around in the end. 

Yeah, she gives over. I think that’s what works for most people who have issues with control. At one point you just have to give into it and ride that wave, and that makes it fun.

How familiar were you with the movie coming into things?

I was pretty familiar with it. I’ve seen it a couple of times. Once I got called in for it, I didn’t watch it again, and I actually haven’t seen it since. Especially because we were developing something new- yes, it’s an adaptation of the film, and I think we did a great job with the adaptation- we were creating a lot of these scenes from scratch. Especially with the relationship with Ned and Patty, I didn’t want it to be aligned with what had happened in the film. I wanted us to find what works for this because a lot of times what works on screen is cinematic and doesn’t work on stage. I was familiar enough that I knew the gist of the piece and the characters, but I haven’t seen it since I got involved in the process.

The cast recording and your song in the show are different.

Yeah, it’s actually a completely different piece. ‘Give Up Your Dreams’ was a pretty amazing experience. Apparently that was a song that had been a part of the production in a previous incarnation, but from the moment that I was cast in the show, it did not exist. They were mulling about what kind of reprise they wanted to give me. I sang a lot of different things in rehearsal, and they couldn’t quite figure out what they wanted to be the feel of my song and my energy. I hadn’t learned that song, I didn’t really know it.

The day we recorded the cast recording, I showed up, and I had been watching football with my friends and thinking ‘I sing hardly anything, this is going to be a great cast recording, I’ll be in and out.’ I showed up in the studio, and Andrew [Lloyd Webber] came out and said, ‘Here’s the thing. We have this song that used to be in the show and we found it didn’t quite work. We’ve got the arrangement already recorded by the musicians in LA, and we were wondering if we could take you in the room and teach you this song and maybe record it as a bonus track on the album.’ I was like, ‘What?!’ What do you say to that? It’s Andrew Lloyd Webber asking you to record a bonus track on his album, so I said, ‘Absolutely. Yes, I can do that.’

We went in and recorded it, and it was completely fun and a blast. I think the people involved in the production had forgotten what a great song it is. It’s a terrific song. They tried to put it back in the show, and we did put it back in for a very short amount of time during tech, and it was cut again before our first preview. They were right in eliminating it the first time because it’s not necessary, but it’s a great tune and I’m glad it ended up on the CD.

I’m so glad it happened like that, it’s one of my favorite songs from the album.

Isn’t it great? It’s so funny and says so much about Patty, and it lets her fly off the handle, but in the end, the show isn’t about me. It’s really more about Dewey and the kids. It wasn’t easy to let go of, but I’m so thrilled I got to sing it when I did and I hope I get to sing it again.

I’ve heard ‘If Only You Would Listen’ is one of your favorite songs in the show and you like to observe in the wings once in a while.

It’s so lovely. I remember the first time I watched the kids do it in the studio. When you’re rehearsing a show, you don’t see a lot of what’s going on that you’re not involved in. Since I’m not really involved with the kids at all, the first time we did a run through of the show, I saw all these things that I had not experienced. That was really touching because these kids are so young and they are at that age where they probably feel that way a lot. I find it moving and sweet. They’re all so honest. Kids have a hard time not being genuine with their feelings, so it’s really touching.

What have you learned from this incredible group of children?

I learn something new from them every day. It’s an adventure working with nearly 20 kids on a regular basis. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done. I’ve worked with children before, but not this many. They’re such an integral part of the show that they’re not just kids who can sing a few lines. They’re really gifted, talented kids. There’s a reason they had to search all over the country to find these kids. Every day I learn about tenacity and pushing trough things. It’s amazing to watch them learn and discover things on a daily basis. It’s also kind of a big responsibility, even though that’s not our job. When you’re surrounded by kids like that, you want to influence them in a good way. You’re aware that everything they hear out of your mouth, everything they see you do is something they’re learning from. That’s been cool. It keeps us on our toes at the theatre and reminds us to always be grateful that we’re there. When you’ve done this as a professional for many years, you still love your job, but it’s still a job and you get into the grind and think, ‘I can’t believe they still have to fix this prop.’ Working with 12 year olds who are so thrilled to be singing on stage makes you go, ‘Oh wait a second. Let’s take a deep breath, let’s take a step back. This is the most incredible thing in the world.’

The kids in this musical make me feel like such a slacker.

I hear that from so many people, but we were these kids. Granted we have some musical prodigies in the show, but at some point we were all the kids who were learning and exploring. There’s not that much that’s different for them. I know they are so talented and they can play anything and do anything, but we all have that capability. We become adults and we forget and we aren’t that fearless. That’s the thing that these kids have in spades. They are fearless. They will try anything.

You played Rosalie while Sierra Boggess was out. How was that experience? 

Oh my God, it was great. I love Rosalie. It’s such a fun role. I love watching Sierra do it, I love that the team has been so terrific in letting me find her for myself. It worked out really well that way, and I enjoy it a lot. I guess I’ve made a career of playing quirky characters, and there’s a little Judy Bernly in her. She’s just got this quirky quality where she’s a strong, independent woman, but she’s got a firm hold on her sense of reality that she cannot let go.

Who would you say are your favorite all time rock artists?

Definitely The Beatles. I grew up listening to, of course, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin. I totally went through the grunge phase. I was young but I loved Pearl Jam and Nirvana. There’s so many great rock artists to listen to today. I love Foxy Shazam now, I’ve always been a fan of Cake. The really timeless artists like Prince are the people that push the boundaries and the music is always good. You can return to The Beatles any time, and they made that music 50 years ago, and it’s still incredible.

You’ve had an incredibly successful career in theatre. If you could choose only one of them to go back to for a night or a weekend, which would you choose?

That’s really hard. Right now, maybe because it’s so recent, I would probably go back to Lily Garland in On the Twentieth Century. I covered Kristin Chenoweth‘s role, and I got to go on quite a bit. She is so fun, and the show is non-stop enjoyment, and it creates this giddy magic between the cast and the audience. I really had a great time. It’s not a show that gets produced very often, but I certainly hope it gets produced more now that we brought it back to life, and I hope I get to play her again.

You have played Elphaba and you covered for Kristin. Did you guys ever discuss Wicked?

I don’t know if we talked about it. Yes, Kristin was Glinda and I’m sure we talked about it at some point. But what’s funny is that Wicked has been around and been such a phenomenon for so long, in every show I do, there’s someone who was an Elphaba, a Glinda, a Boq, or a Fiyero. It’s this big extended family no matter where you go. I’m doing this show right now, and one of the women in the ensemble is Cassie Okenka. She’s actually one of my understudies. She’s incredibly talented. She came on the road as a Glinda cover when I was Elphaba, and her first time on as Glinda, I was her Elphaba. It’s been such fun, now we’re great friends and we’re across the hall from each other at this theatre and go on stage together every night. It’s a small world, especially when it comes to Wicked. It’s employed a lot of people, and we’re very grateful for that. 

Patty works in politics, and you are very into politics. Would you say that’s the biggest similarity between you and her character?

Probably the biggest similarity is the fact that we both like order. Obviously, I don’t take it to the nth degree like Patty does, but I definitely like order in my life. I keep a very neat date book and agenda. I need to know my appointments. It’s actually quite funny, thank goodness I met and married my husband, because I used to be a little bit obsessive with my lists. I would make a list for the next day that was down to the time. ‘I will leave between 9:15 and 9:20, which means the train will arrive between 9:45 and 9:50, which will give me 10 minutes to get Starbucks before rehearsal.’ I would write it out, and thank goodness I don’t do that anymore. 

I think there’s something to be said, especially right now in the current political climate, that we see a lot of ambitious women involved in politics. Our generation really feels like this is the first time that it’s a distinct possibility. We are similar in that aspect in that she doesn’t see any limits to where she can go. She works in the mayor’s office, and I have a feeling she’s one of his aides. She’s probably a social media rep. She’s got grand visions of ascending to that throne and maybe becoming the mayor of the city or a senator. It’s kind of cool in a way because it shows that her future is- to quote Elphaba- unlimited. I feel the same way. I like to see smart women succeed. I grew up with an incredibly smart, gifted, skilled working mother, who had a really hard time because times are different and times are always shifting. It’s great to see these ambitious women succeed. 

What can you tell me about Broadway for Hillary?

Broadway for Hillary was something I just came up with to show support for Hillary Clinton as the presidential candidate. I’m a big fan of Hillary, I have been for a long time, and she’s my chosen candidate. I know a lot of people have other chosen candidates, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s a democracy and I think that’s great. A lot of times we would hear in the press that Hillary voters were all older and set in their ways and very moderate, and I thought, ‘I know a lot of young, creative, theatrical people who are big fans of Hillary. Maybe we can raise that profile I little bit.’ So I thought of throwing a party and it grew from there. I asked my brother, who is a graphic designer, to help me make a logo and put up a banner at the party. We all met recently and had drinks and made friends and talked about our missions and volunteer efforts. Now I have a Twitter handle, just trying to get the news out there that it’s not uncool to be a supporter of a stalwart like Hillary. I’m a big fan of hers and I think she’s been fighting for a long time to be in the position she’s in. 

Politics and the arts aren’t really separate. Activism within theatre is pretty prominent. Can you talk about why they complement so well?

For one, they’ve gone hand in hand for centuries. Theatre is the oldest art form. People have been telling stories this way forever. Power and hierarchy and politics as we know it today is also something that has always been around. Theatre as social commentary is not unusual. We even have some of it in our show, and we’re not a political satire or anything like that. We have our little winks and nods at the audience, and I think they appreciate it. Theatre is a great platform for bringing a compassionate light to people.

Something people tend to lack these days in the world of being ensconced in social media is empathy and compassion. When you watch a show and watch talented actors create these people that you care about, you start to see the world from their perspective, and that gives you the unique advantage to tell the story of someone that may be very different from the person watching. That is not so different from what modern day politics and government is all about. For instance, one of our big candidates, Bernie Sanders, is a self-declared socialist. I think some socialist policies are terrific, social democracy can be really successful. One of the things about socialism is that we can all help each other out. If everyone chips in a little, that helps the people who are having the hardest time. That’s something that has always been hard to convince a capitalist economy because everyone is fighting for themselves. Hopefully with theatre, we can show them that these other people that they may not think about very often or may not know exist are just as equal and important as they are. It’s a very important thing that we do. Even by telling stories, even if you don’t bring modern day politics or current events into it, just by telling these stories and making people feel compassion and empathy for somebody different than them helps everybody.

As we get into awards season, your show has been nominated for so many things. Why do you think audiences and critics are loving School of Rock so much?

It’s just a great show. I’m really proud of this show. It’s fun. People toss around the term ‘feel-good musical’ far too often with musicals that aren’t that ‘feel-good’, but this genuinely is one where people leave the theatre feeling a little better about life, feeling a little lighter on their feet. There’s so much love in this show. I always joke that there are a couple of moments where people kiss or hug, and the audiences always responds. I always say, ‘These people love love.’ That’s kind of what the story is all about. If we can all appreciate each other for the gifts that they bring, the world is a happier place. It makes people feel good. Everybody is singing along and clapping along and on their feet at the end. It’s a really great feeling and it’s fun to be a part of.

One of the times I saw the show, I was sitting next to a 6 year old boy who was in love with it.

It’s so not a kids’ musical. It’s not made for kids. It’s very family friendly, but adults love the show. It always surprises me when I see these young kids come in, like 6, 8, 9 year old kids. They love it. Seeing kids their age or a little older on stage, playing and having a great time and coming into themselves is really exciting.

My friend who I brought with me this last time said, ‘I thought I would kind of like the show, but I really loved it.’

I hear that from so many people. I have so many friends who are in the business, and we certainly don’t go to shows to criticize, but you see so many things that you have a different opinion, you know what goes into making shows, you’re just a little different audience member. I have so many friends come and say, ‘Oh my God. I didn’t expect to love it this much. I want to come back.’ I already have friends who are getting house seats from me this summer so they can come back and bring their God sons. It’s very cool.

What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?

I love cars. I don’t know if everyone would be surprised. I’m pretty public on my social media that I love fast cars. I’m not a NASCAR fan, but I see a Camero on my street and I drool. I loved looking under the hood of cars as a kid. We didn’t have a lot of money, so we would always buy cars that had to be fixed, and my brother was never into that, so I was the one out in the driveway with my dad, holding the flashlight and learning about cars. Cars have changed so much since then, of course, but I loved going to the auto shows and looking under the hood of cars.

That’s so cool.

You say cool, I say a little embarrassing.

No! It’s such an awesome thing for a woman to be savvy with. Do you have mechanic abilities?

I could probably change your oil. I haven’t been a car owner in a long time because I live in New York and I’ve been touring, and there’s no need to own a car. Technology has advanced so much in the 15 or 20 years since I’ve worked on cars, so I’d probably be like, ‘I have no idea!’ But the basics, I could probably take care of for you. It was always nice to feel a little self-reliant, in that department at least.

If you were not an actress or singer, what would you want to do with your life?

I’d probably be a covert operative for the CIA. Who doesn’t want to be Jason Bourne? I really don’t know. I always thought, when I was a kid, that I would be a lawyer. Something about that really appealed to me. I liked making sure people got what they deserved and standing up and arguing my point in court. Now, I don’t know if I could do it. It seems like so much red tape and paperwork, and I think I would be terribly frustrated. If I didn’t do this, I think I would have to be something where I could help people. Maybe I would be a politician. I’d want to make change for good.

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About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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