When we think about this time during Covid-19 and how isolating it can be, we have to find ways to stay connected. Staying connected and finding empathy and love for one another reminds us who we are and allows us to contribute to the world around us. One way to stay connected is by sharing our story. CS Music is excited to share a little of Sharon Wheatley’s story. Sharon currently performs on Broadway in Come From Away as Diane and Others. As you read Sharon’s story, we hope that you’re reminded that you are also a part of this amazing community–“this big family,” as Sharon says. We have a responsibility to take care of each other and watch out for one another.
CS Music: Tell us a little about your background: Where did you grow up? How did you get into singing? What kind of vocal training have you had?
Sharon Wheatley: I come from a totally non-singing and non-theatrical family, so my talent and ambition was pretty much my own weird thing from the get-go. I do have an aunt who sang in an adult choir and my Dad would have said I get all of my talent from him (and then he would have shown you the “warm ups” he did in freshman choir…which sounds a lot like a lion’s roar) but in terms of knowing anything about show business or how to get me from Cincinnati, Ohio to New York City I pretty much had to figure it out myself.
I spent all of my earliest training, which was in high school at an all-girls school, being taught to sing classically. I took many years of music theory and music history and composing and singing everything from The Tender Land to The Marriage of Figaro. As I auditioned for conservatories across the country for college I pretty much heard the same thing over and over again. The heads of the Voice Departments would ask me if I’d ever considered Musical Theater as a career choice. I remember one of my critique sheets said something like “The way she runs around the stage she seems a natural for other kinds of theater other than Opera.” Ouch! I was singing Cherubino’s “Non So Piu Cosa Son” and I remember thinking (it was a pants role) he would FOR SURE be excited and run around like this. I don’t think a lot of opera singers think about the lyrics first, so I probably ended up in the right department once I started at The University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. I was lucky enough to get into both the Voice Department and the Musical Theater Department, so I majored in Musical Theater but I got to study with Barbara Honn, one of the top voice teachers at the school.
CS: When were you first cast to be on Broadway, for what show, and what role?
SW: I was first cast in Les Miserables in 1992 on the National tour and then I moved to the Broadway Company in 1994. I was a swing, which meant I went on for almost every role at one point or another including Eponine and Cosette. I fully credit my classical training for being cast in that show. When they called me to come in they said, “We know you can belt but do you happen to have a high C?’ And I was like, “YUP” and I went in and got the job.
CS: What has been your most recent performing job? Who, what, when, where?
SW: I am currently in the Broadway cast of Come From Away although as I type this I am on hiatus as we all wait out the spread of Covid 19. This is a surreal and frightening time, that is for sure, but I am also toggling back and forth between writing this and fielding fart jokes from the group chat my cast is constantly on. We might be socially distancing, but we certainly are terrible at taking a break from each other! Many of us have been with the show from its first professional production at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2015, so (as we often point out) we’ve been together longer than people go to college. They are not my cast mates, they are my best friends. I think we are all starving to get back to work, but for now we are staying in close contact with several people in the cast who have come down with the virus (some were tested, some were not, depending on the severity of symptoms). They are quarantined at home so we take it upon ourselves to help them by basically texting them all day and night. I’m not sure how much “resting” is happening, but we are doing a lot of laughing and Facetiming and group video chats with Zoom cocktail hours.
PS Are my answers too long? I literally have nothing else to do but sit here and give you the long version answer to every question. Continuing on….
CS: What has been the most surprising thing for you to learn about working in a Broadway show?
SW: That you think what is going to be cool is the work itself but, what’s actually cool is the community you are in. My Mom used to always say that Broadway felt like Sesame Street. You can’t help but walk down the street and run into people you know because you’ve done shows with them and everyone (my mother would point out) seems to be your long-lost best friend. It’s a specific way of life on Broadway and once you are part of the group you are always part of the group. Basically—everyone is talented. You know that going in. And the quality of work from everyone is going to be excellent. What you don’t expect is the family feeling. I’m not sure other occupations have that quite like Broadway does but maybe that’s arrogant of me to say. I suppose I just don’t know any better because I’ve been a part of it for so long.
CS: What is your favorite warm-up and how long do you take to warm up your voice before performing?
SW: I am not the best person to answer this question as I do not have a set warm up that I do. I know, I know. I will say that I sing so much of the day I am kind of constantly warm. I have studied off and on with Matt Farnsworth in New York, who is also an old friend from college, so if I really need to warm up in a serious way for an audition or a performance other than Come From Away I have a voice memo I use with vocal warm ups Matt gave me.
CS: How do you keep your voice in shape for so many performances? Have you had any struggles keeping it healthy?
SW: I have to do three things. 1) I have to sleep. I do get up very early to take my daughter to school but I have to make sure I come home and go back to bed for a little bit even if I don’t want to. 2) I have to drink a lot of water. 3) I have to watch how much I talk overall, especially in a loud restaurant or on the phone.
CS: Is it worth it—everything you’ve had to go through to get where you are?
Hahahaha, I’m kidding.
Of course it is. I feel awfully lucky to get to paid for my passion. What a great gift to teach my kids. I tell them to find the hobby they like the most—the thing they’d choose to do in their free time—and make a career out of it.
CS: What do you say to that high school kid who dreams of being on Broadway? What is required to “make it?”
SW: Find the performer you most admire and learn about them. See what their path was like. Focus on the bigger picture of what you want to do instead of competing with the kids who are in your high school acting class. Make yourself the best YOU you can be.
CS: It probably seems as though I’ve been avoiding the elephant in the room because I haven’t asked about Covid-19 and its ramifications yet. I thought going through some backstory would be a nice reprieve, but I do want to know a bit about how you’re handling this challenge. How are you and how is the Come From Away family doing?
SW: I think I covered that in the earlier question. For me personally I needed something to do, so I started writing a blog last week. It’s something funny and hopefully interesting to take people’s minds off of the news. I was lucky enough to have BroadwayWorld write it up , so I am getting a lot of traffic on the site, which is fun and occupies my brain a bit.
CS: In thinking about Come From Away – this incredible story you’ve been performing night after night on Broadway for a while now – it’s really a story about human connection and how import that is to our survival. (Tell me if I’m wrong, but that’s a big take away I had from watching you and your cast-mates perform.) What do you think we can learn from Come From Away to apply to our current situation? What should be our takeaway?
SW: I found that the days before the Broadway shut down felt a lot like some of the early performances of Come From Away when we performed for first responders and their families and people who were directly impacted by the events surrounding 9/11. The show had an urgency and timeliness we had not felt in a while as it is all about communities coming together for the greater good in a time of crisis. I promise you that the first night back all over Broadway will be epic, but I have to think that the show you want to see that night will be Come From Away. It will be a complete and total honor to tell that story again and celebrate the feeling of community for the greater good after all of the self-isolating.
And also, we all miss each other like crazy so we’re going to celebrate!
CS: We’re all suffering right now, but performers have a unique situation and are dealing with things that many are not. Do you have any recommendations on what people can do to support Broadway professionals such as yourself? How can we show the love?
SW: It is true—we all went to work on Wednesday and on Thursday the shows were canceled. It feels like the rug was pulled out from under us. Many people were impacted including actors, musicians, stage hands and also everyone who works in the theater like the ushers and box office people and the cleaning crew. The doormen. The agents, the producers, the small shoe shop that makes shoes for shows. The ripple effects are endless.
Please donate to my favorite organization: Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids. They are meticulous in the delegation of funds and I have worked for them personally. They are the real deal and they will get the money where it needs to go.
But the most direct thing you can do? Go buy a ticket to a show. We’re coming back and we need an audience.
CS: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our CS Music community?
SW: Thank you for occupying a solid hour giving me something to talk about. I love theater so much and I can’t wait to rev our engines and get back out there. Whether you are a theater doer or a theater goer, you are all part of this big family. See you all soon.