For the past six decades, only one unstoppable force has flat-out dominated popular culture – breaking down barriers, pushing boundaries, and letting nothing and no one stand in her way. Now, that strength is brought to you in musical form.
Set across three hours and featuring dance floor hits including If I Could Turn Back Time, I Got You Babe and, of course, Believe, it takes not one but three leading ladies to play an icon like Cher. And even then, it’s anything but a walk in the park, as the three leading ladies told Gay Times during our exclusive interview direct from Broadway.
Here, Micaela Diamond (Babe), Teal Wicks (Lady) and Stephanie J Block (Star) reveal what it’s really like bringing one of the biggest stars in history to life in this kick-ass female-led musical, how screaming drag queens give them life, why they’re looking to Cher’s army of LGBTQ fans for approval, and what it’s like working with the musical legend herself.
Let’s start by saying that you all totally created this musical for the queer community and just the queer community. It’s so much fun!
Stephanie J Block: I think you are right in saying that! We span and reach all sorts of demographics and our gorgeous ensemble members, many of whom are gay, love to say that it’s truly ‘the gayest thing they’ve ever been in throughout their whole lives’. They say it with much joy, love, affection and great respect – we all take it as a huge compliment! There’s a line in the show where I say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, and flamboyant gentleman’, and every night I have to wait for the applause and the cheering because we certainly know who our audience is.
Which makes me think that there’s perhaps one or two queer people in the audience…
SJB: Oh yeah! Let’s go with probably a third or a half? The beauty of Cher is that she really does span to women of a certain again and their husbands who have come to fall in love with her because of her look, sensibility or sass. And then all these fantastic gay men that either follow her, literally, as she calls ‘her ministry’. She takes what she does very seriously and knows she connects with the LGBTQ community and she takes great pride in that and great love in that. In doing so, they love her and see themselves in her because she accepts herself, accepts all of her vibrance and flamboyance and craziness – and it’s really welcomed at The Cher Show. They fully well know I’m not Cherilyn Sarkisian, but there’s still a great love that I sense of how much they love her.
When this process first began, how did you discover what your version of Cher was like?
Teal Wicks: It started back with my first audition. I knew Cher, because it’s Cher and you can’t exist in this world without having some idea of who she is, and when I grew up I knew her through her music but actually really through her films. That was the Cher I knew, so when I was auditioning, my part Lady is during the 70s when Sonny and Cher were on TV. I started digging into that period and went down a YouTube hole of music videos. The songs I was singing for the audition, when I started doing them… I had a moment that they actually do fit in my voice and my vibe as a human and the type of music I love to listen to. It’s like a folk/rock vibe and that was the moment of finding ‘the Cher sound’.
So is this you taking on Cher in a new way or are you impersonating her?
Micaela Diamond: From the very beginning, we wanted this to be rooted in her story rather than the audience being taken out of the show because they were judging an impression. We had the freedom to explore everything of what we want to give and it helped going out of town to Chicago to explore with the audience about what they wanted. There is a level of expectation when you come to the show as everyone knows who this woman is. How do we give them that without crafting a line of impersonation?
Because her character is so strong, is what people think Cher is like and how she acts a blessing or perhaps a curse?
MD: I’m still asking myself this question… it’s a beautiful challenge to do in front of an audience because they’re different every single time. Usually a Wednesday matinee is a shitty audience, but ours are beautiful and loud as it’s this older audience who grew up with her. We reach every single generation who comes to see our show, whether they knew her from Barbie or Bob Mackie or Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour or Believe. We’re hitting every single aspect of her and it’s so great with there being three of us to do that and it not resting on one person’s back to give you the moment you wanted. It is a huge challenge and there is a huge expectation. Having her blessing too is nice, especially because her fans are so loyal, so having her onboard is great!
When rehearsing and creating, are you excited that Cher is an actual living legend and she will see you play her one day, and that day will eventually come?
TW: It’s exciting because there’s so many aspect of her. There’s so many things about her I was so excited about and started to fall in love with. I get to do this and play a woman who has this life and is all these different versions of what a strong bad-ass woman is, but also is a feminine, honest, hardworking woman. I was also daunting because Cher is so iconic.
MD: No, it’s petrifying! It’s also exciting because I feel like me as a person, I’ve changed so much because of the challenge. We want to do her and her fans justice. It took us a while to get there, but we did. She is this planet and has such a pull, so when you’re in her presence, it’s almost like you have to reminder yourself that your feet are on the ground. To stay grounded and not forget that we are telling her story and that’s all we have to do. We were chosen as actors to tell this story as actors and having her onboard and having her nuggets of advice has really helped. But yeah, it’s petrifying and she is a huge woman – even though she’s a skinny motherfucker! She has a very big presence in the world and it was daunting.
I’m sure she’d gag on what you just called her.
MD: I hope so!
Do you remember this first thing Cher said to you when she saw you perform?
TW: Yes. It was in Chicago doing a tryout and afterwards she did a meet and greet with the company and said a few things to us all. She said it’s great and amazing but it was really hard to watch your life on stage. She then asked where ‘her girls’ were and the first thing she did was give us a hug and said, ‘We’re living the dream’. I love that she said that because I think it’s true. It felt like she was with us on this journey.
Do you have a favourite ‘Cher-ism’ you like doing?
MD: It’s kind of an impossible question because they all feel so natural to me. I know that’s weird, but I do find myself like… I just did it now. I do find myself doing the tongue, like it’s just part of who I am now. I don’t really notice when I’m doing it on stage. I think one of my favourite parts of the story is falling in love with Sonny (Bono). I think Sonny affected her in such a huge way when she’s young that his energy and love for her really made her who she was for the rest of her live. That confidence and playful energy they had together and I really love that part of the story and my section to tell.
Did you find there were any parallels between Cher’s life and your own?
SJB: Yes! There’s actually a line that I asked to have in the show, one of the final lines, because one of my mottos in my life is ‘you win some, you learn some’. For me, that was very much Cher. Everybody keep saying she had so many highs and lows and never gave up, reinventing herself, and for me she never really reinvented herself. At the core, she was always Cher. She was built strong and always admitted her mistakes. She admitted her failures and brushed herself off with her shoulders back and fortitude and keep moving forward. I want to be that! I try to do that in my life and I want to bring that to the stage. I’m glad we could connect on that level and I’m really glad that line was allowed.
Perhaps impossible to answer… but do you have a favourite Cher song?
TW: Oh my gosh! I have a lot and it honestly evolves week-to-week. In life, because I can’t get very specific, doing all my Cher research, my favourite album is her album Foxy Lady. It’s this fabulous early 70s piece that has Living In A House Divided and ones that I’d never heard before. Let Me Down Easy and Down, Down, Down. All these cool songs that feel very specific to the time. The musical production on them is beautiful and started this cool sound from that time period. I really dig that album.
SJB: You’re right, how do you pick a favourite Cher song? Now, I get this really great moment in the show with a song called The Way of Love. It’s a very quiet and smaller song, it’s not going to be played at any sort of club, but what it taps on for her and me telling the story is special. The audience seems to connect where all the sequins are stripped and I’m on stage wearing a white t-shirt and jeans and sing as ‘Cher, the woman’ and not ‘Cher, the performance icon’. I love that!
MD: It changes by the week. My favourite song to sing and perform is I Got You Babe. I know it’s such a classic but the electricity in that audience and the amount of love the audience sends to us is so beautiful. It’s us falling in love on stage and we’re recreating such a historical moment, and I love singing that song.
Cher knows that an LGBTQ audience is one of her biggest supporters. Have you noticed and experienced that following supporting the show?
TW: I think our biggest fear – and I can’t speak for all of us but we have talked about it – is that we didn’t want to let her fans down. We wanted them to trust us and be willing to go on this ride with us. They want to protect her and be honest. From day one, in Chicago and New York, our first big influx of audience members were Cher’s gay fanbase. They were screaming and laughing and clapping at the start of every song.
MD: What’s wild is that we were kind of thrown into the deep end because our second preview in New York, we had 50 drag queens and impersonators come to the show. We were all very nervous as it was second preview and we respect them so much and knew we wanted them to support. Chad Michaels came back and was so thrilled with the story and that we’re carrying on her legacy in this way, and it was wonderful to have their blessing that early on. They all went on a Cher cruise. I think it’s so cool that we’re able to have that audience and have such an inclusive show. I’m queer myself and it’s great to be able to tell this woman’s story to a fanbase full of magical humans. It’s so great, so great. So much of her story is because of her LGBTQ fanbase.
I love the idea of there being a ‘Cher cruise’. I think that’s amazing!
MD: I know, and Chaz came to see the show a few nights ago and we were all so excited for him to be there because we don’t really touch on his story, but the creative team all really made the decisions about his pronouns choices and what colour blanket he’s wrapped into in the beginning. It’s blue from the start. All of these decisions we’ve made and we really respected and I hope he felt respected by. He came back the next day and saw the matinee and was lovely to have him in the house.
Stephanie, you have this wonderful connection to the LGBTQ community. Why is this specific collection of people one you speak up for so regularly?
SJB: Because they’re our brothers and sisters. The beauty that I think we’re all trying to get across is that there is no difference between any of us. Truly. I want to say that these are my gorgeous neighbours next door and not that ‘this is the gay couple that lives next door’. Truly, what is the difference? We all need the same thing and are asking for the same human rights, respect, love. I don’t like the word tolerance, I’ll be real honest. We need to move past tolerance and acceptance and to celebrate each other and our differences. Celebrate each other. Specifically, these are my brothers and sisters. They always been personally in my life, my chosen family, my birth family, and I can’t believe that it’s 2019 and we can look at each other and specific differences. We’re all living, breathing, loving creatures and it fucking pisses me off when anybody has to say otherwise!
Totally agree! And theatre does seem to be the main place where we are seeing changes in stories and representation starting to expand for many different minority groups. Are you seeing that change?
SJB: I am, I really am. Right now, our world is so fear-based. If it’s about our differences, separation of state, country, planet. People are getting tired of that and are recognising the falsehood in that sort of fear. Again, not to go back to our show, but it is about rising above the fear and saying, ‘What do we have to lose? I have to speak my truth, I have to live my truth’. When we have these platforms where we can speak to that and not preach but live that truth and want to share it with people who may not know it or recognise it, now is the time. I mean, we’re way past that time but there is no other time but now. I think people are finding that and feeling that. All those things that we wanted to be polite about… still respectful, but being polite doesn’t work anymore. Any time people can find an opening where you can speak to what you understand and know is true, there’s no better time than this very moment.
MD: We have The Prom on Broadway that had a first lesbian kiss on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The first ever, and that was really cool. And then Fun Home. I do feel the change over here and I hope to continue it. I also hope that LGBTQ actors can tell those stories – that’s an important part of it. I’m participating in a reading of this new musical and it’s a few role where I have a kiss with a woman and I’m bisexual in the show. That’s cool to play something that I am in real life – that’s never happened before. There’s this exciting movement and there’s a buzz underneath it all.
Stephanie, do you have one word to describe what it was like singing with Cher at the curtain call on opening night?
SJB: Out of body! It truly was out of body. I am so grateful that we’ve got plenty of footage so I can look back and relive it and remember all the sounds and smells. In the very moment, it was wild.
I’ve watched it so many times!
SJB: I’m embarrassed… so have I. I probably shouldn’t have watched it that much but I do because it’s like a reality pinch that it really happened. Holy crap! I think I even say ‘holy shit’ when I’m singing with her. That still is the true sentiment. I still stand by that ‘holy shit’ sentiment.
More information on The Cher Show can be found here.