Musical Stars Comment on Broadway’s Comeback

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It’s back, bold, and beautiful! Broadway is set to return after shutting down for over a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most shows are slated for return this September, just in time for some post-New York Fashion Week theatrical exploits. New York is making a comeback and will leave you nothing short of impressed.

The re-emergence of musical theatre is also being helped by hit musical TV shows like “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” and “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.” The roaring ‘20s 2.0 is shaping up to be a golden era for musical theatre madness.

As stars return to the stage, they are also returning to the red carpets and public appearances, and of course that means more fashion. Fashion Reverie has interviewed several musical stars on the resurgence of musical theatre, their return to public appearances, and how they cultivate their own style.

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Julia Lester — Ashlyn in TV’s “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”

Actress and songbird Julia Lester brings Disney’s hit “High School Musical” franchise to an entirely new generation. Growing up in an entertainment family, Lester had long been drawn to the world of performing arts, and her big break came when she was cast as Ashlyn on “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” on Disney+, catapulting her to being a highly recognizable face among young television actors. While millennials had the original “High School Musical” movies and Ryan Murphy’s “Glee,” Lester is helping bring the world of musical theatre via television to Generation Z. With the return of the red carpet, she’s also exploring one of her other favorite things aside from performing: playing dress up.

Fashion Reverie: You come from a family where many people work in the entertainment industry. When and why did you pursue acting as a career?

Julia Lester: My entire family is in the industry, so. it was in my nature to be interested in performing since I was a young kid. Had I been naturally interested in pursuing something else, I would have done that, but, from the get-go, I was always into music, dancing, and performing. It was great growing up in a family of performers to nurture the love I had for the arts. I did theatre growing up as well, and that led me to my role on “High Musical: The Musical: The Series.”

FR: Were you a fan “High School Musical” before you were cast in the show?

Julia Lester:  A huge one! I was around seven years old when the first movie came out, and I have two older sisters who are really into musical theatre, so it was the perfect family movie for us to watch. I knew the creators of “High School Musical” were trying to find a way to continue the story in some way, so, when I got the audition for the series, I thought it was the best way to continue “High School Musical” in a way we all love and know so well.

FR: For the past two decades musicals seems to inspire a new generation of fans. Now, “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” seems to be building the next generation of musical theatre nerds as one of Disney+’s highest rated shows. How do you think this show is helping propel and inspire a new generation of musical theatre lovers?

Julia Lester: “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” is introducing a lot of people to musical theatre who may not have been familiar with that genre of music or got to be in a space where they were introduced to musical theatre. The show also helps introduce so many different genres of music, while still having a plotline that can appeal to a lot of people. The show writers do a incredible job of incorporating musical theatre into the everyday lives of the characters on the show, and it’s done in a way that’s so natural.

Julia Lester

FR: With outside starting to reopen as we emerge from COVID-19, press tours are a thing again, and there’s been tons of press around “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” How do you work on building your individual style as you’re doing more publicity, especially this season now that your role on the show has gotten bigger?

Julia Lester: That is something I really enjoy doing. I’ve been styling myself for most of our press events. It’s been fun for me because I have a huge love of styling and fashion. It’s been great getting to dress up and put on real outfits again, especially after I’ve been wearing sweatpants every single day for almost a year. The fact that we can go out and dress up again has been very exciting.

A few of the cast members from “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” including myself, got to go to the world premiere of the “Cruella” movie. It was the first real movie premiere since the COVID-19 shutdown. That was a great opportunity to play dress up.

FR: What else do we have to look forward to from you in a post-pandemic entertainment industry?

Julia Lester: I produced a film with my sister, Jenny Lester, called “What She Said” with her production company Shallow Graves. It’s a kitchen sink drama that’s so incredible that I’m hoping it will have a firm release date soon.

We’re also hoping for a renewal to do season 3 of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” There’s been no news on that yet, but that’s what I’m most hoping for right now. Fingers crossed!

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Jarvis B. Manning — Al Bryant in Broadway’s “Ain’t Too Proud”

Jarvis B. Manning is no stranger to the world of Motown music. The actor grew up in a family that was big on the genre, and he was previously in the ensemble of “Motown the Musical.” Now, he’s ready to dust off his dancing shoes again as he prepares to step back into the role of Al Bryant in “Ain’t Too Proud,” a hit Broadway musical that focuses on the story of famed Motown group The Temptations. As he’s making a name for himself in song and dance, Manning has also found himself thinking more about fashion and his public image now that he’s getting ready to say hello to audiences again.

Fashion Reverie: When did you first find your love of music and theatre?

Jarvis B. Manning: I grew up in the church, so music was so much a part of my life. Anytime “Can’t Touch This” by M.C. Hammer came on, my sister and I would run to the dance floor and we had a whole dance routine going. If you asked my parents if I was a natural at anything, it was song and dance.

I went to the High School for Visual and Performing Arts in Houston. I studied classical voice and jazz. I noticed there was a theatre program in the school, and we also had an all-school Black history program.

My sophomore year, I auditioned to be a dancer in the Black History program because they were short male dancers. I fell in love with dancing and singing at the same time, even though I still didn’t know much about musical theatre. By my senior year, I was tired of singing classical music all the time, so I sang in the jazz group for our young performers showcase where I got to both sing and dance. That was when I realized I had to do musical theatre as a profession.

Jarvis B. Manning

FR: How familiar were you with the music of The Temptations before your current role in “Ain’t Too Proud” and your previous role in “Motown The Musical”?

Jarvis B. Manning: Very familiar. Growing up, we weren’t allowed to listen to anything in the house but gospel, old school blues, and Motown. I knew the music of The Temptations through and through..

I saw “Jersey Boys” on Broadway and wanted to do a Black version, so of course my next thought was The Temptations. I was working on it for a year, and I put it down and kept saying I would come back to it someday. Next thing I knew, Dominique Morriseau was writing the book for this musical. I always joke with her that she stole this musical from me.

FR: Of course, with musical theatre, costuming is a huge part of any production. How do you feel costuming helped you really embody and develop your character?

Jarvis B. Manning: Costuming helps so much.. Once you get on stage, the costume is on your body, and you see the actual set pieces, it puts you in a new land. I have an idea of what my character would be, and once the costume shows up, it’s a whole different situation.

Al’s main costume was a blue stripe shirt, grey pants, and his hair is also pressed. The costumes make you hold yourself in a different way, from the pants coming up to the belly button to the boots hitting a certain part of your ankle. The costumes are truly the last piece of the puzzle that can put you and your mind in a [time] period.

FR: How do you think the reopening of Broadway will spark a new musical theatre renaissance for this decade?

Jarvis B. Manning: I’m hoping it will spark more space for people who are not the ‘norm.’ We have all heard and seen those people’s stories on the Broadway stage, and the rest of us are tired of it. People who are coming to see Broadway shows look like everybody and come from all walks of life.

If the people who have been creating during this lull and silence can speak up when Broadway reopens, it will be a beautiful thing. If Broadway falls back into its old, nasty habits of feeding the same crowd they have always fed, it would be a major let down to old creatives, new creatives, people who have lost their lives, and the future Broadway community.

There’s the opportunity to allow change. It’s crazy that we must think about ‘allowing change,’ but it’s the perfect time. It might be a forced moment at first, where producers feel obligated to do things because that’s what’s expected, but that could open up people’s eyes to show them the rest of us are capable of creating work that will make money.

When Broadway takes a chance on new formulas, we get things like “Hamilton,” which was a hit. The powers that be just need to let people work and let all people work.

FR: Now that Broadway is reopening and there’s press events and public appearance opportunities, how do you cultivate your style and image as an actor now that the spotlight is back on you?

Jarvis B. Manning: Recently, toward the end of 2020, I started doing more film and television auditions, which have been going well. I had a well-known casting agent reach out to me, who happened to be a Black woman. She had ‘the mama’ conversation with me and said, ‘You are great. Your audition was great, but you need to start promoting yourself. I shouldn’t go on your Instagram and see you promoting everyone but yourself.’

I told her that makes me feel weird, but she told me get over it. I don’t like that aspect of the business, but after talking to her she told me learn to treat it as art. I’m also a photographer. She told me I don’t have to be vain about it. She said find some amazing clothes, come up with some ideas, and take photos.

I’m now cultivating what that’s going to be when I return to Instagram. I’ve been off social media since April 2020. I’m getting ready to come back artistically and showcase myself.

A costume designer had reached out to me and gave me a bunch of vintage clothes. She blessed me with all these beautiful free clothes, so be on the lookout for that.

Luba Mason in “Girl from the North Country”

Luba Mason – Mrs. Burke in Broadway’s “Girl from the North Country”

Luba Mason is a veteran of the stage with an extensive list of Broadway credits under her belt including “The Will Rogers Follies,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” and “Chicago.” She’s also no stranger to the small screen with guest starring roles on acclaimed television series including “As the World Turns,” “Law & Order,” and “NYPD Blue.” This fall, she’ll be returning to a role that she loves. Mrs. Burke in the Broadway musical “Girl from the North Country.” She’s a true triple threat.

Fashion Reverie: What’s your musical theatre background and describe for me the moment you decided to be a performer?

Luba Mason: My love for music and theatre started very young. I was a classical pianist for thirteen years. There was really the question of whether I was going to pursue being a classical pianist or go into musical theatre. I know I made the right choice. I have much more fun doing musical theatre than sitting in a room practicing scales.

My piano teach was also a choral director in the local church, so I started taking singing lessons with him and progressing in that direction. My older sister was an opera singer who studied at Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard, so I started studying voice with her teachers from those schools when I was in high school. That’s when musical theatre started to pull at my heartstrings.

FR: You have trademarked your own style of music called Mixtura. How did you develop that?

Luba Mason: My musical background is very diverse. I’ve done classical music and I love pop music, folk songs, and showtunes are obviously a huge part of my life. My husband is Ruben Blades, who is a Latin music icon, so, when I married him, Latin music became a huge part of my life. As I’ve matured, jazz has also become a big influence in my musical background as well.

When I went to record my first studio album, I had to ask myself what kind of an album to record, so I recorded an album that was a mix of my various musical influences. I had songs of different genres from pop, to folk, and I even sang a song in Spanish. By the time my third album came around, I said I had to put a label on this and create my own genre, so I trademarked Mixtura, and there you have it.

FR: Tell me about your role in “Girl from the North Country”?

Luba Mason: The casting process was very quick. It wasn’t one of those three or four callback situations. I got great feedback in my first audition, and I had a good feeling about it. I got a response the day after my audition that I got the role of Mrs. Burke. I guess the director knew what he wanted and I happened to be it.

My character, Mrs. Burke, is a rich Southern woman whose husband loses his fortune during The Great Depression in 1932. We have an autistic son who’s about 30 years old. Since we lost our money, we are trying to find a new place to resettle ourselves and find a way to make a living.

All thirteen principal characters in the show have found themselves in a boarding house type situation in Minnesota. Each one of the characters is either running toward something new or away from something, like a problem or secret. My family in the show is running from a secret, but one you’ll have to come watch the show and find out what it is.

FR: After several decades in the business and now surviving a global pandemic, what are your predictions for the next decade of Broadway?

Luba Mason: When Lin Manuel Miranda created “Hamilton,” that changed the trajectory for musical theatre. He helped make Broadway more contemporary. He brought in a whole new audience and skew of musical theatre lovers.

Also, you’re seeing a lot of pop composers creating jukebox musicals to highlight their music. Disney always has their hand in Broadway. If a Disney musical franchise is successful, they’ll create a Broadway musical from it.

I’m hoping revivals will continue and I’m hoping for some more real creative shows from composers like Lin Manuel Miranda. I think our show, “A Girl from North Country,” is one of the contemporary shows because it’s music and lyrics are from Bob Dylan.

FR: Press events are about to start happening again, putting an emphasis on what talent is wearing. How would you say your approach to fashion and style has changed over the course of your career?

Luba Mason: There’s way more of an emphasis on fashion and style with social media, for sure. Whenever I tell people I have a show or concert coming up, the first question I always here is ‘What are you wearing?’ Everyone wants to see your picture and comments on it on social media now.

I recently was watching the Netflix series on the fashion designer Halston, and on my most recent photoshoot, a friend of mine loaned me a vintage Halston halter top. It was this stunning gold lamé top. The same friend of mine also told me go purchase some new jumpsuits for my upcoming public engagements, and that’s on my to-do list.

Luba Mason

FR: What are some other upcoming projects?

Luba Mason: I released my fourth studio album, “Triangle,” during October of 2020. There was a good three months of album promotion before that, and I got rave reviews. The album itself was filmed live. It was a live recording we had filmed in 2019 in front of a live studio audience at the legendary Power Station Studios in New York City.

In 2021, I started getting more auditions for television and film. I recently also did a livestream performance for, and there was a venue in Brooklyn where they livestreamed the performance.

I get ready to go back to rehearsals for Broadway in September. I also have a benefit I’m doing that goes back to my dancing days when I was in “Will Rogers Follies.” We are recreating the choreography from one of director and choreographer Tommy Tune’s numbers he did for the show. This project is through the affiliation of the American Dance Machine who recreates the original choreography of past Broadway shows. They asked some of the original cast dancers to do the recreation along with their younger company of dancers. Now, we’ve got a beautiful collaborative project coming up in July.

I’m about to start campaigning for the Grammy’s with “Triangle.” I’m hoping to leave a few weeks between going back to Broadway and my Grammy’s campaign, to go on vacation.

—Kristopher Fraser











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