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American Girl Live: An Interview With Laila E. Drew and Shelby Miguel

By Ilana Rapp

American Girl Live: An Interview With Laila E. Drew and Shelby Miguel

Please note: Due to the potential of a major winter storm on Saturday, both performances of American Girl Live at Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown have been postponed and rescheduled for President’s Day, Monday, February 18 at 2 pm and 5:30 pm. All tickets will be honored on that date. If you cannot attend the new date, please contact the box office at 973-539-8008.

In case you didn't know, I am the Doll Whisperer. 

With the American Girl Doll's New York City store recently moving to a larger location at Rockefeller Center, and other AG stores around the nation, it's no wonder people of all ages are excited about the new American Girl Live musical!

The East Coast tour just started, so click HERE to see when the show will be in New Jersey, New York and beyond.

I'm happy to say I interviewed two of the actresses AND their takes on their perspective characters. Talk about fun!

American Girl Live: An Interview With Laila E. Drew and Shelby MiguelMeet Laila E. Drew! Laila plays Nia Marcus. Nia is an incredible singer. Nia's focused and admirable ambition to be a famous singer/songwriter and successful record producer one day, make her the ideal cabin-mate when it comes to organizing fun! A loyal and true friend, Nia recognizes and encourages the strength in her bunk -mates. Laila also plays American Girl iconic character Melody EllisonAs Melody, audiences will see a champion for fairness and equality and how she uses her voice to let her light shine.



 

About Melody (1964): Melody lives in Detroit, Michigan, surrounded by all kinds of music-from gospel at church to family favorites at home to the new sounds of Motown spreading across the country. It's the height of the civil rights movement, and not everything in Melody's world is harmonious. When Melody experiences discrimination for herself, she decides to join the fight for fairness and equality. Inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Melody discovers the confidence to lift her voice for what she believes in.

INTERVIEW WITH LAILA E. DREW

What was the audition like for American Girl Live! How did you hear about the audition?

I found an open call notice for American Girl Live in my email one day and since I couldn’t audition in person (I live in Los Angeles and the auditions were in New York) I sent in a video of myself singing. About a week later, I was asked to fly to New York for final callbacks! I remember finishing my last performance in a production of “Spring Awakening”, then rushing out of the theatre to catch my plane. I flew a red-eye and barely slept, but I couldn’t have been happier to walk into that audition room. Our all-female creative team welcomed me with open arms. It was very nerve-racking, especially since all the other girls auditioning had already learned the music and choreography the day before. I sang the material as best I could, then I had 15 minutes to learn the dance portion of the audition before I would perform it in front of everyone. I was freaking out! I had only gotten about two hours of sleep. But the room was filled with amazing, positive women who made the whole experience feel like one huge party. It was one of the best audition experiences I’ve ever had.

Knowing that this was a tour, what were your first thoughts?

I’ve loved American Girl since before I can even remember! Being a part of a brand-new musical based around something that is so near and dear to my heart sounded like a dream come true for me. I’ve done lots of amazing things throughout my career, but I had never been on tour before. I figured it would be a great opportunity to learn and grow as a performer. The moment I saw the audition notice for this production I knew it was for me.

What are rehearsals like? There are a bunch of American Girls, so do you rehearse in groups or the whole team together, every time?

Rehearsals were so much fun! Just like auditions, the room was always filled with such positivity and light. There are only six of us in the cast (plus our two amazing swings), so most of our rehearsals were all together, which we loved. We were always laughing and having a good time. We rarely leave the stage in this show so that meant we had to learn lots of lines, blocking, music, and choreography. Plus, we were making an entirely new musical and things were constantly changing. We’d get new script pages and music almost every day! Our brains were working non-stop. We learned many group numbers and if we weren’t singing a solo, we were singing backup vocals. We do it all! We’re the ensemble and the lead roles all at the same time! It was hard and tiring work, but our amazing cast, crew, and creatives made the entire process a blast.



 

Tell us about yourself -- where did you grow up, what kind of toys did you play with?

I grew up in the City of Brotherly Love. Philly! I’m a proud Eagles fan (Super Bowl champs, thank you!) and water ice enthusiast. I’m also fortunate enough to call Los Angeles home as well and I’m forever grateful that I grew up in not one but two amazing cities with rich histories of arts and culture. As for the toys I played with, I was born with the theatre bug, so if I wasn’t gaming or hanging out with my American Girl dolls, I was playing dress up! I’d go in my closet, pick out a costume, and act out my favorite musicals.

What's the story about how you came to sing /act/dance?

I started performing at my church at the age of two but I didn’t earn my first role in a musical until I was seven. Even though I was very shy back then, my elementary school music teacher saw potential in me and gave me the role of Jojo in our production of Seussical. I loved it and I’ve never stopped performing since! Thanks, Miss Paulino!

With a tour, you're on different stages in different cities. Is it easy to adapt to a different stage or does a part of the set have to be assembled differently?

Thanks to our fantastic crew, it’s very easy to adapt to new stages. Each set piece, including the flooring, travels with us from venue to venue. Our stages may vary in size, but our crew does such an amazing job that once we actors get onstage, we can barely tell a difference!

While on tour, what is your day like?


 

Life on tour can vary from day to day. Sometimes we won’t be called in for a show until five o’clock at night and other times we’ll have to be in at eight AM depending on show times and rehearsal schedules. On days when we do have a bit of free time, we love to explore the city. One time, we found a museum in Wabash, Indiana and we had the best time learning about the history of the town. Did you know that Wabash was the first electrically lit city in the world?! Finding fun things to do in each city is one of my favorite parts about being on tour.

You play Nia Marcus AND Melody Ellison -- Are both parts for this particular tour? If yes, how hard (or easy) is it to memorize two separate parts for the same show?

Yes, in our show, each actress portrays a camper and an American Girl who comes to life. All the other camper’s American Girl Dolls are played by a different actress; however, I play both my camper, Nia and her American Girl, Melody. Navigating each role is always a fun challenge and I’m constantly learning more about them. Melody lives in 1964 and Nia lives in the present day, but the two are similar in many ways. Melody’s messages about standing up for yourself and lifting your voice are still relevant today. There’s a connection that transcends time and since both roles are so intertwined it was easy to memorize them.

Nia wants to be a famous singer/songwriter and successful record producer one day. Why do you think she wants to be FAMOUS?

“I want to be famous because I want to use my creativity to reach and inspire as many people as possible. My goal is to be a voice for change, just like my American girl Melody!” – Nia

How important is it to have friends who support you, as well as you being a loyal and supportive friend to others?

“I can’t change the world by myself! It’s super important to have friends who have your back through thick and thin. If you surround yourself with a team who love and support you, you can never fail. Those are the people who will always be your best and most loyal fans.” – Nia

American Girl Live: An Interview With Laila E. Drew and Shelby Miguel


 

Meet Shelby Miguel! Shelby plays Rosie Imelda. Rosie is deeply devoted to her pursuit of science, technology, engineering and math! Determined to be the first astronaut on Mars, Rosie, with a sparkle in her eyes and a can-do attitude, embraces the intrigue and joys of science, tech, engineering and math. Rosie also plays American Girl iconic character Nanea Mitchell. As Nanea, the audience will see how one girl's aloha spirit can bring people together during times of trouble. 

About Nanea (1941): Nanea lives a carefree, barefoot island life in Honolulu, Hawaii, until the unthinkable happens: Japan attacks Pearl Harbor-the naval base where her father works-and America enters World War Two. In the first confusing days after the bombing, she copes with missing friends and family members, rumors of more attacks, and new rules and restrictions. Nanea finds ways to help-by collecting supplies, working in her grandparents' store, and dancing hula at USO shows. In everything she does, Nanea practices the spirit of aloha-being kind, respecting differences, and sharing joy and sorrow with her family and friends. 

INTERVIEW WITH SHELBY MIGUEL

You play Rosie Imelda but also play the iconic doll, Nanea Mitchell (1941). What’s it like to play these characters? Does one come more naturally for you, why?

My favorite Rosie Imelda moment is during the song “Blast Off” when I get to deliver the line, “Five seconds til’ the launch of the first all-female mission to Mars!” Rosie dreams BIG. I mean, what dream is bigger than being the first person to step foot on Mars? Playing Rosie is such an energizing experience because not only does she get to lead an all-female team of astronauts to Mars, but she also shows girls how rad it is to dream big and be smart! As for Nanea, I instantly felt a connection to her because of our shared love for hula dancing. Hula was the first form of dance that I learned, and Nanea takes hula lessons from her grandmother and performs at USO shows. I was also drawn to Nanea because of her story of living through Pearl Harbor and its aftermath. She stays positive and turns her adversities into opportunities to spread love and kindness, which is something I strive to do! 

When you began your singing and acting career, did you ever think “Oh! I want to play an American Girl Doll!” How did you fall into this part?

My agent in New York City sent me an email last summer saying that I had an audition for American Girl Live. Auditions are pretty slow during the summer, so I actually planned a trip home for a week and didn’t think I’d be able to attend the audition for this show. Thankfully, I was allowed to submit an audition video to the casting director, so I filmed myself in my kitchen singing “Journey to the Past” from Anastasia. When I got back to New York, I got an email from my agent saying that I had callback, and that’s when I really started researching American Girl and the empowering messages each doll has. I had a feeling this was a show that was going to potentially changes the lives of young girls, so the more the creative team called me back, the more I knew I needed to be a part of this project. After a few callbacks and work sessions with Director Gina Rattan and Music Supervisor Britt Bonney, I found out I booked the job!


 

You're living in New York. Were you always from New York or did you move to NY?

I am originally from Daly City, California, which is right outside San Francisco, but I realized I wanted to move to New York City when I was ten years old. I was obsessed with The Phantom of the Opera in the fourth grade, and my family and I took a trip to New York in March 2005 just so I could watch it on Broadway. While I was there, I fell in love with the city and couldn’t picture pursuing the arts anywhere else! I graduated from the University of Southern California in December 2017, and I moved to New York City two months later on February 20, 2018. Moving to NYC at the time I did is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made!

What does your family think about your choice of careers?

Luckily for me, my family has always been supportive of my artistic dreams. I realized that I wanted to be in the entertainment industry when I was a little girl, so my parents enrolled me in musical theatre workshops and singing/dancing/acting lessons while I was in elementary school. I danced for the Golden State Warriors for two years and my parents, younger sister, and I would drive from Daly City to Oakland multiple times a week after school for rehearsals and performances and oftentimes endure two-hour traffic to get there. There was also a short period of time in high school when I had auditions in Los Angeles, and my parents would get up super early in the morning to drive me six hours to LA, wait for me during my audition, and drive six hours back to the Bay Area. And when I solidified my plans to move from California to New York, they were all so supportive. I am so grateful to have my family!

Share your experience with us about how costumes on the American Girl Live tour come to be. Are there fittings? How far in advance? Does the costumer have to stick with the protocol of the clothes the actual doll itself wears, or is there creative wiggle room? How many fittings did you go for? Did the final version of your costume change? 

I went through numerous fittings before Rosie and Nanea’s costumes were finalized. My measurements were taken during a workshop in October, and I started getting fitted in November. Even during tech rehearsals in Stamford, Connecticut, adjustments were still being made to both of my characters’ costumes. I suppose there was a little bit of creative wiggle room just because our costume designer, Andrea, had to keep our quick changes in mind. For the most part though, she stayed true to the dolls’ looks, and the outcome is truly breathtaking! I almost cried when I put on Nanea’s costume for the first time and I said out loud, “Dude, I look like her!” At that point, I had already researched Nanea, read her books, and become so attached to her, so it was wild to look in the mirror to see that I was her.

Tell us an American Girl Live backstage story, like a mishap, that the audience would never know otherwise. 


 

There were a few lovely folks from American Girl watching our last dress rehearsal before previews in Findlay, Ohio when I had a huge confusing moment. In addition to Rosie and Nanea, I also play a small character in the show named Camp Director Flynn whose change in and out of her costume is literally fifteen seconds long. I was changing out of Camp Director Flynn and back into Rosie, and had a second to spare before I had to enter the scene. My line is supposed to be “Hey guys! Sorry, lost track of time in the science lab.” My costume change from Flynn to Rosie was a little frantic and I walked onstage trying to compose myself. As a result, the line that came out of my mouth instead was “Hey guys!..…Got lost..… I….. got lost…” And after a solid five seconds, I quickly sputtered out “lost track of time in the science lab.” My cast mates and I still joke about the time I completely forgot how to speak English onstage.

You are a seasoned singer. Do you still take vocal lessons? What advice do you have for young girls who want to become singers?

I realized that singing was a passion of mine when I was four years old, and I started taking vocal lessons when I was around nine. My advice to young girls who want to become singers is to start honing their vocal skills as soon as they realize that they are passionate about singing. Becoming a singer takes a lot of hard work, and I still have a lot to learn about my singing voice too! There’s always something to improve on no matter how many years of vocal experience a person has, which is why I take vocal lessons whenever I can.

What are the ups and downs of show business, from your experience?

The entertainment industry is so capricious and there are tons of obstacles to face, but a common one is rejection. I went on about twenty auditions in New York for projects I didn’t book before landing a part in American Girl Live. Oftentimes, actors go on about a hundred auditions before finally booking a project. At the end of the day, only one person can book the job and it’s something that I have learned to not take personally. Ultimately, rejection has made me stronger and pushed me to do better. On the other hand, my favorite thing about the entertainment industry is that once I book a job, I have the ability to make a difference in people’s lives through storytelling. There are so many stories to be told about all kinds of people, and I love being somebody who gets to help tell some of those stories.

Rosie has been interested in STEM her entire life. Who are your influences?

Just like Rosie is passionate about STEM, I am passionate about performing! I have plenty of artistic influences, but someone who has served as inspiration to me recently is Darren Criss. A few days ago, he became the first Filipino-American to win a Golden Globe. We Filipino-Americans don’t get much representation onstage and onscreen, so Darren Criss has reassured me that I should be proud to be a Filipina-American singing and acting for a living. Also, while I’m on the topic of influences, Michelle Obama is my queen and if I were to meet her, I think I would actually disappear into a puddle of happy tears. I’m currently reading her book, and man, I picked a good role model. She’s a strong woman with such a big heart, and I definitely watched videos of some of her speeches and interviews before my American Girl Live auditions because of how empowered she makes me feel. We need more people like Michelle Obama in this world. That is all.

Rosie is determined to be the first astronaut on Mars. What kinds of things is she doing to achieve that goal?

Rosie knows that her ultimate dream is no easy feat. She busts her butt doing well in school, building robots, and educating herself on scientific facts because those are the kinds of things that will drive her closer to walking on Mars. An important lesson Rosie learns is that even the most successful people fail and that failure is okay as long as she learns from each failure. She also realizes the importance of teamwork and that to overcome certain obstacles, she needs the support of her friends!

Do you feel the other campers think Rosie is a nerd, super cool, or a super cool nerd? How do you think she feels about that?


 

I think Rosie’s friends see her as a super cool girl who just happens to love science and dreams of being the first astronaut on Mars, and Rosie is super grateful that her friends are supportive of her and her big dreams! What’s awesome about this show is its message of how important it is for girls to support and empower other girls instead of judging them and bringing them down.


SYNOPSIS:

Experience American Girl® in an all-new musical. American Girl Live is a premiere stage production, featuring all original songs and unforgettable experiences inspired by six American Girl characters: Rebecca, Nanea, Maryellen, Melody, Julie, and Luciana. During an exciting summer away at sleepover camp-as bold tales of bravery and friendship come to life for some new friends-iconic American Girl characters lend a hand through story and song. American Girl Live will bring girls and their family members and friends together, inspiring them to follow their hearts, share their dreams, and learn the power of friendship.


Ilana Rapp is a media-savvy Generation Xer with instinctive wit, quick humor and a taste for deep human emotions. As a former (child) actress with Broadway, film and television credits, she is adept at, well, lots of things.

She has blogged on The Huffington Post and writes entertainment pieces for NYCastings.

She is a huge fan of the television show V. Ask her why her favorite number is 22.

Follow Ilana on Twitter @LizardLadyNJ




originally published: 01/18/2019


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