We sat down with LJ Neilson, star of Into the Woods at Montecasino, to chat about her theatre journey, performing as Rapunzel, and some favourite theatre tidbits!
Hey LJ! Thanks for coming out to meet me today. To start off, we want to know how you got into theatre: what did you study? Was there a path? Was it the best path? Was there another way?
LJ: I basically just started dancing as a kid. There isn’t any theatre history in my family, actually; I’m the black sheep! But my sister danced, and she was very good at it, so she was my inspiration. I tried to follow in her footsteps – as you do, because I was the youngest in the family and I just so admired her dancing – and I became really good at it too! So I started branching out, I started singing, and I was incredibly blessed with my dancing institution that I attended as a child, the Poole Academy of Dance, as my teacher there had had a lot of experience in musical theatre. She came to me with the opportunity to join a holiday class, where we went to class at Laine Theatre Arts over the holidays, and I fell in love with the feel of that world! One day my tutor approached me and said: “This is something you can go into as a career, are you interested?” And so she planted the seed in my head, and I ran with it! I auditioned at 15 for 3 colleges in London, and I ended up choosing to go to the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts.
That’s really impressive! If that audition to get into theatre academies was your first kind of multiple audition process, can you tell us a bit about auditioning? How do you find it, what is it like for you?
LJ: Oh gosh, it’s soul-destroying. It’s the hardest thing you can go through, and it just doesn’t get any easier for me! I always try to think as I prep for an audition: “I’ve done so many shows, performed in front of crowds of over 2,000, and I can do that!” – but put me in front of a panel of 5, and I just go to pieces. It’s always a challenge. We bare our souls in this industry, daily.
Speaking of auditions: what is your go-to audition song? If they tell you:”32 bars, let’s hear it”, what do you sing?
LJ: That’s a toughie, because it changes depending on the style of the show! But one that has stayed with me from college is “Let’s Hear it For the Boy”, from Footloose. A bit dated now, but a great classic, with some major belting, and a great pop flavour.
A true classic! Deniece Williams is iconic.
Now, LJ, rumour has it that you’re involved in something that has to do with long hair and fairytales. Can you tell us a little about that?
LJ: Well that’s right! I sit in a tower and I prune my hair, 5 days a week – we get Mondays and Tuesdays off, which is such a blessing in the theatre world, I actually have a weekend, it’s unheard of! But yes, I play a princess 5 days a week, I let my locks down for the fabulous Kate Normington and Jess Sole, I sing some lovely ditties, and then I go completely mad! So yes, lots of fun.
So tell us about Into the Woods. What have the audiences been like, what responses have you gotten?
LJ: The response has just been amazing, and I’m so proud of what the cast, and the crew, what everyone has put together. And it’s somewhat risky, you know? Sondheim is an acquired taste, it is so complex, layered, and deep, and it is terrifying for a lot of people in many different ways – for performers to perform it, and for people to come and see it!
But Steven Stead [the director] has brought this production together so wonderfully!
Yes, the direction is phenomenal! In fact, we loved all the technical aspects of the show – direction, lighting, set design – it’s all stunning! Aesthetically stunning.
LJ: Oh, I think so too! It’s been an incredible experience. The audiences have been fantastic, the responses have been fantastic, the cast is… I mean, I’m gushing here, but the cast is just amazing too!
And from social media, it seems like you guys are a really tight-knit cast?
LJ: We get on SO well! Unfortunately, something that happens in theatre is that casts can be prickly, and you have to deal with a lot of ego issues. But something I always say is that when you’re dealing with cast connections and egos, it always filters from the top, and so we’re SO lucky to have Kate Normington, Earl Gregory, Jess Sole and Michael Richard leading our show – and Zak [Hendrikz]! Oh my gosh! It is an ensemble theatre piece, there are so many people in it. But straight from Steven Stead and Drew Bakker, we have no egos setting the example, and that just filters down through everything and to everybody. We’re so lucky to have this cast and crew.
How and why is Into The Woods relevant to SA now?
LJ: It is absolutely relevant. The through line of the story is a cautionary tale of be careful what you wish for, and be careful what you say, how you behave, and how you treat people. Especially, be careful of what you teach your children! Because the new generations, are the ones who are going to keep your morals alive, your beliefs alive or take negativity into the future with them. Dream fulfillment comes at a cost – you must always think of the consequences.
What are your 3 favourite shows that you’ve been in?
LJ: Okay, that’s really hard. At least you didn’t ask me for 1!! That’s the worst question, “What’s my favourite?” My favourite musical to be a part of was Singin’ in the Rain. Just the magic of that show… And I was ensemble that show! And a lot of people are like… “But, you were just ensemble?” But I loved my ensemble track; I wore the most fabulous costumes, I got to dance the most incredible routines, I was part of this beautiful staging…
The saying goes: “No small roles, only small actors.” So you’re saying, as someone who has played lead roles, that there is tons of value in being in the ensemble?
LJ: There ARE no small roles, every single role is an integral part of the show, every single role is important! You can’t have a production without an ensemble, or without swings, a lot of people forget about our swings!
I’m not letting you off, you still have two more shows to give me…
LJ: Dammit! Haha! Well, I have to put Evita in there, because Ms Eva Peron has been the pinnacle role of my career so far, and because I was so lucky to perform opposite Jonathan Roxmouth, Ramin Karimloo and Earl Gregory in the role of Che.
And then I would have to say West Side Story at The Fugard – another Sondheim classic, I played Anybodys, who is a kickass tomboy, part of the Jets Gang. She was such a thrill, an incredibly physical and taxing role! I did however get to run up and down scaffolding and be involved in fight sequences, which is unusual for a female role.
Talk to me about Evita: you of course did it at the Teatro, with Jonathan Roxmouth; but tell me about the reception you got overseas on tour, what was the theatre culture like?
LJ: You know what, I must say, very honestly, for the beginning of the tour we played Singapore, Hong Kong and Taipei. Now we do have our theatre regulars in Singapore – every time a South African cast is there, we get our usual crowd, who are incredible, I have fan friends there, it’s amazing! But Evita WAS a bit of a struggle – I think because it’s not a family musical, and Singapore and Hong Kong are family-based theatre audiences… For instance, when we went there with the Sound of Music, it just blew up! But Evita was more difficult, and people didn’t react as strongly. However, when we went to Tokyo, it was just a WHOLE other level, the audiences there are so appreciative! I felt like I was performing on Broadway in Tokyo!
So talk to me about these long tours – months on end, doing the same scenes, singing the same songs, saying the same lines… How do you prevent yourself from getting bored? You never want to hear the lead saying “Oh I’m sick of this, I’m over it.” So is there a secret to keep it exciting and challenging?
LJ: Well, I don’t get bored! [laughs] But you know what, we are human. Some days, you have a rough day. Woke up on the wrong side of the bed, your car broke down, and you rock up at work, and you just say “I really don’t wanna do this today, I just can’t do this”. But we all get together before the show for our group physical warm-up, and our vocal warm-up. Just getting in that room, being with your castmates, you feed off of each other’s energy, and you lift each other up again and remember who you are doing this for – the audience! All of a sudden, you’ve forgotten about everything that you left at the door. And you have fun! It’s really important that you’re always having fun, love the work that you are doing, and it no longer feels like work.
Is performing live a big help with this? What do you find valuable about performing live, as opposed to in front of a camera?
LJ: Absolutely! And what’s truly special is it changes every single night. As much as you’re doing the same moves, and singing the same words, to the same melody… your emotion, and how you physicalise those emotions that are within you, change every single night. So you know, when I was playing Eva Peron… I’m going to sing it for you, because I can’t at this moment remember the title of the song [breaks into song] …. “You Must Love Me”, that’s it! – the pinnacle emotive moment of the song depends entirely on your journey that night. And you take a different journey every night! So I would get to a certain part of the song and be sobbing the one night, but the next night I would break down in an entirely different part of the song!
What is the dream LJ role?
LJ: Don’t do that [laughs] You know what, honestly, I never had a dream role in my studies because I never saw myself as a leading lady. And that’s me being SO bluntly honest.
I hate to break it to you, but you are! You became one.
LJ: Lucky me! I am a firm believer that hard work and determination pays off [laughs]
I think because I came from a dancing background, and, you know, you have to be a kickass vocalist to be a lead! I didn’t even realise that I had a strong singing voice when I was younger! So I never put myself into that sphere!
But ummmm ….. Elphaba from Wicked is right up there.
I could see you doing the whole green thing!
LJ: Pieter Toerien and I have even spoken about it [laughs] he asked me “LJ, what show would you like to bring to South Africa?” I’m begging for it! And doing “Defying Gravity” would just feed my soul!
Wicked is such an interesting story – so much darker than The Wizard of Oz.
It is a very clever story, because it’s aimed at everyone – adult humour, teen humour, and childhood fantasy! It’s actually very similar to Into the Woods, with the childhood themes mixed in with much darker content.
What are your 5 favourite shows? In order.
LJ: Oh this is always so hard. The things that pop into my head are the things I’ve been listening to recently, not necessarily my favourites. Ok, hmm, my favourite shows… I would have to say Wicked, because I saw it with Idina Menzel when it opened in London. I was in rehearsals for a show at the time, and I was just so inspired by it! Because I’m a Queen junkie, I love We Will Rock You, and it’s a show I’d REALLY love to do. I haven’t seen it, but Parade has a really special place in my heart, I’ve been singing that soundtrack a lot recently. I love Jason Robert Brown, I love his music, and Parade has just got such a special storyline.
And I feel like I have to put a Sondheim in there…
Into the Woods? Sweeney?
LJ: You know what? I’m going with Gypsy.
Because the story line is so close to home. And it resonates with me – well, not me personally, but just about the industry as a whole. And finally, I haven’t said an Andrew Lloyd-Webber yet, so I’ll say Phantom of the Opera!
Have you seen anything recently that you think people should see?
LJ: I saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time [at the Pieter Toerien Theatre at Montecasino] but that’s closed now. I saw that production in London, and this one was JUST as good – and of course I have many friends in it, my dear Genna [Galloway], and Kate [Normington] Umm… It’s really sad that I don’t get to see anything when I’m working! But I can’t wait to see Chicago – it’s coming soon to Johannesburg, and it might just sell out, so people had better book quickly to get to see that!
You made it through! Last question: What’s your favourite High School Jam?
Well, who was even around in high school? Was it Britney? Britney and Justin. Timberlake, the old Justin! I’ll have to say “I Love Rock ‘N Roll”, by Britney Spears.
Great! Thanks LJ, you’ve been a real pleasure to chat to, and we can’t wait to see what’s next for you!
INTO THE WOODS WILL BE SHOWING AT THE PIETER TOERIEN THEATRE AT MONTECASINO TILL THE 14TH OF APRIL 2019.