By Lauren Minore
Members of Stephanie J. Block’s church called her a “Little Ethel Merman” when she was just seven years old.
Merman was a classic musical theater performer who played 13 roles on Broadway from 1930 until 1959. Other than being a Broadway star, Merman was known primarily for her powerful, distinctive voice.
Broadway star Block’s passion for performing originated long before her Tony Award-winning role as Star in “The Cher Show” or even her debut as Liza Minelli in “The Boy From Oz.”
“I was very young. I started mimicking commercials when I was three or four-years-old,” Block said in an interview with The Rider News. “At seven-years-old [being called “little Ethel Merman,”] you find a different energy from people and they pay attention to you and you feel you’ve been given some sort of a gift.”
Block began voice training privately when she was 11 years old and said she “became diligent” when she realized her dream of coming to New York and becoming a Broadway star.
“At that tiny little age, I was serious,” she said. “This was not ‘just a bug.’”
As she grew up, Block became dedicated to her training. Block said she performed with a traveling theater group called The Young Americans and graduated from a performing arts high school.
“It was truly going to be a life choice,” Block said. “I ate it, I breathed it, I woke up to it.”
Nonetheless, Block said she does not believe in luck.
“It takes a whole lot of work,” she said. “I was one of the real blessed ones.”
Among her work in “The Cher Show” and “The Boy from Oz,” Block originated the role of Elphaba in the first national tour of “Wicked” and has performed in Broadway productions including “9 to 5,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and “Falsettos.”
“I will say that my life experience are the main factor that always goes into creating a character or bringing these roles to life,” she said. “Yes, you can study, and, yes, you can go to memory, but when you go out and live and get a true sense of self, then you are able to truly interpret a real-life or fictional character from the ground up.”
Block said with every major experience in her life, she becomes a “stronger and better actor,” as the experiences are woven into the fabric of who she is as a person.
In her role as Liza Minelli, Block said she had already gone through the process of playing a real-life character, which helped her to prepare the second time around for her performance as Cher.
“You have to fulfill what the audience is expecting. I had to get those down almost immediately,” she said, “Her singing voice was easier than her speaking voice.”
To prepare, Block said she started watching all of the footage she could possibly watch, including performances and interviews with Cher. She said she began imitating and parroting Cher until she was able to “bring a layer of humanity to it.”
Instead of doing an impersonation, Block said her role was a marriage between her and Cher because she was “able to infuse part of who I truly am into this character.”
“I do not live the life of Cher,” Block said. “Even though she’s a real, live, breathing woman here on earth, I had to do what I knew as Stephanie.”
In this latest role, Block won her first Tony Award after receiving two previous nominations, a moment she described as a “massive exhale” and felt like she was “being hugged by my working community.”
“It was great appreciation, great relief,” she said. “[It was] something that came to fruition that I worked 35 years for. I became such a workhorse in the Broadway community. It really felt like I was being loved, welcomed and appreciated and I think that was the greatest way for me [to win.]”
Despite winning the Tony, Block said she could not pick a favorite. Choosing a favorite role, for Block, would be like choosing a favorite child.
“I am lucky in my career… all of these characters I’ve been blessed to bring to Broadway,” she said. “I am at a different part in my life and [each role is] like a milestone to where I am in my life. Elphaba will always be part of my bloodstream, Cher will always be part of my life, it brought me a sort of trophy I was working toward. All of these different characters had led me to this point.”
Block shared invaluable advice for students pursuing careers in musical theater, acknowledging that despite her accomplishments, she believes there is still work to be done.
“I put that beautiful trophy on the shelf and [went] back to hustling, and that’s the nature of it,” she said. “I would advise them to be in it for the long haul. It’s about longevity, duration. It’s a continuous effort, it never, ever stops.”
Block urged students to be “less outcome-oriented” and to focus on “the work, the discovery and constant movement” of what performers love to do.
She said, “It needs to be that exciting with every opportunity, the beautiful of development and journey it’s going to be, [for] the rest of your life.”
Published in the 12/4/19 edition.
Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted prior to Block’s scheduled appearance at Rider on Dec. 2. Due to weather conditions, an announcement was made that the event will be rescheduled to a later date.