Beyond the Stage Door with Cassondra James
This week’s ‘Beyond the Stage Door’ interview is with Cassondra James from Broadway’s Tony nominated ‘Once on this Island’.
Cassondra has traveled the world singing with Cory Henry and the funk apostles. And has performed with Christina Aguilera, Kim Burrell, Tituss Burgess, The original ladies of Chic, Laura Izibor, Alicia Keys, Gladys Knight, LaChanze, and Wynton Marsalis.
so it’s needless to say that she is unbelievably talented and accomplished. In addition to her musical accomplishments, Cassondra earned her B.A. in sociology from Hofstra University, her Master’s degree in theological studies from Drew University, and is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where she is conducting research on stand-up comedy. Here’s her interview!
How did Once on this Island come into play for you?
My route to ‘Once on this Island’ was a very roundabout one. I was working with Jason Michael Webb who is an established and incredible musician. We’ve worked together a lot over the last 18-20 years. I auditioned and was cast to work on Jason’s musical, ’The First Noel’ at the Apollo. Flash forward, Jason was the MD for the first workshop of ‘Once on This Island’.
So I randomly received an email to come audition for the workshop and was like “Huh? What? Where did this even come from?” and it turned out Jason had put a referral in place.
Could you explain your entry into BGV (Background Vocals) world?
A lot of what has happened has happened because I was open to trying things and I was available. I’ve always been around musicians and went to college at Hofstra and the musicians always needed someone to sing on their tracks. From there It became a word of mouth situation and I’d built up enough relationships to continue to work.
How do you think your BGV experience helped you book ‘Once on This Island’?
I know I got Once on this Island because of my experience as a background singer. AnnMarie Milazzo did the vocal orchestrations, and she was asking for very specific things vocally. And they were specific things background singers typically are used to doing.
How much did your gospel training influence?
My parents are both ministers and I grew up singing. I majored in music for about a semester and I didn’t like it. However, music kept finding me. I always had church gigs up until I booked Once on this Island. Some required reading music and some required classical and other required me to scream my face off. A lot of musical training came from singing with gospel musicians.
What has your experience been being an understudy for Erzulie?
By the time I had become an understudy I had already done the show enough to know the role. I didn’t have a specific time to learn the show because we’re always onstage. There’s not much you miss when you’re always on.
Is it different to see the show through Erzulie’s eyes?
My experience performing Erzulie is worlds away from my time as an ensemble member. The biggest difference is This character is sitting a lot. The ensemble is moving and running and literally jumping in water. It’s a much messier experience, so the whole thing is different. Experientially it is much different because I’m up high looking low for the most part. I get to see more as Erzulie, I get to see the complete picture since I’m not on the ground.
How do you find your way into Erzuile as a character?
I will say I (laughter) I’ve been in school way longer then I ever wanted to be. Part of my journey is that I got a master’s in theology
Karen McCarthy Brown wrote a book on voodoo called ‘Mama Lola’. Part of my way was going back to that experience of talking with this professor and her experience with voodoo priestess. The stage managers also have books in their office on each of the gods. She’s a kind of mash up of multiple Erzulie’s. I’ve tried to take a more historical position on her for those people who believe in her.
How have you developed Relationships between the Gods?
Not all the actors in the show take on the traditional roles of the Gods. It’s more about being present in the moment. I’ve only done this character twice. (At this point I asked if she’ll move up in coverage when Lea leaves and Darlesia takes over) The person taking over is going to be covering three roles which will take a minute to learn then get costumes for. So I’ll be the only cover with the costumes so I’m sure I’ll visit her more often.
How did you playing the flute become part of the show?
That was a really strange thing. A lot of what has happened is because I’m open to try. I said I play the guitar and the flute during my audition. I was clear and said I PLAYED it in high school. They said okay great you’ll be playing it in this Broadway show. The last time I had performed was in high school and next thing I know I’m playing it on a Broadway stage.
How has the show changed since you workshopped it?
Having ideas is one thing, and having vision and imagination is another. Michael Arden is a visionary, full of imagination. We were really excited to try things out but once we moved into the theatre some ideas didn’t translate and we had to reimagine. The sand presented a huge problem. The choreography changed because of some of the things we could not do anymore. Then there were challenges presented to us (the cast) because who has done a show on sand??
How do you handle performing in an intimate space and not being star struck when stars come to the show?
Its impossible not to see people within that space. The point for me is not to actively engage the audience, but I also can not ignore that someone’s feet are right next to me. I don’t ever purposely look at anybody, I create an artificial fourth wall.
How did you build up the stamina to do this show 8 times a week?
This was also something that happened in the natural course of the show. I got through one number and was like “Oh I’m not going to make it”. That’s what the rehearsal process was. A lot of things were modified because of the elements which helped alleviate the pressure on ours bodies.
How did you vocally adjust to the eight-show week?
This goes back to gospel training. I sing a lot of head floaty stuff and high notes in the show. Coming from a gospel background, this is a comfortable place for me vocally because its not as hard as sustaining the gospel music performance.
Are you serving a Belting Erzulie?
Oh I mean she BELTS! I am grateful that in my normal track I don’t have to scream because again, It wears on you after a while. If you don’t do the right techniques you can create unnecessary strain. Its super complicated in terms of vocal technique.
How are you prepping for Tony season?
We have some wild schedules, more rehearsal to prepare but that’s all I can really say.
Final Advice: Beyond the Stage Door Final Words
For young artists to say YES.
You never know where your artistic journey will take you. It is important to be open to things that are new and foreign. Things that will force you to examine new things, until you get to a point where things are no longer beneficial to you. When it starts to do you harm, say No. But in the beginning, say yes and try.
One piece of Art people should take in?
Go to the 125th street Studio Museum in Harlem, they feature a lot of beautiful visual art from African American artists.
You can find Casssondra here! And check back next week for another interview!