Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Emma Pratte
December 21st, 2015
When we met Sierra Boggess on a rainy New York City morning, within five minutes it became clear that she’s a woman who has given a lot of thought about who she is and how she wants to be in the world (she even managed to do this during the now standard, “It’s nice that it’s not freezing out, but also it’s kind of creepy,” small talk). Sierra is currently starring as Rosalie Mullins, the principal in School of Rock. Last season she appeared in It Shoulda Been You. Other Broadway credits include Master Class, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, and she made her Broadway debut as Ariel in The Little Mermaid. She’s also crossed the pond and starred in the West End production of Love Never Dies. We talked to Sierra about her evolution throughout these productions, how she’s balanced her personal development while also working in the theatre, and how all of this has now taken root in her current role in School of Rock. Her astute exploration of her relation to her profession and her roles (both on and off stage) is just the sort of conversation that we think is important to have.
In School of Rock you play principal Rosalie Mullins and you get to be funny, but you’re also the authority figure. How did you find the balance between the two?
I’ve been getting asked a lot about this because it’s a character very different than what people are used to seeing me do. I approach it the same way I would any other kind of role, which has to be from her truth. That’s what I really learned about comedy from when I was doing It Shoulda Been You, the show I did before this, where I was working with great comic geniuses like Tyne Daly and Harriet Harris, and I realized from them how much you’re just starting from a place of truth. So Ms. Mullins is coming from quite a dark place where she feels like she has to be perfect all the time, and everyone around her has to be, and it helps her feel in control. I think we understand, especially as women, needing to be in control and manage everything. So it comes from a place of not enough and a place of lack, and then she’s so serious about it that it manifests in very funny ways. To me it’s like a cat. You know how when dogs play they’re like, “I can’t wait to play! It’s so much fun!” And when cats play they’re very serious and like, “I can’t wait to get this thing.” It’s funnier when you watch a cat play and they’re attacking a piece of paper with so much seriousness. So that’s how I think about Ms. Mullins, I came from the place of truth and where she’s coming from in her life with all of this.
It’s interesting that you brought up the perfectionist thing since that can be a really big issue with women.
The perfectionism thing was huge. I’m a huge Brené Brown fan and I read the book The Gifts of Imperfection and it changed my life as how I, Sierra, live my life in this world. So when I was working on the character, I had to sort of unlearn what I knew. Being imperfect is actually what we want to strive for. Rosalie wouldn’t know that. She’s still living from the place of perfection; it’s in her lyrics even. So that’s the place I was coming from. I sort of had to unlearn what I know in terms of being a self-evolved female in this life. And that’s why I feel so connected to her, because I so understand that. She’s trying to maintain a sense of perfection all the time, and, as I know, that doesn’t exist. So how it manifests itself is really interesting.
When you come into rehearsal, do you come in having done a lot of work or do you come in more not knowing and do that work later?
It’s very difficult to find that balance and I’m still working on finding that. I came into this process having done a lot of my own homework. I had worked with an acting teacher and my voice teacher and I’d interviewed certain people in my life. I’m a very visual person, so it has to be written down. I also put together like a Pinterest board that’s a private one, so only I can see it, that has different things for the character like rules for being a principal and things I know nothing about. And what’s completely not like me is that I was not a good student. I was not like Rosalie and what she’s expecting of people. But my sister, Summer, is two years older than me—and I’ve partly based the character off of her because she’s a perfectionist—she saw the world in black and white, and she was such a good student. She was and still is my role model. Summer is one of the most amazing humans you’ll ever meet in your whole life. And that helped me humanize her as well, since if I’m using someone I love like my sister for her then that serves me too. So I did a lot of that work coming into the process, but then I had to stay open because the director had a very different idea of what the character was. So it was a little bit of a dance of figuring out what they already had in their minds of who she was and the work I’d done. But I never go into things unprepared.
You’ve mentioned promoting arts education being important to the show and important to you, which is something everyone here totally agrees with.
That’s one of the things that I love about doing this show at this time, because we can’t lose the arts in schools. We just cannot. I would not have graduated school had I not had my drama program or my music program. My sisters are both musicians. My little sister teaches music at a school in Afghanistan, so that’s how important music was to all of us in my family growing up. My mom taught music as well for a while at schools. It’s just been part of my life and I can’t understand how it’s even an option to take it out of schools. It helps the creative process so much—and even math skills, learning how to tell time signatures—it’s all related. I’m a huge advocate for music in schools. It’s weird to me that someone came up with the idea that it shouldn’t be. I also hate that people have to choose between sports and music. A lot of kids get into theatre or get into sports because they had to make a choice and I don’t understand why you can’t do both things.
Right. Or that it’s not more incorporated into the curriculum, so it’s not just an after school thing.
Right. It should be respected. I went to an inner city public high school in Denver, Colorado and our drama teacher, Nancy Priest, was the most amazing teacher. But she does not teach an easy A drama class. I learned so much from her. She’s one of my biggest influences actually.
And I think for girls especially, music education is important. It’s interesting that you and your sisters all did music from an early age. Do you think that had an impact on your self-esteem and confidence and things like that?
Maybe. I’ve never thought about that. I guess it did. Because I was good at it. And it was the first time I realized I was good at something. I wasn’t a good student. As an adult, I wish I could go back to school since now I care about learning things and knowing history, but I didn’t want to know math—I’m really bad at math—I didn’t want to know that kind of stuff. But when I was in music class I was good, and I felt alive and I felt passionate and I felt inspired. I didn’t know that then. But thinking about it now I can articulate what that was. So yeah, it did help my confidence.
When you hear a song, do you immediately have an emotional response to it?
For sure. Even when it’s on the radio. Even when it’s mundane or “it’s just a pop song,” I think we as humans respond. It’s actually very scientific that we’re responding to the beat or the high notes. But I really respond to when I can hear, going back to this theme of perfection—I mean I’m obsessed with this whole thing and how much it’s in our lives—as the music industry has grown and people have tried to get this one way to look and one way to sound, it’s stripped away all of this rawness. As everyone by now knows, I’m the biggest Barbra Streisand fan. I discovered Barbra Streisand when I was a kid through my mother, and she had a record player and she would play her records, and the sound of her and the rawness… It’s so funny how Barbra has this reputation of being difficult to work with, and I guarantee you it’s because she’s a woman who speaks up for herself. I guarantee it. Because she knows what she wants. I’ve heard stories of her going back into the listening room and they’ll have mixed up something that she’s just recorded and she’ll be like, “Where are my breaths. You can’t hear my breaths.” Because they tried to strip it out and make it sound perfect and like you’re not a human singing—but she already doesn’t sound like a human singing because she’s freaking extraordinary—but she’s asking for the realness to be put back in. Obviously I don’t know her, I’m talking purely from an admirer standpoint, but that’s what I responded to as a kid: this raw sound, this real sound. It’s imperfectly perfect.
And Barbra’s so germane to what we’ve been talking about, not only in terms of her voice, but what she’s done for women in the industry.
Completely. And she still does. She’s so relevant to me. I use her so much within my show. On my wall, I have her [photo] because she’s my role model, and then I have Stevie Nicks too for Ms. Mullins. I have these two super powerful women in their respective industries. And what the show means to Stevie Nicks… Stevie has come to our show twice and she’s going to come back again. She loves the musical and she loves the movie. She said when she first saw the movie she was watching TV and it was on and she was watching and then her song came on and then she was like, “I must have signed off on this at some point”—that’s when you know you’ve made it, when you’re like, “I guess I signed off on this.” But she said she’s been struck by being the only female rocker represented within the entire show, School of Rock. We’re celebrating rock and he [Dewey] references all of these different people within the show that are his inspirations, and Stevie Nicks is the only female represented in the rock world. It makes me want to cry just thinking about it. So, no wonder [it had an impact on her]. And she’s so relevant in that today. And I love that Rosalie gets to be the one to bring her to life and that she’s her inspiration.
And since for so long that singularity went sort of unnoticed and uncelebrated. Or not even being able to have the discussion of what it’s like to be the only one in a boy’s club.
Right. Can you imagine? I’ve thought about her so much, and at that time wanting to become a rocker and what that stigma was, it’s fascinating to me. I would love to talk to her about it.
Yeah, and that thing of how you do that without having anyone to look at and go, “Oh, okay, that’s how you do that.”
And I think that’s, subconsciously, what Rosalie Mullins is relating to is this woman who has paved the way. Going back to the character, I love her so much, and what I keep learning about her, to be a woman of the age she is—I’m in my early thirties—and she’s the head of one of the most established, prestigious schools and all of the other teachers are older than she is. And as a woman to be holding this up and the responsibilities and the pressures that she’s under to show up a certain way, that informed how I walk and how I talk. That goes back to the [idea of] coming from a place of truth. All of the expectations that there are on her, as a young woman, to be running a school of that caliber, it’s a lot.
Right, we usually think of women, if they’re in roles of authority, as being older or super tall and British.
Exactly. And there are clues within it. She says that no one has asked her to go out in six years. So six years ago she was twenty-eight years old, she went out to the teachers convention, had one beer, got drunk, and started coming alive singing Stevie Nicks. All of the teachers remembered it and will keep remembering it, but it’s the last time she did it and allowed herself to be free and vulnerable. And my acting teacher and I, when we were analyzing the scene in the bar and when Dewey gets her to go on a date with him, my acting teacher said, “This is a boundary she’s maintained for six fucking years.” And now this guy is coming in and asking her to come out of her comfort zone and the only time she relaxes is when she hears Stevie Nicks playing—her kindred spirit. It’s psychologically fascinating to me. Again, as a woman, can you imagine if any of them knew that she went out with this substitute and all of this stuff? I could go on.
Well, it so relates to women in our culture in general. Like how women get, “Oh, are you the assistant to the principal?”
Or, “Let me talk to who’s in charge.” “No, I am.”
In your own life in the industry have you had to navigate how to be taken seriously and have your boundaries taken seriously with also trying to be yourself?
I think I’m getting to a place now in my career as someone who people know within my industry. When I was first starting out, I just loved what I was doing and was just on the ride. It wasn’t until later that I realized, “Oh, this is what I’ve gotten myself into.” I’ve been sort of trying to figure out how I want to show up as a leading lady. Tyne Daly always said to me that there’s a difference between being a star and being a leading lady, and she’s not interested in being a star, but being a leading lady is interesting. That, to me, is everything. Being a leading lady where I need to take care of the company, but I have to maintain taking care of myself in order to do that. Wayne Dyer has the most basic quote ever where he’s like, “When you’re on a plane, you have to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.” It’s so basic, but it’s how to maintain that and how to stand up for what you want. I found that a lot in this show. It’s all men behind the scenes: a male director, a male producer. And there are a couple of women—a female choreographer, JoAnn Hunter, and she’s so awesome—and we have two executive producers who are female. And it’s who showed up in my time of need—it was the women. I think we think about that a lot, how we maintain taking care and also stepping up and doing your thing at the same time. But to go back, I think that people have opinions about me and maybe how I ask for what I need because I’m a woman—and, you know, as soon as you ask for what you need you’re a diva. If a man asked for what he needed, there’s not a word for that. But we can be difficult if we’re asking. So maybe people in this industry have formulated an idea of who I am, but I haven’t come across that yet. I also don’t like to separate men and women, but it’s a very male heavy industry and most of the time you’re going to have men running the show. I think it actually makes me a stronger woman and I like to be the person people can come to for how to handle this stuff.
You’ve used social media a platform to not just be like, “Come see my show,” but in more expansive ways. How did you end up using it to put other things out in the world?
It was actually when I was working in London and I was doing a show called Love Never Dies. We were all nominated for an award that was online and that was basically a popularity contest. Our show was nominated and they nominated the leading man, the leading woman, supporting man, and supporting woman. The only person who had social media at the time was the leading man and he wouldn’t promote us and we were all like, “Please put us out there too.” And to me, social media is a thing to help each other because it’s global. Deepak Chopra even talks about this because he says he can just write one tweet about meditate today, and because he has a million followers, someone is going to meditate today. It’s just the easiest way to get it out globally. Instead of looking at it as a horrible thing, it’s so easy. So that’s how it came about for me, since I was like, “Okay, he’s not going to help us out, so I’ll just do it.” So I created my social media account and started promoting my friends and it helped me feel really good, and I was like, “This is what I want to use this for,” and if I have the power to help other people then that’s what I’m going to do. Once I really started really getting into Brené Brown, Wayne Dyer, Gabrielle Bernstein, I was like, “Oh my god, this way of thinking is not at all how I was raised to think and I wish I had known this”—and it helps everything. It helps the animals of the world, which I’m very passionate about—I was like, “I have to get this message out there,” and that was the easiest way to do it. And the response I started getting was bigger than if I was just promoting myself.
It’s been really popular.
I feel a responsibility to my fan base because I started out as Christine Daaé in Vegas in Phantom of the Opera and people know me as Christine because that’s continued on throughout my life. And Christine Daaé represents the woman who can love the unlovable—this is all me, this is what I’ve concluded—so I have a certain fanbase who’s like, “Sierra loves the unlovable,” because they can’t separate the character and me. Then my Broadway debut is playing Ariel [in The Little Mermaid]. Ariel represents the girl who is born in the wrong body, the wrong time, the wrong world—psychologically that’s so fucking huge. So I would start getting letters from girls who had eating disorders and who had tried to kill themselves. And not just girls. Boys and girls. Boys who struggled with being gay. All of these huge things. And I was like, “How do you deal with this?” And I really thought about, “How do you deal with this?” because I can’t write back and be a therapist. And I thought, what they’re responding to is who Ariel represents to them. She is the princess who represents becoming who you are. So when I realized all of this, I didn’t like it at first. I wasn’t prepared for that kind of attention. Then, once I realized what it was, I was like, I can handle this by just writing one thing, and that’s when my, “You are enough…[you are so enough. It’s unbelievable how enough you are],” quote came into my life again. Because I had written that quote down from years ago and I revisited. I was like, “That’s what this is,” this message is for everyone because no matter what you’re dealing with that quote is super universal. People now associate that quote with me, and even at the stage door people are like, “Can you write “You are enough” on here?” And that I love more than anything. So I sort of have come into this place where what I do for a living has given me a platform for something greater. I already think that what I do for a living is the coolest thing on the planet, but it’s bigger than that now that I have more of an expanded consciousness from doing the work I’ve done personally. And, once I started talking like I’ve been talking, people go to, “She’s so perfect.” I get it every day: “You’re so perfect, I want to be you.” And it makes me furious, because then you’re not listening to what I’m saying. Because there is no perfect. And do not want to be me. Cameron Diaz just did some thing where she was talking about when people say, “I want to be you,” and then she reverses the question and says, “Why? If you want to be me because you want to be famous, you are in for a world of being disappointed and feeling depleted all the time.” I loved that so much because I understand being that age and trying to figure out who you are. And they’ll say, “You’re my Barbra Streisand,” but I never wanted to be Barbra Streisand. I love Barbra Streisand, but there’s a reason I have never touched any of her songs. I don’t sing like Barbra Streisand, I’ve never tried to sing like Barbra Streisand. I don’t want to be her. I did want her to be my mom sometimes.
You wanted to have dinner with her.
I wanted to have dinner with her and be her very best friend. But I didn’t want to be her. I think that’s the difference with the generation now because everyone wants to be who they aren’t.
It’s really fascinating to see how the younger generation responds to shows and what they take away from them. Especially since it’s not always represented in the image of the show that the press is trying to show.
Totally. One hundred percent, yes.
And then how they relate it back to themselves.
That makes me think of how much I’ve been loving the feedback I’ve been getting on Rosalie Mullins. It’s shaking up their whole thing because I’m not playing [her] like a Christine Daaé. And it’s so different than this character they’ve known and loved. It’s so different that they have to sit back and watch. And the feedback I’m getting is how sorry they feel for her. People pity her. And because they know it’s me and they’re like, “That’s not who she is,” the second act then has such a huge payoff since it’s like, “Oh there’s her freedom,” and through music that’s how she finds herself. And that I love.
Or even to see that people can be more than one thing. Or just because you’re one way at one time…
It doesn’t define you.
Yeah, and when you’re young that can be a huge, huge thing.
I’m continually evolving.
As an actress, you have an industry saying, “You’re this, this is what you do, this is what you don’t do, this is what you sell.” How have you dealt with all of that at the same time as you’re trying to develop as a person outside of what you do for a living?
It was very important to me—and I don’t know why I was this self-aware at the time because I didn’t have the tools—to not be boxed in as a Disney princess. At the same time, I fucking love that I’m a Disney princess. I love Disney. But I didn’t want to do just one thing. I have so many different parts of my own character that I want to explore and different parts of my voice, and I want to do a ton of different things in theatre. But having Disney be the first big thing that you show up on the scene with is a lot of responsibility because I have to maintain a brand. It wasn’t about me getting to explore creatively as much as I could if I wasn’t having to uphold a brand. I can’t have Ariel come out and all of a sudden be a rocker chick. I’m maintaining and honoring something that had already been created. For me it was fun, but also something that had an expiration date on it for that particular character because she’s frozen in time no matter what. Then the next show I did from that was Love Never Dies in London. So I’d come onto the scene in a very big way in New York, I had much anxiety over it as the show went on—nothing to do with Disney, but because of everything we’ve been talking about—how do you maintain, it’s a lot. And I was young. I was twenty-six. So I went to London and it was there that I could [say], “[deep breath] Okay, what do I want do? How do I want to show up in New York again? How do I want to come back to Broadway?” London, for me, is a very magical fairy world. I studied abroad in London when I was in college and I knew one day I would work there, I just knew it—it was something in my gut. So London was where I did a lot of self-discovery and I felt free, and I felt free to explore who I was. So that was very huge for me to get to sort of start over. Then I came back to New York and did a play called Master Class starring Tyne Daly, and if you go and do a show with Tyne Daly and don’t learn a shit ton from her then you’ve just ruined the experience of working Tyne Daly. So I came back to New York on Broadway in a role very different than Ariel. It was only a three month run, so it’s not like it had a huge impact on my career, but it did for me, personally, to come back in and be this opera singer from Juilliard playing opposite Tyne Daly. It was a very huge three-month growth experience for me. Then, I went back to London and did the twenty-fifth anniversary of Phantom of the Opera so it was like going all over the place. I felt very inspired and alive. Then 2012 hit. I was supposed to come back to Broadway with Rebecca the Musical and that did not happen, as we know. Then I was supposed to do Prince of Broadway and that did not happen. Then I was supposed to do It Shoulda Been You all in the same year. Didn’t happen. All of these shows either got postponed or didn’t happen. So I found myself stuck with, “What do I do now,” and “Who am I, really?” I really am a student of Wayne Dyer and he said, “You’re not what you do, you’re not what you have, and you’re not what other people think of you.” And that was the most eye-opening thing to me since I was like, “How do I deal with that in this industry?” Because I’d been raised to believe that I am what I do. And I think, going back to being female, we’re not ‘50s housewives anymore—we don’t have to get married in order to be someone, we don’t have to get married in order to have a job, all of this stuff. So maybe our generation has a complex of, we really have to show up and be something, and that, I think, is overkill. We have to learn that on our own. And I was like, “It’s okay for me to sit and figure out who I am without any of this stuff.” And I reconnected with nature. This world is so much bigger than me, Sierra, the world is so much bigger than that. And that’s what lights me up and inspires me and now I bring that to shows I do.
When was the first moment you felt like a grown up?
When people came up to me and start [yelling] “Sierra Boggess!” and crying and freaking, I never understand it because I always feel like the kid, I always feel like that kid who’s like “I can’t wait…” And it wasn’t until I started doing this show and actual kids are in the show and I’m like, “Oh, now I’m the adult,” and now people are coming to me for advice and people are trusting [me] with the show. Even with when I was in my costume fitting and they’re like, “Well, you know, you’ve been around, this is like your fifth Broadway show,” and I was like, “I guess it is…” It was like I grew up without realizing it. And I’m someone who talks about my age and I’m like, “I’m in a new decade!” I wasn’t like, “Oh shit, I’m going to be thirty.” My mom always said something to me that as a kid annoyed me so much, and it is the thing I’d want to say which is, “You’re only fifteen once,” “You’re only thirty once.” As a kid it pissed me off so much, but it’s true. So my moment within the show I discover every day that I’m watching these kids, is I realized I still thought I was that age. And in a way, in my soul, I am, but now I see that no, no, no. My sister said something to me when I was interviewing her about my character and she said, “The anger towards those kids isn’t because you hate them, it’s because you love them so much that you want them to succeed and you feel a huge responsibility for their success.” Now not one person can take on that, but we do.
The pattern for that answer is either people joke, or it’s usually connected to having some sort of responsibility towards other people.
Totally, and maybe that’s what the definition of being grown up is.
What do you think about the roles available to women in musical theatre?
I’ve encountered really kickass parts. And I have to talk to Christine Daaé because people are like, “She’s just an ingénue,” and I can talk to the, “she’s just an ingénue,” thing because I have done the, “just the ingénue thing.” I think as long as we as women are coming into these shows with something to say—Christine Daaé keeps that whole show together, it is not the Phantom and it is not Raoul. She’s the one maintaining everything, she’s the one with the huge growth. She starts as a kid, basically, and all of this stuff happens around her, and by the end she’s the one who changes and flips the whole thing. She becomes a woman. So to be honest, I find there are kickass roles. Even just thinking about the roles they talk about with women like, “You’re going to be nominated if you play Mama Rose,” and I can’t think of male roles like that. I think once a part gets written, and no matter how it gets written, we can make it into something great or not. That’s just how I look at it.
It’s interesting thinking of that and then going back to what we were talking about with looking at some of those girls and young women and how they’re interpreting the roles and you start to think maybe some of this stuff has been an interpretation problem.
I think so. And I can’t make that a black and white statement, but I think if you’re interpreting it as being worthy of you playing it… But I also think it speaks to the time period. In the 1950s you couldn’t play Christine Daaé as this heroine, but [now] you could if you chose to interpret it that way. It goes to being brave. Show up and be seen. And that’s the biggest thing again with School of Rock that I’m finding with Rosalie—it’s about allowing herself to be brave and be seen and allowing herself to be free. And that is everything.
What’s something you think can be done to improve gender equality in theatre?
I think, honestly, the whole equality thing starts with you yourself at home. I think you can go support all kinds of theatre. I’ve never been, “Oh, it’s a woman writer, I should go support that.” That’s never been where my head has been. I always go to, “I have to start this from home.” I have to believe this within my soul that we’re equal. So I encourage everyone to start reading things by Brené Brown, who’s one of the most amazing authors. And my male friends who read Brené Brown are like huge light bulbs going off. I don’t like the idea of putting down the male gender to raise us up. So, for me, it’s about doing the work at home, which is what I’m like in every aspect of my life. You have to do your work. It goes back to putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others. Especially as females because we’re raised to take care of others first.