Samantha Massell (ΦΒΚ, University of Michigan), starring in Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof, offers her perspective on the importance of bringing a well-rounded perspective and personal connection to her roles on stage, and also shares thoughts on working with Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda and the future of musical theater.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I’m a native New Yorker, born and raised in Manhattan. I grew up singing around the house and actually made my Broadway debut at the age of 12 in Baz Luhrmann’s production of Puccini’s La Boheme, while attending Hunter College High School. I left the Big Apple to attend the University of Michigan, where I enrolled in their prestigious BFA musical theatre program and also pursued a BA in English. I returned to New York City after graduation and my senior showcase to pursue a career in the arts.
You graduated Phi Beta Kappa with dual degrees. How do you use what you learned in the classroom in your career?
The BFA musical theatre program was extremely comprehensive. In addition to voice lessons, acting classes, dance classes, fully-staged shows, and other hands-on lessons, we also studied the art form, the business, and history. I left Ann Arbor feeling very prepared for whatever New York would throw at me. Every time I get up to perform, whether I’m singing on Broadway or auditioning for a television show, I have the tools to go out and give it my best shot thanks to the amazing faculty.
I attended a very competitive academic high school in New York, so pursuing a separate degree in a more traditional subject was very important to me. I’ve always loved to write, so the English degree was a natural choice. Little did I know how much this choice would impact my work as an actor. The best actors are smart actors, actors who understand and appreciate the world around them. They do research; they keep their minds open.
To use Fiddler on the Roof as an example… how could I possibly play Hodel, a young woman in the shtetl in 1905 Russia if I didn’t know anything about that time period at all? Of course, you start your work on any role with research, which we did as a company. I feel significantly more prepared thanks to the English classes I took and the other academic requirements that were part of my second major. Who would have thought that my class on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would end up impacting my work on stage? And yet, it does. My BA in English opened my eyes to what’s possible in a way I didn’t anticipate at all.
How did you research and prepare for your current role?
I read a lot of books in anticipation of my journey to Anatevka, about the religious customs, life in the shtetl, the history of the time period, the history of the Jews, and so on. Our show also starts and finishes with a very powerful framing device which highlights the plight of immigrants and refugees from all over the world. In fact, it brings me back to learning about the creation of the state of Israel in Angell Hall at U of M. Additionally, our incredible director, TONY winner Bartlett Sher, provided us with a library of reading materials and a series of lectures, about customs, history, and even the history of the show.
You’ve mentioned that you have a deep personal connection to Fiddler on the Roof. How has that inspired you and affected your role?
As someone whose family left Lithuania in 1905 (the same year our show is set), I find the show extraordinarily powerful. This story, though fictional, is without question the story of my ancestors. It’s so special to have an opportunity to walk in the shoes of my people in a way most people will never have. Hopefully, attending the show provides that same type of catharsis! Additionally, with the state of the world we live in and the current refugee crisis, I feel very lucky to be telling such a relevant story and speaking up for those whose voices are not heard.
And then, of course, who doesn’t love Fiddler on the Roof? It has always been one of my favorite musicals. As I’ve told Sheldon Harnick, our lyricist, one hundred times, his work is one of the main reasons I fell in love with musical theatre in the first place. I couldn’t feel luckier to get to be a part of an acclaimed revival of one of my all-time favorite shows.
What was it like to intern for Lin-Manuel Miranda and what do you think the success of his recent hit, Hamilton, means for the future of musical theater?
I am so thrilled for him! Spoiler alert, Hamilton is incredible. It’s such an exciting time for the musical theater community. The industry is breaking down barriers and changing the norms in a way I have never seen and Hamilton is an integral part of that. Can I be in it please?
I also think that the Hamilton phenomenon is incredible for the industry at large because it is introducing so many people to musical theatre that may have never bought a ticket. Maybe they’ll sit down in a red velvet chair, fall in love with Hamilton, and, hopefully, leave and have fallen in love with the art form itself.
Lin is amazing. He is vibrant, funny, brilliant, caring, all the good things. I had an amazing time working with him in high school (he is also a Hunter alum) and I feel so lucky to be performing on Broadway in a season that he is a part of. After we opened Fiddler on the Roof, Lin and I wrote a little segment for their Ham4Ham show about how Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava would love to be Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy. It was a blast and you can check it out on Youtube!
What other projects are you working on?
On January 12 and 21, 2017, I’ll be making my solo concert debut at 54 belowin New York City. I’m writing the whole thing myself, I have some amazing guest performers, and I’m really excited about it. Right now, I’m enjoying my last weeks in Fiddler on the Roof! I love this show so much and I’m so happy to have a month left in the shtetl.
What advice do you have for other young graduates?
Stay focused, do the work, be disciplined, and remember to enjoy every second! Nothing worth having comes easily.