THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Christina, I suppose I have to ask the ‘new normal’ question - how have you been during the last year?
I've been more fortunate than most during this entire pandemic experience. I was able to create some of my own entertainments, but also, thankfully, I was given some work opportunities, performing, sometimes, for outdoors, socially distanced audiences and online corporate events. Although I live in a tiny studio apartment in New York City, my husband and I, over the years of making YouTube videos and doing voiceover work, have built a pretty decent setup, and after a while, once we saw that everything was going to continue much longer than everyone expected, we invested in some more equipment. We're glad we did because I was able to do some of these live events in high quality, not just over Zoom. The other thing is that I'm set to do a big UK tour. Of course, we haven’t been able to announce it in detail, but I've known that it would be in the future. Having a little bit of something to look forward to is so important, I was so grateful for that.
It’s been a while since we met, on your first British tour. What have you been doing – apart, of course, from the Divas impersonations that you’re famous for?
The short answer … which for me is nearly impossible ... is that I've spent very little time in the US. I have done a lot of work in the UK, concerts of my own and with other people, and I’ve spent a lot of time in Australia and some in South Africa. I love doing my own shows, having the pride in what I've created in my script and my arrangements, but that’s also very exhausting. Even if you have producers working with you, I'm the boss lady, the one that all the pressure’s on. I have to do the hiring, and very often what the producers have budgeted isn't quite enough for what I want to pay the musicians, or whatever. I'm a one-lady-and-an-assistant operation, just two of us. It’s thrilling, but it became very tiring because you take your work home with you. I was longing to do something in the other part of my career, which is just being hired as an actor and a singer, as ‘me’. I was just longing to be in a show, going into a rehearsal, being told where to stand by a director and how to dance by a choreographer and come home and go... Okay, you don't have to also do the bookkeeping!
Since 2016, I've really only been a part of two theatrical productions, but they're both worth mentioning because they were so cool. One of them was a totally reinvented production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. You'll never see such wonderful reviews and such awful reviews and nothing in between, because either you wanted to see a revamped production of Joseph or you did not. It was set in contemporary Las Vegas and I got to play the narrator, singing much of it in my own voice, but other bits coming in as various Vegas divas. So, I got to utilize my impressions, and have ‘regular Christina’ in one show. I’d played the narrator twice before when I was younger, and I was proud that they decided to create this production with me in mind. It may have a future life.
The other thing that I did was something that ended on March 7, 2020. I flew home March 9, and everything locked down March 12. I got to play Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, at the Théâtre Marigny in Paris! It was directed and choreographed by the Olivier Award winning and Queen-honored Stephen Mear [Mear’s been awarded a CBE in the 2020 New Year Honours for services to dance – ed]. It was just the greatest thing.
Did you do that as Christina, or as Barbra?
I of course did it as me. But you can see the headlines - ‘Actress known for impersonating Barbra Streisand steps into Barbra Streisand’s most iconic role!’ I did feel extra pressure and extra eyes on me. It’s a show that is not done very often, because producers think you have to have a huge celebrity attached in order to sell it. But I think casting someone like me proved that what the original production did was the right move. Barbra Streisand was not a huge star when she got that role, it turned her into a big star. If you cast somebody who's already established, the audience has a preconceived notion of them as a celebrity and the whole point of Funny Girl is that no one's quite sure that she can actually do it, so you have to be rooting for her. You can't root for someone that’s already grand. My attitude was, I had to make my own version of Fanny Brice. I can sing like Barbra Streisand if I choose to, but I look nothing like her and I'm not like her in so many ways. Now I am like Barbra in that the character is very fast talking, very New York, very loud and very quirky. I mean, that is me. Fanny Brice was like that, not just Barbra Streisand. So, I went back to studying Fanny Brice and finding the similarities between us and that's what I focused on. As big a Barbra Streisand fan as I am, I had to completely separate myself from my knowledge of the movie and the original Broadway cast recording, and I had to forget Barbara. There were two moments in the show where I chose to honor her and do something that she does that’s not in the music or the text, because I think they're iconic now and the audience kind of expects it. I don't mean I impersonated her, I just used a musical lick, like the way she sings the end of Don't Rain On My Parade – it wasn’t written that way, but everyone expects it. But other than that, no Barbra!
You can switch between the Divas so quickly in your concerts, do you find it easy to switch between being one of them and being yourself?
I don't find it difficult, ever, to be me. I've been me longer than I've ever done an impression! The work is for me to be somebody else.
And you’ve done a new thing, being other people but not in their singing voices. You’ve done ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ rap in famous actresses’ voices. There’s about 20 of them in there, from Gal Gadot to Olivia Coleman to Keira Knightley, and a lot of fictional characters as well. Which one did you enjoy doing most?
It's hard to choose, it's like Sophie's Choice. I do have a current favorite, which is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel character, Midge Maisel. I have been playing with versions of the Fresh Prince rap for about two years in my shows, where I have the audience shout out names and I’d just do it. I only did the short, minute long rap. But of course, if you're taking names from the audience and saying them, it takes a little longer. That's when video is helpful, you can add the names. In my second UK tour I did the full rap, the one that Will Smith released and that was played on the radio. In Britain I did some very UK-centric impressions, throwing in Mary Berry and Amy Childs [from reality show >The Only Way Is Essex – ed]. We change the music for each person – for Keira Knightley the music gets very serious, with Drew Barrymore it goes very bubbly. I love everything British, so I had to have Claire Foy and Olivia Coleman – Olivia was just Olivia, but Claire Foy was definitely her as The Queen because I was absolutely obsessed watching that show.
When you're doing somebody new, how do you how do you go about it? Do you study mouth shapes?
It varies impression to impression. You do have to study their quirks, and very often there is something you can see in the way they hold their mouth. That doesn't necessarily have any correlation to how they speak, it could just be something that they do, but sometimes it's very connected. An example is Keira Knightley, she has a very prominent chin. It doesn't exactly stick out, but she seems to sort of lead with it. It helps me get in the right place, and it helps an audience, if I do that. Drew Barrymore talks out of the side of her mouth, so if I didn't do that, you’d be disappointed. What struck me about Midge Maisel is that she has a very slight lisp, and when I did her I found that I put my mouth in a position to get that lisp but then I didn't look like her, so I had to rethink how I did her. Either way, I have to make weird noises and weird faces, particularly with singing impressions when I try new things. My neighbors are very tolerant!
You said you’re keen to do things in your own voice and to act in different voices, but not necessarily impressions. Which leads onto The Ballad of Anne and Mary, a new musical, based on the lives of two notorious 18th Century female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, but it’s done as a podcast. I don't know if that's even been done before, but it works.
It’s darn good! There's no reason it wouldn't work, because - very little in the US but very much in the UK - you have a culture of audio dramas, audio series, shows like The Archers. You're used to hearing true sound effects, echoes and all that sort of thing. Really the only difference is adding music. But there is one other difference, which is that Lindsay Sharman and Laurence Owen, who wrote the show, did all of it from a shed in their garden. It's all done remotely with the whole cast, all through the pandemic. It's so impressive. They found a really clean way to make an audio musical. And the sound effects are amazing, it really sounds like a pirate ship at sea – without the budgets that the BBC has.
I would sing my part, which I’d learn from a demo, and sometimes I'd be acting with Sooz Kempner who plays Mary, but she hadn’t recorded her part yet. It’s glorious how they put it together. This is a musical that if I was not attached to it, I would still listen to. It has some very classic musical theater sounds, then it has more contemporary funk nuance as well as a pop sensibility for a more contemporary audience. There's comedy, drama, adventure, the tender moments are beautiful, and the music reflects all of those areas.
When I listened to it, I was thinking, why can't we do this as a concert? A full scale production opens up a whole other can of worms these days, but in a concert they could use some of the sound effects that they've created, and have musicians play it live or over the top of it, and the actors could actually get out and do it. I’m pushing for that because I think that people would really like it. I'm selfishly pushing for it, because this is the only medium where I would be cast as a tough Irish American pirate!
Anne Bonny and Mary Read were real people, the characters are great, but how historically accurate are they?
Laurence told me, we're as accurate as one can be, knowing that everyone has always taken liberties in telling the tale. The date of Anne Bonny’s birth is questionable, and she wasn't even declared dead, just ‘disappeared’. So, you have to tell a story, but I would say they're not stretching the truth as much as, say, in a Disney fairy tale movie. In the canon of pirate history and legacy and stories, this is a nice new telling of it.
I can see why they chose you for the role, you have to be feisty, but you're not Irish American, obviously.
When they first told me they wanted me to play this part, I got very nervous and I said, you know, I'm good at accents but I don't really do a County Cork Irish accent. They said no, she left home when she was 15 or 16, then left Ireland, then she was in the Carolinas… Okay, I think I can find a way to find an ‘I might have been Irish at one point’ accent’. And nobody can complain about it because no one knows what Anne actually sounded like. I did steal a few things from Irish people I know who now live in the States.
Let's hope the concert version comes off, we'd love to see that if it went to a full-blown stage musical. Would you like to be in it?
I would love to! I would do everything in my power to take my four-foot eleven frame and make it look ready to be a believable sword-fighting pirate so they would have to consider me for the role. They do have a little jab at my size in the script, and Mary Read’s too, because compared to the men they were both supposed to be smaller. But Sooz is not very tall herself so if they did want to keep it with the two of us, we'd be a good match for each other.
Everyone should listen to The Ballad of Anne and Mary [the link is below]. What else do you have planned?
Well, I'm preparing to spend a lot of time over there - I’m relocating to the UK next year! I've been saying that forever, but now I'll be doing a British tour for about six months at the beginning of next year, and my husband and my 11 year old schnoodle and I are going to be popping over and looking to stay for a few years in the UK. Knowing that we're going to be doing that, we're doing a lot of things here in the States. I am doing some live concerts, and I'm doing some special short video content for a new streaming platform. And I'm very lucky, I'm gonna start the year in January with a big solo show with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Jack Everly... I'm very excited.
But I'm also going to do what many people have wanted to do through this pandemic, we're going to do actual vacations. It was so lovely being home with my husband and my dog during the past year, if there was an upside to this tragedy, it was that I enjoyed and really needed that time at home. But now we can travel again, this is important to me because I haven't been on a vacation where I didn't work as part of it for maybe a decade. I think maybe Hawaii is in our future – it’s where we got engaged so we should probably go back there. And then we’re off to the UK!
One final question. What is the best thing about being Christina Bianco? You came up with an interesting answer last time...
Oh, what I'm going to say is cheesy, I wonder if it's what I said before... I think the best thing about being Christina Bianco, is that whenever I want to, I also get to be a lot of other people. Did I say that last time?
No, you didn't, you actually said it was having the opportunity to take advantage of everything that the social media world has presented you with, and that you always wanted to travel and your favorite thing is to perform, and you've gotten to do both.
That’s a much better answer, use that one again!