If you thought a career on Broadway was all high kicks and sequins then think again.
As New York star of stage and screen Rachelle Rak will tell you it takes hard work, determination and talent of course, but she says it also takes guts.
That was the message she was sharing with Musical Theatre students at Stockton Riverside College during a rare visit to the UK.
Leading a series of master classes at the College, she said: “It’s not just the talent or what you know, you have to have guts and you have to be willing.
“It’s the willingness sometimes that gets you the job, over the talent even.”
With seven Broadway hits to her name and countless theatre shows and tours, her career has got to be the epitome of every budding musical theatre star’s ambition.
Her musical credits include the likes of Fosse, Catch Me If You Can, The Look of Love, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Though Shalt Not, Oklahoma, and Cats, to name but a few.
But Rachelle is probably best known for having been a judge on American TV reality contest, Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition, and appearances on reality TV series, Dance Moms.
Catching up with Rachelle during her visit to Stockton she is every bit the glamorous Broadway star. Having grown up in her mum’s dance school in Pittsburgh, she told is what first set her on the road to a career on the stage.
“I was 14 and two things happened, I saw Liza Minnelli in a show in Atlantic City. She sat in a director’s chair and sang a song called “Ring Them Bells.
“She didn’t move, she just sat there and told a story. I thought how do I learn to do that?
“Then I saw Cats on Broadway, I said to my mother that is what I am going to do.”
Rachelle was just 17 when she got her first big break in Cats. She said: “My slogan is I didn’t go to college I went to Cats.”
As understudy to Grizabella, she said: “I was 17 and I had to learn Memory. It was shocking, amazing, scary, but someone thought I could do it, if they thought I could, then I thought I could do it too.”
At that point she said: “We thought I had made it, but it only lasted a few months and the show closed. I thought, what now?”
Next came a European tour of West Side Story followed by a year of Starlight Express. It all sounds very easy, but Rachelle is first to admit that it isn’t.
“I paid my dues on that tour. I was 18 and we were up and down Europe travelling for hours and hours on a bus, putting on a show and then back on the bus and doing it all again.”
It certainly wasn’t the glitz and glam that you might expect of the exciting world of musical theatre.
FIND YOUR SOMETHING SPECIAL
As Rachelle says, a career on the stage takes hard work. You have to develop the skills of your trade, and more.
“You might be good at one thing but we don’t live in a world where you can just be one thing,” she said. “These days they want this multi-talented artist. Broadway, the West End, they want it all.
“How do you get better? Practise.”
Talking to students, she noted: “I asked what brought them here and I heard a lot about the feeling of being on the stage, of not being able to imagine doing anything else. But that’s just about the feeling, about the applause, it has to go deeper than that.”
She says, the world of show business comes with a lot of rejection and so you have to find what makes you stand out.
“At a certain level you walk into a Broadway audition and everyone is as talented as you are, everyone looks the same if you are going for the same part. Now what is going to make you different? What is going to be that special something about you?”
She said: “When you are an artist you have to be willing to be vulnerable. If I could teach the students anything it would be how to use all of their hurt, their joy and pain, and bring it to their performance. That is how you become an artist.”
COPING WITH REJECTION
Even with all the hard work, Rachelle says, there is no avoiding rejection. “I always said I would love to dance and sing anywhere, but someone has to choose me, to allow me to be a part of their show.”
“Anyone that says they have not had a lot of rejection are telling stories. I have had 100 no’s to the one yes.”
As a performer, she says it is easy to tell yourself that they were looking for someone else, perhaps a blonde or a brunette, or something else completely.
“But sometimes it is you,” she said. “If you are not getting the call backs then make a change, it could be something as simple as changing what you are wearing, changing your song, just try something new.”
The key, she says, is to be honest with yourself, if there are areas where you could improve then put the work in.
She said: “That one yes matters. It is elating, it is everything. You put all that work and time in and they say we want you, it is worth every bit of every no and every tear that you ever shed. Those moments matter.”
THE GREATEST ADVICE
Describing herself as, “not a teacher of the past”, even with all her success Rachelle continues to work hard, to constantly improve.
The greatest advice she has been given along the way she said is to be ready for when opportunities come along.
“I say, if asked what would be your 16 bars of music? What are your 24 bars? Your pop rock song? What would be your classic ballad?
“I want the students to be thinking now. To do the work now. Opportunities don’t arise and then you are just winging it.”
She said by being prepared, you are better equipped to make the most of those chances when they come along.
It’s advice that she continues to follow herself. Coincidentally submitting an audition tape for Spielberg’s upcoming remake of West Side Story while here in the UK, she said:
“In my life I continue to say yes!”
Apply now for our Performing Arts course starting this September. Visit: www.stockton.ac.uk/courses/performing-arts/