Five Questions with Judi Merriam

One thing missing in the Capital Region’s thriving theater scene is a cabaret society. A place where all the multi-talented musical theater performers can develop their own acts and put on shows of their own featuring standards, pop tunes and of course, beloved Broadway tunes that they have triumphed in or that they’ve always wanted to perform. “Act Two” is a step in that direction. A concert at the Sand Lake Center for the Arts, this Saturday night, initiated by Judi Merriam and Joan Horgan and also featuring the singers Mark Burgasser, Bill Harrison and Joanne Mensching accompanied by Vince Bonafede. Here’s Judi stepping up to my Five Questions.

What’s the impetus behind “Act Two,” who came up with it and how did you get involved?

Several years ago, Joan Horgan and I discussed getting a group of older musical theater performers together to sing out and about doing Broadway songs from “The Great American Songbook.” Joan had heard of people doing this and thought it would be fun. Both she and I wanted to continue singing, even when we didn’t have any particular shows or performances we were doing. As we all know, performers age out of musical theater roles, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to still sing the same songs. Joan and I threw the group idea around for a bit and thought of other performers we could ask to join us. We were both busy, though, so we didn’t really do much to make this happen, and then Covid hit and the idea was tabled. We got together a couple of times over the past year to see what we could come up with, but usually ended up talking about everything but following through on a performing group. Hahahaha…Joan and I always have a lot to talk about. However, this group has been in our minds for quite a long time. We finally set things in motion this spring by Joan checking into places to sing and me asking the other performers we hoped would join us. In April or May, after I did my first show with Circle Theater Players, CarolLynn Langley asked me if I would do a singing program for the Squire Jacobs Folk Music Series at Sand Lake Center for the Arts. CarolLynn has been organizing this concert series for years. Rather than doing something alone, I suggested our group sing instead of just me. Brian Sheldon agreed with the idea, and we officially had our first gig lined up. 

This is a pretty august collection of Capital Region musical theater veterans, what’s your relationship with all of them?

I’ve been on stage with all of the people in “Act Two”, at various times since the mid-80’s, be it at SLOC, Park Playhouse, Schenectady Civic, RPI Players, or other venues. I consider these people very talented and dear to my heart from getting to know them while performing together. In addition to those who are singing on Saturday, we’ve also asked Gail Garrison, Melissa Putterman Hoffmann, Gary Hoffmann, and Theresa Fitzmaurice to join us when they are able to do so. Vince Bonafede, our accompanist, has been a music director for several of us in shows over past years. Vince also used to accompany me when I did a one-woman cabaret for Martin Kelly at the Bridge Theater in Whitehall, and he is a great accompanist. He can make any boring piano accompaniment sound better with his ability to “jazz” things up. 

What’s your favorite thing about theater in the Capital Region?

I think it’s the relationships I’ve made throughout the years with those who’ve shared the stage with me. These people have brought a richness and creativity to my life I may well not have had in other work venues. And even though several of us have auditioned for the same roles, over the years, some of my dearest theater friends and acquaintances are the most supportive, kind, loving, and encouraging people I know. 

How has writing your book, “Empty Shoes by the Door” (Judi’s powerful memoir of surviving life without her son Jenson who took his own life) influenced you as a performer?

I think it may well be that being a performer influenced my writing of “Empty Shoes by the Door,” instead of the other way around. The things I’ve learned from performing helped me in creatively telling a very difficult story. The discipline performing requires allowed me to follow through on something I wanted to accomplish. Learning to play emotional or character roles on stage by removing myself from who I actually am, allowed me to step back out of my own pain so as to share that pain with others without it consuming me. Plus, it’s just as important to be believable in a role on stage as it is when writing a memoir about real circumstances. And of course, I wouldn’t have been able to structure my chapters the way I did, using musical theater song titles, if I hadn’t sung most of those songs, or been in shows with those songs, through years and years of performing. 

But to your question, writing my book has allowed me to feel safer in the performing world because of the support from those who are a part of that world. Now if I can just remember that truth when I’m on stage and doubting myself!!!

What’s the play or musical that changed your life?

As a teenager, my mother wouldn’t allow me to do theater at my high school. She thought the musical director was too wild and promiscuous. So I didn’t do any theater until college where I auditioned for a student run production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” I was cast as Hodel and fell absolutely in love with the character and everything about being on stage. Since then, musical theater has continued to be my most significant performing love. 

What’s next for “Act Two”? Any immediate theater plans?

We are going to be performing on Friday, December 9th at Schenectady Civic Playhouse as a fundraiser for them. Joe Fava asked us to do this performance, and we’ll be doing a selection of holiday and musical theater songs. Gary, Melissa and Gail will be joining us for that performance, so there will be at least seven of us singing on 12/9. It should be great fun. I’ve already asked the women to do a fun rendition of “Sisters” from White Christmas with choreography by Joanne Mensching. 

Squire Jacob Concert Series: Act Two

Sand Lake Center for the Arts

2880 Route 43

10/1 @ 8pm

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