I’ve known Nathaniel Stampley since college, we sang in Concert Choir together. He was a blazing talent back then and I had a feeling that he would go on to great things. I did an interview with him in his dressing room in December, he was playing Old Deuteronomy in *Cats* on Broadway. He gave me his cell phone number when we were setting up the interview and I was tickled that the number had a Milwaukee area code. He said, “Everything around me has changed, but I’ve stayed the same.”
DivaMensch: I find it interesting that both in this show and the show before, *The Color Purple*, you’re coming in at the end of the run, replacing someone. What is that like?
Nathaniel Stampley: First of all, I’m just grateful to be working. In this business, if you can continue to work on a consistent basis, that’s definitely a level of success. Ideally I would love to originate some of these roles, but I’m also grateful to just do the work and meet new casts. And sometimes when you’re in a long-running show there are other things that come attached to that: a lot of physical injuries, vocal fatigue, mental fatigue, because you’re doing the show eight times a week. But for me, with *Cats* this season and *The Color Purple* last season, because I’m coming in with just a few months left, I start fresh and end fresh. I never get worn out.
DM: Did you have rehearsals for both shows before you went onstage?
NS: Yeah. There were two other dancers in the show coming in, we rehearsed in separate studios. The first day, with the whole cast, I was like, “Oh my gosh! I’m either going to get killed or kill somebody else.” They’re dancing, arms and legs flying everywhere. Old Deuteronomy controls this ball, it’s a twenty-minute ballet at the end of Act One. And he’s dead center, controlling and moving around, in and out of different couples and groups of people. I just thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m never gonna get this.” Because in the studio, it was, “OK, move over here when this imaginary person comes…” And when I finally did it, it was a dreadful rehearsal. Eventually I started to feel more comfortable. It definitely took me a week before I told my wife and kids to come to the show.
DM: You have classical training and you’ve basically spent your whole career doing musicals. How did that come to happen?
NS: Well, as you know, we were at Madison together, the University of Wisconsin. And I really thought that I was gonna be an opera singer. Near the end of my time, studying at Madison, I got burnt out. I didn’t have the same joy and passion for classical music and opera as I did when I first started the program. I kinda took some time away. Long story short: Jamie Schmidt, a mutual friend of ours, he was music directing *Lost in the Stars* on campus and he talked me into doing it and I did, and it felt good.
That piece, at that time, definitely found me. I feel it really rescued me. Shortly thereafter I got my big break in principal roles in Chicago. And starting to do musicals, I realized I didn’t have to wait ten years for my voice to mature. The track that I was on, maybe I’d be a Verdi baritone, but physically I wasn’t ready, and vocally I wasn’t ready for that stuff. But that’s the music I loved and wanted to do. With musical theater, I didn’t have to wait. I could be the leading man instantly. If you look good in the role and you can act the role, it’s yours.
DM: Do you ever get a pang, wishing you could do a little more classical?
NS: I would like to think that I have an opera or two in me. I know, to most classical musicians, the idea of doing eight performances a week, for weeks and weeks and weeks, you think there’s irreparable damage being done to the voice. But I don’t think that’s my case. I try to be smart and healthy as much as I can about my singing and my approach to the singing.
But back to your original question, yeah, I’d like to think I still have it in me. And every now and then, things come my way. Two seasons ago I did Bernstein’s *Mass* with Philadelphia Orchestra. I did the “Non credo” solo in that. That is hard. You’ve got to have classical chops to do that. Yannick was at the podium [Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra], it was great. Every now and then a gig will come my way and I feel like I’m using my classical chops. Even in a pops concert, I feel like at the core, I’m still using my training. The rapport with the maestro and working with incredible musicians, every now and then putting my hat in for other gigs. We’ll see. Maybe if I get a big TV show or something, then maybe people will say, “Oh man, I didn’t know you sing classically!”
DM: I’m glad you brought up TV. I watched the clips on your website.
NS: Oh you did? I hope you didn’t blink. [laughs]
DM: I had my eyes open the whole time. This is something new for you. I think it was just in 2015 that you started doing this?
NS: My first television gig was *Blacklist.* I played an NSA director. I had a lot of fun. I’ve studied with an acting coach here in the city, we work a lot on film and television work. I’d see all my buddies on *Law and Order* and other shows and think, “Man, when is my break gonna come?” Finally, a couple years ago I booked *Blacklist* and then I did an episode of *Blue Bloods.* I played part of a K9 unit. When I got hired I had lines and then the day of the shooting they told me they reworked the episode and the writers took away my lines, but I would still get to be in the episode. I had a blast because I got to watch.
Television is such a different medium. You learn about camera angles and there’s a lot of retakes. In theater, it is what it is. It happens, it’s gone, and whenever there is a mistake, the artistry is what you do after that. In television, you can keep doing take after take. There were actors on set, they didn’t know their lines, they’d do it over and over and over. They’d knock the wall down and say, “Now we’re going to shoot it from this angle,” and they put the wall back up. It’s fascinating.
And then the most recent thing was an episode of *Law and Order* where I played a dad. That was definitely on my bucket list. I was like, “I am gonna do a *Law and Order* sometime, somehow, if it kills me.” I was very happy about that.
DM: Was it just one or two shooting days for the gigs that you did?
NS: All of them were same day. The longest was *Blacklist.* What ended up being a two-and-a-half minute scene on television, I was there for ten hours on the set. It’s such a different medium. I love it. And more people get to see it, that’s a big thing. Unless you’re coming to New York, or I’m on tour and we happen to be in your town, friends and family don’t get to see what I do all the time. But film and television, it lasts. It doesn’t dissipate into the ether after the performance. Now my kids get to see it.
It’s funny, on the *Law and Order* episode, the young lady who played my daughter, I didn’t realize she was a star on some Disney show that my kids watch. When I showed them the picture, they were like, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh!”
DM: They’d never had any interest in your career before.
NS: No, not at all, not at all. I thought that was so funny, they were so excited. So she validated me.
DM: Have you gotten any film work, or screen tests for film work?
NS: No. I would definitely love to. I’m auditioning more for film and television lately, but I haven’t booked a film gig. When I was living in Chicago a zillion years ago, I was an extra on a film, *Driven.* Sylvester Stallone, and I think like Burt Reynolds was in it? I was in a race car pit crew. We were there for fifteen hours, in the middle of an actual race. Somewhere south of Chicago. It was cool, but I thought, “Wow, this is hard work.” What’s great is you get to see people work. Even here in theatre, even in scenes I’m not in, or scenes I am in and I don’t have any lines, I’m absorbing everything around me.
DM: The biggest question I have for you is how do you balance your life and your work. Just from the hours, working almost every night, it seems like it would be difficult.
NS: The big thing my wife and I do is that if I’m in town, no matter what, I get up and take the kids to school. So that at least I know that day I’m gonna see them for breakfast, prepare for school, chit chat a little bit about dreams or what’s happening that day, and then some days, I don’t see them after that. There are days where on a day off I could be with them all day, if they’re not in school, and all night as well. That’s the biggest thing. It isn’t always easy. There are times when I’m literally going on like four hours of sleep per day, all week, but for me it’s worth it because I get to be with my kids. And then at night I look forward to decompressing and having pillow talk with my wife and listening to how her day went. And I try to connect back home with my parents. I’m sure there are many times when I’ve failed at all of these things, but as we speak, I do my best and hope that my kids turn out alright. But this is a profession that I want and we make it work.
I’m not reinventing the wheel. There have been other parents that have been successful. Always in the back of your head, you think, “Did I spend enough time?” And when I’m not working, they get sick of seeing me! [laughs] There are times when I’m weeks in between jobs or something like that, and I’m picking them up from school, drop offs, ballet class, waiting around after that, hockey lessons, all of that stuff, I’m there. I am there! But it balances out. Right now, because I’m in a show, things tend to skew a little less time at home when the kids are there, but every morning, I’m there with them. This morning my son and I got to hang out, my daughter stayed the night with my in-laws because she’s in *The Nutcracker* at New York City Ballet and has performances this afternoon the same time as me.
DM: Are you gonna get to see her in that?
NS: Yeah, on Christmas Eve. We have the night off here. I’ll be the last one to see it.
The balance thing It isn’t always easy. I remember when I was a student at Madison, Mimmi, my voice teacher and head of voice faculty, she would prioritize her time, and the summers were family time. No lessons, this is a time with her family. I always remembered that in the back of my head. There are times when I’m home I turn the cell phone off and decide if I miss something, I miss it, because this is my time. And my wife is amazing. She makes all of this work. She’s the real hero of the family. I may get more attention than her, because of the high profile nature of some of my jobs, but she’s the real star of the family, that’s for sure.
DM: Do you have another gig lined up when this one closes?
NS: Yeah, we finish December 30th here at *Cats* and I fly to Chicago January 3rd to do *Ragtime* at the Marriott Theater.
DM: Are you playing Colehouse?
NS: I’m playing Colehouse.
DM: I saw you in Baltimore on tour in that show. I didn’t get to see you playing Colehouse, you were in the ensemble that night. Which is another question I have for you. You’re such an honorable person, it seems like being an understudy would be an icky situation. You’re waiting for the person you’re covering to get sick or have a death in the family. It’s like you’re profiting from the other person’s misfortune, which is a real ethical dilemma.
NS: But the thing to remember is that even if you don’t go on, you have rehearsals. Especially if you’re on the road, or even here in New York, the understudies are rehearsing. So you get a chance to do your thing, but just not in front of an audience. I think understudying is important, especially for younger actors because the full pressure of living and existing in this role before you’re really, really ready for it can be daunting for a lot of people. As an understudy you kind of get a smoother takeoff and landing because the groundwork has been laid for you. And if you’re a good understudy, you’re watching not just what the person you’re covering is doing, but also what everybody else is doing, how they’re responding, everything that’s going on around you. And then when you’re ready, the opportunity will present itself.
DM: Tell me about *Porgy and Bess.*
NS: That came around a few years ago and I understudied Norm Lewis, who was Porgy, and I played the role of Robbins in the show. When we got back to New York, the first time I went on as Porgy, it was because Norm was stuck on the train. I knew the role, but in our rehearsals, we literally hadn't finished rehearsing. The only person we were rehearsing was the Bess understudy. All of our rehearsals were geared toward getting her ready, because she had specific dates where she was going on. And then all of a sudden Norm was stuck on the train. It was a Saturday matinee. I remember they called me down to the stage management office and I was dressed in my other clothes to start the show, and while they were telling me, "Nate, you're going on," they were literally unbuttoning my costume. [laughs] I was like, "What? What, what?" The last thing I remember is telling one of the stage managers, "Please, can you call my wife and tell her I'm going on for Porgy, right now!" And that was it, the rest is a big blur.
I remember Audra McDonald looking at me... This was the funeral scene that Robbins has. So I was the dead guy! I never saw this scene! I was the dead guy, even in rehearsals. Diane Paulus, our director, always wanted me there, so I was there, I wasn't opening my eyes or anything. That was the one part of the show I'd never seen. And before we went on, Audra was saying, "You know how this goes, right?", and I'm like, "I have no idea!" She was like, rubbing my chest and saying, "OK, OK, we'll get through this, we'll get through this." But I think in her head she was like, "I'M gonna get through this, I don't know what he's about to do." I got a lot of gentle nudges and pushes and pulls throughout that whole performance. But it worked out. So yes, eventually I went on more often here in New York, because Norm booked a television show out in LA, so there were weeks where he would film all week long and come back on the weekend. So I would do, some weeks, four, five, even six shows a week. As Porgy. And then a year later I did the tour, as Porgy. And then I did a run playing Crown at Skylight back home in Milwuakee. That was the full opera version. That was a lot of fun, I was surrounded by incredible opera singers. It was great. Crown, that's a tough dude. There are very few redeeming qualities about Crown. [laughs]
The tour was grueling, but I got a chance to meet Simon Estes when we were in Iowa, and I was so honored to meet him. He shared some things and we got to chat a little bit. I met George Shirley when we played Detroit. He was gracious, he even had a master class with some of the singers. These are incredible singers that have paved the way for me to be on the stage.
DM: I always like to ask people who inspired them and believed in them when they were younger and gave them confidence. I saw on your website, you have a list of "Nate's Grates." It was so beautiful, a really incredible list of people. Some who I imagine you've met and others who just inspire you.
NS: This is not hyperbole in any way, but my entire time growing up in our house, I tried to sing as well as my mom. She has such a beautiful voice, and she's a great organist and pianist and it's because of her that I have a real passion for classical music and just music and art in general. She has six kids, she and my dad married in their early 20s. And I always think if she hadn't had us, many more people would know who she is. I always tell her, "I'm having the career that you didn't have." I grew up in Milwaukee and I don't think when I was in elementary school that any of us thought that I'd be doing what I'm doing, that I'd be on my fifth Broadway show right now, and have friends all over the world and perform overseas. We didn't have any of that, we didn't have examples of any of that. But my mom was like, "If you like it, we're not stopping you. And we'll support you." That was as big a push as anything.
And then I've had personal mentors, like Hester Besteda, who lives in Milwaukee. She's an incredible pianist, she's in her late 80s now. She took a liking to me when I was sixteen and we've been the best of buddies ever since. She would take me out to fancy restaurants and we'd talk about music. She was like, "You can do this. Just put in the work, you can do anything. But you have to put in the work, nobody's gonna give you anything. And if it seems like they're giving it to you, it's because you earned it." And I believed her.
And Randy Swiggum - - he was my high school choir director. He thought that I could do anything, even when I didn't see it. He would push me, we would do competitions and travel and do different things together with the choir. And I thought, "Man, if he really thinks that I can do this, then maybe I can." It definitely was a fake it 'til you make it kind of thing, I thought if everyone else thinks that about me, then maybe...
So many people. One person I have to name is LaChanze. When I was in high school, it's when the first production of *Once On This Island* came up. And I listened to that album like crazy, I knew every song inside and out. Fast forward many, many years later - - my Broadway debut was in the original production of *The Color Purple.* December 5th, 2005. With LaChanze as Celie. I remember meeting her the first day of rehearsal. [laughs] Oh my God! She was so gracious, she came up to me and said, "Hi, I'm LaChanze." Maybe I made a sound, I don't know. I was like [mumble mumble mumble]. I remember the big smile on her face. So however I reacted made her smile, but I know it wasn't a normal reaction.
DM: I'm sure she'd seen that before.
NS: I am sure. I have the utmost respect for her, she's the most incredible artist and actor and mom, and just watching her up close and personal, handle success and press and all of this in a major way - - she won a Tony for that role. At one point I didn't know her at all, I was just purely a fan. Then I was on the stage with her. It was incredible. I never thought that I would personally know some of these people, and now we've worked together. I wouldn't necessarily say that I'm their peer, because I just think so highly of some of these artists, but I will say that I'm grateful that they know who I am. Man, I'm so grateful and honored to do what I do. And I hope that when I go home or visit Madison, I hope that this kid from Milwaukee can inspire other people.
DM: Do you schedule time off, and absolutely not accept gigs?
NS: That's only happened a few times, where I've adamantly turned down work. But ultimately what ends up happening is, I say, "No, no, no, I'm not doing this," and then something else pops up. That's how all of this, the TV work this fall, even this show, it happened because I turned something else down. I thought this was gonna be my down time. [laughs] My wife and I laugh, we say, "We'll sleep in, like, ten years."
But what's great is I'm at a point right now where if there is a little bit of lag time or some time that I know of that's free, we try to take advantage of it as much as we can. But we're all one phone call away in this business from a trip overseas or a concert here, who knows. But yeah, I've definitely turned down gigs. You have to trust that the next thing is coming through. The musical theatre business model isn't the same as in classical music. Where you're booking concert dates two or three years out. Somebody like [opera tenor] Larry Brownlee, he's booked five or six years out. And in musical theare, especially for Broadway productions, you're maybe six or seven months out. And then for concert gigs, they tend to be little further out, maybe a year, maybe less. The other thing that's interesting about being an actor in New York is if you go to a Broadway show and you see your favorite actor onstage, that person that week could be auditioning for another show, a film, a TV show, may actually be in rehearsal for a completely different show - - could be in a reading of a new show or a workshop of a new show. All those things could be going on when you see that person onstage. Last week was one of those weeks for me - - I had two television auditions, a film audition, an audition for a Broadway show, and an audition for a new show that's in the works, a reading. That was last week, on top of doing a show, trying to go with the kids. I always tell my agent to try and book and audition between 10 AM and 2 PM. That's my sweet spot. After that, you're cutting into other time.
I know you haven't asked this question, but to me, I feel I've reached a certain level of success because entertainment has been my only source of income for over twenty years now.
DM: How many actors can say that?
NS: A lot can. But I'm grateful. Yeah, I'm really grateful. My last "regular job" was with a temp agency in Milwaukee and I was typing up mortgages. Everything had to be so precise. And was like, "Oh my God, I gotta get out of here!" [laughs] And I was like, "You mean tomorrow I have to come back and do the same thing? Oh no, I can't do this!" I think that's when I ran away from Milwaukee.
DM: Anything else you want to say?
NS: I feel like there was something else I wanted to tell you... This is something that's always important to me. As an artist, you do the best that you can, and the rest is not your job. The critics like it or they don't like it, that's not your job.
DM: Is that something you had to learn, or is it something you've always known?
NS: It's something I've always known, but it's been confirmed over the last twenty years. I've seen performers that I think are absolutely phenomenal, and they don't get the critical acclaim that others get. And I've seen critical acclaim that I think is unearned. The best part about the art form is that it's subjective. So everybody's right in their opinion, it's just a few people get paid for that opinion. Everybody's right about what they feel, and what they see and what they hear, but your job as an artist is just to do your best. The rest is out of your hands. I think for younger artists, the sooner that lesson can be learned and applied, the better. Any facet of entertainment, whether you're at the Met or on Broadway or in a television show, it can be brutal. At the end of the day, you have to do your best. We already have the great ones. We already have other artists that are "the best," whatever that is, but we need YOU. We need the next generation of artists to step up to the plate and be enjoyed and revered in real time. It's great to look at DVDs and YouTube videos of yesteryear and "The Golden Age of Singing." That's fine. But all of these art forms are still alive and present and we need everyone's best at all times. It's so important. I see lots of people trying to mimic others and be something that they're not, but no, we need you. Sometimes it's not nice, what people can say. But that's fine. There are way harder things going on in the world than mean words written about you or mean opinions being shared online.
I think about all of the famous actors that I admire, including Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, many other artists - - as much as I love them, and their talent is apparent, and was apparent early on, they weren't in every movie. You don't get everything, nobody does. Elizabeth Taylor, she didn't get every movie she wanted. Pavarotti, he didn't get every role that he wanted. It just doesn't happen that way. But what you can offer and what you're good at, go for it. No one's ever perfect. I don't believe in perfection, I don't think it exists. But that energy of striving for that, it can be met with incredible performances, great art. And that's what's special. But there are mistakes in these things and flaws in everything we humans do and touch, but there's so much beauty there.
[pause as I start packing up]
NS: I hope you got something.
DM: I got plenty.