Broadway Voices: Capathia Jenkins

After making her Broadway debut in the Frank Wildhorn and Gregory Boyd musical, The Civil War, Capathia Jenkins’ indescribable talent has taken her on an amazing journey.  She has worked with artists such as Burt Bacharach, Martin Short, and many others.  She starred as the Washing Machine in the incredible musical, Caroline, Or Change.  She also appeared in the 2000 revival of Godspell. She even found herself in the company of an amazing cast in Martin Short – Fame Becomes Me.  And that’s just a few roles she has had.

She most recently starred as “Medda” in in Tony Award-winning show Newsies on Broadway. She came to North Carolina to perform her show, “More Woman Than You Know,” at the Garner Performing Arts Center as a part of the Broadway Voices Concert Series.  This incredible artist brought a blend of soul, blues, Broadway, and jazz to an audience that was astounded by the immense level of talent from just one woman.

We had the pleasure of interviewing Capathia before her show.
Martha: How did you first get involved with singing and acting?
Capathia: I grew up, in Brooklyn, NY, singing in the church.  In third grade, my music teacher said to my mom “I think this girl has some real talent, you should nurture it.” and my mom did. I started learning how to sing classically from then through high school, I went to the high school of music and art in New York, and then to Temple University in Philadelphia for a jazz program.  I always knew that I would sing.  From the time I was a little girl with a hairbrush, but I didn’t know it would be theater necessarily until I got older and started to audition, and I just loved it.  I loved the element of it being live, and anything can happen.  It’s risky and I loved that.
I started doing shows, and my first professional show was a review at a resort in Bermuda.  I was Aretha [Franklin], and there was a Dionne [Warwick] and Gladys Knight that we did for nine months.  I did quite a few of those for the next three or four years and then I realized that I could do those forever, or I could go back home and start to audition and see if I’m good enough to do Broadway or off-Broadway.  That’s what I did.  I went back to New York and I started to book tours, for Ain’t Misbehavin and Dream Girls.  I finally go my first Broadway show in 1999, Frank Wildhorn’s The Civil War, and I haven’t looked back.
M: Do you have a standard or go-to audition song that you use?
C: Well, auditions are so specific these days, I’ll do a blues song if they want something big and brassy or something small where I just sing the melody, it depends.  I love songs like “Over the Rainbow”.  I remember in my audition for Caroline or Change they wanted a 60s/70s R&B style song.  My agent told me I was going in to audition for “The Radio” and I went in and sang the Aretha Franklin song “‘Til You Come Back To Me”.  Apparently, when I walked out of the room
 George Wolfe leaned over and said “That’s our “Washing Machine”.” So you never know. I think auditions are so specific, and I try to give them what they ask for so I can be in the wheelhouse of whatever the project is.  Some of my friends have a standard song that they do regardless, it’s something they know, it’s in them, but I try to be as specific as I can with style and era, etc.
Sarah: You mentioned working with Frank Wildhorn, and you’ve worked with Burt Bacharach and other amazing singers and composers, are there people that you haven’t yet gotten to work with that you would like to?
C: Here’s the thing, you don’t really know that you want to work with them until you work with them and you realize it’s amazing.  I definitely have people I still want to work with because I love collaborating with other artists and seeing what makes them tick.  Having seen someone from a far for a long time and then getting to sit with them one on one is incredible.  That’s how it was with Martin Short. He’s so funny it was a wonder we were getting any work done and I’m such a huge fan.  I wish I could work with everybody just to see, so the list is probably infinite.
S: What was it like working so closely with Martin Short on Fame Becomes Me?
C: It was fun. To have something written for you is amazing anyway, who get’s that chance you always have to audition.  I didn’t have to audition, they just wrote it for me. Then I met Marty and he is so nice! I met his family, the kids, everybody, and he’s such a regular guy but really funny.  We would be working on a scene and he’s making jokes. Even when we were doing the show on stage, one of his favorite things to do during a slow matinee when people weren’t laughing was to make cricket noises, he can make the sound with his mouth closed so you couldn’t tell but we could hear him on stage.  I was the biggest crack up. Everybody else could keep a straight face but I would crack up laughing.  That’s what it was like from the very beginning to the last day. He’s just that kind of guy that makes you laugh from the moment you start talking to him! He’s so great and we still talk.

S: Going into some of the other roles you’ve played, in Caroline or Change how did you approach th role of “The Washing Machine”?

C: We worked on it from the Public Theater.  The first time we worked on it the Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori had only written the first act, so at that time it was more like a reading the scenes and songs. By the time we got back and they had written the second act they were writing with our voices in their head.  George Wolfe really challenges you and he asks you “What do you think about this? Who is “The Washing Machine” to “Caroline”?”.  I told him I thought she was like her good girl friend.  She was brand new, she’s hot, she’s sexy, she’s the part of “Caroline” that she has covered up with anger and bitterness.  “The Washing Machine” is that side of her and she gives her a little groove in the gloomy basement, but she’s also that good girlfriend that tells you the truth. That’s what we played with when we put it up on its feet and George would push me and say “You’ve got to go further”.  He taught me so much about reaching across the foot lights and not just having it be right here on stage, but really shooting your energy way out.  It’s an interesting thing to play an inanimate object and infuse it with emotion and human feelings.  It was a huge challenge but one where I felt accomplished on the other side of it.

S: You most recently played “Medda” in Newsies, what was it like playing her from almost start to finish?

C: It was great.  They had done it at Paper Mill Playhouse, which I didn’t see, but when they announced it was coming to Broadway they went on The View and I watched them on the view.  I thought “damn these boys are amazing” and then Jeremy [Jordan] came out and sang a little bit of “Santa Fe” and I knew I was going to go see it on Broadway. Then, I get a call that they wanted me to come in for Newsies. I said to my agent “It’s all these dancing boys what do they want me to do?” because I hadn’t seen it. I go in and I sing for them and I get it.  It was a cast full of young boys, most of whom were making their Broadway debut, Andy Richardson turned 16 the first few days of rehearsals and his mom brought cupcakes.  It was all of these kids who were so excited to be on Broadway, and for me, because by this time I was a veteran, it reminded me of how fun and amazing Broadway is.  To see it through their eyes when they get to the theater the first day and look up at the marquee and see their pictures and their names it was so exciting.  It was like I was back to my own debut.

I did take a break in the middle. I left the show about September and came back last June because LaVon [Fisher-Wilson] was pregnant and they asked me to come back and cover for her while she was gone.  I said yes, and then we got the closing notice so I got to open and close it. It’s amazing and I tell them it’s the happiest place on Earth to work.  It was just happy and wonderful and there were kids running around.  The story is so great, it’s about these boys who galvanize themselves against these big guys and they win. I get to be sort of a mother, nurturing character which is the closest to who I really am because I was like that backstage with them.  It was a wonderful opportunity and amazing experience. I actually met up with the “Oldsises” of the tour cast a couple of weeks when I was in Charlotte. I just love those people and it was a wonderful experience.

M: Talking about characters, what do pull from for inspiration to take on a character when you get a script?

C: The best thing for me is to go with the words, what’s on the page.  If it’s music for me it’s how do I tell this story so that it makes you come with me on the journey.  It’s not about the sound of my voice or if I can embellish or riff, it’s all about the words and the story.  How I approach a song or a script is first with the words, and then I try to get inside this character and to why are you saying these words.  I try to leave Capathia as far behind as I can and maybe bring a little bit of Capathia’s life experience and sprinkle it in there and then be a vessel for the words.

M: You work closely with Covenant House, what has been the most rewarding part of working with the organization?

C: The most amazing thing is the kids.  I often say to them that they are my heroes.   As I was saying earlier, my mom nurtured my dreams and these kids articulate to me their dreams and they’re so big in spite of their circumstances and they’re my heroes. I could dream easily because I had people to help me, my mom was just there. These are kids and their stories are so varied and they somehow out of adversity still triumph. Every story, every chance I get to be with the kids is the biggest joy for me. It takes me out of myself.  What I do for a living is all about me, but with Covenant House it’s all about them and they stretch my heart so big. Sitting on the Board of Directors is great because I get to help with policies, but really that’s not my wheelhouse. But the time with the kids is everything. I’m happiest when I’m on stage, but Covenant House is a close second or I’m just as happy when I’m with those kids.

M: What’s one piece of advice you would give to aspiring singers or actors?

C: I would say a couple of things. I can’t take credit for this, I heard Quicy Jones say it, he said “Young people should use their time to instead of trying to get over, try to get better” so that when opportunities come you’re ready.  My biggest note for young people is to trust your instincts, it has served me well throughout my career. That even means when life is swirling around you and seemingly everybody is doing a particular thing to make something happen and you feel in your gut that’s not for you, you have to do something else. Trust your gut, it has never let me down. Even when it’s unpopular, that’s the hard thing.

 I went in for an audition for my Broadway debut in The Civil War, and I sat in a room and every girl that went in before me was singing the song and belting it out while I had planned to do it small and just the melody and the words.  I remember walking into the room and everybody was there, they started the into and I took a deep breath and said do what you practiced and trust your instincts and I got it.  From that day on I knew I had to trust my instincts even if they lead me wrong.  If I go into an audition and follow my instinct to make a bold choice, the worst thing that can happen is that the director says try it again and try it like this, and that’s the worst possible scenario. So trust your instincts always. 

Capathia Jenkins’ performance was phenomenal, to say the least.  She came on stage singing the iconic Chicago number, “All that Jazz.”  She wowed the audience with her signature number from Newsies, “That’s Rich.”  After telling the audience about losing her best friend, she sings “Home,” from The Wiz, as a moving tribute to a loved one.  She also sang one of her favorite songs, “Over the Rainbow.”  Before intermission, she literally stopped the show with her Fame Becomes Me number, “Stop the Show.”   Along with some jazz and blues numbers, she performed “Candle in the Window” by Frank Wildhorn.  She wowed us with her final number, Gladys Knight’s “The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.”

Be sure to follow Capathia on twitter for updates!

The final show of this season of Broadway Voices will be Friday, March 6 with Alli Mauzey! Get your tickets now!


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