A little over a year ago, Nicci Claspell was one of the inmates belting out “Cell Block Tango” in Chicago at Claremont’s Candlelight Pavilion. Cut to a year later and Nicci is starring as Extraordinary Girl in the First National Tour of the Broadway hit American Idiot. Talk about an exciting year! A native of California and graduate of AMDA in Los Angeles, Nicci has also appeared in regional productions of Rent (Mimi) and Chess (Florence), among others. On the film and TV front, she has a starring role in the award-winning musical comedy film Zombo. Having seen and reviewed four previous Nicci Claspell productions, I was delighted to catch up with her as American Idiot heads into a one-week run at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts in Costa Mesa.
Hi Nicci. What a year it’s been for you! Do the events of the past year ever make you want to pinch yourself to make sure all this is really happening?
Sometimes they do! I feel so fortunate to have earned my Equity status with this tour, and I’ve gotten to work with so many incredibly talented people it sometimes seems like a dream!
You began auditioning for American Idiot at an open call in Los Angeles, I believe. Can you explain what an “open call” is, and how it may have differed from the auditions of your American Idiot costars, many of whom already had Broadway on their bios?
An open call is an audition where anyone who wants to can show up, put their name on a list, and audition. The particular open call was a union audition, and not being a part of AEA at the point I got there really early in the morning and hoped to be seen … and thankfully I was! A few of the people who did this show on Broadway were asked to join the tour and therefore didn’t have to re-audition, while others with larger credits on their resumes got appointments to skip the first round or two of initial audition.
My guess is that it doesn’t happen very often that a complete unknown goes to an open call and ends up originating a lead role in a major Equity tour. At what point did you begin to think, “I really have a chance at getting this?”
The funny thing is, I got there not feeling so great about my song choice. Since it’s a rock musical, I knew at least half of the girls there would be singing Pat Benatar (she’s my go-to for rock auditions too!) so I wanted to do something different. I had prepared a Paramore song but still wasn’t crazy about it, so on the lunch break I drove home and found sheet music online for a completely different song that had popped into my head on the drive, and then sang along to it on the way back. I think the first moment when I felt like I really had a chance was when I was in the audition room and halfway through my song thinking “This sounds even better than I could have hoped!” It was also pretty cool to get home and see I already had a voicemail from casting saying they wanted to see me again!
How long did it take between that first open call and learning that you’d been cast?
The first audition was in early March of last year, and I got a call from my manager later that summer on July 11th. Yes, I remember the exact date! The last round of auditions were the first weekend of June, and that was the first audition I’d ever been to in New York. And on top of that, the casting director asked me to stay an extra day to audition for a different project that was going to Broadway! That whole week of auditioning was a whirlwind and an adventure.
You’d been living in L.A. for quite a while when you booked American Idiot. Where did you rehearse for the tour?
We rehearsed in the heart of Times Square for about five weeks in November and December.
How was it for you making the transition from Southern California to the East Coast?
I’ve been to New York a few times but never that late in the year so, being a California native, I was sure I was going to freeze to death. My sister was actually moving to L.A. just as I got to New York so I was lucky to inherit some of her winter jackets, and the weather wasn’t even as frigid as I imagined it would be. It was definitely nice to be able to rely on the subway to get me to work every day, rather than wondering what traffic would be like.
How does American Idiot differ from the other musicals you’ve appeared in, including Rent, West Side Story, and Chess?
I would say it is the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done. This show is about ninety-five minutes of singing, dancing, sweating, and head-banging with no intermission. During rehearsals we actually had a bit of boot camp every morning just to get us ready for performing this show eight times a week.
Who exactly is Extraordinary Girl? Friends have told me you do some extraordinary feats during the show. Care to elucidate?
One of the main characters, Tunny, goes off to war and gets severely injured, and I play his nurse. During a morphine induced dream, he imagines me as this Extraordinary Girl and we fly together through the air in an aerial dance. Yes, I can say I know how to fly!!
Nicci flying high with Scott J. Campbell
Is this your first time touring?
This is my first time on tour, and it’s definitely been an adventure.
How are you enjoying life on the road?
Of all the cities we’re playing, I’ve only been to maybe two of them before so it’s incredible to experience so many new places. It was daunting thinking about living out of a suitcase for more than seven months out of the year, but it’s thankfully turned out to be easier that I thought. My favorite part of it all is all the amazing food I’ve scouted out along the way!
How has the audience reaction been so far?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive! You never know what’s going to happen when you take a show like this out of New York and bring it to smaller towns with a certain type of season ticket holders that will come and see it without really knowing what they’re in for. To be honest, some cities have been better than others and we’ve had people walk here and there, but we know and understand that this particular show isn’t for everyone, and the majority of the audience reactions have been really great!
My guess is that you’ve already started to acquire quite a fan base, right?
It is kind of crazy to see how many more followers I got on twitter (@nclaspell – shameless self promotion) and my Facebook fanpage once word was out that I was cast.
Do you ever get tired of signing autographs and posing for pics at the stage door?
There is not a night when I don’t love coming to the stage door and talking to the fans! There are some diehards that we’ve seen several times in several cities, and people that saw the show for the first time and were completely blown away. That’s why I do what I do. My job isn’t just to get on stage and perform, it’s to make the people in the audience feel and think, and there’s no better feeling than knowing you’ve done just that!
Very quickly, where did you grow up and when did the acting bug first bite?
My family moved to a small town called Gilroy in Northern California when I was in third grade, and I went to the only grade school in the area that had a theater program. My sister made friends with people who were involved in community theater, so we both fell in love with acting straight away.
Which role or roles were your favorites before Extraordinary Girl, and why?
One of my very first “dream roles” was Mimi in Rent, so it was such a thrill to be able to play that part twice! It’s one of my favorite roles not only because she’s fun and sexy and has some kickass songs, but the amazing Ron Kellum, who directed both productions, helped me to see more layers and depth to this character than I had realized were there before, and it was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my acting career so far.
How long are you planning on being with the American Idiot tour, and have you given any thought to what might be next for Nicci?
This tour does have an end date and it’s getting close! After Costa Mesa we’ll be in Seattle for a week, then San Francisco for a month and we’ll close on July 8th. I just recently signed with a new agency that represents me for film, television, and theater so I’m excited to start building that relationship and see where it takes me!
One last question. What’s it been like to go blonde for Extraordinary Girl?
Haha, it’s been fun! Everyone else in the show was getting crazy cuts or colors and I kept hinting that I wanted a change too, and when they realized they only hired brunette girls I was picked to be the blonde. I like it!
Thanks so much Nicci! I can’t wait for Opening Night of American Idiot at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts! It will be my fifth Nicci Claspell show, and by far the biggest so far!