By Steve Schonberg, Editor in Chief (@CntrOnTheAisle)
In person, Hannah Elless exudes an infectious energy that makes you cheer her on in the gorgeous new Broadway musical, “Bright Star,” even more than she’s already earned for her incredible work on stage. She is the ingénue, an embodiment of the archetype we’ve seen in movies, and shows — and deep down most die-hard theater fans secretly emulate — who sets out to make it on Broadway, and is now living her dream. But, there’s no cliché or snarky subtext. She’s making it happen, creating, while being inspired; inspiring others by what she creates: a beautiful circuit of artistic energy. She first hit that peak, replacing Lindsay Mendez in the 2012 revival of “Godspell.” Now, Elless is creating a role, in a show that perfectly positions this bright star herself, and almost seems to have been made for her — enabling Elless to showcase her talents and truly shine.
She plays Margo Crawford, a woman in 1945, in love with Billy Cane (A.J. Shively), an aspiring, tenacious young writer. The story is a tangled web of emotion, forgiveness, strength and connection that positions Crawford in a winner’s seat to pursue the innocently distracted, but caring, Cane.
“I really feel lucky,” Elless told me. “Everyone uses the phrase, ‘It’s a dream come true,’ and it sounds so cheesy,” she added, ‘but when I think about what I get to do eight times a week, believe me, I’m not taking it for granted.”
Then Elless said earnestly, “Although, I have to say that in my original dream, I forgot Steve Martin was going to be sitting in the third row. I need to add him in, too, in my dreams in the future, I guess,” she said of the show’s famed co-writer (along with Edie Brickell, and director Walter Bobbie) “I’d never think Steve Martin’s going to be sitting there. It’s crazy!” she added in reflection. “Who dreams that? Who’s brave enough to dream something like that? That’s challenging me for the future.”
Elless was born Hannah Schubkegel-Sielatyck and grew up in Portage, Michigan (in Kalamazoo county), one 10 siblings, in a house full of instruments. She can play six instruments herself, and she put them to good use in her family’s bluegrass band – a style perfectly fitting for “Bright Star” and its Bluegrass-style score by Martin and Brickell (Click here to a sample / video featuring star, Carmen Cusack).
“For my audition for ‘Bright Star,’ I came in and sang a traditional bluegrass tune that my father had taught me when I was 10 years old,” Elless shared. “I’d learned it in when I was in grade school, and here I was in a Broadway audition room singing that song. It was really emotional for me personally because I knew how much was riding on it,” she said. “I remember calling my dad [afterward,] and thanking him for teaching me that song and for teaching me how to play music.”
Hannah Elless Sings “Since I Gave My Heart Away” at “Godspell Sings Schwartz” in 2012
That music continues, as Elless did of course land the role of Margo, and now she’s brought her instruments to be near her at the theater. She’s even storing some in co-star, Paul Nolan’s dressing room. “I definitely love instruments. I love music. I like creating. It’s fun when I’m writing [music], too,” she added. “When I’m writing my own music I can play a lot of the things that I need. I don’t rely on other people to fill those spots. I can sort of pick up the instrument I was thinking about and play it and get the sound that I want, which is really fun. It’s sort of like being a one-woman band.”
“When they told me in the audition process, they said they were looking for really authentic sound, I kind of breathed a sigh of relief and said, ‘For the first time, I can go in and just be myself, sort of my original Hannah sound can come through,’ so that’s what I get to do every night,” she shared. “I think that’s part of what makes it so exciting is I get to go out on stage and produce a sound that is truly authentic to my body.”
Elless is living a dream and reflects on a line in the show that she says defines Margo, “Anything is possible with people,” she says “it really defines ‘Bright Star, now that I think about it.” But, it represents Elless too. She says, “[Margo] really believes in people, and is there anything more American than that? She really believes in people and believes in herself and she’s a really awkward hugger. She’s just a little awkward, but so am I.” So, if you see Elless after the show at the stage door, offer her a hug. Or gift her with an instrument. Or, maybe just say “hey!” on Twitter. But, don’t miss the opportunity to see this authentic artist on stage, and experience her authentic appreciation and excitement offstage, too.