Realizing Dual Dream:
A spotlight on Fairfield’s Marianne Challis
(Appeared on the front page
of the Fairfield Sun 1/6/11)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Fairfield, CT – While she had a love of vocal instruction and singing, she was never sure she could juggle both simultaneously on a professional level -- but Marianne Challis has achieved the feat and will soon star in a self-titled production at one of New York’s largest cabaret rooms.
Interviewed recently at her South Pine Creek Court home, Challis spoke about her early inspirations, frustrating setback and ultimate success as one of New York’s top cabaret performers and vocal coach to some of Broadway’s leading singers.
Thanks Aunt Irene
Challis, 57, was born in 1953 in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, just a few years before then-governor Orval Faubus summoned the National Guard to keep African American children from attending Little Rock High School as ordered by the Supreme Court. Her father was a university professor and her mom was a local school secretary. Fearful of growing civil rights unrest, the couple moved Challis and her older sister to the farmland of Illinois.
The environment there was classic rural small town, complete with corn, cows, sheep and a nearby state fair. She began singing at an early age, with encouragement from her Aunt Irene.
“She was a ‘gal’ who would sit down at the piano at any local anything and play whatever you wanted, from honky tonk to hymns and ragtime,” Challis said. “She would pull me up to sing, as early as age three or four. I probably did this with her until I was nine or 10. Very often, we would perform together at the town’s bandstand – like Fairfield’s gazebo – with other musicians. I realized I loved to sing and that it made people happy.”
At age 12, Challis began singing in the choir at Chatham United Methodist Church in Chatham, IL. “The church is a great tool for singers as you’re often forced to sing solo. But the audience is also very supportive and forgiving. I could make mistakes while continuing to evolve as a singer. The setting also helped me develop as a storyteller through song,” she said.
Challis also sang in high school, and played the clarinet and piano. Her breakout role came senior year when she starred as Eliza in a production of “My Fair Lady”. By this time, she had already performed in community theater productions of “Hello Dolly”, “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music.”
At Eastern Illinois University, Challis pursued a Music major in Vocal Performance “doing anything theatrical I could from Puccini to ‘Canterbury Tales,’” she said. A fellow castmate and theater major was actor John Malkovich.
College summers she performed as part of a big musical revue at Six Flags in Missouri. “That was truly fabulous, with incredibly talented singers and dancers, an amazing stage and most of the St. Louis Symphony in the pit.”
In 1976, as she was headed to Chicago to pursue performing as a career, she detoured into beauty pageantry, earning the local title “Miss Charleston Delta-Chi” -- singing Judy Garland hits in hotpants – and taking second runner-up honors in the Miss Illinois pageant. “The girl that won that year jumped on mini-trampolines to Tchaikovsky with round-offs and cartwheels in between,” she said. “And I did compete in the swimsuit portion, wearing a hot pink, one-piece fully-padded swimsuit.”
On to New York
After a short stint in Chicago, where Challis got her Actor’s Equity card, she moved to New York City, in 1978, to pursue theater full time. “I found the one straight man in a summer stock production of ‘Follies’ with Dorothy Collins,” joked Challis, “and he was already living in the city, so it was a swift, easy transition.”
Frank Root, who would become her husband, was (and is) a talented singer and dancer himself. He was in the original production of “Mack and Mabel” and the most recent “42nd St.” revival on Broadway. The two married in 1982.
“I had amazingly good beginner’s luck, quickly grabbing several terrific jobs, one as an understudy on the national tour of ‘Side by Side by Sondheim,’” she said. The latter was an overwhelming undertaking, but not without humor. “The star/narrator was the noted character actress Hermione Gingold and she had the entire back of the bus with an assistant and an unruly Yorkie that pooped in the aisles,” Challis said.
This was followed by a lead in “Babes in Arms” starring Andrea McArdle at Goodspeed Opera House in E. Haddam, CT, and what seemed like an endless string of starring roles at dinner theaters.
Detour spawns new opportunity
In 1983, Challis fell apart vocally after a very heavy three-month long production of “Funny Girl”, in which she was performing eight shows a week with back-to-back matinee and evening shows three days a week, and a string of industrial shows. A reputed voice doctor advised rest but she just couldn’t seem to recover. After a few more concerts and fundraisers, she hung up her hat in 1986 to focus on starting a family.
She would have two children, Lonnie, now 25 and a cellist, and Abby, now 20 and a junior in Music Theater. “I literally developed a new persona of sorts. People I met through my children at that time in my life didn’t even know I could sing – and I had been singing since I was three.”
They say when one door closes, another opens, and such was the case for Challis. “I had started teaching voice a bit,” she said, “so it was a natural flow to expand that business.”
In the process, in 1993, the family moved from NYC to Fairfield and became members of Southport Congregational Church. Three years later, the pastor, Rev. Paul Whitmore, learned that I was a singer and asked me to participate in a concert with several other leading singers from the choir. After the performance, he pulled her aside and said, ‘I knew you could sing, but I didn’t know you really sang.’ The experience kind of gave me a kick in the butt to return to the biz.”
She worked with voice therapist Joan Lader and, in 1998, finally felt she had enough confidence in her voice and steel in her nerves to do an entire show again. She began slowly, bouncing around over the next ten years from cabaret to cabaret, from the old 88s room in the Village, to Danny’s Skylight Room and the Laurie Beechman, and finally to the Metropolitan Room. Reviews were positive and a Bistro Award in 2008 helped boost her credibility.
Her teaching career had skyrocketed during those years and really became her bread and butter. Challis gained a notable following of leading celebrity singers and working Broadway actors that included Melissa Joan Hart, Gina Gershon, Amy Adams, Kathie Lee Gifford, Joy Philbin and Alan Menken, to name a few.
Life is now split between Connecticut and New York as she prepares for her own show, “Marianne Challis: The Cosmo Report”, opening Jan. 17 at Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency, one of the largest cabaret rooms in New York.
“This is a pinnacle for me career-wise as a singer/performer,” Challis reflected. “It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work. All the balls are in the air right now and it’s ok.”
Fairfielder to Solo in Major Cabaret Production
For most of her 57 years, Marianne Challis has been singing or performing. Now the Fairfield resident and married mother of two will be taking the reins of her own show, “Marianne Challis: The Cosmo Report”.
Challis brings an audience-wowing combination of sophisticated chanteuse and rib-tickling comedienne to her show, which will debut at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency in New York. Opening night is Jan. 17 with additional shows on the 18th, 24th and 25th, all with an 8:30pm start.
The 2008 Bistro Award Winner for Outstanding Female Vocalist and vocal coach to top Broadway singing talent will explore the challenges of the baby boomer generation in this show stamped with her own brand of satirical storytelling. She will also apply her own emotional interpretation of an eclectic song mix ranging from 80s pop to the Great American Songbook.
The show will include several of her most-requested songs, such as “Something in Red” and “Downtown”, as well as new arrangements crafted especially for this engagement.
The production is directed by MAC Award winner Scott Barnes. “Scott and I are an amazing writing team,” said Challis, “and together we have created a style that feels completely ‘mine’ and still evolving. This is more exciting for me than traditional theater, and seems to suit me in every way.”
Marianne Challis: The Cosmo Report will be at Feinstein’s at the Loews Regency, Park Ave. at 61st Street, on Jan. 17, 18, 24 & 25 at 8:30pm. Cover is $30 or $50 for premium seating with a $25 food and beverage minimum. Reservations: (212) 339-4095 or www.feinsteinsattheregency.com. For additional information, visit www.mariannechallis.com