Stephanie J. Block comes to the Kennedy Center in back-to-back shows


Stephanie J. Block says she had just performed at the Kennedy Center’s “50 Years of Broadway” concert last February when Jeffrey Finn, the artistic director of the performing arts center’s Broadway Center Stage series, pulled her aside and presented what she assumed was an off-the-cuff proposition: “Let me know what show you want to do.”

“I took it as a great compliment, but I didn’t necessarily take it at face value, to be honest,” says Block, a 2019 Tony winner for “The Cher Show.” “Two days later, he texted me again and said, ‘I’m still waiting to hear what production you would like to do.’ And with that, I suggested ‘Sunset Boulevard.’”

A year later, Block is starring as faded silver-screen icon Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical take on the classic film “Sunset Boulevard” from Feb. 1-8 at the Kennedy Center. Once she completes the latest installment of the Broadway Center Stage series, which also stars Derek Klena as embattled screenwriter Joe Gillis and “Moana’s” Auli’i Cravalho as ambitious script editor Betty Schaefer, Block will return to the Kennedy Center in late February to reprise her role as the Baker’s Wife in the touring production of the hit Broadway revival of “Into the Woods.”

With a perfect cast, Broadway has an ‘Into the Woods’ for the ages

Speaking by phone last week during a break from “Sunset Boulevard” rehearsals in New York, the 50-year-old actress discussed reimagining Lloyd Webber’s 1993 musical; her history of stepping into daunting roles; and what it’s like to star in “Into the Woods” with her husband, “House of Cards” actor Sebastian Arcelus.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: You mentioned that you pitched this “Sunset Boulevard” production. What made you interested in playing Norma Desmond?

A: Well, I’ve been very fond, period, of this material. But a question mark, as a 50-year-old woman — which is how old Norma Desmond is in the text — is why this woman functions the way she does, why her mental health is the way it is. Back in the days of 1950, it just wasn’t discussed. But to me, if this woman happened to be on the right medications and in the right therapy, would we see a different woman? Would she not be this completely deranged and maniacal actress obsessed with being famous? Is there something far more human to her that has been overlooked? That was important to me.

Q: How else might this staging differ from past productions?

A: Even though our central figure is Norma Desmond, “Sunset Boulevard” is from the point of view of Joe Gillis, a young, White, cis male in his 20s. So how might that storytelling change if it was shifted a bit? What if it wasn’t from the point of view of Joe but perhaps from a female point of view? With Andrew Lloyd Webber’s approval, we’re taking a different tilt into the storytelling without having to change a lot of the text — actually, any of the text or the score.

Q: Can you tell me a little more about that?

A: I cannot! [Laughs] You’re going to have to see it. But I can give you a hint: Because the narration reads very much like a screenplay, and both [Joe] and Betty, who is our female ingenue, are screenplay writers, that’s enough of a hint to let you know how this is being propelled at the very beginning.

Q: The role of Norma Desmond was immortalized on-screen by Gloria Swanson, and has been played onstage by the likes of Patti LuPone, Glenn Close and Rita Moreno. How do you approach a character like that?

A: I have always seemed to step into highly anticipated [roles] where the expectation is way beyond what I can control, whether that is playing Liza Minnelli [in “The Boy From Oz”] or playing Cher or replacing Sutton Foster in “Anything Goes” or taking on Elphaba after Idina [Menzel in “Wicked”]. I have to kind of ignore it and just step into the shoes that I know will make the storytelling very unique, very my own, while still staying true to the material. But never, ever have I tried to mimic what has been done before. And this is a very, very different Norma. I hope that the audience is actually rooting for Norma to find some sort of health and balance.

Q: As someone who was born and raised in Southern California, how does a Hollywood story like “Sunset Boulevard” resonate to you?

A: It resonates in the fact that I decided at a very young age that I had to leave the Hollywood element of it all. I knew that wasn’t going to be my “in” into being an actress or a storyteller in any way because of how immediate people’s decisions are based on your look, based on your weight, based on whatever the aesthetic of you is, rather than being a deeper artist. So for me, I felt Hollywood was a bit — I don’t want to use the word toxic, but there is a toxicity in Hollywood where so much of it is based on what you look like. We’re touching on that in this particular version of “Sunset Boulevard,” so I guess, yes, there is some insight.

Q: You starred in “Into the Woods” on Broadway through its Jan. 8 closing and will be returning for the touring production shortly after “Sunset Boulevard.” How do you handle the dynamic of rehearsing a new show while trying to stay sharp at another?

A: If there were a pause of three or four months [from “Into the Woods”], I would probably have to reintroduce myself to the material. But because it really is only a three- to four-week break that we’ve had, the Baker’s Wife is still in my bones. Also, my husband is still singing the music, readying himself to get into rehearsals, so sometimes at home there’s this duality of while I’m singing “Sunset Boulevard,” he’s upstairs doing “Into the Woods.” I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, I have to compartmentalize this or else I really am going to be so fragmented.” So the Virgo in me kicks in and I immediately go into laser-focus mode of staying true to Norma, for now — and then I’ll get back to the Baker’s Wife.

Q: How much does having your real-life husband play your onstage husband contribute to the chemistry in your “Into the Woods” performances?

A: I must admit the dynamic in our relationship at home is not wildly similar, but similar enough that we maintain that understanding with one another. I’m a bit more vocal, I’m a bit more bossy, and he is much more gracious, and he is loyal and steadfast. I think the audience recognized it every time we were onstage together. There is an unspoken magic because of the existing chemistry and the existing language that he and I share, as husband and wife for almost 16 years.

Both at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: “Sunset Boulevard” at Eisenhower Theater; “Into the Woods” at Opera House. 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600.

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