Music has surrounded Brandon Wardell his entire life. As a kid, Brandon was his dad’s “roadie,” helping set up for musical performances at clubs (even though he wasn't old enough to stay and watch the show). But as he grew older, Wardell discovered that he didn’t want to be behind the scenes—he wanted to be onstage. Since then, Wardell has performed in theatre, film, concerts, and on television. He was even part of the Tony Award-winning Broadway productions of Thoroughly Modern Millie and Assassins.
Today, Wardell draws on his years of experience to deliver a dynamic performance night after night in FST’s original music revue celebrating the music of the movies, Reel Music. We sat down with Brandon to talk about Cabaret as an art form, how he connects with the audience, and why movies and music go hand-in-hand.
Reel Music features more than two dozen songs that helped put the films they belong to on the map. Do you have a personal connection with any of the songs in the show?
I get wrapped up in duets like “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” from Arthur, “A Whole New World” from Aladdin, and “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from Dirty Dancing. I love the stories that these songs tell, their harmonies, and how they audience reacts when they hear the first few bars of each song. I don't sing on those three songs, so I get the treat of watching my cast mates, Joel Newsome and Diana Leticia, deliver them with their great onstage chemistry and soaring vocals.
You’ve been part of Reel Music for a month or so now. What’s your favorite part of the show?
I absolutely love looking out into the audience and seeing the impact that the songs have on each audience member. The Court Cabaret is a wonderful, intimate space to perform in and to see a show. Because of this closeness, the music helps connect me to the audience in a special way. In the show, we cover a wide range of eras and musical genres, so there is something for everyone in Reel Music.
Do you have any pre-show rituals that get you in the right frame of mind before going onstage?
I have a couple of rituals. First, I do an extensive warmup and work out my voice daily. The last thing I want to be thinking about is my voice during the show and we perform 8-10 times a week. I want to connect with the lyrics and tell the story, so I want to have access to as many colors in my vocal palette as possible. I do everything I can to prepare for the show, so I can experience the fun along with the crowd when I'm actually onstage. I also have always kissed an imaginary cross 3 times before shows and asked for strength and focus. For this show, I’ve added a fist bump on the stairs with the rest of the cast to the routine. It has to happen, or the show is in peril!
You also perform two powerful ballads in the show, “Say You, Say Me” from White Knights and “Remember Me” from Coco. What is going on in your mind when you’re performing these songs?
In “Say You, Say Me," I envision the streets of New York, where I lived for a long time. Even in a city so rich with culture, there is a social divide. I see families of all types enjoying themselves in the same place without a hint of self-consciousness or fear. We all want acceptance and safety. In "Say You, Say Me," Lionel Richie, the songwriter, talks with the listener about continuing to evolve, so that's what I try to do with the audience when performing this song. Richie also uses a piece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in the song effectively, so I try to see what he dreamt about during that song.
In my head, “Remember Me” is about my daughters. I have been touring with my band, Under the Streetlamp, for the last eight years. I love having the opportunity to perform in every state in the continental United States, but leaving my daughters is always hard. So, I make sure that, when I am home, I focus on my family. My daughters mean everything to me.
Were there any songs featured in Reel Music that were completely surprised by?
I had never heard “Windmills of Your Mind” from The Thomas Crown Affair. The song was overwhelming to me at first. It floored me. The words are powerful and take you to a place where your thoughts are almost too fast to discern. Emotions often don’t make sense and lead us down a slippery slope, and the song reflects that. Michelle Rombola is unbelievable performing it. The emotional journey she goes on over the course of the song and the technical vocal expertise she shows is really impressive.
As an art form, Cabaret is innately personal and interactive. Do you have any moments or experiences from the run so far that are particularly memorable?
Wow, there have been so many! I’d say my favorite moment was seeing a couple in the audience react to “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca. We looked out and saw a woman welling up with happy tears. Her husband leaned over, touched her shoulder, and kissed her. It turned out that "As Time Goes By" was their song. They have clearly shared a beautiful life together and it was so special to share that moment with them.
Reel Music is now playing in FST's Court Cabaret. For tickets and more information, click here.
Header Image: Joel Newsome, Michelle Rombola, Diana Leticia, and Brandon Wardell. Photo by John Jones.