Photos taken by Roberto Araujo for The Ensemblist
The Ensemblist and TheatreArtLife got together to find out which Broadway cast members are not from the USA. In this International Cast on Broadway Series, we talk to those who have come from all corners of the world to perform in NYC. We ask them about their work, their life and the path they took to living the Broadway dream. This is Heather Makalani from Guam.
Heather, what was life like growing up in Guam and what were the steps that drove you to end up working in the performing arts industry?
Life in Guam is nothing short of beautiful. It’s warm all year round, it offers the best food from any culture you can think of, and you can drive by the most pristine beaches with crystal clear waters just about every day (my local beach was 5 minutes from my house where my dad and I would go fishing every few weeks).
Guam being only 40 miles long and 8 miles wide, naturally everyone knows everyone and values the importance of community and family. The end of every dance class was spent saying ‘hello’ to each parent picking up their kids by kissing them on the cheek, because traditionally this is the respectful thing to do as a native to Guam.
This is gonna sound really cliché, but my first taste of performing was hula dancing. I was born in Hawaii, and lived there till I was 3 years old. On the Big Island of Hawaii they have what’s called the Merry Monarch Festival which is one of the most prestigious hula competitions. My parents just so happened to get tickets from a friend for one of the shows and took me. I was only 2 years old then. My parents said when the drums started playing, and all the ladies started moving their arms and swaying their hips, I stood up in my dad’s lap and watched in awe. I really believe that was the spark that ignited my love of performing. After that I asked my parents to enroll me in hula lessons and I stuck with it for 14 years.
I loved performing so much that I did it in any way shape or form that was available to me. At 8 years old I started taking singing lessons. I was in the school choir, and played clarinet in the school band. I joined a local dance group called the SKIP Entertainment Company where I studied Jazz, Hip Hop, Contemporary, and Ballet. I did high school musical productions. Then after high school, to earn some money, I was a wedding singer, I also gigged in a 4 piece cover band I formed called Forte at a local bar every Thursday, I danced in a cultural show 5 nights a week, and I would occasionally sing at events with a 7 piece acappella group called the Native Tongues.
Amongst all of that, I knew music theatre was the core of my passion, and unfortunately Guam didn’t offer the means of the trajectory I wanted to achieve.
You studied at WAAPA (Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts). Tell us, what led you to train in Australia?
I love travelling and I had always found the idea of living and studying in another country intriguing. The owner of the dance school I attended was the one who inspired the idea to study in Australia. She had friends that worked at a couple of the schools there and she told me the programs were really great, and that I should look into them.
So I did my research and found that WAAPA was one of the top 25 performing arts school in the world and that the incredible Hugh Jackman studied there. I was in my third year at the University of Guam at the time majoring in Music, and I saw that WAAPA only took 10 women and 10 men every year for the Music Theatre program.
So I quit my final year of college so I could prepare for the audition and got a normal person job, working in retail by day, and dancing at night, to save some money for the big move if by some chance I get in to the program. In October 2012 I flew to Australia for their Sydney round of auditions, and in December I got the call that I got in! It was a momentous day for me. One because I got in. Two because when I got the call I screamed so loud that I startled one of my pet cockatiels and she flew out the door just as my mom had opened it. Ha Ha! Never to be seen again.
You landed the cover for Jasmine in Aladdin soon after you graduated from WAAPA. Did you feel prepared to jump into such a role? What did you still need to learn that you discovered on the job?
I definitely felt like the role was in the realm of my abilities, so in that sense I felt prepared to take on the role. But I also feel like no matter how much preparation you do, nothing makes you feel ready enough for the first time you go on for the role you cover. There will always be nervous jitters and a little bit of anxiety. Even though you know the songs and lines inside and out, you question yourself ‘Do I actually know what I’m doing?’
There’s only so much you can learn in school about music theatre and the industry, but a lot of it is learning on the job. The main example would be being able to maintain your body and energy for 8 shows a week. I was in Aladdin in Australia for 2.5 years and I learned so much about what I should eat between shows, how much I should eat to have enough energy to power through ‘friend like me’ so that I don’t feel like I’m about to pass out at the end of the number, and what body maintenance I needed to do during my days off that would help me be in my best form for the show.
Another thing that I learned as an understudy was to always be prepared for ANYTHING. Be prepared to go on at any minute, and also be prepared to never go on. There was a dry spell for me when I hadn’t been on for Jasmine for about 4 months so I had to make sure that I still knew what I was doing and still rehearsing my lines and songs in between that time. And you have to be prepared to go on with other understudies as well. I learned to just be open and aware of other actors onstage so that I can react with them, because every new actor onstage is a new energy, and has their interpretation of the script.
You performed in the Australian production of Aladdin and then the Broadway version. Tell us about the differences between the two productions.
There are slight variations in the script that are adjusted for an Australian audience and for an American audience so that jokes can land better. For example, in Jasmine’s opening scene she says ‘and change a few royal diapers every now and then’ and in Australia they say nappies. I definitely said nappies once on Broadway out of habit…I didn’t get a laugh.
The choreography is mostly the same in both productions except sometimes a turn will be on a different count, or a hand is flexed instead of straight.
Also, the magical appearances/disappearances of the Genie, Jafar, and the ensemble (I believe the Broadway production has one extra boy in the ensemble) vary between the two productions. I don’t wanna spoil the fun and give it away so you’ll just have to come see it!
Tell us how you ended up on Broadway.
As I got my Bachelors of Arts in music theatre in Australia, I was able to apply for a post-work study visa, which allowed me to stay in Australia for an additional 2 years. So I was working in Aladdin for those 2 years, and for the final 6 months of the tour, the company sponsored me so I could stay.
Knowing that my visa was coming to an end and that I couldn’t permanently stay in Australia, around May 2018 I contacted our worldwide associate director of Aladdin regarding my visa and said I was moving to NYC next year, and that I would love to be considered for any opportunities on Broadway or the North American tour.
The director responded saying he will forward my precis to the NYC casting offices and told me to personally email the casting director my headshot and resumé and to say that he referred me. Luckily a month prior he saw me go on for Jasmine while he was visiting in Australia. I honestly wasn’t expecting anything to come from this but I figured closed mouths don’t get fed.
Five months later I woke up to an email with the subject ‘Availability and interest check Aladdin Broadway’. I almost thought it was a joke. The casting director emailed saying there was a temporary opening on Broadway and asked if I was available and interested in auditioning. I quickly replied saying ‘YES!’ Then the associate director and general manager for Aladdin worldwide contacted me with what I needed for the audition.
I had to send a self tape because at the time I was still in the final weeks of my contract with Aladdin Australia. So I propped my iPhone on top of my dining room table and recorded ‘These Palace Walls’ and the scene where Jasmine and Aladdin first meet. About a week later I got another email that said ‘I am pleased to be writing with an offer for you to temporarily join the Broadway Company of Aladdin’. I FLIPPED.
I didn’t tell my parents that I was sending in a tape for Broadway because I didn’t wanna get their hopes up. My parents thought I was coming home for Christmas, and as soon as I found out I booked the job I called them saying ‘I have bad news’ and parents were like ‘what?’ I said, ‘I can’t come home for Christmas’. They responded ‘Why?’ And I replied, ‘Because I’m gonna be doing Aladdin on Broadway’. And all of us were screaming on the phone!
You have gone from living on the tiny island of Guam to New York City. How was this adjustment for you? What do you miss from home?
I’ve only been here for 8 months and it’s nothing I can’t handle but living in NYC is still proving to be a little difficult at times. Guam only has 180,000 people and is about the same size as Manhattan, and going from that to 1.5 million people can be overwhelming. I love what the city has to offer in terms of things to do and the opportunities in the entertainment industry but sometimes I need to take a ‘me’ day to just relax from the hustle and bustle.
It’s been about a year and a half since I’ve been home. My parents still live in Guam and I miss spending time with them and miss seeing their faces in the audience at all my shows. And of course I miss my doggies and my birdies at home. I’m a big nature girl and I miss seeing greenery everywhere and being able to go to the beach. And lastly, I miss the local food! You haven’t lived until you’ve been to a Chamorro fiesta!
Does your international background play into how you build your characters and if so, how?
I wouldn’t necessarily say my international background helps me build my characters, but I think I have an awareness and appreciation for other cultures and backgrounds that helps me relate to more ethnically diverse characters.
My dad is from Tennessee and my mom is from the Philippines so at a very early age I’ve been exposed to polar opposite ways of life, languages, accents and food. At the end of the day no matter what your background is, we are all human and we all experience the same range of emotions allowing us to connect with one another and relate to each other on a deeper emotional level.
What do you see are your strengths as a performer and what skills do you think you still need to work on?
I’ve got a good ear for weird harmonies. Also I think not taking yourself too seriously is really important and that’s something I’ve learned over the years. I’m finding a good balance of having fun and still being professional. I’m also good at picking up different styles of choreography.
What I think I need to work on is staying motivated through the down times, and knowing that I am enough as a performer and that booking work doesn’t define my talent or me as a person.
Do you have a mentor or a role model?
It’s hard for me to get inspired by celebrities or ‘famous’ people because it doesn’t seem attainable when I don’t know them personally, almost as if they aren’t a real person. For me, I am most inspired by the people I work with every day. There is something to learn from everyone around me in all facets of performing.
With a career that began straight out of college and a Broadway show in your pocket already what do you desire to accomplish in the future?
I’d love to play more roles that aren’t traditionally cast as a person of colour. I want to write a one woman show about my life, growing up on Guam and having a hilarious Filipino mother and eventually performing it in NYC. I’d also love to dabble into some film and TV, but ultimately my goal is to be a lead on Broadway one day 🙂
Also by The Ensemblist:
Published in collaboration with The Ensemblist