Entertainment

‘American Idol’ was actress, ‘If/Then’ moment

Tamyra Gray and Anthony Rapp in a scene from “If/Then.”
Tamyra Gray and Anthony Rapp in a scene from “If/Then.” ©2016 Joan Marcus

The Broadway stage was a natural career progression for Tamyra Gray, after finishing fourth on the first season of “American Idol.”

She says the opportunities that have come her way in theater, music, film and television happened because of the inaugural show in 2002.

“Everything I have been able to do is a result of being on that show,” she said. “It was a life-changing, awesome experience. I am extremely grateful for ‘American Idol.’”

Her latest venture is the first national tour of “If/Then,” which will be at the Fox Theatre for two weeks starting Tuesday. She has performed on Broadway, in “Bombay Dreams” in 2004-05, and as Mimi in “Rent” in 2007-08.

She plays Kate, an elementary schoolteacher and Elizabeth’s spirited new neighbor, who is always trying to fix her up. Her character has a romance with Anne, who becomes her wife.

“Janine DiVita and I have a great time together on stage,” she said. “I identify with so many things about Kate. Some people tell me — that’s just you on stage, you’re not acting.”

“If/Then” is an original contemporary musical written by the team behind the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical, “Next to Normal.” Composer Tom Kitt, book writer/lyricist Brian Yorkey and Michael Greif reunited for this show, which ran for a year on Broadway (March 2014-2015) and garnered Tony nominations for original score and lead actress (Idina Menzel).

Michael Isaacson, executive director of The Muny, produced “If/Then,” along with Fox Theatricals. They also produced last year’s Tony winner “Fun Home,” 2010’s acclaimed awards winner “Red” and 2002’s Tony-winning smash hit “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

“If/Then” follows two simultaneous storylines in the life of 39-year-old Elizabeth, recently divorced, who moves back to New York to restart her career as a city planner. When her carefully designed plans clash with the whims of fate, her life splits into two parallel paths, “Liz” and “Beth,” intersecting choice and chance.

“It’s a grown-up show. This show is very reflective of life. It’s about the choices one makes every day. You’ll question ‘What If?’ — you’ll really think about the choices and the chances you have, and how they significantly affect us,” she said.

Elizabeth’s smallest decisions or most random occurrences impact her world in ways she never dreamed possible.

“There is a song called ‘It’s a Sign’ and it’s about that the universe has a message. Elizabeth has a new start, and it’s about finding true love,” she said. “It’s also about staying in the moment.”

Gray believes in the message as well. “It’s a spiritual journey. I do believe in divine timing, that there is someone for everyone if you are willing to open yourself up without blocking it, and you might be pleasantly surprised,” she said via phone from Chicago, exuding an effervescent personality and warmth, quick to quip and laugh.

Now a devoted wife and mother, Gray, 36, said she leans on spirituality to maintain balance between work, home, and health.

“I am very blessed. I have no complaints,” she said. “On tour, I’ve been very fortunate to have my 5-year-old daughter (Sienna) with me every two weeks. In California, they have Independent Study, which means they can take a week off, but must do the schoolwork.”

“It puts things in perspective. It’s not just about me anymore,” she said.

Her husband, Sam Watters, is vice president of A&R (artists and repertoire) at Island Records. He was a singer in the ’90s boy band Color Me Badd. They have been married since 2006.

“We wrote ‘I Believe’ together for Fantasia (Barrino, “Idol” third season winner),” she said.

Gray also wrote “You Thought Wrong” for Kelly Clarkson, which was on the season one Idol winner’s debut release “Thankful.”

The Idol contestants from the first season still keep in touch.

“Christina Christian and I talk all the time. She’s my girl. I keep up with Jim (Verraros) on Facebook, and Nikki (McKibbin). It paved the way for us. It was our first experience in the business,” she said.

“We were introduced to so many different elements — recording, performing, commercials, television, the red carpet. It was a crash course in the industry,” she said.

She has been singing since she was 2 years old, and had a goal to be an entertainer early in life, although she jokes that in ninth grade she wanted to be “a doctor who delivers babies who sings.”

She was named Miss Atlanta in 1998, and studied business law and entertainment management at Georgia State University for a year, hoping to learn how to navigate the business.

At age 22, in New York City to work on a Coca-Cola project, she saw an Internet commercial seeking the next superstar. She checked to see if the auditions would be in Atlanta, and her “American Idol” journey began.

Her rendition of Burt Bacharach’s “A House is Not a Home” is still mentioned in discussions on the greatest Idol performances. She received high praise from none other than Simon Cowell, who commented that it was one of the best renditions ever sung on TV.

Because of that performance, she landed the role of Aisha Clemens on the third season of “Boston Public.”

“David E. Kelley (show creator and writer) was watching ‘Idol’ and hired me. He said ‘she can act’ — he knew from the way I interpreted the song. Now I look back on it, and it was definitely a moment for me. Fourteen years later, a couple brought my CD, “The Dreamer,” for me to sign, said they still listen to ‘A House Is Not a Home.’”

As for movies, she appeared in “The Gospel” and as a singing friend in “Rachel Getting Married.”

Now she has embarked on her first touring experience.

“This is my first official job, back after having the baby, and I couldn’t be happier,” she said. “We are having a great time. I love seeing different parts of the country I haven’t seen before. I really appreciate the chance to explore.”

She is grateful to have such a supportive cast.

“The cast is incredible. It’s a great group of actors. Everybody brings it,” she said. “Jackie Burns has a phenomenal voice — I love to listen to her. And Anthony Rapp is happy to be back on stage, and he’s amazing.”

Burns plays Elizabeth, and was the understudy to Menzel on Broadway. She also starred as Elphaba in “Wicked” on Broadway and in the first national tour, and was in the 2009 revival of “Hair” and in the off-Broadway run of “Rock of Ages.”

Rapp created the role of Lucas on Broadway and wanted to do the tour as well. He is best known for originating the role of Mark Cohen in “Rent” and also appeared in the acclaimed 1998 revival of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” as Charlie Brown, with Kristin Chenoweth and Roger Bart winning Tony Awards as Sally and Snoopy.

“Idol was my ‘If/Then’ moment. Everything fell into place. I can’t say I might not have had the career I have without it, but the way that it happened was certainly because of Idol,” she said.

“I try to make the most out of everything. If you can’t have fun, what’s the point? Nothing is all good or all bad — life wouldn’t be what it is without both.”

For more information on the show, visit www.ifthenthemusical.com.

“If/Then”

  • When: March 15-27
  • Where: Fox Theatre; 527 N. Grand, St. Louis
  • Tickets: www.fabulousfox.com; Metrotix: 314-534-5111
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