Samantha Massell has a pedigree that makes her ripe for leading a musical. She grew up in New York City a child of the arts, made her Broadway debut at the age of 12 in Baz Luhrman’s La Boheme, and co-starred in a critically acclaimed revival of Fiddler on the Roof. In veritable art-imitating-life moment, the actress who once played daughter Hodel to Judy Kuhn’s Golde in Fiddler is taking on the mantle to play the lead in Rags at the Goodspeed Opera House, a show that featured Kuhn in the original Broadway cast. I spoke with Massell about the power of mentors, how theater can create social change, and how playing an Eastern European Jewish immigrant requires her to be like a nun.
When did you first know that you wanted to be an actor?
I actually cannot remember a time when I didn’t want to be an actor. As a child, I was always singing and repeating sequences from my favorite movies (in which I played all the parts). It seemed like a rather natural progression.
What was the first show you saw on Broadway? What impact did it have on your acting aspirations?
Growing up in New York City, there was obviously a lot of incredible theater around. My first two Broadway shows were The Lion King and Ragtime. Try and guess if you want which show I understood way more than the other! I do have a strong memory of seeing The King and I and Annie and being acutely aware that there were children on stage and then hounding my mother to find out how it all had transpired.
What role have teachers/mentors played in your career?
Between the incredible faculty at The University of Michigan and the incredible teachers I have at home, I have been incredibly lucky. It’s amazing what tiny little lessons, notes, and ideas have not just stuck with me, but have become sort of ear worms, inside my head as I prepare to go on stage and inside my head sometimes when I am on stage. As I get older and continue to work in this business, I am forever amazed at the indelible mark we make on one another and the indelible mark these people have made to me and my work.
How does the audience response impact your performance?
Oh my goodness, so much!! The audience is different every night. It’s amazing how sometimes every joke will land and sometime, well, ba dum shhhhh, they won’t. There’s always a camaraderie among the actors in a cast as we navigate telling the story to that particular audience. It can sometimes become a challenge to maintain the integrity of your show when the audience is extremely tentative and you crave a boisterous audience reaction, but that’s sort of the fun in it!
What role does self-care play in maintaining your instrument, especially during the run of a show?
Everything. I live like a nun. I hydrate like crazy, I steam, I eat anti-inflammatory foods, I take an insane amount of supplements. I’ve become rather superstitious about my routine with all of that and am patiently awaiting a sponsorship from Zico or Synergy Kombucha… hello? anyone? (kidding)
The 2002 Baz Luhrmann Broadway production of La Boheme was notable for its youthful casting and signature Baz-style eye-popping aesthetic. Can you describe your experience being in the children’s chorus of that show?
It was such a joyful experience. We did four shows a week (my cast of kids, dubbed the “La” cast included the now famous Joe Jonas) and went to school like normal kids. It was a massive company because of the large ensemble and the rotating principals, so there were always a lot of performers around to learn from and watch. We only appeared in the second act, so we would hang out and have a group warm up during Act One on the top floor of the Broadway Theatre.
I have to give a shout out to our incredible wrangler, Bobby Wilson, who made our time in La Boheme so special. Fun facts: Bobby was Christian Camporin’s wrangler at Matilda. Bobby’s partner, Andy Gale, was in the original Broadway company of Rags. And, believe it or not, I’ve known Sara Kapner (Bella) since we were twelve when we met at the final callbacks for La Boheme, which was the birth of our 15-year friendship!
The 2015 revival of Fiddler On the Roof, in which you played Hodel, was framed with a modern-day descendant of Tevye visiting Anatevka and at the end of the show joining the exodus of villagers forced to leave their homes. How did that direction (by Bartlett Sher) impact your experience of the material?
Bart is so incredible at finding the deepest, clearest truths within a text and seeing the piece in a fresh, clear light. He brought the idea of the refugee crisis into the room and it raised the stakes for all of us as both actors and humans. The continued relevance of Fiddler on the Roof, much like Rags, is a tragedy and it was so gratifying/meaningful to get to tell that powerful story in a time when it clearly needed to be told. These days, it’s not easy to be a citizen of the world. If one person in the audience at Fiddler or Rags sees the show and then goes home and watches the news with a new perspective, we’ve done our job. The relevance gives us purpose and, more importantly, hope.