Prelude: Singer-Actor Lab Alums Perform Into the Woods at the Guthrie Theater
Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods begins with a retelling of four classic fairy tales—and then it complicates them. The narrative moves on to challenge its characters, throwing curveballs to make their lives harder.
The same might be said for Sondheim’s works overall. His stories beautifully convey deeply felt life lessons. But the underlying music is…complicated. And challenging. The singer-actors constantly field technical curve balls, like complex timing and rhymes.
It’s the type of musical that’s tailor-made for students of MacPhail’s Prelude: Singer-Actor Lab. In that weekly, audition-only class, high school-aged singer-actors learn how to tell a technically-demanding story — and to do it with heart.
Next month, some former Prelude students will put these skills on display — when Into the Woods begins its two-month run at the Guthrie Theater on June 17. The cast and crew feature three of the program’s alums: Andy Kust (’06), Cat Brindisi (’07), and Anna Hashizume (’11).
Andy is serving as the show’s music associate. “Any time you’re working on music this intricate, layered, and sophisticated, you have to prioritize the story you’re telling,” he says, echoing a sentiment he learned years ago from Prelude’s original coordinators, Manon Gimlett and Thaxter Cunio.
It goes without saying that the Into the Woods performers must get the lyrics, pitch, rhythm, and breathing right. But beyond all that, he says, you must “get to the core of questions like ‘What am I saying? Why is this story important?’ It’s the engine of this show. Why does Into the Woods still resonate? It is not the pitches and the rhythms. It’s that people see themselves in it.”
Cat, who plays Cinderella’s Stepsister and understudies the Baker’s Wife, says the cast relishes the challenge.
“The opening number has 10 or 11 parts to it,” she enthuses. “It introduces all the characters within the first 20 minutes of the play! Sondheim is so brilliant. It’s incredible to be able to do this show. Everyone keeps saying, ‘We’re doing ‘Into the Woods!’ This is crazy; we are so lucky to do this show!”
Anna, playing Rapunzel and Cinderella’s mother, has a palpable connection to Prelude. Not only is she a former student, but she is also the current coordinator of the program alongside Bradley Greenwald.
“A big thing that Bradley and I have been focusing on this year is the connection with other colleagues and the audience,” Anna says. “We find that’s something high schoolers need. Because of the rise of social media, they can lose that sense of connection.”
Anna noticed that every actor in Into the Woods could look one another in the eye and really listen. “Those are skills that not many [voice] training programs focus on,” she says. “Prelude teaches you about listening to the people on stage and being present in the moment.”
And in a show like Into the Woods, you need to tackle the technical challenges in a way that feels natural. “You want the audience to feel like this is easy and coming to you like second nature,” she says.
Into the Woods has many joyful, ebullient moments that require technical skill and a playful spirit. Cat says that when singer-actors enter the professional world, that genuine sense of joy is one of the first things to go.
But she remembers Prelude as a “place where they would teach you how to play.”
“At one point, acting and singing were only for fun,” she says. “When you must pay your bills from it, things become challenging and taxing. But what we do is not hard at all, it’s so fun! It can be so filled with play!”
Anna had an all-too-common experience when she arrived at the Into the Woods rehearsals and learned that her music director was a fellow Prelude alum. “It’s a wonderful way of connecting with someone when you start working with them,” she says. “You have this background in common.”
The program has been running for over two decades, launching students into top university music programs (like Yale, Julliard, and the Boston Conservatory) and prominent careers on stage on and off in the Twin Cities and nationwide.
“There are so many Preludians I see working all over town,” Andy says. “Every cast I’ve ever been a part of has someone who has gone through Prelude. It’s kind of a staple of how people began training in the Twin Cities, which is wonderful.”
Andy is the resident music director at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre and a highly sought-after vocal coach. He works with professional actors to maintain their voices and prepare them for roles.
“The majority of the work I do with actors is getting material to the point that they feel confident with it,” he says. “There’s a high level of professionalism here. Everyone is incredibly talented.”
Andy’s job is to help his clients learn how to stand out amidst all that talent, and he’s carried the lessons he learned at Prelude into this work.
He says auditions often come down to questions: “Who feels like a good fit personality-wise for the role? Can you be flexible, take redirection, take an adjustment, and still make the character come to life?”
One method he uses is an exercise he learned from Manon. She’d tell a student to perform a song, and in the middle of it, she would hold up a card with a word written on it—like “angry,” “bored,” or “excited.” The student must change their performance to convey that emotion at that moment.
“I have cards I use with my clients that are just like Manon’s,” Andy says. “So I use something I learned in Prelude daily.”
Cat, Andy, and Anna attended Prelude at different times but share a similar sense of nostalgia and gratitude for how the program shaped them.
“I was only in Prelude for my senior year of high school,” Andy says. “But I honestly think about that year as a pivot in my life. I went from enjoying music to thinking of it as something I could do for the rest of my life… Every single Saturday was an inspiring day.”
Cat also describes it in life-altering terms. “That was my family, my gateway into my life today,” she says. “You’re at an age when any influence is life-changing. The instructors were deeply influential in our artistic lives.”
She recalls that adolescent longing to be seen and understood—and finding it at Prelude.
“We took it so seriously because that’s how you are when you are 15 and 16,” she says. “You feel like no one understands you. Then someone says, ‘I do understand you, and I’ll let you try to act like an adult and sing these crazy hard songs, and I believe you can do this.’”
Ironically, one of her core memories of that time is singing “It Takes Two” from Into the Woods.
“I’m 16 and should not be singing ‘It Takes Two,’” she says. But her Prelude instructors let her try it. “I got to feel adult feelings and explore what it was to be married,” she says. “What artistic program says that’s OK and supports that?”
Cat went on to the University of Minnesota, Duluth (where she received her BFA in Musical Theatre and minor in Dance). Upon graduating, she became a staple of the Minneapolis theater community. “I feel so fortunate to say this, but the Guthrie has been my home,” she says.
She also worked at Theatre Latté Da, where she met her husband, David Darrow, while acting in a production of Spring Awakening. The pair live in New York City with their two-year-old son Henry while Barrow completes graduate school at New York University.
Anna (who has an undergraduate degree from Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and a master’s degree in music from the University of Minnesota) has performed in several operas. To the students in Prelude, she brings expertise in musical technique.
She says that when young people start, “I hear a lot of mimicry. And that’s not a bad thing. Mimic [other singers] all you want. But where do we go from there? We mimic to figure something out about ourselves and our instruments…If everyone sounds the same, why should I cast person A over person B? We want slight differentiations in sound. That’s castable.”
Anna cites the singer-actress Lisa Howard, who plays the Witch in Into the Woods and has a voice like “spun gold.”
“But she’s not trying to sound beautiful when singing,” Anna explains. Instead, it’s as if she’s feeling this intense emotion, and she has to sing it and bring it out of her body.
Of course, learning to sing this way takes time and practice. “A lot of that discovery happens with age,” Anna says. “But if we can get the ball rolling at 15, how exciting is that?”
Prelude: Singer-Actor Lab gives students a stage to develop the skills, language, and confidence needed to prepare for the challenges of the performing arts. The program is for highly-motivated high school students.
Prelude meets on Saturdays, September through May, 2 – 5 pm at MacPhail Minneapolis. Financial Aid/Scholarships are available.
Applications for the 2023-24 program are now being accepted. Auditions are on July 29, beginning at 10 am (or by special arrangement).
“Into the Woods,” June 17-Aug. 30, 2023, Guthrie Theater Wurtele Thrust Stage — Familiar fairy-tale characters in a musical that looks at what happens after “happily ever after.” The Guthrie has previously produced four musicals featuring Sondheim’s work: “Sweeney Todd” in 1999, “Merrily We Roll Along” in 2001, “Sunday in the Park With George” in 2017 and “West Side Story” in 2018.
Meet the Prelude Alums…
Anna Hashizume is a Japanese-American singer-actor based in the Twin Cities. She has performed with Artistry Theater, Theatre Elision, Lyric Arts, Collective Unconscious Performance, Mixed Precipitation, Philemon, and Baucis. Her previous opera performances include La Traviata and Thaïs with the Minnesota Opera, Speed Dating, Tonight! with the Fargo-Moorhead Opera, and Rigoletto with the Lyric Opera of the North. Her work on screen includes Target, Founders Brewing Co., and Best Buy. Anna was a Schubert Club Competition Winner in 2017. She has a MM from the University of Minnesota and her undergraduate degree from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Anna also teaches voice in the Twin Cities and hosts a podcast called Thank You Places which can be found on most streaming platforms.
Anna is the current Prelude program’s Co-Coordinator.
Cat Brindisi grew up working in the Minneapolis theatre community, then attended the University of Minnesota, Duluth, where she received her BFA in Musical Theatre and minor in Dance. Upon graduating, she returned to Minneapolis, where she regularly worked at The Guthrie Theatre, The Ordway Theatre, and others for four years before moving to New York, where she currently works and resides. Cat is continuing to develop a concept album and new musical, “The Daughters,” inspired by and produced with The Everwood Farmstead Writers Retreat.
Andy Kust has been active as a vocal technician and coach for over a decade, with clients that perform professionally across the country and around the world. With a Master of Music in Theater Music Direction from Arizona State University, and his Bachelor of Arts in Music from Luther College, Andy served on the BFA Musical Theater faculty of the University of Minnesota Duluth and held a faculty associate position with the Lyric Opera Theatre at ASU. Andy has worked as a music director nationwide, including in the New York City cabaret circuit and the Kennedy Center. He serves as the Resident Music Director at The Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. He has served at other theaters, including The Ordway, The Hennepin Theatre Trust, The Guthrie, Theatre Latté Da, The Duluth Playhouse, The Phoenix Theatre, and Stray Cat Theatre.