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Legendary Actress and Singer Rita McKenzie on a Career That Has Taken a Jersey Girl All Over the World

The actress/singer dishes about playing Lita Encore in "Ruthless! The Musical," and the lady herself in "Ethel Merman’s Broadway."

Rita McKenzie in “Ethel Merman’s Broadway” (Photo credit: Keith Munyan)

Rita McKenzie in “Ethel Merman’s Broadway” (Photo credit: Keith Munyan)

Courtney Marie

Courtney Marie, Critic

Growing up in Wood-Ridge, New Jersey, Rita McKenzie never imagined the places that her career would take her. Traveling all over the world with Ethel Merman’s Broadway, McKenzie has shared the life and career of an international superstar with audiences from different cultures and backgrounds who continue to honor her legacy. Along the way, McKenzie has also made discoveries about herself and her desire to always keep growing and learning in an ever-changing world.

TheaterScene.net had the unique opportunity to speak with McKenzie about her career, time on stage as Lita Encore in Ruthless! The Musical, and Ethel Merman’s Broadway. 

TheaterScene.net: Congrats on Ruthless! The Musical coming up on one year at St. Luke’s!

Thanks so much. It’s been so much fun – we love doing it!

TS: Being a part of the Los Angeles cast in the ‘90’s, what were you most looking forward to as you got to play Lita Encore again in the 2015 revival?

I had received a call and was asked if I would do it for a charity event and said I’d love to – 12 performances, let’s go! It was really about the people involved. I’ve known Joel Paley (Author, Lyricist, Director) and Marvin Laird (Composer, Music Director/Arranger) for a long time. As luck would have it, we did it, and our wonderful producer who I can’t say enough amazing things about, he’s terrific, saw the show and made it possible for all of us. It’s been a group made in heaven – I was so thrilled to be asked again to do it and to see, 24 years later, how it would come out in New York has been a blast! It’s a very tight cast and Tori Murray (Tina Denmark) has grown up right before our very eyes – she’s a fabulous girl and everyone in the cast has been terrific! Our producer has made it a first-class experience all the way!

TS: The phenomenon of stage moms has been a popular topic in the media with reality shows playing out the drama. How much of this perception would you say is accurate? 

In this more corporate world that we live in today, the behavior of a ‘stage mom’ isn’t necessary. The mothers definitely don’t need to push like that anymore – if a child is talented, they are talented and if they get cast, they get cast.

Reality TV definitely trumps all of it. You watch any of those shows [Dance Moms, Honey Boo Boo] and the parents are just so pushy – thank goodness we don’t have any of that going on!

I do have to put myself in those mother’s shoes for a minute – when your little child is going up for a part or even for a team sport and they don’t make it – a mother feels bad. There’s a fine line between feeling that disappointment and pushing them to the point where it takes away from their fun and experience.

Rita McKenzie and Kim Marasca recording “Ruthless! The Musical” (Photo credit: Scott Stander)

Rita McKenzie and Kim Marasca recording “Ruthless! The Musical” (Photo credit: Scott Stander)

TS: Why do you think a hit like Ruthless! The Musical continues to entertain new generations?

The themes are universal. Even though it’s very funny and it’s tongue-in-cheek, the themes about the mothers and the children and the grandmothers and the mothers and the children –people always want to see those relationship dynamics. There’s a moral to it even though it’s very funny. Everything’s moving much faster in this world, but the themes are still the same. I also love that it’s so funny, because it’s so very important for people to laugh in this day and age.

TS: Do you have any advice that you would give to young people today who are developing their career paths? 

My sense is that today, many people want things too fast. Really with any career path, there are a lot of steps you need to take in order to become successful. The process of getting to that place — the ups and the downs — cannot be overlooked. I think back on the process of how I got to where I am – I felt a sense of accomplishment as I moved forward in the process. With any career, if you just stop and look around, and say, “I might not be exactly where I want right now, but I’m a lot further than I was five years ago” and take a second to be proud of that. Appreciate where you are and go forward. Success in life is so many different things and everyone can do it. It’s all about figuring it out.

Also, study along the way. It never hurts to have a basis in knowledge. Understanding the fundamentals — history, math, those communication and writing skills — are so essential. You need to be able to communicate and network in a way where people want to be around you. There’s such much you learn as you go along and it’s a wonderful experience that opens you up to meet so many people.

TS: How has your personal career journey surprised you? 

This profession has brought me all around the world. Who would have thought, a girl from Wood-Ridge, NJ? I just knew that I always wanted to do this, but I didn’t have a plan that I was going to go all around the world doing this. There are so many wonderful surprises along the way and you have to try to always be open. There’s always something around the corner.

I want to share some advice I was given from Ann Miller, who was a tap dancer and a big MGM star, and someone that I became friends with her toward the end of her life. She called me Rita Pita and she said to me “The thing you are doing now is the best thing you’ve ever done and the next thing you do will be even better. I always think about that and always want to feel that. Always put what you want out there and it’ll come back to you. 

TS: Let’s talk Ethel Merman’s Broadway. What do you admire most about Ms. Merman? 

I’ve admired her strong work ethic but also something that many people don’t know – – she was a wonderful daughter to her parents [being an only child] and a wonderful mother to her children. You never saw that part of her because she was such a larger-than-life character. She was a woman in that era of people who grew very strong and very fast in their lives [though experiencing the Depression and W.W. II] and I learned a great deal from the way she carried herself through all of that.

I also respect how she kept her friends from high school until the day she died. She was a secretary from Queens who was swept into the spotlight because she had this fabulous voice. The fact that she remained herself and true to her friends and family for the rest of her life – I thought was so remarkable. We try to showcase that part of her in our show.  She was a tremendous woman.

Rita McKenzie as Lita Encore in “Ruthless! The Musical” (Photo credit: Hernan Photography)

Rita McKenzie as Lita Encore in “Ruthless! The Musical” (Photo credit: Hernan Photography)

TS: Did you make any new discoveries about yourself while being immersed in this process? 

I had to find a common meeting ground – I am an Italian girl from New Jersey, how am I going to step into the shoes of Ethel Merman? I had to find out who she was for me to be honest about it and truly be her. Christopher Powich and I wrote it from the point of view of Ethel, but also wrote it from our point of view because we knew it so well.  It allowed us to bring her life.

It’s also important to always learn new things, no matter how old you are. You need to be able to learn from the generations that come up after you.

TS: In your travels across the U.S. as well as internationally as Ethel, how did the different cities receive her? 

People love Ethel – they love the songs, they love her! In Britain they love her, in Japan as well. She was an international star in the 1950’s and 1960’s and people remember her. She was on par with The Beatles back then – in television, movies, and on Broadway.

In other countries, they don’t have the same concept of a “belter” – what I am – it’s not something you can learn, but what we do in the United States. The origin of a “belter” was the people or the person who spread the gossip from town to town.

TS: How did cultural difference play into the experience?

In Japan, there is not a sound uttered from the time the show starts until the end of the first act. The people were so interested in the voice, the history, and knowing who this woman was.

I feel so lucky to have traveled all over the world and shared Ethel with so many different audiences and types of people. It has been a joy!

Catch Rita as Lita Encore in Ruthless! The Musical through September 10, 2016. For more, visit: http://www.ruthlessthemusical.com/

 

Courtney Marie
About Courtney Marie (45 Articles)
Courtney Marie is a New Jersey native with a tremendous love for the Big Apple. She has a degree in journalism and currently works in media. In addition to devouring all the theater that New York City has to offer, she also takes to the stage with AfterWork Theater Project and is grateful for the chance to perform with friends.

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