In her 10 years on Broadway, Stephanie J. Block has played a green witch, a tapping nightclub singer, Liza Minnelli, a male impersonator and a pirate queen. Now, the Tony nominee is getting in touch with her maternal side as disenchanted momma Sheryl Hoover in the musical adaptation of Little Miss Sunshine at Second Stage Theatre. On the small screen, the Wicked and Anything Goes favorite recently had a juicy guest spot (opposite Claire Danes, no less!) as Carrie Mathison’s lawyer on Homeland. Broadway.com chatted with Block about hanging out on set, a whirlwind Emmy Awards with her husband, House of Cards star Sebastian Arcelus, bonding with Little Miss Sunshine daughter Hannah Nordberg and starting a family of her own.
When you first read the script for Little Miss Sunshine, why did want to be a part of it?
I’ll be honest—there were earlier productions that weren’t going to move forward, and from my understanding, James Lapine and Bill Finn scrapped everything except for two songs. So when I was asked to come on board (no pun intended), I didn’t know anything except for Sheryl’s one song, “Something Better Better Happen.” I said yes because of the pedigree. I wanted to be in a room with James Lapine, in a brand new Bill Finn musical. And I loved the movie so much. It was really blind faith.
Do you think the musical captures the spirit of the movie?
What touched me about the movie is you’re laughing one minute, 30 seconds later you’ve got tears dripping down your face, and four minutes after that you’re giggling again. James Lapine and Bill Finn have found—I don’t want to call it a balance, because it’s perfectly imbalanced, and that’s what it should be. We open with a song basically saying, “Lower your expectations, life is disappointment.” [Laughs]. It’s not your jaunty opening number. These adults have hopes that got trampled, but then this little girl comes onstage saying, I see the world in this bright way and I hope to change you. It starts out dark and takes you to dark places, but also takes you to these really wonderful heightened, ridiculous, fun places, too.
Are you enjoying playing a mom?
It’s awesome. Our girls are so special. When we were in rehearsals from noon until midnight, they were like, “Oh, I wish we could stay until 3:00 in the morning!” They love it, and the vibe in the rehearsal room is contagious. Hannah Nordberg, who plays Olive, is extraordinary. She’s not a showbiz kid by any means. She has all of the inner star quality, but we still have to poke her now and then when it’s time for her cue or gently nudge her towards the audience when she says her line, because that stuff doesn’t live in her yet. But the embodiment of the character, and who Olive is, just is innate.
Do you feel any degree of responsibility for Hannah?
Oh, I’m momma hen! She’s a great fan of Wicked, so knowing that I had played Elphaba, there was already an attachment built in. She makes me bracelets, we draw pictures together, we go to lunch together. I just adore her and want to take care of her. For example, tonight we’re doing our 11th show of the week and my whole day is just thinking about her, wondering if she’s saving her voice, wondering if she got enough rest. During the day when I’m not in the theater I’m concerned about her well being.
What were you like at Olive’s age? Were pageants on your radar?
Oh, totally. My sister is gorgeous—I like to say I got all the Italian, she got all the German. Aqua eyes, perfect, white shiny teeth, perfect breasts! She started doing pageants when she was 16 or 17 and I wanted to do them too, so when I was 13 and 14, I did local pageants. What we’re doing in the show seems ridiculous, but I’m telling you, the hosts are that over the top, and the gowns are that shimmery and ridiculous in the best sense. Myself at nine? I was singing a lot. I would sing at parties and put my piggy bank right in the front [laughs].
It was so awesome to see you on Homeland! How was that experience?
It was stressful when I got the job, because I haven’t been on TV in a character role. I kept thinking, man, I hope I book something on a show nobody knows on Nickelodeon so I can go in there and remember what a set feels like. Let’s do something little so no one knows I’m doing it! When I got the job, I couldn’t have been happier, but I was intimidated—after all these years I’m walking into Emmy-winning Homeland playing all my scenes opposite Emmy-winning Claire Danes? What is happening?!
What was it like on set?
They were so welcoming, and Claire was amazing. She was a little protective at first, but in a few minutes I was showing pictures of the new house and she was talking about renovations they were getting done, and the next day, I was holding the baby! It was a lovely experience, just two actors doing their thing. She’s definitely queen of her court, but there’s no diva at all. She’s there to work and she’s very welcoming.
Now that you’ve gotten your feet wet, would you like to do more drama?
Bring it on! I’m hoping to tap into lawyer guest starring roles across the board. Person of Interest, The Good Wife… Bring it on! [Laughs.]
We heard Sebastian’s side of the story, but from you, how were the Emmys?
Fast and furious! Sebastian and I were both in rehearsals, so we got on a red eye flight, got in at 11 AM and had to be on the red carpet by 2:30. I was overwhelmed by the Tony Awards, but at the Emmys, the interviews went on for three blocks! Two hours later, Seb finished his interviews and we sat down in the theater and we were able to breathe and go, wow, this is really happening. Just being next to the cast of Breaking Bad, I was fangirling the entire afternoon! We went to the Governor’s Ball, stayed for an hour, then got on an 11:30 PM flight. I have some hilarious pictures of us going through security in our formal wear. [See snapshots below.] I changed my clothes in an airport bathroom, put on sweats, woke up the next morning at LaGuardia and went to rehearsal. It was that fast!
We missed you guys at the 10th anniversary of Wicked!
I know! Life was heavy that day. Will Swenson was under the weather so we had a rehearsal in the morning and two previews that day. My heart wanted to be there, but looking back, I’m glad I played it smart. But without that show, I would not have my husband. We literally got married when we were working together on Wicked. We went to the courthouse one afternoon and that night, we were singing “As Long As You’re Mine” as husband and wife. No one knew we had gotten married, it was a quiet thing—weeks later, we had a larger service in Italy, but for that one day, no one knew. There are so many memories that connect us to that show. It shaped the course of our lives.
How's your new house in New Jersey? Are you getting to hang out with your Broadway neighbors?
Yes, I just met with Michelle Federer for lunch, and Norbert [Leo Butz]’s sweet little girl Georgia walks Macaco every day while we’re at rehearsal. I thrive on the energy of the city, but I just needed to get away. I love caring for a home and a yard, and hopefully sooner than later, a little family, with little Block-Arceluses running around!
See Stephanie J. Block in Little Miss Sunshine through December 15 at Second Stage.