BACKSTAGE: Spamming 'Hamilton,' Life After 'Sesame Street,' the Next Judy Garland

Photo by Carol Rosegg

“I’m the only person of color to play Stephen Sondheim in front of Stephen Sondheim,” Juwan Crawley told me after a performance of the hit Off-Broadway musical parody Spamilton! In the Triad Theatre, Crawley, 22, plays the composer, along with other characters from you-know-what-blockbuster and other iconic Broadway musicals.

Crawley, who grew up in Monroe and Bridgeport, is off to a great career start after graduating in May from the theater program at University of Hartford’s Hartt School. He got his gig in Spamilton! on his first audition.

Sondheim’s not the only celeb who has seen him perform. Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda checked out the show which relentlessly spoofs his show and himself. “I was shaking in my pants when I heard he was going to be in the audience,” Crawley says. When he met Miranda after the show, Crawley burst into tears, overcome at meeting the star — combined with feelings of his extraordinary fortune since graduating from Hartt just a few months earlier. Miranda liked the show so much he gave the cast tickets to the real deal: “Front row center mezzanine,” Crawley says.

Following his run in Spamilton!, Crawley is featured in a new musical, Found, which is being presented in Philadelphia this month and next. Not busy enough? His CD Awakening (Mind), in which he composed most of the songs and all of the lyrics, and which he made with his Hartt buddies, is scheduled to be released later this month. He sings with a haunting mezzo-soprano range that takes you to heaven and beyond.

“It’s been an insane year, but really a dream come true,” he says. “At times it seems overwhelming — but in the best way.”

Roscoe Orman as Gordon Robinson on the set of Sesame Street in 2008. Photo by Richard Termine

Life After ‘Sesame Street’

When it was announced earlier this year that Roscoe Orman, who has played Gordon Robinson, one of the central human characters on Sesame Street since 1974, will exit the newly revamped show, there was an outcry from his multi-generational fans. But the veteran actor is plenty busy, now featured in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson at Hartford Stage, playing through Nov. 13.

Does he see similarities between Sesame Street and the neighborhood of The Hill section of Pittsburgh of which Wilson writes in his 10-play cycle? “There is a very strong mission on both to create a strong sense of community and common learning and moving forward,” says Orman, who was also in the Broadway production of Wilson’s Fences. “Both are amazing tapestries and I feel so honored and blessed to be a part of both.”

And an update on his relationship with the new Sesame Street?

“It’s still a work in progress,” he says. “We’re moving forward with the people at HBO. It’s still to be resolved, but I’m very optimistic.”

Judy, Judy, Judy

Growing up, Ruby Rakos, 20, didn’t know much about Judy Garland other than The Wizard of Oz. She can’t say that now, playing the young pre-Garland Frances Gumm (the star’s given name) in the new musical Chasing Rainbows, now playing at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam through Nov. 27.

She says she especially identifies with Judy’s awkward age.

“She was an ‘in-between’ because she was too old to be Shirley Temple but too young to be Lana Turner,” Ruby told me between shows. “I felt the same way after I left [the Broadway musical] Billy Elliot. I was too old to be in Matilda and Annie but too young for anything else. I spent several years trying to find myself. I still am.”

She also identifies with the all-consuming show-biz life. But she says it’s what she always wanted. “What do you do when your 2-year-old tells you exactly what you want to do?” she says. “It’s your responsibility to support them, and my parents did just that.”

Which witch?

When Amanda Jane Cooper was a young teen in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, she was definitely a “Glinda,” that oh-so-popular witch from the evergreen musical Wicked. “I was a real social butterfly, full of school spirit and all of that.”

Now she is Glinda, in the tour of the show that will bring her to the Toyota Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford Nov. 30 to Dec. 11. (Cooper also played the role when the tour stopped at Hartford’s Bushnell in 2011.)

But before her Glinda teen years, “I was painfully shy before I was 10.” But a role in a school play changed all that. “Something came alive in me and I unfolded into the person I am today.”

Was she ever a witch on Halloween? “Way too scary,” she laughs. “I couldn’t even get through [the Disney film] Hocus Pocus. I was a princess with a pink dress, crown and wand. You’ve got to have that wand — and sparkle.”

Connecticut Connections

• Hugh Jackman will star as P.T. Barnum in the newly titled, original-movie musical The Greatest Showman, along with Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Zendaya and Rebecca Ferguson, scheduled for release at the end of 2017. Kathy Maher, executive director and curator of Bridgeport’s P.T. Barnum Museum, tells me she hopes the film will generate more interest at her digs.

• In just a few short years, the Windham-Campbell Prizes — which Yale administers to nine recipients — has quickly become a leading literary award. But next year there will be some changes. The good news is poetry will be added to the categories of drama, fiction and nonfiction. But instead of three recipients in each of the three categories this year, there will just be two in each of the four categories, totaling eight lucky writers. But each prize will increase from $150,000 to $175,000, which makes the writing life just a little less difficult.

• While most of the leading principals of Hartford Stage’s musical Anastasia will remain intact as the production moves to Broadway in the spring, there will be a new actor playing the role of Gleb. Ramin Karimloo, who made a matinee-idol impact in the Broadway revival of Les Miserables, will join the cast. 

• Tony nominee Jennifer Simard (Disaster!) will star as Cindy Lou Who in the premiere of Matthew Lombardo’s Who’s Holiday, a comedy in couplets now playing at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages. The piece began as one of the short plays that made up Christmas on the Rocks at Hartford’s TheaterWorks. Carl Andress directs the new expanded version.

Frank Rizzo has covered the arts-entertainment scene in Connecticut since the ’70s, including 33 years writing for The Hartford Courant. Email him at FrRiz@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @ShowRiz.

(This article was originally published on a different platform. Some formatting changes may have occurred.)

Frank Rizzo has covered the arts-entertainment scene in Connecticut since disco reigned in the ’70s, including nearly 34 years writing for The Hartford Courant. Email him at FrRiz@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @ShowRiz.