From "American Idol" to Broadway and Beyond — TV Show's Alum Take to the Stage
By Karu F. Daniels
"American Idol" alumni Frenchie Davis, Constantine Maroulis and Syesha Mercado chat with Playbill.com about life after the TV show — which, for them, involved taking the stage in musical theatre.
The old adage which says "one man's trash is another man's treasure" couldn't be truer when it comes to "American Idol" and The Great White Way.
Over its 12-year run, the long-running hit television talent competition has produced a handful of multiplatinum-selling recording acts — namely Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, Chris Daughtry and Carrie Underwood — but a few of the show's "losers" have done remarkably well on Broadway as well as other theatre stages beyond.
For years, former "Idol" kingpin and judge Simon Cowell dismissively suggested for ambitious contestants to give Broadway a shot — because their talents wouldn't cut it in the pop music arena. The irony is that some of the show's more memorable finalists (and even cast-offs) — such as season two's Frenchie Davis, season three's Diana DeGarmo, season four's Constantine Maroulis, season five's Ace Young and season seven's Syesha Mercado — have given Broadway a shot, succeeded at their efforts and are maintaining careers that, to some, might seem more enviable than some of the show's big winners.
Even though she never really got a fair chance to make it to the 2003 final rounds — after being eliminated from the competition due to a quasi-nude photo scandal — Davis has consistently remained aligned with the show throughout the past decade. The Los Angeles native made lemonade out of lemons, however. When she joined the cast of Broadway's legendary musical Rent in 2003, she became the very first "American Idol" personality to tread the boards and opened the doors for others. Davis would go on to work with the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning production on and off-again for four years.
"My overall experience was one full of laughter and building lifelong friendships and what I learned most during that time was the discipline required to maintain an eight-show week schedule for an extended length of time," she told Playbill.com.
Before "Idol," Davis cut her teeth in musical theatre in German productions of Little Shop of Horrors and Jesus Christ Superstar. After "Idol," and in between her Rent stints, she portrayed the role of Effie Melody White in the 2004 West Coast touring production of Dreamgirls and also took on roles in shows such as Mahalia — A Gospel Musical, the 30th anniversary tour of Ain't Misbehavin' (alongside fellow season two "Idol" stars Ruben Studdard and Trenyce Cobbins) and Cinderella (Enchanted Edition). She also became a finalist on NBC's "The Voice" and released a Top 30 dance hit, "Love's Got A Hold On Me," in 2012.
"Well, it only took about 10 years to pick up the pieces but I am so thankful to have picked them up. I think I wasted years being angry at the unfairness of it," Davis reflects of her "Idol" past. "I thank God and therapy for that. And I thank 'The Voice,' as well. That opportunity helped to facilitate lots of healing, in the long run."
Davis, who is working on making her way back to Broadway (she says she doesn't want to jinx pending opportunities so won't offer details), is bringing her very own cabaret act to The Big Apple next month. The French And Kat Show is set to play the Metropolitan Room Feb. 8-10. The cabaret-styled show will also feature pianist/comedienne Kathryn Lounsbery (who she refers to as her "musical BFF").
"We do Broadway material and pop faves," she said. "We even do thrash metal and hip-hop. We do it all, while simultaneously serving both Clair Huxtable realness and musical theatre realness."
Fantasia, who was crowned the champion of season three, is currently performing in After Midnight, which she is scheduled to appear in through Feb. 9. "Coming back to Broadway, I'm going to enjoy this," she told Entertainment Weekly December 2013. "I have so, so much respect for every last person that hits the Broadway stage. No matter what show it is, a person is giving up their life with their family and their kids and putting it all on the stage through their bodies."
The Grammy Award winner has also performed in The Color Purple on Broadway, taking over for 2007 for Tony Award winner LaChanze and later as the headliner of its subsequent national tour.
After Midnight's lead producer Scott Sanders, who's been a fan of Fantasia over the years and first worked with her on The Color Purple, said she was due for a Broadway return: "The reason why I called Fantasia first was not just because of my experience in working with her so successfully in The Color Purple, but also I will never forget her sitting on the lip of the stage singing 'Summertime' on 'American Idol.' I was told that she didn't know the song more than a couple of days before she did that brilliant interpretation of it. Knowing that 'Stormy Weather' is in our show, I started to think, 'Who do I want to see sing ‘Stormy Weather' on opening night on Broadway?' And it was clearly Fantasia."
Fantasia's season three runner-up Diana DeGarmo made her own splash on The Great White Way with a short stint in the hit musical Hairspray in 2006. Her regional and Off-Broadway credits include Back to Bacharach and David, Joseph and the Amazing Techncolor Dreamcoat, The Toxic Avenger and 9 to 5 and the first national tour of Brooklyn The Musical. It was in 2010, during her Broadway return for the revival of Hair, where she met the man who would become her husband, Ace Young, also starring in the show and of "Idol" pedigree.
Before Hair, Young starred in another Broadway revival of a legendary musical, Grease — and its national tour. The season five alumni is slated to play the title role in a national tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, kicking off March 4 the Playhouse Square in Cleveland, alongside DeGarmo — whom he married in June 2013. Before the newlyweds hit the road, they will bring their Samson & Delilah concert to Broadway's premiere supper club 54 Below Jan. 29-30. Their duet opus, "Samson & Delilah, A Love Story," is set for release Feb. 14 and will include songs from a forthcoming new musical.
"Idol"s season 4 favorite Constantine Maroulis played 54 Below Jan. 20 in a show celebrating the music of composer Jeff Thompson. To date, he holds the distinction of being the only "American Idol" alum to receive a Tony Award nomination — Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical for his role in Rock of Ages. He is now a two-time Drama League nominee for Distinguished Performance.
"It feels great for sure," he said of the distinction. "I grew up with such a passion for theatre and music and to get the chance to create a role on Broadway has always been a dream of mine. It's wonderful that people appreciated the work. Rock of Ages was a hit record for me."
Prior to Broadway, Maroulis cut his teeth regionally starring in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and later this season he will honor Broadway Hedwig star Neil Patrick Harris at the Drama League Gala.
From the Broadway stage came a headlining gig on the national tour of the 80's rock music jukebox musical, and even a cameo in the movie version, which starred Tom Cruise, Mary J. Blige and Alec Baldwin. Maroulis also starred in the Broadway musical The Wedding Singer, the Off-Broadway musical Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and Premier Theatre Company's production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical adaptation of the 1984 cult film The Toxic Avenger followed, playing to rave reviews at The Hubbard Stage at The Alley Theatre in Houston in 2012.
Last year, Maroulis fronted the revival of Jekyll & Hyde, earning a Drama League Award nomination. "I believe all my personal experiences have prepared me for life as an artist and someone who has worked in many areas," he added. "You can't always be in a hit, this is very rare. You have to do your best and leave it on the stage."
He said he's getting back into recording, but he hopes The Toxic Avenger will have a home on The Great White Way this fall.
As far as "American Idol" is concerned, the Brooklyn native added: "I have been blessed to able to do a myriad of different things since my 'Idol' days. It has been nearly nine years now since I first appeared on the show... I'm blessed to say I am where I wanted to be growing up. I wanted to be a significant voice in the Broadway and music scene and I have done that. Not a lot of people do what I do. I run a small shop but have a nice brand that people get. It has been a very rewarding career and I have no complaints."
Syesha Mercado, known as "the last lady standing" from season seven, made her official Broadway debut Jan. 7 in The Book of Mormon as Nabulungi. It's a role she's played since opening the hit musical's second national tour in Chicago in December 2012. "Broadway was always my goal," she said. "I dreamed of seeing my name on the Great White Way and now that it's here I am living my dream.
"My wonderful high school music teacher, Johnnie Mnich, who helped me discover my belting voice, got me into watching 'South Park' in high school and I've been a fan since, so being able to work creatively with Trey Parker and Matt Stone is an honor," she added. "They are comedic [geniuses] and I admire what they do. I am overwhelmed with gratitude and excitement on the daily just thinking about the level of excellence surrounding me in The Book of Mormon from the cast, to the creatives, the producers, and everyone under the Mormon umbrella. I am grateful."
Five years ago, the Bridgeport, CT, native made a major splash on the musical theatre scene when she won the role of Deena Jones in the last major national tour of Dreamgirls. The show opened at the world's famous Apollo Theater and toured for a year after, also incorporating some elements of the Beyonce-fronted 2006 movie adaptation.
Before The Book of Mormon, Mercado starred in a revival of Once On This Island at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
"'Idol' was a stepping stone for me and I am very grateful for my experience on the show... It's still surreal sometimes when I think about it. My heart bursts with gratitude every time I think about how far I've come. "
While season three finalist Jennifer Hudson has not made her Broadway debut, she took on the role of Effie White in the film adaptation of the musical Dreamgirls, winning critical acclaim and a handful of awards, including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, a Golden Globe Award, a BAFTA Award, an NAACP Image Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award.
"American Idol" has continued to be a breeding ground for some of Broadway's newest and brightest talents.
"I feel like some people have criticized seeing Idols on Broadway," Maroulis added. "But, this is the way I see it: Broadway is the top and who doesn't want to be a part of it?"
Send questions and comments to the Webmaster
Copyright © 2014 Playbill, Inc. All Rights Reserved.