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A conversation with Broadway 'triple threat' Rachelle Rak Special

By Mindy Peterman     Aug 26, 2013 in Entertainment
Rachelle Rak has been labeled a "triple threat" on Broadway for her talents in singing, dancing and acting. Now she takes on a new role as a judge on Lifetime's forthcoming show "Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition".
Beginning her impressive career at the tender age of two as a student in her mother's dance school, Rachelle Rak, or "Sas" as she is known in Broadway circles, is a performer of some renown. Her credits include such musical theater classics as Cats, A Chorus Line, Fosse, Catch Me If You Can, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, West Side Story, Smokey Joe's Cafe, and many others. She is also an educator and was recognized for her excellence both as a teacher and performer with an award for outstanding achievement in the world of dance by the Dance Educators of America.
Rachelle Rak's love of the entertainment world allowed her to weather the early disappointments and heartbreaks working in that business can bring. "I feel blessed to be a part of Broadway for so many years," she told me by phone from her hometown of Pittsburgh. "Coming from a little dance school in Pittsburgh, it was my dream and I can’t believe I’m actually living it."
You’ve been dancing practically from the time you came out of the womb.
My mother was still teaching dancing when she had me in her belly. I think it was part of my whole process and growth.
What was it like growing up around all that talent?
My mother had a dance studio in Pittsburgh. She had it for 58 years. She started at a young age and taught in church halls, fire halls. We traveled everywhere. Dance school was like my babysitter. My grandmother watched me sometimes but if I was with my mom, I was either in an acrobatic class, a ballet class or a tap class. All of my young years were spent at the dance studio. It was a safe place to be and I loved it.
Your mother played a big role in starting you on your career path.
My mother is a big part of why I was able to get to New York. I didn’t go to college, I went to Cats. My mother was supportive. She drove me all over for singing lessons. Whatever I needed, she tried to provide. That helped. She never thought she knew enough to teach me. She took me to New York and taught me to be open to different styles of dance. I give her all the credit because she taught me at a young age about work ethic, what it took. We performed at every mall, every festival outside. It was never the best conditions. She taught me the word ‘adjust’. We would dance on cement. We danced on a moving float. So by the time I got to New York and I had to do the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, it was nothing. And I loved it. I wanted to learn as much as I could, from as many people as I could.
Do you have any special memories of something that inspired you when you were young?
I loved Liza Minnelli. I saw Liza when I was 14 years old in Atlantic City, and I watched her do the number “Ring Them Bells”. She sat in a director’s chair and she didn’t move, and I thought, “I want to do that. How do I do that?” That was where the journey began. I wanted to get better and luckily no one told me I wasn’t good enough. My mother never told me I was the best. She always told me when I did really well or when I needed work. And that kept me grounded and prepared me for what was to come.
What happened when you eventually set out to make theater your career?
There was a casting happening. This was very early on, when Cats was still very popular. It was 1988. I was in Pittsburgh and Cats was coming to town. They were holding an open audition. I was a senior in high school. Honestly, I went because I wanted to see what my life was going to be like. I wanted to practice. And after the audition, they hired me. They picked me. It changed the course of my life. I was offered the national tour of Cats as a swing, which meant I was going to understudy four parts, one being Grizabella singing “Memory”. When the show ended, my dream of making it had lasted four months but it was my beginning and it got me this great credit.
What came after that was as life changing for you as Cats?
There were two things that happened shortly after. I had some family who lived on Long Island, who asked me to live with them for the summer. They taught me how to get in and out of the city. I auditioned for what I now call my ‘paying my dues’ job. It was for a European tour of West Side Story. For me, it had to be the same as Cats! It sounded wonderful. I went on the tour for seven months. We slept on a bus and traveled up and down Europe. And I thought, “This is what it’s called when you pay your dues.” We played gymnasiums, theaters with bad wigs and costumes. After seven months I got off that bus and came back to Pittsburgh and later went for an audition for Starlight Express, where I had to roller skate. My mom found me a skating coach. And I was fair to mediocre. But I had enough skills to audition and do well on the skates. I was hired to play what everyone later would call the ‘Andrea McCardle role’, which was Ashley the Smoking Car. That was okay. I was in a production touring the country and stopping in my hometown of Pittsburgh.
Did you have any big disappointments along the way?
You should look at the documentary Every Little Step: The Making of A Chorus Line. It was a big part of my life because I was down to the very end for the role of Sheila. I thought it was going to be the show that changed my life. It’s my turn, it’s my part. It’s perfect. [I thought] all the stars in the universe and the theater gods were coming together and I was going to play Sheila in the revival of A Chorus Line. The documentary showed the entire journey. We, as actors, had to sign our lives away and say, “Sure you can video me doing everything: singing, dancing, failing, being wonderful. Anything I do, you can document it.” I can’t believe I signed that paper.
What was your first Broadway show?
I made my Broadway debut doing the first show I’d ever done. It was amazing. Cats was my Broadway debut. I was in it for three months and I enjoyed every moment of doing it on Broadway.
You’ve been in so many shows. Do you have a favorite?
Fosse ultimately became my favorite show. I auditioned for Fosse in L.A. I was cast as a swing. I was much older now. I was in my late 20s, much older than 17 or 18. I said I didn’t want to be a swing. Being a swing means you’re offstage waiting for someone to be sick or injured. I would rather be onstage in a small part. That’s how I felt by the age of 29. So I said if anything opens up onstage, please call me. Well, my mother thought I was crazy; I’d only done one Broadway show, so it wasn’t like I had this big resume. Well, I got a phone call the next day saying they had made a place for me onstage.
Fosse was ultimately a revue and it had not been decided who was doing what. They were just about to put it on its feet and see what it was. So all I did was stand in the back and try to learn as much choreography as I could. Something happened from the time I started Fosse to the time people started to leave the show because every time someone would leave, I would pick up a new feature. Pick up someone else’s track. They would give it to me. So the show that changed my life was Fosse because I started out with the hope of learning how to be a Fosse dancer and I ended in this PBS special with Ben Vereen doing these amazing parts and [meeting] some of the most amazing dancers of my life. So Fosse changed the way I danced and my dynamic and my strength, and it gave me a style that has changed me forever.
How did you get to be a judge on Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition?
I got a call from Brian Simpson, executive producer of Dance Moms. He said, “We’re looking for a new judge for Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition. Are you interested in auditioning?” And I said, “Why not?” So I did a Skype interview and basically it was, “Okay, tell me about yourself. What kind of judge would you be? What kind of a teacher are you?” They wanted to see the kind of person I was. It was crazy how it happened. I got a phone call on a Wednesday, an interview on a Friday, got the job on the following Monday. And then I was flying to L.A. to start taping that weekend. It happened that fast. I was in shock. I’m all of a sudden in L.A. for eight weeks thinking, “How did I get here?”
Have you already taped the season?
Yes, we’ve taped twelve episodes in a matter of eight weeks. Now the show is going to air on Lifetime on September 3rd.
Can you talk about any other projects you have in the works?
I’m working on a piece now for W.A.T.-Working Artists Theater. It’s a dance piece. My friend Charlie Sutton is choreographing it. It has a very dark twist. It’s the Eugene O’Neill play First combined with the story of Frances Farmer, who had a very dark Hollywood experience and life. It’s set in an asylum. I’m playing Frances Farmer. I don’t know what exactly it’s going to be but we’re creating it and it’s exciting.
To learn more about Rachelle Rak, visit her website.
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