Vocal Performance Alum Stars in

NYU Steinhardt News

Vocal Performance Alum Stars in "Here Lies Love"

Ruthie Ann Miles (center) and the cast of Here Lies Love. Photo credit: Joan MarcusRuthie Ann Miles (MA, Vocal Performance, 2007) is the star of the hit off-Broadway musical Here Lies Love, in which she plays former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos. David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's disco play is a high-energy dance party that takes place in an immersive, club-like setting in the Public Theater. The actors move around the room on stage-platforms and the audience is encouraged to dance. Miles received a 2014 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical, and was celebrated for her work with a 2013 Theatre World Award, which recognizes 6 actors and 6 actresses for their debut performances on and off Broadway. The prestigious award was presented by Miles’ former NYU Steinhardt professor Meg Bussert, herself a past Theatre World Award winner. 

Since her graduation, Miles has appeared in Avenue Q at New World Stages, the national tours of Sweeney Todd and Annie, and many other regional productions. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their toddler. She answered questions by email while on a family vacation in Michigan.

Where did you grow up? Did you always know that you wanted to work in musical theatre?

I grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, and mainly studied music in my spare time. I participated in my high school’s performing arts center’s spring musicals, but it wasn’t until later in high school when I found my attention shifting from music to theatre – even then, I was drawn to Shakespeare. It was in college that my focus settled on musical theatre. I knew I wanted to enrich and complete my education, and therefore moved to NYC when I was accepted as a graduate student in Steinhardt’s Vocal Performance Program.

What were you up to between graduating from NYU Steinhardt and landing the starring role in Here Lies Love?

In the summer after completing my Master’s degree from Steinhardt, I was cast in the US National tour of Annie. I put on a blonde wig, and I was part of the ensemble. The year after that, I continued touring the US in John Doyle’s revival of Sweeney Todd, playing the rival Italian barber, Adolfo Pirelli, who also plays the accordion, flute, and the piano. This made my mother quite proud, as the decades of music lessons were finally paying off. After Todd I finally rooted myself in NYC and played in Avenue Q for two years before being cast in Here Lies Love. We “workshopped” HLL for a few years before it became the incarnation that it is today.

What is the best part of your current role as Imelda Marcos? Is it hard to make her a sympathetic character?  Does the story resonate with you?

My favorite thing about playing this iconic historical figure actually happens after the show, in the lobby. I love when people stick around to tell us their stories. Some of their stories are even more outrageous or heartbreaking than those depicted during the show! It’s an important reminder that when the party is over and the lights are up and costumes off, all the things we’ve been dancing about are true.

The story resonates with me to some degree when I take a microscopic look into her life and try to connect the dots between her choices and possible motives. I find I can sympathize or, scarily, sometimes empathize from some of my own life experiences. While it is my job to explore her choices and motives with every show, I admit there are still some moments where I simply can’t understand her psyche and have trouble justifying the choice “I’m” about to make, the decisions she and her husband made. It’s a struggle, but it keeps me present and asks me to be vulnerable and truthful.

We’re taught as actors to be the protagonist in our own story, our own greatest advocate. This particularly rings true for any villain, where you need to convince the audience to listen to your side of the story for the next two hours. This role is complex because I play both a protagonist and a villain and, depending who is watching, I receive different responses within the very same show! In the same audience I might encounter people reaching out to hug me, while others refuse to touch me or even look in my direction if I make eye contact. I have to make “myself” sympathetic for this very reason. I am about to tell you “my” life story for the next 90 minutes, and I need the audience to be on my side. That is, until (like at a bar at 4am after ”last call”) we turn the “ugly lights” on and the audience sees they’ve been a member of the cast after all.

How did NYU Steinhardt prepare you to play Mrs. Marcos?

My training at Steinhardt was just as personal as it was technical – or maybe more. One of my professors, Bill Wesbrooks, was determined to help me tell the truth on stage. That can be a scary thing. We all put up walls to protect ourselves and I thought being an actor meant simply learning how to put “masks” on, learning to be a different person. Instead I learned that in order to be a good actor, to be able to transform oneself wholly, I had to work on my own character. Only then could I be malleable and worthy of assuming another person’s identity.

The actress playing Mrs. Marcos will essentially play multiple characters within the 90-minutes, as HLL spans most of her life. If I had not learned those valuable lessons I would not be able to dig into this woman’s life and truthfully express what I find from show to show. Not to overlook the solid voice pedagogy and technique I learned from Dr. Brian Gill, whom I still see regularly for voice lessons.

I read this quote from you in the Wall Street Journal, and I was wondering, which NYU Steinhardt professor said it? Do you recall more about the conversation?
"I had a professor in graduate school who told us 'know what you're good at and do that thing.' And I thought 'hands down I'm an ensemble girl. I'm a fierce ensemble girl. I am dependable,'" … "I was never seen for the ingénue or the leading lady."

Professor John Simpkins teaches a Business Skills class alongside the graduating classes’ Showcase, which covers topics such as agents, casting directors, and other aspects of the business of being in theatre. During a class on how to market ourselves, he was asked how to attack the audition circuit. He advised us not to waste time and energy “pounding the pavement” and chasing after every job; it’s exhausting and not a good use of time. He said to know what characters we fit best into, and then to focus our energy into honing the necessary skills to play those roles. Were we most “castable” as the ingénue, or the quirky best friend? What unique combination of talents sets us apart from a similar actor? Maybe dancing is our particular forte, or maybe we have the highly organized mind of a good “swing” (one who learns multiple tracks, which is highly valuable in theatre), and these are ways some people make their career. He said there was no such thing as “just the ensemble” – that it took special skill to help tell the story in the supporting ensemble, and that there was pride in that. Yes, that resonated with me! I am a dependable team player, I am happy doing a featured solo, and I love wearing many hats! Advising us to market ourselves with a focus was great advice, and it is how I’ve had success for many years. Here Lies Love has been the first time a director has looked at me and decided I could carry their show on my shoulders. It has been both awesome and absolutely terrifying. And so much fun.

A lot of attention has been paid to the fact that Here Lies Love has employed many Asian actors. Did race ever come up in your classes at NYU?

Asians in the Broadway community have fought, and still fight, for ethnic diversity to be portrayed equally on stage.

Although we might not have engaged in explicit discussions about ethnic identity, we were nonetheless taught to be the best versions of ourselves and to trust that the rest would follow. Everyone was there to learn, and the best person for the role got the part, regardless of ethnicity.

This is a physically demanding show how do you maintain your energy?

The show is very high-energy; from the top of show, when the DJ (fellow Steinhardt alum Kelvin Moon Loh) teaches the audience how to move with “the blender,” through the curtain call, when we have a big, karaoke dance party. The actors move around, fast and furious. Everything is choreographed: onstage and, very carefully, offstage in the dark. No one has time to visit the dressing room, and if I have a full bladder…well, tough luck! The energy that most of the cast needs is different from my needs, but we all get quite the workout. The cast dances around, jumping off platforms with seeming energy to spare but then get to go backstage and calm down, while I spend most of my 90-minutes on stage (with a few backstage trips reserved for very fast hair and costume changes) singing in very high stilettos – which is it’s own kind of aerobic exercise! When we tried the show out-of-town, I was actually pulled from most of the dance numbers because we found I was too breathless to be understood when singing!

I get strength training by wrangling my 18-month-old and her toddler-contraband by day, and my cardio workout while singing and running around in very high heels at night.

Do you have any advice for current students in the Vocal Performance program?

I was lucky enough to be asked to be part of a panel for this year’s Summer Study In Musical Theatre with Dianna Heldman and Frank Schiro. One of the gals asked how to handle rejection or feeling you’re not good enough. And the advice I feel responsible to continue sharing is that rejection is a part of life, but there is a vast difference, then, in how you approach it and choose to come out on the other side. With the mentality of ”I’m not good enough and therefore did not receive the part’” you are sure to become gradually negative and destructively hard on yourself – and who wants to hire or work with that actor? I challenged her to choose different words: ”I am not right for it at this time, and choose to pursue more to better myself.” The actor with this mentality has drive, focus, and a positive perspective on life and career. My parting words were to be kind to yourself and be kind to others. At the end of the day, it’s just a play and we’re all here to tell stories together.

Also, to stop talking and to listen to your voice teacher. This will save you time, tears, and trouble. Listen to the playback and you’ll find they’re always right!

Ruthie Ann Miles (center) and the cast of Here Lies Love. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

  -Caroline Lagnado