Dawning of a Superstar

What is the difference between a superhero and a superstar?  Both have larger than life personas, are admired by legions of followers and equally despised by multitudes of haters.  They posses a distinct sense of fashion and generally posses a divine gift that sets them apart from mere mortals.  And like a superhero, superstars generally have an alter ego that allows them to futz around in public.

By day, Aurora Barnes is a music teacher, teaching children the violin in an elementary school in the Bronx.  By night, she is a Botticellian tresseled beauty, belting out songs that are a testament to her personal story.  A native New Yorker, she has taken the eclecticism of Manhattan, her childhood influences and used it to shine brighter than the top of the Empire State Building.  By age 11, she had already performed with violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman and as a teenager; she attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School for Performing Arts (the FAME high school).  Aurora’s footprints are all over New York City, performing at the City Center, Central Park’s SummerStage, Madison Square Garden, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, 92YTribeca, Knitting Factory, Bowery Poetry Club, Nuyorican Poet’s Café and The David Letterman Show.  Recently, she has performed at The Bitter End and Bryant Park.

Aurora is also a budding actress, making her film debut in 2009 with bit parts in The Last Film Festival and Get Him To The Greek.  After learning more about this young lady – a woman who is passionate about the arts, children and activism – there is one thing I am certain of, it will not be long before Aurora Barnes has Gotham eating out of the palm of her hand.  The mayor may not use her insignia to gleam in sky like Batman, but promoters will use her name to headline marquees all over The Big Apple and the world.  And just as Batman‘s name is synonymous with heroism, her name will be recognized the world over for her amazing sound.

Recently, F.A.M.E NYC spoke with Aurora after her performance at The Bitter End.  She shared with us her influences, experiences and the superstars she would love to join forces with.

You were born in raised in NYC.  What neighborhood did you grow up in?

Until I was 14, I lived on the Upper West Side and went to school in East Harlem, so I always say I grew up in those two neighborhoods.  During high school, I went to the FAME School (Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School for Performing Arts) and lived in that neighborhood, by Lincoln Center.  Since then, I’ve lived in Central Harlem.

How did living in NYC influence your musical style?

NYC is a cultural melting pot.  I grew up in El Barrio, in the 80s, and fell in love with hip-hop, R&B and popular Latin music.  My mother taught me all about Stephen Sondheim and musical theater (I joined TADA! Youth Theater at the age of 5).  Every Sunday morning, I would awaken to my father playing Bob Dylan, The Beatles or The Four Tops on the record player.  My grandfather loved jazz and Frank Sinatra.  My grandmother loved Shirley Caeser and gospel music.  A small part of my family is from Spain and Cuba, so I was even exposed to some Latin Jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms.  I used to say, as most kids did, that I loved every kind of music except Country.  Country was never considered “cool.”  But as I grew older, I learned that country was rooted in the blues and folk music.  It’s shocking to me that music and art programs are always the first to get cut by government funding.  There is so much history in art – so much to be educated about!        

You have played in many different venues and stages.  Tell me about your first experience performing in front of an audience?

Oh, brother.  As the story goes, my family took me to see a show at TADA! Youth Theater, when I was about 4-years-old (TADA! is a wonderful theater experience for kids). After the show was over, I am told I walked onto the stage and refused to get off.  I suppose that can be considered a first time.    

What has been your most memorable performance to date?

I had the honor of performing at SummerStage in Central Park, last summer, June 30th, 2010.  It was the most thrilling experience of my life thus far.  Being able to convey my thoughts and feelings, through my words and music, in front of thousands of people and have them love it?  Nothing beats that.  A very close second was when I was 10- years-old, I performed the Bach Double Concerto, on violin, standing on stage between Itzhak Perlman and Isaac Stern, in Carnegie Hall during a benefit performance for the violin program I grew up in called the Opus 118 East Harlem Violin Program.  I honestly don’t think my mother will ever be more proud of me than she was at that moment.  It was very special.

LaGuardia H.S. is one of the most famous performing arts high schools in the country.  How did going to this high school prepare you for a career in entertainment industry?

The best thing about LaGuardia is the kids – so much talent.  I learned a great deal about healthy competition; supporting my friends and fellow performers without “hating” on another artist.  It is really important for your art, but also for your person, to be able to appreciate someone else’s light.  It’s not necessary to be “the best,” whatever that means.  We can all vibe off each other and gain tremendously from all the talent, intelligence and love.  That’s what going to LaGuardia teaches you. 

In college you studied Philosophy, Politics and Law.  Has the study of these subjects influenced your writing style?

I love this question.  Early on, I wanted to quit college.  I thought it was impeding my performance career.  My beloved acting coach, Harold Guskin explained to me how important life experience and education is to your art.  He told me to read everything, go to museums, listen to all kinds of music. So, I went back to school.  I decided to major in Philosophy, Politics and Law because it allowed me to study all sorts of human rights and social justice issues.  My family has a deep history in activism so these subjects have always been a major part of my life.  Studying these subjects hasn’t directly influenced my writing style, but it has contributed to the content.  Exploring, in general, influences my writing style.  I used to be afraid of change.  Now, I’m thirsty for it.    

How does your personal story reflect in your music?

I am unable to write unless I can relate to it, personally.  My songs reflect a time, a relationship, an incident that was/is real.  I am moved, to write or sing, by emotion.  I once read an article, by Roseanne Cash, where she said, “A song can be anything you want it to be.”  You can create it from your imagination.  This article changed the way I looked at songwriting.  Now, I’m interested in painting a picture with words.  You can create a brand new experience, still rooted in an honest idea or emotion, but much more layered.  I love Seurat’s style of painting because he used so many different colors to create one color, viewed, at first sight, by the naked eye.  But if you look closely, you can see the pointillism; you can see all the different colors.  It creates an unspeakable depth.  It’s so multi-thematic but ultimately makes for a simple, clear, relatable statement.  The cool thing about art is I can use pieces of my personal story to create it, and if it connects, the audience, gathers from it, pieces of their personal story. 

What prompted you to want to start acting?

I have always wanted to be a singer and an actress.  I’ve always wanted to work in theater, film and music.  In terms of acting, I fell in love with the work, when I met my coach, Harold Guskin.   

How has studying acting help you in performing on stage?

Majorly.  When I sing, I sing the words of a song.  I convey what the lyrics mean to me.  Just like in acting, I take the words off the page and see how the words play on me.   

Besides being an artist, you are also an elementary school music teacher.  What is do enjoy most about working with children?

I never thought I would love teaching, but I love teaching.  I just love my students.  I love all the crazy things about them and all the sweet things about them.  My favorite thing about teaching violin is when the kids are just beginning to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and they recognize the song as they’re playing it.  It’s the best moment.  It is the first time they are playing an actual song and not just open strings.  When they realize what they are doing, they fill with pride –their eyes light up and they smile – it’s so wonderful.       

You have worked some very accomplished artists?  If you could select three artists to work with this year, who would it be and why?

 This is my favorite question.  I am giddy just thinking about the possibilities.   

A.  It has always been a goal of mine, to sing with Bernadette Peters.  She has been my favorite performer since I was 6-years-old.  And she has been very supportive of me and my career.  She gave me my singing coach, Adrienne Angel.  Singing with her would be very special, in many ways.  

B.  I want to sing with Pete Seeger.  I grew up listening to him.  I watched this wonderful documentary, on PBS, about his life and I realized he is one of the few morally upstanding men who have ever existed.  His devotion to human rights is boundless.  This is a man who means what he says and says what he means.  The honor would be tremendous, just to shake his hand. 

C.  I want to write with Bruce Springsteen and his team and I want them to produce my album.  Bruce is one of the few artists who can sing anything.  He does folk, Rock & Roll, gospel, blues, pop… I want to work with him.  I believe he will understand my vision, my voice and me.   

 Sneak a peek of Aurora Barnes – Then Comes You

Want more of Aurora…check out, www.IAMAURORA.com.   Photos courtesy of Aurora Barnes


A Little Night Liaison with Sondheim

It is safe to say that 2009-2010 has been the season for Stephen Sondheim on Broadway.  His newest production, Sondheim on Sondheim served to be a musical walk down memory lane.  West Side Story was a successful revival that brought new and experienced theatergoers to the Great White Way.  When the revival of A Little Night Music opened in December 2009, the likelihood of its success was undebatable – Catherine Zeta-Jones starring as Desiree Armfeldt, Angela Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt and the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, total no-brainer.   Catherine Zeta-Jones, who revealed her singing and dancing chops in the film adaptation of Chicago, won Best Actress in a Musical at this year’s Tony awards.  The production was also nominated for Best Revival of a Musical, Best Sound Design and Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Angela Lansbury.  The show took a brief hiatus in June after Catherine Zeta-Jones’ and Angela Lansbury’s contracts ended.  On July 13 the production resumed with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch portraying Desiree and Madame Armfeldt. With new cast members in place, A Little Night Music turned a page in this revival’s story without losing any of its potency. 

Set in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century, A Little Night Music brings the elegance and sexual repression of the Victorian era to life with the same cultivation as a waltz.  With the sparse furniture and rotating sets, director Trevor Nunn shines a spotlight on the undercurrent of love rather than the romanticism that accompanies this emotion.  The loss of love…longing…the sport of love…wasted times are all themes that reveal themselves like lit streetlamps at dusk.   The sets seamlessly transition from one act to the next and offer a balance as “the young” and “the fools” stumble over self created roadblocks on their trek to true love.

 The cast carries the melancholy tone that accompanies the story just as beautifully as they deliver the dialogue and musical numbers.  Alexander Hanson is enjoyable as Fredrik Egerman, the middle-aged lawyer that had a love affair with Desiree and is now in a sexless marriage with Anne.  So clever, he appears to know everything but really knows nothing.  Ramona Mallory is delightful as Anne Egerman; the 18-year-old virgin married to Fredrik.  She holds her chastity with the same constriction as she holds her secret love for Henrik, Fredrik’s son.  As Henrik, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka gives a convincing performance of a young man tortured by desire and morality. The breakout performance is given by Erin Davie.  As the Countess Charlotte Malcolm she is jocular and tragic, and comes close to stealing the spotlight from Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch.  But the combination of Peters and Stritch is hard to eclipse, both are absolutely radiant and can bring all the luminosity of the moon on stage.

The real question I had as I waited for the curtain to rise at the Walter Kerr Theatre was if the addition of Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch would go over well with Generation X and Y.  Both accomplished actresses are Broadway veterans, but box-office superstar Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury (who introduced herself to these age groups while playing Jessica Fletcher in the long-running CBS series Murder She Wrote) are far more recognizable faces.  It was Sondheim that suggested Bernadette Peters take over the role of Desiree; his foresight would pay off tremendously for this revival.  


The role of Desiree Armfeldt was tailor made for Bernadette Peters.  She is a Broadway baby literally that can translate the bohemian life Desiree has lead as famous stage actress extremely well.   Her presence on stage can only be compared to a breath of fresh H2O.  She brings an effervescent charm to Desiree without losing any of the maturity and complexity of the character.  Her performance is like sipping a glass of Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame champagne – delectable from beginning to end.  She is beyond familiar with Sondheim’s work starring in productions of Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Gypsy.  His music and lyrics and her voice fit like the famous Versace dress Jennifer Lopez wore to the Grammy’s – exposing all the best emotions and features of the other.  This pairing comes to a crescendo when Bernadette sings “Send in the Clowns.”   The emotion Bernadette delivers exposes the lament in this song so exquisitely that by the last bar my eyes were swelling with tears. 

Elaine Stritch is uproarious as Madame Armfeldt; her comedic timing is as infinite as her talent.  During the performance Elaine had to have a few lines read to her; her savvy as a comedic actress placed a lovely veil over her forgetfulness.  In fact, it added another layer to Madame Armfeldt, a sharp-tongued woman that seems to be stuck in the past.  Watching Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch on stage together was like unearthing rare gems.  My question had been answered; no member of the audience, regardless of their age, could feel cheated if they missed the performances of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury.  Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch and the rest of the cast are worth the price of admission and then some, but despite the celebrities on stage, the eternal star of A Little Night Music is the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.  Like the moon, his compositions smile upon us all; it is an essential component in making this revival and any future productions a triumph.

Photos:  Joan Marcus for Broadway.com