From left: Kate Baldwin (IAC 91-92) and Christian Dante White (IAC 03, IAA 03-04).
Just as Cornelius Hackl dreams of a world outside of Yonkers, each summer hundreds of young actors come to Interlochen sharing that Hello, Dolly! character’s enthusiasm and optimism. That is to say, they come to train in the hope that someday they will see a world unlike anything they’ve ever known.
For Interlochen alumni Christian Dante White (IAA 03-04, IAC 03) and Kate Baldwin (IAC 91-92), they've found their world outside of Yonkers at the Shubert Theatre in downtown Manhattan.
In the fall of 2016, both White and Baldwin posted that they were joining the cast of the upcoming Bette Midler-led revival of the 1964 Broadway hit Hello, Dolly! White was coming off of a successful run on the critically acclaimed Broadway production of Shuffle Along. Baldwin had recently finished playing Anna in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of The King and I.
White announced his role in the ensemble, and Baldwin shared the news that she was taking on the part of Irene Malloy in Hello, Dolly!
Shortly before previews began, we sat down with both actors between rehearsals in New York City. Below is a portion of our conversation with White (CDW) and Baldwin (KB). This interview was edited for time and clarity.
KB: How did you decide on Circle in the Square Theatre School? Why did you decide on that school?
CDW: Well, because I switched majors. I literally had like two weeks to research schools. It was a fast thing.
KB: Wait, you switched majors at the end of your senior year?
CDW: I did a year at Arts Academy in Voice. When it was time to audition for schools I had all my applications filled out to go to Juilliard and be an opera singer. I ran into my instructor and I was like, "Actually I want to switch majors." They let me switch, and so I literally researched theatre schools in two weeks, filled out applications and got ready to go to Chicago for the trip to audition for schools.
KB: With monologues? Songs?
CDW: With monologues, with song, all that stuff. The reason why I chose Circle in the Square Theatre School was honestly because I didn’t really want to do four years. I wanted to learn it all in two. Everyone was talking about what an amazing acting school it was and that was the weakest thing: my acting. I knew how to sing and I could move OK. So it was like, “Let me go to like a really difficult acting school.” A lot of the teachers there also taught at Juilliard, so it’s like, "Oh, I’m probably not getting into Juilliard so let me do that," and it was perfect because it was everything I needed within two years. I learned everything and the teachers were amazing there, and I just got a really good vibe when I auditioned.
KB: But I don't know how many 18-year-olds would say, “Oh, this part of me is weak. Let me dive into that part of who I am, and where I feel deficient and build that up." Kate Baldwin at 18 was like, "No, no, no. I'm not good at that! I'm not doing that! Just let me do this thing that I am good at!" I think that shows a very evolved young state of mind.
CDW: Thank you. [Laughter]
KB: And Interlochen did it!
CDW: And it was all because of Interlochen.
CDW: It was just because I didn't have like a Plan B. My mother was a single parent and she said, "You can do this, if you're gonna do it you're gonna do it." I was so zoned in on making this thing work because I just wanted to make her proud and really just go for it.
KB: There's certain things as I look back that I did out of lack of information. Just not knowing that there's a way that this role was always done that made me bolder and freer to go and do it my own way. Because I didn't know how so-and-so played the part. And it seems like, in your case, a lack of information about musical theatre made you dive in headlong like, "I'm a total novice, and so, teach me," which is a great place to learn from.
CDW: When I first auditioned to Interlochen, I was just too scared to act or dance: I just wanted to stand and sing. So then, when I delved into it I said, "Let me work on that thing I'm not good at."
KB: That's so smart.
CDW: And just go for it. You know?
KB: Yes, yes! Thank you! That's so smart. That's good.
CDW: What was your journey like after school?
KB: Three months before I graduated from Northwestern [University] I auditioned for a local theatre production of Baby. I knew I could sing “The Story Goes On” so I decided, "I'm going." I went, and it was down to me and one other girl, and they picked me. I was so thrilled. I graduated in June and rehearsal began in August. When I graduated from college, I could turn to my mom and dad and say, "I have a job, and it's gonna get me my equity card and it's gonna pay my rent, and here's proof that you didn't just throw your money away.” I felt a responsibility to sort of make it work because [my parents] had been so supportive of me in pursuing what I wanted to do. They're just terrific parents, Ron and Sandy Baldwin. [Laughter] They're great.
KB: When that show closed I found myself all of a sudden inexperienced in terms of work experience. The way you learn and work on a play in school is very different than how you work on a show in real life. So, that was a big learning curve. All of a sudden I was inexperienced and I was expensive. I sort of skipped a step. So, then I had to go sing on a cruise ship for a while to make money.
CDW: I didn't know that!
KB: The Spirit of Chicago. I sang on that cruise ship, and I saved all my money. Then I moved to New York City.
CDW: What year was that?
KB: 1999. I know! There was a production of Finian's Rainbow that was happening in 1999, and I was cast as Kate Jennings Grant’s understudy. I got cast in that from Chicago even though I was working on the cruise ship. I'd get on a 6 a.m. flight in Chicago, land in La Guardia at 8 a.m., get to the audition by 10 a.m., sing my little heart out, get back on the boat that night. That type of thing.
KB: Yeah. I spent all my money on that. I remember calling my mother from O'Hare being like, "I'm at the airport again," and she'd be like, "OK. Well, be safe. I guess she knows what she's doing.”
CDW: Where was this production?
KB: It rehearsed in New York City, and then we did it in Miami at the Coconut Grove. Finian's Rainbow taught me about being an understudy. I was watching this Juilliard actress, and I was like, "Oh … that's how you do it." Sort of a lightbulb went off. Even though I had all this wonderful training at Northwestern, she really taught me about how to deal with the creative team, and a director, and a music director. She taught me how to operate and how to advocate for myself. After Finian’s Rainbow I was back in New York, and I subletting and temping. Then I did Thoroughly Modern Millie in the ensemble.
CDW: I didn't know that.
KB: I realized that I wasn't super happy in the ensemble singing and dancing when what I wanted to do was acting. I loved to sing and dance, but I wanted to speak, and the only way I could do that was to go and do regional productions. So, I went to the Papermill and I did Miss Saigon, and then I did South Pacific at Arena Stage in Washington D.C., and The New York Times came to review it. There was a big review in The New York Times, by Bruce Weber, and there was a big picture of me in a bikini doing "Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair." All of a sudden I started getting phone calls I had never gotten before from casting directors, from ex-boyfriends, from all of that. It changed my life.
Interlochen: Jumping ahead, how do you find time to self-evaluate and to improve your craft?
CDW: I never walk into something like, "I got this." I just walk in very open and do the work. And I love to learn from other people, and I think that's the joy about being an artist is to continue to grow and learn. You're always trying to think, "how can I do that better?"
KB: It's too hard to walk through it and not be invested. If you're not invested, then, what good is it? You should probably go do something else because, it's just so hard on your body, it's so hard on your spirit, you know, and it's hard on your family and the people in your life, because you're taken away from them so often on weekends. I'm speaking as the mother of a 5½-year-old. The weekends and the evenings are when you'd like to be with your family. If you're gonna be doing something else you'd better invest in that and make sure that that is worth your time. One of the best directors I have ever heard from said, "Don't be afraid to bring your day on stage with you." Being where you are in that moment, because that's on the stage, that's truth. And so, why not live there for a minute?
CDW: And it's about the audience, too. People travel and pay lots of money to see us sing and dance and you just never know who you're going to inspire or whose day you're going to brighten, as cliché as that sounds.
KB: It's true.
CDW: Especially in a show like this. This show is so needed right now, I feel like, in the world: just complete joy and happiness. I think, “What a gift it is just to make someone happy for two and a half hours and just sweep them away.” It's our job and you can't come into work and do about 3 hours of just a good job. I sing and dance for a living. I think it's a gift.
KB: It is!
KB: I wear someone else's hair on my head and I ...
CDW: right, right, right.
KB: I get a paycheck!
CDW: And a nice spotlight!
KB: I still do ... I still go, "Really? They pay me for this? I get paid for this? This is amazing!"
CDW: Another one of my favorite things is that we're gonna get really close during tech. It's family when you come to work from the crew to the cast to the stage manager.
KB: Well, it’s not unlike Camp, and the friendships that you make at Camp that feel so tight-knit. I think when you're a teenager, too, you so want to fit in and you so want to find people who like the same things you like. And I think for me, going to Interlochen was like, "Oh! People take this as seriously as I do."
CDW: I've never cried so hard to this day in my life as I did the day that I left Camp.
KB: Yes! Same!
CDW: I was torn. At the time, I didn't know whether or not I had got into the Academy yet. It was like I'd been in heaven for like eight weeks and now I had to go back to real life. Then, finally, all the stars aligned and I was able to go back. I'm a smart person, but I didn't perform as well in school. Finally at Interlochen, which were all AP classes, we practiced a critical dialogue. Mr. Wescott ... is he still there?
CDW: Mr. Wescott! I wanted to read that book just so I could get to class and have a conversation with him. I made the dean's list. That's why I say Interlochen literally in every way changed my life because it's where I was supposed to be.
KB: Your mother must have been over the moon that you were on the dean's list.
CDW: She was like, "Where was this three years ago?"
Interlochen: How are your families still involved in your life and career?
KB: This is the third time I've played this character in Hello, Dolly! So, I called my mother to say, "Hey, I got a job. It's on Broadway. It’s gonna be Hello, Dolly!" She's like, "Oh my gosh, great!" I said, "I'm playing Irene Malloy," and she goes, "Is that Dolly's best friend? Who is that?" I said, "Mom, this is a part I've already played twice. You've seen me do this! Mother!" She's like, "Oh, yeah."
CDW: “You did it at … the place …”
KB: "’Ribbons Down My Back’?" "Oh yeah ... Ribbons down your back …"
KB: Super supportive, but a little ... it's so funny.
CDW: Is that Dolly's best friend?
KB: That's what she said: "Is that Dolly's best friend?" And I was like, “Oh!” My parents have a summer place up in Harbor Springs. And so they come over to Interlochen to Kresge Auditorium every summer, and they see whoever's playing.
KB: They come and they listen to WYSO. I get a yearly photo of them in front of the Melody Freeze.
KB: Does your mother keep tabs on everything that you're doing?
CDW: My family comes in like groups of 10-15 to New York to see the shows that I'm doing so they're always so proud. And they love when there's a celebrity involved, absolutely love that. My mother's already practicing what she's going to sing to Bette [Midler] when she meets her.
KB: Oh my gosh.
CDW: They're so excited [about Hello, Dolly!]. My mother has never screamed so loud as when I told her who's playing Dolly. She's a huge Bette Midler fan. Can you imagine coming to see your kid in a Broadway show in New York, and I'm from South Bend, Indiana. Who ever would have thought it? It's always such a proud moment. I love when they get to come and experience an opening night. The last show that I did, Shuffle Along, my mother and my aunt got to be there with me at Pier 60 for our opening night. They were like little kids running around, and I love that, because it's almost like a thank you and like, “That wasn't a waste of money all those years.”
KB: There's always that.
CDW: There's always that in the back of your head, because It's a long shot, letting your kid come here—and it's not easy. It's not like we call and say, "Hey, anything available next season?" It's always a great feeling to call and say, "I've got a new show, get your plane ticket, come back." I even told her I was coming here to talk to you and she was like, "Oh, they're gonna interview you for Interlochen? Oh my gosh!"
KB: That is great.
Hello, Dolly! is currently in previews at the Shubert Theatre in Manhattan. The official opening night is set for April 20, 2017. You can find both actors on Twitter at @realkatewbaldwin and @dantechristian, respectively.