Sing It: An Interview With Nanci Zoppi

February 6, 2010 at 8:50 pm (hear, watch)

If you haven’t heard Nanci Zoppi, you ain’t heard nothing yet. In the last year, the singer-actress has made waves in the Sacramento theater scene through performances with the New Helvetia Theatre Company, B Street Theater and weekly cabaret series Graham-a-Rama. With an elastically expressive face and a jaw that seems to come unhinged as she unleashes high notes, she brings equal parts comedic talent and yearning sadness to her role as Susan, the girlfriend of an aspiring musical theater composer, in Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick…Boom! Presented by New Helvetia, the show runs through February 13. Nanci took some time between two shows on Saturday to chat about the musical, her new band and what makes her cry.

How did you get into singing and acting? Tell me about the first performance that you can remember. My dad’s a singer around town, Bobby Zoppi—he had the band Zoppi. So he taught me how to sing when I was two, when I started talking. I hummed before I knew words. And at six my first grade play was The Littlest Christmas Tree and they cast me as the littlest elf and I loved it. From that point on I threw myself into acting, and I went to theater school when I was 19.

Where did you study? I went to this place called Circle in the Square in New York. All my favorite actors like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Benicio del Toro and Felicity Huffman went there.

You’re currently starring in Tick, Tick…Boom! How would you describe the show? Jonathan Larson really wanted to bring real rock music to the stage. It’s still musical theater, but it does have a different edge to it and even if you don’t like musical theater you’ll still like this. The show resonates with a lot of people, with the question of “what am I going to do with my life?”

Had you been a Larson fan previously? I liked Rent, but I was never diehard. I’m more of a Sondheim person—Sunday in the Park with George is maybe my favorite musical of all time. I had heard Tick, Tick…BOOM! and I didn’t like the music at all. But I couldn’t pass up the chance to work with these people again [after starring in New Helvetia’s production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch last summer], and it’s been a great experience because I love the music now.

What changed? I think when you start to do your groundwork as an actor for your characters, you grow an attachment to them. That automatically makes the songs more personal. Plus [co-stars] Connor [Mickiewicz] and Tristan [Rumery] bring so much to the characters and sound so beautiful doing it. I don’t know if you’ve heard the cast recording of Tick, Tick…BOOM!, but Raúl Esparza is the star. Terrific actor. Has one of the most annoying voices on the planet. So I think that had something to do with it.

There are some clever songs in the show, like “Therapy,” plus one, “Green Green Dress,” that’s all about how hot you are in a green velvet dress. Do you have a favorite? My favorite song in the show I don’t sing. It’s the one Jon [the main character, who has a day job at a restaurant] sings at the end—it goes “I’m going to spend my time this way.” [The song is “Why,” in which Jon reaffirms his decision to devote himself to music and theater.] When he sings it I’m always offstage, and I cry every time at this certain part, when he says “Five o’clock, diner calls, I’m on my way.”

What makes it so affecting? I always knew what I wanted to do, from six years old, maybe younger. And then I hit 24, 25 and everything changed. Like, “I have no idea if I want to do this anymore.”

What made you doubt? Theater school was a lot of it. When you do six days, seven days a week from 8 a.m. until sometimes midnight and you’re trapped with 50 really needy, passionate, sometimes horrible people—I was so tired, I took two years off. I went through that, “do I give up? Is this something I really want to do?” Even if you’re super talented, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to succeed.

But you got back in the game, and people love your performances. On at least three occasions, the arts editors of the Sacramento News and Review have written that they’re “obsessed” with you. What do you think it is about your performance that leads to those strong reactions? If I knew that, I would try to mass produce it. I’m a vocal teacher as well, and the thing I tell all my students is, if I wanted to just hear a pretty voice I would listen to a CD. You have to make it personal so that people want to get out of bed, get dressed, get in the car, spend the gas money, buy a ticket and then at the end, be willing to do it all over. Leading up to high school, everything was really on a gut feeling, and feeling the audience’s energy, and when I went to theater school everything became very technical. I think I finally reached a place where I’ve been able to marry those two concepts.

A lot of people think of musical theater as over-the-top, jazz hands, all that. But do you also sing rock or pop music? When I was growing up I was training in opera and musical theater and contemporary stuff. I grew up listening to the Pixies. My favorite to sing though is folk music. I started a band with Graham Sobelman [the brains behind Graham-a-Rama] called Nanogram. I’d call it piano-based folk, and we’re currently trying to record an EP. The last year has been great because I’ve been able to just work doing theater and singing lessons. This is a new experience for me, and I hope to continue it as long as people want to come see me.

See Nanci perform:

  • Tick, Tick…BOOM! Through Feb. 13
  • It’s Only Life, a revue of the music of John Bucchino (presented by New Helvetia), March 1 at the Crest
  • As “Nanogram” at Graham-a-Rama, March 14

Watch: Nanci at Graham-a-Rama, performing “It Goes Like It Goes,” from the movie Norma Rae

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4 Comments

  1. Bobby Zoppi said,

    That’s my girl! Great interview sweetie…Love you. Dad

  2. Martha Kight said,

    Nanci Zoppi is one of the mot amazing singers and actors I have ever known or had the honor to work with. She has a freedom that is rare and astonishing… She is also hilarious, and as humble a human as exists.
    Anytime there is an opportunity to see or hear her, (or be lucky enough to work with her!) it should be taken!!
    Thanks for posting the “It Goes…” video… it is a personal favorite of mine. :)

  3. Shalom Khodabakhshian said,

    Fantastic. Love you and miss you Nanc. Can’t wait to see you this summer!

  4. Shower Screen said,

    my voice sucks on karaoke that is why i am taking sining lessons now from professionals ‘*:

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