Summer Rognlie remembers MADDIE 'the little engine that could'
Stage Door Records to release the 20th Anniversary
edition of the cast album starring Summer!
One of the first questions I am always asked when someone learns of my life on the stage is, “what was your favorite role or show?” Without hesitation, I have always said "Maddie;" first at the Salisbury Playhouse and then on the West End. It was a magical production with a brilliant artistic team that had more heart than any other production I've ever been a part of. It was a dream come true to play the roles of Jan and Maddie in a brand new musical, never before produced!
Even at the beginning, we all knew we were a part of something very special; a complete joining of creatives in a collaborative labor of love. It was all very exciting and new. How thrilling to receive script and musical changes on the very day of a performance!
Maddie was my first audition upon arriving in London, where I had just moved only two weeks prior. I remember hearing the breakdown and thinking, "this feels very right." I was from San Francisco, where the show took place. Beyond that, there was just this strange sense of knowing the fit was perfect. Like a puzzle piece, all of us landing here in the right place at the right time. I remember being led to a grand piano by Stephen Keeling, the composer, during callbacks, to try little snippets from the show. The more I heard, the more I loved, and the more “right” everything felt.
I remember, as opening night approached, the realization of the responsibility resting on my shoulders kicked in. Nerves were starting to get the best of me and I started panicking, thinking “what if I forget the lyrics?” “what if I can’t make that costume change?” Stephen's advice was to take each scene, each song, step by step. Always be in the moment; don't look ahead at the whole picture, or it will overwhelm you. It was the best advice I could have ever received, and it got me through not only that opening night, but through many others throughout my career.
One thing that was so organic about the initial production was the incredible chemistry we all shared, both onstage and off. There is something to be said for that. As an actor, you can fake it, but something will always be missing. With Maddie, at Salisbury playhouse, we didn’t have to fake anything. We loved and adored each other both on and off the stage. I’ll never forget having a conversation with Kevin Colson after one less-than-perfect performance where the connections didn’t seem to quite gel. He said, “it is always important to remember to connect through the eyes of love on stage; it keeps your performance honest and soft.” I’ve never forgotten that. Wise words that I have often utilized to this day.
Then, there was the thrill of learning of our West End transfer! We had all hoped it would happen; that we could all reunite. When we finally began rehearsals for the West End transfer, so many from the creative team kept telling me to “save my voice,” “don’t sing full out,” “pace yourself.” And I kept wondering, “Why is everyone suddenly so concerned with my losing my voice?” Then, I realized why.
While in Salisbury, there was one performance where I had completely lost my voice by the second half of the show. I remember it was an important night because Cameron Mackintosh was in the audience (thankfully only for the first half). What nobody realized was how sick Mark McGann and I were. We were both on antibiotics; him with a chest infection and me with a nasty ear infection. In fact, the infection was so bad, I couldn’t hear proper tones, neither in the music accompaniment nor in my voice. Everything sounded either sharp or flat, and I had to rely on muscle memory to sing because I couldn’t hear the correct notes. The night Cameron came, I had just started the antibiotics, and by the second half of the show, NOTHING was squeaking out. I had to speak-sing the rest of the show—it was horrifying!
I’ll never forget when we were about to start public previews for Maddie on the West End. It had become a technical challenge, to say the least; there were so many more complicated levels to the West End’s production. We hadn’t finished tech rehearsals for the show, and an audience was due in that night. I was going to have to go out on stage blind for the second half of the show with no idea of what would happen. I remember knowing the tech wasn’t ready to be shown to an audience. There was so much buzz and hype surrounding the opening, and all I could think was that if we went on before we were ready, it would be a disaster! This show meant too much to all of us for that to happen. The entire creative team gathered in Graham Bickley’s dressing room to decide what to do. I remember I was just sobbing, devastated at the thought of performing in front of an audience without being ready. But canceling a preview would have had its own repercussions. So very much at stake. I remember our director, Martin Conner, with such a calm presence in the room while we formulated what to do. He listened and quietly contemplated the best course of action. We all sat there in silence, waiting, until Martin nodded his head and stood up—and that was that.
We decided to cancel the preview and finish the tech rehearsal that evening instead. It was all very emotional and dramatic, but I think everyone was secretly relieved that we waited. When we did open for previews the next evening and the show went well, the producer, Kenny Wax said, “see, it would have all been fine!” I replied, “it was fine BECAUSE we canceled and finished the tech for the show.” I love that we all stood together when making that very tough decision. We were all so invested, both in each other and in the show’s success. That deep support and admiration we felt for each other is something I’ll never forget.
Maddie was a project of pure love, “The Little Engine that Could”. Truly something that will stay with me forever. Maddie is and always will be one of my greatest accomplishments and experiences of all my days in theatre.