(Photo: Sub/Urban Photography, Makeup/Hair: Alex Rivera)
Meet Tatiana Wechsler! She’s a talented, charismatic actress who commands the stage with great personality, and melds into her roles with naturalistic charm and grace, a megawatt smile, and a lovely voice! I recently discovered her at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, where she’s currently performing as Ruthie in Benny & Joon, a heartwarming musical based on the 1993 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film.
Start here if you missed my photo recap, critical review, and cast interviews from the opening night cast party.
Prior to Paper Mill, she played the first female Curly in an LGBTQ2+ gender-inclusive cast of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Bill Rauch’s 75th-Anniversary production that spotlighted same-sex lead couples.
Born in New York City and raised in Atlanta, Tatiana was exposed to a broad mix of culture and arts through her parents of African and Jewish descent, and enjoyed an expressive childhood full of music, dance, and cuisine of each culture.
At age 11, she fell in love with musical theater after performing in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at The Fabulous Fox Theatre in downtown Atlanta. She moved to NYC to pursue her dream where she studied musical theatre at the New Studio on Broadway in the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, class of 2014.
Between her creative courses and various roles as an undergrad, she worked as an usher for the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, and performed at RCMH for a handful of events such as singing in a medley to mark her college graduation ceremony. “There’s no feeling like stepping onto that stage with a full audience,” she told me about performing there.
In the five years since graduation, she’s mastered many regional theater and off-Broadway roles across America such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, the Theatre at St. Clement’s, Joe’s Pub, 54 Below, Yankee Stadium, Birdland, The Beacon Theatre, Madison Square Garden, Town Hall, The Minskoff Theatre, and Radio City Music Hall.
She brings it all to the stage, as well as in interviews. Check her out!
(Above: Benny & Joon at Paper Mill Playhouse; Claybourne Elder as Benny and Tatiana Wechsler as Ruthie; photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade)
Rockette Jenn: You’re currently playing the role of Ruthie in Paper Mill Playhouse’s “Benny & Joon,” a musical based on the 1993 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film starring Johhny Depp, Mary Stuart Masterson, Aidan Quinn, and Julianne Moore who played your character, Ruthie, Benny’s love interest. Her backstory involves her working as a waitress in her Oregon hometown after moving back from Hollywood as a B-list horror movie actress. Do you have any similarities or differences to her? And do you enjoying playing the character?
Tatiana: There are core truths about who we are as people that Ruthie and I share: I think we’re both always seeking meaningful connections and strive to see the good in others. We both care about our families, we love the arts, and we both can be scaredy-cats, as Ruthie sings in the show. There are some factual similarities: Ruthie and I are both actors—although Ruthie has stopped acting. And some factual differences: Ruthie has been divorced; and I’ve been a cater waiter in the past, but never a waitress.
Ruthie also has a beautiful quality of allowing her dreams to change. I don’t think she regrets her acting career but also has no qualms about putting that behind her, whereas I am fairly stubborn and unmovable about certain goals. I love playing Ruthie—it’s great to play a character who is so human and grounded and seeking to spread love and light.
Rockette Jenn: In the musical, your relationship with Benny creates an interracial couple. Was that a topic of discussion with the director?
Tatiana: It didn’t come up very often in the rehearsal process, but I know the creative team was specifically seeking an actress of color for the role of Ruthie, (however, I don’t believe they were necessarily seeking a white actor to play Benny, so I don’t think they were specifically attempting to represent an interracial relationship between Benny and Ruthie.)
I did bring it up one day in rehearsal: in one scene, Ruthie quotes Langston Hughes and Benny responds by rapping Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. To me, that moment represents their cultural differences in two ways: not only is Ruthie quoting a poem—with poetry not being Benny’s strong suit— but she’s also quoting a very well-known black poem. And Benny tries as best as he can to show that he can connect, even if the cultural references don’t quite line up. It’s a subtle moment, but means a lot to me. I also enjoy that an interracial relationship is being portrayed without race being at the center of the story – having stories that represent both are very important.
Rockette Jenn: Last year, you broke new ground by starring in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Bill Rauch’s 75th-Anniversary production that spotlighted same-sex lead couples and other LGBTQ2+ gender-inclusive casting, such as you as the first female Curly, an Oklahoma cowhand from the early 20th century. What are your thoughts about inclusion and diversity on stage, and how important is it to modernize or push boundaries?
Tatiana: I was the first woman to play Curly, and it was very monumental to me. Representation is extremely important for me, and this production represented all kinds of love across all genders and races. Throughout the run I received so many beautiful messages from queer people of all ages, which really moved me and allowed me to see that we were really having an impact on the audience. There were older queer folks who never thought they’d be able to see themselves in this material that they’d known their whole lives, and so many young queer kids who felt so empowered by seeing themselves represented in the most “traditional” of pieces, and the fact that they were able to experience that at their young age means that they will be able to see the world as this beautiful inclusive possibility that the production created.
Inclusion and diversity are absolutely crucial at all levels – not only for who’s cast in a show, but for who’s on the creative team, producing, running theatre companies, in the audiences, in the stories that are being told, etc. Oklahoma as written has racist and sexist bones to it, as will almost anything that is being revived, and I think it’s crucial to examine why it’s important to bring a piece of work to modern audiences, and to have a strong viewpoint on it while doing so. What we put on stage impacts not just the culture but how people will see themselves, and I think it’s of the utmost importance to be really conscious about our artistic choices, while always striving to be as inclusive as possible.
Rockette Jenn: You have a beautiful voice, which we heard in Benny & Joon. You showed-off a sweet flexible soprano in your Act I “Dinner and a Movie” duet with Benny, and a lovely deeper lyric color in your Act II “You Meet a Man” solo. On music-making, who are your idols, and which artists do you look to for inspiration?
Tatiana: I have a very wide range of musical influences. I am of African (Congo) and Jewish background, so music from those cultures have been very influential for me. Golden Age musical theatre music, and really all musical theatre music, is also a huge influence. I grew up loving The Beatles and 60s rock, Motown, R&B from the 70s, Jazz and jazz standards, rap, singer-songwriter, and on. Gene Kelly (and Judy Garland and other stars from that time) was a big influence. Some of my favorites, current and not, include Sondheim, Stevie Wonder, Lin Manuel-Miranda, Sara Bareilles, Janelle Monae, Ella Fitzgerald, Chance the Rapper, Glen Hansard, Corinne Bailey Rae, Beyoncé, Gregory Porter, and many, many more! I really connect with current artists who write their own material and might be considered to cross genres.
Rockette Jenn: What’s your dream role?
Tatiana: I was fortunate enough to play some of my dream musical theatre roles in college and would love to do any of them professionally at some point (Sarah in Ragtime, Passing Strange, Sweeney Todd, Company). However, I’ve found that I really love working on original material, be it plays or musicals. My dream would be to originate something completely new.