It’s only fitting that Brian Russell would be responsible for bringing Analisa Leaming back to a stage in Murfreesboro.
Leaming, a 2002 graduate of Riverdale High School and a Broadway performer, is in town to perform at Friday night’s concert benefiting the Ethos Youth Ensembles. Ethos is a nonprofit youth music organization that serves students in grades 2-12 including four youth orchestras, a jazz ensemble and children’s choir.
More than 100 students from Rutherford County Schools participate in Ethos.
“It’s a huge honor,” Leaming said of her featured performance in the annual fundraiser. “I haven’t gotten to come home and perform yet.”
Leaming moved to New York in 2009, where she has performed in several Broadway productions. She will begin rehearsals in two weeks for Hello Dolly, which stars Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce.
Leaming’s senior year in high school was Russell’s first and only year of teaching at Riverdale. He’s now the choir director at Stewarts Creek High School and the executive director for Ethos. Russell earned his master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, which is where Leaming finished her undergrad studies after attending the University of Memphis for two years.
On Thursday morning, Leaming held a pair of master classes for students at Stewarts Creek.
She sang a six-song mini-recital and then, in another of Russell’s classes, a couple of his current students sang for Leaming. She spent about 20 minutes working with each of them individually.
Friday’s benefit is at 7 p.m. and takes place at the Wright Music Building on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University. Tickets are $35 for adults, $10 for students and are available at the door or www.ethosmusic.net.
Leaming recently spoke with Rutherford County Schools about here experiences since graduating from Riverdale.
How often do you get back to Murfreesboro?
Not enough. Maybe once a year. … It always depends what show I’m doing and when I can get away. I try as much as I can, but my parents are also very supportive and come to New York.
Speaking of shows, tell me a little bit about the show you have coming up this spring.
This spring will be Hello Dolly. It’s the first time it’s been revived on Broadway and it’s starring Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce. I’m going to be in the ensemble and I’m going to understudy being one of the principal roles. And, yeah, I start rehearsals in two weeks.
At what point did you first say, ‘I want to be on Broadway?’
(Laughs) Well, I don’t know, but I do have a vivid memory in high school, no middle school. I was at Bellwood Middle School and my eighth-grade teacher wrote in my yearbook, it was something like, ‘Looking forward to seeing you in Hollywood some day.’ I said, ‘Oh, would you please cross that out and put Broadway.’ (Laughing) I was like 13.
At 13, you knew Broadway and not Hollywood?
Yeah, I wanted to do musicals on the stage.
That’s eighth grade, so fast forward, when do you say to yourself, ‘Maybe it can happen?’
I was really lucky at Riverdale (High School), I had two great choir directors that heard promise in my voice so they really encouraged me to audition for the All-State choir and things like that. I would do that and I would always get first chair, which is the highest honor you can get. I also had a voice teacher, in Nashville, that I would drive once a week to see. These people were the ones who were like, ‘You have what it takes,’ so I always went for it.
How do you go from graduating in 2002 to where you are now. What’s the synopsis of that trajectory? What does that look like?
I spent two years at the University of Memphis. They offered me an incredible scholarship that I couldn’t turn down, but then I did end up transferring to a music conservatory in New York. I felt like I needed a little bit more competition and push. Upon graduating from there I just started auditioning and I got a tour of The Sound of Music that actually went to China.
How was that?
It was crazy. It was an amazing experience and that’s when I got my travel bug because you get your first taste of seeing a different part of the world. And getting paid to travel the world. Immediately after that I did a national tour in the U.S. of Annie. Both of those were pretty big things that I booked very quickly upon graduating. I was like, OK, I’m going to have a good run at this, I think, so I moved to New York City and got an apartment.
I’ve had ups and downs. Actually, the first Broadway show I booked got canceled the night before rehearsals were supposed to start. Completely canceled, so I’ve definitely had some downs and, as they say, I’ve had a lot of rejection. As many shows as I’ve booked, I’ve not booked like five times that number. I’ve waited tables in New York City. I’ve nannied. I’ve done all sorts of things, but two years ago now I began rehearsals for what became my first Broadway show, which starred Kristin Chenoweth, called On the 20th Century.
As a former freelance writer, people would ask how I dealt with hearing no, I always said, ‘It doesn’t bother me because all you need is one person to say yes.’ You’re focused on listening for the word yes that you don’t even really hear people say no.
Yeah, I think it’s definitely that. You keep going to auditions. You keep singing for people and hoping that’s what you’ll hear, and then other days you keep finding other creative outlets because if you don’t, your soul will die. You find something to keep you going and you keep those people close to you — those teachers, those mentors, those directors that really believe in you — and I feel like their belief has often fueled me through a lot of my dark times.
When you can survive in a city like New York for seven years, that’s home. You’re always going to survive.
It’s home. Definitely.
In closing, Brian Russell has been something of a mentor and has had a big influence on your professional career. Did you have the courage to pursue this career and he gave you confidence? Or did you have the confidence and he provided the courage?
Oh gosh. I would definitely say he contributed to my confidence. ‘Yes, you can absolutely go to school there.’ ‘You should absolutely do this.’ He was definitely one of those people, for sure.
Then where does the courageousness come from? It takes courage to move to New York City.
My mom. She’s the fiercest, most creative woman I know. She’s always instilled in me at a very young age, ‘You can do whatever you want to do’ and I’ve followed that my whole life.