In 1987, Debbie Gibson was thrust into the spotlight when she became a teen singing sensation with a string of pop hits—“Only in My Dreams,” “Shake Your Love,” “Out of the Blue” and “Lost in Your Eyes”—many of them written by her. Along with Tiffany and New Kids on the Block, she was the generation of teen pop stars that preceded Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and N’Sync by about a decade.
When the pop stardom faded out, Gibson never stopped working. She transitioned into a stage actress, appearing on Broadway, the West End and numerous regional productions and national tours. The roles included Sally Bowles in Cabaret, Rizzo in Grease, Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, Belle in Beauty in the Beast and Velma Kelly in Chicago.
Now she’s doing something that takes her back to songwriting and composing. She composed two songs that will be premiered in the national tour of Cirque Musica, which kicks off this weekend at Dr. Pepper Arena in Frisco. The tour has more than 20 dates around the country.
Cirque Musica is the brainchild of North Texas resident Steve Cook, who started producing this show with symphony orchestras several years ago (both the Dallas and Fort Worth symphonys have done it). This version is an arena show, performed with a full orchestra and aerialists, acrobats, daredevils and other performers happening in, around and above the musicians.
Conducted by Christopher Wells, the show also features up-and-coming vocalist Ali Isabella, several guest musicians, Denton-based violinist Veronica Gan and a collection of circus performers from around the world, including the Wallenda Highwire Duo and the España Family. The ringleader is renowned clown David Larible, who has performed with Ringling Bros. and other organizations.
The music, for the most part, is the greatest hits of classical music, from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee to Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major to Holst’s The Planets. In addition to original music by Gibson, Academy Award-nominated composer Marcelo Zarvos also contributes.
Ms. Gibson, who has sometimes been called Deborah in her post teen-pop years, but who introduced herself in our phone conversation as Debbie, took some time to talk about the music she wrote for Cirque Musica, her career as a singer and an actress, and her hopes for the future. I had to ask her about the famous production of Gypsy, in which she played Louise to Fort Worth resident Betty Buckley’s Mama Rose at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
At the bottom of the interview is a video of one circus act that was performed at a press conference in Frisco.
TheaterJones: How did you become involved with Cirque Musica?
Debbie Gibson: I had worked with [producer] Steve Cook, and was doing an ‘80s-themed symphony with [1983 Star Search winner] Sam Harris. I connected back through Dallas on a flight, and Steve Cook was on the flight. I told him that “obviously I love performing, but to me, my forte has always been composing, and if you ever need music, just let me know. I’d love to do more of that.”
And he said “we need two songs for this show.” He described it, and I immediately started to get an idea based on his description of the aerial act, on the plane, and ran back to his row and sang it to him. It’s called “Birdsong.”
When did your interest in composing begin, and do you transcribe music?
I grew up with huge orchestras, I sang at the Metropolitan Opera as a kid in the children’s chorus, and I’ve always had this fantasy of conducting. I love orchestrations and I’ve had live strings on many of my albums.
When I first started, it would have my [Yamaha] DX7 sequencer organ in the garage. My favorite thing was strings. I always came up with these string lines, which you end up hearing on my records. When I had the opportunity I worked with Paul Buckmaster and Tony Visconti; Paul worked with Elton John for years, who is an idol of mine. I was familiar with their orchestrations.
I can transcribe music, and I do, but I’m not the one to say “the piccolo is going to play exactly this.” I’ve worked with David Andrews Rogers; I did a tribute to Kander and Ebb with him at Carnegie Hall. I gave whatever ideas for various parts and lines that I had, and he took that and created what you’ll hear in the show. It’s amazing to work with someone who you feel is reading your mind and seeing your vision to fruition. It’s just gorgeous.
His forte is writing up all the parts.
[This audio clip is what she says next, including singing out a melody that Rogers helped her with]
Because music is written differently depending on the kind of performance, did you think in terms of writing something like ballet music, since the aerial act is basically a dance in the air?
I immediately heard a waltz. Steve said “I want something that talks about flying,” and I don’t think he envisioned a whole story, but it is. It’s really about someone who’s lost their belief in themselves. It’s called “Birdsong,” and you can say it’s about a literal bird, or about any of us who feel beaten down by the world and who’ve forgot along the way that we all can fly. It’s all about that [moment of] knowing you can fly; that’s when you take the leap and fly. I knew I wanted to impart something deeper and more moving. Because I come from theater, I wanted a story that travels. I want people to leave with something that moves them.
The other song is called “Be the Music.” I feel like the show is epic, and I wanted something that feels global because you’ve got performers from around the world. It kind of has a Bollywood type feel, or something that Shakira would record. That’s going to be with all the acts, closing the show.
The Cirque du Soleil shows have such a distinctive, world music sound. Did any of that influence you?
I see a lot of the Cirque shows and I purposely didn’t want to go with that sound, I wanted something unique. I think the Cirque du Soleil shows are more stylized, and these acts are going to be more crisp and in-your-face and up front, and there’s room for the symphony. They are part of the act.
Do you think this show will crossover between symphony and circus fans?
Yes. If there’s a classical music fan in the family, there’s something for them. And if there’s someone who feels the symphony is too artsy, there will be spectacle for them.
The singer is Ali Isabella, she has a new and growing fan base. Many of these shows have the same sound, where the singer sounds kind of Middle Eastern or French. This is an American production and it’s a young American girl who reminds me very much of me when I was starting out, and I thought that would be a nice full-circle, passing-of-the-torch moment.
Talk about that transition from being a teen pop star and then moving into theater and the performing arts, which was your first love. You’ve played so many great roles, from Rizzo to Sally Bowles.
It’s funny because people who started in pop music, say five to 10 years ago, they’re able to continue the trend in pop music; there’s been no big backlash. But when I started, there were like five years where it was me and Tiffany and New Kids, and it was all pop-pop-pop. Then Seattle grunge and Nirvana came in, and people hated pop with a vengeance. It was the weirdest thing.
For me, I had auditioned for Les Mis when I was 15, and had it on my wish list to go back to, so for me, that break in the pop momentum ended up being the biggest blessing, and I was able to say “let’s revisit this.” I was performing “On My Own” as a pop song in concert. That was the start of what became 17/18 years of Broadway, West End and national tours. I did Cinderella with Eartha Kitt and Gypsy with Betty Buckley; I got to check off some dream roles.
You know Betty is a local gal, and performs here every once in awhile; she just did her Vixens of Broadway concert in town.
That’s right, I forgot that!
You were in that 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse production of Gypsy with her. You played Louise. That was the one famously derided by Arthur Laurents, who didn’t like her take on Mama Rose.
Yeah. It’s so far gone now I can talk about it. What I heard is that, apparently Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim cornered her in her dressing room, and said “Mama Rose would never cry.” Betty’s performance was—and I’m saying this as I’m looking at this Cirque information about the high wire act—she walked the high wire every night. It was riveting to be on stage with her, and to see her crying and belting at the same time. It was the all this mixed emotion that probably every stage mother has; this desperation for her kid, her own dreams that weren’t realized. It was “we are not going to fail,” meaning “I am not going to fail and neither are you.” To me that does warrant tears if the tears come from the particular person playing the role.
We had like a two-month run. I was so proud to be a part of that production. I would not have traded that for a two-year run on Broadway and a Tony. I felt like we had such a special production that was allowed to be unique because it wasn’t being overseen by the people who oversaw every [major Broadway] production.
You had to grow up fast as a teen star. If you had kids, would you be one of those Mama Rose-like stage mothers?
I have so changed my views on things. I grew up in that Italian family where the mothers were like “I gave you life and I can take it away,” all very dramatic. I feel like if it would be my job to usher somebody in the world, it’s my job to support and nurture. I ran this summer camp for kids called Camp Electric Youth, and there were several reality [show production] companies interested in it, and they would come and shoot. Let’s say a little girl was writing a song about her boyfriend who just broke with her and started to cry, I’d be like “turn the cameras off.” I was more protective of the child than the commodity and selling a product.
I think a lot of stage mothers put their show before the kid, and that’s horrible. My mother managed for me for years. I think that in every mother who wants to see her kids succeed in show business, there’s a little Mama Rose. There’s a little stage mother. My mom was fearless, so she’d give me a little nudge in the right direction, but she’d never push or make me do anything I didn’t want to do. Mothers are great at giving that little nudge.
What do you hope for your future in composing, and you mentioned your dream is to conduct?
I wrote a musical called The Flunky with Jimmy Van Patten. I joke that Cyndi [Lauper] beat me to winning a Tony in the composing department [for Kinky Boots]; I’ve worked with her and I love that because she’s the real deal and I love that she’s having this chapter in her career. I definitely see that for me, in terms of theater.
Every time I see a film and I love the score, it’s one by Thomas Newman. I would love to trail Thomas when he’s working; that would be the best way to learn.
I don’t think I’ll stop performing, but I love it when it’s not the bread and butter. I think at some point I’ll want to sit still and learn a new skill. And I was recently approached about being a producer on a show that combines the pop music world and the symphony world, so something is definitely brewing in that area for me.
I always think of the music when I’m writing songs. It comes complete to me; I hear arrangements in my head. I think it would be amazing to lead a symphony with your energy. Conductors joke that they just wave a stick, but that’s far from the truth. It’s almost spiritual. I think it’s an amazing unsung art form that doesn’t get as much credit as it should.
I could also see doing something with kids in classical music, so who knows. That’s definitely a chapter in the future for me.
Below is a video shot at a recent press event in Frisco. It features Darren Bersuk, vertical pole artist in Cirque Musica; and Denton-based violinist Veronica Gan, who performs the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major while suspended in air.