From second-runner up in the seventh season of “American Idol” to the lead role in the national tour of “Dreamgirls,” 23-year-old Syesha Mercado is, herself, living a dream. Yet the down-to-earth actress and singer doesn’t take her meteoric success for granted: Taking the stage every night is hard work, and the reality show’s rigorous schedule helped prepare her for the challenges to come. Mercado spoke recently with Between The Lines about her passion for her work, and why “Dreamgirls” still generates such excitement nearly 30 years after its debut on Broadway.
The last two-and-a-half years have been quite a ride for you. In 2008, you were the only woman in the final three of “American Idol” – which was ultimately won by David Cook – and for the last year you’ve been playing the lead role of Deena Jones in the national tour of “Dreamgirls.” How often have you pinched yourself to make sure it’s not all been a dream?
SYESHA: Yes, it has. I’ve been sooooo busy (laughs). “Idol” was definitely a roller coaster ride, and I haven’t taken a vacation since. I’ve learned show business requires a lot of sacrifice.
I’ve had moments where I look back and realize that what I’m doing is exactly what I’ve desired since I was a little girl. I am definitely living my dream.
You have a background in R&B and soul. But Simon Cowell, I believe, once said on “Idol” that your voice was more suited to Broadway. Did you agree with him then? And given what’s happened since, was he right?
(Laughs) My voice has many textures, and depending on what project I’m working on – my album, a ballad, a fierce uptempo track, or Broadway songs – my voice calls for a different texture. So, really, Mr. Cowell, my voice is suited for singing! (Laughs)
What did you learn from your experiences on “Idol” that helped make the transition to “Dreamgirls” easier than it otherwise might have been?
“Idol”‘s rigorous schedule really helped “discipline me” – and I learned early on what it took outside of being on the stage to be ready and healthy to perform.
The rehearsal process for “Dreamgirls” was my biggest challenge. I’d been away from theater for years and forgot how tedious learning so much material in a short amount of time could be. But having gone through “Idol,” I was reminded that being persistent and dedicated early on always pays off, and things just got easier from then on. The more you work at something, the easier it gets.
I spent all my free time, like I did on “Idol,” rehearsing and going over my dance steps.
Although you studied theater in a Florida high school (from which you graduated in 2005), “Dreamgirls” is your first major professional job, isn’t it? And better yet, you scored the lead role. Looking back, did you on your graduation day ever expect to have this type of success so quickly?
Anything you do in life takes hard work, discipline and perseverance. I’ve been working professionally since I graduated high school, but my first professional Broadway show was “Dreamgirls.”
Since I was a little girl I always dreamed of doing a Broadway show, and the older I got the more I dreamed of starring in films and television. I always knew the success would come – and I always dreamed big.
How did the “Dreamgirls” gig come about? Did you audition specifically for the role of Deena?
I found out about the tour for “Dreamgirls” while I was on the “Idol’s Live Tour.” My agent told me about the part, and when the tour wrapped up I was so busy recording I decided not to audition in L.A. so I would have more time to prepare my sides. I ended up flying to New York to audition, and after six months of a long and rigorous process of callbacks, I was in front of Radio City Hall when I got the call from my agent that I got the part.
I made a scene that day! (Laughs)
Were you already familiar with the show?
I was familiar with two songs from the show: “When I First Saw You” and “And I Am Telling You.” I would sing these songs all the time in high school.
When I was in elementary school, I found my mom’s libretto of “Dreamgirls” in the closet. I pulled it out and asked her, “What is this?” She then told me her stories about auditioning for the original Broadway production of “Dreamgirls.” My mom had the pipes back in her day and still does, but like she tells me now, she was a size two back then… (Laughs)
She told me it was an amazing experience for her, and I remember that moment being my introduction to “Dreamgirls.”
Had you seen it on Broadway or on tour?
I’ve yet to see a staged production of “Dreamgirls.” But I saw the film and I was very impressed with Jennifer Hudson’s portrayal of Effie. Her performance of “And I Am Telling You” moved me to tears. Everyone in the theater gave her a standing ovation. And having met her before in person and knowing how humble and nice she is, she deserved the Oscar.
“Dreamgirls” opened in the early 1960s, 25 years before you were born. Based on your own experiences in the industry, what have you learned about the history of the music industry that surprised you?
It’s really crazy how art imitates life. Lots of the struggles that are throughout the musical “Dreamgirls” are still situations that our society deals with now.
For instance, the sound of R&B has changed drastically and a lot of R&B singers are doing more pop-appealing records now for the sake of getting their music to a larger audience.
Can you relate to Deena and the Dreams – given how much society has changed over the decades?
I can definitely relate to Deena and the Dreams. It’s the story of finding one’s self, realizing the importance of family, and seeing the ups and downs of show business. It’s not all about the glitz and glam. A lot has changed, but a lot is still the same.
The original production of “Dreamgirls” opened in December 1981 and won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It has since been revived several times. In your opinion, what is it about the musical that continues to appeal to audiences?
The score. When people come to see “Dreamgirls,” it’s like they are coming to see a live concert.
The story is rooted in the songs and even though this is a new production, our creative team really made sure they paid their homage to the original, while sprinkling contemporary appeal here and there.
It continues to appeal to audiences because it tells a thought-provoking story where you don’t have to be in the music industry to understand a cultures’ struggle and desire to fulfill their dreams.
This new production has differences from the original and the movie, but because the messages are so strong, they transcend time. Everyone has a dream!
I understand the tour is about to come to an end. What’s next for you? What dream is still out there for you to achieve?
Film and television is next. Acting has always been a passion of mine, and I’ve always dreamed of starring in movies. And, of course, my debut album.
Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Through Dec. 26. $20-$72. 1-800-745-3000. http://www.olympiaentertainment.com