There’s a cute beginning to this story, and it goes like this: The Wicked Witch met the Pageant Queen, tossed a few compliments, triggered some tears, toughened her up and sent her off to win the highest crown in the land.
If we embraced storybook tales, this would be true.
On a recent afternoon in downtown Buffalo, with sunrays splashing into the narrow walkway that separates Shea’s Performing Arts Center and Alleyway Theatre, the green witch and the crowned queen did indeed meet.
The actress Jessica Vosk, who is in town playing Elphaba in the musical “Wicked” at Shea’s, met Gabrielle Walter, who was then Miss Western New York, and was days away from the statewide Miss New York pageant.
Vosk and Walter worked together closely, and yes, there were tears and toughening. There was a grand victory, too, one that will have Walter competing for the Miss America crown this September.
But before we venture further, let’s dispense with the stereotypes: Yes, Walter is a “beauty queen.” She also is a third-year law student at the University at Buffalo and will focus during internships this summer and fall on developing her skill set as a litigator.
And yes, Vosk plays a witch, which clearly is acting, and despite our talk of tears, she’s not a claws-out coach. To Vosk, who left a plum Wall Street job in her mid-20s to take a shot at Broadway, burrowing into the emotion of a song is the only way to perform it.
Otherwise, you’re just singing it.
Vosk took this solely soulful approach with Walter on a recent afternoon inside the airy lobby of the Alleyway Theatre, which is adjacent to Shea’s. They were there to work on Walter’s delivery of “All I Ask of You,” the love song from “Phantom of the Opera” and Walter’s talent performance for the Miss New York pageant.
At first, the pair was as contrasting as their stereotypes suggest.
Walter, standing erect in a sleek, conservative blue dress, sang and hit all her notes.
Vosk, wearing a metallic purple baseball cap, sat with a hunch, her elbows digging into the open knees of her ripped blue jeans, chin in her hand, her wicked-witch manicured nails glowing like minty green Chiclets.
Walter finished a run through of the song with spot-on pitch. She pointed her saucer eyes at Vosk, expecting…
Probably not this.
“Tuck those buns,” Vosk said. (Reason: Squeezing your rear muscles supports high notes, “like threading a needle,” Vosk said.)
Then came more: Vosk pushed Walter to connect to the song — to live it, feel it, perform it — and not just sing it. In the process, Walter cried.
She chased Vosk around the lobby. She became real.
The connection was made through the Buffalo-based brand consultant Kathleen Neville, a friend of Walter’s mother. Neville has been mentoring Walter, who is 24 and has been competing in pageants since high school.
As a senior at Williamsville East, she won the New York state title for the Distinguished Young Women scholarship program. She began competing in the state-level Miss America program as an undergrad at Canisius College, and she continued during law school at the University at Buffalo.
Among Neville’s goals for Walter was to work on her “talent” performance, which is one of the areas in which the contestants compete. (The others are swimsuit, evening gown, and interview.) Neville contacted Vosk’s agent, booked a one-on-one session, and brought in the pianist Ken Kaufman – who is best known in Western New York as a jingle writer – as the accompanist.
Walter is a self-professed type A personality. She’s obsessed with getting things right. So is Vosk. This makes sense for a soon-to-be lawyer and a onetime-Wall Street director.
“I’m with you,” Vosk told Walter. “The beauty is in the imperfection of this type of stuff, which is terrible for people who are perfectionists like you and me. But this is the 100-percent safe space. The thinker in you is going to be on overdrive right now. That’s fine. The thinker in me appreciates the thinker in you. Just wade through the discomfort.”
For a while during the session, Walter was soaked in it. After a few vocal run-throughs, Vosk asked her to simply speak the lyrics. Vosk was singing an abridged, 90-second version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber song. As commanded, she read it through, landing on the final lines: “Anywhere you go, let me go to. Love me, that's all I ask of you.”
“How sweet is that?” said Vosk, calling the song “a love letter.
"There is something very sweet and simple about it. Adding too much else onto that is ruining the cake.”
Vosk wanted to strip out any urge Walter had to gesture (too much), close her eyes (too often) or stare solemnly into the distance (too fake). She wanted her to feel the song, to live through it. She pulled up a chair and asked Walter to sit.
“Can you find a moment of your life that you can use in this song?” asked Vosk, who had many of her own. She is 33, and she’s had plenty of break-ups and heartbreaks.
Walter, who is 10 years younger, hasn’t had those. Or wasn’t saying.
“Mine would probably be writing to my friends,” Walter said. “I’ll discuss or talk about who we thought was super cute or wanted to go to prom with, that type of thing. I haven’t really… yeah.”
As her voice trailed, Vosk jumped in: “That’s cool. For the purposes of this, I’m going to be one of the friends you’re talking to. This is the pre-prom talk. You sing this to me.”
Walter has wide, ocean-blue saucer eyes. They are big. They grew bigger.
“Oh, I’m going to sing this as we’re sitting here?” she said. “Oh! Okay…”
“You’ve got to get uncomfortable before you get comfortable with the song,” Vosk said.
Walter didn’t realize it yet, but Vosk was honing in on the tiniest of perfection-driven details that Walter held dear. Gently but unrelentingly, Vosk was pushing Walter to trade perfection for feeling.
Walter began to sing: “Say you’ll love m—”
She didn’t even finish “me” before Vosk stopped her and told her not to worry about hitting every note.
“Now is the time to go flat, crack,” Vosk said. “Get really in touch with an emotion that is happening. You can laugh or cry.”
Walter started again: “Say you’ll love me every waking moment. Turn my head with talk of—”
The next word is “summertime,” but Walter didn’t get there. She stopped.
“I can’t do this,” she said, “because I’m so focused on getting the notes right.”
Those ocean eyes were fighting tears.
“I know,” Vosk said. “It’s so uncomfortable to do. And we will totally get the notes right, I promise you. But, I want to live it once.”
Vosk calls this the “gray space,” the place where a singer feels uncomfortable with a song before she performs it. It’s a gray area that she, too, willingly enters. In New York, Vosk has taken Acting Through Song classes with the Tony-winning composer Craig Carnelia, and ended up in tears – and with a redefined song – every time.
“God, it’s like therapy,” said Vosk, who was delivering her own version of that therapy to Walter.
Till this moment, Walter has been hitting nearly every note, a tribute to her own singing abilities and her intense training with a vocal coach. But on a Broadway, or in a high-end pageant, most singers will nail most of the notes most of the time. The elevation is rooted in emotion, and Vosk was weeding around for feeling.
“I’m frustrated with myself,” said Walter. She had stopped fighting the tears.
“You know what? I get frustrated with myself on a daily basis,” Vosk said. She leaned forward.
“The more frustrated you get with yourself now, the less frustrated you’ll be when the moment comes to perform it,” she said, her big-sisterly voice was rebounding on the echoey Alleyway walls. “We’ll go through all of this stuff that you feel strange about and odd about. You sound beautiful on this.”
“Thank you,” Walter said with a thin smile. “I’ve been working really hard on it.”
In this moment, when Vosk seems so in command and in control, it’s difficult to know she wasn’t always this way. She developed a love for music as a little girl in New Jersey; her dad, an executive by day and musician by night, taught her to sing.
But after a brief dalliance with musical theater in college, Vosk switched majors and graduated with a degree in communications from Montclair State University. She got a job as a director with a boutique Wall Street firm, but by age 27, was feeling lost. She missed theater (she hadn’t even been to a musical in three years) and didn’t like her 9-to-5 lifestyle.
So Vosk spent about six months networking with theater professionals at open-mic nights in New York before quitting her Wall Street job and jumping fully into show business. Her first big job was singing at Carnegie Hall, and from there, she landed Broadway roles in “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Finding Neverland” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The whole story sounds poetic, almost fantastical. Vosk acknowledges that it is, but made clear to Walter that she, too, struggled with discomfort. She learned to expect it, and even accept it.
“When I first came out of Wall Street, I had somebody tell me, ‘You better get your act together’ after I walked into an audition room,” Vosk said. “I almost left because I was so angry. That place of nervousness and uncomfortability is so normal. Trust yourself that you can do something beautiful with this.”
Intellectually, Walter got this. Emotionally, it was a roadblock.
“I’m a thinker,” she said, “so I’m thinking about the notes.”
Vosk laughed. “Oh, I know. I’m a thinker too,” she said. “Some nights when I’m singing ‘Defying Gravity’” – Elphaba’s main song in “Wicked,” which she belts from atop a cherrypicker machine that lofts her above the stage – “I have no idea what I’m doing, because I’m thinking about, I can’t even tell you. Last night I was thinking about groceries. It’s amazing what will pass through your brain.”
Reassured, Walter took another spin through the song. But by the end, she was frustrated and teary-eyed. “I still feel like it was rehearsed,” she said.
“You sounded great,” Vosk said, then tried a new tack: girl talk. She positioned herself in the chair squarely across from Walter, sitting almost knee to knee, and gave her a new motivation for the next rendition.
“I want you to convince me that you really feel this way about this guy, because I think he’s a loser,” Vosk said. “I want you to convince me that he’s not. Because you said all these things to him, he must be important, but you need to convince me. I’m going be a negative Nancy.”
This time, as Walter sang, Vosk raised her brows, rolled her eyes, scowled and scoffed, crossed her legs, folded her arms, shook her head. Walter sang all the way through, her voice strong as ever, her demeanor determined in the face of Vosk’s mock display of negative vibes.
“How do you feel?” Vosk asked.
“Good…” Walter answered. But her voice wavered, as if she inserted a question mark at the end of the answer.
“But…?” Vosk said. “That felt damn good to me. It got you out of your head a bit. I could feel that minute of ‘No, I am going to prove you wrong, and this is why.’”
The coaching was working, even if the student wasn’t quite feeling it yet. Next Vosk had Walter rise and sing but with an extra instruction. This time, instead of standing still near Kauffman at the piano, Walter chased Vosk, who was still playing the somber Nancy with somersaulting eyes.
Singing the whole time, but now using her gaze, her steps, her gestures, her vibe, Walter tried to pull Vosk into the song. She tried to convince her that this man she’s singing about – this thing she’s singing for -- is something worth loving.
“This was much better,” Vosk said after a run-through. “Does this feel as uncomfortable as all get-out?”
“Yeah,” Walter nodded. “Yeah!” she repeated. This time, she was adamant.
“Good! Great,” Vosk said. “This is a wonderful place to be.”
They did the routine a couple more times; it resembled a musical game of hide-and-seek (which Vosk has actually played in vocal classes). Each take was increasingly believable: Walter’s spot-on pitch was tinged with passion. Walter still trickled tears, too, but a different kind this time. She was laughing between tears. “I can’t sing when I start to cry,” she said.
“Now tell me something,” Vosk said. “Why did you start to cry?”
“I was trying to put more emotion into it,” Walter said.
“You did,” Vosk said. “It was gorgeous.”
Gorgeous, too, is what happened next. The following weekend in Staten Island, Walter competed in the Miss New York pageant against 30 other women. She promoted her platform, a goal-setting student program called DreamUp America. She wore her evening gown, talked about criminal justice in her interview and won the swimsuit competition.
When it came time to sing, Walter took the stage with a rawness that barely existed just days earlier. She was not, as she likes to call it, “pageant-y.”
“Pageant-y is (when) every time a girl does something, she does the same move,” Walter said. “Her head looks the same way. It’s almost like autopilot. I noticed that this last week.
"Jessica talks about it being different every time. I think that’s what I brought, and it helped the audience connect more.”
It clearly did: She won. On Sunday evening, May 29, Walter was giving a shiny banner and blingy crown and named Miss New York. Next for her is the Miss America pageant in September.
There’s your storybook ending.