From Schaumburg to show business
She’s been an impoverished young woman living through the French Revolution; a mermaid princess looking for a handsome prince; the rebel daughter of a Jewish milkman in Russia. Presently, she’s a young journalist at the heart of the New York newsboy strike of 1899. Above all, she’s a CHS student walking the halls just as you do. And she’s got big dreams.
Senior Michele Gurrieri may only be seventeen years old, but she’s lived a million different lives through the roles that she’s played onstage. Michele has grown up as the definition of a “theater kid,” performing several musicals a year since she was eight years old. Through community and educational theater programs, she’s taken on star roles such as Eponine in “Les Miserables,” Gabriella in “High School Musical 2,” Ariel in “The Little Mermaid,” and most recently, Lady Larkin in Conant’s production of “Once Upon A Mattress.”
For Michele, these years of experience haven’t just created someone who loves theater; they’ve created someone whose life is theater. In fact, she doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon, because she’s got her eyes on even bigger stages.
“I knew I loved theater when I was eight or nine, but I think I really realized it when I started getting older and people started asking me what I was going to do with my future,” she said. “I knew what I wanted to do, I knew that I wanted to be on Broadway. But I was terrified to say that.”
Nowadays, she’s far from terrified. Most of my conversations with Michele have taken place on rides home from school. She’s been eager to answer my questions, and I suppose I could be considered a stepping stone to bigger interviews with bigger platforms; journalism class today, Playbill or Broadway.com tomorrow. After all, if there’s anything I’ve noticed from our conversations, it’s how committed she is to get where she wants to be. I’ve noticed a certain look she gets in her eye as she answers my questions and stares out the passenger seat window, the houses of suburbia flying past in a blur of brown and green. I imagine that she’s not seeing houses, but rather skyscrapers and department stores and theaters. She’s seeing New York.
“I love the feeling of being on stage,” she said. “You know when you’re working on something and you’re so passionate about it that it doesn’t even feel like work? It’s like that. It feels like something that’s just a part of me, and hopefully always will be.”
Michele’s first show was when she was just eight, and it was love at first performance. As show after show went by, Michele’s love for theater and confidence in herself grew. Increased opportunities led to more confidence, more leads, and more chances in the spotlight. Every show meant something new to learn, and she found herself eager to absorb new things that could elevate her performance style. Years of theater flew past; while other kids were thinking about being doctors or teachers, a specific dream began to form in her mind. Every moment on stage encouraged it.
“As I got older, and the more leads and opportunities that I got, I was more able to confidently say, ‘I want to do this,’” she said. “My doubt stemmed from me knowing that I wanted to do it, but not knowing if I was going to be able to. I didn’t know if I had the talent to do it. And then I realized, ‘Hell yeah, I have the talent!’”
Her passions are clear to those around her as well. Going into such a high-risk field, she worries about judgement from people who don’t believe she can make it or from people who feel the need to discourage her when the business itself is discouraging enough. Luckily, Michele’s dreams are met with support and love from the people who really matter.
“I help her memorize her lines, I watch her dance when she wants to show me, I go to all of her performances,” Mia Gurrieri, Michele’s older sister, said. “I do everything I can in order for her to feel that her passions are supported and accepted, because it’s a lot easier to have the confidence to pick this career when you know that there’s always someone supporting you.”
Simply loving theater doesn’t get one to Broadway, a fact that Michele is well aware of. It takes an immense amount of talent, work ethic, and sacrifice to enter such a competitive field. Every week, she spends hours at rehearsal or practicing for roles. Even during school, she’s constantly running through lines in her head or watching Broadway bootlegs as intently as football players watch highlights. No matter what role she has, she strives to make sure the hard work never stops.
“Over the past few years I’ve been with her through the highs and lows of her theater career,” Michele’s boyfriend, Payton Kaye, said. “I’ve seen her succeed, I’ve seen her fail, yet regardless I always see her growing and learning.”
Hard work can take a toll. There are times when hours of rehearsal means hours of frustration, when the notes aren’t coming out or the dances aren’t making sense. Constant rehearsal has led to unintentional distance between her and her friends. Worst of all, there are times when hard work isn’t enough. Michele experienced this firsthand during Conant’s musical last year, where she was bypassed for a role that she had labored over and cast in an ensemble role for the first time in years. Although she initially had trouble accepting her failure, she soon became grateful for the experience, considering it a wakeup call. After all, failure is one of the biggest aspects of show business, and experiencing it early helped to better prepare her for struggles in the future.
“At first, I had a lot of trouble accepting the fact that I didn’t get the role,” she said. “But it’s about understanding that it’s not the end of the world, and that you just have to keep moving, which is what the whole business of musical theater is.”
Moving forward is exactly what Michele dreams of, and after days of discussing her future, I became eager to see it for myself. I ask her one final question.
“What do you imagine your Broadway debut to be like?”
Her face lights up, and I imagine she’s thought of this moment thousands of times before. At this point, it’s not just an image in her brain; it’s a goal, a dream, a lifeline to cling onto when everything seems wrong. With a dazzling smile, she talks about sitting in her dressing room as big-name Broadway stars waltz in to congratulate her, how nervous she’ll be during her final moments behind the curtain. How emotional it’ll be to finally step on a Broadway stage as the spotlight burns.
I make a mental note to send her a bouquet of roses when the day comes.