Last June, my aspirations got a big boost when I won First Place in the Vocal category of the Beach Blanket Babylon Scholarship Competition. The competition afforded me the unique opportunity of working directly with the show’s team of directors, producers, casting directors, and cast members, culminating in the unforgettable opportunity of performing on the Beach Blanket Babylon stage. The charming and talented fellow contestants responded to my victory with genuine approval and heart-felt congratulations. Spending a few hours inhabiting the world that I hope to become part of and associating with the people that might one day be part of my own professional demographic served to further confirm my intentions to pursue a performance career. The winning prize was a scholarship that enabled me to enroll in the Musical Theater department at the Boston Conservatory of Music; I started classes last month.
A baccalaureate degree from Boston Conservatory will become a major stepping-stone on a pathway that has Broadway as its destination. Another branch of the career pathway leads to possibly opening my own dance studio, someday, and paying forward to the next generations the gifts that Heaven and a host of teachers, trainers, guides, and coaches have given to me. I’m prepared to embrace a number of temporary stop-offs on my journey that might include such fascinating things as summer internships at Disney.
I’ll be ready for Disney, if that time arrives, because I have been working at Brentwood’s Little Miss Everything shop for the past year or so, acting out every little girl’s dream of being a Disney princess. The store’s amazing owner, Renae Gonzalez, hired me to appear in full costume at birthday parties, tea parties, and at the store’s Story Time events. Each appearance of the beautiful fantasy-in-flesh Disney character provides unforgettable moments for some children, who imagine they are in the actual presence of the character I’m portraying. Nothing in the world compares to the hug of a little girl who is in a state of delighted shock as she snuggles into the arms of her favorite princess.
I let myself get caught up with the children in their worlds of imagination and drama. When I am singing a song in the role of Elsa, the Snow Queen, I picture myself, scared and lonely, on the side of North Mountain but then throwing my head back and, sometimes with tears burning in my eyes but indescribable joy in my heart, belting our the lyrics to “Let the storm rage on!” I can’t describe the humble but amazing sense of empowerment, knowing that I am able to create a magical world for the little princesses who are spellbound at my performance.
Princess Elsa does more than perform at the Little Miss Everything shop, she helps the young girls with their hair, makeup, and nails — doing whatever she can to support Renae’s goal of showing her little customers how special each of them are — beautiful both on the inside and out. The pure pleasure that I take from dancing, playing, and embracing the children at those moments illustrates the passions and payoffs that fuel my ambitions to make the stage my life.
I grew up singing and performing in church. My first appearance as an onstage performer occurred when I was only six months old and played a lead role as the infant Jesus in a Christmas pageant. I apparently nailed the part. My first actually singing performance was when I was three and belted out a rousing rendition of “Shout to the Lord” at a Christmas production that “old-timers” still talk about. I was too young to remember the event, but my mother, Rhonda, captured the performance on video. It is fun seeing little Rachel’s unrestrained enjoyment. I’ve grown in body, talent, and experience, of course, during the 15 years since then but the passion I saw in that little girl’s face and heard in her voice remain fresh in my heart.
A few years after my debut, four of us children became founding members of a Kids’ Worship Team that my father, Ed, started. From the beginning, we “weren’t your grandfather’s” worship leaders. Dad made sure that our music was upbeat and contemporary. He led us in singing and dancing with energy and enthusiasm. After a few years, Dad appointed me junior choreographer and gave me the job of leading the dancing part. Over the years, the group has grown until now there are 26 of us on stage leading a room full of animated children in dancing, singing, and “getting down” with God.
Singing and dancing at church were far from the extent of my performance activities. I took my first gymnastics lessons when I was five and for the next nine years focused on tumbling and floor routines. In high school, I studied ballet at the East County Performing Arts Center. The teachers — Miss Stephanie, Miss Rebecca, and Miss Shelby — provided excellent training. I was a little older than the other dancers, plus my gymnastics background had developed strength and flexibility, which permitted me to perform grand pliés and pirouettes with little effort. In two years, I progress from Level Two to Level Five/Six. Two years ago, I leveraged the skills and experience I had developed into a job as dance and gymnastics teacher at Black Diamond Kids Center.
Theater was always a big part of my life. When I was five years old, I played the role of Molly, the smallest orphan in a local production of Annie. I subsequently performed in a number of shows with Steve Kinsella’s Brentwood Teen Theater. When I was in the sixth grade, Steve gave me the starring role of Dorothy in the Teen Theater production of The Wiz. Steve introduced me to the technical aspects of performance, sharing the acting methods
and blocking techniques necessary for any professional actor.
When I got to high school, I enrolled at Walnut Creek’s Berean Christian High, which was a small school with a big musical program. Each year the choir director formed us into a high quality ministry choir. I was officially a soprano but my three-octave vocal range permitted me to occasionally sing along with the altos and tenors. Unless the score dropped too far into the basement, I sometimes even sang with the basses.
Moving Towards Professionalism
During my freshman year in high school, I began taking voice lessons with a phenomenal Brentwood voice coach, Nuhad Levasseur. She taught me the vocal skills and techniques that carried me to my next level of performance. Nuhad was more than a teacher; she served as mentor, guide, life coach, and therapist. She cheered my triumphs and offered a shoulder to cry on during times of disappointment. She fueled my ambitions.
During my junior year of high school, I participated in a production that ignited my passion for musical theater. Franc D’Ambrosio, who holds the record for being the longest running Phantom at San Francisco’s production of the Phantom Of The Opera, took a one-man cabaret show on the road and for three years played to sold-out audiences in 150 cities. Weattended his show at El Campanil Theatre. When he finished his play list,
D’Ambrosio called me to the stage in order to join him in the “All I Ask Of You” Phantom showstopper. That extraordinary event proved to be a pivotal moment in the life of Rachel Wirtz because I came down from the stage filled with the determination to do musical performance for the rest of my life. The timing was perfect because during that junior year I was supposed to make some decisions about the future and had been wrestling with what direction my life would take. The confusion had ended; I was going to follow musical performance down whatever paths opened up to me.
Heaven seemed to bless my decision because a number of performance and competition opportunities seemed to come my way. At the beginning of my senior year, my career decision was strongly reinforced when I performed in a production of West Side Story at a Walnut Creek company called Stars 2000. I tried out for the part of Maria but landed the role of Anita, who is a character with rough edges and attitudes. Anita’s intense, confrontational, and fiery personality — which differed so drastically from my own sunny disposition — pushed me out of my comfort zone. I had never taken an acting class, so I was forced to learn how to use nuanced gesture, facial expression, and posture to convey to the audience the thoughts and emotions that were surging through the character’s mind and heart. Furthermore, Anita’s songs were written for an alto, forcing me to exercise the lower ranges of my voice, which made me grateful for the hours I spent in high school choir singing those alto, tenor, and bass parts.
The West Side Story production reinforced my conviction that my future lay in musical theater. This was more than mere career choice; musical theater would be my ministry. I freely gave my heart to my fellow performers, the backstage crewmembers, and members of the audience. Performing with people you love generates a different creative environment than trying to perform with fellow actors you feel indifferent towards or, even worse, attempting to compete with them for audience attention or for some bogus glory.
Last March I auditioned for the Stars 2000 production of Les Miz, and had the same unsettling casting experience as in West Side Story. My vocal coach, Nuhad, had trained me for the soprano role of Cosette, but I really wanted the alto role of the troubled and conflicted Eponine and gladly took the part when I was given the choice. Our co-director, Ryan Cowles, told me to embrace the role. He said to raise the emotional bar and to set a high standard for the character. As a result, I spent hours digging through Eponine’s heart and soul, trying to peel off layers of her persona in search of her essential core so that the spirit of Eponine could shine before the audiences during my performances.
I approached opening night, July 24, with a serious case of stage jitters, which weren’t helped by the fact that any production of Les Miz necessarily involves a lot of on-stage props, technical apparatus, and lighting units. The back-stage spaces were crowded with cardboard walls, facades, and pieces of an immense barricade — all of which had to be moved on and off the stage at appropriate times during the performance.
Even though I had spent hours preparing for the role, I felt nervous and unsure of myself. However, the moment I stepped on stage, my sudden intense engagement with the role washed away my concerns and fears. Nobody who hasn’t experienced it, could imagine the breathtaking dynamism of performing on a large stage. The members of the audience are invisible beyond the footlights. The actual time and place grows dim as you are caught up with the circumstances of the play. Whatever joys, sorrows, or fears overtake your character at a particular moment take possession of you. When stage performance reaches its highest levels — as it did that night — the experience is overwhelming and empowering at the same time. I channeled Eponine, and that night turned out to be one of the crowning performances of my brief career.
It was a curious coincidence that I ended up doing the conflicted character of Anita rather than less-complicated Maria in West Side Story and the difficult character of Eponine rather than the sweeter Cosette in Les Miz. Mastering the parts called for displaying raw emotions that challenged and stretched me. Besides that, taking risks is ultimately satisfying because difficult roles and hard choices positively influence who I am and what I am doing.
A stop-off in The Magic Kingdom on my pilgrimage to Broadway would be appropriate because the fact is, I live by Disney’s quote, “All your dreams can come true if you have the courage to pursue them.” Each of us is a child of God and, each of us can become a gift that He is giving to the world.
I can’t wait to get on with my life of full-time performance with people whom I will love to work with, before audiences that I will enjoy bringing pleasure to, and especially for my Lord God, whom I will be delighted to serve.