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INTERVIEW: Amy Quanbeck and Being a Minnesotan in the Moulin Rouge

Conor Ryan (as Christian) and Courtney Reed (as Satine) star in the North American Tour of Moulin Rouge! The Musical, which opens at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis next week. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

On May 18, 2001, a film called Moulin Rouge opened at the North American box office. Directed and co-written by Baz Luhrmann, the film followed the filmmaker’s Strictly Ballroom (1992) and Romeo + Juliet (1996) in exploring the ardent intensity of young love. Drawing on elements from Puccini’s La Bohème, cabaret, and vaudeville, the jukebox musical movie took the box office and the Academy Awards by storm.

21 years later to the day, another journey to the Moulin Rouge (a legendary and still-operating cabaret in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris) is coming to the Twin Cities, in the form of Moulin Rouge! The Musical. This stage expansion of the beloved film will run May 18-June 5 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis.

The celebrated spectacle and melodrama of Moulin Rouge are not the hot items coming back to town next week – amongst the touring cast is Amy Quanbeck, a native of Plymouth, MN-turned Broadway actor. Quanbeck has not one, but two roles in the Moulin Rouge tour: as Dance Captain and as Swing – a sort of specialist substitute performer, ready to step in to fill multiple ensemble roles on short notice.

Quanbeck spoke with the Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine about her career and journey to Broadway.

Plymouth, MN native Amy Quanbeck, who returns to Minnesota next week as the Dance Captain and a Swing in the North American National Tour of Moulin Rouge! The Musical.

Where is home for you now? 

Home is the Upper West Side in NYC! My husband Jonathan and I own an apartment that we renovated and really made it our own. We love living there.

Do you make it back to Minnesota very often?

I try to come back to Minnesota often. I love getting to see my family and friends. A silver lining of the pandemic was having extra time there and getting to be up north at my grandparent’s cabin on Lake Vermilion.

When did you start performing, and when did you decide to pursue a professional performing career as an adult? 

I started dancing at The Dance Shoppe when I was three and had my first recital at the end of that year. I started singing and acting in elementary school with choir, voice lessons, and school plays. I have always loved performing. I can’t remember it being a conscious decision. I loved dancing so much and spent so much time and energy committed to it, and had parents that supported me pursuing it.

I remember wanting “to sing and dance on Broadway” since I was at least 11 – I had no idea what that actually looked like or meant at that time. [However,] when I was in high school thinking of next steps, I knew I wanted to go to college and things unfolded from there. I studied dance performance, rather than musical theater.

A promotional photo of Amy Quanbeck, decorated with glitter.

You went right from graduating from UC-Irvine in Dance Performance to joining the Wicked national tour.  Looking back, what were some of the most important milestones in that professional journey? 

I was a member of Donald McKayle’s Etude Ensemble in college. I loved dancing and had considered a career in the concert world. It was dancing for Mr. McKayle that I found out how much I loved storytelling through movement. He was an incredible storyteller and he got me excited about dance as a narrative or in a character.

Joining the Wicked tour was an unbelievable milestone.

When did you get your Equity card?

I was fortunate enough to receive my Equity Card on that contract. I learned so much about the business from some amazing friends and cast-mates. After tour, I moved to NYC with an incredible credit and my school debt paid off…which was very helpful as I began auditioning in the city. Another important milestone was my first Dance Captain/Swing job on the national tour of Dirty Dancing. It gave me a taste of where my career was truly headed.

As I think back now, it feels as though every experience or show gave me something special – whether it was the show and material itself or a connection with a choreographer, or the challenge to grow that allowed my career to unfold as it has thus far.

I still remember taking Josh Bergasse’s class at Steps on Broadway and him noticing me and getting me into my first audition with him that very week. I didn’t book it and wasn’t really right for it, but that class and connection preceded my auditioning for him a year later when he choreographed Charlie & The Chocolate Factory. That show was my Broadway debut and a few other “firsts” as well (Original Broadway Cast, cast album, and principal Broadway debut as an understudy). I will never forget walking into the theater for the first time or being onstage in that show for the first time.

Back in 2018, stated, “Swings are among Broadway’s most in-demand performers.” You’re not just a Swing on this tour, however – you’re also the Dance Captain. 

Swinging is a really hard job. It takes a lot of patience, a keen awareness to detail, a lot of preparation, and then the ability to be aware of yourself and those around you onstage. You need to think and perform at the same time and also compartmentalize and hold a lot in your brain and body.

We have an incredible offstage swing team & group of understudies at Moulin Rouge, and I feel very valued by the entire company as a swing – which is not always the case. DC/Swing is even harder in this post-COVID-19 environment, and I would argue they are more in-demand than ever.

Adéa Michelle Sessoms (left) and Jennifer Wolfe (right) wear can-can skirts as two of the dancers under Amy Quanbeck’s supervision in the North American Tour of Moulin Rouge! The Musical. As Dance Captain, Quanbeck is responsible for making sure that the choreography and blocking are faithfully, cleanly, and artistically executed as intended – including drilling the cast and training replacements, as needed. As Swing, Quanbeck is also ready to step in for performers who fall ill or are otherwise absent. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

What does a typical week on the road (if such a thing exists) look like for you? 

Eventually, a typical week might look like this:

  • Monday: A day off.
  • Tuesday: Get to the theater around 6 pm for a lift call before a 7:30 pm curtain.
  • Wednesday and Thursday: Rehearsal from 1-5 to teach understudies, do a run-through with understudies or “clean” the show, and then a lift call and show that evening.
  • Friday: Possibly the afternoon off, with a lift call before the show.
  • Saturday and Sunday: Two shows, arrive around 12:30pm for a lift call and then a dinner break 5-7 between. During the show, there’s the possibility I would be onstage. Otherwise, I am watching the show – noting, helping solve issues, or rehearsing if there’s a space to do so.

In Chicago, we haven’t really had a normal week yet. We’ve had lots of rehearsals to get people prepared to go into the show. And for me, that means a lot of prep work in making sure I know what to teach to whom before each of those rehearsals. We have 25 people in the onstage company and thus far, we have put 13 people into 25 new roles since we opened. I have also been onstage for 35 of the 54 shows, which is definitely out of the ordinary.

It has been much busier than the schedule outlined above with earlier days and very little time off between prep work and extra rehearsals. One silver lining of all that’s happened is that I am comfortable and confident onstage very early in the process, which sometimes doesn’t happen for a long time into a run, and I know that’s true for a lot of our swings & covers too.

What’s the shortest notice you’ve received for having to fill in for someone?

In this show, the shortest notice I’ve received was the afternoon before an evening show, which was enough time to review my notes and feel confident to go onstage for a new track.

The shortest notice I’ve ever had to go on was mid-show and having to go in because someone got sick. I pin-curled my hair in about three minutes, threw on the base make-up plot (to finish at intermission) and rushed into costume and onstage. I had been onstage a lot in that show, so it wasn’t too stressful 🙂

How did you first encounter Moulin Rouge the film and Moulin Rouge the musical? 

I remember watching Moulin Rouge the film when it first came out. I loved it. I remember being in awe of the colors and design, the music and dancing and just how spectacular it was. My dance studio did a production of it that year and my mom found photos the other day of me in my blue can-can skirt!

Many of the production numbers involve close, intimate dancing by the ensemble, requiring great precision, practice, and discipline. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

What was the audition and casting journey like for you with this show?

I had heard they were doing the show on Broadway and was even more excited knowing that Sonya Tayeh was choreographing. The first time I went in for the show was for the tour in January of 2020…and then COVID hit.

Moulin Rouge was my first audition back from the pandemic in July of 2021. It was very nerve-racking because it had been so long since an audition and I was unsure if I could do it all anymore, which I know was a feeling a lot of artists had. After the initial fear subsided, I knew I could do it, and trusted myself.

It was a long audition process, but each time I went back in for a callback or a partnering call or to sing and read understudy material, it went great, and I felt more like myself.

What is a favorite moment in this show, and why?

Oh, this is a hard one! I have a lot of favorite moments in this incredible show. Watching it for the first time, two things I will always remember and walked away thinking about were the top of Act 2 and the intro into the “Roxanne” number. They are both so explosive and visually stimulating and the choreography is unbelievable.

In our production, one of my favorite moments to watch is Conor as Christian in “Crazy”/”Rolling in the Deep” in Act 2. He is ridiculously talented, and in this moment, we see his transformation with such clear storytelling. Plus, the lighting cue is amazing as he comes downstage!

Conor Ryan (right) plays the fledgling poet Christian, who falls in love with the cabaret performer Satine (Courtney Reed) after moving to Paris in Moulin Rouge! The Musical. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Two of my favorite moments performing in this show include the opening and “Roxanne”. The opening is so exciting, starts at 100 and somehow continues to grow and get bigger. More is more.  And while it’s certainly a cardio marathon right out of the gate, it feels so rewarding to conquer something so challenging!

“Roxanne” is such a satisfying section to dance in. I love partner work always, and Sonya’s choreography not only looks incredible but feels good.

The visceral “Roxanne” – a reimagined version of the classic Sting/The Police song as a tango – is one of the highlights of both the screen and stage versions of Moulin Rouge. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

I’ve seen a range of special skills listed on actor resumes, but “Published Author” and “Minnesota Sports Enthusiast” are new ones for me. Tell me more!

Yes! I like that they’re new for you and often for casting or creative teams. Sometimes it catches someone’s eye and we get to talk about it. My brother, Zach, played hockey and baseball growing up and my dad, Tom, coached baseball with him as well. My family would go to Twins baseball games and Wild hockey games and now it’s definitely a part of our special traditions. While I am not as avid of a fan from NYC, I always try to go to a game depending on the season when I am back in Minnesota.

I was a part of the Campus Honors Program (CHP) in college and, through that, had to present a thesis to graduate. I could have done mine in dance performance, but because I was also interested in the sciences and was getting my pre-requisites to go to physical therapy school, I decided to do my thesis in dance science research. I wanted to look at turnout (external rotation) in ballet dancers and how much of it came from your hip, your knee or other factors.

It was a long process and I had the help of so many people including my thesis mentor Dr. Jeff Russell, and my mom Dr. Deborah Quanbeck, who facilitated and edited and also connected us to the gait lab at her hospital, Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare. I presented my thesis for graduation, published it in the Journal of Sports Sciences, and presented it at a conference of the International Association of Dance Medicine & Science.

Basil Considine