Q&A: Kristen Hertzenberg
Kristen Hertzenberg called Las Vegas home for years while she played Christine in Phantom—The Las Vegas Spectacular at The Venetian, and stayed long after the last chandelier dropped. Hertzenberg moved to Texas where her daughter could be raised close to her grandparents, but maintains a creative commute to Vegas and The Smith Center for the Performing Arts. She’ll perform her second Holidays From the Heart Christmas show with pianist Philip Fortenberry—former artist-in-residence at the Liberace Museum—at The Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz on Dec. 19. She spoke recently with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen.
You stayed in Vegas for a while after Phantom closed so you were here while you made the adjustment from having life revolve around the role of Christine. What’s it like to not have the influence of the curtain draw getting you going every day?
I was in two shows a week and was on call for the rest of the time. I did eight shows a week for the first year, a little over a year, but for the latter part of the run I wasn’t there every night, so it was perfect. I didn’t have to deal with the monotony some people had to handle after doing eight shows a week for six and a half years. It’s quite a bit. For me, I still really loved having the opportunity to go do it every night, but it was a change when the show closed, definitely. That was a point in my career where I sat down and thought about what I wanted to do, not just what is expected of me or staying on the same path I’m already on. I remember one night I thought, “This is the opportunity to do whatever I want." And that’s how I winded up doing my first show at Cabaret Jazz, and performing at Cabaret Jazz is what led to the point we’re at now. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to perform on my own, and now that’s what I want to keep doing.
You definitely didn’t waste time after Phantom.
Yeah, well I got bored pretty quickly (laughs).
You’ve been back for performances several times though, with most of them at Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall and Cabaret Jazz. What was the first show you did there after Phantom?
The first one was a show called Beyond the Stage. The first time I did it was actually at Art Square Theatre downtown, and then Paul Beard (vice president and chief operating officer) from The Smith Center came to that show. He invited us to do it there. We did it at Foundation Room (at Mandalay Bay) also, but ultimately we went to Cabaret Jazz. I just put a band together of guys I thought were awesome players and a list of songs that I always wanted to sing that make me happy. They weren’t necessarily songs that anyone expected me to sing, meaning there were no operatic songs in it. There was no musical theater in it, but it was a great opportunity for me to spread my wings and do what I wanted.
What were some of the songs in the initial set?
I did a couple of songs by Sara Bareilles, “Vegas," which I love, and a couple of songs by Bonnie Raitt, like some hard blues. I did some Martin Sexton songs and some Lizz Wright songs. There weren’t a lot of things that anyone had ever heard of before (laughs), but since it was at Art Square Theatre and it was for like 70 people or something, I just thought, “This isn’t about making money of trying to become famous," or whatever. It was just about singing for whoever will show up in a cool little space downtown and doing whatever I want. That was the whole goal, and all the musicians were really on board with that. They were just like, “Yeah, let’s just play and have fun," and then it turned into a show.
Plus it’s nice to introduce audiences to songs that have kind of faded but are personal favorites of yours.
Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. It turned out people liked it, so I’d love to keep doing that if I can.
You’ve been back, since you moved to Texas, for several performances, right?
I’ve been back twice. God Lives in Glass was just this weekend, and the NF (neurofibromatosis) Hope Concert is something that I’ve been a part of every year. I just couldn’t keep myself from it. I had to come back and do that in October.
Where did that take place?
That was at the Sands Showroom at the Venetian.
What makes Cabaret Jazz a good room? It seems to be a go-to place for Strip performers who want to break out and do something personal.
Hands-down, the sound is spectacular. It’s the best sound I’ve ever had in any show that I’ve ever done, and that’s a testament to the room and the equipment they have there. The sound engineering they have in there just out of this world, and that’s the comment everybody makes when they leave that room: “Whoa!" It makes you feel so good about yourself when you hear it coming back through the speakers like that. You just want to keep doing it. The people at The Smith Center have become like family to me, so I like going back for that reason too, just to reconnect with them.
How was God Lives in Glass, and what’s the difference playing the big room at Smith Center and the little room: Reynolds Hall vs. Cabaret Jazz?
Cabaret Jazz seats about 240, and it’s just a really intimate experience. You can make it feel like you’re in your living room with people, and I love that. I love being able to look up and being able to see their faces in the balcony. It’s the polar opposite in Reynolds Hall. It’s just a sea of darkness out there, but it’s thrilling. It’s such a gorgeous room, and again, the sound is great in there and it’s got wonderful staff. You’re singing for 2,000 people, so that’s just kind of a rush. God Live in Glass was great because we had like a 20-piece orchestra onstage and I think there were 70 voices in the choir. Any time you get to be backed by something like that, it’s not something that happens that often so it’s pretty thrilling.
You’ve done more shows at Reynolds Hall than God Live in Glass, right?
Yeah, I got to sing with the (Las Vegas) Philharmonic there for the Fourth of July one year, and not too long ago when Hal Prince came in town. A few of the cast came back and sang onstage with him while he talked about his life. That was great.
You did a show last year before your first Christmas show. Was Spellbound an extension of the early Cabaret Jazz shows?
It was the same band that I had the first time I played Cabaret Jazz. We had such a good time, and Paul Beard wanted us to come back but he wanted us to do something a little bit different, so I just put a different show together. Actually winded up being a lot different than the first one, because I didn’t talk a lot in between songs. I just decided to put a group of songs together that I thought lyrically would tell a story. I wanted people to just sit back and listen to the music. That one was a little darker. It had Jeff Buckley in it.
What Jeff Buckley song?
“Lilac Wine." I put some Rufus Wainwright in. It was a cool show. It was different.
When you come back Dec. 19, the spotlight is on you and Philip Fortenberry for Holidays From the Heart. Can you give a brief history of this show?
Yes, well Philip and I recorded a holiday album (also titled Holidays From the Heart) back in 2011, and so last season at The Smith Center we decided to do a show that included much of the music from that album. And we work so well together. We’ve become really good friends, and Keith (Thompson)’s just gifted and otherworldly, so any time I have a chance to play with him I jump on it. We had such a good time that when The Smith Center asked us to do it again we absolutely said yes.
People may not recognize Fortenberry, but they might have seen his hands in Beyond the Candelabra, right?
Exactly. Actually I think it was his whole body, just with Michael Douglas’ head superimposed on top.
When I read he’s called “The Hands of Liberace" I assumed they just did close-ups of his hands.
I’m pretty sure that’s what they did. They wanted the whole body movement to look realistic.
I understand your history with him dates back to 2007. How did you meet?
It may have been God Lives in Glass, actually, because I’ve been part of that show several times in Las Vegas. Back then, it was probably before Jersey Boys was even open … Philip and Keith Thompson, the writer of God Lives in Glass, they both work at Jersey Boys. They were at Mamma Mia! before that and a couple of other things, too, so I know our paths crossed through the Composers Showcase and through God Lives in Glass. Then Philip and I had different opportunities to play here and there for different performances, oftentimes at the Composers Showcase, and so when I decided to record an album I didn’t have to think twice. I knew I had to do it with him.
He was the resident artist at the Liberace Museum, and now he’s associate conductor with Jersey Boys. What made you decide to record a Christmas album together?
I knew I wanted to record, but when it comes to genres I’m kind of all over the place. I like to sing classically, and I like to sing jazz and I like to sing theater. I sort of felt like by choosing to do a Christmas album I could kind of sing from whatever genres I wanted and at least we had the throughline of it being Christmas music. That was really kind of the motivator behind it. I called Philip and he said yes, and then we went over to Southern Nevada Music because they used to have this stunning Steinway D concert grand piano upstairs with the recording studio right next to it, and they had the piano miked so perfectly. They had this little, almost like a recital space upstairs, but at the time they also had a recording studio. And they had the piano really perfectly miked, which is not always the case. Not only is it a gorgeous piano, but they had the sound mic hooked up to it so beautifully. I knew the sound of this album was going to be piano only, so it was important for the sound of it to be really perfect.
We started recording it in August, then I found out shortly after that I had thyroid cancer and I was going to have to have surgery pretty soon. It was crazy how fast we had to finish it up, but it was just the three of us—Philip, myself and the sound engineer up in this space, this attic above the music store, you know? And it was like therapy going up and working on this music. Christmas music in August. It was awesome.
You successfully recovered from cancer and kept working as Christine in Phantom. Have you been clear since?
Yeah, I still go in and get my numbers checked every six months or so, but so far so good. It’s been just over four years now.
So then you go from recording a Christmas album to presenting a Christmas show. How did that come about?
When we originally recorded it, we had planned to do a CD release party, and we did but it wasn’t long after I had gone through this whole cancer debacle. I had this radiation treatment in October and then we were planning to do this CD release thing in November. I was just coming back and singing again. I was really nervous about how much I’d be able to handle, so we did it but it was kind of like a mini-version of what we wanted to do so I wouldn’t be putting too much on my plate at that time. I was actually singing with the Philharmonic that season, too, and going back to Phantom, and I was really worried about having too much on my plate. So we did it but it wasn’t … I wouldn’t say we threw it together, but we kind of did. And so a few years later, it was like, “You know what? Let’s do it the right way. Let’s do it the way we wanted to and do a full-length concert, and put the time and energy into it that we can now. So we did. It was so much fun. Holiday music is fun.
It was fun enough to do again. I understand it was sold out.
Yes, it was, thank goodness. It was fantastic. And that also is another great thing about playing in that room. When it’s full, it’s just great. You can really feel the energy of the people in the audience coming at you.
How did you round out the material from that album?
We wanted Phil to have a moment to shine on his own. He’s such a beautiful musician in this own right, so he had a section of his own where he plays whatever he wants and it’s gorgeous. I think he’s probably making it up in the moment because that’s how he is. He kind of plays to the mood of the room. He might have had a framework in mind, but he improvises so beautifully, so it’s kind of fun to just listen and see what he’s going to come up with.
Beyond that, our album has one, maybe two uptempo songs on it, but most of it is chill, and it works find for an album because it’s kind of a have-a-glass-of-wine-by-the-fireplace-album, but obviously when you’re doing a show you have to have more variety for people listening or they’ll just fall asleep. So we had to add in a couple of uptempo songs, which was cool. And also at this point, now that I have stepped away from Phantom for so long, I’m really missing singing classically. So we put a song in the show too where I get a chance to do that.
Are you doing a similar show this year?
It’s not going to be exactly the same but it’s going to be pretty close. Same show, different dress (laughs).
And it’s kind of a homecoming. I’m sure a lot of people would like to see you. You were pretty embedded in this community before you left. I know it was a difficult decision.
It wasn’t easy, for sure. It was tough to leave our friends and tough to leave a place that was … I mean, the Vegas community was hugely influential on my evolution as a singer in the time that I was there. It was a big evolution, from super-green soprano/musical-theater girl to what I’m doing now, and it was because people showed up. I’m really grateful to Las Vegas.
Do you get to demonstrate your rap abilities, or is that strictly for the Composers Showcase.
No, I don’t know of any Christmas raps (laughs). … There won’t be any rapping but I’d really like to come back to Composers Showcase within the next year and do another show with my band. I’ll most definitely be rapping at that.
What else is coming up, short and long term?
I have a show that I’m going to do here in Houston with a choral group in the spring, and that’s like 100 years of Broadway. We’re planning that concert right now, and then I did a couple of concerts in McCall, Idaho, this past summer at a music festival. They invited me back, so I’ll be performing at four concerts and a couple of them will be mine alone. I’m getting ready with that material too. I’m looking for more opportunities like that.
It sounds like you’ve formed a pretty firm conduit to Vegas, where you can keep coming back and working on projects.
I hope so. I definitely want to. I think I can keep coming back to The Smith Center as long as people keep coming back to see the shows. If the tickets sell, they’ll have me back. I love that. I love they give me the opportunity to kind of try new things also, so who knows what’ll happen next time?