Interview with Nikka Graff Lanzarone: Broadway Star

By Stephanie Carey Maron

October 25, 2011


Broadway star and triple-threat, Nikka Graff Lanzarone has been performing in one way or another since she was small. Growing up surrounded by family members working in the worlds of music, theatre, film and television, one might say the performance gene was in full-force. Could she have expected a guaranteed entrance into the entertainment world? Perhaps, however she’s proven that she prefers to forge her own, distinctive, artistic path.

Nikka Graff Lanzarone

After graduating from the prestigious Boston Conservatory, she moved to New York City and hasn’t stopped working since. Roles in Broadway hits Chicago and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown put her squarely in the public eye, and she’s used that exposure to her advantage. She was recently nominated, along with the rest of off-Broadway’s Hello Again cast, for the Drama League’s 2011 Distinguished Performance Award. The future looks blindly bright for Ms. Graff Lanzarone.

She generously agreed to answer a few questions about her artistic and personal life.

When and how did your career begin?

It’s hard to pinpoint something exact. In some ways, six years ago when I moved to NYC. In other ways, my entire life. I have been performing and studying since I was a toddler, though only rarely professionally. I always knew I wanted to be a performer, and it was always the thing I was working toward.

What are your career aspirations? Where do you see yourself in 10 years? 20 years?

My biggest career aspiration is to constantly stay busy, engaged in my community and interested in what’s going on around me. I don’t have a singular career goal, but I know that I want to continue on the path I’m beginning. I’m a workhorse — I just love doing the work! In 10 years, I definitely hope to have moved out of my studio apartment and into someplace with a bathtub, and be a little more established in my career. I’d love to create more roles, and have the opportunity to play the roles I’ve always dreamed of playing. 20 years? More of the same, but hopefully a house in the country as well. It’s so difficult to look that far ahead when you do what I do, but it’s nice to dream.

Biggest inspiration?

Nikka Graff Lanzarone in Chicago on Broadway
Nikka Graff Lanzarone, center, as Velma Kelly with the company of Chicago on Broadway. [Photo by Jeremy Daniel, Metro, August 2011.]

My family. The old-school Fosse dancers I grew up idolizing. Fashion.

You recently played Velma Kelly on Broadway in Chicago. Dream come true?

It was beyond. It was a role that I never even dreamed I’d play, let alone on Broadway. It was a dream role that I was afraid to even mention was something I wanted, just in case I jinxed myself in some way. That role is a dancer’s dream; you really have no excuse and no choice but to be completely full out every night. The role is so demanding that it’s absolutely freeing. I love Velma — she never takes no for an answer. I learned a lot from her over the course of the show.

How does Chicago compare with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which really put your name on the map?

The two pieces were extremely different. Chicago is a tried-and-true Broadway staple that has been able to stand the test of time, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was a new work that never really got the chance it deserved. We loved that little show, it had such heart. It’s always a challenge, putting together something that no one has seen before, especially under the not-so-lenient public eye of NYC. I am so grateful for the [very different] experiences I had in both shows and what I learned from them.

Your family tree reads like a who’s-who in show business. Your mother, Ilene Graff, has a long and impressive list of television, film and theatre credits. Your father, Ben Lanzarone, is an award winning composer/arranger/conductor. Your uncle, Todd Graff, is a director/screenwriter. And your cousin, Randy Graff, is a Tony Award winning actress. What kind of influence have they had on your life, both personally and professionally?

Nikka Graff Lanzarone in Women on the Verge
The cast of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Back: Justin Guarini, Nikka Graff Lanzarone, de’Adre Aziza, Danny Burstein, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Mary Beth Peil. Front: Laura Benanti, Patti LuPone and Sherie Rene Scott. [Photo by Ethan Hill, Playbill, October 2010.]

My family has never been anything but completely supportive, helpful and wonderful. We are incredibly lucky to have each other and we are very, very close. We oftentimes say that we’d rather hang out with each other than anyone else we know! My family has the unique experience to be able to help guide me in my career ups and downs, help me make some difficult decisions and support me no matter what. And I treasure them so much.

So, you’re part of an interfaith family. Your mother is Jewish and your father?

My father was raised Catholic.

Growing up, were you raised with any religion? Which? How?

I wasn’t raised with any religion, but we celebrated all the major holidays. Growing up, my house was definitely the “party house,” so any excuse to have a ton of people over and do a lot of eating and hanging out [was welcomed]. I spent more time with my mom’s side of the family as a kid. (My father’s side of the family largely remains in New York, and I grew up in Los Angeles.) There is a distinct New York Jewish flair that I associate with my childhood, but there was never any formal religious instruction or attending of services or anything like that. We do throw a mean Christmas Eve party every year, though! Not to be missed!

How about now, as an adult? Has the wisdom of your 20-something years changed your religious perspective?

I’m grateful that I was raised in a household by such smart parents, that I grew up taking everyone’s faith and beliefs into account without feeling pressured to choose anything if I didn’t want to. I remain non-religious, but with immense respect for people who believe and practice.

What’s your perspective on organized religion, in general? Do you think that your views were shaped by growing up in an interfaith family?

I will remain hesitant until more organized religions take a stand for true equality. There are definite plusses and minuses to faith, but I can’t get behind any organization that tells my closest and dearest friends they are not enough and shouldn’t be recognized because they are gay. Growing up in an interfaith family definitely shaped my views, because I had more views to take into account and more information with which to make decisions about my adult life. Having all the different perspectives has added a facet to my life that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

What’s next for you?

Hopefully something soon! I’m currently back to auditioning, hoping that something interesting will come my way! Ah, a life in the theatre!


About Stephanie Carey Maron

Stephanie Carey Maron is a New Yorker currently living in Brookline, MA. An actor/theatre-maker/acting coach/director/administrative whiz/television lover/film buff/everywoman/Jew all rolled into one, she acknowledges that her opinions are all her own.