"Cher is this planetary force: she really does have a pull to her," The Cher Show star Stephanie J. Block tells PEOPLE
If Stephanie J. Block finds herself on the Tony Awards stage Sunday night accepting the best actress in a musical prize for playing the legendary Cher in The Cher Show, she might want to thank Crest Whitestrips in her speech.
The 46-year-old theater veteran tells PEOPLE she found Cher’s speaking voice while wearing the teeth-whitener product — a happy accident that unlocked a major stumbling block to playing the part.
“Her singing voice was much easier for me for me to find, because you can listen to all of her recordings and mimic all her sounds when she is singing. But to bring that sound into her speaking voice without sounding like a complete caricature was hard,” Block recalls.
“I happened to be reading lines last summer while I was wearing Crest Whitestrips on, and all of a sudden, I was beginning to sound more and more like Cher. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s the Whitestrips!’ So I had to figure out how my mouth was projecting the sound and all the energy once I took the product off,” Block says. “Really, that was the key into how I found her exact sound. Thank you, Oral B!”
Of course, playing Cher eight times a week is more that just knowing her voice. Block — alongside costars Micaela Diamond and Teal Wicks — brings every aspect of Cher to life in the bio musical, from the singer’s no-holds-barred attitude to her many, many looks (30 Bob Mackie costumes in 2½ hours!) to her well-known catalogue and the tough emotions she felt throughout the many ups and downs of her long career.
The entire experience has taught Block valuable lessons, the biggest to be herself.
“She’s allowed me to be more me, which is such a wild thing to say at my age,” says Block. “She is authentically herself always, and that has given me the permission to do the same. You know, usually in the process of putting together a musical, you want to stay in your lane. But this time, I felt the confidence to speak up about ideas I had with the production, the script, the direction. Not all came to fruition, but I know what I was bringing to the table had worth. And being Cher allowed me to do that.”
“I never felt like I had this much freedom to help in the creation of a piece,” Block adds. “That has led me to grow in so many ways personally and professionally.”
Block herself has a lot in common with Cher, though one might not necessarily see that on the outside. For one, Block is a mother — to a 4-year-old daughter named Vivienne Heléna, whom she shares with husband Sebastian Arcelus (House of Cards, Madam Secretary). For another, she’s had her own “crazy ups and crazy downs” in the business, though she admits they’re “maybe not as traumatic as Cher’s were.”
Still, Block feels the connection. “It is that resilience that I think you have to have as a woman in this business,” she says, pointing to the thing that ties her to Cher the most. “Cher calls herself a bumper car, so if she hits the wall, all she does is back up and try to find a different route. That has always been me. Nothing in my life has ever come easily. I wasn’t born under that lucky star that just handed me fame. I climbed the ladder, rung by rung and tried to earn every badge along the way. I am grateful for that.”
“There’s a line Cher says in the show: ‘You win some, you learn some.’ That to me is the whole mentality of moving forward and continuing to grow,” Block continues. “As soon as you feel like you are losing, you are going to give up. If you feel like something wasn’t a complete victory, you just take what you’ve learned from it and continue on a different path or same path with different paths. That is who Cher is. I don’t find her completely reinventing herself, I just see her always moving forward. She is always moving. Dust does not settle on Cher, and I feel a little the same with me. I am not complacent in anything I do; I always strive to be better.”
Throughout the show’s long road to Broadway, Block had plenty of time to work on the role with Cher herself.
Meeting the icon was intimidating at first. “Cher is this planetary force: she really does have a pull to her,” Block marvels. Luckily, her fears were calmed early on. “She is this icon and huge star and yet still so approachable,” Block says of Cher. “You feel like you know her and yet you feel like you should idolize her at the same time. It’s this wonderfully complicated balance she has.”
Cher, unsurprisingly, didn’t hold back with her notes. She gave Block plenty of advice along the way.
“She and I would spend like 40 minute increments in my dressing room on my couch talking while I was working on the role,” Block remembers. “One note she said, it really changed everything for me. She said, ‘People perceive me to be very hard and cruel. I see myself as feminine and delicate and girly.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ I mean, she was sitting there in leather pants and skull encrusted sweater! But then I started to look back. Her notes always had little hearts, kisses and flowers. She sent beautiful flowers to the theater. Everything she puts out to represent herself, she was right. She is very feminine and soft and delicate; she likes to see herself in a very feminine way. That helped me tremendously when I stepped on stage.”
There was one sticking point: Block’s interpretation of Cher’s walk. “She came to see us when we opened in Chicago, and she came backstage and whispered that she wanted me to work on my walk,” Block says. “She was very interested in getting my walk exactly right. So, we worked on that a little bit.”
This is the third time Block has been up for a Tony, and in many voters’ eyes, she’s considered the frontrunner. But trophies aside, Block feels as though she already won everything the moment she got the blessing to play the role from Cher herself.
“It was so important to me that Cher saw herself reflected accurately up there. And knowing she loves the show and is happy with what we’re doing, that means the world” Block says.
Tickets for The Cher Show, at the Neil Simon Theatre, are now on sale.