DeKALB – With two parents who worked there, Melissa Dye says she practically grew up at Northern Illinois University, where she graduated with a degree in vocal performance in 1988 before moving on to Broadway.
Born and raised in DeKalb, Dye, who was a classmate of Cindy Crawford, was very active at DeKalb High School. When she wasn’t participating in orchestra, choir, theater and the French Club, she was running the hurdles and the sprint relays in track. “I pretty much did it all,” she said.
A Jefferson-nominated actress, Dye performed Rapunzel in the Tony Award-winning revival of “Into the Woods” and was Sandy in the first Broadway revival of “Grease.” She has appeared in many Chicago productions, and spent three years performing in both the Toronto and the Canadian national touring company productions of “The Phantom of the Opera.” Dye has also made many guest appearances on TV, had a feature role in a soap opera and can be heard on several vocal recordings.
Today, Dye, a former member of the NIU Alumni Association Board of Directors, lives in New York with her husband, who runs his own business, Open I Network, and her son. “I’m lucky that my husband loves the theater,” she said with a laugh.
Dye sat down with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson while she was in town recently to perform a special concert at NIU.
MidWeek: Was there some point when you decided you wanted to do this for a living?
Melissa Dye: When I was 13 or 14, a local guy – I think his name was Doug Fisher – started a local theater troupe for kids. I think they had to be between 12 and 18. The first production I did was “The Skin of Our Teeth.” I was in the ensemble. The next year they did “Godspell” and that was it. That sold me right there. That was the beginning of the end. I started taking voice lessons when I was about 14. I also played violin.
MW: Was it musical theater you wanted to get into?
MD: When I did the musical for this little young theater troupe, we had a shoestring budget. We did everything ourselves. We did it outside. We didn’t even have a venue inside. That just really peaked my interest. I always wanted to sing. It wasn’t necessarily musical theater. So when I came to NIU, I was classically trained. When I graduated, I moved to Chicago and I just started auditioning.
I really considered going to New York first, but I was really nervous. I didn’t have any experience. I didn’t know what to do. I would just be lost. So Chicago was a bit smaller and more concentrated. I was close enough to home that I felt comfortable. I wasn’t completely abandoning my family. I learned so much there. That’s where I really cut my teeth in musical theater.
MW: Is Chicago a good place for theater?
MD: Oh, my gosh, yes. The theater in Chicago is amazing.
MW: Was there any particular theater group you were involved with, like Steppenwolf?
MD: No, I worked at Drury Lane Oakbrook, at the Marriott Lincolnshire, at the Court Theatre. There used to be Drury Lane South, which isn’t there anymore. And the Candlelight Dinner (Playhouse), which doesn’t exist anymore, sadly. And I worked at the Goodman.
MW: What was your first Broadway show?
MD: “Phantom.” Then I went on to do “Grease.” I did Sandy in the first revival. And then I did the revival of ”Into the Woods.” I played Rapunzel.
MW: The first time you went to Broadway, what was that like?
MD: It was scary and amazing. Obviously, a dream come true. There is no other experience like that.
MW: Is Toronto the equivalent of Broadway?
MD: Yes, absolutely.
MW: How does Broadway compare to Chicago theater?
MD: Broadway has such a long histroy. It’s the creme-de-la creme. It’s the ultimate experience in theater. There’s a certain energy there that I think is really prevalent. It’s a small community. You wouldn’t think it was so small but it really is.
MW: What makes it so special?
MD: Going to Times Square and having that whole experience, all those elements together, gives you that whole Broadway experience. It’s craziness and madness and you’re paying $150 for a ticket. And there’s this amazing talent.
There’s also amazing talent in Chicago, too. I think people sometimes forget all these Broadway people came from somewhere else. Places like Chicago have all this amazing talent and it’s not to be overlooked, that’s for sure.
MW: Do you come back to NIU often?
MD: I can’t remember the last time I came back. It’s been several years. I just notice how much the landscape is changing. It’s so bizarre. I haven’t been to perform in this building (Boutell Memorial Concert Hall) since I graduated. And that’s been a long time. I was very honored that they asked me to come.
MW: Do you like performing at NIU?
MD: It’s an honor for me to share my lifetime of work with these kids who are in the same place I was. It’s really exciting for me. I really feel a sense of ownership about coming back and wanting to share with them my experiences.
MW: Does it still make you a little nervous performing before family and friends?
MD: Always. It’s scary no matter what. But I think that’s good. It keeps you on your toes and keeps you from being complacent.
MW: Is there any type of music you like to perform?
MD: I like the variety. I’ve done so many different types; you go from “Grease” to “Phantom” and they’re both totally different ends of the spectrum. That’s fun. It keeps it interesting.
MW: I understand you were in a soap opera.
MD: When I first moved to New York, I auditioned for a soap. I played Molly Malone in “The City” on ABC. She was this sweet girl from Seattle, an aspiring actress – that was a stretch – and then I turned out to be a serial killer. It was surreal.
MW: So what is it like to be a professional actress?
MD: When the show ends, you’re back to square one. People work at banks and will have jobs for 30 years if they want to stay. But my job ends every two months or two weeks or two years. You always have to get out there and audition again and pound the pavement, so it is stressful. From the minute people get the job they know they have to keep looking for that next job.
MW: Does that get old after awhile?
MW: Was it a relief to do the same show for three years?
MD: The grass is always greener, let me just say that. When you do the same show, it’s doing the same songs, the same emotions, the same blocking, you move from point A to point B every night. You have to find a way, over time, when it gets boring, to keep it interesting and fresh because you have an audience out there paying $150 a ticket. They don’t want to see a tired, old show, they want to see it like you put it up that night. That’s my job.
But we are fortunate enough to have that scenario.
MW: As a professional, do you have to move around a lot to where the jobs are?
MD: Yes, that’s a challenge too. I’ve stayed in New York for some time now. I’m married and I have a son and a dog. I toured a lot in my 20s, and it was amazing. I’m glad I did it then because I’m not so inclined to go on the road now. You limit yourself. But when you’re young and just out of college, my gosh, it’s the best.
MW: I would assume this is a pretty competitive business.
MD: It’s very competitive.
MW: Do you have any advice for young people interested in a career in theater?
MD: I would say be passionate and work hard and if you don’t love it, don’t do it. It’s too hard of a business to keep afloat. ...It pulls at your heartstrings in both directions. When people turn you down, it’s not for the faint of heart, let me say that.
MW: I imagine you have to have a pretty thick skin.
MD: Very. There have been parts I have auditioned for, I was absolutely heartbroken I didn’t get. It’s hard not to take it personally. A lot of times it has nothing to do with what you did. You were fabulous or whatever, you just weren’t the right fit for what they needed. You can never figure out what equation these directors and producers are trying to put together. Don’t beat yourself up over it.
If you don’t love it, forget it.