For most performing arts enthusiasts, being able to take part in a Broadway production can be considered a distant dream for an up-and-coming actor. For one local high school student and former Creative Cauldron performer, this dream is currently a reality.
On Thursday, March 16th, James Madison High School senior Sophia Manicone made her Broadway debut in “Parade,” a dramatization of the trial, imprisonment and lynching of Jewish American Leo Frank for the murder of a young woman in the early 20th century. Performing alongside actor and returning Broadway player Ben Platt, Manicone will be portraying Iola Stover, a worker at Frank’s factory who testifies against him and falsely claims he showed inappropriate behavior.
Manicone’s theater career began at the young age of nine, when she started taking classes at local music school Harmonia in Vienna, as well taking part of “Vienna Idol,” a music competition showcase. She said that her teacher suggested taking theater classes due to Manicone being “super shy” as a child.
“To everyone’s surprise, I actually really loved it,” Manicone said when talking about her first theater classes, followed by singing lessons, various community theater productions and booking her first professional job in 2016 with Creative Cauldron at the age of 11.
At Creative Cauldron, Manicone portrayed lead character Tina Denmark in “Ruthless!,” a musical about a talented, young girl who resorts to murder to get what she wants. She said her experience with the Falls Church-based theater was an “amazing” entrance into the professional, theater world. Working with an all-adult cast, Mannicone said she was initially nervous to perform in the musical, but became comfortable after the support of the cast and crew members. “Ruthless!” director and Creative Cauldron’s teaching artist Matt Conner helped mentor Manicone.
“Working with [Creative Cauldron] over the years, they’ve always really encouraged me to keep going for it,” Manicone said. “They’ve given me a lot of opportunities to learn with hands-on experience.”
Other key figures Manicone said helped pave a way for her theater career are fellow Creative Cauldron resident artist Stephen Gregory Smith and Erin Driscroll Gardiner, Manicone’s voice teacher since she was in the sixth grade. Recommended to Manicone from a Cauldron’s castmate, Gardiner has been an “inspiration” to Manicone by balancing acting, teaching and raising a family; something Manicone said she wants to do in the future.
“It was really great to just see someone that is working really hard and achieving all of their dreams,” Manicone said.
As a freshman at James Madison High School, Manicone auditioned for the Fairfax Academy for Communications and the Arts — a part-time program housed within Fairfax High School that offers specialized courses in theater, language and more. She was accepted into the program her sophomore year, beginning with online courses due to the pandemic.
During her time in the program, Manicone said she was surrounded by people who were just as “passionate, hardworking and determined” as she about theater. The program also helped Manicone to be “prepared” as an artist in the “real world,” as her musical theater teacher Erich Dicenzo gave the students feedback on their performances and taught them various, helpful insights.
Through the academy, Manicone said she was able to perform one of her dream roles as Katherine Plumber in the musical “Newsies,” an experience that showed her growth as a performer who could not only act, but sing and dance as well.
Manicone first became acquainted with the musical “Parade” her freshman year of high school, when a friend played her the soundtrack of the production. Fast forward to her senior year, Manicone said she saw a casting notice for the 2023 revival of the musical, and with the help of her mom, recorded her audition in her basement. A week after submitting her audition, Manicone received a callback while sitting in her school’s computer lab.
When reflecting on what her callback audition was like, Manicone said she had to prepare new songs and material to perform before heading to New York. “Parade’s” director Michael Arden and composer Jason Robert Brown were present at Manicone’s callback, which she said was “nerve wracking” due to her admiration for the both of them and their previous work.
“Walking into the room was the most terrifying thing, but also so exciting,” Manicone said when explaining her callback audition. Although initially unsure about her performance, two days later Manicone received the news that she got the role of Iola Stover while with her mother at a restaurant.
“I was shaking on the phone,” Mannicone said. “My mom was recording me and looking back, I’m really grateful that we have these funny pictures of me crying into the phone. It was just so surreal.”
Preparing for the role of Iola Stover was hard for Manicone, as she said the subject matter was “dark” due to her character having “bad morals” by falsely accusing an innocent man of sexual assault. She was able to overcome this concern by understanding that her character was persuaded by a male prosecutor to lie and get justice for their deceased friend, an unfortunate likelihood in the early 1900s.
Opening night of the musical “felt like a movie,” Manicone said, as she and the rest of the cast put on their “fancy dresses” and walked the red carpet where photographers and interviewers were ready to speak and take pictures of them. A memorable moment for Manicone was when she and another cast member accidentally left the stage too early when the rest of the performers were taking their final bows, and had to walk back on stage.
“A few photographers actually captured that moment,” Manicone said. “It was embarrassing in the moment, but now looking back, it’s really great photos of us laughing and walking back.”
Since January, Manicone has been living alone in New York City, something she said she didn’t expect her senior year to be like, especially without her parents. Balancing work, school and her overall social life has been a challenge, as Manicone said she takes her classes online now and is currently deciding where she wants to attend college.
Already having auditioned to 26 musical theater schools and accepted by 11 already, Manicone said she still wants to pursue a career in the arts, and hopes to attend a school that encourages her education and theater work at the same time. For those who may want to follow in her footsteps, Manicone said one should never give up on their goals or lose their drive for what they are passionate about.
“If you have a goal in mind and you truly love and care about it, you will get there,” Manicone said. “The joy that theater brings and the empathy that it creates can change the world.”