Thursday, February 7, 2013


Jeffrey Sewell is 13 years old and he is a powerhouse. He first showed up on the WFT stage as Chip in the 2007 production of Beauty and the Beast and has taken not only WFT, but the entire internet by storm since then. Currently, Jeffrey is playing the Artful Dodger in the production of Oliver! Last week, I chatted with both Jeffrey and his mother, Debbie in two separate phone conversations, one right after the other. Neither knew what the other would be saying or had said, but the interviews ended up blending together so well that I am presenting them here as a single conversation. Read on to hear about Jeffrey's YouTube posting that got thousands of hits in a week and how Debbie feels about being a stage parent at WFT. (And when you're done reading, go find Jeffrey on YouTube. You won't be sorry you did. Two of my favorites are "Defying Gravity" and "Born This Way.")

ROBIN: Jeffrey, what do you love about singing?
JEFFREY: I just love the feeling of stepping onto a stage and just singing out. I love just doing it because sometimes when I’m singing a specific song, I can relate to the emotion of it. That’s why I love musical theatre because I can relate to characters. I love putting the emotion into the song.

ROBIN: Debbie, how did you first know that Jeffrey was gifted in theatre and voice?
DEBBIE: This is gonna sound crazy, but he has been singing since he was two. My dad used to watch with him -- Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty. And I am a huge Wizard of Oz fan, so he was watching that at an early age. When he would watch the Disney ones, he would start singing all the princess songs. He would sing the Snow White song and we were all in shock. It was very pretty. I know I can come off like a gushing, crazy mother. I do gush a little but, y’know. He could sing and we knew he could sing when he was very young.

Then we happened to be reading the paper and heard of Wheelock doing a play and I had never heard of Wheelock, so I went on the website and he ended up taking a class there, but he was a little intimidated. He really enjoyed doing it and that was that. But I tried to sign him up for some local community theatre and he just ran out of the classroom! When WFT was auditioning for The Little Princess, he told me he wanted to audition. He got there, Jane called his name, he started crying. I asked if I could go in with him and she said, “No. He has to go in by himself,” so she took his hand and, y'know, he did wonderful! But, he didn’t get that part and he kind of shied away after that. I’m not really sure what it was, but then we went on a family vacation and my sister got him on stage, a hundred people in audience! And then that fall, we went on cruise and he entered a talent show. He was 7 and he got up there in front of 400 people and belted away. When he got home, Beauty and the Beast was beginning at WFT and he said he wanted to audition and he did it and he got it and the rest was history. He absolutely loves it. The stage is his home.

ROBIN: Jeffrey, when did you first know you could sing? That you were good?
JEFFREY: Well, when I was younger, I always loved The Wizard of Oz and I remember I was just mimicing what the characters were doing. Once when I was about four, I was singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and my uncle commented about my voice. And from then on, sometimes at an anniversary party I would sing and get a nice reaction. But when I really knew I was good was when I did my first play at WFT. When I did Beauty in 2007, that’s when I really knew that this is what I want to do.

ROBIN: Debbie, I know Jeffrey has a big YouTube presence. As a parent, how do you feel about the way kids are interacting with technology?
DEBBIE: To be honest with you, I didn’t know he put that video on YouTube. I had no idea. We had gotten a new computer and I was watching him, going back and forth to the computer, singing. I was thinking he was recording himself on Garage Band. Then he called me on a Saturday night, I was out to dinner, and he said, “Mom, I put a video on YouTube and it already has 300 hits!” The next morning, I look and there’s over 3000 hits and I guess someone tweeted and…y’know technology is scary. Social media, Facebook -- I monitor his Facebook and I look at the YouTube comments before him and if some are really terrible, I get rid of them so he doesn’t see them. But it’s been really good for him. We have had agents post to YouTube, saying “Please call me!” Technology is scary, but if you handle it the right way and monitor it, I feel confident that things are ok.

Oh, y'know, just an 11-year-old singing some Gaga at a club.  No big whoop.
ROBIN: Jeffrey, what made you decide to post your first video on YouTube?
JEFFREY: Well, I wasn’t posting anything in hopes of getting viewed. I was really just home one night and I had been singing and practicing and practicing and on the fifth take, I was like, “Ok! I’ll post this.” And then the next day, or like two days later, it had a couple hundred views! Then the next day, we had over a thousand views and it went from there. I was just doing it totally for fun. I really didn’t even tell anyone about it.

ROBIN: Debbie, how has the experience been for you as a “stage mom” at WFT?
DEBBIE: I have been many other places as a stage parent and WFT is by far our favorite place to work. It’s very welcoming. Everybody in the theatre is so nice. Charles, Jane, Sue, Matthew, Brian, Lisa, Lindsey… they’re all so very nice and all the other parents that come there experience the same thing. They’re just so genuine. I would love for him to have a career at Wheelock. It’s been 6 years that he’s been at Wheelock now and he did his first show with Gamalia and she is in this show and he loves her. There are just so many familiar faces. Theatre people are just the sweetest people.

Jeffrey and his WFT bestie, Gamalia Pharms in Beauty and the Beast

ROBIN: Jeffrey, what do you love about WFT?
JEFFREY: I think they are all very welcoming and very caring. Even people that I am working with that are doing their first show here, I feel like everyone treats them like they have been here forever. I was very young when I got here and they’re very good at working with children. And the accessibility is great. WFT does the open captioning and ASL and I just love that about them.

ROBIN: Debbie, as a parent of a performer, how do you make sure he is well-rounded as he grows and develops?
DEBBIE: I do not discourage his performing at all. He does it a lot. He doesn't want to do much else. I have to be honest with you; right now, I don’t have a problem with it. He’s 13. He’s done some piano lessons. He’s taken other classes. He likes art. He’s doing a web series where he is actually directing, so, is he well-rounded? I don’t know. He likes other things, but he really enjoys this and I let him do it. He knows he has to have something else to fall back on school-wise. He really wants this and we’re hopefully trying to help him get it. I would like nothing more than for him to realize this dream.

As Artful Dodger in Oliver!
ROBIN: Jeffrey, where do you see yourself in five years? Ten?
JEFFREY: In five years, I’ll be 18 and in a good college. Probably in Boston or New York. I probably want to study Musical Theatre. In ten years, I’ll be 23 and on Broadway! But not only on Broadway. I like film as well, so maybe I could be dabbling in that, hopefully. But I will definitely still be doing theatre. Hopefully I will still be doing shows at Wheelock when I have time.

We hope so too, Jeffrey. We hope so, too.

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