Wearing puffy pink earmuffs and toting a colorful backpack, Zoe Manarel literally skips across New York’s 44th Street to the Angus’ Café Bistro for a sit-down interview. Zoe and I are joined by Zoe’s mom Laura Manarel and Westchester Family publisher Gary Hibert. Zoe had already put in a full day completing a matinee performance in the Broadway hit Matilda The Musical and then patiently participated in an hour-long cover shoot for this issue. Yet this 9-year-old dynamo was just getting started.
Anne-Marie Gerard Galler, a longtime Broadway veteran and the director of TADA Theatre and Dance Arts Westchester located in Katonah, has been teaching youngsters for some 17 years. She remembers when Zoe came in for dance lessons. “When a child walks into my studio I can just spot those that have an innate calling to the stage, and I can tell you I saw it in Zoe,” says Gerard Galler. “Zoe is an incredibly focused fireball of energy with impressive talent.”
In July 2015, when Zoe was cast as Matilda’s self-appointed best friend Lavender, she joined an elite core of talented youngsters who grace the stages of The Great White Way. Fortunately for Zoe, and for audiences, there are a bevy of Broadway opportunities for youngsters these days.
Charlotte St. Martin, president of The Broadway League, Inc., the national trade association for the Broadway theater industry, says the number of family-friendly shows currently on Broadway is significant. While many shows are appropriate for families, St. Martin says Aladdin, An American in Paris, Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I, Finding Neverland, Matilda The Musical, The Lion King, School of Rock – The Musical and Wicked are absolutely great for families. “That’s nine shows out of some 30 on Broadway, and there are more in the works,” she says. “Right now there are some 68 children performing on Broadway.”
If you told struggling actors that Zoe conquered Broadway in just a few short years they would be aghast. But, that’s not to say she hasn’t worked for it.
Chelsea Freeman, a New York Knicks City Dancer and Zoe’s former dance teacher, says Zoe was an exceptional student. “Zoe showed a higher passion and greater resilience than most students,” says Freeman. Freeman says they worked on activating core muscles and on specific staccato movements, which are often used in the Matilda choreography. Knowing that the competition is very stiff for Broadway shows (there are generally multiple call backs), Freeman constantly challenged Zoe. “No matter what I threw at her she would work at it and polish it until she got it perfect.”
Originally from Jamaica Estates, Queens, the Manarels, including Zoe’s mom Laura, dad Michael, brother Max and maternal grandmother Barbara moved to Katonah four years ago. “I was 5, now I’m 9 turning 10,” says Zoe. At that time Zoe had no experience with singing, acting or dancing.
The family moved to Westchester, as many families do, for the excellent public school system. Max had been enrolled in the United Nations International School and Zoe had been accepted into a gifted program at a school in Tribeca. But the combination of two private school tuitions and the logistics of getting little Zoe to downtown Manhattan on a daily basis seemed impossible. So the children were enrolled in the Katonah-Lewisboro School District and they settled in a new home in the country.
Zoe finished kindergarten and first grade in a single year, but she was excelling in more than schoolwork. “In kindergarten I took an acting class as an afterschool activity, my teacher said I sang beautifully but my mom was not convinced,” says Zoe.
One day Zoe and her mom were shopping at Target in Mt. Kisco. Zoe was reading greeting cards and found one that perturbed her. “I read a card that I thought was inappropriate for little kids like me to be able to reach.” Zoe says. “I told my mom they should be placed on a higher rack.” A lady standing next to them asked Zoe if she liked to read and she was quick to answer, “Yes, but I like to sing more.” When the lady asked her to sing Zoe broke into song right there in the Target isle! A musician who was also nearby walked over and said he wanted to “discover her,” so to speak. They politely declined, but Zoe’s mom relented and allowed Zoe to take a private singing lesson with Becky Baxter Ford. From there everything snowballed. Her teacher’s husband helped her get her first Broadway audition for one of the orphans in Annie. “I got a callback, but didn’t get it,” says Zoe. “I asked my mom, please can we keep doing it and just see how it goes?” Mom said yes. Through A Class Act NY agent showcase Zoe found an agent and began auditioning regularly. Since then she has appeared in several shows and television segments as well as doing commercials, voice overs and print work.
Gerard Galler says Zoe’s drive comes from within. “Sometimes she’d be working on a dance combination again and again for so long I would have to go into the studio and say ‘Zoe, stop for a minute and come get some water!’” Having seen many parents interact with their children who have theater aspirations, she says that Zoe’s family is “doing it for Zoe, not the other way around.”
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Zoe orders steamed mussels for dinner, but lets us in on some privy information. “My favorite food in the world is shrimp,” she says.
Zoe performs seven shows a week and has to be at the theater two hours before curtain for warm-ups, safety checks and notes. For an evening performance Zoe and her mom arrive at the theater at 4:45 p.m. The day is longer if there is an afternoon performance too. “The day starts at 12:45 p.m. on a matinee day and ends at 11 p.m.,” says Manarel, who generally drives Zoe into the city and waits for her.
In between performances the kids and parents often go out for a meal, then they relax, do homework or Elisa, a backstage child guardian, teaches knitting. “Just if you want to,” says Zoe, who clearly does. “Since we are in the theater a lot it becomes like your home.”
Does she ever get nervous before shows? “I never really get nervous, I am not a nervous person in general so instead of nervous I get excited,” she says. “Performing gives me a happy, bubbly feeling inside – it’s so exciting.”
One imagines that the stiff competition must be grueling for kids. “After a couple of auditions when I didn’t get the job my mom told me that an audition is like a puzzle and each person auditioning is like a puzzle piece,” says Zoe. “So if you don’t get the role it’s because your puzzle piece isn’t the right fit – but just for that puzzle – you just have to find the right puzzle. My mom is very smart.”
As the waitress stacks plates on her arm to clear the table Zoe offers an observation and compliment. “Being a waitress must take incredible balance.”
And managing the life of a kid on Broadway takes considerable balance too. “It’s a sacrifice for everyone,” says Manarel. “I am so proud of her and happy that she has this, but it is a change of lifestyle for the entire family.” Manarel credits her own mom who lives with them. “She’s incredible, without her help we couldn’t do it. She helps with Max and the household.”
Because of her schedule, Zoe is now homeschooled and sees a certified math tutor twice a week. This suits Zoe fine as she says she doesn’t have to wait for the class, “I can go at my own pace,” she says.
Zoe enjoys seeing her 15-year-old brother Max, who she says “is very nice, even though he is a teenager,” play sports at John Jay High School. “And he likes to see me perform.”
She also enjoys walks in the woods with her grandma, swimming with her dad and taking photographs. She also likes to read and says The Tale of Despereaux is her favorite book. It delights her that the misfit mouse in the story loves to read and that “his favorite words are once upon a time.”
Besides Matilda The Musical, Zoe also continues to audition for voice overs and other projects she can handle while performing. And though she wants to continue acting she says she would like to be a comedian doctor. “I could tell the kids jokes or funny stories when they have to get shots,” she says. “Then they wouldn’t feel the pain.”
Having never had it, Zoe ordered rice pudding with raspberry coulis for dessert. “I like different,” she says. Her family’s rule is to give a new food three bites, if you still don’t like it you don’t have to eat it.
Zoe pauses for a minute when asked what Matilda The Musical is about. “I think it’s about how kids, even though they look little, can have powerful minds,” she says. “Matilda is a small girl who is bullied and different than the other kids, but even though she’s small and different she’s not weak, she has powerful thoughts.”
Her mom gazes at her with a maternal glow, I am smiling as I take my notes and our publisher sums up the evening, “This is one of the best nights I have had in a very long time.”
Jean Sheff is editor of Westchester Family and a longtime Broadway theater enthusiast.