North Shore Sunday
Boxford performer a star of international musicals.
Most young girls dream about growing up to see their name in neon lights. Boxford Resident Caren Lyn Manuel, 27, has had her childhood dream come true. Manuel, a professional singer and actress, was a student at Masconomet High School when she first entertained the notion of becoming a stage performer.
"I was in all the theatrical productions I could possibly be in at Masco," said Manuel during a recent telephone interview. "My favorite was being the singer for the Masco jazz band. I just loved singing in front of a band that big.
"It was [Masco health teacher and drama club advisor] Greg West who made me think I could be a success in the field," added Manuel. "He took theatrical productions at Masco to a whole new level. He made me realize that I could actually do this for a living."
But even Manuel was taken aback by just how quickly professional success came her way.
"I auditioned for the Boston-based production of 'Les Miserables' on a lark," said Manuel. "My brother talked me into it. It was my very first real audition, and I was not invested in it either way, which is why I guess I was so relaxed. I spent all day in the Hynes Convention Center auditioning. In the end, I won the part of Eponine. Really, I think, I went into a state of shock for a while. I couldn't believe it. I thought I could finish school and join up with the 'Les Mis' company."
It soon became apparent to Manuel that she could not be both student and professional stage performer. At the age of 18 before she had even had time to finish her freshman year at Boston's Emerson College, she quit school and traveled across the country playing out the tragedy that is Eponine's life - making, as she said, "more money than my two parents put together."
In the music industry, Manuel is what is known as a "soprano belt." What this means, according to her, is that, although her voice is high, it is at the opposite spectrum of soprano voices like Julie Andrews'.
"My voice is more along the lines of Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston," she said. "When you're labeled a 'soprano belt' that means you can really belt out the songs. I am a belter."
It was this ability to project her voice as well as her musical talents that won her roles in 'Grease' and 'Fame' and the starring role in the European tour of 'Evita' as well as the rock musical 'Rent' in New York City.
"I love the tragic roles," said Manuel. "For some reason they cling to me."
In addition to the major roles she has performed across both the United States and Europe, Manuel has recently released her first CD and written her own musical which has been selected for the prestigious Fringe Festival held in New York City every year. Manuel's production -'Womyn in Three', which Manuel calls "funky, upbeat and a lot of fun" - will be on stage for two weeks this summer as part of the festival, an event designed to showcase new musicals to producers looking for the next Broadway hit. (For more information about the festival, go to www.fringenyc.org.)
"It was while I was performing in 'Rent' that I first got the idea for my musical," said Manuel. "I competed with more than 1,000 people to have my musical accepted for production at the festival. From approximately 1,000 entries, the festival administrators choose 200 and rotate them in a cluster of theaters in New York."
According to Manuel, she has opted to spell "women" as "womyn" for two reasons. One, as she says, is that "it takes the 'man' out of 'woman''" and the second is that the spelling "catches people's imaginations and creates a question, which is always a good thing."
How is it that this proverbial 'small town gal' has made European capitals such as Amsterdam, Zurich and Paris her home with international touring companies? Where did she get the confidence to move out to Los Angeles on her own for two years before settling down (for the moment) in New York City as a writer of musicals?
"It was my family," Manuel said simply. "My mother and father. Music's been in my family for generations. I was trained and coached more by my father - who's a sax player and dancer and singer - than by any disciplined music lessons. Music was just something I absorbed. There were musical jam sessions at every family event I went to as a kid."
Manuel also suggested that the simple act of singing along with the radio could have advanced her career.
"It wasn't disciplined practice, but it was practice for sure," she said. "I was obsessed with the radio when I was in junior high and high school. I sang along with everything - which certainly strengthened my voice."
In some way, at an early age Manuel must have sensed her career unfolding. As a teenager, she made audio tapes and passed them out to her friends.
"I sincerely hope they no longer have them," she said.
Despite Manuel's international forays and rave theatrical reviews, she has not forgotten her roots. On a recent visit to her family's home in Boxford, Manuel was asked to perform with the Spofford Pond Jazz Band - a musical organization she was once affiliated with as a student at the school.
"They were better than we ever were when I was kid," said Manuel. "I couldn't believe the sound that was coming out of their instruments."
Manuel continues to seek out challenging roles that showcase her talents but knows that none are to be taken lightly.
"It's always important to remain humble," she said. "When you take an assignment or a role, you just don't know how long the show will run, or where you'll be a year from now. No show ever lasts forever."
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