Normally, the audience for a high-school play is made up of adoring parents and loyal friends who come to support the budding actors.
This one night, however, James Phillips remembers that the crowd was more unruly. The current chairman of the fine-arts department at Regis High School in New York stood backstage at the show, watching as the front row grew more boisterous as they screamed for Stefani Germanotta, one of the performers.
“It wasn’t something she tried to incite,” he explained. “Even though it wasn’t her own songs, everyone recognized that she was talented and exceptional even for a high-school kid.”
Even back then, everyone knew Germanotta — now better known as Lady Gaga — was going to be a star.
She’s the most popular living person on Facebook, but before she drank from teacups and wore crazy outfits, Lady Gaga was Germanotta. The performer, who began taking piano lessons at age 2, learned her craft at some of the top performing-arts institutions in New York. And many of the folks she’s worked with in the past say that the public has yet to see the extent of Lady Gaga’s talent — and that people don’t recognize how determined she was from a young age.
“It was so clear that she knew what she was doing,” said Christine Dhimos, dance chair at CAP 21. Dhimos was Germanotta’s ballet teacher and advisor while the performer was a New York University student. “It wasn’t that she was some flaky person living in la-la land. Somebody like that you want to encourage to follow what they want to pursue.”
Phillips’ first encounter with Germanotta was when she was in fifth grade. He was the musical director of a summer music-camp production of “Godspell.” He noticed her as one of the talented singers but forgot her in the mix of dozens of kids.
A 'phenomenal' voice
He didn’t really remember her until the Regis High School musical productions, the brother school to Convent of the Sacred Heart, the all-girls school that Germanotta attended. After hearing her sing again, he found her voice “phenomenal.”
“When she was a freshman, one of the nonmusical people on the faculty asked me, ‘I don’t know anything about music, but is Stefani really good?’ I said, ‘YES!’ ” he said.
As Germanotta grew older, Phillips continued to teach her in musical performances and jazz band as part of the Regis Repository and Regis Jazz Band concerts. One time, Phillips said although Germanotta was comfortable as an alto, the casting directors wanted her to play Philia, a soprano role in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” because she had the best voice, period.
“She knew it wasn’t her bread and butter, but she just forged on and did the best she could,” he said. “She knew it would take a little extra work and she was not adverse to that.”
It wasn’t all perfect notes for the singer. When singing “Turn Your Love Around” by George Benson, she forgot her words in the middle of her performance. “It didn’t go well,” he said honestly. “She stumbled.” The next day she came back and sang the song perfectly, obviously practicing for hours after she went home the night before, Phillips said.
This attitude continued during the one year she was a student at the joint NYU/CAP 21 program in 2004-2005. Dhimos remembers at their school counseling meetings that Germanotta had laid out exactly where she was going to go and what she was going to do. “The plan was set,” Dhimos said. “Stefani knew what she wanted and soaked everything up.”
Pam Philips, who witnessed Germanotta’s audition to get into the program, said she remembered requesting the singer specifically in her fall vocal technique classes. By that time, the 17-year-old was hitting high notes as a soprano with an impressive vocal range.
“She wasn’t your little Upper East Side kid,” she remembered. “They’re wearing their little sweater sets and pearls. She was very unique in how she dressed — though not as fun and outrageous as she is now.” Dhimos said Germanotta stood out in dance classes with bright, loud clothing, including plenty of striped, torn tights, when everyone else was wearing typical black form-fitting outfits.
During classes, she asked Pam Philips how to use her voice for pop music, specifically how to take early ’50s and ’60s vocals and apply that to contemporary music. Larry Arancio, her acting teacher at CAP 21, gave her and a partner David Mamet’s “Cold,” a piece that leaves it up to the actors to decide the context of the situation. To his surprise, Germanotta chose an unusual path and turned it into a pick-up scene where she was hitting on her fellow actress.
A style is born
Outside of school, Germanotta experimented with what she learned. She agreed to sing for Cricket Casey’s children’s book “The Portal in the Park” in 2006. The author and physical therapist wanted a strong female voice to appeal to the girls who read her books. She was friends with friends of Germanotta’s parents, and when they suggested that their daughter might work for the project, she headed down to the Bitter End, a well-known rock club in New York, to check out the singer.
“I was amazed at her songwriting ability,” Casey said. “She had such stage presence I thought she was definitely going to be a star.”
After agreeing to work for $600 for two tracks, Germanotta met Casey and rapper Grandmaster Melle Mel at a studio in New York's Chelsea district. The singer rearranged the lyrics and picked a melody that would fit the rapping style of her partner. Casey was so impressed she helped the singer get a gig at the New York venue Cutting Room. Soon after, she called Casey and asked politely if she could credit her as Lady Gaga on the tracks, saying she came up with a vision and that this was the persona she wanted to be.
While performing around the Lower East Side, she met Colleen Martin, better known as Lady Starlight, at the St. Jeromes bar. Despite the nine year age gap (Germanotta, who was now insisting on being called Lady Gaga, was 20, and Lady Starlight was 29), the two bonded immediately and decided to combine her pop sound and Martin’s glam-rock DJ skills.
“The very first show we did was kind of the best show ever,” Lady Starlight said, laughing. “There was all these singer/songwriter girls like Alanis Morrisette and Norah Jones. And we were all turntables, keyboards and bikinis. The tourists were staring full on.”
Already beginning her outrageous stage antics, Lady Starlight and Lady Gaga would use fog machines and wear barely there clothing, which eventually got them banned from numerous places. The music however, remained the same. Except for a few basic changes here and there, Germonotta would perform her songs “Brown Eyes,” “Paparazzi,” and “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich.”
“The fashion and the person is interesting and amazing, but if she didn’t have those chops it would be a flash in the pan,” Lady Starlight said. “I don’t have the ability to craft songs like she does.”
They began to open up for New York band Semi Precious Weapons, a modern day glam-rock group. Lead singer Justin Tranter, who along with his bandmates went to Berklee School of Music and got degrees in classical composition, said he recognized her talent.
'This woman is the real deal'
“She was singing for dirty rock bars,” Tranter said. “She would set up a keyboard and played her (back side) off. Even in 2006, this girl in her bra and panties, who’s lighting hairspray on fire is better than everyone else.
“I think that the world doesn’t realize how talented she is,” Tranter added. “If they have half a brain they understand that this woman is the real deal.”
Much has changed, but her professors and early collaborators all agree on one thing: Germanotta has remained extremely grateful for everything. Before she left NYU, Arancio remembers Germanotta specifically thanking him for teaching her. He was moved by her gratitude, saying that not many students would take the time to do the same.
Tranter feels the same way. He said that Lady Gaga went out of her way to get Semi Precious Weapons to open up for her on her recent tours. She even stopped by their recent CD release party despite her busy schedule. She’s still always asking for our opinions, he said.
He remembers way back when she was opening up for them in 2007, she showed up with a bra made out of shiny mirrors. “It was so genius,” he said. “She turned her (breasts) into two disco balls.”
During their concert in Montreal, he saw four fans with similar bras. It made him smile.
“I think that pop music and rock music in the last 15 years has died, and that when something like Gaga comes along people are shocked,” Tranter said. “They don’t realize it’s taken an insane amount of time for her to master her craft.”