PARAMUS, N.J. — The moment Ann Karp heard her daughter Sophie belt out a pop song on the radio as a toddler from her car seat — the first time she heard her speak — she recognized her raw talent for singing that nothing could hinder. Not even an autism diagnosis.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disorder that impairs the ability to communicate and interact. While the cause is unclear, more than 200,000 cases are diagnosed per year and symptoms vary in severity.
“I was crying while I was driving because it was so moving,” recalled Ann about her daughter who was diagnosed with the developmental disorder at 20 months. “When your child is not reaching milestones it can be devastating, but you get used to it. You understand this is what your life is and that’s OK. But when she started singing, boy oh boy. It was a moving moment.”
Prior to that eye-opening experience, Ann would croon Disney princess songs to Sophie as a baby, and the music has since stayed with her.
“I’ve seen people light up like Christmas trees when they meet my daughter,” said Ann. “She’s just really joyful. It touches them in a way that they wish they could be that way too.”
Two decades later, after spending the early years of her life working with trusted educators and having spent the last eight honing her singing voice with loyal vocal coach Marissa Lynn, of Marissa Lynn Studios in New Milford, the 22-year-old protégé and Cresskill resident has a dream to be the first soprano on the autism spectrum to sing the role of Christine Daaé in her favorite Broadway musical “Phantom of the Opera,” which she has cherished since age 5.
The musical, based on the book by Richard Stilgoe and Andrew Lloyd Webber, tells the tale of Daaé, a gorgeous soprano who becomes the obsession of a disfigured, enigmatic musical mastermind living in the subterranean labyrinth under the Paris Opéra House.
“I just love the music, and I love the songs, and I love the story, too,” said Sophie by phone last month. “It’s such an amazing story and it’s such a romantic and powerful love story.”
It was Sophie’s enthusiasm for music that made Lynn’s ears perk up.
“She impressed me right off the bat with her natural ability, the tone, and color of her voice and potential in the sound itself was very impressive,” said Lynn. “It’s inspiring to watch her grow. Her voice is such a gift. I think she’s unique. She has her own sound, and I think it’s what makes it so special.”
To encourage Sophie to pursue her dream, in addition to Lynn’s own aspirations of hitting the Broadway stage, Lynn recruited a group of some of Broadway’s brightest stars to stage a Broadway gala for autism aptly dubbed, “Songs for Sophie.” The event was held in a ballroom at The Terrace in Paramus on November 15 and included performances from Ciaran Sheehan (“Les Misérables,” “Phantom of the Opera”), Kristy Cates (“Wicked”), Erik Liberman (“The Band’s Visit”) and Jay Armstrong Johnson, (“The Phantom of the Opera”).
A portion of the evening’s proceeds went towards Autism Speaks, the country’s largest autism advocacy organization, which sponsors autism research and conducts awareness and outreach activities.
“As her teacher, I wanted to get her as close as possible to that dream,” said Lynn, who performed a stirring duet of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “All I Ask of You.” “Being able to give her this platform and give her this opportunity was important to me. I wanted to expand opportunities and shed more light on how talented singers like Sophie are, and bring forth resources and awareness so there are opportunities in the Broadway community.”
The idea for Songs for Sophie was sparked following a workshop led by Erik Liberman, who is also Lynn's mentor, in New York City earlier this year during which he engaged his vocal students in answering how they're feeling when they sing a particular song and what it means to them. The answers were meant to help students put forth more emotion in their singing. Sophie, Ann said, spoke about her experience with autism and the importance of self-expression and being her most authentic self. As the group listened to her express herself, Ann said there wasn't a dry eye in the room and the rest is history.
At last month’s gala, students of Marissa Lynn Studios took turns coming up to the stage where they sang a range of powerful, uplifting numbers about love and perseverance from some of Broadway’s most incendiary musicals. Songs included “The Wizard and I” from Wicked, a musical told from the perspective of the witches of the Land of Oz from The Wizard of Oz, “Two Friends on a Perfect Day” from the trending Dear Evan Hansen, a musical that has gained a cult following about a high school-aged boy who seeks love and acceptance despite his struggles with social anxiety disorder. Other scintillating numbers included solos of Shirley Bassley’s “I Am What I Am” and Andra Day’s “Rise Up.”
Accompanied by a group of back-up singers, Sophie, who was dressed in a lacy black dress — her hair styled in a pixie cut dyed red — sang Loren Allred’s rousing love song, “Never Enough,” hitting all the high notes.
“I’m absolutely honored to be doing this, and I really want the people in the autism community to know that they do have a voice, and they can chase their dreams and believe in themselves,” said Sophie.
At the two-hour performance, Cates performed a hair-raising duet of “Defying Gravity” with one of her graduates, Melissa Jennifer Gonzalez, who attended New York Film Academy who is also on the autism spectrum. Following Cates’ verse, Gonzalez chimed in with the second, the lyrics of which read:
I’m through accepting limits/’Cause someone says they’re so/
Some things I cannot change/But till I try I’ll never know/
Too long I’ve been afraid of losing love/ I guess I’ve lost/
Well, if that’s love, it comes at much too high a cost.
Since graduating, Cates told the audience Gonzalez is “thriving in New York City and “taking the business by storm.” Similarly, Lynn is making her own dreams come true.
"Five years ago we started our journey," said Lynn onstage with Liberman. "And I stand here today a completely different artist in a good way. I feel settled, I feel strong, and I'm so excited to have all of you here for this journey."
While Sophie continues to work toward her dream of the Broadway stage, she continues to do what has led her to her success: being true to herself.
“Music was my first language,” said Sophie. “I want to be a voice for all artists on the spectrum to let them know that they are worth it. Let them see that we are
worthy of our dreams just by being ourselves."
For information on Marissa Lynn Studios, find her on Facebook, and autismspeaks.org for more on Autism Speaks.