At four years old, Hannah Jane Peterson, aka “the little bucket,” skibbled into her West Virginia kitchen singing, “I dug my key into the side/Of his pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive…” (Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.”) That her daughter had a voice was a revelation to mother, Steffanie. “I realized I had to change the radio station,” Steffanie says. “She just picked up everything she heard.” Hannah would cry out: “It’s mic time!” reaching for a kitchen implement to substitute for the real thing.
I first encountered the Petersons when Hannah competed in last year’s Adela and Larry Elow Songbook Competition under the aegis of The Mabel Mercer Foundation. The teenager was a standout, delivering a fully (self) staged version of “The Joint is Really Jumpin’ at Carnegie Hall,” with period vocal styling and bullseye scat.
Told she was raised by a single mom who moved to the city to give her daughter a chance at the career she wanted, I wondered whether Steffanie was another Mama Rose. Instead, I found a grounded advocate, more like the singularly supportive Minnie Marx, whose sons were the Marx Brothers, or actress Sara Sothern Taylor, mother to Elizabeth.
This is not to say that she lacks determination or fire. Fiercely protective of one another, Steffanie and Hannah declare themselves best friends. Their favorite television show was the mother/daughter based Gilmore Girls. You could strike a match on the flinty, intractable bond.
In an attempt to channel energy and ability, Steffanie let Hannah join The Appalachian Children’s Choir. Choirmaster Noël Hardman “taught them rhythm games. She had a little bear she’d squeeze and sing a note the kids repeated,” her mom tells me. “It was great training.” The little girl learned to read music when most kids were struggling through first books.
At ten, she auditioned for a community theater production of Annie. The telephone call came to offer a role and her mom handed Hannah the phone. She got the lead. “That’s when we took up knitting,” Steffanie remarks. “Both of us. “
“Steffanie, Hannah, my son, Noah, and I were spending a lot of time together at this point,” Hardman tells me. “Two moms with their kids living the music theater lifestyle. There was a lot of hurry up and wait so I would bring along my knitting projects. One night a company member said Hannah needed me. I went backstage to find her hoping all was well. She asked me to show her how to finish her scarf. There we were In the middle of a performance teaching and learning how to cast off of a project.”
Steffanie volunteered as much as she could with every production. She scheduled, drove, sewed costumes, helped with administration. Hannah sympathetically notes that her mom was “kind of reclusive” before theater activities drew her out.
The quick study was off book in two weeks. She recalls being “super sick during the third, “vomiting in a pail when I changed between numbers.” Hannah pauses. “I ran back to mom and told her I want to do this the rest of my life.” She smiles.
School music programs in Charleston were few and far between. Hannah began to sing (to tracks) at festivals in addition to remaining a choir member. Her sets consisted of country songs and those by young Miley Cyrus. There was no remuneration. She performed for love of it and to get her sea legs. Promoting Annie led to television appearances. Even cameras didn’t intimidate her.
Next came a Home for the Holidays tour with The West Virginia Symphony Orchestra. The director asked Hannah to share her favorite thing about Christmas. “I said it was going to church on Christmas Eve and celebrating the birth of Jesus,” Hannah says.
“He pulled my mom aside and told her I couldn’t answer that way, that I couldn’t bring Jesus into it. I went whoa, you asked me. That’s who I am. The first night I got nervous and it came out anyway. He was angry. I corrected it after, but it made me nervous to think I might have to change who I am because people don’t like it. I felt like I was lying.”
Hannah’s moral compass was strong even at ten. She tells me she’s color blind and endeavors “to come from a place of love.” As a child, when she didn’t get a role, the young actress told herself to be grateful she was even in the show. When friends were cast instead, Hannah was supportive. “Now I think for every ‘no’ you get, the ‘yes’ is gonna be ten times bigger.” Gutsy without bluster, she firmly believes there’s a plan.
The first musical to which Steffanie took Hannah was a local production of Gypsy, mounted the same year as Annie. “I had never seen a woman in tassels before. It was a shock, especially someone I knew. As a little girl I was always very cautious about whether my dress was too short.”
“Mommy was a Nazi when she was little,” Steffanie says, describing her rule over what she thought appropriate. “She was young and she was beautiful…Not until sophomore year of high school did Hannah go out with make-up. I wanted there to be a distinction; this is stage, this is life.”
“We went to a lot of auditions to give Hannah experience, but representatives who approached always wanted money up front. Give me $5000 and I’ll send your tape around,” says Steffanie. “We refused. Then I heard about Arts International out of Ohio. They held auditions for a showcase in front of agents and producers. [Hannah] was about twelve.”
Hannah performed Etta James’ “At Last,” without a clue what it meant. “I wanted something to belt, to show I’m the real deal,” she says. “I wasn’t going to sing some pansy pop song like every other kid.” In fact, when callbacks required a pop tune, she’d pass, aborting a potentially successful audition. “I didn’t want to get there singing the wrong stuff.”
The event was in Orlando, Florida, and required a fee to participate. Her mom juggled finances, something at which she’d become expert, and arranged for them to stay with relatives.
Hannah competed in modeling, singing, and acting, the latter with a monologue from a Lindsay Lohan film. Steffanie shows me a recorded excerpt from the scene. The young actress was all arms and eyebrows, but charming. She received a partial scholarship to the New York Film Academy’s Summer Musical Theater Program.
A few days later on a Florida beach, Steffanie asked Hannah what she thought about moving to New York. Her daughter was unabashedly eager to do just that. The plan was to leave West Virginia in about a year so Hannah could start high school here. “Then she came to me and said, how about we move in time to see The Thanksgiving Day parade?” her mom tells me, eyebrows raised. “I thought, are you kidding? That’s after the start of the school year. I have to find a job, we need somewhere to live!”
As if a Frank Capra film, their community banded together raising money to help offset expenses. “If it wasn’t for those people I couldn’t have done it,” Steffanie says. Her plastic surgeon employers connected her to New York doctors. She sent resumes, received several offers, and, in 2015, signed a lease on an apartment in Queens. They even managed to see the holiday parade from a Central Park West window. Makes one believe in fairy godmothers.
Mother and daughter began by sleeping in bunk beds. Steffanie sat her daughter down at the kitchen table and they created a budget. “It’s like, if you’re out and you want something to eat, that’s on you; there’s food in the house. If you want a different kind of shampoo than what’s here, that’s on you…” her mom explained. It became an integral part of their lives.
Hannah registered at IS No.10. “Middle school was rough. I was one of five or six white kids. They were mostly Hispanic. I got called the little white bitch every day, ate lunch alone with a book, and went home crying. Being from the south, I didn’t look or sound like the others in my school and struggled to find my place.”
“New York kids are different. First of all, they don’t live anywhere near you,” says Hannah. “My best friend lives in Brooklyn. Kids are not as friendly or open as kids back home. They’re more cultured and not as sheltered. People from my town are surprised I take the train by myself every day.”
A special high school that offered music/theater education was needed. Peers in a Broadway Workshop production of Bring It On warned her off LaGuardia (Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts). She was told she’d feel like a minnow in a huge pond and would have few friends because you don’t see anyone twice in a day.
Happily, the Petersons found PPAS (Professional Performing Arts School), one of several in which Rosie’s Theater Kids established a beachhead. Hannah excelled. Program head Jeff Statile calls her “hardworking, tenacious, generous, and captivating…” Her class studied academics from 8:15- 1:15; musical theater 1:30-3:30. She took ballet, tap, theater dance, theater history, singing, acting, and, as a senior, Shakespeare.
Having been very young and a “great little performer,” the nature of early roles never required research. “For example, Annie. Her dad wasn’t around much growing up, so she understood what it was like to miss a parent. We had several great male figures in her life, but as training evolved, she grew to understand how to go beyond the obvious,” Steffanie explains.
When her mom speaks, Hannah respectfully listens. She’s interested and never seems surprised. In turn, Steffanie watches her daughter with quiet pride and complete confidence nothing amiss will emerge. She says they’ve never actually had an argument.
Curiously, the accomplished performer was not cast in a single musical through four years in high school. When opportunity finally presented itself, she instead chose to play a role in Dominique Morisseau’s racially charged play, Blood At the Root. The piece is based on The Jena Six – six black teenagers charged as adults for the beating of a white classmate in their small, mostly white Louisiana town.
Hannah feels strongly about racial prejudice and gun violence. “I’ve come up against both race and religious bigotry, but only in New York City. I see my best friend get stopped in a train station here or friends get stopped on the ferry because they’re mixed and they look suspicious.” At elementary school, she experienced lockdown when a bank robbery took place across the street. More recently, in her seemingly Mayberry-like hometown, a friend was shot during what appeared to be a gang-related incident.
“I think that’s made me passionate about writing and getting those feelings out,” she says. The ladies play me a file of one of the songs Hannah’s written – Living in fear/Day by Day/No one should have to live this way…she sings. I watch tears well in her eyes.
Can the young actress cry at will? “In school we called it as-if,” she responds. “I think I’ve experienced a lot more things in my life than most kids so I have more of a library accessible…Not having a dad around, my Nana’s death and watching my mom struggle with life as a single parent were big ones.”
“Being without a dad is like a paper cut. It doesn’t always hurt, but when it does, it sticks around awhile. His absence impacted me. … Nana’s cancer lasted most of my life. What I remember most is taking care of her the last few years before she died, the latter part of elementary and early middle school.” (Steffanie hastily adds they never would’ve moved had her mom not passed.) “Ask any single mom about making ends meet for groceries when the money coming in is less than what needs to go out,” Hannah says. “I knew mine laid her life aside for mine.”
On a theater track, Hannah was unaware of cabaret as an artform until the Songbook Competition. Statile took several promising kids to compete. When Hannah won second place, it was suggested she do a solo show at The Laurie Beechman Theatre where the event was held. September 2018, she debuted a solo act. At the time, I wrote that vivacity and innocence brought to mind The Unsinkable Molly Brown. The Petersons have also taken the show to their hometown.
“Everything I’ve learned about cabaret is from Jon (Jon Weber, her musical director/ accompanist), KT (KT Sullivan, Artistic Director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation), and Coco (Coco Cohn),” she says. Hannah approached and was warmly treated by Cohen at the stage door of Mamma Mia, in which the actress was performing. They ran into one another again at a workshop in Class Act New York. When a director for her solo show was needed, Steffanie wrote to Cohn on Facebook.
“I’ve found cabaret is a great chance to sing songs you wouldn’t get to do other places,” Hannah tells me enthusiastically, “but we made sure I understood what was coming out of my mouth and that I had a personal connection to it. I love to look people in the eye when I perform.” (The essence of cabaret.)
Veteran Jon Weber was delighted to offer a few words: “Hannah Jane really means it when she gets onstage. She has absolute pitch, quite a dramatic range, and an impossibly positive, faith-based outlook. She’s focused, disciplined, orderly, comes up with a wide variety of unique ideas, and improvises patter with confidence that can only come from someone who’s self aware. A born entertainer.”
In October, much to her mom’s shock, Hannah said she didn’t want to go to college. It was the first Steffanie heard of it. “She said, mom, I just need a break. I want to give this everything I have.” “Here’s the deal,” her daughter was told. “You have to work 20 hours a week and make real money. Ten percent will be tithed, ten percent goes to the household, the rest is yours. This is where the rubber hits the road.”
The aspiring performer is also responsible for keeping up with auditions and networking.“I have a list of anyone we’ve ever met,” Steffanie says tenaciously. “Just because she got a diploma…If you’re not going to college which teaches you discipline and time management, you have to learn another way. Trial by fire.” Hannah is undaunted by making cold calls. She seems to approach everything and everyone with measured optimism.
Having graduated PPAS (with their Excellence in Musical Theater Award), this September, the young performer starts training at the non-profit M.O.V.E. (Motivation-Opportunity-Vision-Entertainment), which creates New York City public school after school programs, teaching students about social justice issues. “I’m also a nanny and I babysit a lot.” She takes an online music therapy course, “just in case or to do between the cracks. Part of the deal is that I need to parallel music with some college.”
The eighteen year-old does vocal exercises every day. A book breath exercise, for example, finds her lying on the floor with a heavy book on her stomach. She breathes in through her nose and out through her mouth, trying to keep the volume raised without bringing her back up off the floor. It strengthens diaphragm muscles enabling longer vocal phrases. Voice lessons are paramount. Acting and dance will follow when finances allow. Hannah also makes sure to do something she loves daily – reading, knitting, taking photographs, writing. Down time is considered as consequential as instruction.
“So she’s never leaving home,” Steffanie quips. Both women laugh. “We’re gonna write a couple of cabaret shows this summer. How will we know if we don’t try? Live adventurously. Look at every opportunity. Being a good and open human being is as important as talent and drive. I don’t want her to be complacent. If she chooses to walk away from this…I just want her to figure out what makes her happy.”
October 30, 2019, Hannah will make her Cabaret Convention debut in Rose Hall, a featured performer in Judy! A Garland of Song. “I learned to throw a chord microphone over my shoulder by watching Judy…If you wanna make me cry, play Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand doing `Happy Days Are Here Again.’” One of her graduation gifts is tickets to see Streisand at Madison Square Garden.
The ladies attend as much theater as they can. “I can’t tell you how many times we get up early to get in a rush line or trade eating out for a night of theater.” They’re just beginning to explore cabaret. Steffanie has a job she loves and is writing a book about her journey with Hannah from the time they arrived in New York through graduation. It’s provisionally called The Hot Mess Express. Hannah is busy and hopeful. Watch for her.
Opening Photos: Laura Luc and Brian Marrs
For more information:
Rosie’s Theater Kids – through Public School (Hannah’s was through PPS)
M.O.V.E. – A non profit that partners with schools and youth groups to help students address social issues.