Written by Zack Johnston
You wouldn’t think to question it now, but Grace McLean never imagined herself growing up to be a professional singer. As a young student entering the entertainment industry, McLean was always a bit more concerned with her multiplication tables than with her auditions in LA.
Despite her parents being musicians and growing up surrounded by music, she simply didn’t see it as the inevitable career path. Even while attending Orange County School for the Arts, singing was not at the forefront.
“I was in the musical theater program, but I thought of myself as a very serious actress. Give me the Greeks—give me Shakespeare!” McLean recounted. However, it was precisely this eagerness for knowledge and an unrelenting self-determination that brought her success as an actress and a singer.
A true OC-theater-kid, McLean took acting classes at South Coast Repertory and was in the annual Christmas Carol production. After graduating from NYU, McLean played principal roles in Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and, most recently, Bad Cinderella.
Her original musical In The Green premiered at the Lincoln Center Theater in 2019 and explores the lives of two medieval female figures within the Catholic church.
The Wayward Artist’s production of the show in Santa Ana this past April was the winner of seven OCR Awards and was named one of this year’s best shows. It was something of a full-circle moment for McLean, as her musical received its Orange County debut not far from where she first began her musical theater journey.
Originally from Costa Mesa, McLean spent those formative years focusing on acting while seizing opportunities that allowed her to explore how to use her voice. She has come to be known for her powerful vocal ability and rhythmic skills as a writer and performer.
“That just comes from an enduring curiosity I have about the voice as an instrument,” McLean said.
In 2023, McLean announced a record deal with ECR Music Group and released two singles, “Reckless” and “My Lovely Enemy.” Her first full-length album with the label is slated for release in May. While it’s admittedly not her most lucrative gig, recording has been a creative outlet McLean is more than grateful for.
“I’m just gonna keep doing it even though it’s a little bit weird,” McLean said. “Some people like that kind of weird, and that’s really cool to me.”
It was acclaimed jazz vocalist Carmen Bradford who initially took notice of McLean’s talent and invited her to train with her. A bit different from standard vocal training, Bradford’s jazz techniques incorporated improvisation and encouraged playfulness with the melodies. This became a foundation for not just her music but for much of McLean’s creative endeavors.
“Those little muscles were being built, even if I maybe didn’t value them as much at the time,” McLean recalled.
Whether it’s for projects like In The Green or her forthcoming album, McLean’s vocal stylings are reminiscent of her time studying figures like Roy Hart, who employed a philosophy of expanding the limits of what the human voice is capable of. McLean describes the process as less about making your voice do something and more about finding out what your voice can do.
This would ultimately serve as one of the main themes behind In The Green: how we use the voice to express what our bodies experience moving through life. McLean incorporates nuanced elements in the script and the staging to create a truly unique piece of theater.
The show stems from McLean’s earlier studies of medieval art–particularly that of Hildegard von Bingen, who was considerably influential for a woman in the twelfth century. A religious mystic later deemed a saint, Hildegard’s legacy and body of work is unlike any contemporary.
“She was getting away with having a personality and an artistic voice that was way ahead of its time,” McLean said.
In The Green is an artistic culmination of all the things that make McLean a uniquely talented artist. Her love of theatrical storytelling, expressive vocal arrangements, and medieval culture all come together in this triumphant piece.
It just goes to show that if you want to find success in art or theater, follow McLean’s advice and “lean into your weird.”
For someone with no plans of becoming a singer, she found ways to embrace the things she loves and effectively applied them to her art to achieve more than she ever dreamed.
Whatever comes next for her—whether it is another Broadway stint or touring her new album—McLean will surely be somewhere on stage, leaning into her weird to much applause.