Hawai‘i’s premier young thespian Kailee Brandt appears perfectly suited for a life in the bright lights.
When Kailee Brandt was 3, she began tagging along with her dad on water skiing outings in upstate New York. Perched upon his shoulders, she would spend days on end skimming along smooth stretches of the trout-filled waters at Lake Ozonia. But rather than scream in fright or squeal in delight on these occasions, she would simply hold on to her father’s hair “as tightly as possible” and do the one thing that came most naturally to her.
“I’d sing,” says Kailee. Fifteen years later, the notes are still flowing from her mouth. Whether it’s vocalizing her favorite tunes from the movie Mamma Mia! or belting out melodies from Broadway musicals such as Wicked, Kailee is perfectly willing to sing at all times and in any setting — even while traveling down a lake at 35 mph.
“I was always considered the weird kid in school,” she admits with a chuckle. “I would always be singing — on the swings, at recess, everywhere. People thought I was so crazy because I knew every single song to Wicked!”
Well, “the weird kid” has grown up into something quite wonderful — and not just as a singer, but as an actor, too. With more than a dozen musicals and 200 performances under her belt, this year’s winner of the Hawai‘i Thespians Festival Scholarship for high schoolers is unquestionably the islands’ foremost young performer.
Naturally, the teenager with the big voice has got big plans for the future — one that includes taking up permanent residence in the city that never sleeps and eventually basking in the bright lights of Broadway.
Those are mighty big dreams indeed, but Kailee understands the challenging road ahead.
Her father, Randy Brandt, is a regional Emmy Award-winning director and writer who produced the TV program Hawaiian Moving Co. for 20 years and who currently works for shows such as Entertainment Tonight, Good Morning America and Dateline. As part of the entertainment industry for decades, he’s warned her in the past about the potential pitfalls of the profession.
“My dad was actually Mr. Musical Theater out of high school and in college, and it’s actually kind of funny because he tried to talk me out of choosing this business when I first started thinking about pursuing theater. He knows the entertainment industry is far from easy, so he was kind of hoping I would find a different passion and pursue that, ” explains Kailee, a Punahou senior and current school thespian troupe president who will be matriculating at Syracuse University in the fall and studying in its theater program.
To her credit, Kailee refused to give up on her dream, and once her parents — which include mother Nancy, who serves as theater operations coordinator at Punahou — realized their daughter was serious about a career in musical theater, they “became my biggest supporters.”
Not surprisingly, her number of admirers grows by the day. Within the ranks is Broadway veteran and Tony Award-winning actor Sutton Foster, whom Kailee first met while in middle school and whom the teenager has always viewed as a beacon of encouragement.
“I’ve always looked up to Sutton because I love her positive attitude in musical theater,” gushes Kailee, a former Shooting Star with Diamond Head Theatre who landed her first big role in DHT’s White Christmas in 2014. “One of her sayings that I usually come back to is, ‘Say yes to opportunity.’ Growing up, I was really nervous of stepping out there. I was really personable once I met someone, but I was also really shy and tentative at first, and I was also nervous about change and trying new things.
“But Sutton changed the game for me. Just learning to say yes to opportunity really helped to get me out there, to try new things and to audition for fun and not be too worried about it.”
Another of Kailee’s staunchest advocates is accomplished musical director and conductor Michael Rafter. They first met during a musical theater camp in New York City when she was 11, and since that encounter, Rafter has evolved into her most-trusted mentor.
“I’ll never forget what he said to me then. He told me, ‘Wow! You have an incredible voice as a little girl,’” recalls Kailee, who at age 13 landed the role of Jane Banks in Mary Poppins, a musical staged in New York with a professional equity cast.
“Hearing that from him was just amazing! I mean I’d hear that a lot from my parents, but I always figured they were just being supportive and nice,” Kailee continues. “But when a man who’s working with people like Sutton Foster tells you that you have a good voice, well, that makes an impression.”
Ultimately, Kailee knows that if she’s going to wind up at the “top of the heap,” as Ol’ Blue Eyes Frank Sinatra once sang, she’ll need more than just influential supporters; she’ll need to show Broadway producers she’s got the chops to succeed.
Thankfully, her big plans for the future have come with loads of preparation. Aside from years of experience as a dancer in hula, ballet, jazz and tap, she continues to hone her singing and acting skills under the watchful eyes of Tony Award-winning vocal coach Joan Lader and acting coach Christopher Hanke.
Coupled with her always-sunny personality and copious amounts of raw energy, the world could be seeing Kailee’s name in the bright lights of Broadway one day soon.
“That would be my dream — to have a long career in the performing arts,” she says.
Interestingly, Kailee has also found a bit of success beyond the stage and in front of TV cameras. Two years ago, she landed a small part in an episode of Hawai‘i Five-0. Initially, she was unsure about successfully pulling off the conniving character she was asked to play.
“When I first got the script, I was like, ‘I can’t do this,’” recalls Kailee. “I’ve never played a character like this — someone who was older, was keeping a secret and was a bad girl. I’ve always been a goody two-shoes!”
But rather than bailing on the opportunity, she turned to Rafter for advice. His counsel helped calm her nerves and soon after, she fully embraced the challenge. In fact, Kailee grew so comfortable in her role that during the filming of a scene with actor Chi McBride, who plays Capt. Lou Grover in the series, she inadvertently cut him off before he could deliver his line.
As she explains, “In theater, if you forget your line, you just keep going because you don’t have time to stand there and wait for someone to remember their line. So while filming, I said my line, but after 10 seconds, Chi still hadn’t said his. So, I kept going.”
Suddenly, the veteran actor roared to life.
“He goes, ‘Woah, woah, woah! You stepped on my line!’” recalls Kailee, laughing at the memory. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh! I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to do that!’ I was so worried that I had ruined the entire day.
“But he was just joking and everything turned out to be totally fine.”
That’s the hope, too, for Kailee and her Broadway aspirations: that everything will ultimately turn out to be A-OK.
In pondering her future, the gifted performer can’t help but look back briefly at the reason why she got involved in musical theater. Beyond her love of singing and dancing, she simply wanted to tell “other peoples’ stories.”
“It’s what attracted me to theater in the first place,” she notes. “It started with hula because dance from the hula is all about sharing and passing on stories. Theater is the same. Every time you’re in a production, you get to tell a new story and get to become a new person and a new character.
“That’s why I keep coming back to theater and why I love it so much.”