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'I wanted it to be right': After 3-year journey, RGV native Gabrielle Ruiz releases Christmas single

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Bobby Quillard
Rio Grande Valley native Gabrielle Ruiz has released her first Christmas single, 'Twinkle Twinkle.'

Music, especially around the holiday season, has the power to stir emotions. For Gabrielle Ruiz, an actress, dancer and vocalist raised in the Rio Grande Valley, her debut single “Twinkle Twinkle” does just that.

Most know her as Valencia in the CW’s musical comedy “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and she holds a robust Broadway career and credits Lin-Manuel Miranda for giving her her official Broadway debut in “In the Heights.” Ruiz, who is from Edinburg, credits some of her perseverance in the entertainment industry to an early lesson back in Texas.

“Vocally, my vocal technique, my education, is all public school,” she said. “I was a Texas All-State choir kid: second chair, second soprano. But also, what a fun detail about that – and I say ‘fun’ because it was one of my biggest learning, my first learning experiences – I made All-State my junior year, and then I didn’t my senior year. And so it was this beautiful, heartbreaking lesson of humiliation and deciding to continue it on and make it my profession of auditioning, with sometimes a lot of ‘no’s.'”

Fast-forward to 2022 and “Twinkle Twinkle”: Ruiz said that since she’s always been a part of the holiday season when it comes to her professional entertainment career, she wanted to put her mark on it – and not with a cover song.

“I didn’t want to sing ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ or ‘O Holy Night’ and things like that, which are beautiful songs,” she said. “While I moved to Los Angeles, I began producing Christmas concerts at local communities, organizations, and I enjoyed the original songs from other music artists that either you didn’t hear from, or they were like a Christian band that didn’t get the mainstream effect. And they were just also as beautiful, and they really moved you just as much.”

Ruiz presented two friends, poet Chensiang Tiow and music writer Charlie Malcolm, with an idea.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we take Chen’s poems and make them into music?’ And that was a three-year journey to now,” she said. “I’m from the Broadway community, especially when it comes to my singing technique and my career. And we found my pop voice; we found the style that works with Charlie’s. I sent him over 15 variations of how Macy Gray would sing it, how Mandy Moore would sing it … I didn’t want it to be this big ballad that you only hear on a Broadway stage. I wanted it to be mainstream and it fall enlaced into everyone’s Spotify lists of pop music for Christmas.”

Ruiz said the primary challenge in creating “Twinkle Twinkle” was finding the time to commit – and meet a Thanksgiving deadline.

“Like, that’s the last date, I think, any Christmas song can get a chance to be heard in time for the holiday season. So I think in 2020, in 2021, it all of a sudden was November. And I was like, ‘Charlie, we still haven’t done it,'” she said. “And he finally texted me saying, ‘I’m ready to go. You just let me know when you’re ready.’ And I just wasn’t. And he was very patient, never judgmental, and I just really wanted to make it happen this year. And I also wanted it to be right. And I’m so proud and happy how it turned out. It’s a single this year, and we want a realized album next year in 2023.”

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Photo courtesy Gabrielle Ruiz
Gabrielle Ruiz took many jobs to make it in New York, including being an Expedia owl mascot.

Ruiz said that when she started in show business in New York, she was willing to cast a wide net and take as many chances as she could, including an unsuccessful audition for the Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular (she was too short) and a successful bid as an Expedia mascot (she was on a treadmill in an owl costume) – “it’s my claim to my pre-fame.” It was a few months later that she received her big break – and the role that’s closest to her heart – as Diana Morales on the first national tour of the revival of “A Chorus Line.”

She wasn’t new to the role of Diana. Her first experience in the role was as a college student, as a summer resident company member for a theater in Wichita, Kan.

“It was the first time for me as first a dancer, to sing on stage and act on stage and use my talent of dancing on stage,” she said. “And I learned what it took, and it was my big break out of college. I was able to do it again then; for an entire year I was on tour.

She then played Diana again at New York’s Paper Mill Playhouse, the year that Marvin Hamlisch, who created the music, died. Many alumni came to see the show – including the original Diana Morales, Priscilla Lopez, who danced the finale alongside Ruiz.

“The older I get – I guess this is something people can relate to – the older you get, when you watch something that you saw as a kid and then in your adolescence and then in your adulthood and then your parenthood … that one song, “What I Did For Love,” just makes sense,” she said. “Those scenes, you know, what do you do when you can’t dance anymore? Like those scenes in the show just get more real, and they change. And it hits you in different ways. I love that it has a beautiful revival in my heart every time I get to experience it.”

Off the stage, fans of the show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” know Ruiz for her role as Valencia Perez.

“There is a song [in the show] … ‘I’m The Villain In My Own Story,’ and I think everyone can relate to that. Valencia will say it for you, if you’re not brave enough to say it for yourself, that being a villain can be fun. Not a bully, but a villain,” Ruiz said. “Villains are always honest, and they always tell you like it is. And then when the villain changes to the other team, you are so happy they’re on your side. And Valencia switches over and realizes through her vulnerability and through change and through heartbreak that she can have women friends and she can defend them with so much fervor and ferociousness that she had as the enemy to the main character in the show, that she’s able to exude that and thrive in that way.

“On top of that, she comes out as bi in the show. And there is no song and dance for it. And that was extremely important for Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom, the showrunners of the show – you know, for the amount of song and dance in the show, for the amount of hoopla and razzle dazzle that we give to a turning point for a character to have – she didn’t have that. Because that story is also true for the LGBTQ community, that when a person comes out to a family, there is a story – and I’m not taking away anyone else’s story, but there is also represented story – where the family says, ‘OK, what do you want for dinner?’ Sometimes a reaction is what you’re expecting, [but] isn’t what you wanted. Like you wanted that reaction or you wanted to have that conversation with an elder or a parent or whatever. She didn’t have that moment, and a lot of people appreciated that, that it was also not a huge deal where she didn’t get disbanded from the group or she didn’t get, you know, kicked out of her community.”

On the big screen, Ruiz has done two films this year, the first being “Dance Dads,” which filmed in Austin in January and had its world premiere at the Austin Film Festival in October, winning best comedy feature.

“I play – guess who? – the villain female. She’s the divorcee of the main character in the movie,” Ruiz said. “And he, Marco, who’s played by Jared Bonner, wants to go through therapy through dance, and he creates a men’s dance group of single dads, like, either they are baby daddies or divorced dads. They all have like a past with their kids. And it’s so freakin funny. We have had so much fun premiering it and still possibly more festivals this year.”

It was also recently announced that Ruiz is part of the film “Man in the Long Black Coat” alongside Mark Feuerstein and Christopher Lloyd. She’ll play an ex-Marine who’s a security guard for a rabbi whose synagogue is experiencing threats, in a role that she prepared for by going to shooting ranges and brushing up on firearm safety and education.

“It was very exciting and a huge surprise when I got the call because get this, I didn’t audition for it,” she said. That’s Hollywood for you.”

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Kristen Cabrera is a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, where she saw snow for the first time and walked a mile through a blizzard. A native of the Rio Grande Valley, she graduated from the University of Texas-Pan American (now UTRGV) and is a former KUT News intern. She has been working as a freelance audio producer, writer and podcaster. Email her: kcabrera@kut.org