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Portrait of Deborah Grausman
Alumna Deborah Grausman is the human behind Smartie, the animated smartphone sidekick in "Sesame Street: Elmo's World." Photo by Dirty Sugar

Finding Her Voice

Singer and actor Deborah Grausman has succeeded in not blending in

The first thing that Deborah Grausman ’02 noticed about Smartie – the animated smartphone sidekick in “Sesame Street: Elmo’s World” – was how big her eyes were.

“I saw that she had a big smile and really wide eyes, and that she’s pink,” said Grausman. That helped the voice actor find the right pitch and personality for the character that she has voiced since 2017.

Grausman asks for as much detail about a character as possible before recording audition clips, often from a pillow-padded closet in her New York City apartment. The thing that most people don’t realize about voice acting is that it is indeed acting, she said. “It’s not just about the voice, it’s the interpretation.”

Grausman majored in music at Duke and performed as an opera singer before moving into musical theater, short films, commercials and narration of audio books. Her youthful, bubbly voice has brought to life a variety of characters across the mediums, including a teenage Holocaust survivor, a mischievous Spanish page boy, and a young woman who’s just learned she’s pregnant at a baby shower.

But of all the parts that Grausman has played, one of the most influential was one she didn’t get, she said. After auditioning for a selective choral ensemble in ninth grade – for which she’d practiced furiously for weeks – she didn’t make the cut.

Grausman holding Smartie the smartphone, with Elmo.

Grausman, who attended elite performing art camps such as Belvoir Terrace and Boston University Tanglewood Institute while growing up in New York City, was “completely devastated,” she recalled. “I went to talk to the choral director to see what I could do differently, and he said, ‘Well, you just didn’t blend well.’”

In the music world, blending refers to combining diverse voices into one unified sound. But what felt like failure at the time was actually a turning point in Grausman’s career, she reflected, because it propelled her to take private lessons to develop her voice as a soloist.

Grausman chose Duke because she found the green campus “seductive” and wanted to spread her wings from New York. Her family members similarly migrated south for college: Her sister, Jennifer Grausman ’96, attended Duke, and her father, Richard Grausman, attended the University of North Carolina.

Grausman didn’t declare her music major until the end of sophomore year, but as a freshman, she earned the key role of Cherubino in the opera “The Marriage of Figaro,” presented in Baldwin Auditorium. A lesson with voice teacher Rachelle Fleming post-graduation was another fork in the road. After hearing Grausman sing both operatic arias and Broadway songs, Fleming noted that Grausman lit up during the theater numbers and encouraged her to choose that path.

Her first musical theater show was an ensemble role in a production of “The Secret Garden” at Philadelphia’s Media Theatre. She has since appeared in shows all over the country, including a national tour of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Photo from Two Sopranos and a Chef
Grausman, right, with friend and singer Lauren Jelencovich, left, during a baking lesson with Sarabeth Levine. Photo by Kathryn Cooper

Her latest creative project is a musical cooking show with friend and professional singer, Lauren Jelencovich. “One day we were just like ‘What if we combined all of our passions?’” said Grausman.

The show, “Two Sopranos and a Chef,” is still in development, but the plan is for each episode to feature a well-known chef teaching the singers how to make and present a unique dish for a dinner party. After dinner, party guests will enjoy music from an invited guest that matches the theme of the food – for example, Mediterranean music to celebrate a Greek dish.

Proceeds from tickets for the filmed dinner party will be donated to charity. “It's just about giving back in a fun and creative way that's also entertaining,” she said.