Coming to the City: When I Get My Name in Lights

Special Features   Coming to the City: When I Get My Name in Lights
 
Stars - including Donna Murphy, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Raul Esparza, Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Westfeldt, Tommy Tune, Stephanie D'Abruzzo and John Tartaglia - tell their stepping off the bus stories

Donna Murphy
Donna Murphy

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Why, oh why, oh why, oh...

Why did Donna Murphy ever leave Hauppauge, Long Island? (And try to get a lyric out of that!) The actress who plays the buttoned-down, brass-tacks, sensible side of the sister act in Wonderful Town imagines it must have been the movie musicals she saw at an early age. "I never saw a Broadway show while I lived out on Long Island, but I was somehow aware This Was The Place. The truth is, from the moment I was three years old, I told my mother I was going to be a singer and an actress, and I told her I wanted singing lessons."

Apparently, instructors weren't receiving three-year-olds that season, but the dream persisted, and, when Murphy graduated high school at 18, "I had my heart and my head set on studying to be an actress. It became this sort of self-imposed challenge. Could I really do this? Could it become something beyond this very romantic vision? I remember hearing myself tell people, 'I'm going to give myself five years, and, if I'm not earning a living within the business, then I'll do something else.' I didn't necessarily originally plan on coming directly to New York, but I ended up doing that because I chose to go to NYU.

"I really had no clue that you could have the kind of experience that I had, which was to go on an open call for a Broadway musical during my sophomore year at NYU — and actually get the job. It was an understudy spot for They're Playing Our Song, and I was on my way. The dream was to be a working actress. Not only have I had that but I've had the opportunity to collaborate with amazing artists who share the passion I have. And each role I've played has taught me more about being human in the world. I don't really think I got what that benefit was going to be when I started dreaming about doing this." Hugh Jackman came to New York with a job. He arrived as Tony Awards host last year and has returned in that same capacity this year. In the interim, he whiled away his time productively at the Imperial Theatre with his portrayal of Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz.

It has been the kind of conquest of Broadway that actors allow themselves to fantasize about in their wildest dreams — only Jackman doesn't see it that way. "I never thought of coming here in terms of conquering New York but in terms of jumping aboard a moving train without falling off," he admits. "Certainly, the legend of New York and Broadway isn't something one needs to be told about. It's part of the lore. And, after I got to London [in Oklahoma!], I knew that I wanted to get to Broadway. I had the good fortune to come here with a job, and the irony is not lost on me that both Peter Allen and I are both small-town boys from the Outback who came to New York and just fell in love with it."

The kid from Oz in The Boy From Oz — Mitchel David Federan, who plays the sawed-off, subteen Peter Allen — hails from Cleveland and has already logged a decade of dance in his first 12 years because his mother ran a dance school there. Three of those have been with this show — from reading to workshop to Broadway run. Before that? The Music Man, Annie Get Your Gun and (like a true Allenite) the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes show. Clearly, showbiz courses through his veins: "It's a dream come true for me to come to New York and do a Broadway show. It's great. I dance, sing, act — everything I love to do."

A Lucky Wrong Turn

Playing Glinda, the Good Witch, in Wicked, Kristin Chenoweth is lured to a different big city: the Emerald City of Oz. And she goes solely as a chaperone for Idina Menzel's Elphaba, who has biz with the Wiz there.

How did she get to NYC from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma? "I just made the wrong turn," admits Chenoweth, who was headed for Philadelphia to study opera at the Academy of Vocal Arts where she had been accepted. "Two weeks before the program started, I helped my best friend, Danny, move to New York, and, while I was here, I thought I'd go on an audition. I waited five hours to be seen because I wasn't a member of Equity, but I finally got in — and they offered me the job. I said, 'But I'm an opera singer. I just wanted the experience of a New York audition.' The director who cast me — Charles Repole — sat me down, and he said, 'You're very unique. We think we're going to get one thing, and we get something else. You need to think about what you're doing.' So I did. I decided to do [his regional production of] Animal Crackers and not the Academy, and here I am."

Menzel got her Broadway introduction from her parents who brought her in from Long Island as a child and gave her some life-altering exposures to The Great White Way. As an NYU student, she started making her own kind of music and Broadway didn't seem that formidable a leap — especially since she wasn't seeking it. "I kinda came at it by a fluke," she confesses. "I was songwriting and doing my own music, so I didn't figure I had anything to lose if I went in for Rent." It turned out she had everything to win. Nightly, she realizes that taking the career-making role of Maureen was the right move. "Sometimes it can be work, but it's more than I ever thought it would be. It's just magical, and the response you get so tremendous."

The softer side of the Wonderful Town sister act, the blondely adorable Eileen, is clearly drawn by the conspicuous glamour around her, and so was the actress playing her, Jennifer Westfeldt, who could see Manhattan's aurora borealis from neighboring Connecticut. In fact, there was some relative spillage on her mother's side in Manhattan, assuring frequent forays here for plays and holidays — and an affinity was born.

When Westfeldt opted to be, as Kander & Ebb would say, "a part of it," she started living Wonderful Town for real. "I never did Broadway," she admits. "I'd get great jobs regionally, but in between I'd work three or four money jobs. I was a sales consultant at a gym, a waitress, a hostess. I did some legal proofreading, some personal assistant work. I think this is every artist's story on some level — crazy landlords, crazy neighbors, wacky money jobs you do to get through — all those things that are timeless in Wonderful Town.

"What's so great about Eileen is she sees New York as a small town and just assumes everybody is incredibly friendly and helpful. I feel all those things myself. I've always been a little starry-eyed about Manhattan and New Yorkers. People who haven't been in New York always think New Yorkers are so rude, but I find them so not that way. I've lost wallets and cell phones in taxis several times, and I've always gotten them back. I always feel that people don't give credit enough to how great New Yorkers really are."

Getting a Hand

Avenue Q is sort of Wonderful Town, punctuated with puppets — a comfy, idiosyncratic little community where the denizens hang out all day, wondering why it was again that they came to New York. Stephanie D'Abruzzo, who operates and voices the wannabe bohemian Kate Monster and other characters, arrived, like Westfeldt, in the spring rush of 1993. A senior at Northwestern, she came to audition for the Muppets. "I came on the train, thank God, because you could change Amtrak tickets without penalty, and they kept calling me back. But a Muppet audition is not like a regular audition where there's a job at the end to get. You sorta get poured into a pool, and they leave you with 'I'll be in touch if anything comes up.'" A determined D'Abruzzo bounded back a few months later to apprentice on "Sesame Street" and, again in the fall, for a workshop that got her hired.

There was an extra motivation, named Craig Shemin, a Jim Henson writer. "In a parallel universe of my life," she says, "I was also meeting and falling in love with my now-husband, who lived in New York — so I had a place to stay. My career brought me to New York. My husband kept me in New York. He gave me a home. He gave me a heart. And he gave me support. That was important because my first years here were tough, full of unemployment, and I never could have made it here if I didn't have a place to stay."

John Tartaglia, who handles the party-hearty Princeton in tandem with D'Abruzzo's Kate, made a beeline for the big city right out of Ambler, Pennsylvania high school. "I moved here when I was 18 because I had a great opportunity at the time," he says, "a job on 'Sesame Street,' and I knew if I wanted to achieve my dream of being on Broadway I had to come here."

And has the reality been up to the dream? "More so. It didn't occur to me until a couple of weeks into the run how it consumes your life. You live, eat, breathe the show, but to get up there every night and do what you love and get that feedback from an audience is truly dizzying. I still go home every night humming because I'm so happy to be up there."

"I Went With the Talent"

Another whose reality far exceeded his dream is Tommy Tune, who achieved the unthinkable by landing a job on his first audition. "I was set to struggle, too," he sighs, almost apologetically. "It was the day I moved here — St. Patrick's Day. My friend, Phil Oesterman, who drove me up, said, 'Go buy Back Stage and Show Business and see what's auditioning today.' There was an audition, and I went and got the job. It was for Irma La Douce. It began at the Paper Mill Playhouse, and then it toured across the country."

Of all the making-it-on-Broadway myths that Broadway itself perpetuates, the one that Tune relates most to is the one now in its third year at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. Nadine Isenegger executes it eight times a week in 42nd Street. "I'm more the male version of Peggy Sawyer," Tune contends. "I just wanted to come to New York and dance in the chorus. That was my dream — then, gosh, so much else has happened to me. Nine Tony Awards! I never imagined getting one Tony because they don't give Tony Awards for dancing in the chorus. That's what I came to be — the best chorus boy that I could be.

"Little did I realize that chorus boys weren't built like me (six-foot-six). The first show Michael Bennett choreographed, he hired me. Baayork Lee was on the other end of the line, so it was a range. I said, 'How did you ever come to hire me?' He said, 'I went with the talent.' I still remember that when I'm casting. 'It doesn't matter if they don't match up. Go with the talent.' That's what they did on my first audition. I couldn't believe it."

Happily, Broadway still creates Peggy Sawyers and their male equivalents. This season they were Nancy Lemenager and Noah Racey, stepping out of a chorus line into the star spots of Never Gonna Dance, just like in 42nd Street — "except," Lemenager duly notes, "nobody had to get hurt and we didn't have to step in at the last minute. But it is sorta smalltown-girl-works-her-way-up true of me." She herself hails from Worcester, Massachusetts, and caught Broadwayitis "in a dance school which really promoted that as an ideal. So I thought I would come to New York, do it while I could, while I was young — about five years, then go back to school for Something Serious. Fifteen years later, I'm still here, kicking my heels" now in a featured part in Movin' Out, between Racey reunions on nights off for the "Musicals of" series that Scott Siegel produces at Town Hall.

"I never waitressed or did any odd jobs like that, but I did teach dancing," Lemenager says. And, as irony and Never Gonna Dance would have it, she played a dance instructor — one who's bad for Racey, since he's trying to stop dancing. They go into Major Bowes's competition.

Racey's own "overnight discovery" was ten years in the coming (plus another four at the Boston Conservatory) and included a couple of small turns on Broadway (Follies and Thoroughly Modern Millie) before The Big Time beckoned. "It doesn't get any bigger than starring," he says. "My debut as a star will never happen again. It was so surreal, so unlike anything I'd ever done and yet so what I do. It's overwhelming if I let it. Luckily, I had Nancy to hold on to. I had her to hold my hand and we used each other as an anchor."

First Impressions

A mythic New York moment occurs at the outset of Thoroughly Modern Millie when its Kansas heroine sets foot on Gotham cement. "It's the opening number, called 'Not for the Life of Me,'" says Susan Egan, who has taken over Sutton Foster's Tony-winning role of a husband-hunting innocent. "She steps off the bus, and she's got two suitcases and this farmer dress, and she's watching the city come to life. Her opening line is 'I studied all the pictures / in magazines and books / I memorized the subway map, too.' It's that moment of 'Oh, my God! I'm in New York City,' and I'm just having a kick playing a role that has that moment every night. It's similar to my story, to anybody's story. When they put me into the show, Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the music, told me her stepping-off-the-bus story. Michael Mayer, the director, told me his. Everyone's got one."

If you stick around Manhattan long enough, that pungent first impression fades — and sometimes comes back on you very sharply. "Every so often I have this memory," says Egan. "I live up by Lincoln Center now, and, when I first went to that area, I was 18, visiting my sister. I remember how turned around I was, not knowing which way was north and which was south. It's strange for me now because those streets are so familiar, but every so often I can see them again from that discombobulated viewpoint of 'Oh, my God, this was the spot where I was standing, trying to get my bearings.' I feel more grounded now, but just remembering what it was like gets that rush going again. The city felt so big then. Didn't it? It felt like such a beast to tackle. And now it feels like home."

Egan's UCLA roommate, Sarah Uriarte Berry, also played a character who made it to the Big City in the season just ended — the big city being London and the show being Taboo. What brought her to New York in real life? Two words: "Broadway" and "boyfriend" (Michael Berry, now husband and the father of her child). "I was cast in a tour of Les Miz out of college," she says, "and he was cast in the Broadway company of Les Miz, so I used the old 'Oh, couldn't I play something in the Broadway company? I want to be with my boyfriend.' Richard Jay-Alexander had pity on me and gave me Eponine. I said, 'All right!'"

Raúl Esparza, who recently lorded over Taboo as London club czar Philip Sallon, came to New York for college (NYU, the same as Donna Murphy and Idina Menzel), but he allowed himself The Dream. "One of my first weeks here in college, I went to the top of the Empire State Building, and I went at night," he remembers. "There's something about being up there at night, with all those lights blinking and New York spread out beneath you. It's like a scene from every Woody Allen movie ever made — a city of so many possibilities. You can image a thousand lifetimes in this city because you've seen them on the screen. There was something so huge about the city spread out at my feet that I just started trembling with all this possibility and what I could become here."

That euphoria came with a terrible undertow. "I just loved acting in plays so much. I would always make the sacrifices necessary to do the next job, but I never thought it'd be a way I would always pay my rent and have a life."

Upon graduation, he got his ego together and took it to Chicago, where "I met actors who had homes and families and worked in theatre and weren't big stars. I began to realize it's not about being a big star. It's about doing the best you can, competing with yourself in a way to be better the next time, knowing 'That's not good enough for me. Keep going.'"

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