DIVA TALK: Chatting with Grease Star Laura Osnes Plus News of Buckley and Merman

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Grease Star Laura Osnes Plus News of Buckley and Merman News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Grease stars Laura Osnes and Max Crumm.
Grease stars Laura Osnes and Max Crumm. Photo by Scott Gries

LAURA OSNES
Laura Osnes has taken the typical road to Broadway: Audition for a TV reality show with a few thousand other Broadway hopefuls; perform in front of millions of people on a live NBC program from Jan. 7-March 5; and land the lead role in a multi-million Broadway revival. Okay, well it's not that typical; in fact, Osnes and co-star Max Crumm are the first actors ever to be cast in a Broadway production via reality TV.

A stunning brunette with a powerful belt, Osnes was deemed "Small-Town Sandy" on "Grease: You're the One That I Want," the aforementioned NBC-TV program that earned her the role of Sandy Dumbrowski, the part originated on Broadway by Carole Demas and later immortalized on screen by Olivia Newton-John. Osnes impressed the judges and the TV viewers with her sweet-natured personality, her character-driven vocal work and her mega-watt smile.

Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, the latest incarnation of the family-friendly musical Grease will begin previews at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre July 24 with an official opening Aug. 19. Crumm, who will play the role of leader-of-the-pack Danny Zuko, recently had this to say about co-star Osnes: "Laura is a gem. She's just so good, and she brings so much to the role that I just love. I love what she's doing with it. And it's really cool to see her — every time I get to see her onstage or in rehearsal, it reminds me of where I came from. It reminds me, 'Oh, wow, somebody's here right with me.'"

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with the charming Osnes, who married longtime boyfriend Nathan Johnson May 11.

Question: Congratulations on your recent wedding.
Osnes: Well, thank you very much. Question: How was the day?
Osnes: Oh, it was perfect. The day was so perfect. The weather was wonderful. Everything about it was exactly how I pictured it to be; it was beautiful.

Question: Where was the wedding?
Osnes: In Minnesota at a church.

Question: Is your husband in New York with you now?
Osnes: He is. He quit his job — well, his job at the time. He was working at the church we got married at. We moved out here together. We drove a U-Haul across the country and moved all our stuff in.

Question: Are you living in Manhattan?
Osnes: Yep, we're right in midtown. It's nice and convenient. We totally love it. We're all settled in, and it already feels like home.

Question: How did you originally hear about the auditions for the Grease reality show?
Osnes: I heard about the auditions in the newspaper, but the newspaper didn't have any information about the audition. A lot of people had talked to me [and said], "Laura, did you see that in the paper?" because I was currently playing the role of Sandy at a regional theatre in the Twin Cities area. So they were like, "Did you hear they were doing this national reality TV thing?" People started asking me about it, and then my aunt actually was diligent about trying to find audition information for me. She finally emailed me the website once they got the website up. So I heard about it first through the newspaper but then found out the information through the website.

Question: When during the series did you start to think, "Maybe I have a pretty good chance…"?
Osnes: I think definitely [the week I sang] "Fever," which was week Nnumber four. I think that was definitely the turning point when the judges were kind of like, "Okay, I think this girl kind of stands out." I know that "Jesus Christ Superstar" was week number two, and I think that was kind of the moment when they first noticed me. [Judge and Grease producer] David Ian said that. He was like, "I liked you, but I hadn't really noticed you up until that point." So I think that was kind of like a "Hello, I'm here. I can do this" [moment]. [Laughs.]

Question: What do you think was your best performance on the show, and what do you think was your worst?
Osnes: I think "Fever" was my best performance. I felt the most comfortable. It was fun to have the camaraderie of [having] the guys onstage and getting to dance with them. I think my worst performance was probably the very first one, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" I feel like I did a fine job with the song, but it was the first show, [and] I think we were all really nervous about it. It was the first time singing in front of America. I go back and look at that now and I'm like, "Oh, I can tell there were moments when I was nervous, when I felt uncertain," but I think I really eased into it throughout the competition.

Question: How demanding or stressful was it being cast on national television? What was it like from week to week?
Osnes: It was pretty stressful. I managed to keep my cool pretty well, but I have never done TV before. I've only ever done live stage, so I never did commercials, I've never done TV shows, I've never gotten into that side of the industry. So it was definitely a whole new side of the industry for me. But it was also really exciting to be like, "Wow, I never thought I would do a reality TV competition!" What an amazing opportunity for a performer to get to sing on TV week after week and really get your name out there. People work for years on Broadway and never get the kind of publicity that Max and I got from this one tiny opportunity.

It was stressful, and it was very demanding. We worked long days, and we had one day off a week, and we kind of had to put a new show together every week. So we were rehearsing pretty hard to make sure it was camera-perfect by Sunday.

Question: You were nicknamed "Small-Town Sandy." What did you think of that label?
Osnes: At first I was a little skeptical about it because I'm like, "Well, I'm from Minneapolis. That's not a small town at all!" [Laughs.] I've done a lot of professional work in the cities, so I didn't want [the nickname] to detract from either my abilities or what people thought of me, but I think as it went onward it kind of helped me because it made me relatable. I was from a small town just like all the people who were watching. I was kind of the underdog from the beginning, and, "Oh, she doesn't have blonde hair," and all that kind of stuff. I think that was something that maybe helped the audience relate to me.

Question: Do you remember your first reaction when they announced that you had won? What went through your mind?
Osnes: Oh, my gosh, a flood of emotions. It was joy, it was overwhelming, it was excitement . . . It was kind of like all of that hard work paid off. It was like seeing the fruits of my labor, and it was definitely a dream-come-true moment. I've always wanted to be a Broadway actress, and it's just like, "Oh, my gosh, I really won this competition! Are you serious? Pinch me, this must be a dream!"

Question: You mentioned that you had played Sandy once before. Where was that?
Osnes: That was at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.

Question: How do you think your performance will differ this time?
Osnes: The rehearsal process for the Broadway show is going so well, and I'm so excited about it. It is a different Sandy. It's a much stronger, much deeper character in this version than the one I was playing before. I'm not saying that was bad. It was a great show there, and it was totally fun to be a part of it, but I really love what Kathleen Marshall is doing. We did a lot of table work at the beginning to talk about the relationships between each of the characters and the fun that Danny and Sandy must have had the summer before, bringing that into every scene. Actually, the play, the way it's written, Danny and Sandy fight in every scene. They never are happy together, so … you could make Sandy just really pouty and wanting to make Danny apologize in every scene, but Kathleen Marshall really has this vision of both of them coming into each [scene], and each time they see each other, remembering what they had in the summer and wanting it to work so badly, until something else comes in the way. It's a deeper side of it. It is a new discovery in the role of Sandy and her relationship with Danny, which is exciting. So it's not like I'm doing the same thing I already did. There are so many new facets of the show, and of the role, that I'm discovering.

Question: How would you describe Sandy?
Osnes: I would say Sandy is sweet — she's innocent, she's naïve, but she's also strong-willed. She has a heart that desires something greater. She doesn't just want to settle, but she's courageous in that she wants to fit in with the gang, and she tries, but they continue to make fun of her. So I think she has a little bit of a fire in her that she lets out when she has to.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Sandy yet?
Osnes: We've only done the first act. Actually, there's a great moment at the end of the first act. Sandy walks in on Rizzo singing "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee," and Rizzo's making fun of her, and Sandy actually gets to come in and physically push Rizzo. She gets really mad, and that's her little fire moment. She's so sweet the whole time, and you would never expect it, but it builds up in her so much that she kind of gets to let loose in the scene. That's really fun, and unexpected, from her, so it's kind of cool.

Question: When did you first experience Grease? Was it a stage production or was it the movie?
Osnes: I think my first experience was the movie, a long time ago. I grew up with the soundtrack. I knew all the songs — I had a tap dance in fifth grade to one of the songs from Grease [laughs], so it's definitely been in my blood for awhile.

Question: Tell me a little bit about working with Max Crumm.
Osnes: Max has been so great. We were really great friends during the live show. We both auditioned in L.A. I remember meeting him at the very initial audition. He kept making callbacks, and I did, too. We sat by each other in the very, very beginning. So that's been cool, to actually be along with him on the whole journey. He's been so fun already. He comes prepared, and everyone really loves him, of course. He's so funny and really very easy to work with. It's kind of fun because we talk about it a lot in that we do have a past. We've been friends for awhile, so that kind of helps in the scenes. It's not like I walked in on the first day of rehearsal, and it was like, "Here, this is going to be your Danny," and I had never met him before. We actually are friends, and we have that.

Question: What do you think he brings to the role of Danny that makes him a different Danny?
Osnes: I think he just is a different Danny. He's new, he's young, he's fresh.… Everyone pictures Danny, and it's the same thing time after time after time: good looking, leather jacket. I think Max will bring something totally new, totally fresh. [He'll] still stay true to the role but bring his personality into it. I think America fell in love with Max's easygoing personality, and they're definitely going to get that in the Broadway show.

Question: Going back a bit, where were you born and raised?
Osnes: I was born in Burnsville, Minnesota, and raised in Eagan, which is right by Burnsville. I've been in that area my whole life.

Question: When did you start performing?
Osnes: I did my first show in second grade. I was a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz.

Question: Were there any singers or actors growing up that you particularly admired?
Osnes: People ask me that a lot. It's hard because I'm not huge into celebrities. All of my music growing up, I listened to Broadway [shows]. I got to know a lot of music as I was growing up — people like Linda Eder, Sutton Foster . . . . But I've never really been like, "Oh, my gosh, this person is my idol," or "I want to do what this person has done in life." Question: What was the first Broadway show you saw?
Osnes: My first Broadway show wasn't until I was a freshman in high school. It was my first trip to New York. I came with a group of theatre kids, and we saw four shows. The very first one was Contact.

Question: When did you know that performing would be your career?
Osnes: Pretty early. It was always my dream. I had been singing, dancing, acting since I was really young. I started taking dance lessons and voice lessons, and I did my first professional show in sixth grade.

Question: What was that?
Osnes: That was Madeline's Rescue at the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis. I have always really loved it, and opportunities have continued to come up for me. After high school I went to the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point for a year, and I studied musical theatre. By that point, I was like, "This is what I want to do." I auditioned for their program and [was] one of seven kids that made it in their BFA Musical Theatre program. So I think my high school years were definitely like, "Okay, this is really what I love doing." I was doing things at school and also doing things outside of school, professionally, all throughout my high school career. It just kind of became my passion.

Question: Have you done productions where you've done eight performances a week?
Osnes: Yes, actually. The children's theatre does 11 shows a week! So I got used to that pretty quickly.

Question: So you're ready for the Broadway schedule.
Osnes: I think so. [Laughs.]

Question: How long are you and Max contracted with the show?
Osnes: I'm signed on for a year. The cast is on for a year, and then I don't know what's after that. People say, "Will it tour or will you stay with it?," and I'm kind of like, "I don't know." I think I would love to stay with it, depending on if I'm not Grease-ed out! [Laughs.] But I probably wouldn't tour with it because I have a husband [in New York], and we're starting out here, but I don't know. . . . [Also], NBC still kind of owns Max and I. After this year they have something where, if they want me for a TV show in L.A., they can talk to me about that. I could take that opportunity. I have to kind of okay everything I do for the following year through the network.

[Tickets to Grease at the Brooks Atkinson, 256 West 47th Street, are on sale by calling (212) 307-4100 or at the box office. For more information visit greaseonbroadway.com.]

DIVA TIDBITS
Tony Award winner Betty Buckley will return to the famed Manhattan jazz club, the Blue Note, July 17. Buckley, who recently played an acclaimed engagement at Feinstein's at the Regency, will celebrate her 17½-year partnership with musical director Kenny Werner during her Blue Note run. Entitled Songs for a Summer Night, the concerts will feature selections from her forthcoming CD "Quintessence" as well as a healthy dose of songs from her eclectic repertoire, which includes songs from the worlds of pop, rock, country and musical theatre. Werner has also penned a few new arrangements for the Blue Note gig. On July 17 Buckley will be backed by her trio, which comprises Werner on piano, Tony Marino on bass and Anthony Pinciotti on drums. The remainder of the run will also feature Billy Drewes on reeds. (Drummer Dan Rieser will sub for Pinciotti July 21 and 22.) There is a $20 cover charge at the bar and a $35 cover at the tables. The Blue Note is located in Manhattan at 131 West Third Street. For reservations call (212) 475-8592 or visit www.bluenote.net.

A new book celebrating the life of the late Ethel Merman will arrive in bookstores this fall. Brian Kellow's tome, entitled "Ethel Merman: A Life," is scheduled to hit bookstores around the country Nov. 5. The 336-page hardback will be published by Viking. Kellow interviewed more than 125 of Merman's friends and former colleagues for the biography, which also features never-before-published photos. The book, according to a press release, "reveals in great detail a side of Merman many are not familiar with. Merman was a tough-talking, hard-drinking woman of theatrical legend and a woman of enormous vulnerability, particularly where men were concerned, and she was in many ways lonely and deeply disappointed by the way her life had turned out."

Casting is nearly complete for the Hollywood Bowl's upcoming concert performances of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, starring Reba McEntire and Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell as, respectively, Ensign Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque. David Lee will direct the concerts, set for Aug. 3 and 4 at 8:30 PM and Aug. 5 at 7:30 PM. The duo will be joined onstage by Mia Tendora as Ngana, Sebastian Gonzalez as Jerome, Armelia McQueen as Bloody Mary, Janelle Velasquez as Liat, Jody Ashworth as Stewpot, Steven Hack as Professor, Aaron Lazar as Lt. Joseph Cable, Conrad John Schuck as Capt. George Brackett, John DeMita as Cmdr. William Harbison and Ron Butler as Henry. The Hollywood Bowl is located in Hollywood, CA, at 2301 N. Highland Avenue. Tickets, priced $7-$147, are available by visiting www.hollywoodbowl.com.

Casting is complete for the forthcoming Reprise! Broadway's Best production of On Your Toes, which will kick off the 2007-2008 season of the acclaimed series, which is now headed by artistic director Jason Alexander. The classic Rodgers and Hart musical will play UCLA's Freud Playhouse Aug. 14-26 with an official opening Aug. 15. Directed by Dan Mojica, the cast will boast "Frasier" star Dan Butler as Sergei Alexandrovich and stage and screen actress Stefanie Powers as Peggy with Jeffry Denman, Beth Malone, Brett Ryback, Jonathan Sharp Yvette Tucker and Diane Vincent. The ensemble will comprise Shell Bauman, Seth Belliston, Quintan Craig, Jennie Ford, Casey Garritano, Jeff Griggs, Chelsea Hackett, Joey T. Marshall, Melissa Paris, Aaron Pomeroy, Mark C. Reis, Katie Rooney, Jean Michelle Sayeg, Leslie Stevens, John Todd and Scott Weber. For tickets, call the UCLA Central Ticket Office at (310) 825-2101. For more information visit www.reprise.org.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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