DIVA TALK: Chatting with Rent Star Annaleigh Ashford

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Annaleigh Ashford
Annaleigh Ashford

ANNALEIGH ASHFORD
Annaleigh Ashford, who let her soprano soar as Glinda in the hit Stephen Schwartz-Winnie Holzman musical Wicked, is currently belting her heart out eight times a week as performance artist Maureen, the part created on Broadway by Tony winner Idina Menzel, in the freshly conceived production of the late Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning musical Rent at Off-Broadway's New World Stages. Ashford, who has also been seen on Broadway in Legally Blonde, draws the biggest laughs of the evening when she presents her performance piece, "Over the Moon." In fact, the New York Times said the singing actress added "a revitalizing grit to her role. She is more precise and funnier than was Ms. Menzel (whose strengths were of a different stripe) in evoking the particular world of downtown performance that's being satirized here." Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Ashford about her role in Rent, the rock musical about a group of friends, lovers and artists seeking to express themselves in the age of AIDS; that interview follows.

Question: Since we haven't spoken before, tell me where you were born and raised.
Annaleigh Ashford: I was born and raised in Denver, CO.

Question: When did you start performing?
Ashford: I started performing from the womb. [Laughs.] Just kidding! I started performing non-professionally at birthday parties and family gatherings doing "Saturday Night Live" impressions at four. Then I started for real at seven.

Question: Where was that?
Ashford: In Denver, CO, there's a really thriving theatre scene, and I went to the Kit Andre Dance and Performing Arts Center and started my theatrical education there. My first big show in Denver was Ruthless! The Musical. I played Tina Denmark at the Theatre on Broadway. It was my big break!

Question: When you were growing up, were there any actors or singers that you particularly admired?
Ashford: Early on, I was already a huge fan of Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Ethel Merman, Bette Midler. I loved Cher already — basically, I was a young gay man — I also loved Liza, and I had a weird karaoke background tape of Liza Minnelli's greatest hits, and I would put on my fishnet tights and my black leotard and false eyelashes at eight-years-old, and I would sing "City Lights" and "Maybe This Time." "Maybe This Time" was very inappropriate. [Laughs.] Question: When did performing change for you from being a hobby to when you knew it was going to be your career — or, maybe you always knew?
Ashford: You know, it's so funny you ask me that because my little brother is 18 and is choosing what he wants to do for college, and I had this moment where I realized that I always knew. I never didn't know. It was always something I had to do, and I'm so grateful that my mom, who is actually an elementary school gym teacher, never pushed me. She was never a Mama Rose, but she always wanted to give me the best opportunity. It was me dragging her to auditions. When I did Ruthless! The Musical, with all of these wonderful Denver actors, I knew — at least I hoped — that I would have a life as an actor.

Ashford and DeQuina Moore in Legally Blonde.
photo by Paul Kolnik

Question: After high school, how did you pursue performing? What was your next step?
Ashford: Well, I knew I needed to get myself to New York, so I graduated high school a year early and came out here and went to college at Marymount Manhattan College. I was an acting major there, and I auditioned all throughout college. [Laughs.] I was not as successful at my auditioning endeavors. I went to EPAs and chorus calls, and I remember the first thing I ever got called back for — so ironic — was Jerry Mitchell called me back from the open call of Hairspray, a dance call, and he was the one auditing that day, and he called me back. He was the only one who called me back from a chorus call or an EPA [laughs], and then he ended up giving me my first Broadway show, which, I think, is so beautiful. But, I auditioned all through college, and I ended up graduating college a year early. Before Next to Normal was Next to Normal, it was called Feeling Electric, and I played Natalie at an awesome production at the NYMF with Amy Spanger and Joe Cassidy and Anthony Rapp and Ben Schrader — it was wonderful. From there, I got the Glinda cover on the first national Wicked tour, which hadn't been out for even a year, so that was really exciting, and then from there, I got Legally Blonde.

Question: Do you remember what your first night on Broadway was like? I'm always curious how it lives up to what the idea of it is.
Ashford: Oh, it totally did! I am so lucky that mine totally did! My Broadway debut was the "gypsy-run" of Legally Blonde, so I mean, it was the full theatre community at Legally Blonde, and I made the first entrance in the show, which was horrifyingly nerve-wracking. I had to pop out of a window and I'm afraid of heights. It was also at the Palace, so I was like freaking out about Miss Garland, and how her spirit was all over the theatre — also Fanny Brice had performed there, and also Gracie Allen had performed there, Gwen Verdon… the list goes on and on. And, it was exhilarating. It was a beautiful night of theatre — there's so much support from your fellow actors, and it was the first time that I really felt like I was a part of the community, the New York theatre community. It was a dream. It was just magical.

Question: Getting to your current project, how did the role in Rent come about?
Ashford: You know, I've always wanted to play Maureen, and I never thought I'd get to do it. [Laughs.] I never thought in a million years I'd get to play it. When the revival was announced, I was very excited because I knew that Michael Greif was going to work on it, and I've always wanted to work with Michael. I knew that they were doing a re-imagining of the show… I was always very interested in the performance-piece aspect of the show. You know, she's such a sex kitten, and has always been portrayed as that, as a strong, strong woman. I'm a huge Idina Menzel fan, and I've seen so many wonderful actresses play the role, and I was really interested in reinvestigating the performance-art piece. I have quite a few friends who are performance artists themselves, and do a lot in the New York performance community, and I was interested in reevaluating and reinvestigating what Maureen was trying to say through the piece and what she could communicate physically. In my audition I really think they understood my intention behind what I was going for, and we had an amazing time creating. It was a blast.

Ashford in Rent.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: How involved was Jonathan Larson's family with this production? I know that his dad and his sister have been involved with past productions.
Ashford: Their involvement was such a beautiful one, a presence, a strong presence of love and support and respect… It wasn't a sad presence, it was a really joyous and celebratory presence. It was a celebration of his work and of his life, and I really believe this show really is… almost like he wrote his own eulogy. There's so much to celebrate about his life through the music and through the lyrics, and having them there was such a gentle and beautiful reminder that this piece is special and always has been special, and we need to continue to serve it and respect it. So, it was lovely to have them around, and you know, everybody working on it, from the producers to Michael, they know the show so well, and they knew Jonathan so well, so they understand what his vision was and they were able to translate that to us, so that we were still true to what the piece was originally meant to be from Jonathan's eyes.

Question: How would you describe Maureen?
Ashford: Maureen is delicious. Maureen wants everybody to think that she is fighting for everybody else, but she really is fighting for herself. She doesn't know that though. [Laughs.] Maureen is extremely interested in what's new, what's fresh — in exploring, in creating. I believe, in the context of our show, she's simultaneously trying to keep this New York family that she's built to give her support. This little family that she has helped create, she's trying to keep it afloat, yet at the same time, further her own career in New York and make a name for herself in New York and make all of her dreams come true through this avant-garde scene that she's found. Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for her?
Ashford: I love the performance piece every night because it's completely different. You know, it's one of the only times in the show where there's no downbeat holding the rhythm of the piece steady, and my scene partner is the audience. When it comes in the show, for me as an actress, it's extremely different every single day, and that is not only a joy and exhilarating, but it's also an immense challenge. I have to really listen to my scene partner, which is the audience. It doesn't happen very often, so it's very exciting every night. We never know what's going to happen.

Ashford in Rent.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: You're so funny in that scene. It must be very gratifying getting the laughs.
Ashford: That's so sweet. That's so kind… The thing that I also love talking about Maureen — her character — she is full out. She is fully committed to every single thing she does, and rarely do you get to play a character like that. As an actor, you try to be like that. You try to be committed to everything you do, but Maureen really is. Everything little she does, there's no turning back. [Laughs.] As an actress, in that whole piece, it's just a bonus that people are understanding the comedy of the performance piece, but in Maureen's mind, it's not funny at all. It is life or death! The stakes could not be higher. There's nothing better to play.

Question: I know the show has very loyal fans. Have you gotten to talk to any of them? What's their reaction to this new staging?
Ashford: Actually, I had a friend come last night who was in the first national [tour] — a very good friend — and he was saying how much he loved it and how beautiful he thought the piece was. People are loving it in the smaller space. They also feel like because of the utilization of our set, there are moments in the show that are more clear than they maybe were in the original staging just because you don't have to imagine all the walls. There actually are a couple of walls. So, people have been really supportive in that way. And, also, the Rent fans love the show no matter what, so I think it's been exciting and kind of beautiful to have them be a part of this experience.

Question: What is it like, as an actor, working in such an intimate space?
Ashford: Oh, I love it. I love it. Working in an intimate space allows you to feel the energy, I think, even more. Sometimes in a big theatre, you have about probably six yards sometimes between you and the first person in the audience. It's almost like you've got to jump across a little pond to get there and then keep moving. But in this kind of a house, they're right there. I feel that the energy is more immediate, and their presence is more immediate, which, I think, is exhilarating, especially for a show like this that needs to be more intimate.

Question: Have any of the original Broadway cast gotten to see this production?
Ashford: A few have. I know that they're all so busy. Not everybody lives in New York anymore. People have been coming in and out, but a few have. I believe that the original Joanne and the original "Seasons of Love" soloist, they both came early, early on in previews, and I think some more of the original cast is going to continue to keep coming.

Ashford in Wicked.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Is there any talk of you guys getting to record a CD?
Ashford: I haven't heard that. If you have, let me know! [Laughs.] Question: It's so interesting to me that you played Glinda in Wicked and then have this belty role. What do you consider your strong points as a singer?
Ashford: As a singer, you know, I'm so grateful that I've gotten to play such two dramatically different vocal roles. And, it's funny, because Glinda… most of the show, if you really sit down and listen to the show and look at the score, she doesn't really get to live up in the land of soprano as long as you [think]… Ms. Chenoweth can belt her face off, so she's got some belting in there… Rarely do you get the opportunity to play such roles, and rarely do you ever get to play such vocal roles, so I'm so grateful that I've gotten to use my full instrument in the roles that I've done, and I don't have a favorite. I love to sing in both areas in my voice. To me, it's just one voice that I'm so grateful that I get to sing such different styles. They couldn't be more different stylistically. I love singing "Take Me or Leave Me" every night. Every time I get to it I'm like, "Oh my God! I get to sing this song every day. What's happening in my life?"

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works or are you just focusing on Rent at the moment?
Ashford: I'm focusing on Rent at the moment. I just filmed an episode of "Nurse Jackie" for the upcoming season, which was awesome. I had a great time, and I'm just seeing what comes over the rainbow. I'm having a blast playing Maureen. I love exploring her every day, and getting to make the stakes the highest I possibly can. It's been a blast.

[Tickets ($69.50-$89.50) may be purchased by visiting siteforrent.com or telecharge.com; by phoning (212) 947-8844; or by going to the New World Stages box office. For box office hours visit newworldstages.com/boxoffice.html. For more information about Rent, visit siteforrent.com.]

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

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