"When I was a kid, I wanted to be a dancer," says Rachel York. "I started dancing when I was eight. I would listen to music and choreograph all these great dances in my head. My heart and head wanted to do all these fantastic things, but my body just couldn't do them. So when I got into my twenties, I decided that I was a mover, not a dancer, and that singing and acting were my forte."
York's abundant singing and acting skills are well known to theatre audiences in New York and around the country. She has showcased her talents to great acclaim on and off Broadway in (among others) City of Angels, Victor/Victoria, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Putting It Together, Dessa Rose and, most recently, the Encores! production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In addition to extensive regional credits, she has starred in national tours of Camelot, The 101 Dalmatians Musical and Kiss Me, Kate. Her performance as Kate was preserved on video when she played the role in the West End.
York is now touring in another Cole Porter vehicle, and this time around her dancing ability is very much on display. She stars as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes, the 2011 Tony Award winner for Best Revival of a Musical, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. The show features a treasure trove of Porter hits, including "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're the Top," "Friendship," "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," "It's De-lovely," "Easy to Love" and, of course, the title song. The tour launched this month in Cleveland.
The production requires a triple-threat performer, and York is, in fact, a proficient dancer. "I have such respect for dancers that I can't justify calling myself a dancer," she says. "We moved a lot when I was a kid, and I think I sabotaged myself. I would advance to the intermediate class, and then a year later we'd be someplace new and I'd go to an intermediate class, and I couldn't keep up. I felt like a clod. As time went on, I lost some of my confidence. But I did dance a lot all through school, and my talent was tap. "During rehearsals, our dance captain said to me, 'You are a dancer. You're just getting back into it and finding your confidence again.' It's been fun dusting off my tap shoes, and it's exhilarating when it all comes together."
York has played Reno twice before, with the Reprise Theatre Company in Los Angeles and at Kansas City's Starlight Theatre. "From the first time I played Reno, the character fit me like a glove," she says. "As a kid, I watched all these old movies, and I see her as a cross between Mae West and Joan Crawford and some other movies stars. I find her a very layered character. She's a dame, she's a bit of a tomboy, she's stylish and smart talking, but vulnerable at the same time. And the songs fit right in the meat of my voice. So I have a great time with the music."
The tour is also special to York because she gets to take along her daughter Olivia, who will turn two on the road. "At first I wasn't sure it would be a good idea to tour with a baby," she says. "But my husband and I thought it through, and decided it would be very exciting for our daughter. One day she's going to be able to say that at two years old, she learned how to tap from some of Broadway's best tap dancers. That's pretty cool."
(This feature appears in the October 2012 subscription issue of Playbill magazine.)