DIVA TALK: Chatting With Mary Poppins Star Steffanie Leigh

By Andrew Gans
August 17, 2012

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.



Steffanie Leigh
This past October, Broadway welcomed a new nanny when Steffanie Leigh flew into the New Amsterdam Theatre to play the title role in the international hit musical Mary Poppins. Coming directly from the North American tour of the Disney-Cameron Mackintosh show, Leigh, who is currently scheduled to stay with the production through April 2013, is making her Broadway debut. The singing actress, who shares the stage with original cast member Tony Award nominee Gavin Lee as Bert, has been seen regionally in productions of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Beauty and the Beast, 42nd Street, Into the Woods, Grease, Mame and Les Miserables. Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Oregon native Leigh, who spoke about playing the high-flying nanny and making her Broadway bow; that brief interview follows.

Question: Since we haven't spoken before, can you tell me where you were born and raised?
Steffanie Leigh: Yes. I was born and raised in Talent, Oregon.

Question: When did you start performing?
Leigh: I think I really got curious about it in middle school—middle school and high school.

Question: Were there any artists—actors—growing up that particularly interested you or who influenced you?
Leigh: Right next to Talent is also another small town called Ashland, and Ashland, OR, has the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, so I was in a community that loved the arts so much and kind of loved artists and actors. And, I think that was a big influence on why I wanted to become an actor. No one ever around me said, "No, don't do this. This is a crazy profession. It's really hard." So I think that was very helpful.

Leigh in her high school production of You Can't Take It With You.

Question: When do you think, in your mind, performing changed from being a hobby to knowing that it would be your career?
Leigh: I think in high school. By the time I got to high school, which seems so early, but we just had a great theatre program, and that's really when I fell in love with acting.

Question: What was your first professional production?
Leigh: Well, I did summer stock at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, so that was my first professional job as a freshman in college that summer.

Question: How did Mary Poppins come about?
Leigh: With Mary Poppins, I had come to New York—I just graduated. I was actually a nanny here in New York to supplement my income, and then I auditioned for the tour. At that point, it was for the ensemble track and for the cover of Mary. I actually wasn't even going to go on the audition because I had booked out to take a vacation with my family, and on that Monday my agents called. They were like, "Well, this audition came up. I know you're going on vacation. Do you want to do this?" And, it sounded like such a good opportunity, I was like, "Oh, I'll go in." I did the audition, and then I left to go to Vermont with my family, and I got the call while I was there. I had to leave early, and a week later I was in Florida.

Leigh as Mary Poppins
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: So you were in the ensemble originally…
Leigh: Yeah. And then from there, they needed a Mary Poppins about four months from when I was there, so I auditioned, and I got Mary. And then they moved me here to New York.

Question: What was it like for you in the tour going from being part of the ensemble to being the head of the cast?
Leigh: It was actually a pretty smooth transition… Since I had already been in the ensemble, I had all of their support. I knew all of them, and I really felt like I had them rooting for me the whole time, which was a great feeling. I had to sleep a lot more when I played Mary Poppins. [Laughs.] I couldn't go out as much… But it was great! And, it all just seemed like a complete dream come true the way it happened.

Question: When you found out that you would be doing the role on Broadway, what was your reaction?
Leigh: I was just so excited! I definitely started crying. [Laughs.] It's a dream come true, and it happened so fast. It was pretty magical, should I dare say that? It was kind of funny because as soon as I found out, I went to go call my mom and my boyfriend, and my phone didn't work! I could call them—I could hear them, but they couldn't hear me. It was just complete torture.

Question: What was your first night on Broadway like? Did it live up to what you might have expected?
Leigh: It completely did. I will never forget it. I had a bunch of friends in the audience and my family—they were all just cheering so loud. And, at the end, when I fly over the audience, they were all seated directly where I fly over. So I flew over, I was looking at my parents. Yeah, I'll never forget it.

Leigh and Gavin Lee at her first-night curtain call
photo by Krissie Fullerton

Question: What was their reaction?
Leigh: Oh, they were crying!

Question: How did you go about approaching the role? Had you been a fan of the film?
Leigh: Yeah. I did watch the film a little bit. I watched it, of course, growing up, so it had a big impression on me from then. And then I just read all the books by P.L. Travers. The creative team is really great in allowing me to create my own Mary Poppins and not have to be Julie Andrews and be any of the amazing actors who played her before me. It's such a fantastic role. I mean, she's this magical being, so it's always fun to play someone with special powers. And, she has such an amazing heart and love of everything around her. I still kind of learn from her every night that I play her.

Question: What's it like working on that huge set?
Leigh: Amazing! The set on tour was also amazing, but not as large. And, I mean, the set is kind of a character in itself in the show. It's so massive and beautiful—beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! So it kind of is awe-inspiring. There are a lot of stairs I have to run up. [Laughs.]

Leigh as Cinderella in Into the Woods.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show as Mary?
Leigh: It kind of changes week to week, but I always love "Feed the Birds." It's such a gorgeous, haunting melody and, I think, a beautiful sentiment as well when she's teaching the kids, "If you can give a little, you can change someone's life." I also love "Supercal" because you can feel the audience kind of get behind you, and they're like, "Oh! I love this song that's coming up" and getting so excited about it.

Question: You mentioned before being a real nanny. How did that compare to playing one?
Leigh: Well, being a real nanny is really hard! [Laughs.] It's much harder than Mary Poppins makes it out to be. Mary Poppins has so many tricks! I had no tricks, so it was much harder for me.

Question: What was the craziest situation you faced?
Leigh: Well, I had a one-and-a-half-year-old and a three-and-a-half-year-old, so putting them to bed was the hardest thing always. They never wanted to take their naps, and Mary Poppins just gets to snap her fingers, and they fall asleep.

Question: Tell me what it's like flying through the audience at the end of the show.
Leigh: It's great! I mean, so rarely, as an actor, do you get to connect with and see that much of the audience. It's kind of my favorite part because the lights go on the audience, and I can really see the entire audience at that point, and I try to make connections with everyone. And, you look down and see the kids who are just reaching up to you and so excited their mouths are just wide open. And then I look right next to them, and the parents have the exact same expression. A couple times, I've actually teared up on the flight because I see some amazing moments happening for people in the audience.

Question: How demanding is the show vocally?
Leigh: It is a big sing, definitely. She just has so many songs, and luckily, it sits in my voice pretty well, so it's nothing too crazy, but this is definitely my first experience having to carry a show at all, so it's been a big learning experience for me to figure out what I can and cannot do during the day and before a show and how to do eight shows a week.

Leigh in Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.

Question: I was looking at your bio before, and I saw that you have a lot of different regional credits. Was there one production, regionally, that stood out for you?
Leigh: I loved doing Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. I did that in Atlanta, and it was just such a crazy, kooky show. I did not have any exposure to Jacques Brel before that, and I kind of fell in love with him there. I think that was one of my favorites.

Question: Where would you like to see your career go from here? What's your ideal situation?
Leigh: If I got to pick what my career would be like, I would love a career of a lot of variety and a lot of roles that just challenge me and make me grow and stretch and that said important things. As an artist, we all want to make people think and change people in some ways and have a mark on the world, so I would love to do that kind of work.

Question: Last question: Tell me about working with your co-star, Gavin Lee.
Leigh: Oh, he is so inspiring and so incredible. I could not believe he's in his eighth year, and he has so much energy every night. I am not kidding you—he makes it fresh still. It's amazing. He kind of just lifts you up on stage, and whenever we're working together, I really feel like he's picking me up and taking me along with him. He has so much energy, and it's really, really incredible to work with someone who's originated this role and is still so passionate about this show.

[For tickets, show information and performance schedule, visit MaryPoppins.com.]

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