Funny Girl — Why Kinky Boots' Annaleigh Ashford is "The New Goldie Hawn"
By Marc Acito
"I did everything wrong," admits actress Annaleigh Ashford. Yet somehow the big-eyed blonde managed to end up on Broadway as a contender for almost every top award this season, including the Drama Desk and Tony Award, for her breakout performance as a scrappy factory worker in Kinky Boots.
Over the past decade, Ashford has won admiration from some of Broadway's biggest names while losing out on some of the best parts. "This is the first show I've been with from the beginning that I actually got to do," she says, having played in workshops of Bring It On, Catch Me If You Can and The Addams Family.
She originated the role of the daughter in Feeling Electric at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Then Ashford watched from the sidelines as the show became the hit Next to Normal. "My agent called to tell me that they were going in a younger direction," she explains. "I was 21."
Still, Ashford must have done something right along the way because she landed supporting roles in the original casts of Legally Blonde and the Off-Broadway revival of Rent. But her perception of her career path matches her Kinky Boots character's view of love, expressed hilariously in the show-stopping "The History of Wrong Guys."
"I came out of the womb singing, dancing, and telling awkward jokes," the Colorado native says. "I sang every song a child shouldn't sing."
Pre-pubescent performances of such age-inappropriate ditties as Cabaret's "Maybe This Time" and Gypsy's "Everything's Coming Up Roses" landed Ashford her first professional gig as a homicidal eight-year-old in the musical Ruthless! That opportunity came at Denver's Theatre on Broadway, a gay theatre in which her grandmother was played by a drag queen.
Ashford's role in Ruthless!, coincidentally, originated Off-Broadway with Laura Bell Bundy, Legally Blonde's future Elle Woods, who was understudied in 1992 by a couple of nobodies — Natalie Portman and Britney Spears.
Eager to get to New York, Ashford graduated high school at 16 and then attended Marymount Manhattan College while performing as a go-go dancer for downtown DJ Lady Starlight. "It was performance art," she explains. "I dyed my eyebrows white and did dramatic lyrical dances all over the bar."
Her first New York theatre audition was a chorus call for Wicked. "I picked the worst eight bars ever, singing the last line of 'Poor Sweet Baby' from Snoopy! The Musical. I stood there and sang 'Mama's heeeeeeeeere,' and they were like, 'Uh, thank you… ?'"
It was during the Wicked tour that she flew back to New York and auditioned for the ditziest Delta Nu in Legally Blonde, a role that required she have extended conversations with a live chihuahua. "We had to believe that she could understand what the dog was saying," says director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell. "I kept saying, 'I need a Goldie Hawn' and there was Annaleigh. She's the new Goldie Hawn."
Ashford finally got to perform in Wicked on Broadway when she took over as the sixth Glinda. Following a tradition begun by Glinda originator Kristin Chenoweth, Ashford's predecessor, Kendra Kassebaum, left a good-luck note for her to discover in the fly space as she climbed into the bubble for her first descent.
A turning point came in 2009 with a high-profile flop. Famous clown David Shiner cast her in Cirque du Soleil's nouveau-vaudeville show, Banana Shpeel. "I did clown training for months," Ashford says. "Tap-dancing en pointe while playing a ukulele in an Albert Einstein fright wig." The show proved a rare failure for Cirque, but the experience made an impression on her. "I really owned being a clown."
Ashford's clown persona follows the example of funny ladies like Lucille Ball and Judy Holliday, brilliant physical comediennes who are the antithesis of their roles. "It takes smarts to play that dumb," she muses.
That comic inventiveness is what attracted Jerry Mitchell to Ashford for Kinky Boots. "[Annaleigh] takes a different off-ramp than anyone else," he says. In that regard, Ashford is an ideal progeny of the musical marriage of quirky iconoclasts playwright Harvey Fierstein and composer-lyricist Cyndi Lauper.
In a big show marked by high octane crowd pleasers, Ashford's big number is a stand-out, a star-making turn that propels the audience to sit up and say, "Who is that girl?" Not bad for an actress who thinks she did everything wrong.
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