DIVA TALK: Chatting with A Little Night Music's Leigh Ann Larkin

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27 Aug 2010

Leigh Ann Larkin
Leigh Ann Larkin

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

Broadway dreams do come true. Just ask Leigh Ann Larkin, the big-voiced singing actress who is currently playing Petra in the Tony-nominated revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music at the Walter Kerr Theatre. The Pennsylvania native was a big fan of Tony winners Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters before she arrived in New York ready to conquer Broadway, and although it took her six years to achieve her Broadway dream, she has since worked with both LuPone and Peters as well as Elaine Stritch, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of chatting with Larkin, who has maintained a joyous enthusiasm for musical theatre that is completely infectious. The young artist, who made her Broadway debut in the LuPone Gypsy and also starred in the acclaimed Kennedy Center production of Ragtime, spoke about her road to Broadway as well as her roles in both Gypsy and Night Music; that interview follows:

Question: Since we haven't spoken before, why don't we go back to the beginning? Tell me where you were born and raised.
Leigh Ann Larkin: I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Question: When did you start performing?
Larkin: Goodness. Well, I started performing, I guess, taking dance classes when I was three, but really more so in musical theatre-type situations when I was in first grade, because they had an after-school theatre program called The Little Stars in my elementary school. That was kind of the whole [thing] —singing, dancing, acting, and little songs that children would know how to sing. . . . That kind of is what got me into Broadway, musical-theatre type of performing. Then I auditioned for this performing troupe in Pittsburgh called the North Star Kids, and we performed around Pittsburgh — everything from nursing homes to Pirate Games, and that's where I really got started and fell in love with singing, dancing and acting, and then kept on going through there, through high school.

The conservatory where I trained the most was — it's now called Pittsburgh Musical Theater, and it's run by Ken Gargaro. He did [and] still does a lot of shows, and he has a great conservatory training program, after-school lessons, voice lessons and dance lessons, and acting lessons. And he had a performing troupe called the Good Vibrations that I was a part of. So I got really intense, more so towards my sophomore year in high school.

Question: Were there any artists that you particularly admired around that age?
Larkin: In high school it actually was Patti LuPone, funny enough. I remember, I think I was a junior or senior in high school, and I just loved her, and she was coming to the Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh, and I was given a ticket and taken there by a friend. And I was just, like, flipping out! I think it was around Valentine's Day, and I had this red, velvet dress on. [Laughs.] I was just so excited to see her because I loved her so, so, so much. And it was such a full-circle thing to work with her because, for nothing else but just for sheer talent and her influence as a performer on me, I just loved her so much from back then. I think she was my first real taste of musical theatre and Broadway, [and then] I just started getting serious about it when I was a sophomore in high school. Then you start to get exposed to all the big stars of Broadway, [but] she was definitely my first.

Question: When do you think performing changed for you from being a hobby to knowing that it would be your career?
Larkin: I think, probably, my junior year of high school. There was a group of kids that were graduating before me, and they were going through this process of auditioning for schools. In Pittsburgh, it's a very blue-collar, home-town kind of feel. There's just not a lot of stage mothers, [and] there are no agencies, really. I mean, maybe there's one, but there's nothing that's really eccentric about Pittsburgh. My parents, of course, were not performers, so you kind of go through this learning process through your peers and people that are going through it before you. I remember a friend of mine, Misty — everybody looked up to Misty because she was so incredibly talented and had the most fierce voice. And Misty was going through the college application program and applying for all these schools. And so then, I was like, "Oh, gosh. I guess you can go to school for this. [Laughs.] You can pursue it!" And I think it was around there, my junior year of high school.

Question: Did you pursue performing in college or did you go straight to auditioning after high school?
Larkin: No! Oh, gosh, no. I would have been a disaster. No, I went to [college] for four years for musical theatre. I started out my freshman year at Point Park College in Pittsburgh, which was really nice because it was very close to home. I grew so much in that freshman year. But then, of course, [I] grew leaps and bounds more when I went to the University of Cincinatti, College Conservatory of Music. Point Park was, you know, "Free to Be, You and Me," discover yourself and try out things and take risks. And you can at CCM, too, but it's going from that small-town, musical-theatre classes thing and then going to the best of the best because they were all so incredibly talented. It was just so frightening, because first you were like, "Gee, how did I get in here?" [Laughs.] And, secondly, once you were there, you were like, "Well, gosh, I've gotta be just as good, if not better than everyone else here, and I've got to work as hard as I can and learn as much as I can." And, that's exactly what I did. I wouldn't be where I am today without that school, just because I learned so much and grew so much and really got a taste of what New York was, maybe even more so than [I would have if I'd gone straight to] New York, because [at CCM] you're just always pinned up against each other, and it always feels very personal and very competitive. And here it's competitive, too, but at least, when you walk out of the [audition] room, you're like, "Okay, well, if they want me, they want me, and if they want somebody else, they're gonna go with somebody else." And it doesn't feel as — I don't want to say cutthroat, but it was very cutthroat [at CCM]. Very, very much so!

Larkin in Gypsy
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: When did you get to New York?
Larkin: I got to New York in 2002. I graduated in 2002, and I came here with my bells on thinking, "I'm gonna conquer the world!" And a lot of my classmates were really successful right off the bat and were booking major national tours. I mean, one of my classmates booked a Broadway show within the first six months of being here. And I was just like, "Why can't that be me? I want this so bad." It took me six years before I got a Broadway show, which was Gypsy.

Question: How did that come about?
Larkin: Oh, gosh! Well, it was really a struggle here, because I think New York, as an actor, is a lot about how you fit into the city and how you fit in in different roles and how people see you and finding out who you are as an artist. . . . Well, actually, it was Arthur [Laurents] who gave me the chance because I hadn't done anything [on Broadway], and it didn't matter to him. But I was getting really frustrated, and Ken Gargaro, who I told you about, who does the Pittsburgh Musical Theater, had offered me the chance to play Belle in Beauty and the Beast in their production at the Byham Theater in Pittsburgh. And at that point, I was really just anxious to play a role, and I loved Beauty and the Beast, and I loved Belle, and I thought this would give me a chance to be close to home. And so I decided to do it, and my agents were so supportive. It was little-to-no money, but I think that they were just very happy that I was going to be able to spend time with my family and be in a show and get away for a little bit.

I had gone in for Gypsy before I had left to do Beauty and the Beast, and I did not get a callback. I felt like I had a great audition, but I wasn't called back with the other girls for June, and I was very upset and heartbroken because I thought [about] what a great opportunity it would have been. Then I let it go and I went to Pittsburgh, and my agents called maybe right before we started performances. It's a very quick gig at the Pittsburgh Musical Theatre – you rehearse for two weeks and then perform for three. It's very short. So right before we started performances, they called and they said, "Listen, they haven't found their June yet, and they want you to come back up and audition for Arthur." And, I was like, "No. No. I'm not gonna fly back in. I'm making, like, two dollars a week here. I'm not gonna [fly in]." They also said, "The catch is you have to book two flights, 'cause if Bonnie, the choreographer, likes you, you have to fly back up to audition [again]." And I had said to my one agent, "No. I've been here six years. I know the rigamarole. I was on tour, flying in for things, and it just doesn't seem like it's meant to be, so I'm just gonna stay here and do this and then hit the ground running when I come back."

So my other agent called, and he was like, "Okay, listen, you're going. So book your flight for this right now, and you're going!" [Laughs.] And I was like, "I don't know!" It was a really difficult decision, also, because [Beauty and the Beast] really [didn't] have understudies, and Ken has always been so good to me, and I would never want to leave him high and dry if I couldn't make it back for some reason. You know how flights are. So I had said, "Let me think about this." . . . For some reason, we didn't have a show on a Wednesday, so if I had a callback, I was going to have to fly out on the Wednesday night, do the audition Thursday morning and come back and do a show that night. So I go and book the flight for the first round, and I go in and Bonnie approved me and said to come back for Arthur. So there I was, coming in on a Wednesday, and I got in and I went to sleep and I woke up and I worked with Jay [Binder], the casting director, for a minute, and then Arthur came. I think he's pretty open about this story, too, if he recalls it, but in the audition, he was pretty frightening. [Laughs.] I mean, he was very vocal, and at one point he was giving me notes and was getting very frustrated with me. And then, right before the second time I did the scene and the song, he turned to the person sitting next to him and said, "This girl couldn't take direction if she was paid." [Laughs.] [So I thought], "Okay! I can either just be mortified and leave the audition and say, 'Thank you very much, but I can't do this,' or I just was so angry, that something came out of me and I got through the whole scene and the whole song and he was like, "That's exactly what I wanted." He told me later that he did that on purpose, which is very Arthur, if anybody who reads this knows him. And then I was getting on the flight to go back to Pittsburgh, and as I was going through security at the airport, I got the call that said that I got it! I mean, it was magical, and it was just so cool to go back to [Beauty and the Beast]. Everybody had balloons and cupcakes, [and] it was really cool. Everything happened exactly how or even more than I would have dreamed of. And that was the City Center [production], and there we were.


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