Alysha Umphress, whose Broadway credits include Priscilla Queen of the Desert, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Bring It On The Musical, is currently providing one of the many highlights of the joyous Main Stem revival of On the Town, the iconic musical created by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jerome Robbins that just opened at the Lyric Theatre. The production, which marks the 70th anniversary of the classic musical, is directed by Tony winner John Rando with dazzling choreography by Joshua Bergasse and casts Umphress as Hildy, the man-hungry cab driver, the part originated in 1944 by the late Nancy Walker and played in subsequent revivals by Tony winner Bernadette Peters and Lea DeLaria. Umphress, who made her Broadway debut in American Idiot, brings charm and verve to the role and delivers a belty, jazz-inflected and show-stopping "I Can Cook Too." It's been an especially creative time for the singing actress, who is working on a new recording with fellow Broadway actor Jeff Blumenkrantz and was seen as Cee Cee Bloom (the part played by Bette Midler on film) in Virginia's Signature Theatre world premiere of the new musical Beaches. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Umphress, who spoke about her many projects.
Question: How and when did you originally get involved with On the Town? I know you've been with it for a while…
Alysha Umphress: Yeah, since Barrington, but I just auditioned. McCorkle [Casting] office had called. I had worked at Barrington a lot — I got my Equity card there in 2007.
Question: In what show?
Alysha Umphress: A show called Funked Up Fairy Tales. It's a Kirsten Childs musical that Kevin Del Aguila directed, so I've been going up there doing concerts and readings and things like that over the years, and I'd never done a mainstage. On the Town came along, and I was like, "Oh, there's that cab driver role in that that I could do." And I asked about it, and they were like, "Well, I think the offer went out to somebody directly, so we'll just wait and see if they accept it," and they didn't accept it, so they opened it up to having auditions. I had never seen the show before. I had never seen the movie, and I only really knew "I Can Cook Too" peripherally just because I had heard people sing it before. And I went in and, I guess, the rest is history. [Laughs.]
Question: What was the experience like at the Barrington?
Alysha Umphress: Barrington was amazing. We all went, and were just expecting it to be a fun summer gig, you know, a little two-month show. We were out there doing the show, and we were in rehearsals. There was just that feeling that it was sort of different and special. We'd be in rehearsals, and we'd be like, "This is really good! Isn't this good?!" [Laughs.] We all just got along so well. It was such a wonderful environment, everyone was super lovely and into it and working really hard because we only had two-and-a-half weeks of rehearsal to put it up. And everyone just wanted it to be really good and worked really hard. When we put it up, we were like, "Wait, this show is actually really good!" The five of us, the principals that came – Elizabeth [Stanley] and Clyde [Alves] and Tony [Yazbeck] and Jay [Armstrong Johnson] — we just kind of formed a really amazing bond, and I think that that sort of translated onstage.
Question: For the Broadway production, did you have to audition again?
Alysha Umphress: No, we did a workshop and a reading of it in November and December of last year, and we were asked to do it, but that wasn't by any means right of first refusal. So I just said "yes" to everything that they had me do in hopes that they would keep me for the production. I was away doing Beaches in DC – I think it was probably somewhere in the preview process. I was home in my apartment, and I got an email from [producer] Howard [Kagan] that said, "We got a theatre! See you guys in August. So excited!" So it wasn't an official offer, but I was kind of like, "Well, if he's going to email us saying that, that would be pretty mean if he didn't plan to use us!" [Laughs.] And then I got my official offer some time in early June.
Question: Has much changed since Barrington?
Alysha Umphress: The core is the same. I think the heart and the charm and everything that we worked to put together up there is very much still intact. But I think now it just has all of the bells and whistles and the money, the "Broadway glam" that you have when you have money and you're not doing it on a tiny budget. So I think it's everything that they would have wanted to do at Barrington if they had had the means. [Choreographer] Josh [Bergasse also] had time to develop all of the stuff that he didn't have time to do, extend the dance numbers, and the dancing is just out of this world.
Question: Tell me a little bit about working with John Rando as a director.
Alysha Umphress: He is one of my favorite directors that I have ever worked with. He's amazing. He's so smart; he's so good at comedy—he just gets it. He lets you play and kind of try your own thing and find your own laugh, even though he sometimes will know that that won't work, but he'll let you try it anyway. And, when it doesn’t work, he'll be like, "Okay, well, try this." He's super-encouraging, and if he has a note for you, he has a really delicate, tasteful way of doing it. He's never condescending, and he never talks down to you. He's just kind, and he's so invested in this show. He wants the show to be the best it can be – you really can tell that. It's not just a job for him, it means so much to him. And he's just a lovely, normal, stand-up guy with a kid, who's super into soccer, has nothing to do with theatre, and a wife. He's just a lovely, lovely person, and he's so smart and kind and funny, and I can't say enough about him.
Question: Now that you've been playing her a while, how would you describe Hildy?
Alysha Umphress: Hildy is self-assured and confident. She's a ball-buster. I think it's really interesting how Comden and Green had written her and Claire, actually, because they're the aggressors, which is interesting for women, especially back in the forties. It's so great to play a strong woman role, especially for a period piece. I think she's just so fun… It's going on during the war, so she's doing her part to help the war effort. I like to think that she was like, "All right, well, I've got to get a job. I guess I know New York really well. I guess I could drive a taxi. That would be really great!" It's kind of great that she's like, "Yeah, I’m going to do it! I can do anything a man can do." I love that she sees Chip, she likes Chip, and she goes after it – she gets what she wants. But she's also very sweet and kind with all of the stuff with Gabey, the whole beginning of the second act. They just want Gabey to have as good of a time as they're having, and they're sort of stopping at nothing to make that happen. She really does make that connection with Chip and when he goes, it's sort of devastating.
Question: How did you go about approaching "I Can Cook Too"?
Alysha Umphress: Well, we staged it – it was sort of a collaborative effort. Josh choreographed the number. They didn't want to make it too, too busy with props. I think traditionally it's done with a chicken and literal cooking supplies. I think because, obviously, the song is all double-entendre, they wanted it to be a cute little cat-and-mouse-like courtship with Chip, and we came up with a very collaborative, cute number where she's kind of pulling him in. I think traditionally in a lot of productions, Hildy is the aggressor and Chip's kind of overpowered by her, and in a way… she's sort of conning him into a seduction. But if you read the stage directions, he complies with a lot of it, and he is a man. He is into it, and I think that's played up very much in this production. Yeah, he really wants to see the sights and help Gabey out and find Gabe's girl, but he is attracted to her and does, at the end of the day, want to get laid. [Laughs.] So I think that they sort of made it a little more of a two-way street, once she gets him up to her place.
Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Hildy?
Alysha Umphress: Yeah, I love the first scene when she first sees Chip and the initial seduction. It's just the most fun scene, and doing that with Jay is the best. And "Come Up to My Place." I always say Jay makes me look good in this show because he's doing all the hard work, he's doing all the flips and tumbling and the physical comedy, and I just sort of shimmy and belt, but that number is super-grounded for me, and I just think the lyrics are hilarious and the comedy that's already written is so sublime.
Question: When you think about the women who have done the role on Broadway before, like Nancy Walker, Bernadette Peters, Lea DeLaria, it's a pretty starry group of women. How do you feel being among that group to have done this role on Broadway?
Alysha Umphress: I mean, completely lucky. It sounds cliché. I kind of pinch myself everyday. Everyone wants to originate a new role in a new musical that no one's ever done before, and for a lot of people that's the dream. But it's also just kind of legendary to put your stamp on a role that so many people have done, including those fabulous ladies on Broadway. But, also, every high school production and regional production that everyone kind of thinks that they know how the part should be done. Especially since I had never seen it, when I was going over the sides to initially go in, I was like, "Oh, well this is how I would do it." And kind of do your own thing with it. It's such a gift, and it's just really fun to get to join the ranks of such amazing ladies, but put your stamp on a classic. And, in a way, that's almost more fun than originating something from scratch.
Question: What is it like playing the Lyric? It's such a big house.
Alysha Umphress: It is really big, but it's wide, as opposed to deep. I've done a couple shows at the St. James, and when you're in the back of that balcony, because it's so vertical, it feels like you're a million miles away. And this definitely feels far, but it feels strangely intimate in a way. It's also so beautiful, and the crew and everyone that works there has just been so inviting and welcoming and lovely that it's been great so far. I was really worried about it when we first announced that that was the theatre we got, but I actually don’t think I would have put it anywhere else at this point, especially with all the dancing.
Question: You had mentioned Beaches, and I was wondering what that experience was like for you, and is there any talk of the musical being done elsewhere?
Alysha Umphress: Yeah, I think they are planning another production, another out-of-town production. They've made a lot of changes to the script. I'm not sure if I can say when or where, but it is in the near future. Whether or not I am able to do it, with whatever happens with On the Town, is also unclear, but I know that they very much want me to be a part of it, and I very much want to be a part of it. I loved the experience, selfishly. It was a huge challenge for me, taking on just the shear size of the role. I had never played a part that big in my professional career – it was something like 16 songs a night. I only left the stage to change costumes, usually in a minute or less. But it was also just very collaborative. … And, everything was, as far as keys, everything fit perfect in my voice. They wanted to maneuver the show so that it was the easiest that they could make it for me because it was such a monster. And it was so rewarding, and it's such a beautiful story – I grew up on the movie. Mara Davi was so perfectly cast and lovely and the perfect yin to my yang. We just had a really amazing time developing the story, and I'm excited to see what happens with it next and to continue the journey. It's always fun putting up new musicals – it was so different from the first preview to the last preview, and there was still stuff we were working on. We just, frankly, didn't have the time to fix.
Question: Going back a bit, where were you born and raised?
Alysha Umphress: San Francisco, California.
Question: When did you start performing?
Alysha Umphress: Six years old.
Question: Do you remember what it was?
Alysha Umphress: My mom took me to see a children's theatre production of Oliver! when I was probably five. I remember being just completely enamored and saying, "I want to do this." She said, "Okay, well, we'll save up money for the next one." And I didn't understand that it wasn't just a play date or a jungle gym, where you just sign up and do it the next day. [Laughs.] I was like, "I want to do it tomorrow!" And she was like, "Well, that's not how it works, so we have to wait for the next show." And the next show was Annie, and I auditioned and I got the highly coveted role of Pretzel Seller. I was just obsessed from there on out, and I just never stopped. I did community theatre and regional theatre until I went off to college. I went to a performing arts high school in San Francisco.
Question: When did you get to New York?
Alysha Umphress: I went to college in Boston, so I went straight from high school to the Boston Conservatory. And then straight from college, I moved to the city, got an agent out of showcase, and just started auditioning.
Question: American Idiot was your Broadway debut. Do you remember what your first night on Broadway was like — how it either lived up to or wasn't quite like what you thought Broadway would be?
Alysha Umphress: Oh my God, it was everything and more. Because that show was so atypical of a Broadway show, and not just in the style of the show but just the entire experience. I mean, Rebecca Naomi Jones and Leslie McDonel, who were in the original production with me, came and saw On the Town last night, and we were kind of talking about it afterwards. We went and got drinks, and I was just like, "Isn't it crazy how we were such a family in that show?" Every show I've worked on since, you get close with your cast and everyone, hopefully, gets along… [In American Idiot] we were all sort of young, and the piece was so different, and we went out of town with it to Berkeley, and we were such a tight-knit family. That was the only time in recollection that I've done a show where we were obsessed with each other. We did eight shows a week, and then we would all spend our day off being like, "What is everyone doing tomorrow?" Usually that never happens. People are like, "I’m going to hang out with my boyfriend or my family or my real friends." [Laughs.] And we just could not get enough. We were so tight-knit and so excited and such a family, and also because it had so many super-fans, that show, a very specific culty-crowd, the first preview was like a rock concert. People were freaking out. So it was an experience like I've never had before. It was just very surreal and amazing. All in all, American Idiot still is one of the best experiences of my life. When it was happening, people were like, "You know, nothing will be like this again." And I was like, "Oh, really?" Because it was my debut, so I just figured that all Broadway shows were like this, but truly nothing will ever be that again.
Question: Do you have any other projects in the works or are you just focusing on On the Town at this point?
Alysha Umphress: I’m focusing on On the Town right now. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't do anything extraneous until we were up and running. I love to sing and help out for benefits and new songwriters, and I have gotten a few requests to do things since we've been in rehearsals, but I made a rule for myself because I’m bad at saying no. So if I just make a rule, I have to stick to the rule and it's not personal. You have to say no. I do have an album – I did make one exception because he asked me a long time ago …Jeff Blumenkrantz, who recently starred in Murder for Two and Sweeney Todd, he is a dear, dear friend of mine – he was one of my first friends in New York – and we just wrapped an album together, where it's me singing the songs that he's either written or arranged. And it's all sort of swingy-jazzy versions of his music. He sings four duets with me, and the rest I do by myself. But it's just going to be gorgeous and so meticulous, just like him. I don't know exactly when that's coming out, but I think very soon. We want to have it within, maybe, the next month.
[Tickets to On the Town are available at Ticketmaster.com.]
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Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.