DIVA TALK: Chatting with Grease's Ashley Spencer Plus News of LuPone (1980 and 2008), Paige

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Grease's Ashley Spencer Plus News of LuPone (1980 and 2008), Paige
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Ashley Spencer
Ashley Spencer

The Tony-nominated Broadway revival of Grease at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre — directed and choreographed by Tony winner Kathleen Marshall — welcomed two new leads at the end of last month: Ashley Spencer as the sweet, wholesome new-girl-in-town Sandy Dumbrowski and Derek Keeling as leader-of-the-pack Danny Zuko. Both Spencer and Keeling were finalists in NBC's reality TV audition series, "Grease: You're the One That I Want"; Spencer was the runner-up for the role of Sandy, which was eventually won by Laura Osnes, who opened the current revival in August 2007. Although she didn't win the casting competition, it was clear from Spencer's TV performances that Broadway would soon welcome the young singing actress; in fact, Spencer made her Main Stem debut in Hairspray (as Amber von Tussle) just four months after the reality program aired. And, now, a year later she has succeeded Osnes in the role originally created on Broadway by Carole Demas and later immortalized on screen by Olivia Newton-John. I had the chance to chat with Spencer just three days after she stepped into the revival of the '50s-themed musical; that interview follows.

Question: How have your first few performances been?
Ashley Spencer: They've been great! Today will be my third performance. The more I do it, the better it feels and the more comfortable I am. . . . The cast and the crew have been so helpful and so fun and just great to be around.

Question: How did the role come about for you?
Spencer: I was on the TV show and came in second to Laura [Osnes]. When the TV show ended, I auditioned for Hairspray and was lucky enough to be in Hairspray for a year. My agent got a call from Charlotte Wilcox, who is the general manager at Grease, and she asked if I would want to replace Laura in July, and I said yes.

Question: So you didn't have to audition again?
Spencer: I didn't. I was hoping that my audition on national television would have been enough. [Laughs.]

Question: When you look back on the casting show, what are your thoughts about the experience?
Spencer: Now that I look back on it, just crazy stressful! There's no audition like that. I feel fearless going into any other audition because nothing will match that — ever! Question: I also would think it must have been such a big disappointment to get that far — to get to the top two — and then not get the role.
Spencer: Of course, it was very hard to get over. It was devastating because the whole process in itself was stressful and draining, but there was still, behind that, the excitement of, "Am I gonna get it? Am I gonna win?" Then to have it pulled away from me at the last moment was [difficult]. I was so disappointed for a long time. I was in a funk. . . . [Although] I was very disappointed, I was thrilled for the opportunity and just thankful for that in itself. Then when Hairspray came along and I auditioned and I got it, I just couldn't have been happier. I was like, "Things are working out. I was meant to be in Hairspray first instead of Grease." Being on Broadway for a year has prepared me so much. I am now more prepared than ever to be Sandy. I now know what it takes to do eight shows a week, and I have the stamina for it. I've learned so much from people on Broadway. It's just incredible.

Question: Do you remember what your first night on Broadway was like in Hairspray?
Spencer: Excited, nervousness, like any other show that you go into, I guess. . . . When I came into the show, [I worried people would think], "Great, another reality show girl taking a role from Broadway people." But that wasn't the case at all. I was really nervous about not being accepted, and I felt that I had to kind of prove myself, and I feel that I did just that. I think I changed everybody's mind in that I wasn't just a girl coming from a TV show, and I really kind of earned my place there. And, I worked my butt off, I really did! [Laughs.] I want to be on Broadway for a while, and I think that your first show sets the bar for your career.

Ashley Spencer as Sandy
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: How has being on Broadway differed from what your dream of it was?
Spencer: I think it's everything that I expected it to be. It's exciting. It's so wonderful to come through that stage door everyday, and it's great to leave and hear screaming fans. That feeling is like nothing else in the entire world. Just being on that humongous stage every night is thrilling, and I am so lucky to be one of the very few people to have a job on Broadway. Question: Getting back to Grease, what was the rehearsal process like? I know sometimes when you step into a show, you don't get all that much time.
Spencer: You don't. What's different for me is that I had two weeks of rehearsal, a full two weeks, for Hairspray, and one put-in rehearsal. And, then I came into Grease, and I did double duty for one week. I rehearsed during the day and then I did Hairspray at night. I only had six rehearsals and a put-in rehearsal for Grease, and then I was on.

Question: What was the first Grease performance like?
Spencer: It was really nerve-wracking. There were cameras there and people from [the theatre websites] and agents and close family and friends who insisted on coming on opening night. I felt like everyone had high expectations and I had to meet them. Of course, I was shaky and nervous, and I was kind of glad to get the first show out of the way so that I could relax a little more and enjoy myself. It was kind of hard to enjoy myself on opening night, if you know what I mean.

Question: Tell me about working with Derek. I did watch the TV series, but I don't remember if you worked with him much on the show.
Spencer: I really didn't. On the TV show we did one thing together. We partnered with each other on one of the group numbers, and that was it. We didn't do anything else together. So it was thrilling and exciting to actually get to work with him and form a relationship and form chemistry with him and find new things. It was helpful for me because I've never done any form of Grease, not even in a community theatre or anything, so this is all brand new to me. He was on tour for two years with Grease, so it was helpful to me for him to know the show so well. We also have formed our own Sandy and Danny with each other.

Question: How would you describe Sandy?
Spencer: My description of Sandy is she's sweet and demure and, like any new girl coming into a brand-new school not knowing anyone, she just wants to be liked and gives everybody the benefit of the doubt. At the same time, my Sandy doesn't let people walk all over her . . . . I kind of have her a backbone. I think that sometimes when I've seen it done, Sandy is kind of — well, I don't want to say wimpy. I feel that she personally has a backbone and she sticks up for herself. She's sweet and she just hasn't maybe experienced certain things that other girls have. She's not at that place in her life. But she met this guy, she met Danny over the summer, and then everything gradually starts to change for her when she gets into this new school. She becomes tougher and more aware of things as the show progresses, so it kind of builds up to the finale when she comes out and she's full-throttle, cigarette-in-hand and ready to change.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show yet for the character?
Spencer: There's a rec room scene right before I have my quick change for the finale and I sing the "Sandra Dee" reprise. It's a huge turning point for her because she's made a decision to step it up and see what [Danny's] reaction is going to be.

Question: Did Laura [Osnes] or Max [Crumm] have any advice for you? Did you get to speak with them before you went into the show?
Spencer: Not really. They wished us luck and told us to just go there and rock it and do our own thing, to make it our own and go out and have fun and not to listen to the critics or take things too personally.

Derek Keeling with Ashley Spencer
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Did you get to watch any of the Legally Blonde casting competition?
Spencer: I did. Of course, I watched it because I'm a reality TV show junkie now! Question: What were your thoughts about that casting show?
Spencer: I thought it was really cool. It was a lot different from the show that I was on. I actually preferred that. I don't know if that's a bad thing to say, but I preferred the way they did it because they were actually doing full scenes from Legally Blonde, versus us singing pop songs that had nothing to do with Grease at all. I think it was a lot more professional and a lot more the way that an actual Broadway audition would be.

Question: It also wasn't in front of a live audience each week.
Spencer: And America didn't choose. The director, Jerry Mitchell, chose who he wanted or who he thought [was best]… Of course, I think a director or a creator of a show knows what he wants and knows what he needs for the show, and I thought that was very smart.

Question: Since we haven't spoken before, let's go back a bit. Where were you born and raised?
Spencer: Canton, Ohio.

Question: When did you start performing?
Spencer: When I was four, in dance. [Laughs.]

Question: When do you think you knew performing of some sort would be your career?
Spencer: I always knew that I wanted to perform onstage no matter what I was doing. Dance was my first love, and I thought I was going to be a ballerina because I was in a ballet company for a while. And then I injured myself and couldn't dance every single day. In junior high I really started getting into theatre and started doing shows. I think that's when I knew. It was eighth grade or freshman year [when] I [thought], "Well if I can't dance for a profession, then why not do acting?"So I started getting more into that. I had been singing since I was in grade school. The acting actually came last. Question: Were there any performers or singers growing up that you especially admired or that inspired you?
Spencer: I've always loved movie musicals. Since I was a kid, my mom introduced me to them. My favorites are "Show Boat" and "White Christmas" and anything that Gene Kelly did, of course, since I was in love with dance. And Vera Ellen and Danny Kaye. I loved watching him. I was a big goofball as a kid. He was hilarious, and I just idolized him so much. [Laughs.] All the older movie musicals I think are so brilliant, and I actually wish that the movie musicals today were more like that.

Question: You know White Christmas is coming to Broadway this season.
Spencer: I would die. I would absolutely die. I'd love to be in it. [Laughs.]

Question: Going back to the Grease reality show, were you happy with the way that you were portrayed?
Spencer: Yeah, I generally think that they portrayed me — as far as in the packages and things — I was totally myself. I don't know how much I can say, but I might as well just go for it! We did not choose any of our material. That, a little bit, was disappointing because any other audition on Broadway, you bring to the table what you are best at and what showcases you best. There were a lot of songs that I would not have chosen for myself, but I did the best I could with everything that was thrown at me. But, of course, I feel like I didn't do my best on the show, and I feel like I've grown so much since then. Doing a show eight times a week helps that in itself. You kind of grow every day. I do not regret doing the [reality] show at all because it's brought me to where I am right now today, and I am so, so thankful for everything that I have been able to achieve.

Question: Do you know how long you'll stay with Grease?
Spencer: Right now I'm signed for six months through mid-January, but of course I would love to be renewed. But if I don't get renewed, then maybe that means that I am meant to do something else!

Question: Maybe White Christmas in 2009…
Spencer: Maybe, and I also have my eye on Spider-man!

[Tickets for Grease, priced $71.50-$121.50, are available by calling (212) 307-4100 or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com. The Brooks Atkinson Theatre is located at 256 West 47th Street.]

Pearl Bailey in Hello, Dolly!
photo by Leo Stern

Fans of Jerry Herman (and the musical Hello, Dolly!) are in for a treat. Masterworks Broadway is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Herman's La Cage aux Folles with a digital collection of nine recordings of the Tony-winning composer-lyricist's work. Currently available on all digital service providers — including iTunes and MP3 stores — the collection includes the following titles:

Milk and Honey (Original Broadway Cast Recording). Jerry Herman's first Broadway musical, which received five Tony nominations, starred opera singers Robert Weede and Mimi Benzell, singer/dancer Tommy Rall and the first lady of the Yiddish theatre, Molly Picon. The score was recorded Oct. 15, 1961.

Hello, Dolly! (Original Broadway Cast Recording/Deluxe Collector's Edition). Carol Channing stars in the title role of the Herman musical, which won ten Tony Awards, a record until 2001's The Producers. Recorded three days after the show opened in 1964, this collector's edition also features tracks by such subsequent Dollys as Ethel Merman, Mary Martin and Pearl Bailey as well as a 2003 interview with original star Channing.

Hello, Dolly! (Original London Cast Recording). This recording — featuring Mary Martin in the title role of everyone's favorite matchmaker — has been unavailable since it was briefly released in the U.S. in 1966. The recording was made Dec. 5, 1965, during the show's 794-performance run at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.

Hello, Dolly! (1967 Broadway Cast Recording) Because of Dolly!'s great success, producer David Merrick decided to recast the production in 1967 with an all African-American company led by Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway. The powerful response inspired a second cast recording, which was made Nov. 17, 1967.

Mame (Original Broadway Cast Recording) Character actress Angela Lansbury became a star once she stepped into the shoes of the free-spirited Mame Dennis. In addition to Lansbury, the recording boasts Tony winner Bea Arthur as the boozy Vera Charles. Bonus tracks include composer Herman's demos of the musical's famous songs.

Dear World (Original Broadway Cast Recording). Although Dear World — based on Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot — was one of Jerry Herman's less successful shows, the musical boasts a powerful score (including "Kiss Her Now" and "I Don't Want to Know") and features Angela Lansbury, Jane Connell, Carmen Mathews, Milo O'Shea, Kurt Peterson and Pamela Hall. The digital release includes a bonus track of Herman playing "And I Was Beautiful."

The Grand Tour (Original Broadway Cast Recording) Joel Grey, Florence Lacey and Ron Holgate co-starred in this 1979 musical, which was an adaptation of S.N. Behrman's play, Jacobowsky and the Colonel. The musical nabbed three Tony nominations, including one for Best Original Score, and was recorded Feb. 5, 1979, in Webster Hall with the late Wally Harper conducting the orchestra.

La Cage aux Folles (Original Broadway Cast Recording). Herman's last new Broadway musical was La Cage aux Folles, which was based on the popular French farce and turned out to be one of his biggest hits, winning five Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score. The cast boasted George Hearn, Gene Barry, Jay Garner, Merle Louise and John Weiner, and the score includes such gems as "Song on the Sand," "With Anne on My Arm," "The Best of Times" and the show's anthem, "I Am What I Am." The digital release includes a bonus track of Herman at the piano describing the creation of the latter.

Jerry Herman's Broadway. This 1992 recording features Don Pippin leading the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra in an orchestral tribute to all of the Herman musicals.

Physical CDs, which include each album's original cover art and liner notes, are available through ArkivMusic.

The most exciting news of the week!: It was during her Tony-winning run in the original Broadway production of Evita when current Gypsy star Patti LuPone also took the cabaret world by storm. For 27 consecutive weeks, La LuPone played Saturday evenings at midnight (following her 8 PM performance in Evita) at the now-closed nightclub Les Mouches. Nearly 30 years later a recording of that acclaimed concert act will be released on the Ghostlight Records label. "Patti LuPone at Les Mouches," which features a digitally restored recording of LuPone's 1980 club act, will arrive in stores Nov. 11. "Ghostlight President Kurt Deutsch," according to a press statement, "along with longtime producing partner Joel Moss and co-producers Ben Rimalower and David Lewis, have culled performances from the venue's original board mixes, and assembled a recording that captures the raw energy and excitement of a once in a lifetime concert event, and a moment in time." Listeners can expect to hear LuPone's powerful renditions of Patti Smith/Bruce Springsteen's "Because the Night" and Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" as well as Evita's "Rainbow High" and "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," Stephen Schwartz's "Meadowlark," Stephen Sondheim's "Not While I'm Around" and the popular Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer standard "Come Rain or Come Shine." A complete track list will be announced shortly.

To celebrate the Aug. 26 release of the eagerly awaited cast recording of the current revival of Gypsy, cast members from that award-winning production will head to Barnes & Noble Lincoln Center Aug. 28. Theatre journalist Patrick Pacheco (NY1, The Los Angeles Times) will moderate a question-and-answer session with Gypsy's three Tony-winning actors — Patti LuPone, Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti — beginning at 5 PM. The Q&A session will be followed by a CD signing that will include additional members of the Gypsy company as well as the Grammy-nominated producer of the Gypsy recording, Robert Sher. As previously announced, the Time Life recording of Gypsy will arrive in stores Aug. 26. In addition to the complete Gypsy score, the single CD also boasts several songs cut from the original Broadway production of the Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne musical: "Three Wishes for Christmas," "Momma's Talkin' Soft," "Nice She Ain't," "Mother's Day," "Smile, Girls," "Who Needs Him?" and an alternate version of "Mother's Day." Barnes & Noble Lincoln Center is located at 1972 Broadway at 66th Street. Elaine Paige, the British musical theatre actress who made her Broadway debut in Sunset Boulevard, will celebrate her 40 years in show business with a new concert. Entitled the Anniversary Concert, the evening of song will feature many of Paige's showstoppers from her theatrical outings (Evita, Cats, Chess, Piaf) as well as tunes from her gold and platinum-selling albums. Paige will debut the Anniversary Concert Sept. 12 at Breamore House, near Ringwood, in the U.K. Show time is 8 PM. For tickets visit www.ticketsouth.co.uk.

Amistad/HarperCollins will release a new autobiographical tome from Tony Award winner Diahann Carroll Sept. 30. Entitled "The Legs Are the Last to Go: Aging, Acting, Marrying, and Other Things I Learned the Hard Way," the new book was co-written by Carroll and Bob Morris. "This entertainment icon comes clean," press notes state, "on what it is like to be an award-winning trail blazer on-screen and on-stage…TV's first black bitch, and an aging star in Tinseltown; one who is still working on hot network shows such as 'Grey's Anatomy.' . . . This is a sensitive tale of a senior citizen coming of age that will entertain across multiple generations. Fans and critics alike will glean insight into Ms. Carroll's brightest showbiz moments, romantic liaisons and the toll career devotion has taken on her family life, her brush with breast cancer, the loss of her father, and much more." In the new book Carroll openly discusses her four marriages, her courtship with Sidney Poitier, racial politics in Hollywood and on Broadway, her audition for Sunset Boulevard, her engagement to David Frost and her brush with breast cancer. "The Legs Are the Last to Go" has a retail price of $24.95.

Stephanie D'Abruzzo, who received a Tony nomination for her work in the original cast of the Tony-winning Avenue Q, will appear in two benefit performances of Anne Nelson's The Guys Sept. 13 at 2 and 7 PM. Directed by Greg Burdick, who will co-star, the benefit will commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and will be held at the Lake Gibson High School Theatre in Lakeland, FL. A talkback session will follow each of the performances. Burdick is the school's Director of Theatre Arts, and all technical elements of the production will be handled by his theatre arts students. Proceeds will benefit both "L.i.F.E. & Kidz" — a local Florida charity that raises money for families of Polk County firefighters or law-enforcement officers who perish in the line of duty — and Lake Gibson High School's arts education and theatre program. The Lake Gibson High School Auditorium is located at 7007 North Socrum Loop Road in Lakeland, FL. Tickets, priced $10, can be purchased by calling (863) 853-6100; tickets will also be available at the door.

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

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