Leavel, a Drama Desk Award winner, an Outer Critics Circle Award winner and a Tony Award nominee for her blowsy role, said she built her character by watching old movies, engaging in improv exercises with her cast mates and drawing on the jaded musical theatre dames she's played in the past.
In the recent Broadway 42nd Street, Leavel replaced Christine Ebersole as Dorothy Brock, the stage star who is sidelined by an injury. To get a sense of Leavel's wild-eyed, voracious energy in The Drowsy Chaperone, imagine trouper Dorothy getting up out of her wheelchair and playing an entire run with a broken ankle.
While driving to an evening performance from her home in New Jersey, Leavel spoke about Drowsy by mobile phone. Leavel kept both hands on the wheel, but you imagine her Drowsy character would be much more reckless.
Playbill.com: The Drowsy Chaperone is about a theatre fan called Man in Chair telling us about his favorite old show, and giving behind-the-scenes dirt about the performers who created the roles back in 1928. You and your fellow actors are really inhabiting two roles. The Chaperone in the silly musical about a wedding is played by a diva of the Golden Age of musicals…
Beth Leavel: My character is informed by this woman who inhabits her — her name is Beatrice Stockwell.
Playbill.com: Beatrice and the Chaperone recall iconic, tough women of past musicals — Vera Charles from Mame, Dorothy Brock from 42nd Street…
BL: It's all of the above. I just finished playing Vera Charles last summer at the Muny, so that was accessible. When we were in Los Angeles doing rehearsals [for the Drowsy tryout in late 2005], we did this whole homework thing — exercises that our director [Casey Nicholaw] had us do, which was so much fun and so informing. We did this thing called "Hot Seat," where our characters would sit in a chair and all the other cast members would ask us questions. Then we had to write a bio. It became so obvious who this diva was. And she's so accessible, which is a little scary. I love her! It's a compilation of a lot of different women in theatre, characters in theatre, channeled through Beatrice Stockwell channeled through Beth Leavel. Playbill.com: They gave you permission to create this character's back story.
BL: Isn't that great? It's such a privilege. In reading the script, when Man in Chair says, "That was 15 years before she became Dame Beatrice Stockwell," that kind of gives you a little insight. You take it from there.
Playbill.com: Did you literally write pages and pages of a fake bio for Beatrice?
BL: Not pages and pages. I wrote a page — a bio, like what she would have in the Playbill. Like, "born to a theatrical family, she's been performing since the age of two," and then listing some of her shows. It's interesting, it would probably change now, if I could write it today as opposed to what it was five months ago. It certainly gave you a starting place, a real good place to plant your roots.
Playbill.com: Do you think Beatrice — who chews scenery in a show-stopping way, particularly in the number, "As We Stumble Along" — was talented?
BL: She was talented. But I think she was more of a legend — a legend in her own mind. And a diva. Kind of larger than life. I, of course, as Beth, think she's extremely talented. She's marvelously talented and that's why she demands an anthem in every show she does, whether it's appropriate or not.
Playbill.com: That's what audiences of the day would have wanted from her. If Merman doesn't get a big number, what's the point?
BL: Why would you go see her? We want it, we expect it, we demand it.
Playbill.com: Did librettists Bob Martin and Don McKellar give you a bio of Beatrice?
BL: They gave me a background sketch, and together we kind of fleshed this woman out. Then I would come into rehearsal and there would be [new writing]. I think they started writing toward my strengths. It's really rare, to have someone there going, "Why don't you sing it that way because that's what you do, that's what your strength is." It became kind of personalized to me and all my business. That's how we all worked together.
Playbill.com: There's a quality about your work — from jaded Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street to The Drowsy Chaperone — that suggests Beth Leavel was a woman from birth. It's hard for me to picture you as a dimply ingénue.
BL: I was never an ingénue, my friend. Even when I was 10, I was not an ingénue. [Laughs.]
Playbill.com: You were a soubrette at 10!
BL: When I went to college, I played Frau Schneider in Cabaret. I played all the character women, the fun women, all the older women. I've been doing that since I started being interested in theatre. That's fine. Can you imagine me playing Maria in The Sound of Music or something? Oh my God! They'd take my Equity card from me! I'd try to do it to the best of my ability, but there'd still be an eye-roll and a cigarette thing. [Laughs.]
Playbill.com: Your Playbill bio includes Vera, Miss Hannigan, the Countess in Night Music — drooping eyebrows, and caustic comments.
BL: And proud of it! [Laughs.] They all sound alike. If I listed all my credits it would be all the same roles — different wigs and different eras.