Southern California welcomes Broadway’s Elizabeth Stanley just in time for Christmas. Elizabeth will be kicking off the National Tour of the hit musical Xanadu at the Orange County Performing Arts Center beginning December 15.  The role of Kira in Xanadu follows Elizabeth’s starring roles in the Broadway productions of Cry-Baby (Allison) and the Tony-Award-winning revival of Company (April). Elizabeth’s other roles have included Eliza in My Fair Lady, Belle in Beauty And The Beast, and Amneris in Aida, as well as the non-singing role of Brooke in Noises Off.  Southern Californians are lucky to have Elizabeth among us this December, and it was my pleasure to chat a bit with Ms. Stanley (great name, though sadly for me no relation) about her life and career up till now!

You spent most of your adolescence in a small town in Illinois.  How does someone living far from the big city get exposed to theater as a child, enough so to make her choose acting as a career?  

Good question! I suppose I got bitten by the theater bug, as many actors do, by doing skits in my elementary school classes.  Later, in middle school, I started doing a lot of shows at a small community theater in the town of Quincy, Illinois, about three miles from where I grew up.  This small community theater is where I did nearly all of my performing and learning about theater as a child. 

How did your family react when you told them, “I want to be a performer!”?

My family has always been very supportive. They provided rides and funding for many many music lessons, and “play practices,” etc.  They’ve never pushed me to pursue a different path, and they come to see every show I do.  I am very grateful for them!

I understand that you were originally planning to be an opera singer.  

Yes, I went to Indiana University as a vocal performance major with the plan to be a professional opera singer.  

     Elizabeth in My Fair Lady

What was it about musical theater that made you say, “I’d rather be doing that”?

While at IU I became friends with many people who were really passionate about musical theater, and I learned a lot of musicals I’d never known.  I became fascinated by all the contemporary shows. They seemed more accessible to the “average” person than opera, so I was swayed!  But… I still really adore opera!

When you moved to New York after graduating from college, being a Mid-West girl, did you take to life in the Big Apple like a duck to water, or was it a harder adjustment? 

I was so excited to be there that I never really hated it. It took a while for me to love it, I confess, but I was thrilled by the newness, and rush, and the struggle of it.  I had plenty of moments—carrying groceries home, or taking the subway a long way, or while walking in the freezing cold—that I would think, “Ugh, I wish I could just drive to a store, park, walk down big aisles, and drive home!,” but now I visit places with no public transit and I get so annoyed, and I start to feel out of shape when I drive everywhere! (Elizabeth laughs.) Every place has its perks!

Elizabeth and Raul Esparza in Company (Photo: Sara Krulwich/NYTimes)

Your first Broadway show was the John Doyle revival of Company, in which you played the role of April.  What was it about that first time on Broadway that distinguished it from the college or summer stock productions you’d been in before?

So many things were unique about Company.  Of course, the approach was highly creative and new, rather than being any sort of re-creation of what had been done before, as is usually the expectation for summer stock.  Also, I distinctly remember thinking “Wow, everyone in this room is insanely talented! Everyone! Never before have I been with a company where 100% of the people were this passionate and this good!  I bet I’ll never work with a more creative, hard-working, talented group of people again.” But then I actually felt the same way doing Cry-Baby. (Big smile.)

     Elizabeth and James Snyder in Cry-Baby (Photos: (l.) Joan Marcus, (r.) Kevin Berne)

I was lucky enough to see you in Cry-Baby at the La Jolla Playhouse and absolutely loved it. I thought the production “got” John Waters in a way that Hairspray, much as I love the show, didn’t quite manage. I wonder if you felt the same way.

I’m so glad you loved Cry-Baby, I did too! I think both Hairspray and Cry-Baby were a little less gritty than John Waters’ films, but yes, Cry-Baby definitely crossed the line a few times!  

What it was like creating a show from the ground up, as opposed to being in a revival?

I learned a great deal working on a show from the ground up. It’s an experience for which I will be forever grateful. I gained a whole new respect for the creation of a new piece of theater.  You must go through many metamorphoses before finding the shape and the feel for the finished product.

  Elizabeth and Max Von Essen in Xanadu (Photos: Carol Rosegg)

Cry-Baby stuck close to the tone of the original film and didn’t really make it on Broadway. Xanadu took a completely different approach from the movie original and became a hit. What is it about Xanadu (The Musical) that’s made it such an audience favorite?

Douglas Carter Beane is a genius!  He’s given the story a plot where one never existed! There are also a number of 80s references that make it a fun flashback for anyone who lived through the era.  His writing, combined with a score that features songs people already know—and again offer a great nostalgic feeling, plus the direction of Chris Ashley that delightfully winks at the movie so many people love to hate …  It all adds up to fun!  Xanadu the musical is basically a loving send-up of a film that was so deliciously and absurdly 80s!

In the Golden Age of Broadway, triple threat stars were rare, yet today, it’s often not even enough to be a triple-threat. You played a musical instrument in Company and do roller-skate choreography in Xanadu, which makes you at the very least a quintuple threat. Singing, dancing, acting, playing an instrument, roller-skating…  Which of those five skills was the hardest to master and why?

People ask me this question a lot, and I think the answer is so obvious! Which one of these skills threatens death?  That would be roller-skating!  I was so terrified going down the on-stage ramps for the first time!  I remember thinking “This is crazy! I have a chosen a crazy career for myself. Sane people don’t do things like this!”  

You premiered the Xanadu tour a year ago at the La Jolla Playhouse, then took it to Chicago and Japan, right?  I expect that you felt quite at home in Chicago, but what was it like for you to be performing/staying in Japan? 

Being in Japan was amazing!  I felt so lucky to get to spend a whole month there experiencing the culture and the landscape a bit.  

What was the Japanese reaction to a show as quintessentially American as Xanadu, especially to Douglas Carter Beane’s particular brand of humor?

Japanese culture is very different than American culture of course, and their reactions to the show were equally different!  They seemed to really enjoy it though, but were in general a quieter audience than American crowds. Having never performed there before it’s hard for me to gage if it was just the cultural difference or if it was a specific reaction to Xanadu. I will say that our egos missed the groans and laughs—and we’re hoping to hear them again now that we’re back in the states!  

I’m sure you will! There must have been a gap between Japan, and next month’s “official start” of the National Tour? What were you doing in the meantime?  

I’ve had a great few months seeing friends and family. I became an aunt while in Japan… so first stop was meeting my niece!  And I was also working. This past fall I played Constanze in Amadeus at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.  Iloved working on this role sandwiched between playing Kira—such a wonderful contrast!

It must have been fun to do a straight play for a change, and then get back to Xanadu. I’m curious, did you see the original Broadway production? I’m asking because the touring cast is so different from the original, right?  What qualities to you bring to the role of Kira that make it uniquely your own?

Yes, I saw and loved the Broadway cast.  I suppose the touring cast is different, but honestly I’d never thought about that, it’s just different people, so I suppose that makes it different. I haven’t really studied the Broadway cast enough to know what makes my version unique. I’m just a different actress living in the role as I feel it!  Kerry Butler was nominated for a Tony, and rightfully so, but it wouldn’t work for me to “play Kerry Butler playing Kira.”  I suppose my version is unique to me as hers was to her! I do appreciate that Chris never asked any of us to imitate the Broadway cast, but rather trusted Doug’s writing to be able to play well with a variety of different actors bringing their personalities to the piece.

I got to see Max Von Essen a couple times when he was doing a musical called Dorian in North Hollywood, and he’s great. How has it been working with him, and now being reunited after a bit of a hiatus? 

I … love … Max!! We have a ball together, and I feel really lucky to be sharing this experience with such a funny,talented, hard-working, and genuine man. We’ve become great friends and are both really excited to be skating together again!

You’ve toured before and are about to do so again. I always ask touring actors about their experiences on the road because the whole experience seems quite fascinating to me. What is it about touring (besides the sightseeing) that make it an exciting and unique experience for you, as opposed to performing nightly on Broadway?

It can be a good way to catch up with people you know who live scattered across the country.  I often end up knowing someone in several of the places on a tour route.  And, more than the sight-seeing, I love experiencing a bit of local life.  Touring can be a wonderful way to get a flavor for different parts of our vast and varied US-of-A!

Costa Mesa is about as close to L.A. as the current tour schedule has you performing, so I hope that musical theater loving Angelinos will hear about the tour and drive down to the OC to see the show. 

Yes, I hope theater-lovers of L.A. will be up for a road-trip as well! I mean, isn’t it worth a bit of car time to see 23,408,701,012,347 disco balls, see Max in his short shorts, and hear a bad Australian accent?! 

Absolutely!  Are you going to miss having a White Christmas, as you did last year too? 

This is my third holiday season spent on the West Coast. I’m just getting used to it!  

Any desire to do more West Coast work?

Having spent a good chunk of time in California these past two years, I’ve decided it might be my new favorite state. It seems to have it all: city, country, water, mountains, warm, cold, trees, desert, sunshine—so Yes! I’d love to do more West Coast work!  Can you get me hooked up with some movies Steven? (Elizabeth smiles.)

I’ll see what I can do.  (Interviewer smiles, knowing he has absolutely no influence in this town.)

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