Heather Lee has starred on Broadway, most recently in Gypsy opposite Bernadette Peters. She has starred in the nation’s top regional theaters and on Los Angeles’ finest stages.  She originated the role of Babette in the L.A. production of Walt Disney’s Beauty And The Beast.  You may recall her guest appearance on Wings as Tim Daly’s date-from-hell, the ventriloquist who only spoke through her dummy. Heather is about to bring to life Lela Rogers, the mother of film great Ginger Rogers, in the Los Angeles Premiere of Backwards In High Heels: The Ginger Musical at International City Theatre in Long Beach.  Heather took time from her busy schedule to talk about the shows she’s been in and the friends she’s made in the business we call show. Here’s what she had to say:

Hi Heather.  Can you tell us something about growing up in a show business family?  

       Heather’s parents David Lee and Pegge Forrest (and friends)

My father started his career in broadcasting, first in radio, then as a newscaster, and by the time I entered the picture he was a children’s show host and puppeteer in Minneapolis.  My mother was always in the business, but mostly on the other side of the desk. She started in at NBC in New York and was assigned to starting out affiliate stations across the country. She and my dad met and created and starred in a couple of children’s shows together.

Pegge and Heather

How much did this show biz background affect your decision to become a performer?

I was exposed to the arts at a very early age. My mother worked for the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and professional theater in the area was everywhere. I made my first appearance on my father’s TV show at age four, lip-synching to “The Rain In Spain,” sitting on a stool dressed as Eliza Doolittle while the puppets played the roles of Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering! I was hooked and never looked back.  I was going to be an actress, case closed.

Which of your early, pre-Broadway roles most stand out for you?

So many roles and experiences have touched my life for different reasons.  I got my Equity card in Paint Your Wagon at Starlight in San Diego playing opposite Michael Hawkins. I fell in love with my husband Greg Thirloway doing a production of Grease at the Harlequin. The first time I worked with director Glenn Casale I played April in Company at La Mirada. I have a lot of stories about Little Me with Rich Little at Sacramento Music Circus! Into The Woods at Music Circus was a magical production. I was Cinderella and surrounded by all my good friends in the cast—Gordon Goodman, Nick Cavarra, Sarah Tattersall, Robert Yacko.

           Of Thee I Sing                              Palm Beach

I met my dear friend Jason Graae playing Diana Devereaux to his French Ambassador in Of Thee I Sing at Reprise. Post-Broadway, one of my favorite roles to play was Eustacia Fitch in the original musical Palm Beach at the La Jolla Playhouse. 

I drove down for that production and loved it!

Beauty And The Beast was not pre-Broadway but a very significant experience for me—close friendships have endured with Gary Beach, Linda Griffin, Jamie Torcellini, and Fred Applegate.  

    Heather and Gary Beach in Guys And Dolls

And last summer, Gary Beach and I played Nathan and Adelaide in Guys And Dolls at Music Circus. We had a ball. I guess looking back, I think the friendships you make and keep are as important as the roles you play.

You made your Broadway debut in Guys And Dolls, and ended up playing a number of roles during the run.  What was it like being on Broadway for the first time, especially being part of such a legendary musical theater classic?

I joined the Broadway Company of Guys And Dolls about a year and a half after it opened. I was moved from the tour where I was an original cast member.  I played the role of Martha in the Mission Band and understudied the roles of Miss Adelaide and Sarah Brown.  I was also assigned to understudy General Cartwright but thankfullyI never went on in that role.  The most exciting time for me during that Broadway run was when I went on for both Adelaide and Sarah in the same week. I always had to think very hard when I got to “Marry the Man Today” since it is a duet between both characters and I played both roles, though hopefully not at the same time.

         Heather as Babette in Beauty And The Beast

You originated the role of Babette in the Los Angeles sit-down production of Walt Disney’s Beauty And The Beast at the Shubert Theater. How did you go about turning an animated character into a flesh-and-blood one?

What was fun about Babette was that she was not in the movie as much as the other characters, so I was able to add a lot of my own interpretation. I never thought of her as a cartoon. The characters were all very real to me.   That was the first time I worked with Gary Beach and even though he had already been playing Lumiere for over a year on Broadway opposite Stacey Logan, he was very open to discovering new moments with me.

         Julie Halston, Kate Buddekke, and Heather in Gypsy

Your Broadway credits include the 2003-2004 revival of the frequently revived Gypsy. What was your process in making oft-performed stripper Tessie Tura (the one who does it “with finesse”) your own?  

         Stephen Sondheim, Heather, and Sam Mendes

I feel so very fortunate to have had the opportunity to originate the role Tessie Tura in the Broadway revival of Gypsy starring Bernadette Peters and directed by Sam Mendes. It was a magical experience for me and I will cherish it forever.  I knew Gypsy well. I had previously played the role of Electra twice, with JoAnne Worley as Rose, and the title role of Gypsy Rose Lee, which I loved, with Karen Morrow as Rose.  But I have to say playing Tessie Tura was the most fun! I am told that my interpretation was unlike anyone else’s—which I take as a compliment.  Sam directed the show like a play with music. We did extensive scene work during rehearsals and I was fortunate enough to be working with some of the finest actors on Broadway. 

What was it like working with Bernadette Peters and your co-strippers?

Bernadette is the most gracious leading lady in the business and a consummate professional and we all felt honored to share the stage with her at every performance.  My fellow strippers Julie Halston and Kate Buddeke are amazing ladies.  We were an unlikely trio, which made both our on-stage and off-stage relationships that much richer. And we three were fortunate enough to be photographed by Richard Avedon for New York Magazine before he passed. The whole Gypsy experience was a dream come true.  We had a very happy cast and are still extremely close today, which is very unique in my experience. 

I hear that there’s a mini-Gypsy reunion in the upcoming production of Backwards In High Heels at ICT.

 Yes, in fact. I’m happily reunited with Matt Bauer who was one of Dainty June’s Farmboys. He’s playing the role of Fred Astaire.

Your musical theater career has taken you to many of the country’s finest regional theaters. What are the favorite places you’ve been able to visit and perform in?

I love to travel!  And as an actor, doing a tour or going to a regional theater has been a great way to see different cities and meet new people.  I love Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans, San Antonio, Pittsburgh, Washington DC…  Those have all been tour stops for me—all unique cities with a flavor all their own and very appreciative audiences as well. 

You’ve also done straight plays, like Larry Shue’s The Foreigner.  How does this experience compare with your more accustomed musical theater roles?

I love doing plays, especially well written comedies, but I have not had as much opportunity as I have in musical theater. 

Do you consider yourself an L.A.-based actress?  

I like to think I am an actress without putting limitations on location. I started out in Los Angeles, because I went to school in San Diego and it was an easy progression to pack up the car and drive north. So, I started working out of the L.A. area in theater and in between theater gigs I managed to book a fair amount of TV and commercials jobs. 

What’s your favorite part of doing film and TV work?

   Heather, the dummy, and Tim Daly on Wings

I love working on sit-coms because they tape in front of a live audience and it’s like doing a new play every week.  It’s Summer Stock for a lot more money.

   Heather with Jack Noseworthy, Kevin Symons, and Erica Piccininni

Most recently, I had the pleasure of seeing your work in a multitude of roles in the musical No Way To Treat A Lady.  That was a big change of pace for you.  What challenges did you find in bringing to life so many distinct characters?

Thank you for saying so. No Way To Treat A Lady was a welcome challenge for me.  I played five roles and none of the characters were anything like any I had done before, so I couldn’t reach into my bag of tricks and rest on my laurels so to speak! I was supported by three terrific actors—Erica Piccininni, Kevin Symons and Jack Noseworthy—and a directing team of West Hyler and Shelley Butler who were tremendously helpful and supportive.  I played mothers to both Kevin and Jack and since we are all around the same age I had to keep reminding myself that Angela Lansbury played Laurence Harvey’s mother in The Manchurian Candidate and she was only 3 years older than he! The challenge for me was playing roles that were so far away from who I am and to make all five characters very distinctive.  I felt I had accomplished that when at a talk-back with the audience one night, a patron asked where the other actresses were who played the other roles. I assured her that I was ALL the other actresses. She insisted that I was not. I suggested she read her program.

That’s hilarious, and a big tribute to your performance(s).  Now you’re about to open as Ginger Rogers mother in Backwards In High Heels: The Ginger Musical at International City Theatre in Long Beach. I hear there are some parallels with Gypsy.

Backwards in High Heels is Gypsy-lite. If Dainty June hadn’t run off with Tulsa she might have been Ginger Rogers. Both of their careers started on the Orpheum circuit. And I’m sure they probably followed each other into theaters.  I can just hear Lela Rogers complaining that Rose and those Hollywood Blondes left a mess of the dressing room again!  

How much does Ginger’s mother have in common with Mama Rose?

   Lela Rogers and Ginger Rogers in The Major And The Minor (1942)

Lela Rogers, while a stage mother and a very significant influence on Ginger’s career, seems a bit more balanced than Mama Rose.  She never wanted to be a performer herself—although she did appear in one movie with Ginger—The Major and the Minor  She was a writer. First for newspapers and then a screenwriter and then she became Head of New Talent at RKO studios.  She was a survivor, a working woman and even though she was married twice, she basically was a single mother and raised Ginger on her own.

What kind of relationship did she have with her famous daughter?

Her relationship with Ginger was loving and a bit controlling at times. She wanted the best for her daughter, tried to protect her from making mistakes and was overly involved at times.

How did you go about researching the role? 

I’ve been reading Ginger’s Autobiography and doing a lot of Googling. 

 Joe Cunningham, Alan Marshal, Ginger Rogers, and Jane Seymore in 
         Tom, Dick, And Harry (1941)

And… my great aunt Jane Seymour—my father’s aunt—was a well-known Broadway actress.  She passed away before I was born, but I feel we have some parallels to our work.  She did mostly comedic roles, as do I.  And, she played Ginger Rogers mother in the RKO film Tom, Dick and Harry. And now, coincidentally, I’m playing Ginger Rogers’ mother in the musical Backwards in High Heels.

Thanks Heather.  Can’t wait to see you on Opening Night!

Thank you Steven.  I look forward to seeing you there!

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