I first discovered Lesli Margherita when she brought down the house as Amneris in Aida, and since then I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her bring down the house in roles as diverse as The Widow in Zorba, Gloria in Damn Yankees, and Lois Lane in Kiss Me Kate.  (The latter role earned her a spot on StageSceneLA’s Best of 2007-8 lists for Best Performance By A Featured Actress In A Musical.)  Besides her frequent film and TV work, Lesli’s an L.A. musical theater staple.  She’s also the winner of London theater’s prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for her performance as Inez in the West End production of Zorro The Musical. Following hit engagements of her one-woman-show Lesli Margherita: All Hail The Queen, Lesli is about to open in the West Coast Premiere of Michael John LaChiusa’s See What I Wanna See, directed by Daniel Henning at The Blank Theatre’s Second Stage.  Lesli took time out of a very busy rehearsal schedule to chat with us. Here’s what she had to say!

Lesli, I’m always curious to ask a performer when and how the acting bug first bit. Since you’re a California girl, does that mean you grew up close to the entertainment industry?  

Ha!  I grew up on a cattle ranch in Northern California, so really only close to the beef industry. The cows and horses were an amazing first audience, though looking back, they might have just been asleep. 

How old were you when you first began performing?

I started dancing at 4, and then when I was 10, I made my mom take me to an audition for Annie.  Jo Anne Worley was playing Miss Hannigan, and I ended up getting it.  Many screamed versions of “Tomorrow” later, I’m still at it.

Fame L.A. introduced America to Lesli Margherita

You were very young and fresh out of UCLA when you landed a starring role in TV’s Fame L.A. What was it like for you going from being an aspiring actress to being seen in living rooms throughout the country? 

I was so, so lucky.  I had done a musical pilot for ABC Family, which didn’t go, and the casting director told me his friend Kenny Ortega was directing the new version of Fame, and to be sure I was seen for it. I loved the old version, and couldn’t believe when I got cast. It was the first big job for all of us, and even though the show wasn’t totally successful, it was a blast. I guess we were Kenny’s pre-High School Musical kids. 

Do you still get recognized as Liz?

I very thankfully do not get recognized from that. I was going through some weird goth/vamp thing then. Frightening.

You’ve done so much stage work in and around L.A.  When you started out, did you see yourself more as a stage or screen performer?  

I always knew I wanted to do both. It just happened that the screen stuff came first in LA.  I love them both equally. That’s a lie.  I love the money from screen more. By the way, I sure hope your readers get my humor, otherwise, I sound like a complete jerkette…

No more than any other L.A.-based actor who knows that his or her bread-and-butter jobs will be on film.  That’s simply the nature of the beast in this city. As for Lesli Margherita,  I’ve noticed that on stage, you’re primarily a musical theater actress. On screen, you’ve done a lot of dramatic roles.  Do you sometimes feel like two different Lesli’s? 

I’m really lucky I get to do both comedic and dramatic roles in musical theater. I love the roles that use both sides.  I do sometimes feel like two different Lesli’s … but that may be a mental issue.  Again…joking. I am not crazy … depending on who you ask.

Lesli in Beehive and Anything Goes

You’ve done some dazzling work locally in many shows, including Damn Yankees, Grease, Beehive, Anything Goes, and Kiss Me Kate, all of which I had the pleasure of seeing you in. Are you tempted by a move to New York, or do you find that Southern California offers you a more satisfying variety of stage roles? 

Thank you, sir.  I am an L.A. girl.  I would move to New York for a while to do a show, and umm, to shop, but I think I will always be based in LA.  The shows have short runs here, so you’re able to do many more roles, and get to play some roles you might not get cast in anywhere else. Not that I’ll be playing Effie in Dreamgirls anytime soon, but you know what I mean.  I’m more of a James Thunder Early, anyway. (Lesli smiles.)

We’ll get to your Olivier Award-winning role in Zorro in just a second, but first, of the pre-Inez musical theater roles, do you have a particular favorite (or favorites)? 

Aldonza in Man of La Mancha and Anita in West Side Story. 

What made these roles stand out for you?

Both amazing, fiery women. I like to push the boys around.  Amneris in Aida as well, she was fun. I just realized those all start with “A”.  Huh.  All of them take such huge journeys, I love that.

Lesli as the sultry, seductive, tempestuous Inez in Zorro

I have to admit I was extremely impressed when I heard you’d be doing Zorro in London, since it seems that more British actors are permitted to star on Broadway than Americans on the West End. How did that particular rare bit of casting come about?

I was as shocked as you. Michael Donovan called me in for the reading here in LA.  Side note to actors: DO EVERY WORKSHOP OR READING OFFERED TO YOU!!! Sorry, don’t mean to yell.

It’s good I had my earplugs in there!  But go on…

I didn’t want to go, I was in rehearsal for something else, but then Ronn Gosswick, who was stage managing it, called me and told me more about who was on the team, and that the Gipsy Kings were writing the music.  As soon as I read the sides, and saw that one of her songs was Bamboleo, I knew I wasn’t going to let anyone else play Inez.  Ha! I did many workshops here and in New York, and then heard they were trying to bring me over there.  I was like, “Sure sure, that will happen.” Equity didn’t want to exchange me, so the Zorro team hired a bunch of lawyers, and made it happen.  I found out three days before I left that it was actually real.

An amazing bit of luck, but how great that they really went to bat for you!  Was this your first time performing abroad?  

I had performed in Europe for Disney, but never on the West End. I was terrified. It took a while to adjust to everything. I learned very quickly that saying “I can’t rehearse wearing pants”, means to the Brits, “I can’t rehearse wearing underwear,” which explained the looks I got when I asked for a rehearsal skirt. 

Leslie, in front of the theater…and Windsor Castle

That’s hilarious!  What are your best memories of living in London, and of playing Inez?

My entire time there was pretty perfect. Meeting Prince Charles and Camilla is up there in the memories.  As for Inez memories, well, I don’t think I’m quite done with her yet.  I hope not.

Lesli and her “Larry” Photo: whatsonstage.com

Just about a year ago, you not only got nominated for the Olivier Award (England’s Tony), but you won the coveted prize over your British fellow nominees.  I know you’ve been asked before, but can you describe your feelings upon winning, and what life was like for you in the days and weeks that followed?

I still can’t wrap my head around it.  I was totally prepared to lose, because Americans don’t usually win. When they called my name, my husband screamed in my ear so loudly, I don’t think I heard anything after that. I loved my cast so much, and they were supposed to be getting ready to perform at the awards.  They all snuck out to the balcony and cheered me on, to the chagrin of the awards stage manager. That meant so much to me. I was glad airport security let me take “Larry” in my carry-on. No way was I going to check him.

(Click here to watch Lesli sing Bamboleo. Click here to watch Lesli’s Olivier acceptance speech.)

Lesli, in cabaret mode.  Photo (r.): Lily Lim

You’ve recently garnered considerable acclaim for your solo show All Hail The Queen.  How did that project come about?

I knew I wanted to do my own show when I got back, almost like a mini Vegas show.  My producing partner Lauren and I figured we had nothing to lose, so it turned into a nightclub act with backup dancers and singers, a full band, video screens, puppets, you name it, it’s in there. It’s always changing, but it’s 100% mine, we don’t have to answer to anyone else about what it should be, and I think that it’s so important in this town to have projects you control, and make you happy. 

Any plans for a return engagement? 

I’ll be doing it again June 8 in LA, and we are planning shows in New York, San Fran, and London.www.leslimargherita.com.  There, the commercial is done.

Now, you’re about to make one of your very first L.A. intimate theater appearances in Michael John LaChiusa’s See What I Wanna See at the Blank, under the direction of Daniel Henning. Just how challenging is it to sing LaChiusa’s music, as compared to other composers’?

I met Michael John a couple of weeks ago, and I told him I wanted to slap him. He just answered: “I know.”  It’s the hardest music I think any of us have ever had to sing. Not just because it’s technically insane (we all look like crazed counting zombies offstage), but you can’t just sing his music. You have to live it. Every song is its own giant emotional roller coaster.  We’re exhausted at the end of it. Daniel is very close with Michael John, so we’re getting so much information from the writer first hand, it’s amazing.

What’s Daniel’s secret to getting big names like yours, and other busy stage, movie, and TV actors to work for peanuts at the Blank—other than the uniformly high quality of their productions, of course?

We’re not even working for peanuts.  More like a single pine nut.  Seriously, I think Daniel gets the best out of his actors every time, and that’s why so many actors want to work with him and The Blank. He also gives well known actors who might be pigeonholed on screen, a chance to play something different.  Most in Hollywood don’t do that. He is so passionate about what his company stands for; you can’t help but want to be a part of it. The money doesn’t matter when you realize how much you are growing as an artist just by doing the show.

How would you like to see your career develop over the next few years?

I want to take over the world, but that may take more than a few years.  Broadway is for sure the next thing I want to check off my list. There are plans to bring Zorro over here, I hope that happens soon. I really just want to keep working. I’m lying again. I want to be a mini mogul, but saying I just want to keep working sounds so much better, doesn’t it?

It’s always such a pleasure seeing you on and off stage, Lesli.  Can’t wait to see you in See What I Wanna See. If I may allow myself to say so, it’s exactly what I wanna see!

Click here to check out Tom Lenk’s video interview with Lesii on YouTube.

Click here to purchase tickets to See What I Wanna See. Previews begin April 10.  The show opens on April 17 and plays through May 23.

 LESLI MARGHERITAeceived the 2009 Olivier Award for Best Supporting Performer in a Musical for her portrayal of Inez in Zorro, which played at the Garrick Theater in London’s West End. A California native, Lesli began her L.A. career at UCLA.  Immediately after she was chosen to star in MGM’s television series Fame L.A. directed by Kenny Ortega, which is still shown all over the world. She has gone on to star and recur on many TV shows and pilots, including The Suite Life On Deck, Charmed, NYPD Blue, The District, The King of Queens, JAG and On The Lot, produced by Steven Spielberg. Her recent films include The Number 23 directed by Joel Schumacher and Boogeyman 2 produced by Sam Raimi.  Lesli can also be heard on several animated films, most recently Disney’s Cinderella 3. Her National tour and Regional Theater credits include starring roles in Damn Yankees directed by Jason Alexander, Zorba, Kiss Me Kate, Beehive, Anything Goes, Aida, Reefer Madness, The Grave White Way, West Side Story, Man Of La Mancha, Grease, A Chorus Line, and Gypsy.

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