Marja Harmon (USC  School Of Theatre, Class of 2005) returns to the Southland as as Nala in the National Tour of Disney’s The Lion King, opening May 26 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.  We caught up with the talented triple threat to find out about being a Trojan, playing Maggie The Cat on Broadway, and bringing an animated heroine to life on the stage.

Marja, you’re a graduate of the USC School Of Theatre, as are many of the best of today’s musical theater performers. Are you a local girl?

I’m actually originally from Columbus, Indiana, which is south of Indianapolis.  

So how did this Midwesterner get her start in musical theater?

I became interested in the arts at a very young age and participated in community theater, drama club, choirs, and sang locally at different community functions. So my passion for performing started very early.

That’s true for just about everyone I’ve interviewed.  The theater bug bites at a young age! As a young adult, you continued your training in USC’s School Of Theatre, which has a deserved reputation for the musical theater triple threats it turns out.  How did you in particular benefit from the USC program?

The thing that is so great about the USC theater program is that it gives the students many opportunities to perform.  The School Of Theatre does from six to eight major productions per year in addition to all the student directed and produced pieces. So you constantly have the chance to hone your craft and apply your class work in an onstage environment. 

Any particular benefits from studying in the L.A. area?

Yes, being in Los Angeles, you have a faculty who are directly immersed in the industry, so they are able to give you very current information, training, and a detailed understanding of the business.

Marja and Eugene Barry-Hill in Ragtime at Starlight Musical Theatre

You starred in a number of local productions before heading off to New York. Of those early roles, which one really stands out for you?

Definitely Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities’ production of Dreamgirls, during the summer of 2000.  It was my first professional theater experience and I had actually auditioned for the show while I was in L.A. looking at colleges.  It was such an incredible opportunity.  I was seventeen, and was part of a cast that included Broadway veterans such as Billy Porter, Kecia Lewis-Evans, Kingsley Leggs, and Tonya Dixon.  The show won an Ovation Award for best musical that year, and it redirected my career goals from just singing to theater. 

Marja as Maggie The Cat

I wish I’d seen that one, but it was a few years before I discovered L.A.’s flourishing CLO scene. Sounds amazing!  The same can be said about your Broadway debut in Tennessee Williams Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, first because it proves that you’re clearly much more than “just” a musical theater triple threat, and secondly because as the Maggie understudy, you actually got to play that deeply complex role on Broadway!  Would you agree?

Absolutely.  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was such an overwhelming experience for me. I never thought that my Broadway debut would be a play!  And, to have the opportunity to be a part of an all African-American production of this show was a dream come true. 

Marja with Phylicia Rashad, Terrence Howard, and James Earl Jones

Can you talk a bit about how you got cast?

The casting process was long and crazy and at one point involved meeting Terrence Howard, James Earl Jones, and Phylicia Rashad.  I remember thinking to myself that it was going to be so disappointing if I didn’t get the show, because I’d gotten so far.

What stands out the most for you about Cat On A Hot Tin Roof?  You played Sookie and understudied Maggie.

To have the opportunity to study such iconic performers and see their rehearsal process was unforgettable. It was my first experience understudying as well, which was incredibly difficult.  As an understudy, you never get the chance to work with the actors you’ll actually be onstage with which hinders your ability to feel comfortable in the role.  Conversely, I think it was these challenging elements that allowed me to be open and spontaneous onstage. The experience also taught me the discipline of creating your own character development process as an actor.

How about making your Broadway debut at such a young age?  Any jitters?

Being on a Broadway stage for the first time was terrifying, and especially with the caliber of cast I was working with.  My first performance as Maggie was so frantic. I remember reminding myself to “just breathe.” The second time I went on I felt much more relaxed, and the cast was very supportive. After I had a few solid performances in the role, James Earl Jones called me into to his dressing room and told me, “Sweetheart, you play Maggie just the way Tennessee Williams intended.”  That will always remain one of most memorable moments in my career.

Marja as Aida: (l.) with Todd Fournier (Starlight Musical Theatre) and (r.) with Casey Elliott in the National Tour (Photo: Brook McNeely)

I’ll say!  Marja, your Southern California CLO productions were all short runs, and now you’re in your second national tour, which means playing the same role for months and not just for weeks. How do these two experiences compare for you?

I feel as though it’s a bit of a Catch 22. In a short run of a show, by the time you begin to really grasp a character and feel comfortable the production is usually over.  On the other hand, with a national tour or open-ended run, you have the opportunity to really live in the character. The challenge then, is to keep the role fresh every night so as avoid becoming stagnant in the performance. 

As Nala in The Lion King, with Andre Jackson as Simba (Photos: Joan Marcus)

Playing Nala in The Lion King must make you very popular among your younger family members and kids in general.  What’s it like for you to play a role that so many children have grown up watching on DVD or seen on the musical theater stage?

It’s so exciting to watch children respond to the show.  Most people come into the experience having seen the movie so they can already identify with the characters and are excited to see them onstage.  It’s lovely to see young girls carrying a Nala doll, and being a figure that they look up to.

Why do you think The Lion King has been such a phenomenal success, when a number of more recent family shows haven’t lasted nearly as long?

The Lion King transformed the theater experience.  Julie Taymor’s creation of spectacle mixed with cinematic dimensions onstage gave the audience a new experience.  It’s also a great cultural experience.  The audience is exposed to every type of dance, music, and even the South African languages.  The uniqueness of the show in this regard has contributed to its longevity.

How’s the touring experience been like for you in such a huge and popular production as is The Lion King?  Are there any downsides to being in a hit tour?

What’s so fantastic about The Lion King tour is that the show has such long sit-downs in every city. This allows the cast and crew to really settle and explore in each environment.

You’ll soon be back in Southern California for a few weeks with The Lion King. What are you most looking forward to doing while back in your old theatrical stomping grounds?

Definitely visiting my favorite L.A. restaurants, such as El Cholo!

You’re a singer/dancer but as your Cat On A Hot Tin Roof credit indicates, you’re also interested in non-musical roles. Do you feel the lure of the West Coast and Hollywood, or do you see yourself as a New York kind of actress?

I am just now starting to consider film and TV, but my career has been very theatrically focused up until now. I’m very excited to continue my journey through stage. 

Any particular reason for preferring stage work, at least for now?

I enjoy the fact the theater remains an actor’s medium, as opposed to film, which seems to be more of a director’s medium. Theater allows the actor to really live onstage without interruption eight performances a week, thus providing an actor with a simultaneously grueling and thrilling experience day in and day out. 
I’m really excited for you that your career is taking off so well. It’s a tribute to you and to the training you got at USC.  I’m sure a lot of your L.A. friends will be coming to see you as Nala. I’m certainly looking forward to the press performance, and wish you all the best in your career!

Thanks so much, Steven.

Marja’s The Lion King Bio:
Broadway: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Sookey/U.S.Maggie perf’d). Tours: Aida (Aida). Regional: Ragtime (Sarah) Falsettos (Dr. Charlotte), Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Narrator), Jekyll and Hyde, and Dreamgirls. Marja is a proud graduate of the University of Southern California.

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