L.A. Native Leslie Spencer began her musical theater career in a number of Southland productions, playing characters as varied as Babe Williams in The Pajama Game, Miss Adelaide in Guys And Dolls, and Petra in A Little Night Music. As a member of Hollywood’s Actor’s Co-op, she has been featured as Abigail Adams in 1776, Verges in Much Ado About Nothing, and most recently, starred as Amy in the West Coast workshop of  the musical-in-progress Trails. Leslie made her off-Broadway debut last year in the megahit The Marvelous Wonderettes, a show she has been associated with since its long-running stay at North Hollywood’s El Portal Theatre. She is also a Vixen, i.e. background vocalist, with the Brian Setzer Orchestra, with whom she has toured, recorded, and made numerous TV appearances. This proud member of Actors’ Equity is about to open at the Co-op in Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, directed by the award-winning Richard Israel. We were fortunate to catch Leslie in one of her rare free momentsto talk about theater and her life in it.

Hi Leslie. I know you’re an L.A. native, but did you grow up here as well?

A very young Leslie in white tutu, center.

I was born in L.A. and lived in La Cañada until I was eight years old, when my parents moved us to Visalia. I moved back to Los Angeles for college—Biola University—when I was almost 18 years old.

So how did your interest in musical theater come about?

I’ve always been around music. I’ve been playing the piano since I was five years old, and sang in church and school choirs. I was even in the marching band in high school playing the clarinet.  I never really knew that I was a true performer until I got cast in my high school’s production of Guys and Dolls as Miss Adelaide.  

Did you go on to major in Theater in college?

I majored in vocal performance for a year but then switched back over to Journalism.  I hold a Bachelor’s Degree in Broadcast Journalism, and spent the first few years out of college working for the KTLA Morning News.  All the while, I was doing shows. I kept getting cast in CLO and 99-seat theater productions.  I just kept doing it, and, eventually, was able to “quit the day job,” so to speak.  My dream has always been Broadway, and I kind of made it … Can’t wait to go back and really do it! 

Talk a bit about those early Leslie Spencer performances. How did it feel to be performing roles made famous by Vivian Blaine, Barbra Streisand, and Gwen Verdon?

You can never compare yourself to the person who originated a role.  No one can play a role like you can, either.  It’s always exciting to bring your own viewpoint and life to a character, no matter what famous person or legend has gone before you. I did a lot of character work as a young 20something, and now that I’m a bit older and have more “mileage”, so to speak, it’d be really fun to revisit these women.  

Can you talk a bit about your first roles as a member of Actors’ Co-op?

My first mainstage role at the Co-op was performing as Cinderella in Into the Woods. I was a new company member, and understudying three roles at the time—the Witch, the Baker’s Wife and Cinderella. I ended up going quite often as Cinderella. Right afterward I was cast in the Co-op, Too! production of Much Ado About Nothing, which is actually the only play I have done.  Shhh! Don’t tell!  I had a lot of fun playing Verges.

And then came 1776.

Leslie with costar Michael Downing in 1776

1776 was a beautiful production of an amazing show, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.  The part of Abigail Adams is small, yet pivotal to the story. 

And how was working with director Richard Israel?

Richard brought out the best in me in that role. His attention to detail kept the show moving and alive. Not to mention the fact that the cast was full of astounding actors. Who wouldn’t want to be one of two women in what otherwise is an all-male cast? Whoo hoo!

You also keep busy as a Vixen in The Brian Setzer Orchestra and sang backup on their Grammy-nominated Wolfgang’s Big Night Out. How has that been for you?

Julie Reiten, Brian Setzer, and Leslie

lovethe big band!  I’ve been a Vixen for four years now, which includes five tours and two albums.  It is the absolute best job that I’ve ever had. I love theater, but there is nothing like singing in front of 170,000 screaming fans, next to one of the greatest guitar players in the world.  I am so blessed to have this job. 

How have you enjoyed touring with the band?

Touring is great because we’re treated so well.  Since we usually have nightly shows in different cities, we drive across the country in luxury coaches, and then are provided with a lovely hotel room in each city.  On the bus, I get my own bunk, along with satellite TV, wireless internet, leather couches, a kitchen, the works. It truly becomes home! Of course, I share it with a few other band guys and our assistant tour manager, but we all are family. 

And working with Brian Setzer? 

I appreciate working with Brian so much because he is such an incredible and naturally gifted musician. He’s constantly changing things up; keeping things fresh, yet pervasive, to the music industry. He has been around for a long time, and, I believe, will continue to leave his unique mark.  Perhaps he’s not as mainstream these days, but I think it’s great to be with someone who has a long history of success instead of the typical fifteen minutes of fame. 

You’ve also appeared on TV with the band.  That must have been exciting for you.

Leslie and Cloris Leachman on Dancing With The Stars, and the cover of her latest CD with Brian Setzer.

The TV appearances have been really fun, from Dancing with the Stars to The Tonight Show (with Conan O’Brien) and The Today Show.  The record company just released Brian’s latest album, Don’t Mess With A Big Band, which is essentially a live concert from our 2009 Japan tour. It’s great to hear your own voice on an album! Also, there will be a DVD released in October of our June 2010 Montreal Jazz Festival performance. 

Probably your biggest career highlight to date has been The Marvelous Wonderettes, from the El Portal to the Laguna Playhouse to an extended stay in The Big Apple. Can you tell us how that came about, beginning with your first signing as a Marvelous Wonderstudy?

In blue as Suzy, with the 2nd New York Cast

Being a part of the Wonderettes family has been such a blessing. The adventure began when I auditioned to be an understudy in the summer of 2007. My dear friend Lowe Taylor, also an original “Wonderstudy,” recommended me to Roger Bean, creator of the Wonderettes, and to producer David Elzer, and it was a great fit. 

Which roles did you cover and go on as?

I initially appeared as Betty Jean and Suzy, until they realized I could do more, so I ended up learning all the roles. When the show moved to the Laguna Playhouse, the New York production was quickly in the works. Bets Malone, Suzy, ended up leaving to go to New York before the Laguna production closed, so Lowe took over for her.  They brought me in to cover, again. 

You did one other local show before you went to New York, right?

Fellow Wonderette Julie Dixon Jackson and Leslie in Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Yes, shortly thereafter, I got cast as a lead in the Cabrillo Music Theatre’s production of Breaking Up is Hard to Do, another sort of jukebox musical.  Right before the show opened in January, I got a call from Roger Bean asking me if I’d like to cover in New York. It was a very quick decision, but I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to go to New York! Breaking Up closed on a Sunday, I flew to Japan the very next day for a short tour with the Brian Setzer Orchestra, and, upon returning, had a week to pack and move to the City to start my contract.  

That must have been an exciting week for you!

It was a bit of a whirlwind, and, of course, moving to New Your in the middle of February was a shock to my native Californian system, but I quickly adjusted to life there, and loved it.  

And now, looking back over your stay in The Big Apple?

I’m so grateful to have earned my Equity card through the show, and, more importantly, to have made great, lasting friendships with the girls from each production.  It takes a very special and talented person to swing all four parts and do them extremely well—tooting my own horn here, ha, ha! I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity and will always cherish it. 

I understand that you went on a number of times in New York, got reviewed, and appeared on TV as a Wonderette.  Can you talk a bit about that? 

I was very fortunate to have performed 61 times—but who’s counting?—in my six-month contract, as Betty Jean, Suzy and Cindy Lou. 

Leslie as Cindy Lou, Betty Jean, and Suzy

Is there oneWonderette you most enjoy playing?

The role of Betty Jean is most like me, and also the role that I ended up playing the most.  I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed performing as Cindy Lou.  I also really liked playing Missy in rehearsal, which would be fun to further explore. 

And thinking back over your months in New York?

New York was amazing.  I’m so glad I was able to live there and really start to become a part of the Broadway community.   Our company performed in the Easter Bonnet competition and it brought a lot of attention to our off-Broadway show.  Also, as a side note, there isn’t anything quite like waiting for the elevator to take you to the stage in the Minskoff Theatre with Liza Minnelli standing in front of you!  I also got to “dance” in the annual Broadway Bares fundraiser.  We did a number of press events.  I personally participated in a national radio program in and appeared on the Jerry Lewis Telethon last September in Vegas. It’s always fun to be on TV!

Leslie singing for Jerry Lewis as Betty Jean.  Click on the photo to see and hear her perform.

Recently you starred in the workshop of Trails The Musical at the Co-Op. How did your association with that project begin?

Matt Lutz and Leslie in Trails, and the entire Trails cast and creative team.

Ahhh, Trails!  What an incredible show.  I met Jeff Thomson and Jordan Mann, the composer and lyricist, about five years ago when my dear friend and co-star Matt Lutz recommended me for a demo recording of their musical, Pump up the Volume.  We all stayed in touch, and when I was in New York last year I recorded a couple songs on the Trails demo. Matt’s wife, Christy Hall, wrote the book of the musical, and so when I heard they were going to produce the show in Los Angeles, it was kind of a done deal. Of course, I had to audition for the role of Amy, but it was a perfect fit. Our director, Heather Chesley, very wisely selected the show to be part of the Los Angeles Festival of New Musicals. 

How was it for you being part of this work-in-progress?

Honestly, I think Trails is my favorite show that I’ve ever done, to date. It is a show that pierces your soul. I think what made it so amazing, too, was the fact that the cast came together so beautifully.  My already-existing friendships with both Matt Lutz and Stephen Van Dorn, who played Seth and Mike, made it easy to portray best friends onstage. There were many very intense moments, and it was incredibly easy to trust each other. Of course it helps to be sharing the stage with such solid, good actors.  

You didn’t have long to rehearse, right?

We had such a short rehearsal process that we jumped right in and made it happen, discovering everything along the way.  The result was raw, fresh, beautiful and moving theater.  Trails is the kind of show that leaves an audience changed.   I am so blessed to have been a part of it, and even though it was deemed a “workshop,” we all feel ownership and that we were huge contributors in its very first production. 

Interestingly, you’ve followed this story about three longtime best friends—two men and one woman—with Merrily We Roll Along, which has a similar trio of lead characters. Any thoughts about the similarities between the two shows?
It’s pretty uncanny, this running theme of three best friends, with pinky swears, to boot! Brent Schindele is playing the role of Frank, and Matt Bauer portrays Charley. Of course the theme of the show isn’t much like Trails, but the friendships are very similar.  In Trails, Amy loves both Mike and Seth, and in Merrily, Mary is in irrevocably in love with Frank. I have to say that it’s been really great for me, personally, to play the woman that ties these men’s lives together.  Amy is zany, energetic and loveable; Mary is warm, caring and also extremely real. It’s been a joy to envelop these women and bring them to life. 

Richard Israel is directing you again in Merrily.  How is it working with Richard again and what in particular does he bring to a project he’s directing?

Oh, that “awful” Richard Israel. (Leslie laughs.) He’s a wonderful director with a precise vision … and so fun!  Something that I have always loved about Richard is that he interacts with you in your scene work as you’re on stage, even from your very first audition.  He’s specific about what he wants, yet gives you the freedom to “get there” in your own manner. And you know you’ve hit the nail on the head when you can bring him to tears, even in silly moments!  He is a joy.

What makes Merrily a special show for you and for the audience?

 I think it’s one of those works where you, as an audience member, have to be listening, paying attention. It’s all right there, some hidden moments brilliantly crafted in the lyrics. 

Can you give an example?

For instance, there’s a lyric that Mary communicates in the first scene that ties back to the last scene—the show goes backward in time—and it’s heart wrenching when you put it together.  I love finding that kind of stuff as an actor but, also, when it’s right there for you on the page, you can’t go wrong.

And the cast you’re working with?

The cast is fantastic. We’ve all been working really hard and thoroughly enjoy each other on and off stage. 

Most of your credits have been in musical theater. Any desire to branch out into straight dramatic or comedic roles? 

Actually, most of my roles have been comedic.  I’m now finding myself in this new place of playing the ingénue, which is kind of odd, yet lovely at the same time. 

What about film and TV?

Of course I would love more TV and film work.  I’ve been so busy in theater and the music industry that I haven’t focused enough on it the past few years. In addition to teaching piano and voice lessons, and being “the chick singer” in a cover band on some weekends, I’m finding more and more work as an entertainer. 

So what would you say is your goal as person “in the biz?”

My career goal is to be a stable, working performer. We always hope for more, but I have all I need right now, even through some major life changes.   God is so good.  I’m finding myself in a place where I am deciding between going back to New York and picking up where I left off, or staying here in Los Angeles.  I’m trusting that God is leading me where He wants me.

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer all these questions Leslie. I can’t wait to see you as Mary in Merrily!

I’m looking forward to your seeing the show!

Click here to purchase tickets for Merrily We Roll Along.

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