When I was 15 years old, I became enamored with the West End Cast Recording of Les Misérables. Who didn’t? Every theater girl I know wanted to BE Francis Rufelle and play Eponine. I even arranged and recorded a demo of “On My Own,” just for fun, which exists deep in the heart of my storage unit. Even though Eponine herself was just a teenager, often teens in theater were played by actors who were not minors. I begged my Mom to beg my agent to get me an audition for the Broadway company anyway. She did!
I recall vividly walking into the audition room at the beloved 1515 Broadway rehearsal studios. I even remember I was wearing a pale-yellow dress – the closest thing I had to vagabond wear, apparently. The creative team, including Cameron Mackintosh, Robert Billig and Richard Jay-Alexander, who would be instrumental in my Broadway journey, were all sitting behind the table.
I walked in and could feel the nerves start. Adrenaline has never been my friend. It has always caused a sort of “edginess” to my voice. Sometimes I would falter on high notes because of it. I did that day. Even at 15, I was a realist and knew I was not quite up to par. But, lo and behold, they saw something in me and called me back!
The day of the callback there was a fire somewhere along the route close to NYC and we were held up in traffic trying to get onto the 59th Street bridge. Daddy Joe was driving and was the “man of many routes” with a built in GPS, long before they existed. I remember the nervous hustle to get there. That may have been the true start of me being addicted to show biz frenzy. I MUST get to this callback… it is a matter of life or death! What a rush!
I got there and sang both “On My Own” and “Little Fall of Rain.” I felt really good about it. In an extremely precocious moment, I looked at the team behind the desk and blurted out “You better scoop me now ‘cuz I’m gonna be a BIG pop star next year!” Richard looked at me as if to say “Yea, right kid!” Though I saw a look in his eye that spoke volumes. I think he would recall that moment years later.
That would be my last audition for anything, as I turned all focus to my music and getting a record deal. As it turned out, Francis was coming to Broadway, which made perfect sense. The Gibson Family attended the show in previews and I would see it several more times over the course of the next few years. I was a super fan!
I went on to release my debut single, hit the clubs to perform and promote, then crisscross the country shaking hands and kissing babies, schmoozing radio program director’s ‘til they played “Only in My Dreams” after over a year on the road, and… the rest is pretty well documented and not the point of this story. The point is I held onto the dream of my original goal as a 5-year-old, who was obsessed with playing “Annie,” of starring on Broadway, and, in particular, Les Miz.
On my third tour, I decided to include the song “On My Own” in my encore. I think my band was a bit confused as to how that would play out for a young pop audience, but I said, “Trust me… Eponine is the rock star of this piece!” And, the audience of screaming teenaged girls responded with a recognition. Every teenaged girl had a bit of Eponine in them and an unrequited love story of their own that made the moment so relatable. My “Momager” at the time, Diane, phoned Richard Jay and invited him and the creative team to my concert – I believe in Anaheim – to see for themselves. The idea of introducing Broadway to a current pop audience appealed to everyone. But, the deal didn’t get done that night despite the response of the crowd. There would still be an audition process, as they don’t hand out Broadway roles. At the time, “stunt casting” was not a catch phrase, especially in a show like Les Miz where the music is rangy, the acting is primal and rich, and the fans and critics possessive over the caliber of each and every production.
My Mom and I drove into NYC from Long Island when the tour wrapped. Richard had me sing through the highs and lows of the score. I did nearly the whole thing. He made me feel so at ease the weird adrenaline thing that had plagued me at age 15 was not there. I felt like he was rooting for me to succeed. That is not always the tone in an audition room. My voice felt strong and rich, and, after years of touring, my range and stamina had increased. I was not confident, however, that I could reproduce that sound 8 shows a week. I am conditioned to wait for a call, which 95% of the time ends in disappointment, and 5% off the time you hear the beloved words that never get old to this day, “You got the part!” RJA would not make me wait. He said he heard all he needed to hear and he was looking forward to welcoming me to the cast. WHUT?!? I hesitated and said, “Wait, you mean you’re telling me I got the part?!?” He said, “Yes!” I screamed and jumped up and down and quietly thought “How on earth am I actually going to deliver?!?” I would now begin to figure that part out.
It was Autumn of 1991 and the producers wanted me to open right at the start of the new year. I had been working for about six years with a voice teacher named Guen Omeron. She is no longer with us, but she left me with a life altering approach to singing that I am convinced has allowed me to dodge surgeries and nodes, and enabled me to tackle challenging roles that I had no business being able to naturally play. I was never one of those “roll outta bed and hit the high notes” vocalist. I always had to go to great lengths to achieve the sound I wanted. And, Eponine had a very distinct sound that came from the ground on up. “The world is full of happiness that I have never knooooooown…” had to rattle the rafters to be fully emotionally impactful. She was solid and came from the streets so, I knew I did not want the sound to be thin and shrill. I wanted it to have the bite, but also the guts.
Guen had each and every student who entered her studio strap scuba belts and ankle weights to their body and hold onto handheld weights in order to feel the opposition from the ground, use the backs of the legs, expand the ribs and scapula, and to allow the air to fly out of the body fully supported and free of any tension in the throat. It was both pilates and foundation training ahead of its time. I realized the more weight I used, the more resistance I got, and the more I could stretch my range. When I tell you that I looked like “Robo-singer” and have sciatica to this day from all of that effort, I am not exaggerating! I literally locked myself in the garage for hours and days and weeks to figure out physically how to produce all the tones I needed to be able to ditch the weights, the technique and the thinking onstage, so that it would be as natural and effortless as could be. With only a total of 8 rehearsals, and only one full run with the cast called a “put in,” it was time to open!
I replaced Natalie Torro, who is EXQUISITE. I had come to find out they were giving her a paid leave of absence, which made me feel weird, quite honestly. I thought she and the entire cast would be hating me and resenting me as Natalie is so talented and lovely. That, combined with the fact I came from the Pop world, I felt I had a lot to prove. I was a card-carrying member of Actor’s Equity from the time I was 11, but most people did not know of my passion for theater and figured I was handed the role and wouldn’t treat it with the respect it deserved. I think I worked extra hard to prove everyone wrong, earn my keep and, most importantly, do Eponine justice.
Natalie could not have been more reassuring. She came to me and told me that nothing was my fault and that, of course, if I got such an opportunity, I should take it and this break would allow her to explore new roles and opportunities after being in Les Miz for quite some time. She expounded on this, but I feel it is too private to go into detail. Let’s just say she was extraordinarily nurturing and put my mind at ease. I think she also had regard for the fact that I was 21 years old. I was constantly in situations where I was a bit emotionally in over my head… this one being no exception. The cast, which also included a radiant and adorable 7-year-old Lacey Chabert, could not have been more welcoming. I think once they realized I was not a “diva” and that I cared whole heartedly about the quality of this show, they embraced me.
Opening night is such a blur, but I remember RJA coming into the dressing room, which I shared with Melissa Ann Davis, who played Cosette, and said, “Do NOT be thinking about the high C in Act 2 right now! It will be there… you’ve worked so hard for it. Be in each moment and enjoy each moment. That’s all you need to do!” He was so right and that was advice I would use forever.
The audience was filled with mainstream press outlets, celebrities, and the “suits” from Atlantic records, many whom had never seen one of their pop darlings on a Broadway stage. Many had discouraged me from doing the show, as it was not considered “hip.” I remember saying “I’ve got news for you… I’m not hip and I ain’t gonna spend my life trying to maintain some sort of a hip image. I am an all-around entertainer and I will always do a variety of things in my career.” This difference in viewpoints would lead me to part ways the label, and walk away from millions of dollars in advance money, just a few short years later… a decision I have never once regretted for a minute. I would go on to do 17 musicals in the course of 17 years encompassing Broadway, The West End, National Broadway Tours, and Regional Productions. I hold each and every experience in great esteem. But, I am forever ever grateful to Richard Jay-Alexander and the creative team, cast and crew of Les Misérables for being the first to take the chance on me. Someone had to be bold enough to do that. Don’t think there was not some heat taken by whomever was first. So glad it all worked out and that I am forever a part of the legacy that is Les Misérables!