Leavel, a 1980 UNCG MFA graduate in theater, was back at UNCG last week to speak with Spartan students. She was joined by “Wicked” associate music director Dominick Amendum, a fellow alumnus (’01). Currently a visiting professor, he will conduct the orchestra for “Into the Woods” in April at UNCG.
Leavel attended Meredith for her undergraduate degree. She called her selection of UNCG’s MFA program “a really, really smart choice.”
She said, “Being here validated my passion.” She was surrounded by “like minds and supportive teachers,” she explained. “I felt so privileged to be here.”
She was terrified of moving to New York City and trying to break into the theatre world there, she told the students last week. Soon, after being noticed in a musical based on the Nancy Drew series, she had booked “42nd Street” and she was on her way. Her other Broadway credits include “Baby It’s You,” for which she was nominated for a Tony, “Elf,” “Mamma Mia!,” “Young Frankenstein” and “Show Boat.”
One student asked about auditions for Broadway shows.
“I wish I’d taken more dance,” she told the students. She took tap dance in elementary school. She explained (humorously) the audition process for “42nd Street” and also for “Crazy for You,” her first two major shows. They both are known for their dancing. She also told of quietly walking out of the audition space for “Cats,” soon after arriving.
“I’m not a dancer. I can sing really well.”
That’s a good lesson for young actors, she said.
“Know your strengths. Are you a strong singer? A great dancer?”
In show business, we are the product, she explained. “Do your homework; know who you are going into the (audition) room.”
Amendum spoke of being on the other side of auditions – he referred to 12 years as music director on “Wicked.”
“Don’t mimic,” he told the students. Before an audition for a particular role, don’t study a star’s version of the role on YouTube. Those casting want to see what you bring to it.
Originating a role is so much better than taking over a role from a star – for example she replaced Andrea Martin in “Young Frankenstein.” You have less leeway in finding your character (and in the case of “Young Frankenstein,” the doors were not constructed for someone who’s tall – she drew laughs from the students as she showed her bending technique coming through the doors).
She won a Tony for her role in The Drowsy Chaperone. But she was passed over, originally, in the auditions. When chosen, she played “hot seat” in character, with many “creatives” in the audience seats. She’d have to answer their questions, in character. It’d help her crystallize the character. And something magical happened. As she walked onstage, the creatives stood and cheered her. It surprised her. She felt compelled to do a curtsy. It was a low, slow, majestic curtsy. (Leavel reenacted the moment for the students.)
She had it – all of a sudden. “We all knew who she was that day.”
Leavel spoke about particulars, such as the importance of having a good, trusting relationship with the stage manager. And she spoke about the big picture – being open and ready for whatever’s next.
She encouraged the theater students, and explained that she hopes to never stop pursuing roles.
“Keep going. You see the path. It’d be a shame not to explore,” she told the students.
“Just do it. Even if doesn’t work out, what’s the worst?” she said. “You’ll have amazing experiences. Just go for it.”
By Mike Harris
Photo of Leavel after the Q&A as students greeted her, by Mike Harris.