For the coveted title "Miss Rodgers & Hammerstein of the New Millennium," I nominate Laura Osnes. Fresh from her delightful Broadway debut as Sandy Dumbrowski in the otherwise lamentable 2007 revisal of Grease, Laura slipped into the plum role of Nellie Forbush in the splendid Lincoln Center production of R&H's South Pacific, and reports on her performance were rapturous.
Now, after playing leads in two more Broadway musicals (Hope Harcourt in Anything Goes, Bonnie Parker in Bonnie & Clyde) within the space of a year, Laura seems to have become the go-to gal for new iterations of R&H shows: She recently had the title role in the workshop reading of a revision of the team's take on Cinderella; she's about to appear as Suzy in the City Center Encores! presentation of Pipe Dream, a rarely seen R&H flop; and, next month, she'll step into shoes previously filled by Mary Martin and Julie Andrews when she plays Maria in a starry concert performance of The Sound of Music at Carnegie Hall. This very busy, very beautiful young woman somehow found the time to chat with me this week, and here's what she had to say.
BROADWAYSTARS: Laura, I actually saw a production of Pipe Dream at Hofstra University about 10 years ago. It must be an unusual experience to rehearse a show that's nearly 60 years old but is new in the sense that very few people have ever performed it or seen it.
LAURA OSNES: The first time I read the script, it was obvious to me why it was a failure in the '50s. It's a unique story. The one cast recording that exists is very outdated and not that well done. In rehearsing a show like this, you realize that since nobody knows it, nobody has any preconceived notions about it, so we can approach it as if it's being done for the first time.
STARS: From what I remember of the Hofstra production, some of the characters in the show are not the type of people that 1950s audiences were used to seeing in a musical -- especially not a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.
LAURA: Exactly. Doc, the main character, is a marine biologist. And Suzy, my character, is sort of a bum who travels from town to town and finds herself in Monterey. In the Steinbeck book that the show is based on, Sweet Thursday, Suzy is a prostitute. I think Rodgers & Hammerstein were a little wary about having their heroine be a prostitute, so the musical skirts around the issue.
STARS: But did you use prostitution as your back story, Laura?
LAURA: Well...I'm playing Suzy as if she probably has done that in the past, but she's mostly just a homeless girl bumming her way from town to town. No money, no job, no family.
STARS: I guess it's because you're so sweet, but whenever I picture you playing a prostitute, I start to giggle.
LAURA: I know! My first costume is high-water pants and a tight top. Suzy's not a tramp, but she's been around, and she's a lot more street smart than the typical '50s girl. But deep down, she longs for a home and she longs to be loved. She finds that with Doc in Cannery Row, of all places.
STARS: Certainly, Suzy is not the same type of young woman as Cinderella. Can you tell me a little about your experience in that workshop?
LAURA: The book has been completely rewritten by Douglas Carter Beane, but it still has all of the Rodgers & Hammerstein songs that everybody knows and loves, in addition to probably four or five of their trunk songs. There's a modern, comedic twist to the book. In the reading, there was a second ball where Cinderella goes back to the prince and appeals to him that the people are starving and he has the power to do something about it, so he institutes democracy in the land, and the people vote for a prime minister.
STARS: That is different! Talk to me about South Pacific. I'm so sorry I missed seeing you in it.
LAURA: That show changed my life and my career. I auditioned for it thinking it was such a long shot for me, and I was floored when I got the role. Filling Kelli O'Hara's shoes in that beautiful production was an amazing honor -- and I had four different Emiles in my time there!
STARS: Nice. It occurred to me that, already in the course of your very young career, you've played opposite some of the handsomest, most talented men in theater: Paulo Szot in South Pacific, Colin Donnell in Anything Goes, Santino Fontana in Cinderella, and of course, Jeremy Jordan in Bonnie & Clyde.
LAURA: I love Jeremy. I got to go to the final dress rehearsal of Newsies, and I wept through the whole thing. I was so proud of him.
STARS: Tell me a little about your husband, Nathan Johnson. I understand you two met when you were understudies in a production of Aladdin. Where was that?
LAURA: We did the show at the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis; I think it was one of the first times that Disney's Aladdin was done as a full stage production. Nathan and I had a thing for each other, and then we both ended up going on as Aladdin and Jasmine one day. Our first kiss was on stage, and that definitely sealed the deal.
STARS: Is he still acting?
LAURA: No, he's now doing photography full time. He has his own studio near Columbus Circle. I get free head shots; it's great! Nathan is so fantastic. He's my rock here in this crazy city.
STARS: Before I let you go, I must ask you about the TV "reality" show that led to your casting in Grease. Was it as grueling as it appeared to be?
LAURA: There's a lot of pressure when you have to sing on national television week after week and compete for a prize that everybody wants. It was definitely stressful, but it put me on the map in New York and opened a lot of doors for me. I'm extremely grateful for that, but I think there was kind of a negative connotation to the whole thing. So it is nice to move on and try to establish myself as my own person, not just as "the girl from Grease."
STARS: Well, I'm looking forward to The Sound of Music in April, and to Pipe Dream later this week. It's exciting to think that almost everyone in the audience at Pipe Dream will be seeing the show for the first time.
LAURA: Yes. When I heard that Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote it, I thought, "Why isn't there a movie?" Encores! is the perfect venue for a show like this. We're not trying to be a commercial hit, we're just paying homage to a unique show that deserves a second life.
Published on Monday, March 26, 2012
Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org