An Interview with
by Nancy Rosati
Aspiring actors may dream about going from college directly into a pre-Broadway production, but Lauren Kennedy actually did it. She attended the University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music (CCM) and immediately went to Los Angeles as Betty Schaefer's understudy in Sunset Boulevard. The show moved on to Broadway and Lauren found her future husband in leading man Alan Campbell. She then went on to play Betty in the first national tour.
Lauren was the standby for Daisy Hilton in Side Show, appearing regularly in the role. Recently she played Nellie Forbush in the Royal National Theatre production of South Pacific in London. She has starred in the premieres of The Rhythm Club at Signature Theatre, Hot Shoe Shuffle at Theatre Under The Stars, White Christmas at the St. Louis MUNY, and was the original Kathy in Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years at Northlight Theatre in Chicago. Jason and Lauren are currently working together on her first solo CD, which will feature his music.
These days you can find Lauren playing Fantine in Broadway's Les Misérables, which is now in its final months at the Imperial Theatre. When I spoke to Lauren recently, she told me about a special connection she feels with Les Miz, dating back to her high school days.
Nancy Rosati: You grew up in North Carolina and it seems you go back there to perform quite a bit.
Lauren Kennedy: Well, you know, any excuse to go home. I got my start at the North Carolina Theatre and they still do quality productions. Terry Mann was the Artistic Director there while I was in high school. I was lucky enough to audition for him at that time.
NR: And here you are in Les Miz. That's incredible.
LK: I know. It's very "full circle."
NR: Can you imagine if someone had told you that in high school? That you'd be starring in this show several years later?
LK: I would never have believed it. It's funny - my sister always wanted to be Eponine. She's the one who dragged me to the theater to begin with, because she was too shy to go to auditions by herself. Since she wanted to be Eponine I figured I would be Fantine. I sang "I Dreamed a Dream" for a talent show when I was 14. When I'm singing it now, I sometimes think "This is so cool. I have to remember this moment."
NR: Fortunately it's still running all these years later so you can have that opportunity.
LK: I know, and it still stands up. People are still crying at the end and there's so much joy coming back at us from the audience. It's wild.
NR: You're a friend of Terry's now. Have you told him how much he inspired you?
LK: Oh, yeah. He's still involved in the arts in North Carolina as well. It's great to go back and do something there. They gave me my start. It's where I learned so much and it's great to be with my family.
NR: Did you decide in high school that you wanted to act?
LK: Pretty much. I saw a couple of shows, Les Miz being one of them, and Chess. I walked out of there thinking, "If there was any doubt before, there isn't any now. This is what I want to do."
NR: You have said that performing in New York isn't any different from Raleigh, except for the money. What did you mean by that?
LK: Broadway is very special because it's an institution, but the thrill of doing theatre is telling stories and working with other great actors. What I meant by that is you're still putting up a show. You're still telling a story to people and hoping you affect them. It's a little bit more money here but the joy is absolutely the same.
NR: What was your Broadway debut like?
LK: It was Sunset Boulevard and it was incredible. I first spent nine months with the show in Los Angeles, thinking, "I'm doing what I wanted to do, but I'm doing it in L.A. That's weird!" When we finally made it to New York I felt like I was home.
It was such a great little ensemble part, but then the first week we were up I got to go on as Betty Schaefer, so that was really amazing. That's where I met my husband. We got to be great friends and one thing led to another. We've now been married for three years.
NR: Is it hard having two showbiz careers in the family?
LK: I don't think so. I had to spend eight months in London last year. I'm married to an actor who understands that it's important for me to do that creatively, so I was able to relax. He said it was an opportunity that I couldn't turn down. I don't know if someone who wasn't in the business would have been as understanding. We work the same hours. We spend a lot of time apart, but there's too much good about it to put anything negative on it. I think it works for us.
NR: Have you worked together since Sunset Boulevard?
LK: No, but I would love to. He's such a good actor. I love it when he comes to see me do things. I love getting his take. When I went on as Betty Schaefer, I went on opposite him and it gave me a whole new respect for him as an actor.
NR: You were a standby in Side Show. What was that experience like?
LK: It was interesting. Being a standby is not always the best position to have. I wasn't in the show, which is easy and hard. Because it was the original cast, I just sat in the audience for three months during the rehearsals and I was chomping at the bit to be onstage and to do what everybody else was doing. By the time I got to go on, I was really ready. Even though I was thrown on with little warning, I was very prepared from watching it so often. It was one of the best standby experiences anyone could have had because Emily (Skinner) is a great person to cover. She was so gracious to me. She's such a smart actress and a great singer, and I learned a lot from watching her. That was positive. It's a really tough role to do eight times a week so I had the opportunity of going on a lot. I can't complain. I did that, and had the best opportunity someone can have as an understudy, but I don't know if I would do it again.
NR: I've heard very varied opinions on being a standby. Some people love it but others are frustrated by not being able to do the work.
LK: I guess I wanted to create. They're paying you to fill someone else's shoes, and most people are great about allowing you to do your own performance, but I really felt like I wanted to create a role myself. I wanted to see if I could do that get a script, go to rehearsal and come up with things that are completely fresh and new, and my own. That was the next challenge for me, and I got to do it in The Rhythm Club.
NR: Of course I have to ask you this whatever happened with that?
LK: (laughs) Everybody asks that and I don't know. It's such a good show and who knows? It might still be looming out there. I have no idea. It certainly deserved something.
That was my first real opportunity to have something that I could call my own. Then I did South Pacific.
NR: How did London audiences react to it?
LK: Overall, the audiences loved it. Not all the critics loved it; probably around 80% of the reviews were positive. It was third in the line of Trevor's (Nunn) revivals, after Oklahoma and My Fair Lady, so I think some of them were just tired of revivals by the time we got there, but it was a stunning production. Just like in this show [Les Miz], a lot of joy came back at us from the audience. People loved the songs, they loved the new things that Trevor did with it, which were so smart. For me, just getting to work with him on that intimate level was mind-blowing. I see it in this show as well - his brilliance in the details and all the little directorial things he does that make something really special. He knows how to make it accessible and how to touch people.
NR: Before we discuss Les Miz, I wanted to ask you about The Last Five Years and your CD with Jason Robert Brown.
LK: I love that show! It was so much fun. I had wanted to do something contemporary and he just embodies what I think a lot of people want to say, what's in their hearts right now. I love looking at a relationship like that. Adding the element of going back in time, and that challenge as an actress, was so wonderful. I was so sad that I couldn't do it here. It's part of the reason I'm doing the album with him. I wanted to do a solo album. I had written some songs myself but I just felt that I wanted to sing his stuff. That's the feeling I get when I sing with him, that I want to do his stuff, and now we're making it happen. The CD comes out March 4th (on the ps classics label).
NR: The sound clips on your website sound great.
LK: I'm very proud of it. I'm proud of the work we did. We just finished putting it together. We surrounded ourselves with incredible musicians, a great producer (Jeffrey Lesser), great songs. What else do you need?
NR: So now you're making history as the last Fantine on Broadway. Considering your story about meeting Terrence Mann in high school, I can't imagine what you're feeling. Had he already played Javert when you met him?
LK: Yes. When I auditioned for Sunset Boulevard, Trevor Nunn was looking at my resume and I said, "Um ... I worked with Terry Mann." It was like an "in" I could tell him about. It's just funny how life works strangely like that sometimes.
LK: Yes, because the audiences are starting to show up. The box office has gone up. People are really getting a renewed interested in it. The cast is just amazing right now. The company is so great. Having it stand up after 16 years and still be fresh is due to good casting I think.
NR: The fact that you're the last company to do the show on Broadway is a big deal.
LK: It's cool, but there are still going to be some changes ...
NR: You're staying till the end, aren't you?
LK: I don't know. I'm not sure. I'll stay as long as they'll keep me. I hope so but I'm not sure. They might do a big shebang at the end.
NR: Then you have your CD coming out.
LK: That's the main thing right now. I'll spend time promoting that. Jason and I will be doing some gigs around the city. Showbiz is showbiz you just wait and see what's next. I wish I was one of those people who had choices. (laughs) I just sort of audition and take what they'll give me.
NR: What would you like to do?
LK: I just want to work. I want to be in the community. I want to continue doing what I'm doing right now. I feel so lucky to be a part of this show, any show that's going on right now, because in theater, you're at the top of your craft when you're on Broadway. I just want to enjoy being here.
NR: Do you ever want to do film or TV?
LK: I'd do it, but it's certainly not where my heart is. My heart is definitely in doing theater. I love to sing. I grew up around theater, so it feels like home. If I were to get into TV or film, I might ultimately feel that way about them too, but this is all I know and I'm happy with that, so it's all good.
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