GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Heather Tepe of 'Matilda'
Heather Tepe has been on Broadway as both a child and an adult--sometimes simultaneously. As a swing in Matilda the Musical, the 20-year-old is an alternate for most of the children's roles and covers the three adult women in the ensemble. She had a similar responsibility in Billy Elliot: Also a swing in that show, she covered all the "Ballet Girls" as well as one adult role.
Matilda and Billy Elliot are getting mentioned together a lot lately in other contexts. They're British musicals based on British source material, with a child as the central character; both were huge hits in London before coming to New York, and both productions were choreographed by Peter Darling. And ever since Matilda opened April 11 to rave reviews, many are anticipating a Matilda repeat of Billy Elliot's Tonys domination.
From the inside, the shows don't look quite that similar. "Matilda is unique," says Tepe. "I feel like New York hasn't seen anything like this, ever. It's for kids, but it's kind of dark. It brings something to everybody--it's fun and it touches you. Billy Elliot was visually stunning, but more of an adult show. I've been out in the house [at Matilda] and seen little kids hysterically laughing. We didn't really get that at Billy Elliot."
Furthermore, Tepe has found a big difference in swinging both shows. Asked if the tough job of a swing is more difficult in one than the other, she responds, "Definitely Matilda." And embellishes: "The ensemble kids in Billy Elliot didn't really sing or do any scene work--they just were in the [ballet] class. With Matilda, they're involved more with the show. They all have lines, they all have characters--true characters--and names. They're constantly on stage; in Billy Elliot we had long breaks."
Each of Matilda's eight classmates is played by one performer primarily, with a couple of alternates for each role; some of the regulars for one role are alternates for others. The 4'11" Tepe is an alternate for all four girls and three of the boys--the exception being Bruce, the chubby boy forced by sadistic headmistress Trunchbull to eat a whole chocolate cake. (Tepe would play the Matilda boys as girls.) Tepe's also a swing for the adult ensemble, though she has yet to go on in any track through Matilda's first eight weeks of performances.
That's sure to change as the run progresses. Tepe went on frequently during her 2½ years in Billy Elliot, including eight straight months at one point. Sixteen when she joined the Billy cast, she graduated from high school during her tenure in the show. Though all the children's roles she understudied there were female, the adult ensemble role she covered was "against type"--it was usually played by septuagenarian Merle Louise (the character changed from older townsperson to teen townsperson for Tepe).
Tepe has also been on Broadway as a child playing a child. She was in Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas during both the 2006 and 2007 holiday seasons--as Annie Who the first year and a swing for the Little Whos the next--and at age 10 she portrayed Baby June in the 2003 Gypsy revival starring Bernadette Peters. That production played at the Shubert Theatre, where Matilda is now in residence.
"I feel like I'm reliving my Broadway debut as an adult," Tepe says, adding that her history at the Shubert stirs up feelings whenever she hears "When I Grow Up," Matilda's Act 2 opener that's sung by the children. "Every time, I cry," she states. "I was one of those kids on the stage singing about when I grow up, and now I'm still doing what I love, on the same stage, but grown up. It's like a new beginning." As Matilda is the first show Tepe began working on as an adult and her track in Billy Elliot was meant for a child, "I still feel like I'm just transitioning, and there's a whole new chapter about to open up," she says. "Matilda's a part of that."
Prior to Gypsy, Tepe's only professional stage credit was the children's musical The People Garden at off-Broadway's York Theatre. After Gypsy, she had the principal role of Tina in a 2005 production of Ruthless! at Sarasota's Florida Studio Theatre (Marvin Laird, who'd been Gypsy's musical director, wrote the score of Ruthless!). From 2005 to '07 she toured occasionally with the Indianapolis Symphony's "Broadway Divas" concert, performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and in other cities nationwide. The then-adolescent Tepe and four adult women (including Judy McLane, currently starring as Donna in Mamma Mia) sang classic showtunes in the concert; one of Tepe's solos was "Tomorrow."