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."
Now that was an important moment, since it's all because of Annie that she'd started performing in the first place. From a very young age, Tepe says, "I was obsessed with Annie and I wanted to sing." In fact, when she was cast in Gypsy, the only thing the legendary name of Bernadette Peters meant to her was Lily in the Annie movie. Tepe says "Broadway Divas" has been "as close as I got to playing Annie," though in 2004 she was one of the orphans in three benefit performances of Annie at Pennsylvania's Branch Creek Theater starring Addison Timlin, whom she knew from Gypsy.
A New Jersey native, Tepe has been going to dance class since she was a preschooler. Around age 5, her mother started entering her in beauty pageants to give her opportunities to perform. "My talent was I dressed up as Annie and sang 'Tomorrow,'" Tepe says. She trained at the studio For Dancers Only in her hometown of Little Falls, N.J., and is still taking classes with the same instructors, as Al Blackstone and Jamie Salmon now teach at Broadway Dance Center in the city.
Growing up, Tepe also trained at summer arts camps, including Action Theatre Conservatory (ATC) in Clifton, N.J.--where her current agent found her 10 years ago--and French Woods Festival in upstate New York, where her roles included Anna in The King and I opposite Max Schneider, costar of last year's Nickelodeon sitcom How to Rock.
Tepe has been close friends since kindergarten with Jess LeProtto, the onetime So You Think You Can Dance contestant who's currently in Newsies (and was last May's Gypsy of the Month). They went to the same dance studio and the same high school and now share an apartment in Greenwich Village. The two have performed together in The Grinch and Broadway Kids, as well as prom episodes of the soap opera One Life to Live--and in high school productions Tepe played Ulla to LeProtto's Bialystock in The Producers, Sally Bowles to his Emcee in Cabaret and Lola to his Applegate in Damn Yankees. (Joe Hardy in that Passaic Valley Regional H.S. Damn Yankees was played by Daniel Manche, who was also in The Grinch, and was also a Gypsy of the Month.)
Last year, Tepe decided to seek a change of scenery, geographically and professionally. "Because I'd been doing theater for such a long time, I felt like I might as well see what else is out there." She moved to Los Angeles--or at least tried to. As she was pulling up to her new home after a six-day cross-country drive, she got a text that there was an opening in the company of Grinch, which would be playing at Madison Square Garden for the 2012 holidays. So she went back to New York for Grinch rehearsals. Two weeks into them, she got the part in Matilda. She didn't do The Grinch again, and she didn't get to live in L.A. But she hasn't ruled the latter out for the future. "I just go with the flow, and right now I'm supposed to be here," says Tepe. "I love theater, and I don't see myself burning out."
For Tepe, working in theater has been not only her livelihood and the fulfillment of a dream but also a kind of therapy. All the way back to her Gypsy days, "it was my home," she says, explaining: "My parents were going through a divorce at that time, so the theater was like my place to escape. And I loved it; I never wanted to leave. I used to get bad headaches as a kid, but when I was at the theater, I was fine, it just all went away."
While working on Broadway as a youngster, Tepe stayed involved in school activities, including gymnastics and Girls' Show, a team competition featuring dance, exercise and cheerleading. "That's one of the reasons I hopefully won't burn out, because even though I was doing theater I kind of took myself out of it and had a normal high school experience," she says. (Her only sibling, a younger brother, has "nothing to do with theater," she says.)
Off stage she feeds her creative side with ceramics--she's a regular at the midtown pottery studio Mud Sweat & Tears--and knitting, which she learned from a child wrangler during Gypsy. (It's apparently a tradition: Matilda's wranglers are teaching those kids to knit.) Tepe does have one new career goal in mind. "I really would love to dance captain," Tepe says. "Being a swing, you basically have to know the whole show. And the dance captain knows the whole show, and teaches the show. I think that would be the next step for me."
More immediately, however, there's awards season to go through. Matilda has already scored Drama Desk, Drama League and Outer Critics Circle best-musical nominations and is expected to have a major presence among the Tony noms, which will be announced this week. The show's individual contenders include choreographer Peter Darling and cross-dressing star Bertie Carvel, who plays wicked Miss Trunchbull (both won Olivier Awards last year for their work on Matilda in London). Tepe says Carvel generally stays in character backstage, and thus when she recently needed to ask him for something, "I was petrified to go into his dressing room--I am terrified of him. Thankfully, when I went in there he wasn't full-on Trunchbull."
As for Darling's choreography, which is harder-edged than usual for kids' dancing, Tepe explains that Darling took his cues from the tone of author Roald Dahl's book Matilda--and from another kind of book: "Peter always talks about it being like when you open a pop-up...it's in your face, popping off the pages, like a Coke can that's ready to explode. High-energy and sharp and crisp."
Dahl's Matilda was adapted previously, for a 1996 film directed by Danny DeVito and starring DeVito and Rhea Perlman as Matilda's tacky parents. It wasn't well-received, but according to Tepe, "the movie was really big for my generation. That was the movie we watched in school--like, during recess if it was a rainy day and they put on a movie, it was Matilda."
Photos of Heather, from top: in her headshot; backstage at Matilda with castmate Samantha Sturm (right); as Baby June in Gypsy, with Bernadette Peters as Mama Rose and Addison Timlin (right) as Baby Louise; left, with other Billy Elliot Ballet Girls (clockwise) Kendra Tate, Eboni Edwards, Ava DeMary, Kara Oates and Brianna Fragomeni; left, performing in Billy Elliot at the annual Broadway on Broadway event in Times Square, with (from left) Holly Taylor, Kendra Tate, Maddy Novak, Eboni Edwards and Dayton Tavares.