GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Kristen Beth Williams of 'Nice Work If You Can Get It'
For the third straight year Kristen Beth Williams is understudying a Tony Award-winning role in a Broadway musical. This year it’s Judy Kaye’s reformable Prohibitionist in Nice Work If You Can Get It; last year she understudied Sutton Foster as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes, and in 2010 it was Katie Finneran’s boozy Marge MacDougall in Promises, Promises.
And it’s the words of those Tony winners whose roles she covered that guide and inspire Williams. Right before the one Promises, Promises performance where she went on as Marge (the day of Finneran’s wedding), Finneran told her, “Go big or go home.” Sure, there may be people in the audience who’d wanted to see a Tony-winning performer, but “you can’t go on stage apologizing for being there—just own it,” says Williams, who’s also taken to heart what she heard Foster say at a talkback when someone asked for the best career advice. “She said, ‘Say yes,’” Williams recalls. “Someone offers you an opportunity, say yes. Even if you’re terrified.”
Williams, a.k.a. KB or KB Dubs, got to play Reno Sweeney for five performances last December when Foster was ill. Actually five and three-quarters, as Foster started feeling sick during a show and had to leave partway through the first act. After the first full performance where Williams played Reno—a part she’d had in high school—“I called my mother on my way home and I said, ‘Mom, I just took the final bow on a Broadway stage.’ That last bow, that was me.” Looking back on it, she adds, “Words can’t really describe how it feels to accomplish your dream.”
Like Anything Goes, Nice Work If You Can Get It was directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. “It’s really wonderful to be in her ‘camp’ now, to feel like I’ve made it into that club,” says Williams. The two shows also both have scores out of the great American songbook—Anything Goes by Cole Porter, Nice Work by George and Ira Gershwin. Much of Williams’ time on professional stages has been singing and dancing to the great American songbook. She’s been in four different productions of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas as well as the 2008 world premiere in Chicago of Turn of the Century, which featured a number of Berlin songs. In 2008 she was also in the world premiere in Houston of the stage version of the Gershwins’ An American in Paris (which in the wake of Nice Work’s success is now being bandied for a Broadway bow). Even Promises, Promises has music by a legend of American pop music, Burt Bacharach. While she wouldn’t mind getting to break out in a contemporary rock musical, Williams is unconcerned about being typecast. “I love my little niche that I’ve carved for myself,” she says. “It doesn’t get any better than Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and the Gershwins.”
In Nice Work If You Can Get It, Williams’ regular role is Rosie, one of the “cheap chorus girls,” to quote Matthew Broderick’s Jimmy Winter in the show. (She’s the one with curly red hair.) She also understudies Jennifer Laura Thompson as Jimmy’s bride, Eileen, and Robyn Hurder as flapper Jeannie. Williams was very noticeable during the Nice Work performance of “Sweet and Lowdown” on the Tony Awards a few weeks ago, as she’s on Broderick’s arm in the number. She’d performed at the two previous Tonys as well, with Anything Goes and Promises, Promises.
In late 2009 the Texas native was on tour with 101 Dalmatians in Dallas when she found out she’d be making her Broadway debut the following spring in Promises. Since her family still lives in the Dallas area, she was able to break the news to them in person. Williams feels extra lucky that for her first Broadway show she was in an original cast, not a replacement. “To me it was a perfect experience from start to finish...I got to go to the first day of rehearsal and go all the way to the closing performance,” she remarks.
Born in Abilene, Texas, Williams lived in Amarillo; Lafayette, La.; and the Dallas suburb of Garland before her family settled in another Dallas suburb, Mesquite, when she was an adolescent. From a young age she’d go to the Dallas Summer Musicals at Fair Park. “When I was 9 my parents took me to see Cats, and that was it: That’s what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.” She began dance classes at age 3 and in Mesquite trained at Juz’ Danzin’, a studio run by an original Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader, Vicki Woodlee, whose four sons took classes there too; one of them, Zachary Woodlee, is now the choreographer for Glee.
Her public schools in Mesquite had an excellent arts program, and Williams also performed in community theaters—sometimes alongside her father (by day a sales executive with Albertsons stores). Kristen and her dad played daughter and father in Bye Bye Birdie at Garland Summer Musicals. One of the shows she did at Garland Civic Theatre was The Wiz, where she portrayed the Yellow Brick Road wearing yellow scrubs and a construction helmet. Earlier this year backstage at Nice Work If You Can Get It, castmate Candice Marie Woods heard Williams telling someone about that costume and the production—which starred an Asian girl as Dorothy—and they realized they’d been in it together!
Following her graduation from the University of Oklahoma, Williams came to New York with her Equity card, which she’d gotten after her third season at Music Theater of Wichita (where she worked with already Equity member Kristin Williams, the reason Kristen had to use her middle name when she joined the union). She did more than a dozen shows during three summers at Wichita, with such featured roles as Hedy La Rue in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Evelyn Nesbitt in Ragtime, Hunyak in Chicago, Gertie in Oklahoma and Pat Bingham in Good News.
Her first show after moving to NYC was The Sound of Music at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in the fall of 2003. Subsequent regional work included Call Me Madam (by Irving Berlin) at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut and Hello, Dolly! at Maine’s Ogunquit Playhouse, where she costarred as Irene Molloy and Sally Struthers played Dolly. In the fall of 2008, Williams performed—under Tommy Tune’s direction—at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in Turn of the Century, with a book by Jersey Boys creators Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice about a singer (Rachel York) and musician (Jeff Daniels) who on New Year’s Eve 1999 are transported back a hundred years and then experience the evolution of popular music throughout the 20th century.
Williams performed in White Christmas at the Pantages in L.A. in 2005, the Ordway in St. Paul in 2006 and 2008, and Atlanta’s Theater of the Stars in ’07, playing a lead role as one of the Haynes sisters the last three years. Judy Haynes (which she played in the ’06 and ’07 productions) is a dancing role, Betty (her part in 2008) more of a singer—not all actresses have the chops to play both. But well-rounded is what Williams was trained to be. At the University of Oklahoma she took classes in the schools of drama, dance and music. “Where I see I fit in the majority of my career,” she says, “is I’m the singer who dances like a dancer, or the dancer who sings like a singer.” Williams credits her dance teacher at Oklahoma, Lyn Cramer, with making her into a Broadway-caliber performer. “She changed my life,” says Williams. “I took five classes with her in two semesters, and by the end of my first year with her I had Rockette-level kicks and I had the splits on one leg. I had never been able to do that.”
When Williams joined the 101 Dalmatians tour in mid-2009, she was returning to Disney employment. In 2004, after she’d already moved to NYC, she headed west to fulfill a childhood dream. “Something that I always wanted: to be in a show at Disney. We’d gone to Disney World every four years when I was a child, and I loved it.” For two years she played Snow White in Disneyland’s stage production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Once she returned to New York in 2006, Williams could give up her “survival” job at the Capezio store, as she was working steadily in regional theaters and eventually in the city itself. Her NYC credits include Applause, Follies and Face the Music at City Center Encores! and the off-Broadway ’50s and ’60s jukebox musical The Marvelous Wonderettes, where she covered all four roles during the first half of 2009. “Everyone’s journey is different,” Williams reflects. “My goal when I was in college was to not have to have a survival job; my dream was to be on Broadway. And once I got enough work that I didn’t have to have a survival job, the dream became the goal. I’m currently living my dream. But it took me seven years from the time that I graduated to get into a Broadway show.”
Now that she’s become a regular on Broadway stages, Williams can dole out advice to newcomers. “Go to everything,” she counsels. “Don’t type yourself out of anything. You can’t be afraid of the work. There seems to be a sense of entitlement in a lot of younger kids, and it may be because of American Idol and all of these reality TV shows, where they see people shoot straight to stardom. If you expect that, you’re going to be miserable. If you’re going to expect to do the work, you’ll have a great time doing it.”
Williams has also advocated for her profession by working on Actors’ Equity committees, and just recently she was elected to Equity’s National Council. “In our political climate,” Williams says, “I think it’s good for as many union members as possible to understand how their union works.”
Photos of Kristen Beth, from top after her headshot: second from right, holding up Matthew Broderick with the rest of the female ensemble in Nice Work If You Can Get It; on the piano, with Jeff Daniels (left) and cast of Turn of the Century; playing Betty Haynes in White Christmas, with Mara Davi; playing Judy Haynes in White Christmas, with Jeffrey Denman; right, performing “Buddy’s Blues” in the Encores! Follies with Emily Fletcher and Michael McGrath (also a Nice Work castmate). [Nice Work If You Can Get It photo by Joan Marcus]