GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Kristen Beth Williams of 'Nice Work If You Can Get It'
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]