BWW Interviews: Ali Ewoldt Embodies 'Maria' in WEST SIDE STORY
Sometimes following your dreams can offer great results. Take Ali Ewoldt, the stirring, standout star of the on-going national tour of the latest Broadway revival of WEST SIDE STORY. Growing up, the actress had always been drawn to musical theater, performing in several regional and school productions in her hometown of Pleasantville, NY before whisking off to Yale University to pursue a degree in Psychology—which in her mind was a "safer" bet for a future career.
But the call of her dreams was just too powerful to ignore. Thus, she decided to take a chance on her proven talents and start auditioning for professional theater work to add to her burgeoning acting résumé. Her obvious abilities and tenacious pluck led her to a stint as a Disney princess where she discovered "A Whole New World"... the perfect training ground for a gig that found her globetrotting the world, including playing Maria in the international tour of WEST SIDE STORY. She then returned Stateside to take on roles in more regional theater, later joining the company of the LES MISÉRABLES national tour. That soon opened up the opportunity for her Broadway debut as Cosette in the show's new sit-down revival, performing opposite her personal idol Lea Salonga.
But somehow, though, she always gets drawn back to the classic musical about star-crossed lovers. For almost a year, Ewoldt has been wowing audiences across America with her moving portrayal of Maria, a Puerto Rican immigrant who scandalously falls for the off-limits boy-next-door in the much lauded hit revival of WEST SIDE STORY, now performing at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Orange County, California through September 18. This touring production—a direct transfer of the Broadway revival helmed by Tony Award winner Arthur Laurents—reunites Ewoldt with Joey McNeely, her director of the international tour of WEST SIDE STORY and the man who has here recreated Jerome Robbins' signature choreography.
Before one of history's greatest musical masterpieces hits the stage in Costa Mesa, Ewoldt chatted with BroadwayWorld's Michael Lawrence Quintos about her early childhood, working side-by-side with two of her idols back-to-back, and then slipping into the oh-so-pretty role of Maria once again—this time with the late Mr. Laurents' direct blessing.
BWW: Hi Ali! I'd first like to say how much I really enjoyed your performance as Maria when the tour first arrived in Southern California at the Pantages Theatre last year.
Oh, thank you so much!
It's such an iconic role. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to the part?
Well, I've always loved WEST SIDE STORY. I grew up on the movie and loving Natalie Wood, who of course played Maria. And when I was in elementary school, I saw a high school production of it and fell completely in love. I didn't do my first production of it until a couple of years out of college. But I think it's always been a part I've kept my eye on as something I'm vocally and physically right for. So it's always been a dream role for me in that sense. I eventually did a couple of small productions of it... one in New Hampshire and at Pittsburgh's CLO which was really wonderful—but it was only for a couple of weeks. And then I did the international tour where we took WEST SIDE STORY to Europe, Tel Aviv and Japan.
Cool! Now how was your audition process for the current national tour?
My agent had to really fight for me to be seen because I heard that [the revival's producers] didn't really want people who have played the part before. So before I went in, I actually had to take that WEST SIDE STORY tour off my résumé to audition! Then I had to learn a lot of Spanish to audition. And so on my first audition when they finally agreed to see me, I had a very long call back with Arthur Laurents. That was absolutely amazing. I remember... I sang and they had me act out the first bridal shop scene. He came out from behind the desk at the auditions... he gestured to me and he walked me all the way to the back of the room where the piano was and he stuck out his hand and said, "Hi, I'm Arthur Laurents." [Laughs] I was, like, "Yes, omigosh, I know! I'm Ali!" [Laughs]
I was completely blown away. I think for some reason he didn't think I knew who he was! So, he was like, "You're good! You're good! But I can make you better!" And so we basically went through the entire show... I would do a scene and he would get up from behind the desk and walk all the way with me to the back to the piano and give me a couple of notes. I think it's kind of amazing that I didn't hear back for about two months... they kept telling me that they were going to bring me back at some point. And finally I came in for the final call back and there were, maybe, thirty people in the room. It was the new cast and the producers. I got to read with Kyle Harris, who plays Tony, and Michelle Aravena, who plays Anita, for the first time. And then they called me about an hour later after all that waiting and said that I got it!
That's great! So Arthur was very hands-on even with the national tour then?
He was! He absolutely was. I mean, it was such a special experience to talk through his script with him. He was just so, so passionate about it. Along with David Saint, who's the director of our tour and assisted Arthur on Broadway, Arthur was there for our first read-through, our first rehearsal run-through, and he was in Detroit for our first tech rehearsal. So it was great that I got to interact with him a lot. He even did a workshop with me and Michelle Aravena on "A Boy Like That" which was a really, really important number to him and wanted to really talk it out with us. It was so emotional and really, really special.
I'm sure you and the cast were significantly affected by his recent passing.
It did. We were in Cleveland. I was told that he had passed right before our show began, but I found out later that a lot of the cast already knew, but they were being careful about telling other people the news. They especially kept it from me and Michelle because they didn't want to kind of [affect] our performances. But I ended up getting a text message from a friend right before "A Boy Like That." The message said that Arthur had taken a turn for the worse. Then Michelle actually came into my dressing room and she had also just received a text message from a friend. And, so, for us to proceed to do that scene right after, it was very challenging because, you know, there were a lot of real, personal emotions on top of the emotions with the scene itself. It was pretty noticeable because we hugged each other at the end and mourn our loss. At the end of the show, our stage manager got everyone together, held hands, and had a moment in honor of him.
It's so special that we were the last production that he ever worked on. So to be a part of that... [Pauses] You see, he was sort of known—and he would say this himself—for not being the most, you know, polite of directors when it came to his work. He would tell it like it was and was not afraid of appearing rude or anything like that. But, he, for whatever reason, was really happy with our production and we had a very, very positive experience with him. He was really happy with the work that we were doing. Getting to work with him was a really remarkable experience.
That's wonderful to hear. Now you mentioned earlier that you had to learn Spanish to do the role. Now, you do a great job speaking it! You mean you weren't fluent?
[Laughs] Oh, no, I wasn't! I mean, I understood a lot and spoke a little bit. Actually, during the international tour, our Bernardo—he's Puerto Rican—he was so sweet to take me through before the audition to make sure I had the accent right and knew what I was saying. And then we started rehearsals, we had a dialect coach who worked with all of us to make sure. We do have a lot of native Spanish speakers who aren't Puerto Rican, so they wanted to make sure everyone is speaking the same. That was so great that we had that incredible resource available to us.
Prior to WEST SIDE STORY, you spent some time playing Cosette in LES MISÉRABLES. Can you talk a little bit about that experience?
I absolutely loved doing LES MIS. That was actually the first show that I memorized from top to bottom. I think I have some videos of me at, maybe, 8 years old jumping up and down on the bed singing [from it]... [Laughs] So it really, really was a dream come true to be in it. I started off in the ensemble of the third national tour and understudied Cosette. And while we were on tour, they told us that eventually the tour was closing, but they were going to open a new revival on Broadway... and that if any of us wanted to, we were welcome to audition for the Broadway revival. So most of us did. I remember... we were between Cleveland and Cincinnati, and on my Monday off—a travel day—they were actually very generous and booked us all a flight to New York! We came in, auditioned, then flew right back to Cincinnati. I then had to leave Cincinnati again to go back to New York for a call back. Eventually I took over the role of Cosette in the tour from the woman who played the part who left. And then I opened as Cosette in the Broadway revival in 2006! It's so wonderful that we got to re-rehearse the role and we had a fantastic cast, people whose work I've admired for very long time. I did that for a year on Broadway!
Cool. That was your Broadway debut, right?
Yes, yes it was!
Awesome. Now, I also read in your extensive résumé that you're no stranger to Orange County! You played Jasmine in the ALADDIN stage show over at Disney's California Adventure!
[Laughs] Yes, that is true! That's actually my first job right out of college! I came out and lived in Anaheim for about eight months and did ALADDIN: A MUSICAL SPECTACULAR. I was originally hired as the Jasmine understudy/body double—where I got to be on the magic carpet, flying! Eventually, for half of the week I was Jasmine on stage and the other half of the week as Jasmine flying.
Cool. How did it feel playing a Disney princess?
I absolutely loved it! I've always been a huge Disney fan and doing it enhanced the Disney magic for me. [The cast and I] got to run around the parks and get on the rides and watched Fantasmic many times. It was so wonderful! ALADDIN was an awesome show and it was [under] Union and we had health insurance and two days off a week. And I loved my cast. It was great and I had a lot of fun being there.
Well, I hope that when you come back to the O.C., you'll get to revisit!
Yes! I also did when we did WEST SIDE STORY between L.A. and San Diego. I took my boyfriend and we drove down and sat down and saw ALADDIN and went around the parks. But I will happily return to Disneyland when we get back there! [Laughs]
So let's dive a little deeper into your background. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born outside of Chicago and lived there for about two years. And then I grew up outside New York City, in this small town called Pleasantville.
Growing up, did you know you wanted to pursue musical theater?
I did on some level. I've always loved musical theater. My parents put me in dance classes starting when I was, oh, two-and-a-half or three. I was always dancing around the house and I loved, loved, loved performing! I soon started voice lessons, then at 10 years old, I did my first professional show—which was actually my first professional show until after I graduated college—at the Westchester Broadway Theater. It was the New York premiere production of Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston's PHANTOM. I played the "little girl" which a role they specially created because the show had a "little boy" and they figured it should also have a "little girl." [Laughs] That's where I truly fell in love with life in the theater. I would be backstage doing my homework watching all the actors. I later performed in high school musicals. But when it came time to apply to college, for some reason, I didn't think musical theater was a very stable or predictable career. And, so, I wanted to go to school to study academics, and ideally find something else I could love equally. But I also still wanted to perform all the time as well.
So that led you to...
Well, I eventually got accepted into Yale, which, you know, obviously has an amazing academic program but also had a huge amount of performance opportunities. There were theater productions everywhere, all the time. So I thought, surely I could do a show extracurricularly every two weeks or something like that. So I ended up majoring in Psychology because it held the most interest for me next to musical theater—which I think is, in fact, very much related to, well, acting anyway. So while I did that, I performed in some summer stock in between. And when I graduated I decided that I should really just give it a try and see how it would go. I at least had my degree to fall back on if things don't work out.
So what finally triggered for you to make the big switch and pursue musical theater full time?
I think it was mostly the knowledge that as much as I enjoy psychology, nothing beats performing for me. Actually, when I was a sophomore, it was Yale's 300th Anniversary and the 100th Anniversary of the Undergraduate Drama program and the 25th Anniversary of the Yale Drama School. So they had this huge celebration where they simulcast performances from both New York and Los Angeles where all these alumni were performing works written by Yale alumni. They asked a bunch of undergrads to do MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG and perform our number at the end. So, there we were all day long watching these alumni performances and then us getting up at the end performing at a real Broadway stage. Then I remember sitting on the train going home trying so hard not to burst into tears because I was so excited and so moved by doing that. So, stuff like that... it's hard to overcome. I've always been very practical, but at the very least, it was fortunate that my parents were so close to New York City that I could go home and commute for auditions. I had actually found an agent while I was still in college so I was able to come to a point where I told myself, I at least had to try it.
Well, fortunately, you've been pretty busy doing it!
Yeah! Knock on wood... so far, so good!
Who were some of your influences growing up?
Well... I'm half-Filipino, and so...
Oh, cool! I had a feeling... I'm Filipino as well!
Oh, you are? [Laughs] Well, as you know, I was raised believing that Lea Salonga was actually God and should be worshipped as such.
Yes, I know and subscribe to that belief very well!
Yeah. So as far as Filipino women in the performance world it was Lea and Deedee Magno Hall. I first knew of Deedee when she was in that pop group The Party. And so I've loved her. And the amazing thing is when I first did ALADDIN, Deedee played Jasmine—she was the head Jasmine. She had been there since the beginning and created the part. I was basically her understudy and I got to be with her, and she is just the loveliest person and a fantastic performer. So that was wild! And then later I did LES MISÉRABLES with Lea! She played my mother [Fantine]! I don't know how that managed to work out so quickly! [Laughs]
The universe must love you! You got to work with both of them one after the other!
Yep! I realize that it's a little hard sometimes to be in the midst of people that you grew up idolizing, but they both totally lived up to expectations and were both lovely people, and really, really wonderful performers.
Awesome. How about musicals themselves? Any particular shows highly influential for you?
You know, LES MIS, was a huge, huge one. I got to see Lea play Eponine on Broadway and was just so excited about that show. Of course, I've always wanted to be Eponine but I knew, deep down, I would always be Cosette. [Laughs] And, of course, WEST SIDE STORY. First watching the movie.... and also A CHORUS LINE... watching them both over and over again. A CHORUS LINE was also the first show I ever saw on Broadway when I was 8, right before [the original production] closed. Oh, and also, my voice teacher that I grew up with and saw when I was 9 and 10—he ran the music program at the public high school. He was very much about the classics of musical theater... Rodgers and Hammerstein, etc. So I grew up with a strong appreciation for those, too.
I'm sure you get asked this constantly, but do you have other dream roles in other musicals you'd like to take on someday?
Oh, there are so many! [Laughs] It's funny because I would always say WEST SIDE STORY when I used to get asked this question! [Laughs] Clearly, I need to come up with a new one! Well, I've been hearing rumors that THE KING AND I will be returning to Broadway someday, and I would absolutely love to play Tuptim. I got to play Tuptim in high school and another small production after that. So it's been a very long time. I would love to play her and sing those gorgeous songs and play those dramatic scenes. Then, of course, there's Christine in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and all of the ingenues in Rodgers and Hammerstein's musicals...
A lot of our avid readers on BroadwayWorld are young students who dream of one day pursuing the same line of work. Any advice you'd like to share with them?
Oh, goodness. Well, let's see. I would say... keep learning. If you can go see theater, go see all kinds of theater. Some may not be to your liking, but all these [different kinds of theater] have something to learn from. And also, always try to take them all... voice lessons, dance lessons. You know, this business is very, very difficult. There are a lot of talented people that want to be in it, and so in order to compete, it's best to always be at the top of your game, always learning, and be open to new experiences.
Great! Okay, so before I finish the interview, I'd like to do... THE LIGHTNING ROUND! I'll ask you some quick, short questions and all you have to do is give me the first thing that pops into your head. Is that okay?
In one word, describe what goes through your head right before you step on-stage as Maria.
What song do you like belting in the shower or when you're all alone in the car?
[Long Laugh] Oh, that's a good one! Um... "Home" from the Yeston/Kopit PHANTOM.
Which current Broadway actor or actress are you currently a huge fan of at the moment?
Of course, Lea Salonga!
What scares you the most?
What is your one guilty pleasure?
What do you like doing on your day off?
Sleep! [Laughs] Sleep and watch Law & Order! [Laughs]
What or Who irritates you the most?
Ooh. I would have to say laziness!
What instantly puts a smile on your face?
Um... [Giggles]... my boyfriend.
If you weren't an actor, what other job do you see yourself doing?
I'd say... social worker.
Well, you've already got the degree, so that makes sense! Getting a bit philosophical here, tell me, what's the one thing you discovered about yourself after joining the cast of the WEST SIDE STORY TOUR?
Um... that I've been in this business a long time!
One last question... what has been your absolute favorite moment of the tour so far?
Oh... [Long Pause] I got to sing the National Anthem at Fenway Park! That was amazing!
Follow Michael Lawrence Quintos on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq
Photo of Michelle Aravena & Ali Ewoldt from the National Tour of WEST SIDE STORY by Joan Marcus.
Performances of WEST SIDE STORY at The Segerstrom Center of the Arts continue through September 18, 2011 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm.
Ticket prices start at $20 and can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am).
Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
For more information, please visit SCFTA.org.