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BWW EXCLUSIVE: Ashley Brown Talks Disney, Concert Tour, PBS Special, SNOW WHITE & More

Having essayed the roles of Belle in BEAUTY & THE BEAST and the title role in MARY POPPINS on Broadway, as well as having created a role in the jukebox revue ON THE RECORD, Ashley Brown has carved a place for herself as the premiere Disney leading lady of the 21st century and her participation in the recent symphonic presentation of SNOW WHITE & THE SEVEN DWARVES only furthers that point. I spoke to Ashley yesterday as she was on her way to rehearsals for SIR Tim Rice & FRIENDS, a special concert taking place in NYC on Friday at 6 PM and we discussed her career so far and her plans for the future, both near and far. Also, here you will find the first news of Ashley's upcoming PBS special airing in March and a forthcoming original Charlie Chaplin musical as well as a Cole Porter revue based on the film ROMAN HOLIDAY.

More information about the NY TIMES-hosted Disney concert event is available here and you can follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyBrown9.

Singing Umbrella-ishments

PC: What's your first memory of a Tim Rice song? THE LION KING or ALADDIN, like me, maybe?

AB: Yeah, me, too, I think. He's written so many, so many songs and I've just love, loved them so much for so long. So, when they asked me to do this concert on Friday, I was like, "Am I just doing "Feed The Birds" and "Practically Perfect?" - which is all great - and they were like, "No, you get to sing new material!" So, actually, it's so nice because I get to do stuff from LION KING and stuff from TARZAN and so much that I feel is a little under-appreciated.

PC: Definitely. Especially latter-era Disney.

AB: Yeah, you don't hear them as much as the more popular tunes. People are gonna love it.

PC: It's gonna be great! What songs are most looking forward to singing? Josh told me he is doing "My Strongest Suit"!

AB: (Laughs.) Yes, he is! Josh and I are going to do a duet and I'm doing some Phil Collins, so I'm excited about that. Also, I haven't sung all my MARY POPPINS stuff for about a year now so it's going to be crazy to go back and sing "Practically Perfect" and that stuff. I'm excited about the whole night. I think it's going to be a really, really great night. It starts at 6, so people can come before a Broadway show - it's a before-show thing. It's gonna be a great night of music and Tim Rice is hosting - you can't beat that!

PC: You've got that right! How do you compare Tim's work to the other Disney shows you've done?

AB: I actually did ON THE RECORD, which had every Disney tune in it - or so I thought - but I'm ending up having to learn a lot of new material for this concert, so it's exciting.

PC: What happened with ON THE RECORD?

AB: Well, it ran for ten months and I don't think they ever intended it to go to Broadway - I think they intended it as a tour. And, I got that show a week out of college so I was so pumped about it!


PC: Wow! What a great first gig, the Disney jukebox musical.

AB: It was such a great experience to be able to sing that material every single night - and people loved it. But, I think, now, because Disney has so many huge shows - when you think of a Disney show, you think of LION KING and giraffes walking down the aisle; when you see MARY POPPINS, she flies over the audience - there are so many elements and I think that Disney is aware of that. ON THE RECORD was a really quaint show and I think people came in with huge Disney expectations and...

PC: Were disappointed.

AB: I loved the music and the arrangements. The record is amazing.

PC: You and Emily Skinner kill it!

AB: (Laughs.) I still have people coming up to me, "We listen to that record all the time!"

PC: The show made a great album.

AB: It wasn't the musical everyone was expecting, but just listening to the CD - you can't beat it.

PC: Do you find that being on a cast album gives you a place in history? Or, even YouTube footage of you in shows?

AB: Oh, definitely. Absolutely. I grew up as a Disney baby - all of them, until I had them memorized! So, to be able to put my voice to those songs and have it recorded on an album, or even YouTube footage - it's a dream come true. I still go back and watch sometimes - I don't go online too often because you never know what people are going to say! (Laughs.)

PC: You got that right!

AB: It's pretty magical to look back on all that stuff.

PC: I was just talking to Josh Strickland about this in TARZAN, and since you and he are the only actors besides Peter Pans that I can think of who flew over the audience every night, like you did in MARY POPPINS: what do you think of Chris Tierney and the SPIDER-MAN situation? Did you have a harness?

AB: Yeah, I had a harness and everything. But, you know, a lot of trust goes into flying over the audience. It's not just the technical aspect of it - it's trusting other people, literally, with your life and your safety. Fortunately, we never had anything as dramatic as what happened to him in SPIDER-MAN, but it's a very scary and a very serious thing.

PC: And sad.

AB: I think sometimes when we do eight shows a week at the theater we sometimes forget the risks we are taking because we do it so often that it's just part of the show. But, it takes a group of people to really stay focused at that moment to make sure everyone is safe all the time. (Pause.)

PC: That's the priority above the art or the acting.

AB: I'm sure that was very scary for him and hopefully one day he will be able to get up again and do it. Every show has its own issues - I mean, I had a few mishaps off-stage.

PC: Did you ever feel in danger?

AB: No, it was more funny experiences - nothing harmful ever happened - it was just more like Mary's skirts go over her head in front of fifteen hundred people. (Laughs.)

PC: That's hilarious!

AB: I had more of the comical experiences. A few serious things happened, but nothing like SPIDER-MAN, at all. But, it's all about doing a new show: in a way, when you do a new show you are kind of a guinea pig. You just have to take a risk and see what happens and just know that you are in good hands and trust that they are going to do their job and take care of you because when you are connected to two wires it is a very helpless feeling.

PC: I bet!

AB: There's nothing you can do.

PC: What would go through your head when you got stuck?

AB: It's always just, you know: trust and pray and smile! (Laughs.)

PC: Grit your teeth and bare ‘em!

AB: Exactly. (Laughs.) The next time, if anything would happen the first time, when I'd go back up at the end it was nerve-wracking. That's what makes it a job - you just have to pick it back up and do it and hope for the best.

PC: Did the Beast in BEAUTY & THE BEAST ever fall during the transformation above the stage? Is it a double?

AB: No, it's him, but he's more connected to the set - to this bar. He wasn't on wires. He got stuck a few times, but there was a platform underneath him so even if he fell he wouldn't hurt himself.

PC: So, you think spectacle is fine as long as it's safe?

AB: Absolutely. I mean, it can be so magical - my favorite part of flying was seeing people's faces. I mean, I saw grown men crying over the magic of it. And kids. And moms. It's all priceless - the memories that people have from that.

PC: Truly. Few things these days are that special - live.

AB: It's so touching when you can do something so spectacular but still tasteful and emotional. But, I also think there can be something said about keeping musicals simple. I don't think every musical needs people flying around and everything - if it calls for it, it calls for it.

PC: What do you think of The Sherman Brothers? Those songs are like they have always been there - ingenious simplicity.

AB: I have to say, Richard Sherman was there every single day for rehearsals of MARY POPPINS. And, he is the most amazing, down-to-earth man and is not affected by the business at all - and he could be so jaded!

PC: What a life, right?

AB: He and his wife Elizabeth would come with their "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" t-shirts.

PC: How cute!

AB: I can't believe they aren't sick of that song - they wrote it years and years ago.

PC: More than fifty.

AB: They are still so excited. (Pause.) So, you meet them and you just cannot believe the catalogue of music that they have written. And, they are so friendly and so nice - that shouldn't be so shocking, but we both know that it is. (Laughs.)

PC: Indeed. (Laughs.)

AB: They are so loving and precious and sweet and so much a part of the process. They still follow my career and come to my concert appearances - I've done a lot of stuff with Dick Van Dyke in Los Angeles. They are just great, great, great people.


PC: Have you seen THE BOYS documentary? I interviewed their sons, the directors of that, a few months ago.

AB: Yes! It is perfect. It really captures them. I remember seeing it with The Sherman Brothers in LA and just bawling. I remember being like, "I can't believe I'm bawling at your life and you're sitting right there!" It's so great.

PC: I spoke to Julie Andrews awhile back about how much she adored performing their music - is she a big inspiration to you, since you've now played two of her most iconic roles onstage [MARY POPPINS and THE SOUND OF MUSIC on tour]?

AB: Yeah, of course! She's the queen of the movie musical. I don't think I ever tried to imitate her - people are like, "Oh my gosh! You are so much like her! Did you ever know?" and I'm like, "Of course, I'm sure she's had some influence because I watched her non-stop growing up!" But, I mean, she also did all the stuff I could sing along to, so that's why I was always watching those movies. I had a dance to every number from MARY POPPINS and THE SOUND OF MUSIC. (Laughs.)

PC: What was your favorite thing about working with kids?

AB: Gosh, I've worked with so many different children. Actually, I just did LIMELIGHT at the La Jolla Playhouse and I played the mom and worked with the young Charlie [Chaplin]. It's so interesting and you learn so much looking through a kid's eyes. You know, there's something really precious because they are just kids and not influenced by anything - they just are.

PC: Uncensored.

AB: That's something I really love about working with kids - they don't know what they are supposed to do, so they just do it. It's also trying sometimes because it takes a lot of focus - I mean, if I was nine and someone asked me to do MARY POPPINS I would have been a hot mess! (Laughs.)

PC: Yeah, right?

AB: Onstage, after they've done a few months they get bored, so it really kept me on my toes - to keep it fresh and to keep them focused and paying attention to Ashley The Actress as well as Mary Poppins.

PC: Do you think Disney is the greatest children's entertainment because it addresses them as adults, as equals?

AB: Yes. Absolutely. And, I also find that it's part of my job - and no one said, "Ashley, this is your job" - to set examples for them. You know, they spend more than fifty percent of their time at the theater - most don't go to everyday school, they are tutored. So, I tried to set an example for them - which is hard sometimes. I tried to teach them how it is and how to be backstage and talk to stage hands and other actors and those kinds of things. I really enjoyed showing them the ropes.

PC: How do you put all the music you've sung in perspective - Rodgers & Hammerstein, The Sherman Brothers, Alan Menken?

AB: Gosh, what I find with all those composers, what they have in common is that they all tell such a great story. So, it's not only the melody you fall in love with, but the meaning behind the song. You wonder why all those composers of those shows you mentioned are timeless - it's because you have an eight year old singing the same song as an eighty year old. There's something to be said about the timelessness of that music. It's singable - anyone of any age can sing it. You can sing it in the car, in the shower - not even in front of anyone. Everyone can relate to them - I think that's why I've always been attracted to that music and why it's so popular around the world.

PC: And you sing the most cherished and holy of all Disney songs, Walt's personal favorite song - "Feed The Birds". Do you feel particularly special to carry the legacy of that song?

AB: Absolutely. You know, it was such a wonderful time in my life and one of the things that Richard Sherman said that I will never, ever forget because it just touched me so much was on opening night when he was talking to my dad, he was talking about how it took ten years to get POPPINS up and running - Disney had to get the rights to the music and Cameron had the rights to the book.

PC: Cameron and PL!

AB: Cameron just marched up to PL Travers and said, "Hey! Gimme that!" (Laughs.)

PC: Exactly. But, back to The Sherman Brothers story...

AB: Richard said, "We had to wait for the rights and wait for the time to be right - and wait for Ashley Brown to be born." And, I thought that was so nice! It just made me feel like he loved what I did with it and he was ready to pass the torch to me. You know, he never compared me to Julie and he always loved what I did. We always had conversations about the movie because it's all so interesting to me, but he was so sweet to me about making the role my own.


PC: How freeing that must have been. No one beats Julie Andrews, right?

AB: Oh, yeah, I felt the pressure at first because if I was going to see MARY POPPINS, I would want to know how she compared to Julie Andrews - so I knew there was no way around that. But, I never felt any pressure from Richard or anyone involved.

PC: Tell me about the shows you've been doing with Dick Van Dyke.

AB: Well, I've been doing some shows with him at the Geffen Theater in Los Angeles. They gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award there. He has a quartet that he sings with and he loves to do stuff from THE MUSIC MAN and "Supercal" from POPPINS - and, so, I do a lot of shows like that with him. He has more energy than I do now - his knees still go up to his chin when he does the "Supercal" dance!

PC: Nothing has changed since dancing with Chita Rivera and Julie Andrews fifty years ago!

AB: Nothing! Nothing.

PC: Do you want to have a stage career or do you want to do more TV and film like he did?

AB: Well, I'm not gonna close any doors. Of course, I'd love to have it all - like any actress. Music is really my heart so that would be really hard for me to ever leave, leave. But, if TV and film happen for me that would be amazing. I just want to be known as an actress that can do it all. And, I've had such great luck having Disney be such a great platform for me.

PC: You are the real-life Disney princess!

AB: My wish is to just keep broadening my horizons and getting better and better. Hopefully, I'll still be getting opportunities to really stretch me in the future. That's my hope - to just keep learning and being lucky to do what I love to do. It's really amazing.

PC: And Disney is the crown jewel of entertainment companies. I hope you keep up your relationship.

AB: They are just the best. The very best. I've had such a great experience working for the company - I started with ON THE RECORD, but I've auditioned for every part. It's not like they gave me a show, I auditioned for MARY POPPINS nine times! They really made me work for it. (Pause.) They've been such an amazing part of my life. When I ended POPPINS, it was very sad but they could not have been more supportive.

PC: What about the rewrites that went into the show after you left?

AB: We changed some stuff on the tour, too. It was just little things here and there. They put them into the Broadway version.

PC: Have you gone back and seen the show?

AB: No, I haven't! I saw the show when I got the part - they sent me to London because I had never been and they probably figured it was a good idea to have Mary Poppins have been to London. So, I saw it then but I haven't seen it since. (Pause.) I don't know if I'm ready yet!

PC: Too emotional?

AB: Yeah, it seems silly...

PC: Not at all. You were so involved with her for so long.

AB: I have such love for it! I'm afraid I will get too emotional - it's like a break-up!

PC: Breaking up with Mary Poppins.

AB: (Laughs.) Three years, eight times a week - it was my life! (Pause.) I will go back someday. I should see it. I will probably notice new things I never knew happened. But, I think right now, my heartstrings would be like "Ahhh!" I'd be like, "I know what she's doing now! I know what she's doing next!"

PC: Too close to home to take in another actress's portrayal?

AB: Yeah, I think that's kind of how I feel. Whenever I am back in New York by that theater I get the chills. It's so nostalgic. It was such a positive, great time in my life.

PC: Do you miss it?

AB: You know, I don't wish I was back here - but it was so fond. It was so special. I just get a little sentimental.


PC: As I was talking to Josh yesterday: to have a lead title character in a Disney musical on Broadway is pretty cool.

AB: Exactly. You know, looking back, it was unbelievable. I don't know how I did it without running away in fear!

PC: You've kept busy.

AB: It was such a great platform. You know, I did my first album - SPEAK LOW - and now I'm traveling around with symphonies. I'm doing the Kennedy Center in April. And, just a few weeks ago, I filmed my own first PBS special.

PC: No way. Tell me everything! What songs are you doing?

AB: Of course! It's a lot of the songs from my album, plus "Spooky" - the Dusty Springfield song - "Fire & Rain", "Call Me Irresponsible", "My Funny Valentine", "Nobody Makes A Pass At Me". All the songs have new arrangements. I'm doing a lot of jazz standards - I did a show at Feinstein's back in November, my second time there - and so that's exciting. That's going to be showing on PBS in March.

PC: Where was it filmed?

AB: We filmed it in Pensacola, Florida!

PC: Your hometown!

AB: Yeah! It was so great to come back to my hometown and they flew all my band down from New York and everybody. David Lai - my manager - and I spent like eight months putting it together.

PC: That's so great. I can't wait to see it. Will it be on DVD?

AB: Yep. PBS then DVD. It's mostly SPEAK LOW, but a lot of new tunes. Since my album has been out for over a year now, we really wanted to broaden my charts and giving my fans some new stuff to listen to.

PC: Is some Sondheim in your future?

AB: I would love to! I'm actually doing a concert at the Indianapolis Symphony where I am going to be doing a lot of his stuff, in February.

PC: Tell me about LIMELIGHT. Is it coming in?

AB: It's a beautiful, beautiful show. The last that I heard was that it is definitely moving forward towards Broadway, but they might do another out-of-town tryout.

PC: Who's on the team?

AB: Chris Curtis wrote the music and Tom Meehan - who wrote HAIRSPRAY and ANNIE - wrote the script. Rob McClure plays Charlie and - let me tell you - he is unbelievable!

PC: Not an easy part to play.

AB: Let me just tell you this: Charlie Chaplin's granddaughter came to the show and she asked what film the footage we used in the show was from - and it was Rob!

PC: That's a high compliment, if there ever were any!

AB: He just totally embodies this character. I had such a great time working at the La Jolla Playhouse. We made so many changes - up and down and all around. My part kept getting bigger, though!

PC: Always a good sign!

AB: I also just did the reading of ROMAN HOLIDAY which they have made into a musical using all Cole Porter music.

PC: What a great idea! Tell me about that.

AB: I did the reading with Tony Goldwyn and he played my love interest.


PC: So, you as Audrey Hepburn and Tony as Gregory Peck? I'm there!

AB: He's so cool, so down-to-earth, so fun. You know, with a reading you have like two minutes to put it all together for an audience of eighty people. It's so nerve-wracking. We had such a great time. That's going to move forward, too.

PC: What songs are in it?

AB: Gosh, "Flying High", "Imagination", "Experiment", "What's The Use" ... a lot that I wasn't familiar with, and not too many ballads. There's a great mixture, but it's never too sappy.

PC: Is "True Love" in it? I could see that working.

AB: Not yet! "Don't Fence Me In" is in there for Tony and "I've Got You Under My Skin". It's really cute.

PC: Which show do you think will make it to New York first?

AB: I think both of them just need one more production to work out the kinks before we move it to the big city.

PC: What about the future of SNOW WHITE & THE SEVEN DWARVES that you did in concert in LA? What's the story?

AB: I was Snow White and it was the first time the orchestrations had been played live since the movie. I mean, some of my music had the actual notes for the movie on it!

PC: Wow!

AB: Having the LA Philharmonic play these charts was just breathtaking. Even my family and my fiancé - who has seen me do ten million bajillion things and I'm sure is bored with me by now - this was one of their favorite things that I've ever done. The orchestrations - they don't do them for that many instruments any more. To have a seventy piece orchestra play these parts was just unbelievable. It was really well-received. I think we just need to find the right time and place for it.

PC: Onstage? In a full production?

AB: We did the whole script and everything when we did it. The audience just loved it. We'll see if there's a future. With Disney, there's a lot that goes into getting the rights for all the music and the script because it's all over the place since it's such an old movie and a lot of different people have rights to different things. They are working on a lot of other things right now, but I hope something happens with it in the future.

PC: Did you do the high voice and everything?

AB: (Laughs.) No, I didn't do the (High Voice. Snow White Laugh.) "Hahahaha." It's funny you ask, because we did go back and forth with that. But, with me speaking like her - you want to make it real but just hint at what people expect. I tried to make her as a person sound more curious. I changed it up a bit. You don't want it to be a parody.

PC: You're a busy, busy lady! Three new shows in the works?

AB: People can follow me on Twitter - AshleyBrown9. My manager actually first told me to do it and it really does help me connect with everyone. I love it now. You know, I love going out there and doing these concerts across the country and getting to just be Ashley - and not under the Mary Poppins umbrella anymore! I'm really excited to be back in New York with my Disney family again. I miss ‘em!

PC: This has been great. I can't wait for the PBS concert and I can't wait to see which show we see you in next!

AB: Thank you so much. It was so much fun catching up with you, Pat! Bye now.


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