BWW Interviews: BILLY's Emily Skinner

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On October 2, Emily Skinner joined the Broadway company of Billy Elliot as the beloved Mrs. Wilkinson, a role she took nationwide on the first national tour of the show.  BroadwayWorld recently caught up with the busy triple threat to talk about how it feels to bring the role home to Broadway.

Emily Skinner was nominated for a Best Actress TONY Award for the Original Broadway Production of Side Show. Other Broadway credits include the original casts of Jekyll & Hyde, James Joyce's The Dead (with Christopher Walken) The Full Monty, Dinner at Eight (Outer Critics Circle nomination, Drama League Award). National tours include: Billy Elliot, Disney's On the Record. Off Broadway credits include Jerry Springer The Opera (with Harvey Kietel) at Carnegie Hall. She has also participated in City Center's Encores! productions of No Strings, Pardon My English, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Broadway Bash. She has performed leading roles at The Kennedy Center, Signature Theatre, McCarter, Long Wharf, The Old Globe, Ford's Theater, St. Louis MUNY, TheaterVirgina, and Hangar Theater. Her voice can be heard on numerous cast albums and audio books, Duets, Unsuspecting Hearts, Skinner/Ripley Raw at Town Hall (all with Alice Ripley), Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, The Stephen Sondheim Album, Wall to Wall Sondheim, Believe: The Songs of The Sherman Brothers, The Stephen Schwartz Album, animated feature Anastasia, and her self-titled solo CD.

Tell me how it feels to be back on Broadway!

It's great to be back on Broadway! It's great just to be back in New York, since I've been gone for nearly a year doing the show with the first national touring company.

Are you finding that performing the role on Broadway has a different set of demands than playing it on the road?

It has different demands in that the schedule is harder. This particular schedule for Billy Elliott is pretty demanding. We have a five-show weekend - a Friday night show, two shows Saturday and two on Sunday - which is pretty hard. Usually productions have two shows on Wednesday, two shows on Saturday and then one on Sunday. And it's a long show, three hours long, and often times we'll rehearse on Thursday and Friday as well, putting new kids into the show. With so many kids in the cast and the rotating Billys, it's just a show that requires a lot of maintenance.

How do you like working with so many kids?

It's definitely super-fun and I will say it's been a surprise as a job for me. I've never really done a show where I worked with or had significant contact with a lot of kids before. It's a gift to get to go to work everyday and play with exceptional children, which is what I get to do. And I really adore it-it's probably the thing about this job that is the most wonderful to me.

It's amazing how this group of 10, 11, 12, 13 year-olds can carry a 3 hour show.

No kidding! My ballet girls, for instance, they do eight shows a week and they do quite a lot in the show. Whenever I feel tired I look at them and I think "My God, if you're doing this, how dare I feel tired?" And the Billys, they really do an Olympian feat. If they're not on stage doing some tour de force number or something, they're off-stage changing clothes. They're "on" the entire time. It's a Herculean thing for them. And if they're not doing the show they're constantly maintaining to do the show. They're in ballet class, they're studying voice, they're studying acting...It's exhausting but I think that they love it. They all seem to bring a huge amount of joy to it and it charges the production and the adults in it.

What do you like best about Mrs. Wilkinson?BWW Interviews: BILLY's Emily Skinner

I like the fact that she's a survivor. The town is in a dire a situation, she has a terrible home life and teaching this dance class is what's keeping her going. And suddenly when she finds Billy there's really a reason for her to wake up in the morning. I think this is why her parting with Billy in the end is especially devastating. it's not just about what's going to happen to Billy, it's about what's going to happen to her, as well.

Do you have a favorite show moment?

Oh yes. I love the last class scene the best. I think the writing in that scene is phenomenal. It's a perfect gem of a scene, where two people are trying to connect and say the perfect thing to connect them. There's so much subtext. And it's wonderful to get to play it with different boys every night. And they all bring different things to it.

What would you say is the most challenging part about delivering your role?

I would say the biggest challenges are physical. The show is on a raked stage which is interesting. From the audience, you can't really tell it's raked, but they're very rough physically. Running around on it eight shows a week can do wonky things to your body - your back, your knees, your hips. I'm constantly in physical therapy trying to make sure I'm physically okay enough to do the show.

Either on the road or in the short time you've been on Broadway, have there been any panic or "the show must go on" kind of moments?

Once in Chicago the letter that Billy pulls out in the one scene where we sing about his mother - the letter that instigates the song - wasn't packed. So we had to sort of improve around that. Fortunately nothing too terrible though!

Why do you think this show has become so meaningful to people?

Well, first of all, I think it's a very accessible story. You have to be a stone not to be moved by the story [laughs]. Everybody can relate to some aspect of the story-families trying to connect, a boy trying to find his way...there are so many themes within this show. The creative team threw everything but the kitchen sink into this musical. Nobody leaves Billy Elliott saying "I want my hundred dollars back!" You get your fill of everything. You get the book of a play, basically, the numbers of musical genius the likes of which have never been seen before on the theatrical stage I think, classic musical theater numbers, and then moments of ballet brilliance. Everything you could possibly imagine, they threw into this musical. It's extraordinary. And it's all done well. So it's impossible to get bored. Audience members who don't traditionally like musicals will like the strong play aspect of it, and people that just want to see cute kids dance really well will love that aspect of it. There's something for everyone.

Would you say that this role is one of your favorites?

Yes, definitely. It's been one of the most challenging roles that I've done, having to figure out how to do it eight times a week and be okay physically, all while dealing with the accent and doing justice to the character. I was once intimidated by the role and that's the reason it's become one I have great affection for. Having done this role, I feel like I can do pretty much anything now!

Any other career highlights?

I've done Dirty Blonde a few times, and I really loved doing that. I loved discovering Mae West and figuring out how to live inside her skin. I did Mrs. Lovett last year and that was wonderful. I hope there's more Lovett in my future.

Any dream roles out there?

I love to do original stuff. What all actors love most is being part of the creative process. I'm waiting for Encores! to do Sherry! So I can beg them to cast me in it. It is the musical version of The Man Who Came to Dinner and it's just a fabulous show with a fabulous role, Lorraine, who is this broad and over-the-top comic actress. I like to do roles that are broad, because those tend to be the ones you can take a bite out of. In life we have to be so constrained, get me up on stage and no holds barred.

To catch Emily Skinner in Billy Elliot on Broadway, visit www.billyelliotbroadway.com.

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From This Author Jessica Lewis

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