GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Paula Leggett Chase of 'Curtains'

What would Sheila say? The Chorus Line queen bee is mortified at turning 30 and fears for her professional future because of it. Yet here's Paula Leggett Chase, who turns 46 later this year, dancing in Curtains, her third Broadway musical in as many years. Last season she was in The Pajama Game; the year before that, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Chase knows Sheila well. She's played her at several regional theaters, and stood on the line with her when she's played Judy in other regional productions. Chase made her Broadway debut understudying both roles during Chorus Line's original run.

Since then she's been in six more Broadway shows; worked extensively in regional theater, even winning awards for a performance; turned up on Letterman a dozen or so times; and had a regular TV role, the witch Mediva on PBS kiddie program Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego?, for two seasons.

And that's all with taking time off to have two children and two operations on her right leg. So when Chase went to see the Broadway revival of Chorus Line earlier this season—the first time she actually got to watch the show "since I was learning it at the Shubert way back when"—and she heard Sheila worry "How many years do I have left to be a chorus cutie—three? Four, if I have my eyes done?" Chase says she was thinking: "Ohhh…15...16, if you play your cards right."

Chase admits to some anxiety over auditioning for Curtains because she's reached the age where she's transitioning out of being a dancer first and foremost. Choreographer Rob Ashford—whom she met in the early '90s when they were both in the Crazy for You chorus—had contacted her after Curtains' L.A. tryout about covering the Karen Ziemba and Debra Monk roles on Broadway. For the audition, she says, "I had to do this big, hard dancing first, and then another combination of partnering. It was a lot, and I was nervous about it. I've known Rob for a long time, and what if he was like, 'She's not quite what I remember'?" He obviously didn't feel that way, and now the 5-foot-10 Chase is Marjorie, the tallest chorus girl in Robbin' Hood, the show-within-a-show of Curtains.

Unlike Sheila, Chase's perspective has improved with age. Around the time she turned 40, "I started crossing over to where I was proud of my age, proud of what I'd done," says Chase. "When I was 40, I was pregnant with Dashiell, I was married to the most wonderful man in the world, I had my friends around me. I was fat and 40, and it was a great birthday!"

Dashiell, 5, and Kyler, 10, are her sons with husband David Chase, the dance arranger for Curtains who's been a musical director and/or arranger for more than a dozen other Broadway shows. They met doing Chorus Line at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse in 1991: She was Judy, he was the pianist and assistant musical director. In 1993, soon after they married, David was hired as assistant musical director for Damn Yankees at San Diego's Old Globe—which would send him cross-country for several months. She didn't want to be apart from her new hubby, so she went to an open call and got into the chorus. What she did for love: Damn Yankees is not a show that gives the female ensemble much to do. After the production moved to Broadway in 1994, with David taking over as musical director, she didn't stay in it for long.

"I took a big leap and gave notice without another job to go to," she says. Two days later, she was called to replace the actress playing Judy (who'd broken her wrist) for the final weekend of a Chorus Line run at North Carolina Theatre, Raleigh. She returned to Line, as Sheila, a few more times in the late '90s—at Maine State Music Theatre and Sacramento Music Circus. "It would come into my life and would be like an old, comfortable pair of jeans," she says of Chorus Line. Chase had played Sheila her first time 'round with the show, when she was only 25, at Mac-Haydn Theatre in upstate New York.

That was the second land-based job she got after moving to New York. A month after she arrived fresh from Indiana University in the mid-'80s, Ocean Cruise Lines hired her to perform on the Ocean Princess. She was at sea for nearly a year, then earned her Equity card in Carousel at Indianapolis' Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, where one of her castmates was Casey Nicholaw, then a young gypsy, now the Tony-nominated director of Drowsy Chaperone. Back on the East Coast, she did several shows at Mac-Haydn as well as Darien (Conn.) Dinner Theatre and the Claridge in Atlantic City. She "spent every spare moment taking class," partly to make up for lost time. Chase had started dance lessons in first grade back in Evansville, Ind., but in third grade dropped ballet, jazz and tap to concentrate on acrobatics. She studied and competed in gymnastics right through high school, then entered Indiana University as a voice major. Though she did some choreography for the Singing Hoosiers show choir in college, she'd had no real training in dance when she graduated.

Her break came with the late-'80s national tour of Cabaret in which Joel Grey reprised his legendary portrayal of the Emcee. For 10 months on tour, she performed right beside him as one of the "Two Ladies." Next, Chase—then still Leggett—was cast in Jesus Christ Superstar at Paper Mill (choreographed by Susan Stroman), but she quit when she got into Chorus Line during the final year of its record-breaking Broadway run. She left Chorus Line to do Annie 2 at Goodspeed but returned to take part in its last performance in April 1990.

Her next Broadway show would be the Stroman-choreographed Crazy for You, for which her then friend David Chase sometimes played in the orchestra (he was also assistant musical director of off-Broadway's Forever Plaid at the time). They often hung out together after performances. "It was platonic—platonic—but there was always this man/woman tension thing there," Paula recalls. "Then I went home to Indiana on vacation, and he called me when I was there and said that he missed me. I'm like, 'I miss you too.' I came back and I went to Forever Plaid, and we ended up kissing in my car, and by the end of two weeks we were engaged." They were married four months later, in December 1992. Friends from the IU music department performed at the wedding, as did some of her theater pals, including her best friend Jeff Williams, who's currently a swing in The Pirate Queen.

The Chases' co-credits on Broadway include Pajama Game (he was music supervisor and arranger) and Kiss Me, Kate (he did dance arrangements). Kate was Paula's first Broadway show, but not her first job, after the birth of their first child. Just five weeks after Kyler was born, she was singing and dancing in a sketch on Late Show With David Letterman. She's been on Letterman many times, doing everything from cooking segments to musical parodies about Bill Clinton to appearing as one of the "Davettes." Her first theater job as a mother occurred about two months after Kyler's birth: the workshop of Easter Parade with Tommy Tune, where she had the part Ann Miller played on screen.

In 1999, she scored a starring role, as Princess Diana, in the off-Broadway musical Queen of Hearts. Chase, who still resembles Diana, had a connection to the princess—they were born within two months of each other, and she had previously impersonated her for some TV bits. Those were before Diana's fatal 1997 car crash, though. Chase was uncomfortable about portraying her after she died, and the play's mediocrity didn't help. "It was not a good show," she says. "There was some beautiful music in it, there was a great love for her, but it wasn't done well." But Chase was well-reviewed; Time magazine, for example, called her "appealing" and said, "In a more polished show, she might win a few hearts herself."

Resuming her career after Dashiell's birth proved more of an ordeal, even though she waited five months then and even though she was reprising a role—Joan in Dames at Sea—for which she'd won an award from Backstage West when she'd played it at Marines Memorial Theater in San Francisco a few years earlier. She went up to Goodspeed for her Dames encore in the spring of 2002 with both children in tow (David was off working on the Music Man TV movie). "Kyler, I was able to put him on a theater schedule, he would sleep until at least 9:30. No matter what time I put Dashiell to bed, he got up at 7," she says. "It was physically and vocally a really, really hard show. I was skinny, cold and tired the entire time at Goodspeed. I couldn't wait for that show to end."

She didn't work for two and a half years after that. "For a good year and a half, I didn't care. After a year and a half, I was dying inside a little bit," she says. "I missed performing, and I missed show folk. I would hear things through my husband which I couldn't decide if that was keeping me in it or making it more painful." She found her way back to the stage when the Downtown Cabaret Theatre in Bridgeport, Conn., where she'd worked in the past, called her to replace an injured performer in Sugar Babies. By the middle of 2005, she was on Broadway again, joining the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels ensemble and covering Joanna Gleason as Muriel.

She wasn't expecting to get into Pajama Game the following year, since she wasn't considered as an understudy for any of the female principals. But she created her own character for the ensemble and gave it a go at the audition, where she wore bejeweled cat's eye glasses. By the time she'd evolved into factory worker Brenda for the actual production, the getup also included a midriff, pedal pushers and a beehive hairdo. Pajama Game director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall (with whom Chase had previously worked on Kiss Me, Kate and Damn Yankees) thought of her like Flo from Alice, though Chase had modeled the characterization on a friend of her grandparents' whom she remembered from parties on their houseboat during her childhood. "She was tall and skinny and had long legs and beautiful nails, and her hair was very close to God. She smoked Virginia Slims, and she would sit there on the boat and say, 'You're such a big showoff. I hope you fall in the lake and drown.' But I always thought she was very elegant."

For Chase, Pajama Game was the show that "really for the first time used my age," she says. She also enjoyed it because it (like Curtains) is set in the '50s, and she's always had an affinity for bygone eras. "It started with music. My grandparents played so much old-time music for me—Dinah Shore, Cab Calloway, the Andrews Sisters," she explains. "I read a lot, so when there is a period piece, I know what the attitudes were, I know what the clothes were…. Backstage, right now I'm rereading Rebecca, so all the time we're playing Mrs. Danvers: [demonstrating how she speaks with castmates in imperious British diction] 'If you would please find the emery board…I believe it is over in the east wing…' And I can spend whole days where we're in The Women."

At Curtains, Chase shares a dressing room with Mary Ann Lamb and Darcie Roberts—both, like her, veteran performers and mothers. To dancers just starting out, Chase advises: "I think the most important thing is work very, very hard at your craft and be very, very nice and respectful. You have to earn trust, so they [directors and choreographers] know that if they bring you in, you're not going to be difficult, you're going to put out your best work and be kind to people around you."

Her own longevity is remarkable considering that 11 years ago she ruptured her Achilles tendon, possibly the most career-threatening injury for a dancer. And it happened when she was pregnant, which meant she couldn't have surgery right away and couldn't have general anesthesia when she finally went under the knife about a month later ("we had to wait until the [baby's] nervous system was formed"). Then: "I couldn't really rehabilitate it because I was gaining a pound a week." Three years ago, Chase had bunion surgery on the same foot. She's done some damage on her upper body, too, including separating a shoulder.

Despite injuries and pregnancies, Chase has endured in this "young person's game," she says, due to desire and versatility (she recently played a judge on Law & Order). Being realistic is also key, says Chase: "If you look at yourself in a certain way, and the business doesn't look at you in the same way, it's not going to work." And she credits the support of her family, noting that when she was considering a new job that would mean time away from her kids, Kyler told her, "Mommy, I want you to do it, because you're happy when you do it." (Though she confides it's the candy and cookies they get from crew that seem to impress her sons most about being in theater.)

Kyler and his brother have already discovered the joys of performing themselves, their mom reports. Kyler writes music for his own rock band and is in the cast of his school's upcoming production of Once Upon a Mattress; Dashiell entertains at Thanksgiving dinner every year. Both boys attend a magnet school for the arts named, appropriately enough, for NYC native Richard Rodgers.

Photos of Paula, from top: with Matt Farnsworth (left) and David Eggers in Curtains; offstage on a recent afternoon; with husband David and sons Dashiell (left) and Kyler in London, 2005; as Pajama Game's Brenda; glammed up for a night at Hernando's Hideaway in Pajama Game. [Curtains photo by Joan Marcus]

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