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GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Sara Edwards of 'Chaplin'

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In the new musical Chaplin, the scenes of Charlie Chaplin’s early film work with director Mack Sennett and actress Mabel Normand no doubt remind some musical theater aficionados of another show—Jerry Herman’s legendary 1974 flop about those two Hollywood pioneers, Mack and Mabel. And thanks to the divine intervention of the musical theater gods, Sara Edwards just happened to be working with Mack’s Mabel, Bernadette Peters, when Edwards learned she would be playing Mabel in Chaplin on Broadway.

Edwards was in the Follies revival headlined by Peters that originated at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 2011, opened on Broadway that fall and later had a limited run in Los Angeles. So she had Peters close at hand for consultation as she prepared to play Mabel in a workshop and eventually the Broadway production of Chaplin.

“I couldn’t believe I had Bernadette Peters to ask, ‘What kind of dirt can you tell me about Mabel Normand?’” says Edwards, who was also in the earlier version of Chaplin titled Limelight at southern California’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2010.

“Most people don’t know who Mabel Normand is,” Edwards says of the silent-film star, “so I usually just [call my role] ‘the girl on the bench’”—a reference to the movie scene that she and Rob McClure (as Chaplin) recreate in Chaplin. Edwards’ other parts in Chaplin include a woman on the streets of London who blows young Charlie a kiss in the opening number and a starlet in the Act 2 opener. She is also dance captain for the show.

Edwards was dance captain of Follies as well, but she was a swing in that show, which meant she could watch the performance some of the time. Now she has to keep an eye on what everyone’s doing on stage while she’s on stage performing every night. Edwards worked closely with Warren Carlyle as he created the choreography for both Chaplin and Follies. During the La Jolla run of Chaplin, she helped out Carlyle (also the show’s director) as he staged such sequences as the Chaplin look-alike contest and the goings-on at Sennett Studios. For Follies she was the assistant choreographer. “One of my favorite memories—I wish I’d had a camera—was teaching tap steps to Bernadette Peters, Elaine Paige, Jan Maxwell, Terri White, Flo Lacey, Susan Watson, these fabulous women that I have seen for years and years on stage. I also thought it was amazing that Warren was able to hand over the reins to me, allowing me to teach his show and assuming I was going to do it correctly, and with all the emotional backing to all the storytelling.

“Helping to create Follies and Chaplin was an incredibly inspiring experience,” Edwards adds. “Warren was so engrossed in the script, reading it over and over again to get the story right, and listening to the music over and over again. I had never been in the room with someone who during creation was so free and open to saying yes…to saying yes to my ideas. He’s really good at taking different ideas and honing them into a through line of storytelling with his choreography—it’s a beautiful thing.”

A freak accident almost kept Edwards from working with Carlyle. At her first audition for Limelight—to which she wore purple shoes—she sprained her ankle (“more severely than I’ve ever injured any other body part”) while doing a triple turn into a fouetté turn. When she didn’t hear from the Limelight team for three months, she figured they’d eliminated her because of the injury. Then, three months later, she was called back. “I actually had time to heal my ankle before having to go back in,” she says. At the callback, Carlyle greeted her with “Hey, Purple Shoes, how’s your ankle?” She replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. My ankle’s fine.” He still occasionally calls her Purple Shoes.

Prior to Limelight, Edwards had been trying and trying to get into a Carlyle show. “I’d always wanted to work for Warren,” she says. “I saw his On the Town at City Center, and I thought it was magnificent. I’ve been a part of a couple of the Encores! shows so I know that you only have 10 days to put up a show, and what he was able to do in those 10 days was remarkable.” She notes that “he makes his dancers dance harder at their auditions than anyone else I’ve seen in this business. Warren’s auditions are very, very hard technically, and he asks a lot creatively—to make something and discover something about the work he is continuing to create.”

Edwards worked for another choreographer she especially admired in her Broadway debut, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. “Randy Skinner is a dream come true for a kid that grew up watching Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and wearing out those old movie musicals,” she says. “He’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to these people.” Edwards has been in two Encores! shows choreographed by Skinner—Of Thee I Sing and No, No, Nanette—and three productions of White Christmas outside New York (in Detroit, Toronto and the Twin Cities). She was in the Broadway White Christmas in 2009, the second holiday season it played in NYC. “It was kinda awesome that I got to make my Broadway debut without the pressure of reviews,” she says. That pressure was also off for Follies, as except for some recasting it was the same production that had gotten mostly rave reviews in Washington before transferring to Broadway.

With Chaplin Edwards is in the original Broadway production of a show for the first time, and its earlier incarnation, Limelight, was the first brand-new show she’d ever done other than 2008’s Turn of the Century at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago (which did not have an original score). That was a big factor in her decision to take the Limelight job instead of one of the two others she’d been offered at the same time: an ensemble track on the Young Frankenstein tour that understudied Inga, and a season at Sacramento Music Circus that included a couple of featured roles. She did do one of the shows at Sacramento, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, in the summer of 2010 before going to La Jolla for Limelight.

Earlier regional work of Edwards includes Singin’ in the Rain at Massachusetts’ North Shore Music Theatre and Beauty and the Beast at Atlanta Theater of the Stars (TOTS), both in 2006, and Oklahoma at TOTS in ’08. In the fall of 2009, she worked for another choreographer she’d long aspired to, Joshua Bergasse, when he directed and choreographed West Side Story for North Carolina Theatre. The dark-haired but not actually ethnic Edwards was neither a Jet nor Shark girl; she filled the one track that fluctuated between “gangs” depending on the number—a “Jark,” she calls it—so she had the rare opportunity for a dancer in that show to perform both “America” and “Cool.”

Edwards also got a lot of regional theater experience in the summers during college, at Music Theater of Wichita in 2002 and ’04 and Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma in 2003. Wichita credits include How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Ragtime, Cinderella, West Side Story (on the Sharks), Annie Get Your Gun and Me and My Girl; at the Lyric she was in Footloose, The Wizard of Oz and Chicago (where she understudied Deborah Gibson as Velma Kelly).

A Pennsylvania native, Edwards received her BFA in dance performance from Oklahoma City University. She chose OCU because most of the other dance programs she considered de-emphasized tap in favor of ballet or modern, and tap is her first love. “I might have been a little too much of a chicken to audition for a musical theater program at that point in my life,” she admits. But the OCU dance program required voice and acting classes, so she felt like she got musical theater training.

Edwards had begun dancing when she was 3 years old and an eager observer at her older sisters’ and mother’s tap classes—the studio even waived its minimum age requirement to let her start. She trained at One Broadway: The Dance Centre in her hometown of Hershey, Pa.—“a small studio with very creative teachers,” including Nancy Watson for tap and Bethe Nardis in ballet. Edwards was in some school musicals but devoted most of her extracurricular time to dance. Every fall the studio took a trip to New York City—where Edwards would spend days in classes at Steps or Broadway Dance Center and nights seeing Broadway shows.

She also saw a lot of musicals back in Hershey when national tours came through the Hershey Theatre. As a volunteer usher at the historic theater, she saw such shows as Les Misérables, Jekyll and Hyde, Miss Saigon and State Fair. Hershey has another storied entertainment locale you may have heard of: Hersheypark, part of the chocolate empire. And like many a local youngster, Edwards worked there during the summer. “I learned so much that summer about being a professional,” she says.

When Edwards was 18 and performing in the Broadway-themed revue at Hersheypark, she befriended a 19-year-old boy named Ari Butler who was in the park’s ’60s revue. They began dating, and now they’re married. “He’s been so lovely to have in my life because he’s so solid, all I have to worry about is my career,” Edwards says of her husband of four years. “I feel really blessed that I found him early on, so that we’ve both been able to be supportive of each other.”

Butler, an actor whose off-Broadway work includes the recent Poetic License at 59E59 Theaters and Fugue at the Cherry Lane, attended NYU, which gave Edwards even more incentive to move to New York after college. But she didn’t stay in the city for long, as her first role was on the 25th-anniversary tour of Evita, starring Kathy Voytko as Eva, Bradley Dean as Che, and Philip Hernández as Perón. NYC casting agent Dave Clemmons had visited OCU when Edwards was a student and recognized her at the Evita auditions. When he asked what she’d been up to, Edwards recalls, “I had the guts to say ‘Just waitin’ for you to hire me!’” And they did. She earned her Equity card in her year on the 2004-05 Evita tour and occasionally went on as Perón’s Mistress.

More recently, Edwards has gone on in a principal role when she understudied the part of Judy Haynes in White Christmas at the Ordway in St. Paul in 2008. And in Follies, Edwards had the chance to play the featured role of former Weismann Follies girl DeeDee West. Colleen Fitzpatrick, the regular DeeDee, understudied Jan Maxwell as Phyllis, and when Maxwell had to miss a few performances after getting hit by a minivan, Fitzpatrick took her part and Edwards went on as DeeDee (who’s supposed to be about 20 years older than Edwards). Edwards estimates that in covering DeeDee and all the female ensemble roles as a swing, she was in approximately half the performances of Follies on Broadway.

The flashback scenes of Follies take place in the 1940s, the same decade in which much of Chaplin is set as well as White Christmas. “If I was to guess at what ‘type’ I am, I suppose I belong in the 1940s,” Edwards says, not at all regretfully. “I grew up watching a lot of movie musicals [from that era], and a lot of women that I admired watching them were in the 1940s. I love the image women had during that time period: They were beautiful and glamorous and everything that I associate with Broadway musicals.”

Getting back to 2012, Edwards is at an age and has now had enough experience that some may peg her as a veteran gypsy. But she shuns that label because her enthusiasm and openness to new knowledge have not dimmed. “I don’t feel like a veteran, I hope to never feel like a veteran,” she states. “I hope that every new experience I have teaches me lessons and introduces me to wonderful people in this business.”

She hasn’t been jaded by rejection, either. “I’m never upset when I get cut from a lot of popular choreographers’ auditions in New York, because I feel like I’ve just gotten a free hour-and-a-half dance class.” And she still gets some of her greatest kicks (no pun intended) just taking a dance class, which she tries to do frequently. “It’s my favorite place to be,” she says. “Nothing makes me happier. Not running, not yoga, not Pilates. Dance class.”

Photos of Sara, from top: as Mabel Normand in Chaplin, with Rob McClure in the title role; offstage with Chaplin director-choreographer Warren Carlyle; playing Judy Haynes in White Christmas, with Ryan Worsing; on right in dress, performing in West Side Story at North Carolina Theatre, with (from left) Allison Nock, Todd Michel Smith, Mikey Winslow and Jimmie Lee Brooks III; with her husband, actor Ari Butler, in 2009; in costume for Follies. [Chaplin photo by Joan Marcus]

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