BWW Interview: Leandra Ellis-Gaston of BEAUTIFUL- THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL at AT&T Performing Arts Center
This week I got to chat with Leandra Ellis-Gaston, Dance Captain for BEAUTIFUL: THE Carole King MUSICAL, playing in Dallas from June 18-23. She shared her experience as Dance Captain, how she keeps it fresh each night, as well as her future aspirations. Towards the end of our conversation this thoughtful and talented performer opened up about one of her passions: the idea that all skin is beautiful skin- and how that message of representation played out at the 2019 Tony awards.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you ended up in the National Tour of Beautiful?
I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina and have been doing theatre since I was 12 years old. In elementary school, I was in a production of Annie as Ms. Hannigan. I remember while I was onstage singing the Little Girls song, the crowd started laughing, and I thought, "Wow, this is a good thing." My mom, who has sung Gospel choir her whole life, was shocked. After we finished the performance, I came onstage and after the whole audience stood up, I thought that maybe I was really meant to do this. The next thing I knew, my Mom was putting me into theatre camp, and I haven't stopped since then. I went on to a college called AMDA College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Los Angeles. I graduated on a Saturday, moved to New York on a Tuesday, and by Thursday I had booked my first National Tour with Hair! I haven't stopped working since then.
As the Dance Captain and Swing for Beautiful, tell me about some of your responsibilities.
My biggest responsibility is to maintain the choreography of the show as the choreographer designed it. The regular routine I have as a dance captain is to watch the show about 4 times a week. Normally I don't watch the first show in a city, since people are still getting re-calibrated. By Wednesday I'm there and I take notes, and as I'm notating I make sure to look out for anything we need to improve or modify based on the particular stage or space. The rest of the time I make sure I memorize what they just did, because as a Swing I have to remember what I just taught them to do in case I have to go on!
How do you "keep it fresh" in this kind of role? Does it ever get boring?
It definitely does not get boring! Each city offers something new. Sometimes it's the quick changes might take longer to do. I keep it fresh by adding a new dynamic to the choreography each week- maybe something that was missing from the week before. We also have rehearsals every three weeks to clean it up and make sure everyone is doing what they need to do. Another thing I do is watch a lot of videos from the time period- I want to make sure we're being true to the choreography as well as the era, and be careful that we're not being too contemporary in our movements.
Do you see yourself being dance captain again or do you want to try something new?
I see myself forming a pattern. Maybe next time I'll be on stage full time, then I'll do dance captain again, just so I don't get stale and don't get stuck doing one thing.
Why do you think Beautiful is special?
The musical is absolutely timeless. It's so funny how many people we meet that don't know Carole King's name, and then they see the show and realize they already know and love her songs. They'll say things like, "That song is the theme song to a TV show," or, "My parents listen to that song!" The experience to live through the music as the show is happening is nothing you can get at any other show. It really offers you a nostalgic feeling of the time.
Do you have any dream roles?
Yes, my biggest dream role at the moment is Lorrell from Dreamgirls. Another is Queenie from The Wild Party, and Celie from The Color Purple.
What else should people know about Leandra Ellis-Gaston?
I'm a very avid believer in the idea that all skin is beautiful skin. Different shades of skin are gorgeous, and that makes you who you are. I focus on issues of colorism- not only in the industry, but also how everyone has a place. If you feel different, different is good! Ali Stroker proved last week at the Tonys that to be ordinary is to be extraordinary. It was beautiful to hear Andre De Shields say, "The top of the mountain is the bottom of another, so keep climbing." The Tonys this year had some of the best speeches I've ever heard, and it showed how everyone is coming together in the community and everyone has a place.