BWW Interviews: Idol Alum DIANA DEGARMO is Workin' 9 to 5

By: May. 10, 2011

Back in the third diva-dominated season of the Fox talent search juggernaut American Idol, then 16-year-old Snellville, Georgia-native Diana DeGarmo narrowly missed the coveted title, walking away as the first runner up that year. Fast forward to 2011 and the now 23-year-old has joined the celebrated ranks of several fellow alumni from the TV reality competition as a frequent marquis name in the world of musical theater. DeGarmo's latest triumph: she is currently in the national touring company of 9 TO 5: THE MUSICAL, the Broadway adaptation of the cult 1980 film that examines gender struggles in the corporate environment. The show performs an all-too-brief single-week run at the Segerstrom Center of the Arts in Orange County, California from May 10 through May 15.

In the show, DeGarmo is tasked with the coveted role of Doralee Rhodes, which many will recall was played infamously in the original film by international superstar—and this stage musical's Tony-nominated composer—Dolly Parton. DeGarmo takes it on with great enthusiasm, something many have come to expect from the now-seasoned actress with a string of several high-profile shows already under her curly blond wig.

In the years since her days on Idol, DeGarmo made her Broadway debut in the hit Tony Award-winning musical HAIRSPRAY (opposite former child popstar Tevin Campbell) followed by memorable turns in BROOKLYN: THE MUSICAL and THE TOXIC AVENGER. Most recently, she played Shiela in the final closing Broadway cast of the much-lauded Tony Award-winning revival of HAIR.

During the 9 TO 5 tour's much-caffeinated stop in Seattle two weeks ago, DeGarmo spared some time for a giggly, laugh-filled chat with BroadwayWorld's Michael Lawrence Quintos to talk about her days on that televised singing competition, her early stage work, and her giddiness over filling Dolly's shoes.


BWW: Hi, Diana! So tell me, how's the tour been going so far?

Diana: The tour's been great! I mean, really, it's a lot of fun. We're just now wrapping our longest sit-down [engagement] which is a whole whopping three weeks [Laughs] here in Seattle, and Seattle has been absolutely lovely to be in. It's been really cool to go to places I've never been to around the country and performing for people and bringing a fun show to entertain folks... it really is a good time!

Great! Now this isn't your first tour correct?

Correct... but this has been the longest [stretch of] time that I've been out on the road. My first tour was with BROOKLYN: THE MUSICAL, ironically with [9 TO 5 director] Jeff Calhoun also! [Laughs] Who would have thought that five years later we'd be working together again!

So how did it feel for you to be stepping into this iconic role of Doralee that Dolly Parton herself introduced so memorably into pop culture?

Well, you know, at first I was super excited to do the role, of course. And then I had that fear of "ohmigod, what did I get myself into?!" [Laughs] And then I got into the show and found my own version of Doralee—and got Dolly's blessing. So, from that point on, it's just been a fun ride ever since.

That's great! Were there ever moments when you felt yourself subconsciously slipping into Dolly-isms while playing the role?

As you know, because the role is so infamous and became such a bright, shining moment for Dolly and her career, there are certain characteristics that you have to kind of pay homage to... because they're so much a part of her character. And not just because it's Dolly Parton, but it's who Doralee Rhodes is. So, yeah, there are some Dolly-isms in there! [Laughs] But a lot of it is in the way the character itself is written. Even Dolly herself says, "Yeah, we're two different people. Doralee and I are not the same person!" But because the character was her big [entrance] into film and television, people, in a sense, tend to associate both of them together. So it's been fun... making Doralee my own. I do have some Dolly-isms, but the rest of it is me! [Laughs]

So before you joined the touring cast of 9 TO 5, you were previously a member of the closing cast of the awesome Tony Award-winning revival of HAIR on Broadway. Can you talk a little bit about that experience?

I really loved that entire tribe! I mean... HAIR... [the experience] is truly indescribable. It was so special to be a part of it for so many reasons. I mean, closing that show... [Pauses] Even though we [the replacement cast] only did it for those last four months, they were the most spectacular four months I've ever been a part of theatrically and emotionally and physically. I made some of the best friends of my life doing that show! We all just had such a special bond, and I'm just so happy that the show is still continuing to evolve and grow. But doing the show on Broadway, it was a beautiful thing. It really, really was.

Oh, by the way, I interviewed your former HAIR co-star Josh Lamon a few months ago when the tour rolled into L.A. and Orange County, and he wanted me to tell you that he "misses his Panda!"

Awww. I know! We're Pandas for life! I love him to bits! [Laughs

Is there a remote possibility that, perhaps, once the 9 TO 5 tour wraps that you'll jump back into HAIR?

Well, you never know! It hasn't been brought to my attention just yet, but, hey, I'm always up for it! Unfortunately, my current tour is still running through while their show is going... 9 TO 5 is my current job so I gotta' stay with my current responsibilities! [Laughs]

Of course, of course! Okay, so most of the world first got to meet you from a little show called American Idol.

[Laughs] Yeah.

Was the show a good training camp for what you're doing now in musical theater?

Well, actually, even prior to Idol, I had done a lot of things that were within the musical theater realm, not realizing at the time that it was musical theater, which I think now is funny [Laughs]. Looking back, I was like... "Oh! Wow!" You pick up things [lessons] that you don't even know you're picking up along the way. I worked at Dolly-Wood when I was a kid. Then I worked at Opryland. I worked at a variety of theater things in Atlanta. I was also in a choir for two years where we did Annie and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat... but I've always been performing. I've never put [each] in different categories, like... oh, that's "musical theater," and oh, that's "singing," and, oh, that's "acting." I saw it all as just performing and making people happy.

So doing Idol was definitely like a whole other area of training because it was about the work ethic and about the "quick turnaround." You had to learn songs that you had to perform really well a week later. So now, when I've had to do all these really quick readings—and you only have a certain amount of hours to do a presentation—I can quickly learn a whole show and be prepared to present it that day. So, things like that... I'm able to pick up things quicker in rehearsals, now especially with the economy still being so crappy. And, so, they're trying to do shorter amounts of rehearsal you need to learn a show quickly, and need to do it well quickly. I think Idol has really helped me do that along the way.

Now in my past BroadwayWorld interviews with former Idol alumni, there was always one question I keep wanting to ask, which I'd like to pose to you now as well. So, there was always this recurring comment that was dispensed during the critiques—more so from former judge Simon Cowell—that was "you sound too Broadway," which was always said in a negative context. Now, in my book, at least for me, the best singers are actually on Broadway!

I agree! [Laughs]

As one of the many former Idol contestants that have seen great successes on the stage, what did that kind of criticism feel to you then... and now?

I think with Simon coming from the pop world, I just don't think he understands theater. He may have an expertise in what he does, but he doesn't understand the true integrity of the performers that are on Broadway and that are on live stages on a nightly basis. They're not using AutoTune. There's no "second try." There's no humongous loud band that's hiding their voices. I mean, what you're seeing is what you're getting. I remember when I was in HAIRSPRAY—my first Broadway show—I truly was in awe of the voices I got to hear on a nightly basis around me. I'm thinking, "Wow! Why aren't these people selling millions of records?!" They're the ones that are out there, you know, belting their faces off! [Laughs]


And then you go see somebody playing Madison Square Garden—it's completely sold out—but, yet, their voice is going through 97 filters before it ever actually reaches the audience's ears. So, you know... Simon's... [Pauses] lovely comments about [contestants] sounding "too Broadway"... Um, it can be taken both ways, I guess. But, I even say that now musical theater is so contemporary! I don't see how it could be taken badly because I think it's a compliment! [Laughs]

Absolutely! That's why I feel like a lot of the better Idol contestants end up doing Broadway! Now, you mentioned your Broadway debut in HAIRSPRAY, playing Penny Pingleton. Can you talk a little bit about that first experience?

HAIRSPRAY was great! I had a blast, feeling like I got away with murder on stage! They gave me such an open space to play around and be goofy and to figure out who Penny was... and let me just experiment and create. And it was a great place to learn about comedy, about theater, and the way that theater works. HAIRSPRAY was truly a family of people. I'm still friends with people I did that show with! At the same time, it was the perfect show for me to do at 18. It just had the right combination of everything... it truly did. I had so much fun doing that show and would love to do it again! [Laughs]

That would be cool! Let's switch gears for a bit. I'd love to talk to you about your background. As a kid growing up in Snellville, Georgia, did you know then that you wanted to be a musical theater actor?

I just knew I loved performing for people and making them happy, and I'm still that way now. I like to just be on stage no matter which way I can get it! [Laughs] It's been fun watching how that love for making people happy and performing has evolved into a musical theater career. I didn't necessarily set out to be in musical theater, but that's where my path has taken me, and I've been loving and enjoying it ever since. In my mind, I always say with every opportunity, I say "go for it." All things happen for a reason. So, the road I've been taking seems to be the one that's been working the best... [Laughs]

Well, awesome, and we're enjoying the benefits of it too! Now, who were some of your own idols and influences growing up?

Honestly, Dolly has been a big influence of mine. Between her, Wynonna Judd, Patsy Cline and Celine Dion, I think they're my top four. I think there are women that have done amazing things in the music industry that didn't have to go through the US Weekly route to get there. [Laughs] They didn't have to, you know, stoop to some level to get recognition for their talents, which I truly appreciate. And, also, over the course of just the few years I've been doing musical theater, I've gotten to work with a few women who I can't believe are not more well-known beyond our [theater] community. You know, people like Melba Moore and Dee Hoty who've been on the boards with me. They are just two of the most fascinating women ever! And I have gotten to share the stage with both of them! It's really cool!

As far as stage musicals, what shows have been highly influential on you?

Well, the first one I saw was CHICAGO, and I think I was about 12. I kind of look back and laugh because I think 98% of the show went completely over my head! [Laughs] I used to remember watching and thinking "wow, those people are singing and dancing right in front of me!" and thinking that it was so cool. I grew up going to the Fox Theater in Atlanta with my Mom and getting like the cheapie, cheapie seats. We would try to sneak down to the sides when we can, watching everything from a 45-degree angle! [Laughs]

I remember seeing CAMELOT and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA there. I had the PHANTOM soundtrack and would go and sneak into my brother's room and put it on his big, humongous sound system with speakers that were, like, four feet tall [Laughs]... and just sit there and lay on his waterbed listening to "Music of the Night" over and over again until he got home. [Laughs]

Cool, didn't the tour already play at the Fox in Atlanta?

Yes, we've actually played two Fox [Theaters]... the one in Atlanta and we played the Fox in St. Louis. These are just the most humongous theaters you've ever seen!

So, now, how did it feel as a former audience member to actually perform right on that very stage yourself?

It's always exciting to go back home and perform at the Fox. I mean, A, it's a special theater and B, growing up, it was always a really special occasion to go see something there. And the way that the theater is, it's not just some unfortunate "box" performing arts center that seems to be popping up at a lot of places. There, you just ogle everything. Every inch of that theater is decorated and has history and nostalgia behind it. So it's always special to go back and perform there. I got to do BROOKLYN there and, then, of course, 9 TO 5. Playing for your hometown is really special, and getting to see all the names and faces of the people I worked with as a kid, it's really, really cool.

Are there any other roles in other shows on your dream list that you would love to take on someday?

Right now, there currently isn't anything I would say that's on my dream list. I get asked about WICKED a lot and I always say that I'm not sure I have the energy to do that eight times a week... But, you know, it's an amazing show... I just don't know if I have the tenacity to get through it [Laughs] But... yeah, I would love to be a part of something from the beginning. There have been a few shows that I've gone in for that I would have loved to have done, but I haven't found quite the right fit for me yet. I know that I'm not the type for an ingenue role... I'm more of a funny girl type... I mean, not the show FUNNY GIRL [Laughs]... But, yeah, when the right role comes, we'll see what happens!

Well, when you find out I hope we get the exclusive first scoop!

Of course! That would be fantastic! [Laughs]

Now, I recently read that you've been cast in a feature film called The First Ride of Wyatt Earp starring Val Kilmer, right?

Yeah! I just filmed it a few weeks ago. It was my very first film from my very first film audition in L.A.! [Laughs] It was really fun! It's a Western and I got to sing! Unfortunately Val Kilmer and I actually do not have any scenes together, but that's okay...I got to work with the gentleman that plays young Wyatt Earp in the movie—I'm his love interest—by the name of Shawn Roberts. So, I got to kiss the hunky boy and I didn't mind it whatsoever! [Laughs] I play a character named Dora which I thought was really funny. It's supposed to come out early next year.

Cool, we'll look forward to your movie debut! Okay, so before we formally end our interview, we've come to my favorite part: THE LIGHTNING ROUND! I'll ask you some quick, short questions and all you have to do is just give me the first thing that pops into your head. Sound okay?

Alright! Cool!

What's your favorite musical of all time?

Hmmmm.... HAIRSPRAY! I can actually vouch for that! [Laughs]

You know, just as a side note, I've recently been cast in an all-male production of HAIRSPRAY as one of the Dynamites. Got any tips for me on how to handle it?

[Laughs] Ohmigoodness! Practice walking in your high heels! [Laughs] I hope you don't end up in a situation like Beyoncé where you fall on stage and the other two Dynamites leave you hanging! [Laughs] Oh, how fun! That sounds like it's going to be great!

I hope so! Sorry, okay, back to the questions... What's the song you like to belt in the shower or when you're all alone in the car?

Ooooh! Okay, I can think of any at the moment. [Long Pause] Actually, I like to sing a lot of my own stuff... I mean, I know that may sound strange... but, yeah, when I'm driving alone in my car, I like singing my own songs because that's the only time I know I'm not annoying anyone else. [Laughs]

Well, shoot, I'd pay to sit in on that! Okay, if you could trade lives with someone for one day, who would that person be and why?

Ooooh! Oh, gosh, that's such a good question!  [Long Pause] You know what... I would love to trade lives with Dolly! I would love to live a day in her high heels! I think that would be amazing... Particularly because she lives in a world that very few people get to experience and so I would love to do that.

What scares you the most?

Oh, golly. Totally flopping on stage one day. You know, [it's like] when you get into that white room and you have no idea what to say or what to do and you don't know who you are or where you are... that's my biggest fear. I always go back through all my songs, all my lists, all my lines as quickly as I can... I even try to stay a couple of lines ahead of people in my head. I never want to be backstage going, "what are the words?" [Laughs]

Hopefully that hasn't happened yet.

No, no. Not yet. Not too... badly, anyway.

What is your one guilty pleasure?

Ooooh. I would have to say... coffee. I am a coffee fiend. [Laughs] I think I drink a little too much of it. And, of course, we're up here in Seattle where—no joke—there's, like, a Starbucks every thirty feet!

What do you like doing on your day off?

Sleep! [Laughs] Especially when we get a day off when we don't have to travel, I like to lay in bed as long as I can and just, you know, relax and enjoy myself and try to figure out the new city that we're in. Or I'd go see a movie.

What or Who irritates you the most?

Oh... Oh! [Laughs] People who are rude for no reason! That really annoys me. And people that just can't be nice. Life is hard enough as it is, there's no need to be ugly and difficult, especially if you really have no reason to be... I find that that gets under my skin pretty quickly.


I always say "be the person you want to work with!" [Laughs]

Good mantra. Okay, now the opposite of that... what instantly puts a smile on your face?

Good friends!

If you weren't an actor and you were really working, well, 9 to 5, what other career do you see yourself doing?

Oh, I'd like to be a race car driver! Or... a sportscaster. [Laughs]

What's the one thing you learned about yourself since becoming a member of the Broadway community?

I've learned to check myself more and to let go and not to think so much on stage. Because a lot of times what just happens naturally tends to be what works the best.

As you probably know, many of our readers on BroadwayWorld are young theater students hoping to someday do exactly what you're doing, career-wise. What pieces of advice would you like to share with them before diving into this business?

Well, I kind of have a small mantra. There are a few things... you can never learn enough, do enough classes, do enough shows or meet enough people... no matter how early in your career you are or how far along you've come. You can never have enough of those... that can help you hone in on your craft. And that's whether it be in writing, comedy, improv, dance... Be a quadruple-threat if you can be. And meet as many people as you can because, even though the Broadway community is a large community, it's also a small community at the same time. I mean, you'll never believe how many people you run into over and over and over again [Laughs]. And be nice. Like I said earlier, be the person you want to work with. Your reputation is the only thing you really have, and once it's gone, it's incredibly hard to get back. And also, know what you're good at and don't try to be something you're not. Like, I know I'm not an ingenue. I know that I'm never going to be that girl, and I'm okay with that. So I don't try to... well... you can try to stretch yourself and learn to expand yourself as an actor, but know what you're good at, too.

And finally, what has been your absolute favorite moment of the 9 TO 5 tour so far?

Um... oh. Oh! I think, first, one of my favorite moments has been... well, opening night was spectacular because, A, it was in Nashville which is what I call home, technically. And, B, being there with Dolly on opening night was such a rush! That was really, really, really spectacular! And, I mean, musical theater in Nashville... Nashville's a little behind when it comes to theater, but we're getting better... We're trying, we're really trying! [Laughs] So it was nice to open a show there. The music industry is pretty huge there, but with theater, they're still trying to figure out some things.

And I think my second [favorite moment] would be when we celebrated Dolly's birthday in Chicago, and the mayor came and declared it Dolly Day! And, so, Dolly was there and hung out with us. She's just so great to be around. And we all had "Dolly Fudge." Whenever she comes around, she makes fudge on our bus and brings it to us! And it is sooooooo good! [Laughs]

Oh, man. I wish they'd sell that at the concession stands or something!

It really is, like, that good!

Follow Michael Lawrence Quintos on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq

Photos of Diana DeGarmo and Dolly Parton from the National Tour of 9 TO 5: THE MUSICAL by Joan Marcus. Photo of DeGarmo in HAIRSPRAY by Paul Kolnik. Photo of Degarmo with Kyle Riabko and Ace Young from the final Broadway cast of HAIR by Joan Marcus.


Performances of '9 TO 5: THE MUSICAL' at The Segerstrom Center of the Arts continue through May 15, 2011 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm.

Ticket prices start at $20 and can be purchased online at, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). A limited amount of Student/Senior Rush tickets are available for certain performances.

Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

For more information, please visit or the show's official site at

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