BWW Interview: Not in Kansas Anymore: Carolyn Anne Miller Makes MSMT Debut
When actress Carolyn Anne Miller utters that iconic line on the Pickard Stage next week - "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore," it will have an added resonance for the Midwestern native, who makes her Maine State Music debut in THE WIZARD OF OZ. The Chicago born and educated Miller cut her professional teeth at, among other theatres, Music Theatre Wichita, before moving to New York City and on to star as Dorothy in MSMT's fantastical new production of the stage version of that perennial classic based on L. Frank Baum's stories, directed and choreographed by Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark.
Miller tells how she came to be cast as Dorothy after a lengthy process that first began last March when she auditioned for MSMT in New York City. "I didn't hear anything; then a month or so later I was asked to send a video, which I did. A couple weeks after that, I was on the subway in rush hour checking my phone, when I received an email inviting me to take the part. I began crying on the subway," she recounts smiling at the memory.
Miller grew up in Glenview, Illinois, in a musical and theatrically inclined family. "My maternal grandmother, Marcia Crawford, was a singer and worked in summer stock. She had me watching THE WIZARD OF OZ movie at a very young age. When I was seven years old, she pushed me into community theatre. I also did a great deal of dancing because my mothers and sisters all were dancers. Funny," she muses, "today I consider myself an actor, singer, then dancer, but in the beginning I started my vocation by dancing."
Miller also trained her voice classically during high school before matriculating at Roosevelt University's Chicago College of Performing Arts from which she took her BFA in 2015. "All throughout college I worked at Midwestern regional theatres in the summer, principally Wagon Wheel in Indiana and Music Theatre Wichita in Kansas." It was at the latter that she played her first principal professional role as Eponine in LES MISÉRABLES, and Veronica Allardyce in the American premiere of BETTY BLUE EYES; in subsequent summers she went on to play Brenda in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN and received her Equity card as Jenny Hill in BIG FISH. She recalls how the move from the ensemble to leading roles was "exciting, a little nerve wracking, and really cool!"
But it had always been Miller's dream to go to New York City upon graduation. "I always had planned to move to New York; I think I decided this when I was ten years old, and I knew if I didn't go right after graduation, I would get comfortable in Chicago, so I pushed myself. I have a whole new life, and it is wonderful. I just moved into a new apartment in Washington Heights, and I am loving auditioning and working in the city."
Miller is thrilled to have this opportunity to play one of her favorite characters in the repertoire, Dorothy Gale. "I have probably watched the movie over a hundred times," she confides. She says, "I do not think [watching it] limits my interpretation. I use it as inspiration, and then I just try to be natural. Dorothy is practically the only human being in the show. Of course, it's hard to get Judy Garland out of one's head, but I just try to be myself. I think the trickiest part is singing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow.' It is such an historic song, and Judy has such a distinctive voice. Again, I just try to take the inspiration, appreciate it, and make it my own. And I hope the audience is with me." Miller, who gave a preview of her rendition at the MSMT cabaret at Freeport's Cadenza last month, demonstrated her ability to do just that with lovely phrasing, a purity of tone, and a sincerity of sentiment, that is likely to find its way to the Pickard stage.
Miller waxes eloquent about this new MSMT production and her illustrious colleagues. "Marc Robin [co-director/choreographer and Scarecrow] is one of the most amazing people I have ever worked with," she enthuses. "On day one he came up to me and hugged me tight for a ling time. I said, 'How are you?' And he replied, 'I'm better now.' I can't get that out of my head! If I had known completely who he was when I hugged him that day - the kindest, most genuine person and an amazing director...." She trails off searching for more superlatives. "He works very quickly, and I like that. We had a full run-through last Sunday, and now we can go back and just finesse details. The structure is there!"
She talks about the "wonderful touches" in this production, citing the stunning visual treatment with "the gorgeous, unbelievably well-made costumes by Travis M. Grant that bring the whole magical world to life, the clever use of human actors with incredible gymnastic talents to play the tornados and Yellow Brick Road, the dazzling choreography with its mix of styles and amazing jitterbug sequence, and the impressive large ensemble that helps paint Munchkinland and Oz visually for me." Then there is Toto, played by a local Cairn terrier named Zelda, who will delight audiences, Miller promises. "I am a big dog lover, and she and I have done a couple sleep overs to bond. She is a very good dog, and very well trained."
But perhaps what intrigues Miller most about the MSMT production of THE WIZARD OF OZ is its ending. Without giving away a spoiler, she hints that, "unlike the movie, the audience will be left with a question as to whether what they have witnessed has been a dream or whether it might actually have happened? I find that a refreshing suggestion," she adds, relishing the idea that the fantastical may actually have elements of reality.
Speaking of the process of the direction and rehearsals, Miller says, "Marc [Robin] got the show on its feet, and now Curt [Dale Clark] is taking over behind the desk so Marc can be in it. So the whole process feels very collaborative for everybody. As they chat with each other and us through notes, it feels like a wonderful group experience. They are both such great people! I feel privileged to be working with them," adding that both "Marc and Curt know how to find the heart in a show." She also notes that for Robin, playing the Scarecrow is a dream come true and one which brings the pair full circle, as their first major stage collaboration happened in Chicago when Robin directed Clark in the role of the Scarecrow.
And serendipitously, it seems that for Miller, "full circle" may be the metaphor for her entire WIZARD OF OZ experience. Not only has a career begun in Kansas made its way to the mecca of New York City and to leading regional stages such as MSMT, but the essential truths she is taking from playing Dorothy also speak to a sense of circular completion.
Asked what she feels Dorothy learns in the course of her transformative adventure, Carolyn Anne Miller responds, " She learns the importance of family, the importance of home. She figures out that you can go exploring, but you can always go home. And the more you explore, the more you learn - the more you realize where you come from and who you are."
Photo courtesy MSMT
THE WIZARD OF OZ runs from August 7 -24 at MSMT's Picard theater, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, ME 04011 www.msmt.org 207-725-8769