BWW Interviews: CINDERELLA's Blair Ross 'Comes Home' to Play 'Madame'

BWW Interviews: CINDERELLA's Blair Ross 'Comes Home' to Play 'Madame'

It is fitting, perhaps, and definitely a case of perfect timing, for actress Blair Ross: Preparing to go onstage as "Madame" - aka The Wicked Stepmother - in Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella with most of her Tennessee family on hand to share in the excitement from their vantage point in the audience. Currently in Memphis, the national touring company of the recent Broadway revival of Cinderella welcomes Ross to the cast as they look ahead to next week's eight-performance run at Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

It's an especially momentous and apropos run at TPAC for Ross (who most recently was in the cast of the Bill Condon-directed Broadway revival of Side Show), considering her Tennessee lineage and one unique fact: Her uncle is the former state architect whose responsibilities included overseeing the construction of Tennessee's brand spanking new performing arts center and its three theatrical venues (Andrew Jackson Hall and the James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson theaters) back in the day. Add to that Ross' own time spent in Nashville - she lived her for "about two and a half years," performing in venues all over town and working as a "singing waitress" at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre - along with her past touring experiences that have made the TPAC stage one of her theatrical homes.

"Both of my parents are from Jackson, Tennessee," she explains by telephone, taking a break from Boston "put in" rehearsals for Cinderella. "A bunch of my mother's family is from Bolivar - that's Hardeman County, right? - I love Tennessee. I grew up in New Jersey and went to college in Poughkeepsie, New York [at Vassar College], but I moved down to Nashville after college and lived there for about two-and-a-half years. I wish I could've stayed, but there wasn't a lot of musical theater gigs then and so I moved to New York."

Ross - known to friends and family in Tennessee as "Susan" - has acted throughout her life, performing in shows while in junior high and senior high school. But in college, rather surprisingly, she chose to major in art history instead of theater.

"My parents wanted me to get a degree in something that I could fall back on," she recalls. "When I got out of college, I couldn't find a job. I had found the only profession that really paid less than acting, apparently."

So, with her background in theater, she started doing to plays, which ultimately led to her decision to head south to see what was happening in Nashville - "I sort of drifted back into doing theater," she says - and after working at the Barn and for theater companies here, she eventually headed north again

Once her parents retired and moved to Franklin - and with a brother in Jackson and countless cousins, aunts, uncles and assorted other family members making their homes in the south - Tennessee became a frequent vacation/time-off/holiday destination.

"Most of my family is spread from Memphis to Charleston, South Carolina...everyone's down south," she proudly proclaims.

BWW Interviews: CINDERELLA's Blair Ross 'Comes Home' to Play 'Madame'
Jeremy Benton

Springfield, Tennessee, native JEREMY BENTON, shares a story about his friendship with Blair Ross: "Blair and I often found ourselves laughing our butts off on the national tour and broadway productions of the revival of 42nd Street - we loved sharing our 'southern living' stories, and she always seemed to delight when I described directions to my hometown of Springfield and included the phrase 'just turn past the big tractor on a pole." A Blair Ross image that is eternally etched into my memory is of her at intermission (she was a magnificent Dorothy Brock) wearing only a show robe, house slippers and a wig cap, standing right outside the stage door on 43rd and Broadway in Manhattan, enjoying her Coca-Cola and cigarette. I couldn't get enough!

"She wore her Brock costumes like an Erte drawing, especially the deep red gown in which she sang 'I Only Have Eyes For You.' Once, on tour, we were playing Baltimore. The IATSE union was striking to support the local box office workers. Our crew had to leave mid load-in. We did the show for three days with floor mics only, minimal costumes, no wigs for the chorus and hardly any sets until AEA got the green light to join the strike. (I might add that only five people asked for a ticket refund during those three days and audiences were on their feet. I might also add that when the actors struck, the issue was solved in 15 minutes). Anyway, another memory of Blair is her - a bit hoarse from belting over the orchestra with no mic - lying down in front of the floor mic in that gorgeous red gown to finish 'I Only Have Eyes For You.' Hysterical!"

At the time of our phone conversation, Ross was in her third day of rehearsal and will step into the role of Madame for the first time at Memphis' historic Orpheum Theatre, leading to a complete weeklong run of the show in Music City: "It's a mad dash," she admits. "One of the advantages of joining a tour is that all the minutiae of a show have already been done - the backstage traffic patterns have been figured out - and the show is set. You don't have to work that out and they are able to put people in quickly."

Ross takes on the role of Madame that was played in the recent Broadway production by a plethora of glitzy showbiz names like Harriet Harris, Nancy Opel, Sherri Shepherd, Fran Drescher and NeNe Leakes.

BWW Interviews: CINDERELLA's Blair Ross 'Comes Home' to Play 'Madame'
Blair Ross (far right) as The Bearded Lady in Side Show

"I never got to see the show on Broadway because I was in Washington, D.C., doing the revival of Side Show [playing the regal bearded lady of the eponymous side show and the Hilton sisters' evil aunt, a role not so unlike Madame, truth be told]," she says. "When Side Show transferred to Broadway, I never had the chance to see Cinderella, although I had auditioned for it!"

Once cast as Madame, however, she was given the opportunity to see the new production of Cinderella, which interpolates the beloved score by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II with an updated book by Douglas Carter Beane.

The "new"Cinderella - which became a beloved part of the lives of many baby boomers back in the day when it was televised annually, first with Julie Andrews and then with Lesley Ann Warren - remains so popular with contemporary audiences, Ross suggests, because of Beane's updated script.

"The updated book is much more sensitive to this girl, Ella, who is making her own decisions," she says. "It is all about her being kind and positive - kindness as its own reward - and she is very pro-active is pursuing her own dreams."

"It was my favorite fairy tale growing up and this version offers a different perspective. It really is a beautiful show," Ross continues. "And once onstage, you know that there are people in the cast who will help you to remember your lines and where you're supposed to be in a particular scene...you can count on them for that. But the serious thing you have to learn when you're put into the cast is the backstage traffic, with all the scenery coming down from the ceiling and huge pumpkin coaches moving back and forth. You don't want to squash anything while you're making a cross backstage...or to be squashed by moving scenery."

Luckily, for Ross, she says, she'll have a complete weekend of shows in Memphis that will enable her to gain her footing and solidify her performance before heading to Nashville. And luckily, for her family, they'll have a weekend off for FOOTBALL (Southerners take to the gridiron with a ferocity perhaps unlike anything you can imagine) before trekking to Nashville to see her in Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella.

"They can squeeze in a Tuesday to come me in the show, so they'll be able to watch all the football they want during the weekend," she laughs.

BWW Interviews: CINDERELLA's Blair Ross 'Comes Home' to Play 'Madame'ABOUT RODGERS + HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA: The 2013 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical from the creators of South Pacific and The Sound of Music plays the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall for a limited, one-week engagement October 20-25, 2015.

With its fresh new take on the beloved tale of a young woman who is transformed from a chambermaid into a princess, the hilarious and romantic Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella combines the story's classic elements - glass slipper, pumpkin, and a beautiful ball along with some surprising twists. More than just a pretty face with the right shoe size, this Cinderella is a contemporary figure living in a fairytale setting. She is a spirited young woman with savvy and soul who doesn't let her rags or her gown trip her up in her quest for kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. She longs to escape the drudgery of her work at home and instead work to make the world a better place. She not only fights for her own dreams but forces the prince to open his eyes to the world around him and realize his dreams, too.

"Cinderella received rave reviews on Broadway, as it should. The sets are incredible and the costume changes will leave you speechless," said Kathleen O'Brien, TPAC's president and chief executive officer. "Of course, the Rodgers and Hammerstein music is a major element of this production. This is a classic story that audiences will certainly recognize, but they should also expect some surprises."

Cinderella has music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, a new book by Douglas Carter Beane, and original book by Oscar Hammerstein II. The musical is directed by Mark Brokaw, and choreographed by Josh Rhodes. Music adaptation, supervision, and arrangements are by David Chase, and orchestrations are by Danny Troob. One of Rodgers + Hammerstein's most popular titles, Cinderella was written for television, which debuted in 1957 and starred Julie Andrews. In 2013, the show made its long-overdue Broadway debut. Beane's book for Cinderella blends masterfully with the musical's cherished score with songs including "In My Own Little Corner," "Impossible/It's Possible," "Ten Minutes Ago," and "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?"

Tickets are available at www.TPAC.org or by phone at (615) 782-4040, and at the TPAC Box Office, 505 Deaderick Street, in downtown Nashville. For group tickets, call (615) 782-4060.

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis

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