BWW Interview: Raleigh Native Beth Leavel Opens Up About Finding Her Life Path, Channeling Her Evil Twin, and Building THE PROM
It was the kiss seen around the world when the cast of THE PROM took center stage at The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. They performed their finale number, at the end of which the two actresses who play the lesbian couple at the center of the show kissed. It was a first for the parade and a moment that was both celebrated and scorned on social media.
For Raleigh native Beth Leavel, who is starring in THE PROM, that finale moment celebrates what this show is all about.
"If you come away with your heart exploring something you didn't' think was possible, wow," she says. "Theater is amazing."
Leavel's love of theater began at Broughton High after she got the lead in the school play, BRIGADOON. From there she went on to earn her undergraduate degree at Meredith College and her masters at The University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG), where she says she found her life path.
"I was doing what my heart was telling me to do in a room full of people with like minds and teachers who became mentors, who pushed me in the direction that I am sitting in now," she says. "So, I am grateful beyond words."
Leavel's first job after graduating UNCG was as an intern for The Pennsylvania Stage Company in Allentown. She then moved to New York where she made her Broadway debut in the original production of 42nd STREET.
Nearly two decades later, she won a Tony Award for her performance in THE DROWSY CHAPERONE. It was also the first time she worked with writer Bob Martin and director Casey Nicholaw. THE PROM marks their third collaboration together.
"Even though 'Drowsy' was sort of written for me once I was cast, this one was specifically written for my comedy and my essence and my high notes, so it made it a little bit more available," she says.
In THE PROM, Leavel plays Dee Dee Allen, one of four self-absorbed, pretentious Broadway stars looking to muster up some positive publicity to save their careers. A quick scroll of Twitter finds them a worthy cause and brings them to Indiana to rally around a high school student banned from bringing her girlfriend to the school-sponsored prom. Hilarity ensues as this motley crew tries to bring some razzle-dazzle pizzazz to the heartland and build a prom that welcomes everyone.
Leavel likens playing the character of Dee Dee to stepping into a familiar but uncomfortable pair of fancy shoes that are enjoyable to try on, but she would never actually wear. That's because while channeling Dee Dee is so much fun, she is the antithesis of who Beth is as a person.
"I like to call her my evil twin," she says. "You know all of us have some narcissistic evil demon that lives inside of us as actors."
"The book was right in front of me," she adds. "I just had to pick and choose the chapters I wanted to bring to Dee Dee because of how well it was written and crafted by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin (writer/lyricist) and Matthew Sklar (composer)."
And how do you make such narcissistic, egotistical characters likable? Finding their humanity is what Leavel says was one of the biggest challenges for both the writers and actors in building this show.
"I think that is the challenge as an actor, to make sure that we find their heart," she says. "Even in all of their comedy and all of their craziness and all of their negatives, there's such a glow, and such a human wanting to be discovered and loved."
"You love to watch [Dee Dee] find out who she is as a person and crack all that narcissistic demonism and become a true person thanks to the people in Indiana," she adds.
And that Leavel says is just one of the surprising aspects of the story that makes this show work.
"It's not what you expect it to be," she says.
Leavel loves sharing THE PROM stage with fellow Broadway veterans Brooks Ashmanskas, Christopher Sieber, and Angie Schworer, but says that the energy and commitment the younger members of the cast bring to the table is inspiring.
"To just watch their skill level and their triple threat capabilities is awesome," she says. "They sit and watch us in scenes just like we watch them dance."
"So, we're all in a huge petri dish of respect and learned gratitude, and we all feel it towards each other."
And while Leavel wants audiences to leave THE PROM thoroughly entertained, she also hopes the show, which she calls the most special thing to come along in a long time, will encourage empathy.
"I hope the audience can just listen, love, and just learn something about someone else and have their hearts available," she says.
"And that's Casey Nicholaw's favorite show and mine," she adds. "It's just like laugh, laugh, laugh, and then it's like, oh my gosh, what's happened, and then you're standing on your feet because you can't contain your joy."
THE PROM is now playing at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway. For more information visit: https://theprommusical.com/.
Photo credit Deen Van Meer.