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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Courtney Balan

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The actress on her work in the current National Tour of The Prom and more.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Courtney Balan
Courtney Balan

Today's subject Courtney Balan is currently living her theatre life on tour as the self-absorbed Broadway star Dee Dee Allen in the TOTALLY original musical The Prom. The show plays through January 16th in the Eisenhower at The Kennedy Center. It will then continue on locally to The Hippodrome in Baltimore, MD from Jan 18th through 23rd.

Courtney had the privilege of understudying Beth Leavel's Dee Dee Allen on Broadway but as you will read, this not Courtney's first go-around as an understudy.

Some of Courtney's past stage credits include I Love You Because, The Marvelous Wonderettes, Unexpected Joy, and the fabled and "unforgettable" In My Life.

Select leading roles include Ursula in The Little Mermaid, Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, and Ado Annie in Oklahoma!.

For you die hard theatre fans that inhabit readings of new musicals, you might have seen Courtney in the very beginnings of Diner or The Secret of My Success.

If you have been lucky enough to see Courtney's work over the years, here is your chance to see her center stage at the Kennedy Center doing what she does best. Delivering an excellent performance to the masses.

You "Don't Have to Do It for Me". Do it for yourself and grab some tickets to The Prom at the Kennedy Center. The book, music, and lyrics are top notch and as stated up top it's TOTALLY original. That my friends is musical theatre heaven. Courtney Balan's performance will add to your unadulterated joy too. Trust me!!

At what age were you bitten by the theatre bug?

I grew up in central New Jersey and my parents started bringing me to theatre in New York City at an early age. Specifically, musicals. I fell in love with Broadway and asked to go see every show, and get all the soundtracks for my birthday and holidays. While other kids my age were dancing around and singing along to pop music, I was in my bedroom, 10 years old, trying to capture the raw emotion of little Cosette. When I was about 11 or so, a music teacher recognized that I had a gift for singing and called my parents. They had no idea! I had no idea! I thought everyone could sing. I'm so grateful to that teacher for taking a moment to reach out to my parents and encourage me. It changed my life. Thank you teachers!!

What was your first professional performing job?

I went to the University of Michigan and majored in musical theatre. In the summers my classmates would audition for summer stock, but I always wanted to go home and take a little break. I would work at the mall and make money for the following school year. As I approached graduation, I felt ready to start my professional theatre life. I was so lucky to get an amazing summer gig at Music Theatre of Wichita where I was in the summer company and did the ensemble and some featured roles in the season. The following year I came back to play Tzeitel in Fiddler on The Roof and to understudy Stephanie Block in Funny Girl. That's when I got my Equity card. (Fun fact: I understudied Stephanie again 15 years later on Broadway in the revival of Falsettos.)

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Courtney Balan
L-R Courtney Balan, Patrick Wetzel, Bud Weber, and Emily Borromeo
in the National Tour of The Prom.
Photo by Deen Van Meer.

Can you please tell us a little bit about your character in The Prom?

It's not easy to put the powerhouse, force of nature that is Dee Dee Allen into words. She is everything I wish I could be when it comes to confidence and success. She is a Broadway diva with dozens of starring roles on her resume and a couple of Tony awards. Her incredible success as a performer makes her a bit narrow minded when it comes to the rest of the world and to healthy relationships. As she is getting older and her career isn't what it used to be, her life as she knows it, is challenged. That's where we meet her in the first scene of The Prom.

You understudied Beth Leavel on Broadway in The Prom. When you went on for her, were you told to come as close to her performance as possible or were you given some freedom to make the role your own?

I have understudied many, many times. Dee Dee was my fifth Broadway understudy gig. So, at that point, I had figured out how to find a nice balance between what the primary actor had created and who I am, and what I bring to the role. Luckily, in each experience, I've always had a creative team that fully supports that notion. The Prom was no exception. Now, in this case, the role is based on the actress who played her on Broadway, Beth Leavel, so that was a unique experience. I always say that I take the elements that best suit me as a starting point and go from there. As an understudy, it's your job to make the other actors and company feel as if their show isn't compromised and the version of the story they created is in tact. So, when I was on for Dee Dee on Broadway, I definitely leaned into Beth's version for that reason. The most challenging part, to be honest, was dropping those habits and creating the role for myself in the tour after understudying. It was a process to start a new discovery into who my version is without any restrictions.

Along those same lines, what do you find is the hardest part about understudying?

Being an understudy challenges every part of who I naturally am as a human being. I thrive in structure and control, and there is absolutely none of that. I have been in shows where I understudy three principal roles and rarely knew when I may play any one of them. It's a test of self-confidence and in most cases, you are left to your own devices to keep the material fresh and alive in your brain as the show runs. Even if you rehearse, you have to be on top of the material for all your roles every day because you never know when you'll be on. My Broadway debut, I went on in the second preview. In another show, I was on for all three of my understudy principal roles within a two-week span. In another, I went on in the second week of previews and was battling a sinus infection that was going around the company. That's the gig. I agree to it when I sign the contract. And, in most cases, it's the greatest rush of a lifetime to be successful despite all the challenges.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Courtney Balan
The National Tour Company of The Prom.
Photo by Deen Van Meer.

The Prom is unique because it is a totally original musical. Why do you think writers nowadays base their shows on something as opposed to writing something truly new?

I think producing Broadway shows is a risky venture and I am so grateful to those who do it because that's the only way I can keep working. I've been in a number of completely original musicals, and sometimes they are hard to keep open, especially if there is no star name attached. When audiences are paying top dollar for a Broadway experience, I assume they feel drawn to stars and/or stories they recognize. It's like going to a restaurant and ordering the same thing because you know what you are getting. That makes sense to me, but there is something so special about an original story. They tend to be my favorite.

You were part of a musical that many of us musical theatre geeks will never forget for many reasons called In My Life. Can you please talk about the experience of working on that show?

I'll never forget it either!! First off, it was my Broadway debut. It was a totally bizarre show that took place both on earth and in heaven. We dressed as pirates, danced with skeletons and sang pop music jingles. It was so much fun and such a fabulous first Broadway experience. The cast and crew were full of the greatest, most unique and interesting people. We bonded quickly over the insanity of the experience and despite the challenges of being in a show that was universally mocked, we had a genuine blast every night for the four months we ran on Broadway. It was never boring! And, as I mentioned above, I understudied the lead role and went on in the second and third previews which was a total thrill. So many amazing and beautifully bizarre memories!

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Courtney Balan
Courtney Balan and Jordan Leeds in the 2006 original off-Broadway production of
I Love You Because.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Another musical you were a part of was a wonderful off-Broadway dating musical called I Love You Because? Can you please tell us what drew you to that material after the first read?

I mean, what's not to love?!?! The story, based on Pride and Prejudice, was so hilariously adapted into modern day NYC. The role I created, NYC woman, was supposed to be an entire ensemble and for comedy and financial reasons, they smushed it all into one role. I got to play all sorts of oddball characters and I had total freedom. The creative team allowed all of us to play constantly. Some ideas were awful and we would laugh and toss them and some were amazing and we would incorporate them. I remember laughing constantly in those rehearsals. It was really freeing being in that room with a group of people that you felt safe to fail in front of. I think that's where some of the best comedy comes out, when you can keep trying new things until something happens and everyone says: that's it!!

Just because we can't ignore the white elephant in the room, can you please speak to some of the challenges of touring a big Broadway musical around the country during a pandemic?

This is my first-time touring so I don't have anything to compare it to, but I think one of the amazing things about touring is immersing yourself into the culture of the cities you are traveling to. Because we are leading with an abundance of caution to maintain our safety and the longevity of our beautiful show, that aspect is off the table. It's a bit easier in warm weather cities where we can have some outdoor freedom, but when much of life is indoors, there is less sightseeing and no indoor dining in my life right now. It can be isolating and lonely at times.

We also wear masks except if we are onstage and we test every day. It's the new normal and it does cause a lot of anxiety and a level of concern that isn't usually a factor. However, after 18 months of not working due to the pandemic, trying to create live theatre, though super hard and complicated, is worth the sacrifice to me.

What do you enjoy the most about being able to play once again in front of live audiences?

What I missed most during the theatre shutdown and the months of isolating at home was a sense of community. I love theatre because I love the community aspect of creating and surrounding myself with people. Being back to work has invigorated that for me and being in front of a live audience is the final piece of the shared experience. The bonus is telling this particular story. It conveys an important message while making you laugh. The first night we performed in front of an audience and we heard that first big reaction, even through masks, it felt like anything is possible.

Special thanks to Kennedy Center's Director, Public Relations Brendan Padgett for his assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.


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