Taking over a leading role in a long-running Broadway show is kind of like assuming a political office after an election. You never know exactly what the job is like until you're doing it. And you're bound to be compared with the last guy. Luckily, the very talented Andy Kelso and Jeanna de Waal have just stepped into Kinky Boots, ensuring domestic tranquility for the republic of funky fetish footwear on Broadway.
Winner of the 2013 Tony Award for Best Musical, Kinky Boots is the story of Charlie Price (Kelso), the owner of a failing Northampton shoe factory. He enlists the help of Lola (Tony winner Billy Porter), a London-based drag performer, to radically redesign the factory's line of footwear. Along with factory worker Lauren (de Waal), Charlie and Lola set out to hawk these six-inch stilettos in an effort to save the family business.
Kelso has been with the show since the very beginning, originating the part of Harry, an employee in the factory. He now owns the factory since January 27 when he took over the lead from Stark Sands, a true testament to the American (British?) Dream.
De Waal is a newcomer to the cast, taking over on March 4 from the original Lauren, Annaleigh Ashford. De Waal previously played Glinda on the second national tour of Wicked and was seen in MCC Theater's revival of the cult musical Carrie.
TheaterMania spoke with Kelso and de Waal about keeping the show fresh, planning Broadway barbecues, and working with Cyndi Lauper.
Jeanna, you've been in Kinky Boots for a couple of weeks now. What have you discovered about Lauren from playing her in front of an audience?
Jeanna de Waal: I wanted to give her a lot more anxiety throughout the show, and I didn't know how to implement that. It was something I really couldn't figure out in rehearsals, because I didn't have Andy and Billy. I was doing it with the covers or the director or the stage manager. I had ideas about what I wanted to play, but it's really hard [to get] the timing [right] before you've had a few chances with an audience. It's been really amazing finding those moments with them.
How do you think that's made a difference?
Jeanna de Waal: Everyone in the cast, including the ensemble, really made the effort to find moments with me, rather than re-creating the old ones. They're really easy to work with. Right from the beginning, I felt like they were listening and I could have a conversation. It never felt like they were stuck in their show and I was trying to fit in around them.
Andy, you've been with the show since the beginning. Do you still discover new things?
Andy Kelso: There's always a new thing to try every performance. When I leave the stage, there's always something I'll feel great about and something I'll feel not so great about. The show is simple as far as the story goes so you don't want to embellish too much, but you want to make sure your beats are landing and the audience cares.
Do you usually think about the last performance before you begin the next one?
Andy Kelso: It's not so linear. I try not to sit with what happened last night for too long...I always find it helpful to explore a new aspect of the show with each performance, it gives a different focus, whether it's the relationship or the stakes. Those little things don't take away from the performance, but it makes you think about what you're doing and helps keep it fresh.
Have you met Cyndi Lauper yet, Jeanna?
Jeanna de Waal: Cyndi was at my final audition. She was also at the going-away party for Annaleigh Ashford and Lena Hall. She's very friendly. She hasn't seen the show with us in it yet, so I've yet to get her notes, but I wait with baited breath.
You mentioned a going-away party. Are there any other cast activities that take place when you're not performing the show?
Andy Kelso: We have barbecues. It's almost that season. There's a great alley in the back of the theater, and we've got three or four grills. Once a month we do the seafood barbecue. It's usually between shows on a Saturday and it's fantastic. It's been going on for awhile. Last year, David Hyde Pierce came and had a barbecue between shows [of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike]. It's a cool tradition.
Do either of you have a dream role, something you've always wanted to play?
Jeanna de Waal: No, I don't have one. When I did Glinda I never thought, Oooh, I'd love to play that. It never entered my head because I didn't think I'd be able to play it. I felt the same way when I saw Kinky Boots. I didn't expect I'd ever be considered for a role like Lauren.
Jeanna de Waal: I feel like I'm only just starting to come into my own as a comedy actress. Before Glinda, I never considered myself that way at all. But through playing Glinda, I discovered how to land a joke. Now Kinky Boots is another step forward. If you don't limit yourself with a rigid image of what you can and can't do as an actor, and people give you opportunities, you can grow more than you expected to.
Andy Kelso: I can relate to that feeling. Also, as actors, we always want to be trying to do the new thing. Being able to originate the role of Harry in this show was so much fun. To be a part of the process with the writers—
Jeanna de Waal: To collaborate.
Andy Kelso: Right. That's the best feeling. Also, I don't know if you feel the same way Jeanna, but I'd really like to start working on my legit voice. I don't feel very confident in that world. I'd really love to be in a show like Carousel, but I don't think I would do it justice. The more and more I start to explore my legit voice, I think I'll probably change my mind about that. So ask me that question again in another five years.