Betsy Wolfe always knew she was going to be a performer.
"It's almost scary how early in life I knew that this is what I just had to do," she said, looking around at the empty auditorium in Studio 54, where we sat just an hour before she took the stage in a matinee of Rupert Holmes' The Mystery of Edwin Drood. "I remember begging my mom, ‘Can I ask my teacher if I can sing for my class one day?' and she said, ‘What are you going to sing?' and I replied, ‘'I Dreamed a Dream' but I'll change the lyrics because they're inappropriate for my classmates.' I was a lot to handle, apparently."
In Drood, the young woman who once sang the anguished Fantine's ballad of a life gone wrong to a group of elementary schoolers, plays Rosa Bud, the young, virginal fiancée of the title character and potentially, one of his murderers. While it's her third appearance on the Great White Way, the role is certainly a breakthrough for the actress, a native of Visalia, California who idolizes the comedy of Carol Burnett and is still star-struck by the heavyweights she has called colleagues: James Lapine, Audra McDonald, Chita Rivera, Sherie Rene Scott, and Stephen Sondheim, among them.
"I've probably pinched myself one hundred times during this entire process," she said of playing Rosa Bud, her first major Broadway role, and one that involves seducing the audience into voting for her as murderer. "It's at three or four times a week right now," Wolfe replied, innocently batting her long eyelashes, when asked how often she wins the contest. And when she does, her Rosa lets loose. "Rosa is very much a soprano, but I decided that when she's [voted to be murderer], she becomes a belter. It allows me to go to that place of complete unraveling, which is so satisfying at the end of the show."
Growing up, Wolfe's life revolved around performing in local theater. Among her earliest roles were Annie ("I remember thinking it was the biggest deal!"), the Artful Dodger in Oliver! ("I was good"), and, at age thirteen, Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! ("I felt so comfortable playing [the much older] Dolly, which is quite scary to think about now," she concluded, noting that she also played the role a few years later, at seventeen.) She would go on to study at the prestigious Cincinnati Conservatory of Music where her roles included another grand dame, The Princess Puffer, in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Shortly after graduating, Wolfe found herself in the San Francisco and Boston companies of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a production directed by Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winner James Lapine. She and Lapine reunited earlier in 2012 in his reworked revival of the Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical Merrily We Roll Along, an acclaimed, two-week concert staging for New York City Center Encores!. Wolfe played Beth, the former wife of the show's protagonist, Franklin Shepard.
"Auditioning for James Lapine is always an interesting experience," she said with a knowing laugh, shifting around in her seat. "I was actually submitted to go in for Gussie, so I prepared those sides and I wore a leopard dress and looked pretty trampy. I told him what I was going to sing, and right before I started, he said ‘That's one of my favorite songs. Don't screw it up.'" As Wolfe recalled, when she finished singing, Lapine replied, "You're not a Gussie," and asked her to perform Beth's big number, "Not a Day Goes By." The rest was history.
Merrily We Roll Along was a lightning in a bottle experience, and working with Sondheim himself was also one of Wolfe's ‘pinch-me' moments. "He told me he's so proud to see my Beth because I brought a level of humor and comedic sensibility to her that he'd never seen," she said giggling with glee and a certain amount of disbelief. "I can actually die now."
Of course, Mr. Sondheim did have a few notes. Her favorite? "She's not doing the umlaut right," on the lyric "Munch doing bits of Ravel" during the song "Bobby and Jackie and Jack." "Make sure she knows how to do the umlaut," Wolfe added, adopting Sondheim's vocal pattern. "Someone tell her how to do it."
But nobody needs to tell her how to do anything. Wolfe has that mythical "it" quality; a glowing presence on stage that makes it impossible to look away, a voice that, she said, her co-star, Chita Rivera, called "a blast of purity," and spot-on comedic timing that compelled, at a recent performance, even stage and television favorite Neil Patrick Harris to vociferously vote for her to be murderer.
Still, this college Princess Puffer is grateful for all of her teachers, like Rivera, her current Puffer and scene-partner. "Chita has every right to be a diva, but she's always so concerned with everyone and how the ensemble works as a whole," Wolfe explained, marveling. "It still overwhelms me every time I'm singing to her and she's looking at me in my eyes. And, she gets so excited when I'm the murderer!"
Tony Award nominee Sherie Rene Scott, whom she backed up as a Mennonette in Everyday Rapture, is another great teacher. Wolfe will actually inherit one of Scott's early roles, playing Cathy in Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, at Second Stage Theatre in 2013. "Sherie taught me so much about the consistency of performing," she noted. "Things are going to happen in your life that will influence the show in some way, and you'll be in different places, but you're still doing the same show, and you need to allow whatever is happening to infiltrate and let that be the truth of the night. Watching Sherie do that was one of my biggest learning experiences."
The auditorium started to bustle with stagehands preparing, orchestra members tuning, and actors warming up. Time on our interview had run out. As we got ready to leave, she pointed out the location, just off to the side of the auditorium, where she stood nightly to watch Audra McDonald perform "Old Maid," in 110 in the Shade, the "dream come true" experience that served as her Broadway debut. Theater may be her life, but Wolfe is cognizant that it is not the be-all/end-all. "If I weren't performing," she noted, "I'd probably be in a very remote location trying to save wildlife. I have a soft spot for animals, and it's still a huge dream of mine to live somewhere else for a year and devote my life entirely to doing anything that would help them."
But first, it's a few more months as a (potential) murderer.