Annaleigh Ashford, a Wheat Ridge High School grad who's now a successful New York actress, will be back home this weekend to perform Annaleigh Ashford – Lost in the Stars at the Garner Galleria Theatre. Not yet thirty, Ashford has been in five big Broadway productions, including Wicked and Rent, collecting Tony Award nominations along the way; she's now filming season three of Masters of Sex, playing Betty DiMello. In advance of her return to Denver, we spoke with Ashford about her love of the theater and her transition to television.
Westword: Tell us about Lost in the Stars. What can people expect from this show?
Annaleigh Ashford: We created Lost in the Stars in New York City, at the cabaret club Studio 54 Below — which happens to be the old VIP room of the nightclub Studio 54. At the beginning of the cabaret act there is kind of an homage to the days of disco and the disco goddess herself: Donna Summer. And from there we really tried to honor the classic art form of cabaret, and it's a nice, eclectic mix of music and storytelling and song, along with a great five-piece band. And from that, we really tried to give the audience a personal, funny and heartwarming evening.
Is there anything that sets it apart from a regular cabaret show?
Well, I think that the world of cabaret, especially from my generation, is kind of a quieter art form right now, so I think that we really contemporize the music. We have some older songs, but with great current arrangements. And I think what else sets it apart is that it's not just me singing a bunch of songs, I have a through line; everything connects to each other. The mix of music because of the great arrangements Will Van Dyke created, they all kind of sit together. So it's odd pieces of the puzzle coming together.
Have you ever done a show like this before?
I actually grew up in Denver, and went to the Kit Andree Dance & Performing Arts Centre. And Kitt Andree, who ran the studio, she was a cabaret singer herself. She had a nightclub in downtown Denver in the 1970s, so cabaret has always been a part of my musical reference. Like in high school, when everybody else was listening to Snoop Dogg and Eminem, I was listening to cabaret, the Blue Reverie, the Callaway sisters — they're a cabaret act. And also, I've always just loved live performance albums like Ella Fitzgerald Live in London — another one of my favorite albums — which is not necessarily cabaret, it was jazz. But you know, she was just a great storyteller; her evenings were similar to the constructs of cabaret. So I've always been interested in cabaret. I did my first cabaret act in New York City while I was doing Wicked when I was about 23 years old. It's always been a part of my creative spirit.
Why did you choose to come back and do this in Colorado? Was it a conscious choice?
We were asked to do it in Chicago and San Francisco, and I said if I was going to be doing this club act that is an extension of who I am as a person and a performer, and in New York and Chicago and San Francisco, then I should be absolutely doing it in my hometown of Denver. So we reached out and everything worked out. I'm so excited to not just share it with my friends and family, but with my hometown.
Do you think Colorado was a great place to nurture your love for theater? If you grew up somewhere else, would you still be doing what you do today?
I'm so grateful that I grew up in Denver, Colorado. I did my very first show at the Theatre on Broadway— I think they changed the name when I was older—but back then it was the Theatre on Broadway. I was nine years old and I was immersed in a theater community that was not only extremely gifted, talented, creative and innovative, but also so loving and kind. I feel like I learned not only how to be an actor onstage, but I also learned how to be an actor offstage from all the beautiful friends that I made working in Denver. So it was an incredible gift that I grew up in Denver with a massive theater community at my fingertips.
What things do you usually enjoy doing when you come back to Colorado? Is it just straight=up business or do you enjoy doing other things in your free time while you're here?
Oh, my gosh. I had been in L.A. filming the Masters of Sex on the third season, so I'm by the beach and I feel like the beach is a very foreign place, but if you put me in Runyon Canyon I know what I'm doing. So it's always nice going back to our family cabin to see the mountains because, you know, I am a Colorado girl, so I love seeing some wilderness when I come back home. But I'm a terrible skier, I'm like the worst skier that there ever has been. So I don't go skiing when I come back because I don't want to break my knees or something.
You’ve had such a great theatrical career so far with roles in Wicked and Legally Blonde to Kinky Boots. You were nominated for Tony awards — how did that feel?
Oh, it was such a crazy honor, completely unexpected, such a shocking surprise and honor. I was just really so grateful to be a part of the show in the first place; it had such an incredibly inspiring message and so was really just icing on the cake to be nominated. It was such a gift.
You said you are still doing Masters of Sex; is television something you always wanted to pursue?
I've always just wanted to be an actor in any way I possibly could, so I really enjoy the medium of television and film. It has some special treats for an actor. When you're on stage you have to convey what you're feeling to the back of the house, but on camera you know you have access to what's happening inside of your eyes for the audience. It's an exciting medium, which I have had a wonderful time exploring and hope I get to explore for the rest of my life.
How did you originally come to do the show Masters of Sex?
I auditioned for the pilot in New York City and I was originally hired as a guest star for the pilot episode. The writers created such an incredibly strong, beautiful, complex, vulnerable woman in Betty, and I've just really been honored that they've continued to write for her, and that they brought me back as a series regular. It's really just been such a gift.
And you said you're doing a third season?
Yeah, we start filming the third season next week.
Did you find it a rough transition going from the theater to television?
Going from theater to doing television is something that's complicated, because the mediums are so different. The technical side of it is still the same, the technical side of acting is still the same — all the work that you do, all the inner work you do as an actor — but there are the technicalities of how close the camera is and how big you can be. My first day on set they were like, "You're so loud, you don't have to talk that loud." [Laughs.] But I find it to be... I wouldn't say it's a rough transition, but I do find my first couple days back to a set...it's kind of like using a different muscle, but I love having the opportunity of getting to work both muscles.
Is there something you do to prepare yourself for doing television mentally?
I do a lot of homework, I do lots of research. Research is always so helpful for me, especially on Masters of Sex because it's a real historical piece. The start of season three is based in 1966, so I've been studying that the last couple of weeks, making it very clear to myself where we are in history. I look at tons of pictures; visuals are really helpful for me. I find that very helpful for the interworking of the character.
Do you think singing comes more naturally, or acting?
As a singer I find that... I've been singing since I was a little, little girl. Since I was like seven years old I've been taking private vocal lessons. I find that it's such an extension of my spirit, that I never sing without acting. Every song that I ever sung has a story, or at least I try to make sure it has a story. So I feel like the older I become, the more interwoven they become, and I weirdly find that I kind of love them both equally — which is such a gift. So I would say I have to work hard at both of them, but I find that they're easier for me than my dancing. I've got to work really hard at my dancing.
Is that something that doesn't come as naturally?
I actually just finished a play on Broadway called You Can't Take It With You, and I played a ballerina who wasn't very good. [Laughs.]. And I had to dance badly. I've been trained as a dancer my whole life, so it's kind of hard to dance bad when you're told to dance good your whole life — but it was such a fun opportunity. But it was harder, it was harder on my body; I had to really take care of my body and be in tune with it every day.
How do you usually choose your roles?
I haven't gotten to the point in my career yet where I actually get to choose the role, but I have been really lucky to have gotten the opportunity to audition for, and be a part of, shows that have characters for me that are extremely strong women. In the last four years I've gotten to play Maureen in Rent, Betty in Masters of Sex, Lauren in Kinky Boots and Essie in You Can't Take It With You, and each one of them is so supremely different from the other, but the one thing they all have in common is they're all extremely strong, dynamic women. So I really just hit the jackpot. I just got lucky.
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Is there any role you wish you could play?
I'd love to play the lead in Sweet Charity someday. That's a dream role of mine.