Last night, Broadway performer Kristen Beth Williams made her West End debut as she took her first bow as Dale Tremont, Top Hat’s leading lady. But, as we discovered when we talked to the actress during rehearsals, that bow meant a whole lot more to Williams, marking not only her London debut, but her debut as Cinderella following a string of roles as “the ugly step-sister”.
A self-confessed ugly duckling turned swan, Williams’ recent years have been swan-like indeed, taking her from an unexpected leading turn in Anything Goes to appearing alongside Matthew Broderick in the hugely successful Broadway show Nice Work If You Can Get It.
Here the Texas-born and bred actress tells us why she loves the glamour of Gershwin, Berlin and Porter, how Cats changed her life and how the West End is keeping her in check.
CV in brief:
2010: Makes Broadway debut in Promises, Promises
2011: Ensemble member and understudy in Broadway production of Anything Goes
2012: Appears in Nice Work If You Can Get it on Broadway
2013: Makes West End debut as Dale Tremont
Where did you grow up?
Outside of Dallas in Texas.
What first got you into performing?
Honestly, what first got me into performing was going to see the national tour of Cats which came through Dallas when I was about nine-years-old. I watched the show and thought ‘That’s what I want to do’. I’ve been dancing since I was three, started singing when I was in grade school and started acting shortly after seeing the national tour of Cats, and it just snowballed from there.
Did you train professionally?
I don’t know if it’s the same here in the UK, but in America most communities have a local community theatre or multiples of them, and that’s how I started out. I was 11 and the community theatre that my dad had gotten involved with was offering a theatre camp over the summer so I signed up to that and started doing shows over the summer in Garland, Texas. Then I went to the University of Oklahoma for college with a degree in Drama with an emphasis in Musical Theatre.
I moved to New York almost directly after college. While I was in school I did three consecutive summers during my break at Music Theatre of Wichita in Kansas – it’s all very mid-western! – getting some really wonderful professional and pre-professional training just by doing five shows over ten weeks every summer for three summers. You have to learn things quickly and then forget them just as quickly in order to learn the next thing. So I did that after I graduated for the last summer and then moved to New York.
This role marks your West End debut. How did it come about?
Matt [White, Top Hat’s director], Bill [Deamer, choreographer], Kylie [Anne Cruikshanks, resident choreographer] and Kenny Wax [producer] all came over to New York after they’d done quite an extensive search here I think for their new Dale.
It was one of the longest days yet one of the most rewarding days. My audition for them was at 10:30 on a Wednesday. I was there from 10:30 to 13:00, went straight to my theatre and did my matinee at 14:00 and then got a call from Kenny about halfway through my show saying ‘would you please come back after your matinee, get here as soon as you can’. My show came down around 16:45 and I threw my audition clothes back on and ran to the audition studio and I was there from about 17:00 until almost 19:00 when I had to go back and do my evening show! So it was definitely a long day, but they were all so lovely and I just felt very at home both with all the people and with the material.
What did you do when you found out you got it?
My agent called Thursday evening and said ‘do you want to go to London?’ and I said ‘did I get it?’ and he said ‘Yes, you’ve got it!’ I called my boyfriend and I called my parents and I jumped up and down for a minute! All the girls in my Broadway show that I had just left were so wonderfully supportive and it was wonderful.
What did you think when you watched the show for the first time?
I thought it was great. It’s a really wonderful, well-constructed show. It’s in that vein of classic musical theatre that just doesn’t get done anymore and it’s so nice to see such an iconic film that a lot of people in my generation have forgotten about or don’t even know exists. The movie was made in 1935 so unless you’re a Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers fan, it’s not something that’s in the forefront of your consciousness, but it’s so well done, it’s such a lovely tribute to the film, yet it’s its own show. I think the dancing is just beautiful; it’s hard, but it’s wonderful and lots of fun to do, and I couldn’t ask for a better leading man in Gavin [Lee], he’s absolutely wonderful.
Gavin Lee is also a Broadway performer. Did you know him before Top Hat?
I didn’t, I met him at my audition in New York. He was playing Burt in Mary Poppins at the time and he’d already got the job and they asked him if he would mind coming and dancing and reading with all of the girls that they were seeing in New York, so he was very lovely to oblige. We read and danced together there and then a month later we were here going ‘Oh hello, it’s nice to see you again’!
You’ve done quite a lot of classic American musicals like Top Hat. Is it a favourite period of work for you?
It is and it’s the period and the style that suits me best as a performer. You can’t really get any better than Gershwin and Cole Porter and Irving Berlin; they are the great composers of all time.
When Gavin and Alex Gaumond and Clive Haywood and I came to see the show – we all came together, the four new principles – we sat and there was a couple in front of us who anytime a song started they would cuddle up next to each other and there were two ladies next to me who started humming along. The music is timeless, it’s absolutely timeless. To be a performer in the year 2013, it’s a wonderful opportunity to get to reimagine it in a way that goes ‘okay, so I get to sing Easy To Dance With as though it’s the first time anyone’s every thought of these lyrics or this melody’.
Have any of the previous Dales given you any advice?
I’ve only met Charlotte [Gooch], who has been absolutely lovely. I haven’t really had a chance to get any advice from her. I just met Tom Chambers the other night and the biggest piece of advice I’ve got so far is ‘If you want to trail me backstage so you can see the costume changes and the traffic and all of that, please feel free to do so’ so I will most likely do that this week.
Was starring in the West End always an ambition?
It took me completely by surprise. It’s something that never even entered my mind honestly until the opportunity arose and when I initially got the phone call from my agent in September or October that said ‘would you be interested in this?’, I said ‘Of course, it’s right up my alley’. I borrowed the DVD from a girlfriend of mine and sat and watched it and just fell in love with it all over again. Something about it felt right. It felt as though it was, I don’t want to say ‘meant to be’, but sort of meant to be! Of course then as a performer you don’t want to get your hopes up, I don’t ever want to put the cart before the horse or all my eggs in one basket, as the song goes, but even just getting that initial ‘would you be interested?’, I went ‘well of course, that’s my style of show and that is a role which suits me a little too perfectly’. It’s glamour and comedy and you get to sing and dance as a leading lady, which so rarely happens these days. So it’s so nice to have the opportunity to do it all, to really say ‘yes, I’m a true, people say triple threat, I say well-rounded! I’m an extremely well-rounded performer and it’s so nice to have the opportunity to do all of those things in the course of one evening’.
Have you discovered any differences between the West End and Broadway yet?
The biggest difference is the compulsory warm-up, we don’t do that in the States! But I appreciate it so much. In the States everybody just gets to the theatre whenever they get there, they do their own warm-up, you’ll walk past someone’s dressing room and hear them warming-up vocally, you’ll come on stage and see the whole ensemble stretching in costume before the show. So it’s nice to see everyone before the show starts to say ‘hello’ and get a full physical and vocal warm-up because honestly, I probably would have some days when I would get a little lazy if I wasn’t supposed to be there and I wouldn’t do as much of a warm-up as I’m now required to do!
Your last role was in the Broadway production of Nice Work If You Can Get It. Was that a good experience?
It was a wonderful experience. Again it’s a classic composer, it’s Gershwin. I’ve been very fortunate that all three of my Broadway shows I’ve started on the first day of rehearsals with a brand new show, I didn’t go into a show and replace someone as I’m doing now, so I was able to have the full experience with everyone. It’s so nice that I’m sort of getting that exact same feeling now because there’s such a large number of us coming into Top Hat, it does feel like we’re starting at the beginning and you’re not just given your blocking by the numbers. But Nice Work was an amazing experience. I got to share the stage with Matthew Broderick and Kelli O'Hara and make them laugh. You know, if I can hold my own with Sean Hayes or Matthew Broderick or Kelli O'Hara or Joel Grey, then I’m okay! If I can stand on stage and do a number with Joel Grey, I’m okay [laughs].
What has been the most memorable moment of your career so far?
Playing Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes. I wasn’t supposed to ever go on, it wasn’t ever planned that I would get to do the role and all of the circumstances aligned in the right way for me to be able to perform the role. I did almost an entire week of shows as Reno Sweeney and, like I said, you step out on stage and you look around and you go ‘I’m doing a number with Joel Grey, with the original Emcee from Cabaret, with the man who won a Tony Award and an Oscar for that role and he’s looking at me with this wonderful twinkle in his eye just having a blast performing with me.’
It’s something that you always dream about when you are starting out in theatre and you work your way up from the ensemble to a feature principle or to understudy a starring role or whatever your journey is, and you always dream that ‘someday I’ll star in a Broadway show and I’ll take the final bow, the ensemble will part and I’ll come down and take the final bow’ and I had that experience. I called my mom as I was walking home that night and said ‘Mom, I just took the final bow on the Broadway stage’.
We learnt the bows the other day in Top Hat and it’s hilarious, at least it was to me. I laughed and I said ‘I’ve always played the ugly step-sister, I’ve never played Cinderella.’ The ensemble bow and then the other principles bow and the seas part and they start ‘Heaven, I’m in heaven’ as Gavin and I walked down and I burst out laughing. Just because I grew up kind of an awkward, geeky, chubby girl with frizzy hair and glasses, so to go from that ugly duckling period of my life to this ‘I’m going to walk down this stage in a feathered dress’, it’s very much a swan moment.
Do you think you’ll be nervous before your first performance?
Oh absolutely. It’s not necessarily stage fright. Some of the best advice I ever got was ‘Don’t apologise for being here’. When I did understudy a certain role, the person that I was going on for looked at me and said ‘Go big or go home, don’t apologise for being here’ and anytime I get nervous, that’s what I have to remind myself of, that this is my role and all I have to do is breathe, that’s the main focus [laughs], take a deep breath and just go on stage and do your job.
What will you be doing in London when you’re not working?
I will definitely be playing the tourist quite a bit. I live in tourist heaven, my flat is not too far from the theatre and I can walk to Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus and the London Eye and all of these things, so I’m very much looking forward to experiencing all those things. My parents have never been to London and I’ll get to do it multiple times when people come over so I’ll get to experience it over and over and over again [laughs].
If you weren’t an actor, what do you think you’d be doing?
Oh, I don’t even know. There comes a point, I think, when you either realise that there’s something else that you love to do that you can see yourself doing or you realise that no, I want to be doing this until I’m 85. I want to be Angela Lansbury and be on Broadway when I’m 80-something years old, I want to be Estelle Parsons and be on Broadway when I’m 85 years old. In the United States we call them lifers. I think I’m in it for life.