leading roles as a replacement in four Broadway shows—drawing critical and audience
raves—Brooke Shields has never been given the chance at an opening night in a musical.
All that changes next week when "Leap of Faith" premieres at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre, aiming for Broadway.
Shields' screen work is legendary. Her career took off when she was 9, has encompassed a starring role at age 12 in "Pretty Baby," and has peaked thus far with four years in the lead role on "Suddenly Susan." But she has endeared herself to musical theater audiences by doing more-than-creditable work, stepping into established runs in Broadway productions of "Grease" (her Main Stem debut), "Cabaret," "Wonderful Town," and "Chicago."
"Leap of Faith" is based on a 1992 movie written by Janus Cercone. The musical's book is by Cercone and Glenn Slater, with lyrics by Slater and music by Alan Menken ("Beauty and the Beast"). It's directed by Rob Ashford (Broadway productions of "Promises, Promises" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie"). In "Leap of Faith," Shields plays Marva, a spirited, widowed waitress with a hearty young paraplegic son (Nicholas Barasch). The family lives in farmland Kansas, where rain has been scarce and income scarcer, as evidenced by an opening tableau of Sweetwater residents on which the curtain rises in silence. Soon, a bus carrying a team of faith healers—led by one Jonas Nightingale (Raúl Esparza)—breaks down in Sweetwater, and the con men lure in the desperate townsfolk. But each faction touches the other, spreading a message of forgiveness and hope.
Shields spoke with Back Stage soon after the show's first preview. She reported that the cast had learned new melodies and harmonies just hours before the curtain went up on that preview. "It's definitely a work in progress," she says. Why on earth would the veteran Shields put herself through this?
Brooke Shields: My Broadway debut came at a very important time in my life. It was a huge crossroads. I had graduated from college; I had stayed away from Hollywood and really just needed to know what I was motivated by, what I wanted to do with my life, and if I was going to be serious enough about it. Everybody said, "Oh, just go back to California and get an agent." I had never had an agent before. I said, "I'm not ready; I don't want to leave home." Tommy Tune gave me my start, and [producers Fran and Barry Weissler] were the first people ever to take a chance on putting an unknown Broadway commodity but a known name into a lead role in a Broadway show. I'm sure it was about ticket sales, but eventually it became about talent.
Back Stage: Did you have to talk them into this?
Shields: They came to me, and they knew I had been in theater in college and that I was a huge fan of Broadway, I loved singing, and I loved dancing. They were looking at it as, here's a production, "Grease," that is an iconic production, and they needed somebody to replace, and they needed to keep the show open, and they were willing to work with and train whoever they were going to hire. So I auditioned for Tommy—
Back Stage: You auditioned?
Shields: Well, it's so funny; they don't call them "auditions." They call them "work sessions." But we all know they're auditions. So we had a quote-unquote work session. It was going to be about getting down and doing the work daily. In New York I was with [vocal coach] Joan Lader, and [in Los Angeles] I sing with Eric Vetro, and Tommy had me taking class all the time, and he got me learning all the choreography. It all paid off. I set myself up to be an athlete. I've always been dancing and I've always sung, but I never did it at that level. I think they saw I had it in me, and they just needed to nurture it and get it on its feet. And it gave me this knowledge that I could do it. And I had a huge fan base that was willing to support me. It was a meant-to-be. When I was 9 years old, I had gone to see the original revival of "Grease," and here I was 20 years later and starring in that show. The Broadway community is such a welcoming one, but it's also based on real, true hard work and professionalism, and their work ethic is one that I have always lived by.
Back Stage: How were you approached with the role in "Leap of Faith"?
Shields: I had just been asked to replace Catherine Zeta-Jones in "A Little Night Music," but Rob Ashford asked to meet me, and we had a really long meeting, and we talked about the production and the story and the book a lot, really just hashed it all out and had a really great conversation. From that, I was offered the part, and I didn't go into another replacement role.
Back Stage: At that meeting, how much was he interviewing you, and how much were you interviewing him?
Shields: It sounds a bit crass in a way, but I needed to know that he was going to push me, and I needed to know the sensibility of this character, which wasn't necessarily on the page in the first draft that I read. My issues were with the book, and I wanted to make sure they were going to be open. I had to go in from an actress's standpoint. The music is extraordinary. I'm never going to question Rob's choreography. Those two entities are strong. But I, never having originated a role, wanted to know what leeway I would have. Would we be open to exploring the relationship between the mom and the son a little bit? The music, I was going to just get; I was going to learn that style, work until I dropped so that I could improve every day. I knew I was going to be up next to these major gospel singers and Broadway people who do this every day of their life. And then finding an innate sense of style, as opposed to all the other characters I've played, which have been styles imposed on me, whether it's been '20s or a dialect or accent. Here was something very realistic, even though it's in a fable form. Those are the questions I was asking. I needed to know that he was going to keep challenging me and explore the heart and soul of the piece.
Back Stage: How did you go about preparing Marva? I don't suppose you worked in a diner and learned how to pour coffee.
Shields: No, and in fact I broke my hand the second day of rehearsals, so the dress rehearsal was the first time they had any liquid in the pitcher. I really just worked with Raúl and with Nick, [who plays] my son, and it's not the kind of preparation that's typical; I'm not going back in history books. The tone of it, working with [costumer designer] William Ivey Long, working with the feel of these two different worlds colliding, there's an essence to it. I did see the movie, but it's very different from the movie. There's a true sense of this being not just faith but about what would happen if we had enough of the collective unconscious. They've done scientific experiments where they believe that thoughts have mass. This town is so down-and-out and so hurting, and then this busload of urban-energy con men come in, and we all become changed by each other. Even though it's a fable, there is something to be said for faith and believing in one another and putting yourself out there to believe in something. Miracles can happen, and it's not just about any particular religion. And that's the kind of work we did. We would sit, Raúl and I, and talk about this all the time. And singing every day with the coach. We're all working on new harmonies all the time, and we'll be in rehearsal for five hours today, just before tonight's [preview]. So that kind of preparation is on-the-job. The other stuff, the reality of the feeling of all of it, is what we've been working on, bookwise and emotionwise, so that this is more than just a new Broadway show; it's an experience in human nature. And it's allowing yourself to feel that these issues are important. Right now everybody wants hope in some way.
Back Stage: Any major changes you've made in Marva since you started?
Shields: I was glad they put me in the opening number. That was the biggest change. Rob didn't have Marva's character dancing at all. And I said, "She needs to be a part of the townspeople." I wish I was dancing more, because I love the dancing in it. But that was the biggest change. She hasn't been as isolated. Her part kind of keeps getting bigger. In all the workshops, the Marva character was not as prominent. But that's hard to ask for as an actress, because it sounds like a theater whore.
Back Stage: What are you thinking about when that curtain goes up and you're standing in the cornfield?
Shields: We have a whole thing that Rob has us do behind the curtain, prior to us getting to our spots. We don't run out of our dressing rooms and get [into place]. We have this whole thing as a town: We're all in character, and we're talking about this drilling and what we need, getting into the heaviness of the heat. Rob timed it so that before the curtain goes up, we've done a little scene, and then the Sheriff says it's time to take a break. So we idle down, and we sort of mosey to our spots. We feel sort of tired and hot, and we're all needing something, some kind of an answer.
Back Stage: Before that, do you have a pre-show routine?
Shields: It really involves vocalizing, getting my makeup and hair and my wig. And lots of tea, lots of Throat Coat. I just need to be quiet in my room; I need the time to put my makeup on. I'm still at the point when I'm reviewing my lyrics. I'm still trying to remember what I have to say.
Back Stage: In what ways do you think your previous roles prepared you to do this, and in what ways do you not feel quite prepared?
Shields: I think this is perfectly timed for where I am in my life. I would not have been able to do this before now. It's taken me years of eight shows a week for six straight months. I'm not any less prepared; what I am is, I don't do this every day. I spent the past four years having children, not singing at all, moving to New York, and being on a 14-hour-day schedule on a TV show. I also feel I'm now at the beginning of my originating on Broadway. I'm sure I'll go back and replace again, because there are amazing roles out there. If you don't originate them, you want to play them at one time. There's no snobbery; it was time for me to go to the next challenge and feel all that. This has been more stressful, and there's more asked of me—the fact that they keep adding music and scenes means I'm doing something right. When I've seen how far I've come just in the past month, even by the time we get to Broadway, it will be leaps and bounds from that place too. It's a muscle, and I've had to work on it that way. And there's not been a day gone by when I haven't. When I see that kind of progress, that's so encouraging to me. I realize I'm here for a reason. I think, right now, if I were to go back and do "Cabaret" again, there's more to bring to Sally because of the years I lived and the life I've lived and what I've seen. I was the first mother to play Marva. They've had extraordinary talent [doing the role in the workshops], but they've never had someone who was older, who had lived more, who had the history of just life. Of course they were going to tailor the music to my sound and my voice. All of that was going to be made mine. But I see things; I've lived longer. Evidently that's what they wanted. Otherwise she's another waitress in town, and he should just sleep with her and move on. But for us to affect one another the way we do, they needed gravitas. I've lived awhile, I've seen a lot, and it's starting to inform my acting. It never used to, 'cause I was a kid.
Back Stage: What was the last note you got from Rob?
Shields: Rob didn't like my earrings. And we've got some changes that I thought about over the weekend. I texted him. I think I should call Jonas by his [birth] name if I'm trying to give him a dig. That's something Marva would do. He liked that; he put it into the script. Little things like that that we're just constantly changing and doing.
Back Stage: Any major notes from Alan Menken?
Shields: His big, big note for me was that he wants it to be me; he wants to hear me. He doesn't want her to sound like anybody else. He said there's a sweet spot in my voice, and that's what he wants to hear. That's the heartbreaking part. The assumption is that I can do it. That's the interesting thing. By the time you get here, they can't afford to assume that any piece of this puzzle is not going to work. The big note is nothing about what I have to work on. I have to just get out of my own way. That's a very vulnerable thing. That's been the biggest note: We want to hear you and hear your voice. That's the Marva that they want. It's never been about whether I can do it or not. It's about why they wanted me. That's been the scariest part, to own up to my own sound.
"Leap of Faith," presented by Center Theatre Group, runs Oct. 3–24 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Tickets: (213) 628-2772. www.centertheatregroup.org.
- Began modeling at age 11 months; later created the memorable Calvin Klein ad in which nothing came between her and her jeans
- Earned two Golden Globe noms for "Suddenly Susan" as the suddenly single columnist
- Continues to appear on television, most recently in "The Middle" as the trashy neighbor
- In addition to 2010’s “Furry Vengeance,” has three films in postproduction due out this year and one in preproduction