Raleighites on Broadway
by Merrill Rose
If you can make it here, can you make it on Broadway?
For many young people whose dreams of a life in theatre are shaped by their time in Raleigh, the answer is a resounding yes.
They’re making it as actors, singers, dancers, designers, and directors. They credit their early successes to their access to the performing arts in Raleigh: music, dance, and drama in area schools, a network of theatres, and numerous community arts programs. Dedicated teachers and theatre professionals here recognized their talents, they say, nurtured their development, and introduced them to people who mattered.
And they have another built-in advantage competing on Broadway, one that goes beyond professional training: “If you’re from the South, you know you can go far by saying what you need to say with a smile on your face,” says director Andrew Britt.
Lighting designer Craig Stelzenmuller agrees. “You need to be part New Yorker and part Southerner,” he says. “The New Yorker comes in handy when you have to hustle for assignments, and the Southerner when you need to use a little charm to get things done.”
Meet a few of these multi-talented young theatre pros.
LAUREL HARRIS AND ROB MARNELL
Theirs was a fairy-tale romance. Literally. Laurel Harris and Rob Marnell, now in their early ’30s, met in high school when they were both cast in a Raleigh Little Theatre production of Cinderella. And though they performed in a singing quartet that opened the show (not as Cinderella and the Prince), the show ignited their passions for theatre – and for each other.
Both studied drama at separate high schools in Raleigh –Harris at Enloe and Marnell at Milbrook – but shared a voice teacher in Lisa Blair-Hawkins. She helped them develop their singing talents and introduced them to theatre professionals she brought down from New York to teach master classes. For his part, Marnell also performed with an improv troupe made up of students from area high schools. Rehearsing on Saturday mornings during the school year, he learned early on that performing entails sacrifices.
After high school, the couple went their separate ways for college and rekindled their relationship when they landed in New York after graduation. Soon, Marnell lured Harris back home for a visit and surprised her by proposing marriage in the rose garden at Raleigh Little Theatre.
Although both had strong support from their families and felt well-prepared and confident in their prospects, they discovered that New York was filled with talented people competing for the very roles they coveted. So the two secured agents, auditioned for roles, and auditioned some more. And they found work they enjoyed.
But one day in 2010, after a string of auditions that did not pan out, Harris found herself ready to quit the theatre business. Just one week later, she got the call that led to her big break. She was hired as a member of the ensemble and as an understudy for the role of Elphaba in the touring production of the Broadway show Wicked. And ultimately, she was tapped to play the role herself.
Her three-year journey with Wicked fulfilled a dream begun back in 2003 on a family trip to New York – the same year the musical opened on Broadway. The show was sold out, but Harris’s mother managed to snag the last remaining ticket for her. By intermission, Harris was in its spell. Frozen in her seat, waiting for the curtain to rise again, she called her mother and said, “I am going to be in this show one day.”
Meanwhile, Marnell spent ten years acting steadily in New York before landing his first Broadway role. The tall tenor whom a college professor once described as “a character actor inside a leading man’s body” is now performing as a “swing” actor in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. As a swing, he’s covering three leading roles and two ensemble roles.
And Harris is joining him. For a limited period, the two are working together – for the first time since they appeared in Cinderella in Raleigh – with Harris filling in on Beautiful as a swing actor covering three roles. As swings, they never know if they’ll be on stage in a particular performance, or what roles they’ll be playing. Meanwhile, they are running lines and hoping they’ll get the chance to perform together as singer-songwriter Carole King and her lyricist husband Gerry Goffin.
For this show and any others on Broadway, they’re ready for the leading roles.
For more on Beautiful: beautifulonbroadway.com
The show featured a little boy who did magic tricks with a girl his age as his lovely assistant. His mom handled the wardrobe, and his dad custom-made magic props in the same diminutive size as the show’s star, Craig Stelzenmuller.
Before long, the family converted a trailer into a circus wagon with a front and back stage, a fog machine for special effects, and “Magic by Craig” emblazoned on the side. For six years, he performed across the Raleigh area at parties, schools, churches, and festivals. By the time he was 12, Stelzenmuller had a regular magic segment on UNC-TV. And then he was ready to move on.
When Raleigh Little Theatre booked him to perform during the opening of the Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, it was his first time on a real stage. The boy who specialized in illusions found himself fascinated by the stage lighting and the theatre’s computerized light board, and knew just what he wanted to do next. He convinced an associate technical director to let him try his hand at the controls.
While a student at Martin Middle School and Enloe High School, Stelzenmuller started working with North Carolina Theatre and its lighting director, David Neville. Though the work mostly involved typing lighting instructions as fast as he could, Stelzenmuller was enthralled. “I realized this could be a real job,” he says.
He moved to New York after college, and continued to work on productions in Raleigh, including the all-county productions orchestrated by Elizabeth Grimes-Droessler, who was then directing arts programs for the Wake County Public School System. An early champion of his, she made it clear to Stelzenmuller that he needed to work in theatre for a living.
It took about five years of doing what he calls “odd jobs” in lighting and sound before he met the theatre pros who would help him get to Broadway. First, Stelzenmuller got assignments supporting accomplished lighting directors. When he heard Tony Award-winning lighting designer Natasha Katz was looking for someone to assist her on a new Disney musical of The Little Mermaid, he let her know he was available, and he got the job.
First, he had a six-month run in Denver to get the show ready. Stelzenmuller recalls it was no easy task: Singing and dancing fish were the least of the challenges. As he handled spotlights following the actors, he realized he had a great vantage point to observe the action both on- and off-stage. He had opinions about many things he saw, but knew enough as a rookie to keep his focus and hold his tongue.
Many more Broadway engagements followed, including one Stelzenmuller considers a highlight: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. “It was the little show that could,” he says. “We knew it was fantastic but didn’t think anyone would come to see it.”
When the show opened to strong reviews, though, the producers decided to give their all to get Tony Award voters to see it. Those efforts paid off when the show took home four Tonys, including Best Musical. For Stelzenmuller, “It was like winning the Super Bowl and the World Series at the same time.”
It’s been years now since he left his own show behind, but Stelzenmuller is still creating magic. This time, it’s on Broadway.
From the time he was ten, Andrew Britt performed as an actor in his hometown of Smithfield, N.C. He loved the theatre, yet wasn’t entirely comfortable on the stage. Still, when he finished Smithfield-Selma High School early, he jumped at the opportunity to spend his last semester working at Raleigh Little Theatre.
Watching and working with Haskell Fitz-Simons and Linda O’Day Young, he realized there was something he enjoyed more than acting. “I liked observing the whole thing and trying to make it right,” he says. He found his comfort zone directing.
“Haskell and Linda were very different kinds of directors, but they both made sure that everyone on stage looked like they knew what they were doing,” he recalls. “And Linda was especially good at making everyone feel like they were the most talented person in the room.”
His next master class came working with William Ivey Long at The Lost Colony every summer during college. The experience gave him the confidence to head to New York. He admits he was “crazy lucky” to land his first job assisting a director just seven days after his parents dropped him off in the city with all the belongings he could fit in the trunk of their Volkswagen Beetle.
His first gig on Broadway was as an assistant to director Sean Mathias of a play based on Truman Capote’s novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The show’s run was brief and turbulent. Yet between all the rewrites, cuts, and other changes, Britt learned how a director tries to figure out what needs to be done to make a show work.
His relationship with Mathias led Britt to his next position on Broadway, again as Mathias’ assistant, on the revival of Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land starring the legendary British actors Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen.
Britt’s role included seeing the show twice a week and giving notes to the cast to make sure everything was going as the director intended. One day well into the run, he went backstage to find McKellen pacing the stage as he ran through lines he already knew inside and out. Britt realized then that actors performing live on stage feel their work is never done. That insight, he says, made it much easier for him to offer feedback to even the most seasoned pros.
Britt’s most recent engagement made him nostalgic for home. As associate director on Bright Star, an original musical set in North Carolina, Britt worked with director Walter Bobbie and book, music, and lyric writers Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. Nominated for five Tony awards, the show nonetheless did not find its audience on Broadway. Britt is optimistic it will have a life on tour and could come to North Carolina. If it does, audiences will hear something this North Carolina native was pleased to clarify for the production team: the proper way to pronounce “Zebulon.”
She’s a singer, a dancer, and an actor. But none of these labels alone suits Ariana DeBose. She prefers to be considered a storyteller. “I employ all those skills to tell stories,” she says.
Growing up in Raleigh, she trained as a dancer at CC & Co. Dance Complex, and became immersed in the arts at West Millbrook Middle School and Wake Forest Rolesville High School, where she was involved in the marching band, concert band, chorus, and after-school arts clubs.
When she auditioned for an all-county production of Aida as a sophomore in high school, her ambition was modest. She hoped for a small part as a dancer. Produced by Wake County Public School System and Broadway Series South under the guidance of WCPSS arts program director Elizabeth Grimes-Droessler, the show was DeBose’s big break. Broadway veteran Eric Sciotto, who was serving as the show’s director, cast her as the title character. “I knew then that I had more options than just moving to Los Angeles to be a backup dancer for another artist,” she says.
She went on to be involved in the next two WCPSS productions, Les Miserables directed by Terrence Mann, and A Chorus Line directed by Charlotte d’Amboise. These experiences gave her first-hand exposure to the theatre business and enabled her to form relationships that she credits with shaping her career. It was d’Amboise who urged her to head to New York to make a go of it. Her family was taken aback, yet her mom reassured her she could always come home. For DeBose, who had her sights set on Broadway, that wasn’t an option. “I was going to make New York work, come hell or high water,” she says.
She made her Broadway debut when she was just 21, originating a role in Bring It On: The Musical. That experience taught her just how hard it is to perform eight times a week. “It takes incredible stamina and discipline to deliver the same material every night and have it feel like it’s the first time.” She’s now a veteran of four Broadway shows and in rehearsal for her fifth, and feels privileged to be part of an incredible community of artists.
Her most recent stint on Broadway is in the show that has transformed the way we think about musical theatre: the cultural phenomenon that is Hamilton. A member of the cast from its beginnings off-Broadway, DeBose plays the Bullet. “It is astonishing to see how this show has been able to reach people of all ages, races, religions, and creeds and had a profound effect on politics, education, and other arenas,” she says proudly.
She had the guts to pursue her dream of working on Broadway and now finds herself in situations she could never have imagined. Consider just one experience she shared: “I sang at the White House alongside my fellow artists as the President and First Lady mouthed the words!”
East Carolina University
On Broadway: The Present, Bright Star, Waiting for Godot, No Man’s Land, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Hamilton, Pippin, Motown: The Musical, Bring It On: The Musical
University of Michigan
On Broadway: Evita, Wicked (national tour), Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Beautiful: The Carol King Musical, Jersey Boys (Las Vegas)
North Carolina School of the Arts
Associate Lighting Designer
On Broadway: Cats, An Act of God, School of Rock, Gigi, It’s Only a Play, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Matilda, Everyday Rapture, The Little Mermaid