Beth Leavel will be appearing in ‘Annie’ at Paper Mill Playhouse through December 31.
By Ryan Leeds
When it comes to being a working actor, it’s not a particularly “hard knock life” for Beth Leavel. The accomplished Tony Award winner is best known for her role as the boozy Beatrice Stockwell in the 2006 musical, The Drowsy Chaperone. Since then, she has been infusing her comic genius into every role she embodies—most recently as an overbearing, but caring, matchmaker mother in Bandstand on Broadway.
The latter show got its start at Paper Mill Playhouse, a venue that has served Leavel quite well throughout her stage career. Later this month, she returns to the Millburn, New Jersey, theatre to play Miss Agatha Hannigan, the grumpy matron of an orphanage in the hit musical Annie.
The busy actor recently spoke on the phone with the Broadway Blog about the craft of creating a character and why Annie is a perennial favorite in the canon of musical theater.
BB: You are defying W.C. Fields who famously said, “Never work with children or small animals.”
BL: And look what’s happening. Just look what’s happening. (laughs). It’s so hard, actually, because the dogs actually have a job here. We can’t pet them or distract them. They are the cutest things ever. We have a dog that is the quintessential Sandy.
BB: How did the Paper Mill production of Annie come to you?
BL: They asked me to do it. It is one of my favorite roles on the planet. I’ve done it a couple of times and each time, it’s just so much fun. I embrace my uber evil twin. It’s just so well-crafted and written.
BB: And you’re a favorite at Paper Mill!
BL: I love Paper Mill and I love working there. It’s such a community.
BB: Where else have you played the role?
BL: I played it at the MUNY in St. Louis, where there are 12,000 people. There were 60 orphans!
BB: Miss Hannigan often portrayed as an abusive alcoholic. Is that the angle you’re taking? Have you decided or researched why she is the way she is?
BL: She’s damaged and still trying to hold on to her youth in spite of these children. We’re just starting rehearsals, so I like to come into that with sort of a clean palate and see what the director, creatives, and my fellow actors have in mind. In that way, we just give birth to it together. A lot of it is in the script and a lot of it is not on the page. As an actor, it’s fun to explore what’s not there.
I always try to find out why a character is damaged, find the love that is in there someplace and embrace that. So, I try to find the moments of redemption for her. You really fall in love with her as much as you can’t stand her because she’s so flippin’ funny.
BB: Do you find that there is an extra burden in playing a role that is as iconic as Miss Hannigan. It’s been portrayed by Dorothy Loudon, Carol Burnett, Kathy Bates, and others.
BL: No. Not really. I’m pretty comfortable stepping into my own Hannigan shoes and seeing what happens. They were all so fabulous in their performances, so I try to personalize it for Beth and for my wheelhouse of comedy, singing, and skills. I wish I had seen Dorothy Loudon do it. I remember in college, I wore out that original cast recording. I had the vinyl and I would play it over and over and over again. To actually sit here and sing “Little Girls” is pretty cool.
BB: I’ve grown up with musical theater and absolutely love it. I’m ashamed to admit that I have never seen a staged version of Annie.
BL: It’s one of those musicals—much like Hello, Dolly!—that is so perfectly crafted. If you look at a successful, formulaic show, this is flawless in its structure. That makes it really easy for us to step on the stage, read the lines, and do the choreography. It’s all good. It’s just a beautiful musical and I think you’re gonna be really happy you came and sat in a seat to listen to the story.
BB: What is the secret ingredient behind Annie’s overwhelming popularity and success?
BL: It’s such a great story to begin with, thanks to the book. And Charles Strouse’s tunes… I mean, there’s not a bad one in the bunch. They’re singable, they move the story and the character of Annie resonates in all of us.
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive Millburn, NJ
Through December 31
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or Facebook.