by Jim Gladstone
“My mom took me to see Annie at the Curran Theater when I was eight years old,” remembers Lesli Margherita, the Fremont-born Broadway star who’s back on native turf with her new cabaret act, Broad, at Feinstein’s at the Nikko March 25 and 26.
“I’d been taking dance classes,” recalls Margherita who originated the role of Mrs. Wormwood in Matilda in New York and tickled audiences as Mona Kent in the sadly sunken recent production of Dames at Sea, “but I had never sung in my life. I was fearless though. I wanted to be up there immediately!”
“That was it!” says the youngest of four sisters who remembers “always playing the clown at home, always bugging them, trying to make them laugh. They were already in college when I was little and I wanted them to notice me.”
As it turned out, eight-year-old Margherita had both a solid singing voice and parents willing to support her enthusiasm. In short order, she was winning roles in Bay Area community theater and professional productions.
“I was a weird theater-geek kid,” she recalls. “One of my sisters was working at a San Francisco television station when Phantom of the Opera came through town. I begged to go to work with her when she interviewed Andrew Lloyd Webber. You would have thought I was meeting the Beatles.”
In high school, Margherita spent summers singing and dancing in revues at a Great America amusement park—a gig that paved her way to a part-time job performing at Disneyland while studying at UCLA.
One of the requirements of the well-regarded UCLA theater program is that students are not allowed to take on professional acting jobs while enrolled in the department.
Margherita—already energized by a steady diet of limelight—took a pass, opting to major in dance and eventually switched to pre-law to acquire some safety net skills.
But a net was hardly necessary. Margherita took a yearlong break from college after being cast for a national tour of A Chorus Line. And almost immediately after graduation, she won a plum part in Fame LA, a 1997-1998 syndicated television reboot of the hit film and earlier series.
For close to a decade after Fame, Margherita carved out a steady career in regional theater and a solid array of small film and television roles. But in a tale that combines two classic Hollywood tropes—superficiality and happy endings—Lesli Margherita came to play Inez, the gypsy queen, in a flamenco-driven Zorro musical—a role that would begin her circuitous path to a long-dreamed-of Broadway debut.
“I won the role because people were making assumptions about my ethnicity. A lot of the cast’s first language was Spanish, and half of the lyrics to my songs were too. I had to learn everything phonetically. Eventually, after it was clear I was doing well, I came clean and told everyone ‘Hey, I’m ‘Margherita’ the pizza, not the cocktail!”
Zorro! the Musical opened on London’s West End in 2008, and Margherita won an Olivier award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical.
In 2010, after Margherita had returned to California, one of her British pals called, excited about Matilda, then playing at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“There’s a part,” the friend told her, “That’s just perfect for you!”
Mrs. Wormwood, the neglectful mother of the titular character, is a low-class, high-brass, coarse-mouthed comic gem.
“She’s all about sparkles and hair and bigger is better,” says Margherita. “And she has a really big dance number. There aren’t a lot of roles where you get to be funny and do serious dancing.”
Margherita had her agent begin to put out feelers long before a New York transfer was even announced. Ultimately, the American actress who first found real stardom on the West End soon found herself playing a beastly Brit on Broadway.
All that brass and sass—with a touch more class—is on display in Broad, Margherita’s tribute to some of the unconventional female performers with whom she feels a kinship.
“I love Mae West. Sophie Tucker. Eartha Kitt. Chita Rivera, Bette Midler of course. All of these strong women who did songs that were funny and, for their time, raunchy.”
Margherita has an impish sense of impropriety herself, not to mention a passing resemblance to Sarah Silverman, playfully displayed in a behind-the-scenes video blog she made for Broadway.com as Matilda prepared for its opening (Search “Looks not Books” on YouTube).
The reach of YouTube combined with the fact that Matilda had a built-in audience of tweens and teens who had grown up with the Dahl book has led to Margherita’s having a huge comment-crazed adolescent fan base on social media.
“I love them,” she says. “I would have killed to be able to tweet Chita Rivera when I was a kid. I try to reply to them or at least ‘like’ or ‘favorite’ their posts.”
But Margherita also has some strong opinions to share with the Glee generation.
“There is nothing more disheartening for a performer than looking out into the audience and seeing phones held up in front of people’s faces. It really keeps them from being there in the moment and creating that feedback loop between the stage and the audience that gives live theater so much of its specialness.”
Leslie Margherita: Broad
Feinstein’s at the Nikko
222 Mason Street, San Francisco
March 25, 8 p.m.; March 26, 7 p.m.