by Jim Gladstone
Two-time Tony Award nominee Laura Osnes appears at Feinstein’s at the Nikko in San Francisco on April 22 and 23. Jim Gladstone chatted with her about the difference between theater roles and nightclub performances.
“I had never planned to perform in a cabaret setting,” recalls two-time Tony nominee Laura Osnes, recalling her 2012 debut at the ne plus ultra of such venues, The Café Carlyle. “Someone from there got in touch with my agent and asked if I’d do it.”
“I was so nervous,” says Osnes of being asked to headline a venue associated with the gimlet-eyed cosmopolitan likes of Elaine Stritch, Bobby Short, and Eartha Kitt.
Regularly cast—and admittedly typecast—in ingénue roles including South Pacific’s Nellie Forbush and the title role in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Broadway, the 30-year-old, devoutly Christian Minnesota native felt anxious that “I wouldn’t be enough” to fulfill cabaret audiences’ expectations of sophisticated confessional entertainment.
“Cabaret is so much more vulnerable,” says Osnes. “To me, it’s vastly different than the theater, where you’re in a costume with a character to hide behind. The intimacy of it is an amazing opportunity for audiences, but it was nerve wracking for me.”
“My confidence has grown a lot,” she notes of the subsequent four years, during which she’s developed three additional cabaret sets. “It’s been two years since my last Broadway show”—she’s slated to return in a new musical, The Bandstand, next year—“So I’ve been able to grow more comfortable with concert and cabaret performances where I really have to put myself out there.”
That said, notes Osnes, “I’ve worked Norah Jones and Sarah Bareilles songs in my cabaret shows, but tend to stick to theater songs. That’s what I love and that’s what I know. I do try to find ways to connect them to stories from my life to make them more personal than they’d be in a show.”
Osnes’ love of theater music has been lifelong, beginning with playing a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz in second grade. Continuing to appear on stage through high school, she enrolled in college as a music theater major, only to drop out after a year to “do the work I was studying to do.”
Yet a performing apprenticeship at the Minneapolis Children’s Theater Company and roles at the local Chanhassen Dinner Theaters are not obvious paths to Broadway stardom.
It was during a run as Sandy in the dinner theater’s production of Grease when Osnes was spotted and cast as a contestant in the television competition, Grease: You’re the One That I Want. As the winner, Osnes got to play the role on Broadway, where she was quickly recognized as more than a television gimmick. (The overall production fared considerably less well, described by The New York Times as “a musical set in a high school that feels like a musical put on by a high school.”)
“I’ve had a charmed career,” Osnes says. “But part of the impetus for this new cabaret act that I’m doing at Feinstein’s is to let people see that there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes; that performers have failures as well as successes.”
In the show, called Paths Not Taken, Osnes present songs she hasn’t had the opportunity to sing in stage productions, several because after making final callbacks, she didn’t get cast in the roles.
“Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, “Heather on the Hill” from Brigadoon, “Til There Was You,” from The Music Man, and “I Could Have Danced All Night,” from My Fair Lady are among the selections Osnes will sing at Feinstein’s, accompanied on piano by her music director, Fred Lassen.
Despite the fact that her last Manhattan role was Polly Peachum in Threepenny Opera, it’s clear that Osnes tastes run toward the wholesome.
“I still haven’t seen The Book of Mormon,” she confesses, though she has twice appeared as a featured vocalist with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. “I did do Cabaret in high school. It’s not something that I would typically be up for. But its part of being a stage performer, getting to be different than yourself, getting to act sexy.”
As a PG-leaning Christian, how does Osnes feel about working with a significant number of gays and lesbians in the New York theater world and knowing that Broadway musicals have a large gay fan base?
“I love my job and the people I work with,” she says. “In my heart, I know that God put me here to love, not to judge.”
Feinstein’s at the Nikko
222 Mason Street, San Francisco
April 22, doors open at 6:30 p.m.; show at 8 p.m.
April 23, doors open at 5:30 p.m.; show at 7 p.m.
Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based creative consultant and writer. A book columnist and Contributing Editor at PASSPORT, he is the author of an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding.