Beth Leavel Takes Over Town Hall
by Steve Desroches
Top Image: Photo: Deen van Meer
You could call it divine intervention, but it’s really a bit more devilish in nature. Tony Award winner and Broadway star Beth Leavel was performing as the narcissistic, over-the-top diva Dee Dee Allen in the hit musical The Prom at the Longacre Theatre on West 48th Street in midtown Manhattan. The show about two teenage lesbians shut out of their Indiana high school prom only for a group of out of work Broadway actors to save the day, and get a little publicity while they’re at it, was a mega hit on the Great White Way. But Leavel remembers a bit of a “branding problem” as based on the name, some dismissed it as something silly or for kids, like High School Musical, rather than the dynamic, tender-hearted, funny story of redemption it actually is. Nevertheless, songwriter and lyricist Shaina Taub had a hard time convincing theater director and artistic director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company to go see it for that very reason. The two were working on a new project and Taub saw something in Leavel that she thought would be perfect for this new musical. Halfway through the first act, Shapiro leaned over to Taub and said, “We found her.” Unbeknownst to her at that moment, but just as Leavel was riding the crest of one success a new opportunity had just blossomed. She won the role of Miranda Priestly in the upcoming musical theater adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada.
Leavel should be performing the show right now in Chicago, but alas the pandemic, of course, brought live performance to a screeching halt, also affecting shows in the pipeline. Now slated to open at Chicago’s James L. Nederlander Theatre on July 19, 2022, starring Leavel and Taylor Iman Jones as Andy Saks with music by Elton John, the production just began coming to life again with costume fittings, choreography run-throughs, and music rehearsals. The excitement in Leavel’s voice is palpable as she contemplates the day that not just her show, but theaters in general re-open after almost two years of darkness. But before she is ensconced in fabulous fashion and shoots daggers from her eyes as the icy diva Miranda, she’ll take to Town Hall this Sunday evening here in Provincetown where she’ll speak about her storied career as well as perform some of the biggest showstoppers she’s made all her own.
Making it her own, that’s been at the core of Leavel’s career since she made her Broadway debut in 42nd Street in 1985. And since then she’s received rave reviews and legions of fans for her roles in Crazy For You, Show Boat, Young Frankenstein, and The Drowsy Chaperone, for which she won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. No matter if another actor created the role, when Leavel gets the spotlight on stage you remember her. And as she prepares to embody Miranda Priestly, she’s exploring how she’ll create a fully formed character rather than just a caricature of a “bitchy diva.” That’s too simplistic and robs the character of a full humanity. It doesn’t allow the audience to connect if all they are is unlikable. A character first created by Meryl Streep in 2006, it’s hard not to note that Streep played Leavel’s role in the 2020 film adaptation of The Prom. And they both played the lead role of Donna Sheridan in the ABBA musical Mama Mia!—Leavel on Broadway and Streep in the 2008 movie. It seems the two actors are often in synch.
“If I’m going to be simpatico with anybody Meryl Streep is just fine,” laughs Leavel. “But this is going to be different as we’re creating a musical. That’s always the challenge as an actor, to bring something different. Our job is to create something so different, and so good, that while watching it you’ll no longer think of the movie. Oh, it feels so good to finally be on this journey and to see what happens. Just thinking of this show opening is a like a light at the end of the tunnel, a very long tunnel for all of us.”
Recounting her career thus far, Leavel speaks of each role she’s had like they’re her children or a prized collection of rare gems—even the shows that ended up as flops because as a stage actor she is “always, always grateful for the work.” But she frequently returns to The Prom. It’s close to her heart not just for the fabulous production and music, but also the message. The musical is based on the 2010 case of Constance McMillen of Fulton, Mississippi, who wanted to bring her girlfriend to the senior prom. The school board initially forbade her from coming and then when challenged canceled the prom all together. The school board eventually reinstated the prom, but almost no one went as parents quietly organized a private prom, of which McMillen was unaware. The extreme act of cruelty gained national attention, and did so again when The Prom reached Broadway, and it continues to inspire as the cast recording and productions nationwide tell the story of pride and acceptance.
“Pretty much every day I hear from or read how The Prom changed someone’s life,” says Leavel. “It changed mine! It’s such an important piece of work. And to have a love story between these two girls with a happy ending. It was such a privilege to do something as special as this musical that changed people’s lives. It was one of the best times of my life, both personally and professionally.”
Beth Leavel performs with Seth Rudetsky as host and pianist at Provincetown Town Hall, 260 Commercial St. on Sunday, September 5. Tickets ($50-$150) are available at the box office at the Art House, 214 Commercial St. and online at ptownarthouse.com. For more information call 508.487.9222.