News flash from Diana DeGarmo, alum of the musicals Hairspray (on Broadway) and Brooklyn (on tour): She’s no longer that 16-year-old girl on American Idol. “I’m 22!” she says, topping an infectious giggle with the pixie-esque chirp she made famous on season three, when she was runner-up to Fantasia Barrino. “I do older, more mature work, and it makes people who remember me as the high-schooler on Idol nervous. But I’m a big girl now.” Speaking backstage at New World Stages, DeGarmo is currently starring as Sarah, a blind librarian with a sultry side, in the tongue-in-cheek musical remake of The Toxic Avenger. It’s her first New York stage role since the cancellation of a proposed Broadway revival of Godspell in the fall of 2008, an event DeGarmo confesses was “shattering.” But now she’s got a new boyfriend, a new home base [Nashville] and a campy new off-Broadway gig.
What did you think when you were approached to do a musical version of a B-horror film?
I was like, wait—The Toxic Avenger? I asked my boyfriend about it and he goes, “That’s the best movie ever!” While that was a great endorsement, I didn’t know how it would work as a musical. They sent me the cast CD and I came and saw the show, and suddenly it clicked. I mean, that movie—Mr. Lloyd Kaufman, what a unique director he was—is very different from the stage version. Seeing it erased all my preconceived notions, and then I couldn’t wait to be a part of it.
You’ve been known since your Idol days as the “sweet, cute girl,” but you get a little raunchy in this show. There’s even some boobage.
Well, rest assured I’m wearing a very secure bra. Of course, I was nervous about running around with my shirt open. Then I figured I’m more covered than I’d be in a bathing suit, so I calmed down. I am, however, the bustiest Sarah the show’s had so far, and the costume shows it. [Co-star] Nick Cordero just went, “Holy boobies!” the first time we did that scene. It’s funniest to see the looks on the faces of people in the front row when I go running out there with everything bouncing! But let’s set the record straight—I’m not naked or in pasties. It’s a bra. I’m a grown woman. And I’m not dancing at Lace Gentlemen’s Club in Times Square, I’m in a musical!
It’s a small cast. Is everyone making you feel at home?
I know everyone says this, but they’re great. When I did Hairspray on Broadway, it was such a big show that even after months in the production I still didn’t feel I really knew everyone. Here, I made peach cobbler for everyone and it was gone in five minutes, and [costar] Nancy Opel marched right over and asked why she didn’t get any. There’s nowhere to hide!
You mentioned a boyfriend. Am I allowed to ask about him?
You want to know something funny? We met in a bar. I’ve always been the type to say, “Please, no one ever meets anyone in a bar.” And then, of course, it happened. Go figure. He’s back home in Nashville, where I live now. He understands I have to travel and supports me. It’s a new relationship, so I can’t say much else. I’m not looking to get married tomorrow. I’m 22! And I’ve got two little minidogs [miniature Dachshunds], so I don’t need kids either!
You were set to hit Broadway in Godspell last year. Was it hard when that fell apart?
The economy bit us in the butt, didn’t it? The investors got scared, and who could blame them? But it sucked, and it still sucks. We all got together as a cast in July of last year and spent a whole week just hanging out, and it was—this is going to sound corny—magical. We had talent shows, played acting-class theater games and sang through the music for the first time. Two weeks later, the day before I was supposed to move to the city and start rehearsals, I got the awful phone call. It took about a month for me to buck up. I got busy doing little shows in Nashville and writing new songs for an album, and then the American Idol Christmas Tour called and I did that for the holidays. Then I signed on for a little touring show called Oz: The Musical, which was—well, it was interesting.
In what way?
Look, I was fortunate. I made fabulous friends. But there were issues with the production as a whole. I knew leaving [the tour] would be the best thing to do, but I didn’t want to let my cast members down. The good of the group is more important than how I’m feeling as an individual. I’m happy I stuck it out because we had a good time onstage, which balanced out the behind-the-scenes issues. Then I went to L.A. to do Back to Bacharach, then out to Oklahoma to do Joseph and the Amazing Technicolored Dreamcoat, both of which were ah-mazing, and now here I am.
So you basically haven’t stopped all year.
I made myself take a few weeks off in between gigs, but no, it’s been pretty busy. I won’t complain!
How do you not get burned out working nonstop?
Variety keeps it fresh. I loved, loved, loved doing Hairspray on Broadway, but when the chance came to return to the part [of Penny Pingleton] I passed—I was afraid I’d get pigeonholed as the “cute” girl, or that it wouldn’t live up to that amazing first run I had with the show. I jump from creative lily pad to lily pad, like a frog. It’s insane, but it keeps it interesting. I also have had the chance to go back to Nashville for a few weeks at a time and write country music, which is therapeutic.
You tour, you’ve lived in New York, L.A., Atlanta, Nashville. Does anywhere feel like home?
I grew up in the South, and that’s where I belong. It’s slower, and I like being able to stop and breathe because I can get overwhelmed so easily. I absolutely consider myself an East Coast girl over the West. I really love New York, but it’s too easy to get caught up in the showbiz hubbub. I do best in the South, where I can still have a music life but keep my non-career life intact. Besides, there’s trees!
So you’ll take a Southern boy over a Yankee?
I’ve actually never dated a Northern boy. Southern gentlemen can sometimes be Momma’s boys, so who knows—maybe a Northern boy would do me good! I’m a girlie girl, so I want a really manly man to balance me out.
Six years after the fact, do you feel like you’re recognized for work other than American Idol?
I don’t mind people associating me with the show—I mind people only associating me with the show. Working in theater has helped me get to a point where, at least I feel, I’m not just a former Idol, I’m a working professional. When someone introduces me as “Diana DeGarmo of Broadway’s Hairspray” I get so excited! You can build a whole career off Idol, and that’s fine, but it’s a double-edged sword—I’ve lost parts because I was on the show and producers didn’t want it to look like Idol stunt-casting.
I have to ask—what’s your opinion on Paula Abdul’s exit from Idol?
I don’t know if I believe it! Honestly, my first reaction was that it must be a publicity stunt. Every year something happens right before the season starts or as the first episodes come out. They’re smart—they know what they’re doing. But I’m totally cheering for her to come back. That show will lose a big chunk of what makes it work if she’s not there.
Is Idol different now than when you were on it?
There’s an unspoken code that separates the old idols from the new ones, for sure. After season four, the show started to get so much bigger, and the production values changed. Season three, my season, totally had the best numbers though! Not to toot my own horn, but, BEEP BEEP! [Laughs.] Seriously, the show is different now. The have in-ear monitors when they’re singing, a live band to collaborate with—they get iPhones, Apple computers, free clothes, celebrities in the audience! I was there during the Dark Ages; we didn’t get any of that! We had to sing along to canned music. It was good canned music, but still. Back then, if you’d said, “I want to work with a live band and put my own spin on this famous song” they would have looked at you like you had a third eye.
You were launched into the public eye at 16. Has your career taken the path you wanted?
It’s been a learning experience. You know, at 16 you’re so wide-eyed that you go in with visions of sugarplums and fairies. It’s a business first and foremost, and I really got tossed in. Luckily, my mom was there to protect me. She took a lot of heat from people for letting me get involved so young, but she was, and is, amazing and kept me safe. As far as my career? I’ve learned: Don’t plan anything! Any plans you have will always fall apart, so just go with the flow. I’m much happier that way.
Are there any goals you do have, even without a plan?
I’d really like to be on another national tour. Whether it’s with a musical, which would be a ball, or as Diana DeGarmo—even as an opening act for some other artist—that would be a dream.
But being off-Broadway right now seems to be making you pretty happy.
It really is. I had a small meltdown about playing a blind girl when I first started rehearsals—I was convinced I was going to suck! Luckily Celina Carjaval, who played the role before me, told me to just relax my eyes and not look at anything and have fun with the part.
Any mishaps onstage?
It’s The Toxic Avenger—there’s no way something won’t go wrong! For me, it’s the whipped cream. Oh god, the whipped cream. I use it during this one scene and I’m doing it blind and it just goes everywhere, and onstage it turns into a greasy, slippery mess. I’m always running backstage going, “I’m sorry! Don’t fall! I’m sorry!” Otherwise it’s a funny show with a sweet, wonderful love story. I still get teary-eyed whenever anything happens to my “Toxie” during the show. I cry, we kiss, we bow and then do it all over again. It’s a blast.
See Diana DeGarmo in The Toxic Avenger at New World Stages.