My job is to be myself in the role...my Mrs. Wilkinson will be very different.
Hometown: “Born in England, raised in Alberta, Canada, and mostly settled in Ontario.”
Currently: Assuming the role of Mrs. Wilkinson, the title character’s all-drinking, all-smoking, hardscrabble dance teacher, in the hit Broadway musical Billy Elliot.
On a Mission: Like many, Hennig began performing in church. Unlike many, Dad was the minister. “I like to joke that he went abroad to convert heathens, but the truth is he and my mother moved to a small town just outside London,” she says. “They literally knocked on doors asking people to join their Lutheran congregation.” Among those who joined the parish was a couple and their daughter, a dance prodigy roughly the same age as Kate. “I remember looking at Hillary during her recitals, at her beautiful ballet shoes and tights and tutus, and all I wanted was to dance,” she recalls. “That was the beginning of it all.” The two are still close friends today.
The Oldest Profession: While she continued to sing in church and school plays, it wasn’t until Hennig was 18 that she began to study seriously. “I went to York University for a year, left for a job in summer stock and never went back,” she says. “I was ready to work.” The naturally talented performer quickly moved up to professional roles in regional theaters around Canada, and later jumped the pond to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I’ve never had a ‘big break.’ Sometimes I’ve had to prostitute myself,” she laughs, “by which I mean taking a job just for the money. But even those gigs were with the finest musical directors and performers, so let’s say I was a call girl and not a whore!”
From Shaw to Sewers: Hennig spent years with Theatre Calgary working in plays by the likes of Mamet, Shaw and Albee and proudly toured with the Holocaust drama The Danish Play. But one of her biggest career highs was more avant garde: “It was a musical called Ratbag. I played an Italian girl adopted by a British family who sleepwalks in the London sewers and meets a boy called Rathead,” she recalls between laughs. “It was a perfect production for downtown New York—and not at all appropriate for the Toronto audiences it played! But I won a Dora Award, which is a lovely honor in Canada, and I’m quite proud of it.” Hennig also speaks passionately about teaching at the National Theater School of Canada. “It’s an elite training program with just 12 students, and such a wonderful experience. They keep me from ever becoming jaded. I say they keep the art of the beginner alive in me.”
Whirlwind Christmas: While playing a singing, sewer-dwelling somnambulist may have been an award-worthy feat, Hennig outdid herself when she stepped into the featured role of fast-talker Martha in the Toronto production of White Christmas with just three days of rehearsal. “My dear friend who’d been cast got terribly ill and they called me to replace her. I started work on Thursday, was in a dress rehearsal on Friday and performed the next day,” she remembers. Hennig joined a cast featuring Kate Baldwin of the upcoming Finian’s Rainbow and Tony Yazbeck, who’ll reprise his role in the Broadway production this season. She did so well that she was asked back the following year, ending an unintentional four-year break from musical theater—and just in time.
Falling for Billy: A few months after Hennig’s second White Christmas season, the chance to audition for one of her dream roles came around. “I was always interested in Billy Elliot. The role of Mrs. Wilkinson, this woman who reaches her own potential through helping this boy reach his, is one I wanted very badly.” A year into the Tony-winning production’s Broadway run, she was tapped to replace original star Haydn Gwynne. After eight weeks of intense rehearsal with choreographer Peter Darling, Hennig wants to make one thing clear: “My job is to be myself in the role. Haydn is so very brilliant, and I am honored to take over, but I look and sound nothing like her. So my Mrs. Wilkinson will be very different.” She also warmly drives another point home: She loves her job. “Those boys are so talented it makes you crazy! I call [new title star] Alex Ko my boyfriend. We have so much fun together. The message of this show is so important, and I feel honored to have a job like this.”