I'm really tall and so is [Constantine Maroulis], so it's nice to finally have a leading man I can look in the eye!
Hometown: Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Currently: Going from sexy understudy to bombshell leading lady as Sherri in the hit musical Rock of Ages.
Broadway 101: Padgett’s Broadway exposure started early, when her parents would return from New York vacations bearing cast recordings as gifts. “They did the whole Andrew Lloyd Webber thing—Phantom, Cats, his greatest hits. We listened to those constantly,” she explains. In high school, Lloyd Webber fandom matured into a Jonathan Larson obsession. “I couldn’t get enough Rent, even though I didn’t even know what it was about,” she says with a laugh. "When my parents finally took us to see the tour—this was in small-town North Carolina—so many people left at intermission. [My sisters and I] had been singing ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ at the top of our lungs for years and had no idea it was a [lesbian] song!” Despite her enthusiasm, Padgett, a self-proclaimed tomboy, wrestled with stage fright, an obstacle during early dance recitals and performances. “I was shy. It took time, but now I can stand onstage and look at my fellow actors and breathe. It’s not scary anymore.”
Blonde Ambition: For Padgett, part of conquering her fear came through tackling her first starring role at 16, even though she now says she was “ridiculously” miscast. “I was Maria in West Side Story,” the bubbly blonde groans. “I had no business playing that part! I went tanning—a lot.” Smitten with the stage, Padgett decided she couldn’t wait to work, ultimately picking the two-year program at New York’s Academy of Musical and Dramatic Arts after high school instead of a traditional college: “I knew I wanted to get out of North Carolina and into the audition scene as quickly as possible.” Immediately after AMDA she joined the non-Equity touring cast of Cats, but after a year felt she needed something more. “I wanted my Equity card and to work in New York City.” The turning point came when the Broadway revival of Grease held an open call. “I waited all day for that audition, but was finally was seen, and actually got a callback for [cheerleader] Patty Simcox! It was unbelievably exciting,” she remembers.
Survival of the Fittest: But Padgett didn’t get her Broadway break immediately. She went into survival mode, balancing odd jobs with more auditions. “I handed out flyers in Times Square, I danced at bar mitzvahs, I even dressed up like Little Nemo for children’s birthday parties,” she admits. “It was a rough time.” Her diligence paid off. Months later, Grease cemented that coveted Equity card with a gig as a Swing (and cover for Patty Simcox and leading lady Sandy); a year later, she jumped to the chorus of Legally Blonde. “I was never nervous in Grease, but covering [exercise guru] Brooke in Blonde—all that jumping rope? Scary!” When the show closed in October 2008, Padgett Greased up again to star as Sandy in the national tour. “I didn’t want to go back out on the road,” she recalls, “but I couldn’t say no. It was my first [lead] role.”
Rock of Love: At the end of the Grease tour, Padgett got an audition for Rock of Ages, where her sense of humor helped attract the director’s attention. “When my manager first looked at my resume years ago, he said, ‘Emily Padgett is a humdrum name.’ He said we should put ‘Esther Blodgett [the lead from A Star Is Born] was already taken!’ underneath it as a joke, so we did. As soon as Kristin Hangii saw that during my audition, she burst out laughing. I knew then this show was right for me.” Her Rock of Ages crush deepened when she saw the show: “I remember smiling ear to ear the whole time. The dancing, the costumes, the music—I wanted to be up there so badly. It was this really silly, different show, but all the actors were proud to be there.” Padgett joined the cast as Waitress #1 and understudy to star Kerry Butler as ingénue-turned-stripper Sherri in October 2009.
She Built This City on Rock and Roll: Understudies everywhere can rejoice at the news that Padgett was tapped to play Sherri full-time beginning March 15. “My agent said, ‘They want to give you the role.’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Are you sure?’ This is my dream, to be a leading lady in a Broadway show,” Padgett gushes. She also waxes poetic about her cast. “They’re all awesome. [Leading man] Connie [Maroulis] is amazing. I’m really tall and so is he, so it’s nice to finally have a leading man I can look in the eye! Plus he gives 110% and is cheering me on at the same time.” And as for Mom and Dad, who started it all with a Phantom of the Opera cast recording? “They’re so proud of me. I remember seeing my mom in the third row one night. She looked up at me and just mouthed ‘Wow,’ with a big smile on her face. That’s the best feeling ever.”