Though she’s barely cracked her mid-twenties, Annaleigh Ashford already has an enviable Broadway resume. The bubbly blonde has both created roles (Margot in Legally Blonde) and stepped into some of the most beloved parts on the Rialto (Glinda in Wicked, Jeanie in Hair). Now she’s shaking up her sweet girl image as lesbian performance artist Maureen in the first-ever New York revival of Jonathan Larson's landmark rock musical Rent. Broadway.com caught up with Ashford during a rehearsal break to talk about the weird world of Broadway auditions, learning to smoke like a pro and not feeling pressure to re-create the performance of the original Maureen, Idina Menzel.
Were you a fan of Rent growing up?
Oh my goodness, yes. My mom is a gym teacher and she’s not musically inclined, but she always wanted to help me out with music as best she could. Someone had told her about Rent right after it came out, and she said, “I think we should get this and listen to it, because it’s a big deal right now and it would be good for you.” We would listen to it every night on the way to my dance classes. The only thing is we had cassette tapes, because our white minivan didn’t have a CD player, and somehow we lost act one right away! So we listened to act two for a year straight. I was obsessed.
Rent has notoriously devoted fans. Does that create pressure?
Of course, when you first get an iconic role your mind goes through a roller coaster in terms of the pressure of the history of the piece. In some ways it’s similar to working on Hair, in the sense it’s an American rock musical. People have a real sense of nostalgia about when they first saw it, so you want to honor that. One of the most interesting things about this project is that they have invited the original creative team to be a part of it. [Director] Michael [Greif] and the producers have such a beautiful memory and love for Jonathan [Larson], and he is brilliant at honoring that memory and also revisiting the show for 2011. Anything that has taken a turn from the original production has been in service of play, to tell the story even better.
How have you been preparing to play Maureen?
We’re setting it in 1991, and I’ve done quite a bit of research on the period, not just the AIDS research which has been immensely important to the telling of our story, but about the performance artists from that time, people like the NEA 4 and Laurie Anderson, who were working to create performance art and make it a bigger medium and form of expression.
Why set it in 1991?
Setting the show in 1991 helps us tell the story really well, especially in terms of the AIDS crisis. There was still such a fear of making it through the day then, so “No day but today” really holds more weight. I think that time was even scarier than 1996, when Rent first came to Broadway. When the AZT break happens during ‘La Vie Boheme,’ people go to grab their bags and it makes your gut wrench because that’s all they had to stay alive; they didn’t have the AIDS cocktail yet. It brings another sense of danger to the piece.
Is it nerve-wracking to step into a role created by Idina Menzel?
The thought is daunting, so really it’s best as an actor not to have the thought! Have it, appreciate it, and then let it go. I am a huge Idina Menzel fan. She’s incredible. She has such a special sound and brings such a beautiful sense of vulnerability to everything she works on, so obviously that thought is intimidating. I felt like people wouldn’t see me as Maureen, after the parts I’ve played, but some of those parts have been iconic in their own right, so I was prepared for the expectations. It’s not my first rodeo, in that arena! People feel a sense of ownership about things they love, and you want to do them justice.
Do you think you were an unusual choice for Maureen?
People have said at the stage door, “I was so confused when I read your bio!” because I played Glinda in Wicked, not Elphaba, but there’s no better compliment in the world. It’s great to play something that people see as so different from me. I’ve been lucky to play strong women who are trying their hardest to do good. Maureen’s doing the best she can in terms of protesting and keeping her East Village family alive, things she thinks are crucial to the world of art.
It looks like you’re playing another tough character in The Big C…
I know, in the last three months I’ve gotten to wear a lot of black pleather! Who would have guessed? All I’ll say is that I’m playing a dominatrix, and I get to smoke. I was nervous about it, because I’m not a smoker, so the weekend before I filmed I smoked like two packs of herbal cigarettes for practice. I smelled awful. There was this fabulous crew member who would give me tips after every take. She’d say “No, no, you gotta hold it a little lower.” She made me smoke like a pro.
Smoking challenge aside, how was your experience working on the show?
The cast of The Big C is such an amazing group of people. They’re so joyful and just open their arms to you as an actor. I didn’t film with Laura Linney, but she was very available and wonderful on set. She was just lovely, as were John Benjamin Hickey, Cynthia Nixon, Oliver Platt—all these wonderful theater actors.
Did I also see you in the trailer for the show Smash, auditioning to be in a Marilyn Monroe musical?
You did! Smash was amazing. I can’t wait to see where that story goes. I had a full on "Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend" costume for this audition scene, and I found that scene to be delightfully correct. It’s part of what we do. I went in for Maureen with my hair going 15 different directions and a tight black dress and boots. Not only does it help everybody behind the audition table imagine you as somebody different, it helps me imagine myself as somebody different. So I love that this girl is in it to win it, and she gives [Smash star] Katharine McPhee a total once-over because she doesn’t have a costume on. It felt very authentic, let’s just put it that way!
See Annaleigh Ashford in Rent at New World Stages.