Why give up on a lucrative thing? That’s the thinking behind the return of Dirty Dancing, which has arrived at London’s Piccadilly Theatre for an encore engagement after breaking box office records at the Aldwych the first time around, followed by a UK tour. As Frances “Baby” Houseman, the teenager who famously won’t be put into a corner, California-born actress Jill Winternitz is making her West End debut. How did a 26-year-old graduate of London’s tony Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) end up having the time of her life in this film-turned-theater-phenomenon? Read on.
From classical training at RADA to playing Baby in Dirty Dancing is quite a leap: How did that come about?
Well, it has something to do with feeling ever since I graduated as if theater roles are somewhat limited for me here, even with the training RADA afforded me. I’ve tended only to go up for things in my native accent. As it turns out, I’m the only RADA graduate in a cast filled with dance college people.
That must be fun in itself.
Oh, it is! I feel blessed to be with these trained singers and dancers and in such a diverse and talented company.
Funnily enough, the West End’s original Baby, Georgina Rich, also went to RADA.
Yes, and she went on to do some great Shakespeare afterwards, which is what I hope to do. I’ve thought about reaching out to her—that would be a great connection to make—and I actually did tweet Jennifer Grey [star of the 1987 movie] but she didn’t reply.
When this part came along, did it seem like something out of left field?
I’m much more of a straight theater person, so I didn’t know anything about the show and I hadn’t seen it in the West End. But I quickly did my homework and fell in love with the story and especially with how strong Baby is. One of my first leading roles when I was 14 was Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, and I love characters that have a lot of fire and say what they mean. That’s Baby: She’s got fire!
Which, in turn, gives you a character trait to act.
Absolutely! People think of the film as this big thing for bachelorette parties, but deep down it’s a really moving coming-of-age tale. It’s a story of romance but also about changes in the relationship with your parents, so it goes from one thing to another. The storyline with Baby and her father is one of my favorite aspects of the show; I love the scenes I have with my dad.
What about the emphasis on dance in the show?
That has probably been the biggest surprise, though, in fact, tap dance is what introduced me to the stage when I was eight years old and then I quickly moved on to acting. At RADA, we studied period dance, which wasn’t directly translatable to this, but I’ve always been into yoga and fitness, and those skills have come into play when it comes to stamina and flexibility and strength. Penny [the dance instructor character] says about Baby that she can move, and that’s quite true of me: I can move! [Laughs.]
I imagine it helps that Baby is a newcomer to the world of dance.
Yes, that’s what I always remind myself—that, as Baby, I’m not as good as the ensemble and I’m not meant to be. Baby learns to dance in two weeks, so there has to be the physical journey that comes with the joy of an accomplished amateur having an amazing time and falling in love. By the end, she’s more than competent, but she’s really just a very skilled social dancer, which is why the producers were looking for actors who could dance as opposed to dancers who could act. I didn't have to be a musical theater triple-threat.
It’s amazing how this show has connected with UK audiences, not just during a lengthy original West End run but also on tour.
I think that’s about the love story and being able to connect to that first romance. It’s also an underdog story in that Baby just mucks in and gets involved and kind of saves the day. That line at the end about “No one puts Baby in a corner,” as cheesy as it is, is uplifting. If you stick to your guns, you can make things happen!
That must make the part empowering to play.
Hugely! I relate every scene to myself, but that’s also sort of my process as an actor; that’s one of my favorite aspects of this job.
Had you done musicals before?
Sure, I grew up in California with that American high school tradition of doing the big musical. I did Winnifred in Once Upon a Mattress and Yvonne in Sunday in the Park with George, and when I was 13, I was in Bye Bye Birdie—as the older teacher! [Laughs.]
You’ve mentioned Baby’s relationship with her father. What about you and your parents?
My mom works in academia and my dad is an orthopedic surgeon. I’m from Davis, California, but my parents now live in San Diego.
An orthopedic surgeon? That must be useful in this show!
All the time, all the time! Paul-Michael [Jones, who co-stars as Johnny] has Skyped with my dad about his injuries. He has flown over twice to see it and is coming again around Thanksgiving. He just loves it; it’s a whole different world to him.
What’s next for a London-based American?
What I’d really like is not ever to have to choose London or New York or Los Angeles and base myself in a single place. It would be great to be a female Kyle Soller [the American RADA grad who has worked on both sides of the Atlantic]. The pinnacle for me would be to do theater in London and in New York. That would be just amazing.