Not so long ago, Kristen Beth Williams was a Broadway ensemble player and understudy in such shows as Promises, Promises and Nice Work If You Can Get It. But the 32-year-old Texan has been spending the better part of this year in London as the leading lady in Top Hat, the Olivier Award-winning musical now entering its final stretch at the Aldwych Theatre. The charming Williams chatted with Broadway.com one recent morning about her leap to West End stardom, following in Ginger Rogers’ footsteps and the personal reason she’s excited to be returning to New York at the end of October.
Plucked from the Broadway chorus to star in London: Your story really does sound like the stuff of show-biz legend.
This is definitely a dream come true! I was beginning to think, “I’ve done Broadway shows where I’ve covered a principal [actor],” or two or three in the case of Nice Work if You Can Get It, and I was getting to the point where I thought it was time to play some of these roles. I needed to start saying no to understudying: Look at me playing this role as opposed to just covering it.
What perfect timing, then.
Exactly! Top Hat came along and blew all that out of the water.
How did this break come your way?
As I understand it, when [original leading lady] Summer Strallen left the show, it caught them off guard a little bit since [co-star] Tom [Chambers] had agreed to stay until the end of January. They knew that Charlotte [Gooch, Strallen’s replacement] wasn’t exactly the right fit opposite Gavin Lee, who’s so much older and taller than Tom. They needed someone older and taller to play opposite Gavin, who is my leading man.
So, they came to New York to find you?
They did! I went in [to audition] at 10AM on a Wednesday, and in the middle of the Nice Work matinee I had a call from the producers asking me to come back between shows. The following evening, after an indoor cycling class, I called my agent who said, “Do you want to go to London?”
Lovely! Did you know much about London or the West End beforehand?
I had been in England and Scotland in 1998 on a high school trip. I remember we saw The Tempest in Stratford and then drove to Scotland. But I didn’t really know anything beyond that, so I just packed my bags, got on a plane, and showed up.
This is such a particular period piece: Did that seem like a good fit for you?
Definitely. This is very much the era that I live in, as I guess is clear from Nice Work and Anything Goes, and I’ve done many shows from the Irving Berlin catalog, including four productions of White Christmas and Face the Music at Encores! His is very much the style of music I sing well.
Scarcely had you settled into your run before the show won the Olivier Award for Best Musical.
That was just astounding. Gavin and I were standing backstage, and I terrified a bunch of students who were about to sing the finale when it was announced that Top Hat had won. I yelped out loud and they all turned around to see if someone had gotten hit by a set piece!
What’s your take on Dale Tremont, the role created on screen by Ginger Rogers?
She’s quick-witted in that wealthy, 1930s articulate way. You also need to be able to tell that Dale is a very independent woman who has had to take care of herself; she knows exactly how to handle men and their advances and how to say, “No thank you.”
Until an American dancer called Jerry Travers [played by Fred Astaire on screen] comes into her orbit.
Yes, there’s something about this guy that she has never experienced before. He’s a big, flashy Broadway star but she has no idea, so she doesn’t react to him in that way and he finds that very refreshing and surprising and intriguing. They’re intrigued by each other. It’s one of the things Gavin and I were adamant about in rehearsal—you have to see the attraction between them in that very first scene.
As a frequent understudy, are you especially considerate toward your own understudies?
I’d like to think so! My understudies are both fantastic ladies. I haven’t yet been ill enough, knock on wood, that either of them has had to be thrown on at the drop of a hat, as has happened to me, though I have taken time off for vacation. There’s nothing like having to go on at the last moment; I know how hard that can be!
Any great understudy stories?
Well, I remember my one show going on for Katie Finneran in Promises, Promises. It was after she had won the Tony and was kind of planned, so my dad and mom were able to come up from Texas to see it. I was lucky in that I had a rehearsal with Sean Hayes. I was very nervous, and he stopped me four lines in and said, “Try it again; we have to know she’s absolutely crazy from the second she turns around.” So I did, and within four lines he was laughing hysterically. I thought, if I can make Sean Hayes laugh, I’m going to be all right.
On a personal note, you’re probably eager to get back home.
I am. It’s been an absolutely amazing time here, but I’m getting married in New York in May to an actor named Jimmy Ludwig, and there’s so much to tend to with that.
Has it been hard being apart from your fiance?
A little bit, especially with the time difference, when you send e-mails and don’t hear back and then realize that the other person isn’t even awake yet. But it also makes it easy when I get home from my show at 10:30PM, and it’s only 5:30 in New York. Also, I’ve been over to see him and he’s been here to see me, so that’s been good.
Look at it this way: You now have a home in two theater capitals!
I know, and how lucky am I? All I can say for sure is that I am on a plane back to New York on October 28, and we’ll see what happens after that. I’m looking forward to seeing where things go.