One of Lakewood’s own is breaking a leg on New York City’s most famous boulevard
Leaving the Neil Simon Theatre after the show, Leslie McDonel decided to grab a drink at Starbucks before heading home. By that time, she had performed as Luanne in the ensemble of Broadway’s hit musical “Hairspray” probably a hundred times or more and didn’t think twice about heading into the coffee shop wearing leftover stage makeup and sporting hair sculpted by three hours of donning a beehive wig.
But a woman standing in line, still clutching her playbill from the show, quickly sized up McDonel and blurted: “Weren’t you just in ‘Hairspray?’” Before McDonel knew what was happening, the woman had begun crying and hugging her, exclaiming: “You’re living your dream! Is this your dream come true?”
It was right there, in the grip of a complete stranger, that it hit her: She was living her dream.
“You forget that people are flying all over the county and the world to see shows on Broadway, and it’s not just the show they’re enjoying — it’s this dream,” McDonel says by phone from her East Village apartment. “You don’t think of it everyday. I forget how I felt back then — how I dreamt about it.”
The dream began for McDonel at age 4, when she announced to her parents that she wanted to be an actress. Former Woodrow Wilson High School musical director Marca Lee Bircher remembers watching her in middle school musicals and thinking: “Boy, here is a real up and comer.”
Still, McDonel had to earn her place, just like everyone else. Her freshman year, she describes her part in the musical “Sugar” as “the lowest low of ensembles you can be. I think I did two numbers in the back row in a black trash bag.”
She didn’t remain in the background for long, though. By the time McDonel was a junior, she had earned the lead role as Polly in the musical “Crazy for You”. The news came as a complete shock to her. It was common knowledge at Woodrow that lead roles were typically reserved for seniors; in fact, each year’s musical was chosen based on the abilities of the senior class. Bircher knew that casting a junior wouldn’t sit well with the seniors whom McDonel had beaten for the part, but she insists it wasn’t a hard decision.
“It was obvious at auditions,” Bircher says. “There was just no question.”
Roger Horchow, who had produced the musical on Broadway, attended Woodrow’s show and sought McDonel afterward, telling her that she was definitely Broadway material. To this day, McDonel’s grandparents still name “Crazy for You” when asked about their grandaughter’s finest performance. McDonel jokes that, in their eyes, she’ll never live up to her 16-year-old heyday.
“I say, ‘Grandma, I’m on Broadway,’ but they don’t care,” she laughs.
Her senior year, McDonel starred as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”, and after graduating in ’98, she eventually wound up in New York City, where she earned her performing arts degree. During those years, she landed everything from an ensemble part in the European touring musical “Sisi” — “It was all in German, and I don’t speak German, and they never told us what we were saying,” she recalls of the bizarre experience — to a starring role in Dallas Children’s Theater’s production of “The Great Gilly Hopkins”, for which she garnered a Dallas Theatre League award nomination. Then in 2004, McDonel got her first break — Velma Kelly in Plano Repertory Theatre’s production of “Chicago”.
“It was a grown-up leading role that I was getting paid to do, and that hadn’t happened yet,” she says. “I had mainly done ensembles roles.”
Her performance received glowing reviews, but Candy Post, whom McDonel endearingly refers to as “the stage mom of Woodrow”, remembers attending the dress rehearsal and finding McDonel a nervous wreck.
“She’s always really insecure, but once she hits that stage, there’s nothing insecure about her at all,” Post says. “That’s where she blossoms. That’s where she needs to be.”
Two years later, McDonel’s big break came. She was living in Los Angeles and responded to a casting call for the Las Vegas production of “Hairspray”. Her audition went well, and the producers flew her to Las Vegas for callbacks.
No sooner had McDonel flown home and set her bags down than the producers called her to say they wouldn’t be needing her in Vegas — because they needed her to join the national Broadway tour.
“That was a Wednesday. My flight was Monday. I had to quit my job, sell my car, move out of my house, uproot my life in five days, which is insane — but totally worth it,” McDonel says.
For the next nine months, she performed all over the country, including an engagement in Dallas. It just so happened that the night Bircher attended, McDonel went on as Amber, one of the lead roles. When she walked out the stage door after the show, Bircher, who was suffering from sciatica at the time, jumped out of her wheelchair and ran over to hug her former student, who was screaming and jumping up and down herself.
“All my friends were like, ‘Oh my god, we just witnessed a miracle,’ ” McDonel laughs, recalling her castmates’ misinterpretation of her teacher’s physical condition.
It was last May when the producers asked McDonel to move to New York and play Luanne on Broadway, where she joined a cast with big names like “American Idol” runner-up Diana DeGarmo and pop singer Haylie Duff. Leaving the theater is like exiting a rock concert, she says, but no one screams for her. Most of the time, the only words directed at McDonel are: “Excuse me, can you move out of the way so I can get Diana’s autograph?”
That could soon change, however. McDonel has been trying out for prominent Broadway roles such as Eponine in “Les Miserables”, Rizzo in “Grease”, even Elphaba in “Wicked”, though she acknowledges she might not be ready for that big of a leap.
“I can’t imagine being in the ensemble of ‘Hairspray’ and then becoming Elphaba,” McDonel says. “I just need my first role when I sing by myself and have lines and all that. [A role like Elphaba] maybe will happen one day, but not right now.”
Her former teacher has faith, however, that it’s only a matter of time before McDonel is a Broadway star. Not only is she a “triple threat”, says Bircher, she’s an unusually genuine person.
“Very often you see very extremely talented people like she is, and maybe they’re arrogant, not the kind of person you’d want to have dinner with or spend a lot of time with, but she was so friendly and well-liked and open — and everybody loved her,” Bircher says. “I told her I would be her groupie and follow her career.”
If her name ever appears on a marquee, McDonel says she has the Woodrow community to thank for it. Thousands of girls dream of starring in a Broadway musical, but McDonel says it was the belief her mentors placed in her that gave her the confidence to go for it.
“That was the first time I ever got to discover myself as a leading lady,” she says. “I wanted to sing, and everyone seemed to want to listen to me sing, so I was lucky that way.”
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