Michelle Duffy in Tony-Nominated Musical
Wheeling native Michelle Duffy has taken a giant leap from her successful theater career in Chicago and Los Angeles, and has landed on Broadway in the recently opened musical, “Leap of Faith.”
Duffy found a few minutes to talk in between her matinee and evening performances, the day before her very first Broadway opening night, April 26.
That in itself is exciting, and the thought of having opening night under her belt is “the world’s biggest relief,” she said.
Even more exciting is the fact that on Tuesday, “Leap of Faith” was nominated for a Tony for Best Musical – which somewhat tempered the not-so-glowing reviews.
“A lot of shows opened in the last couple of months and to be one of four nominees is thrilling and an honor,” Duffy said. “I feel wonderful about the nomination because it’s for Best Musical, which means that everyone involved has been nominated as a team, and I have been blessed from day one to create this story with some of the finest, most gifted people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. So for us to be nominated together means the most to me.”
She pointed out that neither “Wicked” nor “Mamma Mia!” received good reviews when they opened, but that didn’t hurt their success. “Those shows are two of the biggest blockbusters in theater history now. It is my hope we’ll do the same because the audiences we’ve had thus far have given us standing ovations every night and are really moved and thrilled by it,” she said.
The musical “Leap of Faith” is based on the 1992 movie of the same name starring Steve Martin. Duffy plays Susie Raylove and a townsperson in the ensemble. She also understudies the two lead females, Sheriff Marla McGowan, played by Jessica Phillips, and Sam Nightingale played by Kendra Kassebaum.
In “Leap of Faith,” Jonas Nightingale, a charismatic con man played by Raul Esparza, is traveling with his ministry when his vehicle breaks down in a small Kansas town. According to the show’s website, Nightingale is “planning to take the whole town for a ride. But when a small-town girl stops him in his tracks, this hustler may just discover something to believe in.”
With music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater and book by Janus Cercone, the show premiered in 2010 in L.A.
Duffy was a part of the world premiere, as well. A member of the ensemble, she understudied the same two parts; in L.A., Brooke Shields was Marla, while Kassebaum was Sam in that production, too.
“I had to come to New York and audition all over … I had to re-win the job. I was glad I had to. Then there was no question that I belong here. … That’s very reaffirming as an actor.”
Since reaching the Big Apple, her life has been quite hectic, with rehearsals and weeks of previews, that usually entail “a lot of changes and rewrites” of the show. “It’s very taxing,” she said.
“I’ve been on a treadmill, a very exciting treadmill.”
Things may slow down a bit for the actor, now that “Leap of Faith” has officially opened, but she’s also starting a new project, a workshop titled “Cyrano,” based on the life of Cyrano de Bergerac. It is set in Little Italy, she said, and Duffy will play Roxane – in the vein of a mob boss mom or Snooki of “Jersey Shore” fame.
It’s tough to be juggling all that, she said, but “I’m not complaining. I am glad to be working.”
CHICAGO TO L.A.
Duffy started her professional life in Chicago upon graduation from Kent State University, before moving on to L.A.
Her resume is impressive with no fewer than 24 plays and musicals, five films, seven national commercials and roles on five television shows including a recurring role on “Desperate Housewives.”
She has received a number of prestigious accolades including an Ovation Award, “which is L.A.’s Tony, basically,” she said, for Best Lead Actress in a musical as Pistache in “Can-Can” at the Pasadena Playhouse. She’s also received two Ovation nominations, as well.
She earned the Bay Area Theatre Critics’ Circle Award for Best Lead Actress in a Musical as Dot/Marie in “Sunday in the Park with George” at Theatreworks.
“I was awarded two BackstageWest Garlands – one for Best Supporting Actress as Stella in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ at American Conservatory Theatre and the other for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical as Woman No. 2 in ‘Putting it Together’ at the Colony Theatre,” she said.
It was that drama class that convinced her, “Oh, I want to do this,” she said.
Her first play at Wheeling Park High School was “Inherit the Wind,” where she played the female lead, Rachel Brown.
She was a sophomore when drama teacher Bill Cornforth cast her in that role. “The senior girls loved that,” she said, with noted sarcasm. “That cemented my love for Cornforth. He was a wonderful director and wonderful friend.”
Her first musical was “Grease,” where she played Rizzo. “I’m always the Rizzo, not the Sandy,” she said. “My leading roles have always had a bit of character to them.”
“The last thing I did (at WPHS) will always be a milestone. I played the lead in ‘Funny Girl.’ It was a big ol’ deal. My father still talks about that show.”
“She was in every show up here,” Cornforth said. “She was remarkable back then. I cast her in her first show up here, ‘Inherit the Wind,’ as a sophomore. She just simply was the best person who tried out. Such a talented person, as a sophomore.”
Then, when she tried out for “Grease,” the spring musical that year, Cornforth remembers theater teacher and musical director Fran Schoolcraft telling him, “You wouldn’t believe how she can sing.”
“I remember even at intermission people asked who that girl was. She was an incredible singer and actor,” Cornforth said.
“From the start, she was a remarkable, amazing actor,” he said. “She was incredibly dedicated to it back then. She knew what it took to be a professional. She had the talent, and she knew the process.
“Truly her outstanding gift is her singing, but she’s also an actress. Both are on the awesome level.”
Schoolcraft directed Duffy in several musicals at the high school and remembers her talented student.
“There are always a few students who you know have the potential to perform professionally. Michelle was one of them,” Schoolcraft said. “When Michelle was in front of an audience she had that undefinable magic that made an audience love the performer and her performance. Michelle also has the ‘stick-to-it-ness’ necessary for a professional actor.”
Myers said that Schoolcraft and Cornforth taught her daughter a lot during those high school theater days. “They really, really, really helped her.”
“She always liked to sing and dance,” her mom said, and recalled her performances with a fake microphone when she was very young. “She’s been in love with music and theater all her life. … She’s had some hard knocks along the way, but she never gave up. She’s very dedicated. She loves it with all her heart. … We’re really proud of her.”
Michelle’s dad said he, too, “can’t be more proud.” He’s been working on a scrapbook of clippings about his talented daughter – a “labor of love,” he called it. He’s hoping to get to see her in the show, especially if she has an opportunity to play either of the lead roles she’s understudying.
Myers said that she’s rarely missed a show, seeing as many as she could when Duffy was in Chicago and California. She especially recalls her daughter’s role as the narrator in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” her first show when she was a musical theater student at Kent State University.
Duffy was hard-pressed to pick a favorite role.
“Oh, that’s a tough one. I’ve done so many kinds of things, straight plays and musicals. They’ve all been enriching in so many ways.”
But, she did pin it down to the role of Stella in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
“Stella still stands out as one of my favorite roles,” she said. Tennesee Williams’ “women are so complicated. … He wrote of women so beautifully.”
The experience as Stella was “golden,” she said. “The stars were all alligned” for that show. “Everything across the board was great,” the director, the audience reaction, the show, the actors. It was a 50th anniversary production of the show at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
“It made me say, ‘Oh my God, I love my life.’ It was fulfilling in every way.”
N.Y. or L.A.?
“Be careful what you wish for, right?” she said.
“I need to give myself six months, hoping I’ll get an idea if I want to stay longer. I’ll wait and see how New York and I take to each other. …
“I put off Broadway for lots of reasons. I loved my life in L.A., doing theater and TV. New York is a whole other animal. … New York requires a lot of energy. I love New York, but I love my quality of life in L.A.,” she said, but always thought, “I know I need to go there … but …” Now that she’s arrived in New York, she believes the timing is right.
“I’m more ready now, both mentally and spiritually. I could’ve come when I was 20; maybe I’d be a Broadway star by now. … But I have a strong feeling I would’ve fallen apart. I can handle it better now. I know myself better now,” she said.
“Having said that, coming here and doing a Broadway show, getting here now, is wonderful.”
With so many shows on her resume, this show is just like any other show, she said. “… the same process, same thrill, same headaches. I’ve done this over and over and over, but now, this is part of the tradition, where it started. …
“I’m doing what I’ve done my whole life, but now in a place with the tradition. It puts an extra shine on it. It’s completely familiar, not overwhelming. But at the same time, it’s BROADWAY!”