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'Don't Underestimate The Guts' Of This Modern Leading Lady

By NPR Staff | 03/01/2013

This weekend, a new adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein television classic Cinderella opens on Broadway. It stars Laura Osnes, the ingenue of the moment. But Osnes' career path has had an unusual trajectory.

Six years ago, the then-21-year-old was newly wed and fresh out of Minnesota. She landed on Broadway in the lead role of Sandy in a revival of Grease. It's not surprising that that show, about teenagers, would cast unknowns in the leads, but how she and her co-star, Max Crumm, got there was unconventional, to say the least.

Osnes won a competition on Grease: You're the One that I Want, a reality TV show that promised winners a starring slot on Broadway.

But Osnes says what she didn't want was to be just a flash in the pan.

"I let the whole Grease experience be a springboard for me," Osnes says. "I wanted to use the exposure I got from that very wisely, to continue a successful career. It's taken a lot of work and perseverance."

It's paid off. With Cinderella, Osnes will be playing her fifth lead role on Broadway in six years.

Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, says coming to Broadway from a reality TV show was not a "terribly welcoming circumstance."

"We don't like to be told by television audiences — well, maybe now with American Idol we can be," he says. "But for Laura to have come to this town in the lead in that Grease production, and then to have turned out to be the real deal is what's so surprising, delightful and wonderful for all of us."

Chapin got to know Osnes when she took over for Kelli O'Hara in the Tony Award-winning revival of South Pacific, shortly after she finished up in Grease.

"It's such a different, legit, mature, sophisticated set of music compared to Grease, for example, which is great for its own thing," Osnes says. "But, yes, getting to kind of legitimize my voice and my career in the Broadway community was a wonderful thing, via South Pacific."

Osnes soon found herself performing in Rodgers and Hammerstein shows — playing Maria in The Sound of Music at Carnegie Hall, and Suzy in a short run of one of their biggest flops, Pipe Dream.

"It's interesting that when you look at the world of Rodgers and Hammerstein, they did tend to write for certain kinds of voices: the baritone — the big, boomy baritone, for example," Chapin says. "But also the soprano — the soprano who may appear to be young, beautiful and sings like a bird, but who has guts. And I think that's something — don't underestimate the guts of Laura Osnes."

And when you talk to people in the business, it's Osnes' talent, combined with her work ethic, that impresses them. In fact, she has won her Broadway colleagues over, and no one has anything but praise for her. After directing and choreographing her in Grease, Kathleen Marshall cast Osnes in Cole Porter's Anything Goes.

"She keeps sort of surprising you because she's a wonderful dancer," Marshall says. "I mean, she's a beautiful dancer, which I got to take advantage of a little in Grease and even more so in Anything Goes. But she's also this incredible person."

Osnes hasn't just made her mark in revivals. Last season, she created the role of Bonnie in Frank Wildhorn's short-lived musical, Bonnie and Clyde.

"To be honest, that was the most rewarding experience, despite it not lasting long on Broadway, it still holds such a special place in my heart," Osnes says. "And will probably be, you know, one of my favorite roles and favorite experiences, just because getting to originate a role is so, just, fulfilling as an actress."

And now, she takes on the role of Cinderella.

"She's guileless," says Mark Brokaw, who is directing the new production of Cinderella. "I think she's guileless as a performer, and I think she's guileless as a human being. And she is somebody that you, you know, would like to have in your lifeboat."

Brokaw's production features a completely new, hip postmodern script by playwright Douglas Carter Beane, married to the romantic Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes.

"She, as an actress, had all the right qualities for it, and has that gravity and has that depth. But at the same time, she has that incredible vocal instrument," Brokaw says of Osnes. "You know, she can sing the part in the way that the part demands to be sung."

Marshall thinks Osnes, who's only 27, has the potential to fill some big shoes.

"When you think of sort of those — Shirley Jones and Barbara Cook — she is sort of the next descendant of that sort of line of ingenues who also will grow up to be real leading ladies," Marshall says.

While Osnes stops just shy of saying her career has been something of a fairy tale itself, she does say she's enjoying the ride.

"If all goes well here, I'll be here for a year, at least," Osnes says carefully. "So, you know, that's enough time — I don't really have to start thinking about the next thing yet. But I'm so grateful that I get to do what I love, and I've had so many opportunities, you know, to get to do it. And Cinderella is kind of just the crown on top, literally."

Cinderella opens on Broadway on Sunday night.
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