Beth Leavel won a 2006 Best Featured Actress in a Musical Tony Award for her role as Beatrice Stockwell, the namesake character in “The Drowsy Chaperone.” An eccentric lush and aging musical theater star from the Jazz Age, Stockwell was a character Leavel helped create. Sometimes Leavel slips into her voice.
“Every once in a while, her voice comes out,” Leavel says from her home in New York. “I like her a lot. Sometimes she comes out when I am talking to students or am really embarrassed.”
There’s a good chance Stockwell will make an appearance and Leavel will sing her signature tune, “As We Stumble Along,” when she’s joined by pianist Seth Rudetsky at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA).
Leavel and Rudetsky teamed up for a show in Provincetown, Massachussetts this summer, in which Leavel sang the “Chaperone” number and her showstopping tune “The Lady’s Improving” from the 2018 Broadway show “The Prom,” in which Leavel also played a self-absorbed Broadway diva. Part of the Broadway at NOCCA series organized by Rudetsky, the show will feature songs from throughout Leavel’s career as well as stories behind her work on Broadway.
Leavel made her Broadway debut in “42nd Street” in 1980 and has drawn Tony nominations for roles in “Baby It’s You” and “The Prom.” She’s also starred in “Crazy For You,” “Elf the Musical” and “Mamma Mia!”
Leavel almost wasn’t in “The Drowsy Chaperone.” She auditioned, waited months and heard the role went to someone else before she got an invitation to go to Los Angeles and work on the show.
“It was quite a process,” she says of waiting to hear about the role. “I think they gave up, and (the director) said ‘Give it to Beth, and let’s see what she can do with it.’”
The cast and director were using theater games to develop the show’s characters, and the namesake Chaperone hadn’t yet come off the page, Leavel says. In an exercise called “hot seat” actors had to respond in character to impromptu questions.
In June and July, the NOCCA Institute is presenting a number of arts classes for adults. They include:
“About the fourth day, we were going to play the game again and (director) Casey (Nicholaw) said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, dame Beatrice Stockwell,’ which was the first time I had heard ‘dame.’”
The honorific term for a star of the stage in London clicked with Leavel and others in the game.
“I walked out and everyone was yelling ‘Bravo! Bravo!’” Leavel says. “So I bowed down really low, all the way to the floor, and then I realized there she is. That was the beginning of finding out who this amazing, whacky, narcissistic woman was.”
In the show, Stockwell is the frequently drunk, or “drowsy,” mentor to an actress trying to leave her career in theater to get married, while Stockwell is more concerned with her own glory days.
If ekphrastic writing sounds exotic, it actually is an old Greek rhetorical exercise based on vivid verbal descriptions of a visual artwork.
In the show in Provincetown, Rudetsky called for songs from across Leavel’s career, including one from “Grease,” the only production they worked on together almost 30 years ago. Leavel appeared in the original Broadway production of “42nd Street” as well as the 2001 revival. Rudetsky not only asked her to sing one of Anytime Annie’s songs, but do the accompanying tap dance as well.
“He asked me to bring my tap shoes,” she says. “I had to go home that night and go through the steps again. It’s not the easiest tap line that Anytime Annie does.”
For most of her career, Leavel’s performances were entirely scripted and rehearsed, but she also does some cabaret singing in New York. In her series with Rudetsky, she says the surprises are part of the fun of the show.