Beth Leavel was a college student getting a social work degree at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina when she took a field trip to New York City. She and her pals had just arrived on an overnight bus and checked into the Edison Hotel when they had to rush off to a matinee. “We were sleepy and had not eaten” recalls Leavel. “We sat in the last row of the theater. The person in front of me was eating a pastrami sandwich.”
She remembers enjoying the show. “But I just really wanted some of that pastrami sandwich,” says Leavel. Later that day that night she saw Pearl Bailey in Hello, Dolly! and waited for her at the stage door. “By then I had been fed and was awake. Pearl Bailey was really magical and she signed my playbill,” says Leavel. On that same trip she also saw A Chorus Line. It was one of her many discoveries that revealed glimpses of a possible career.
Although she didn’t grow up performing in school musicals, she remembers being cast in her sixth grade’s goofy history piece set during the Revolutionary War. She did something that was not in the script which involved egg going down her back. “I remember getting a huge laugh,” says Leavel of the joyful moment. “I thought, what is that feeling?”
Leavel grew to love that feeling.
She remembers more glimmers of the bug when she did Brigadoon senior year in high school. However, at that point in her life, the Raleigh, North Carolina native wasn’t ready to go off to pursue performing as a career. Instead, she got a degree in social work and minored in theater at Meredith College. While there she did all the community and black box theater she could get her hands on. She played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz at the Raleigh Little Theatre. Her teacher and mentor, Linda Bamford, inspired her to give performing a shot. That led to getting a master’s degree in theater at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro “I had no choice. I just jumped,” says Leavel. “I could do nothing else.”
Then Leavel leapt and landed in a very big way. Five years after that famished college student saw Grease on Broadway from the back row, she was on Broadway herself in the hit show 42nd Street. She had been in the national tour and then took over the role of Dorothy Brock making her Broadway debut. “When I saw that performance of Grease, if somebody had said ‘In five years you are going to be on Broadway,’ I would have said, ‘no way!’ But somewhere deep down inside me I thought this is what I’m supposed to do. You’re going to do this.”
A Tony Award (for her epic performance in The Drowsy Chaperone) and many shows later, (Baby It’s You!, Bandstand, Elf, Mamma Mia!, Young Frankenstein, 42nd Street, Crazy for You, Show Boat), Leavel is still knocking it out of the park. This time she brings down the house in the musical The Prom at the Longacre Theatre. The show was inspired by several real life events involving high school students who wanted to take their same sex partners to the prom. However, many were prevented from doing so and treated horribly.
In the musical, a group of Broadway performers (played by Leavel, Brooks Ashmanskas, Christopher Sieber and Angie Schworer) more or less ambush a small midwestern town with their can-do theater press agent (Josh Lamon). They are convinced they can fix everything so a young lesbian couple Emma and Alyssa, (Caitlin Kinnunen and Isabelle McCalla) will be permitted to attend the prom together. And in the process, the actors will put on a savvy pr spectacle set to catapult their careers. Leavel deliciously plays Broadway belter Dee Dee Allen, a queen bee narcissist with a special gift for slaying 11 o’clock numbers. As The New York Times review declared, “Ms. Leavel, is, as always, scarily brilliant.”
The Prom’s home-run creative team includes director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw (Mean Girls, Something Rotten!, The Book of Mormon, Aladdin, Elf, Drowsy Chaperone), book writers Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Chad Beguelin (Aladdin), composer Matthew Sklar (Elf) and lyricist Chad Beguelin (Aladdin, the Wedding Singer, Elf). It is based on an original concept by Jack Viertel.
The roles were specifically crafted for Leavel, Ashmanskas, Sieber and Schworer, so their tailor-made parts are a total feast. “We love that these Broadway actors with a notorious reputation for being egomaniacs think that they would be the ones who can change peoples minds. But in fact they learn how to be better people,” shares Beguelin about the hit musical with heart and humor that received rave reviews. “It is taking a subject near and dear to our hearts and exploring all this fear. It’s just a girl wanting to take another girl to the prom.”
Case in point. As the song “Dance With You” goes: “I just wanna dance with you. Let the whole world melt away and dance with you.” Adds Leavel, “This story is constructed so splendidly. You see us going from narcissistic to better people. We discover our humanity and we have so much fun.”
The Prom is also special for Leavel because it marks her 13th Broadway musical. An amazing feat. When asked to share what she wishes someone had told her early in her career, she pauses: “There is just no one like you. So celebrate that. Explore, develop what you have, learn and grow,” shares Leavel. “You’re gonna have bad days. You’re going to have good days. But remember what you do is special.”