Chryssie Whitehead has a unique connection to the musical A Chorus Line. One of her earliest shows, she’s performed the show on Broadway, has appeared in the musical’s documentary, and is currently starring in the 5th Avenue’s upcoming production. Ms. Whitehead has appeared on television, in the movies and alongside Neil Patrick Harris in the PBS filmed concert version of Stephen Sondheim’s COMPANY. Eric Andrews-Katz caught up with this very active performer as she prepares for her role as Cassie in the 5th Avenue’s production of A Chorus Line. Tickets are still available, don’t miss out. Click here for tickets.
Eric Andrews-Katz (AK): Who were your earliest influences?
Chryssie Whitehead (CW): I first did A Chorus Line when I was in the 8th grade, at Community Theatre, so I definitely have to say Michael Bennett. I love the art form, the Gypsy art form, that we learn to stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Elaine Stritch was another inspiration because her voice wasn’t perfectly beautiful but she could act and that was important to me
AK: What was the show that gave you the theater bug?
CW: A Chorus Line was absolutely the show that did it! I was in Annie when I was 10 (as an Orphan), and later as part of a ballet company in South Carolina – which is where I was born and raised. I loved the jazzy part of it all. In 8th grade I did A Chorus Line and had the time of my life. I remember watching the local ballet teacher do ‘Cassie’, and watching them do this incredible number every night. I remember saying, “That’s what I do! That’s who I am! I have to play Cassie one day”. And now I am.
AK: What was your Paper Mill Playhouse audition like for Lola from the musical Damn Yankees?
CW: I auditioned for that role on tape! I’ve never had that happen before. I lived in LA most of my career, so when I found out Paper Mill was doing Damn Yankees, I went for it. I always wanted to play the role of Lola. I had to do two auditions on tape. The first was ‘too glamorous’ they said. Their feedback was that they couldn’t see my body and how it moved, and that’s so important for that role. I went to another studio and put myself on tape. I sang the song and randomly called a friend to read scenes with me. It was a low quality production on that tape, but it got me the job.
AK: Is Lola an evil character?
CW: Lola? Evil? I think she’s an extremely insecure woman who never felt pretty enough or good enough when she was alive. She found out that she could have that and live forever by making a deal with the Devil. By the end of the day, she comes to terms with herself and the bargain she’s made. I think the show is about coming to terms with who you are instead of selling your soul to be someone else. It takes her by surprise when she falls in love. She shows us that you don’t have to be a glamorous woman all of the time. It can get pretty lonely with all those expectations. She’s stuck in ‘limbo’ because of the deal she made, and that’s something I think we can all relate to; when we feel that what we have isn’t enough and we want to be something (or someone) else. Lola’s a fun character but deep down there is sadness about her.
AK: A Chorus Line seems to hold a significant place in your life. It was one of your first professional jobs, you performed it on Broadway, in the documentary [Every Little Step] and now at the 5th Avenue’s production. What is it about this show that resonates with people?
CW: It’s not a character show; it’s about real people. Everybody in the audience can find the one person on that line that they can identify with and say: “Wow. That’s like me.” It’s not just a show about dance, it’s about putting your heart on the line and pursuing a dream. When I first did the show, I had a much different approach (and a different role) from the way I perform now. No matter what you choose to do in life, you do what you must to pursue that dream. The show inspires people to say, “What am I doing? Am I doing the work to make my dream come true?” With dancers, you see how hard we work. And the heartbreak to continue doing what you love. This show is timeless. I was first introduced to it 20 years ago and here I am playing the role again in a great city that loves and appreciates the arts. It’s a dream come true!
AK: What different approaches do you take when performing theater from television from film?
CW: Theater is a heightened experience because you have to reach the freakin’ back of the auditorium! It’s more dealing with your body movements in theater, you get to act with your whole body and your whole voice. In television, I’m not doing that much. It’s all in the eyes and what’s going on needs to be represented there. Everything that is heightened in my body must be conveyed in my eyes. It’s using your body versus using your eyes; it’s the same amount of urgency but more of a matter of where you put it.
AK: Tell me about the upcoming film adaptation of the Ahrens/Flaherty musical, Lucky Stiff – starring Jason Alexander and Nikki James.
CW: I hope it’s still coming out! Allegedly, it’s being released shortly but we filmed it over two years ago. Chris Ashley is an incredible director. I worked with him on All Shook Up and Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion [musical workshop]. I play a fun little part where I am on the train singing and being a flirt. We filmed on an actual train car so we didn’t have a lot of room for staging.
AK: If you could play any role – regardless of any limitations – what would it be and why?
CW: That’s such a hard question. I have to say I’ve always wanted to play Cassie [in A Chorus Line]. But if there were no limitations, I think the role that would be really fun for me would be The Genie in Aladdin. I think that would be really fun because I love a good comedy and a Kookie role!
Chryssie Whitehead’s work can be seen in many places including the concert version of Stephen Sondheim’s COMPANY filmed for PBS and staring Neil Patrick Harris and Patti LuPone. On television she can be also be seen in her recurring role as ‘Claire’ (Claudia’s sister on the SYFY channel) on Warehouse 13, GRIMM, and Grey’s Anatomy among several others.
Eric Andrews-Katz has contributed to several anthologies and is the author of the Agent Buck 98 series. His work can be found at: www.EricAndrewsKatz.com
We love Chryssie Whitehead!