This week Paper Mill Playhouse opens their 2019/2020 season with the musical Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz. It is a musical about the rise of Frances Gumm and how she became the icon Judy Garland. The musical chronicles her early stage career in the days of vaudeville as part of the Gumm Sisters to her obtaining the role of Dorothy in the MGM movie The Wizard of Oz. In addition to Garland’s rise to fame, the musical is also about her family and her relationship to her mother, Ethel, played by Lesli Margherita.
I had the opportunity to speak with the enthusiastic and delightful Lesli Margherita. She talked about the show, playing the role of Ethel Gumm and what part of the show she looks forward to every night. In addition, she talked about why social media is a positive tool and why live theatre is important.
Kelli Curtin: Could you tell me a little about the show, Chasing Rainbows?
Lesli Margherita: Chasing Rainbows is the story about the early years of Judy Garland’s life from her childhood until she became a household name when she starred in The Wizard of Oz. The musical depicts the early years of her life and part of that is when she was performing with her two sisters in the performing troupe known as the Gumm Sisters. Judy’s parents made her who she became later in life through their sacrifices. It really was due to Judy’s mother, Ethel, that she was pushed and acquired fame.
Kelli: What can audiences expect when they come to Paper Mill Playhouse to see Chasing Rainbows?
Lesli: Audiences can expect very familiar songs that are iconic and associated with Judy Garland. They can also anticipate seeing actors playing well known people such as Mickey Rooney. The entire cast of this show are so talented. There are grand tap dance musical numbers that are reminiscent of old Hollywood dance numbers. However, as much as this show is full of grand musical numbers, there is also an emotional aspect to the show. This show is about family and what families do for each other.
Kelli: Could you tell me a little about the person you are playing, Ethel Gumm?
Lesli: The first thing I think of to describe Ethel is that she was one of the first “momagers” in the business. She curated the act for her daughters and traveled with them. Also, Ethel saw the talent in Judy and really pushed her. Ethel was really ambitious. However, she wanted her daughter to be successful, she did not want to be in the spotlight herself. Her main objective was to get Judy into the limelight.
Kelli: Since Ethel Gumm is a real person, how do you prepare for a role like this?
Lesli: One thing I think is interesting about Ethel is that she is not as well known as Judy who is iconic. We have a wonderful person available during rehearsals who is a Judy Garland aficionado that I may talk to and ask questions. It is really important to me to make the role of Ethel my own. Since there is not a lot of information known about Ethel I take the facts that are known and fill in the blanks everywhere else. Then I piece together all this information and create the role of Ethel.
Kelli: What is your favorite part of the show?
Lesli: Honestly, there are huge dance numbers in this production. My favorite part of this show happens to be the dance numbers I am not part of. These dance numbers have an incredible ensemble with phenomenal choreography by Denis Jones. I look forward to seeing these musical numbers every night and I love watching them.
Kelli: You frequently talk on social media platforms about self-empowerment and self-acceptance, why is this important to you?
Lesli: I love social media. I find it empowering. I think it is a great tool to help people feel not so alone. I try to make use of platforms such as Twitter to talk about things people can relate to such as having a bad audition. It feels like a sense of community and it is nice to have a community to relate to. I wish social media was around when I was younger because it would have been nice to reach out to people I admire. I will say now that when someone who I admire likes something I post I still become a fangirl. It really is a powerful tool and gives people a sense of community.
Kelli: Why, in your opinion, is live theatre important?
Lesli: There is no feeling in this world like sitting in an audience and watching something live onstage. No one will ever see the exact same performance live again. Theatre is living and breathing and creates something very special. Live theatre is moving and emotional, and it gives both the audience and actors a sense of energy. There is something so unique about being in the same room with other people and seeing the same performance in front of you. No one will experience the same exact show again. Live theatre is very exciting and special.
Kelli: Anything you would like to add?
Lesli: Chasing Rainbows is such an exciting and special show. It is a cool story about Judy Garland, and people think they know her story, but this show reveals more about her life. The show is an old-school throwback musical, but it also feels modern. Chasing Rainbows is really special and I am excited to be in the show and have audiences come out and see it. I think the world of Denis Jones who directed and choreographed the show. I am really grateful to be part of the show and hope audiences love it.
Lesli Margherita can be seen as Ethel Gumm in Chasing Rainbows at Paper Mill Playhouse through October 27, 2019. For more information and tickets visit their website at papermill.org or call the box office at (973)376-4343.
Photos courtesy of Paper Mill Playhouse
Kelli Curtin is founding editor and writer for Theatre Sensation. She has maintained a love of the performing arts since a very early age and she is excited to share her passion about theatre and the Arts with her readers. Kelli can be found on Twitter, Facebook and on Instagram.