Ain’t She Proud
By Guest Writer Michael Gioia
As Beth Leavel transforms into Mrs. June Adams at Broadway’s Bandstand, she thinks how proud her mother would be.
Perhaps the most interesting keepsake in Beth Leavel’s dressing room isn’t even in her dressing room. It’s in the bathroom.
“To keep me nice and humble, I have a picture of me winning the Tony Award over the toilet,” says Broadway’s comic genius—through a fit of laughter, naturally.
In fact, her Tony-winning turn in The Drowsy Chaperone’s title role, Dame Beatrice Stockwell, is, well, a big conversation topic backstage at Bandstand. As Leavel readies for one of her final performances in the short-lived original Broadway musical, Bandstand’s press representative, Joe Perrotta, spots an old photo of the two atop a yellow wooden table in her changing quarters—transporting us back to their Drowsy days and one hell of a Tony Awards!
“The whole time I’m thinking, ‘Sh*t-balls. What if I win? What am I going to say?’” she admits.
“That’s how we met,” adds Joe, who’s now not only a colleague, but also a close friend.
Rewind a dozen years to 2005, before Leavel took home the coveted prize, when the musical played an out-of-town tryout at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre—she had no idea who her sultry, scene-stealing Chaperone was!
“We did a lot of theatre games,” she recalls of the rehearsal process. “We did this one game—called Hot Seat—for about four days. You literally come out on a stool, your creative [team] and cast is in the rehearsal room, and they start firing questions at you as your character, and you have to know an answer.
“We really struggled with [my character] a couple of days—like, ‘Who is she? Who is this woman?’ The third day we were doing it, Casey Nicholaw goes: ‘Ladies and gentleman, Dame Beatrice Stockwell.’ I head to my stool to start the game, and the creatives and cast stood up. They went, ‘Brava! Brava!’ I stopped, and I remember going, ‘Thank you.’ I [bowed] all the way down to the ground, and I thought: ‘There she is!’”
But, it was during the company’s first preview in L.A. that The Drowsy Chaperone found its way into the heart of audiences. Backstage Left, Leavel was huddled in the wings with costars Sutton Foster and Danny Burstein at the top of the show—which begins, she remembers, in total darkness. The “Man in Chair” simply admits: “I hate theatre.”
“That’s either going to work, or it’s going to be the longest three months in Los Angeles you have ever had in your life!” says Leavel. Fortunately, “You hear the audience swell, and the laughter just takes over the theatre. I think some of us were crying a little bit because it was like: ‘Oh my God! They’re going to love our baby!’ We knew we had something really special.”
The Drowsy Chaperone was really able to “show off” on Tonys night, when Leavel took home the prize for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical.
“I remember saying [to myself], ‘Please, if you win, don’t fall, don’t curse, and thank your mom,’ and I did all three!”
But, back in her hometown of Raleigh, NC, Leavel’s parents were experiencing technical difficulties when tuning in—a thunderstorm left them powerless.
“They had a little TV on the kitchen table,” she remembers. “The power came on about six minutes before my category, so they were able to see that. I thanked them, and because I said their name and where they are from, their phone started ringing. The TV stations all wanted to come over and talk to them. My mother finally went, ‘I just take the phone to the bathroom now,’ because she couldn’t get off of it! That makes me so happy. They became real celebrities that night.”
Soon thereafter, Leavel’s parents passed away. Little does her mother know that she served as the inspiration behind Bandstand’s Mrs. June Adams.
“I kind of found this picture when I was moving,” she explains, reaching for an old-timey sepia photograph of her mother maneuvering the city streets while pinning her hair to get into June’s wig and housedress—a drab departure from the Chaperone’s minks and jewels.
“It was my mom in San Francisco, apparently not having it! My brother was probably in front of her,” she recalls. “My father was shipped off to basic training in Oakland, CA. Before he was shipped off to [war], the war ended, so he never had to go, but this was her taking care of the family doing her June Addams thing.
“She was my inspiration.”
And how proud she would be—maybe even more so than on Tonys night.
What would she say if she found out that Leavel brought her back to life nightly at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre? “Oh, for heaven’s sake!” says Leavel, imitating her mother’s southern drawl. “She would be like, ‘Oh no…! Oh, I remember that dress.’ Then she’d be really proud.
“She would love it. She would love it.”