When I first saw Carolyn Cole perform as Lucy in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and sink the heck out of some Stephen Schwartz songs at No Rules Theatre Company, I knew that I was in the midst of a star, and now Carolyn is wowing audiences as Tracy Turnblad in Signature Theatre’s bubby production of Hairspray. Let’s find out more about this rising star.
Joel: Why did you want to play the role of Tracy? Have you played her before?
Carolyn: I have been in for the role of Tracy probably almost 40 times since Hairspray originally opened, and -until now- I had never been cast. Tracy is immeasurable in so many ways. She has absolutely no limitations. She wants something, she goes for it and she gets it – no matter what the chance or the cost.
I have seen over 20 productions of Hairspray and you play Tracy with so many layers. Your performance is astounding! How did you shape your performance as Tracy? How much of your Tracy is your own interpretation, and how much is Director Eric Schaeffer’s?
Thank you so much for that! I had seen Hairspray on Broadway, I saw the latest musical movie, and I grew up on the John Waters film. I knew how a lot of people liked to see Tracy be portrayed, and I knew that I would most likely be compared to countless other actresses who have played the role. But I don’t like to do things that have been done before. I like to stay true to my character and true to myself. And I was very fortunate that Eric’s direction allowed for that freedom of originality. Tracy is full of sass and grit, hopefulness and determination. I could not wait to dive into her story.
How much of your personality is in the way you play Tracy? What do you share in common, and how are you both different from each other?
I think a lot of my personality is portrayed in the way I play Tracy. I relate to her on so many levels, – not only physically, but emotionally as well. I’ve never seen colors or boundaries, and I’ve always had big dreams. I just wish I could have half the amount of confidence she has.
What did you sing and dance at your audition and how long did it take for them to call you back and offer you the role? Where were you when you received the call that the part was yours, and do you remember what you said?
My audition started off with a dance call. Let’s just say, that has never gone very well for me in the past. I consider myself a ‘singer who moves.’ But I made it through to sing “Good Morning Baltimore,” and left there having no idea how it went or what they thought of me. I was in my apartment in NY when they called a few days later to offer me the role, and I can’t quite put into words the sense of accomplishment I felt in that moment. After almost 9 years of auditioning for this role, it was actually happening. I don’t even remember what my response was, but I’m sure it was something along the lines of ‘Oh my God. Oh my God!’
You are playing alongside Robert Aubry Davis who is playing your mother Edna Turnblad. It’s his first time performing in a mega-musical on the stage. What advice or suggestions have you given him, and what suggestions have you given each other when developing the Mother-Daughter chemistry that needs to be in the production from the get-go?
Strange as it sounds, Robert and I never really needed to ‘work’ on our mother-daughter relationship. He takes such good care of me, as only a parent would. And I’ve never had to give him tips or advice because he’s perfect just as he is. I would tell him to stop being so nervous because he’s absolutely brilliant and has nothing to worry about. I think he’s finally starting to believe me.
Kathryn Fuller is the understudy for Robert and it’s the first time a woman has played the role of Edna in a production of Hairspray. You’ve performed with her already. How do you describe her performance as Edna?
Kathryn is so lovely. She’s beautiful, funny and extremely talented. And talk about some ‘big’ shoes to fill. Literally. I can’t believe how different it feels to play off of a woman as opposed to Robert. It brings an entirely different energy to each scene. But it is an honor to be able to work with both of my extraordinary mothers.
You are like the ‘Eveready Energizer Bunny.’ Any secrets to share about how you are keeping up your energy? What are you doing to conserve your energy between shows?
Ahahah I like that. Any energy I put forth is pure adrenaline from this show. Before this, I was a coffee fiend. I no longer need to touch the stuff, ahaha. This show moves quick, and I have to keep up. The music and the sheer passion for the show honestly keep me moving. Between shows, a little humidifier action, some tea, and a simple chair do me wonders.
How would you describe Karma and Brianne Camps choreography? How long did it take you to learn all ‘the moves’ and which dance and move was and still is the toughest for you to do? What’s your favorite dance in the show?
When I met Brianne for one of our very first rehearsals, the first thing I said to her was ‘God help you.’ If I was nervous about any aspect of this show, it was definitely the dancing. Dancing isn’t just something Tracy does, it is something she is truly passionate about. Brianne and Karma are nothing short of amazing. I had to work hard, but it certainly paid off.
‘Run and Tell That’ probably gave me the most anxiety, because I am in the midst of some truly talented dancers on that stage, and I have never had to move like that, ahaha. My favorite dance in the show is probably ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat.’ By the end of that number, audience members are on their feet with us or literally fighting to stay in their chairs. At that point you realize how invested everyone is in the show and how much fun they’re all having. It’s nice to see your hard work pay off in that moment.
Which scene, song, or dance that you are not on the stage for is/are your favorite(s) and why?
There is actually only one song that I am not present for in the entire show. That is ‘Timeless to Me,’ the duet between Robert and Harry. It also happens to be totally adorable, charming and a pleasure to watch. They could not be any more delightful. I just love them both so much.
Why do you think audiences love Tracy Turnblad?
I think there’s a little Tracy in all of us. Everyone has had a dream. Everyone has been made to feel left out at one point or another. And who doesn’t want to root for the underdog? Tracy has all the odds against her in 1962 Baltimore, but you can’t tell her that. She has a dream, she goes for it and she gets it – all while singing, dancing and having a blast.
Why do you think Hairspray is becoming such a popular musical to produce in schools all over the country?
Hairspray is so much more than just a fun theatre experience. It is full of life lessons, and most importantly, it is based on actual events from our history. Kids should be made aware of the struggles that faced our nation. We will always be in the process of learning love, tolerance and acceptance, and the earlier kids are exposed to these, the better.
What advice would you give a young actress who is preparing to play Tracy in her school production?
If a young Tracy were to ask me advice, I’d tell her to play the role as real and true as possible. Everything she needs is in the story.
Do you use hairspray on your own hair or ‘hair don’t’?
I used to joke about repeatedly being called in for this role solely based on the fact that I never leave the house without a good tease held in place with a whole lotta hairspray. There was actually a time when I enrolled in cosmetology school, so I definitely know my way around a hairspray can!
What have been some of your most enjoyable and memorable moments so far in rehearsals and in the performances, and have there been any ‘unexpected’ things happen during a performance?
There are always unexpected happenings in any performance. They’re just usually miniscule and virtually unrecognizable to the audience. Thank God, ahaha. My most enjoyable moments are watching people get up and dance with us at the end of the show. To see the smiles on their faces and know that they enjoyed watching us so much that they literally could not contain themselves and stay in their seats, and they felt completely compelled to join in, makes our hard work and sweat totally worthwhile.
Harry A. Winter plays your Dad Wilbur in Hairspray. Does he remind you of your own Dad? Does Edna remind you of your mother?
Harry is such a delight. And he actually does remind me of my dad in that he can always make me laugh. He makes everything look so easy, I don’t think the man even breaks a sweat. Robert reminds me of my mother in that he is always looking out for me. My actual mother told me to ‘Listen to your show mother.” So needless to say, I am always taken care of.
Where did you get your vocal, dance and theatre training?
I attribute the start of my singing to my grandmother who would teach me songs to sing while she looked after me every day. From there I studied voice through a scholarship at the New England Conservatory in Boston, and then earned a musical theatre degree from Rhode Island College in Providence. When I moved to NYC, I continued to take classes and voice lessons in my spare time.
You are a company member of No Rules Theatre Company and you have appeared in two of their musicals. Tell me about being a company member there, who you played in the two musicals, and how those experiences helped you with your performance of Tracy here at Signature.
I performed in both You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and The Stephen Schwartz Project with NRTC. I was so honored the day they asked me to be a company member. I had only worked with them for a short period of time, but I already felt like a part of their family. I guess playing Lucy in Charlie Brown kind of gave me the sass factor to play Tracy, ahaha.
If you were granted one wish during this holiday season that would be granted, what would it be?
I don’t care if I sound like a beauty queen when I say that World Peace would be wonderful. On a more personal level, I always hope to spend more time with my family. They are all in Boston, and I don’t get to see them nearly as much as I’d like to.
What do you want audiences to remember when they leave The MAX after seeing you dance, act and sing ‘up-a–storm’ in Hairspray?
Hairspray is a spectacular show in so many ways. When audiences leave the theatre, I certainly want them to remember the strong messages this show conveys. But I also want them to leave having had the most exciting and uplifting theatre experience they can recall to date – as I do every single night.
Watch video highlights of Hairspray.