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With a big voice, and bigger heart, her Broadway dream comes true

Conservatory grad lands lead role in ‘Ragtime’

By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / November 1, 2009

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NEW YORK - It’s Broadway tradition to kick off rehearsals with a “meet and greet’’ where everyone involved in a new production introduces themselves, one by one.

That’s where 23-year-old Stephanie Umoh found herself a few weeks ago after being cast in a lead role in the musical “Ragtime,’’ just a year and a half after graduating from Boston Conservatory. As the introductions began, Umoh could barely contain herself. She heard: “ ‘Hi, I’m E.L. Doctorow, I wrote the novel.’ ‘Hi, I’m Stephen Flaherty, I wrote the music.’ ’’

The names kept flying. Terrence McNally, who wrote the book. Lynn Ahrens, who wrote the lyrics.

Then her turn came. “I said, ‘I’m Stephanie Umoh. I’m playing Sarah,’ ’’ Umoh said. And then she burst into tears.

“She literally had an organic meltdown,’’ said James Moore, the show’s music director. “She was sobbing uncontrollably.’’

There was a lot behind those tears - disbelief, elation, pride that her Broadway debut will not be just any role, but this one - Sarah, the martyred black girl at the emotional center of the show - the part she’d performed to acclaim at New Repertory Theatre in 2006. The part that made Audra McDonald, her idol, famous in the original 1998 Broadway production and earned her a Tony Award.

She was also feeling relief.

When Umoh entered the Conservatory six years ago, she was the long-shot hopeful from Texas in the school’s competitive musical-theater program. She didn’t know how to read music. She had so little formal vocal training her voice teacher described her as “clueless.’’ She’d never even seen a Broadway show.

Now, she has her own private dressing room with a window facing West 52d Street, prime Broadway real estate across from the “Jersey Boys’’ marquee. She’s signed her first-ever autograph (“S. Umoh’’). She’s performed at a massive public concert for Broadway stars, the audience filling Times Square. She was seated at the celebrity table at a Broadway fund-raiser. “Can you guess who I was a couple of feet away from?’’ Umoh said, still incredulous. “Bernadette Peters!’’

It’s been such an unlikely trajectory that director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge has taken to calling Umoh “my Seabiscuit.’’

But success has not come easily to Umoh, the daughter of a white mother and Nigerian-born father whose senior year at the Conservatory was chronicled in a five-part Globe series in 2007-08. It ended with her moving to New York, struggling for work, and facing a staggering student loan debt of $130,000.

No one denied she had a powerful voice, and Umoh was adored by Boston’s theater community at a time when local students were increasingly being cast in professional shows. A dozen talent agents courted her before she signed with Nicolosi & Co. Soon after her move, she had three auditions for the important part of Rizzo in “Grease,’’ but the part went to somebody else. There were tensions with a roommate. When she finally landed a cocktail waitress job at a jazz club, she was fired by the end of the week. “They said I appeared nervous,’’ she said.

She was nervous in auditions, too. But when she heard last November about a new production of “Ragtime’’ at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, she was determined to try out. She sang Sarah’s heart-wrenching signature song, “Your Daddy’s Son.’’

It didn’t go well. “I was so scared to death, I couldn’t relax. I was so in my head, criticizing myself as I went along.’’

“I think she worked too hard at being very, very sophisticated,’’ said casting director Laura Stanczyk. “She came in a black wrap dress and heels with her hair coiffed. She didn’t look like a girl from the South. I think [the creative team] just couldn’t see her in the role.’’

Still, she made an impact. Moore, the music director, was drawn to her voice though he felt she wasn’t seasoned enough to do the show. But in his mind, she was a front-runner: “She’s magnetic. She has a confidence about her but underneath is this organic humility in her that is so attractive.’’

Umoh was disappointed but didn’t have time to dwell on it; the same week she got an offer to understudy the role of Nala in a Las Vegas production of “The Lion King.’’ She was thrilled to get the offer, but her agency advised against it, arguing she could contend for better parts by staying put.

Much of the Christmas holiday was spent with her family near Dallas, debating what she should do.

“Giving it up seemed so chancy,’’ she said. “I could pay off some of my debt. I could make my family able to breathe.’’

In the end, she listened to her agents. Back in New York she “auditioned and auditioned and auditioned,’’ getting used to being rejected. A few small things did come through, though - parts in a workshop and in a work-in-progress at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. In the spring, she played Sheila in “Hair’’ at Connecticut Repertory Theatre.

There were days she couldn’t go into Manhattan because she couldn’t afford the subway. “I survived off eggs,’’ she said. “They were cheap and filling.’’ Her father helped her out when he could and her mother dipped into her retirement savings. She started to think seriously about moving back to Texas.

Meanwhile, “Ragtime’’ opened to rave reviews in D.C., where its panoramic look at race and immigration had fresh relevance in the Age of Obama. Then came the news that it was moving to Broadway, and that some of the roles would be recast - including the role of Sarah.

“The agent was like, ‘ “Ragtime’’ is coming!’ ’’ said Umoh. “And I’m like, ‘This is it, this is it, this is it.’ ’’

Her agent, Michael Goddard, had to push hard to get Umoh another audition, and when he succeeded, in July, it was for Sarah’s understudy and a role in the ensemble. She was up against 134 other women, said casting director Stanczyk, including “some ex-‘American Idol’ girls and starry kind of names.’’

But this time Umoh was ready. Feedback had trickled in through Goddard that the black dress and heels were the wrong approach, and she took it to heart. “She came in with a peasant dress and bare feet,’’ said Stanczyk. “The black dress was at the back of the closet.’’

She sang for them again, this time remembering to breathe. Dodge, the director, listened in tears. “She came up to me afterwards and pressed her forehead on mine and said, ‘Would you like to be our Sarah?’ ’’ Umoh recalled, her hands on her face, still astonished. “I couldn’t catch my breath.’’

Rehearsals started in September, six days a week.

“It’s exhausting but a good exhausting,’’ Umoh said. Money worries are a thing of the past, for now.

She sees a personal trainer three times a week, and just bought a sofa. Principals on Broadway get anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 a week, says her agent; Umoh calculates that if the show runs for three years, she’ll be able to pay off her whole student loan.

When “Ragtime’’ opens Nov. 15, producers have plans to close off 52d Street to traffic and put a red carpet down between the theater and the nearby club where the opening-night party will be held. Umoh’s family will be there.

Soon, she hopes to see Audra McDonald, who has congratulated her and promised to see the show. Umoh knows she’ll be compared with the actress, who has won a total of four Tony Awards and now stars on the ABC series “Private Practice.’’

“People remind me every day, almost,’’ she said. But they’re also telling her to remember what she’s achieved, to soak up the excitement, and she is. “I walk down the street and think, ‘This is what it feels like to be happy.’ And I’m not ashamed to admit it.’’

Linda Matchan can be reached at l_matchan@hotmail.com.

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