Behind The Curtain

Broadway star who broke barriers inspires ECU students

Broadway’s Ali Ewoldt shared her inspiring story of breaking barriers and perseverance with East Carolina University School of Theatre and Dance students during a visit on Feb. 23.

Ewoldt, the first Asian American woman to play Christine in “The Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway, auditioned for any production that she could find over a 10-year period before she was cast in the role.

“I think her advice about perseverance and the fact that she auditioned for Phantom for 10 years is incredible,” said Casey Wild, a Raleigh sophomore majoring in musical theatre and English. “It’s definitely a reminder that you never know. You could be about to give up and your opportunity is just around the corner.”

Ewoldt’s career includes “West Side Story,” “Chicago,” and the Broadway revival of “Les Misérables.” She appeared in the Tony Award-winning revival of “The King and I” and in “The Fantasticks” off-Broadway, the world’s longest running musical. She has performed in venues from Lincoln Center to Carnegie Hall and with symphonies and orchestras across the U.S. She also has acted in TV and film.

While on national tour for “Les Misérables,” she performed with Trent Blanton, now an associate professor of theatre at ECU. Their friendship helped make Ewoldt’s visit to ECU possible, along with funding by the East Carolina Theatre Association student organization and support from the School of Theatre and Dance.

ECU faculty member Rebecca Simon, right, moderates a discussion with Ali Ewoldt during a master class at ECU.

Ewoldt inspired and captivated students, faculty members and others during a two-hour master class in Messick’s Studio Theatre. She shared techniques and gave feedback to five students who each performed a song. She answered questions from interviewer Rebecca Simon, ECU assistant professor of acting. Ewoldt also sang during the class, which was open to campus.

“You’ll see students furiously taking notes and ideas that will inspire them,” Simon said. “Inspire is the key word — to inspire these students that they can do what she has accomplished and finding the positivity and the resiliency of hearing ‘no’ and not giving up.”

When Simon was in college, she attended a master class with comedian and actress Carol Burnett, who advised “you can’t give yourself less than five years of ‘nos,’” Simon said. “It stuck with me for so long.”

ECU sophomore Casey Wild gets feedback on her performance from actor Ali Ewoldt, who led a master class at ECU on Feb. 23.

Students said they planned to put Ewoldt’s advice and encouragement into practice.

“These opportunities go a really long way. It meant a lot to me,” said Wild, who sang “Right Hand Man” from the musical “Something Rotten.”

She said her critique taught her to be more practical and to live in the songs that she performs.

“Just the scenario she set up, I think it will help me in staging solos where I don’t have scene partners,” said Wild, who performed in ECU’s production of “Bright Star” and more recently “A Winter’s Tale.”

McKenna Lawler, a sophomore Brinkley-Lane Scholar from Gastonia, has been a huge fan of Ewoldt’s since her role in “She Loves Me.” Lawler decided to sing “A Little Bit Less Than” from the musical “It Shoulda Been You” for her critique because it had more acting than other soprano pieces she considered.

“When I got up there, I was so nervous, because it’s your idol,” Lawler said. “But she’s so sweet. She’s fun to work with and brings a light-hearted air to what she does. It makes me feel good. She’s a fantastic listener.

“I think the biggest thing that stuck out for me is when she talked about how she still gets nervous,” Lawler said. “Hearing she feels the same way about it, I’m like OK, it’s not a career-ending problem that I have. Everyone gets nervous. That stuck with me the most.”

Last semester Lawler was in the ECU children’s theatre production of “The Last Firefly.” This year, she will be a stagehand and understudy for one of her friends in “The Play That Goes Wrong.”

ECU freshman Lilly Bennett of Raleigh, who is majoring in musical theatre and scenic construction, sang “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” from “Phantom of the Opera” for her critique.

“You never expect to meet the people that you idolize, and I did, and I got to sing for her, which is insane,” Bennett said. “I can’t describe it in enough words because there are so many emotions that I’m feeling right now. I’ve looked up to her for the longest time because ‘Phantom’ is my favorite musical of all time. I could talk about it for hours. Seeing someone play that role, my dream role, that looks like me, is incredible.

ECU freshman Lilly Bennett performs during a master class in Messick Studio Theatre.

“You just want to have someone to look up to in general, especially being a person of color, someone that looks like me and has had shared experiences like that,” Bennett said. “The big overall takeaway for me from this is that it is possible for me to accomplish something like this. With the recent stuff going on with racial violence and all of that, it’s been really discouraging for people of color. But I see someone who is happy and beautiful and smart and kind and talented, who did it, during these times, so her just existing and doing the work that she does is an inspiration.”

ECU faculty member Trent Blanton and students react as actor Ali Ewoldt shares her journey to becoming a professional actor. Blanton and Ewoldt became friends while performing on the national tour of “Les Misérables.”

Ewoldt said she knew becoming an actor would be a challenge, with a lot of very talented people and not so many jobs. “I decided I wanted to study academically and find something I was equally passionate about. Spoiler alert: it didn’t happen.”

Ewoldt earned a degree in psychology at Yale, and that major helped her career. “As actors, we try to understand why people behave the way we do,” she said.

An agent saw her in a Yale School of Music production of “Figaro,” which led to professional work. She started out as an understudy and body double for two of her idols in “Aladdin” at Disneyland. “They were incredibly kind, they were so generous … It taught me how to be a team member in a company.”

In her final callback for “Phantom,” she sang “Think of Me” in her audition with celebrated director Hal Prince at the Majestic Theatre in New York City.

“They didn’t know they were making history by casting me,” Ewoldt said. “I think they were unprepared for how excited people would be.”

Ewoldt’s class is part of ongoing efforts to increase opportunities for ECU School of Theatre and Dance students to meet and interact with working professionals in different areas of the entertainment industry.

Last spring, Laurence O’Keefe, a Broadway, TV and film composer who wrote “Legally Blonde: The Musical” and the longest song ever on “The Simpsons,” titled “Goodbye, Middle Class” and sung by Hugh Jackman, taught a master class for ECU students.

“What’s important about bringing in these real-world artists for the students and what serves them is to see these people that they idolize or look up to are human beings and have the same struggles and trials and tribulations that they do,” Simon said.

O’Keefe shared that he wanted to be an actor when he started. He was at an audition where a piano player was needed, and he stepped in. “Afterwards, the person said ‘Can I give you some advice? You’re not going to be an actor. Give that up. I think piano and that side of things is your thing,’” Simon recalled. “He wouldn’t be the composer he is today without that. And hearing that story for the students was very inspirational, getting to meet him, students getting to sing for him.

“It’s really important to have them face to face, to be able to ask questions and to hear that they did not get something handed to them so easily. They had to study. They took the same classes our students are, and they’ve learned the skill sets that we teach,” Simon said. “It just reinforces what we do, and the rigor that is demanded to do this for a living.”

Master Class with Ali Ewoldt

(Video by Dennis Brathwaite)

Other guest artists, composers and directors visit ECU students throughout the year via Zoom, with several planned this semester, including one director who has six national tours that she needs to cast. The contacts provide valuable networking opportunities, Simon said.

“They are going to get seen, and getting seen is everything in this business,” Simon said. “Getting these opportunities for our students is incredibly important.”

ECU students, faculty and guests listen to Broadway actor Ali Ewoldt.