Raleigh native Beth Leavel always has been a triple threat: someone who can sing, dance and act, a unique cocktail of talents that can propel a career to great heights.
Actually, Leavel might be considered a quadruple threat, says longtime friend Cathy Rodgers, who met the Tony Award-winning actress in 1973 when they were students at Meredith College.
“She’s funny to boot,” Rodgers said. “She’s got an innate sense of timing. She definitely has that ability like Lucille Ball has, finding the humor and being able to deliver it.”
Clearly, others think so.
Leavel, 63, is nominated for a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for her work as Dee Dee Allen in “The Prom.” The show is up for seven Tonys, including Best Musical. The Tony Awards are Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBS, and the cast of “The Prom” is set to perform.
In the buoyant production, Leavel stars as Dee Dee — a role written for her. She’s a diva of a theater star who has to learn a bit of empathy when she and three other formerly famous Broadway stars head to a small town to throw an LGBTQ-friendly prom, despite strong community opposition.
Rodgers has seen the production and said the role of Dee Dee is the perfect vehicle for Leavel. “The Prom,” years in the making, capitalizes on her sense of humor, she said, and Leavel has two show-stopping solos.
“It’s like watching a master class, how to be a performer,” Rodgers told The News & Observer in a phone interview. “She brings to the role some gravitas. She plays a has-been, but she’s clearly not.”
Sunday, Leavel will face competition from Stephanie J. Block in “The Cher Show”; “The Prom” co-star Caitlin Kinnunen; Eva Noblezada in “Hadestown”; Kelli O’Hara in “Kiss Me, Kate.” “The Prom” won the Drama Desk Award on June 2 for Outstanding Musical, while Block won the acting award.
Rodgers, now a theater professor at Meredith, has watched her friend’s career flourish on Broadway since they met in auditions at Meredith College for a children’s theater production of “Winnie the Pooh.” (Rodgers was cast as Winnie the Pooh. Leavel was Rabbit.)
Leavel has been in 13 Broadway productions, among countless other plays and musicals. She won the Tony Award in 2006 for Best Featured Actress in “The Drowsy Chaperone” and was nominated in 2011 for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical in “Baby It’s You.”
Leavel grew up in Raleigh and graduated from Broughton High School.
She talked about living in Raleigh in a video interview for Broadway.com’s “Show People with Paul Wontorek” in November, before “The Prom” opened. She told Wontorek she didn’t know she wanted to be an actor. When she was a kid her parents, Lynn and Ruby, didn’t take her to theater, though she said they were funny.
But when she acted in “Brigadoon” at Broughton, it was like a light bulb went off, she told Wontorek. She learned what it was like to be in the same room with people like her.
But in Raleigh in the early ’70s, Leavel said pursuing an acting career “seemed like an impossibility.”
So, she went to Meredith to earn a social work degree with a minor in theater, taking advantage of all kinds of theater opportunities.
Rodgers said Leavel was given a shot at choreographing a musical her sophomore year, which was unusual for a student to do, let alone a sophomore.
“We always had an in-house or guest artist doing that,” Rodgers said.
After graduating in 1977, Leavel told Wontorek that she was hesitant to go to New York, so she went to UNC-Greensboro to earn a master’s in fine art. It was a life-changing decision as she found her voice as an actor and performer, learning from her fellow classmates.
She graduated and landed a job at the Pennsylvania Stage Co., where she earned her Equity card. That was it.
“It was like, ‘Girl, you got to get on the bus,’” Leavel told Wontorek. It was time to go to New York.
A role with a message
Like all actors who come to New York, Leavel had her struggles, Rodgers said. She finally landed her first show in 1985, “42nd Street,” in the role of Anytime Annie. From there, she has appeared in “Crazy For You” (a role she originated), “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Elf the Musical.”
“I guess I knew she was destined to have a career on Broadway when she was cast in her first shows,” Rodgers said. “She’s cracked that glass ceiling.”
Still, a Tony win doesn’t guarantee work, Rodgers said.
And Leavel told Wontorek there were times she couldn’t get work, or she believed in a show that just didn’t perform. Through the low points, she never felt like quitting, she told him.
And that makes her even more grateful for a role like Dee Dee, created by the same team behind “The Drowsy Chaperone.” The show, with its timely message, has received acclaim.
“I still sometimes am in disbelief,” she told Wontorek. “I work hard. I’ve been lucky. To have a show like prom written for me, it doesn’t get much better than that.”