A guest blog by Laurie Veldheer on her journey from the Civic stage to Broadway to the role of Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie
THE START OF IT ALL
I was already well into pursing my passion for theatre/musical theatre/being an actor when Thoroughly Modern Millie originally opened on Broadway in the spring of 2002. I had been singing since I could hold a pitch, and doing little shows and singing in church and in school since I was tiny. I loved watching old musicals like The Sound of Music, South Pacific, The King and I, Annie, anything with Shirley Temple or Judy Garland, and I loved it all! I was blessed to be from an area that is so rich in the arts, professionally and community based. The Symphony, Opera, Ballet, and Theatre, there’s just so much to do and see! When I was 9 years old, my mom saw an audition notice in the Grand Rapids Press for auditions for kids for The King and I at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre. I knew the movie by heart, and she asked if I’d like to go downtown and audition. And I did! I thought that would be very fun! So we went down to the GRCT, I went up to Porter Hall with about 200 other kids. We learned 8 bars from a song from the show, “Getting to know you,” and then went down the line in height order, tallest to smallest, singing one at a time. Luckily, I was one of the last few kids, so by the time it got to me, I WAS READY. And I sang as loudly and as happily as I could. And then we went home! I got the call soon after, asking if I would like to be a princess in The King and I? And I did! I knew absolutely nothing about being in a show, about blocking, learning where to go and being able to repeat it, but I quickly learned. I fell in love with being a part of a community that a show creates, and I just had the time of my life! And then, I was hooked. I decided right then and there, at the tender age of 9, that I wanted to be an actress! I really got my start at the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, and then throughout West Michigan. In the spring of 2002, I had just finished playing Wendy in Peter Pan at the GRCT for the last show of 2001. And when Thoroughly Modern Millie came on the Tony Awards in June of 2002, that was it, I had a new favorite show and favorite dream role!
MY LOVE FOR MILLIE
I have been in love with Thoroughly Modern Millie since it first opened on Broadway when I was 15 years old. I don’t know if I started listening to the cast recording first, or if I saw the show first, but either way, I was obsessed. I begged my mom to take me to NYC any chance I could get, and I saw the show on Broadway four times. The fourth time, I saved up my own money, marched up to the box office, and bought a seat orchestra center just a few rows from the stage. I could not be close enough! I’m not exactly sure what drew me to Thoroughly Modern Millie … but I think I really related to the character of Millie, right from the first few moments she was on stage. A small girl, in the big apple. I wanted that to be me!! And then she sang about wanting to live in NYC her whole life, and I thought, ME TOO! And then Sutton Foster opened her mouth to sing, and that was it. The character of Millie, the relatability, the music, the words, the costumes, the choreography, the sets, the lighting, the entire cast. I was enthralled with everything about the show! And many others seemed to be impressed too, because it was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won 6! I listened to the CD of the original cast recording till I knew every word by heart. And then I kept listening to it. Sometimes I think it was Sutton Foster who taught me how to belt, and I swear that’s why people say I sound like her … cause I grew up singing along with her EVERY. DAY. For years!
Cut to 10 years later – 2012. I’m actually living in the Big Apple! By this time in my life, I have been incredibly lucky and blessed to go to an amazing school for Musical Theater, Penn State University, received my BFA in Musical Theater, got agents, moved to NYC, started auditioning, started booking jobs and working! In 2012, I was INSANELY grateful to be in Newsies on Broadway. A DREAM THAT CAME TRUE! I had been involved with Newsies for about a year, when the opportunity to audition for Thoroughly Modern Millie came up. There have been so many productions of the show over the years, but this was going to be a co-production (the same show and cast done at two different theaters under the same contract) at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre and at The Paper Mill Playhouse. The Paper Mill Playhouse is a theater I had worked at twice before, and a theater with an incredible reputation. I knew I couldn’t pass up the chance to audition for this production. So I went through the audition process. Initial audition of singing, callbacks of singing and reading scenes from the show, a dance callback that required tap skills, a final callback with tons of singing and reading scenes from the show with a gentleman who was auditioning for the male lead, and then … I GOT THE CALL! I’ll always remember that moment. I was walking down Broadway, literally, walking away from the Nederlander Theater where I was currently in Newsies on Broadway, when my agent called, and she told me, I got the part!! I COULDN’T BELIEVE IT! I was going be Millie. This was it. A moment I had dreamed of since I was 15 years old, that I had been working towards for the past 10 years. My dream was coming true! It also meant that I would be leaving Newsies, which was devastating. But this was my all time dream role, and so the decision was made. I finished a year with Newsies on Broadway, had my final show on a Sunday afternoon, and the next morning I was flying to rehearsals in Florida to start the first production of Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Maltz Jupiter Theater, before heading to do the second production at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
LEARNING FROM MILLIE
Millie was one of … no, probably THE hardest roles I’ve ever played. That role, the person playing it, carries the show. It was incredibly vocally demanding. Millie sings A TON of songs, and often solo. She starts the show and ends the show. Besides the singing demands, there is so much spoken dialogue and lots of yelling and using the voice in louder ways. Then there are the physical demands. Being in high heels for two and a half hours, countless costume changes, physical comedy with the body, tons of dance numbers in high heeled character of tap shoes – so many dance numbers!!
And all the emotional acting required too. The demand was incredibly high, but all of it, was worth it. The vocal and physical demands and strain was something I embraced, and if I was going to play leads and carry a show, I needed to learn how to do it! And boy did I learn. I learned, especially with this show, the person playing Millie, really leads it, in many ways. I had experienced it for myself in previous shows I was in, sometimes for the positive and sometimes for the negative. Being a lead taught me that the lead actor can really set the tone of rehearsals and performances, and for the whole process, really. I tried to take that to heart every day.
This show really taught me how to be a lead, how to carry a show, how to be a good leader of a company, to have a positive attitude every day, to have a good work ethic, to show up to work prepared and ready to work hard and give 100% from start to finish every day, to be grateful, to be humble, that taking care of myself is really important, to take care of my body with physical therapy and personal physical care, how to prepare for a show with voice lessons, when I’m in rehearsal and performances how to conserve my voice, what amounts of sleep and vocal rest I need, that steam and ginger tea and vocal warm ups and cool downs before and after every rehearsal and performance are very very important, and even how to eat, what are the best things to fuel my body.
I learned IMMENSE amounts playing Millie, and I’ll remember it for the rest of my life. I got to act and sing and dance to my own production of Thoroughly Modern Millie with choreography, lights, sets, costumes, wigs and jewelry, and get to experience, for myself, what it’s like to be Millie. I got to stand on the stage and sing those same lines and songs that hooked me and inspired me 10 years previously … and that I hope, inspired others in the audiences, every time I did the show. I love Thoroughly Modern Millie, everything about it, but most of all, the spunky, fun, brave, bold, brassy, risk taker, wistful, logical, vulnerable, trying to do the right thing, wears her heart and her emotions on her sleeve, amazing, wonderful girl, Millie. I’m so proud to now be able to say, I got to be Millie!!!
I hope you all enjoyed my journey with Millie as much as I enjoyed the journey itself. And I hope you all have a WONDERFUL time seeing and experiencing Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre!
Laurie Veldheer is a Grand Rapids native and performed with Grand Rapids Civic Theatre from 1996-2004 in several productions, including The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz, The Children’s Hour, Peter Pan, Kiss Me Kate, and Ragtime. She holds a BFA from Penn State University, and has performed on Broadway, and for regional and touring shows, including Mamma Mia!, Newsies, Into the Woods, Thoroughly Modern Millie, A Little Night Music, Next to Normal, and Hairspray.