Laura Osnes looks and sounds like a Disney princess. Her soprano voice feels like the reason people are allowed to describe singing as “effortless.” There is just no doubt that when you’re in a theater and Osnes is onstage, she’s going to hit the high note and it’s going to sound somehow better than you expect it to. And so, it was only natural that after winning NBC’s reality show Grease: You’re the One That I Want! And getting cast as Sandy in Grease’s 2007 Broadway revival, she would eventually go on to star in the Original Broadway Cast of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Osnes, originally from Minnesota, was a natural fit in the title role: all blue eyes and soaring high notes and small town charm.
But now Osnes is back on Broadway with a role that’s more reality than fairy tale: war-widow Julia Trojan in Bandstand, the new musical about a group of World War II veterans who returned from war and start a band to try to win a radio contest. Even with an upbeat swing score and over-the-top dance moves, the show never shies away from the quiet tragedies that returning vets face, even as they’re told over and over again that they’re the lucky ones to have made it back at all. We spoke with Osnes, who stars alongside Corey Cott (Disney’s Newsies) about a tricky role that shows off her range in every sense of the word.
Observer: You’ve had so many iconic roles. How do you select which part you want to take on next?
Osnes: (Laughs) I wish it were that easy. I’ve been a part of Bandstand for almost three years. I started doing a reading of it and continued with the project and been a part of it on its way to Broadway. There were a couple other things that came along that I decided to choose Bandstand over. Not a lot of things get to come my way that I get to pick and choose but I really have a heart for this show. I think the story is so important. People are coming and being very affected by it. It’s extremely relevant even today. The story about appreciating veterans and their integration back into society as well as the healing power of music. This role is unlike any I’ve gotten to play before. It’s very deep. It’s very rich. I’m getting to sing in a different style I haven’t sung before. And it’s a originating a role in a brand new musical, which is thrilling and every actor’s dream.
You’ve been nominated for two Tony’s, starred in revivals and original casts. At what point does a Broadway actress get to pick and choose?
I think you have to be Bette Midler to feel like that. I’m so grateful I get to do what I love every day. Being recognized for it is icing on the cake. At the end of the day that’s not why I do this, but I do feel like I was put on the planet to sing and dance on stage. It’s been my passion since I was three years old and I’m thrilled to get to do that on a Broadway level.
What’s something about being a Broadway actress that someone aspiring to that might not know?
One of the hardest things is the pressure of it and the expectation people have of you. Especially in this age of social media where people can watch YouTube videos where people feel like they can know you through your Instagram or Twitter pages. There’s this platform we are put on. Which is beautiful to be an inspiration, but there’s a lot of pressure that goes with that. Everyone expects a selfie at the stage door and feels like they know you and wants to have a full conversation and you’re tired from doing your show and just want to get home, but maintaining attitude and graciousness is important but there are days when that is hard.
And Cinderella is such an iconic role that a lot of kids looked up to so that pressure probably quadrupled.
Now people think I’m a princess in real life and that’s just not true. There’s a lot I learned from Cinderella and that character and she was a lot like me, but I’m also human. I’m hoping people understand that.
What was the hardest part of being in a role like Cinderella with a lot of scrutiny attached to it?
People have an immediate expectation of what Cinderella is and who she should be. The great thing that happens with that show is the script was completely re-written. So I did feel like I was creating a brand new Cinderella for this generation, as opposed to trying to fit into a mold of Julie Andrews or the Disney version. We weren’t doing the Disney version, which is maybe what people were expecting the most. The songs are completely different, the script was brand new. It felt fresh. It felt like I didn’t have to fit a mold. This cast could create a new mold together for a new generation. That was helpful. People had opinions at the stage door. “I really wish you were blonde” or “I wish you’d worn a blue dress at the ball” You really hope people can get over that and see a show and have it blow their expectations instead of being so stuck in the way it should be because they can’t enjoy it because I don’t have blonde hair.
You want to be like “I didn’t design the dress!”
Absolutely. I didn’t. There were times in rehearsal where I was like “I could be blonde, that would be fun.” I was blonde in South Pacific and I loved it. I was open to it and they were like “be brunette.” To be honest, William Ivey Long won the Tony award for designing the costumes for our show. But those were a couple people. Overall people were very happy with this version of Cinderella. There was a lot of expectation going into it and it’s my responsibility to be truthful to what’s on the page and bring the best of myself to this role. I wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, but it did feel nice to put my stamp on it for this generation’s Cinderella.
And you got to co-star with Santino Fontana…
Totally. I remember he was auditioning for Frozen when we were rehearsing Cinderella together and he showed me the sheet music to “Love is an Open Door” and be like “this is the song I have to go record. And now you see that explode so much and I remember seeing the movie for the first time. All I could hear was Santino and it was very cool to see the Frozen thing happen for him. I watched all of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I watched Shades of Blue. We are doing a concert together in July so we still keep in touch and have things going on.
I know you got your start with the Grease reality show. Did that give you a mistaken impression of what being cast and auditioning for Broadway would be like?
That was harder than any Broadway audition I’ve had. It helped prepare me. If I can do that, I can do anything. Again the pressure of auditioning live on national television every week and singing for your survival. We were put through the ringer in this weird way. In some ways, it shortened the process. It was two and a half months long and then I was given a Broadway role, which had I come straight out of college and lived in New York City for a while, it may have taken two and a half years before I was discovered and given that opportunity. On one hand, I’m very grateful for it. It’s great exposure and it made my dream come true at age 21, but it was also a crazy weird experience that was a lot of pressure. We were all so young and didn’t know what we were doing. I would not do it again but I don’t regret doing it.
You were in college when you did that?
I only went to school for a year. I graduated high school and went to college at the University of Wisconsin – Steven’s Point and then I got a job offer in Minneapolis to intern at the Children’s Theater Company, so I worked there for a year and was in all the shows and understudy seats and did all the workshops and things like that. So it was after that year that the Grease thing came up. So I went to Los Angeles and stood in line with a ton of people and ending up making it past each level every week and winning that.
Do you have a specific type of character you’re drawn to?
Everyone talks about typecasting. I think there is an element of reality to that and an element of not wanting to conform to that. I know my voice and image is an ingénue so I’m not going to fight that. I’m not the comedic sidekick girl. I wouldn’t want to do that anyway. What’s fun about even ingénues these days, with Julia, she’s not just a two dimensional ingénue. They are written more richly and to be three or four dimensional. You can’t get by with being shallow these days. People expect more. So what’s fun is to bring depth and complexity to an ingénue role like that. I have dream roles. I would love to play Marian Paroo in The Music Man. I’ve done the show three times in my life. It was one of the first shows I ever did. I played Amaryllis and then in high school I played Zaneeta and now I’d play Marion. Graduating to the adult role. I would like to do something like 42nd St. where I get to dance. I haven’t done something like that on Broadway very much. Something like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. That’s a great, iconic role I’ve never gotten to play. But she’s an ingénue, so there are roles I’m drawn to but what’s fun is bringing complexity to them and discovering layers. And also originating a role. Like Bandstand, where it’s a brand new musical.
What do you sing in the shower?
I tend to sing show tunes. I grew up collecting cast albums, not backstreet boys. That’s what I’ve listened to from a young age. When I sing pop stuff it’s Nora Jones or Sara Bareilles or something like that.
Is there a role you didn’t get earlier in your career that you are grateful for not getting?
I have a concert I’ve done called Paths Not Taken which is songs from shows I made final callbacks for but did not get or shows I was offered but decided to do something else. The path I didn’t take. I have a whole concert devoted to that theme. It’s fascinating to me. I look at where I am and what I’ve gotten to do and I could not have imagined the way it has turned out. This is beyond my wildest dreams, what I ever hoped to be doing. To look back on the last 10 years, it blows my mind. I’m so grateful. I always think what if I had chosen something else, or done that over that, and I don’t think I would want it any other way. I’m grateful for the experiences I have gotten. Each role I’ve played has such a special place in my life and that moment and I’ve grown differently from each of them. It is fun to wonder what if sometimes. Things happen for a reason and you’re in the right place at the right time. That doesn’t make choosing things less difficult. That doesn’t make the blow easier when dealing with rejection. Trusting that it is going to all happen the way it’s supposed to is a comfort. It is interesting to have to deal with that all the time.
So you’ve been married to your husband for a decade—how did you two meet?
The year I was interning at the Children’s Company we were there together. We were understudying the leads in a production of Disney’s Aladdin. One day the leads collided on stage together. Aladdin chipped a tooth and Jasmine was gushing blood from her forehead and they stopped the show. Nate and I went on together and we had to finish the show, we rode the magic carpet, our first kiss was on stage. A couple days later we started dating and a year later he proposed and we’ve now been married ten years.