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‘Billy Elliot’ Star Nancy Anderson Is Born to Boogie

October 23, 2018 by Nicole Hertvik
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Nancy Anderson in rehearsal for “Billy Elliot.”

Dust off your tap shoes and get ready to boogie. “Billy Elliot,” one of this season’s most-anticipated musicals, arrives at Signature Theatre on Oct. 30. Featuring a score by Elton John and based on the 2000 film, “Billy Elliot” is the tale of one boy whose passion for dance divides and then ultimately unites his village.

Nancy Anderson plays Mrs. Wilkinson, the hard-nosed dance teacher who softens after observing Billy’s talent for dance and rises to guide the motherless boy out of the dead-end British coal town during the 1984 miners’ strike.

Anderson, a regular on DC stages with at least four Helen Hayes nominations to her name, returns to the DC area after understudying Glenn Close in the 2017 Broadway revival of “Sunset Boulevard.” We spoke with Anderson about “Billy Elliot,” dealing with loss, and why we might be seeing her more often on DC-area stages.

At its heart, “Billy Elliot” is a show about a boy who has lost his mom. What role does Mrs. Wilkinson play in Billy’s life?
I imagine that Mrs. Wilkinson dreamt of using dance to escape this dead-end town but didn’t have enough talent and now she’s stuck. Then this kid shows up in her class who actually has talent. It’s difficult for anyone who has ever been good at something to come face to face with their own limitations. She’s a little bitter but also smart enough to see that he has talent and needs help. So she goes through this huge emotional arc with Billy. It’s a transformative relationship for both of them.

What causes her to soften towards Billy?
It’s well known in the town that Billy’s mother died, but in true British fashion, it’s not discussed. It’s not that Mrs. Wilkinson is particularly emotionally evolved in connecting with Billy. It’s 1984. She hasn’t had any therapy! She might feel bad for this kid on the surface that he lost his mother, but she also thinks he’s a little shit. It isn’t until she gets to know Billy better that she realizes the uniqueness of the situation. This kid doesn’t have a mother, and he’s in a house full of men except for a dotty, old grandmother. He literally has nobody. And that — along with his talent — allows her to rise out of her own misery for a second.

What was your experience with “Billy Elliot” before being cast in this production?
I’ll be the first to admit that when I saw it on Broadway, I thought it was a very typical musical of that time with Elton John music and song and dance numbers. But the show is a lot deeper than that. Particularly, the union storyline and the depiction of suffering that occurs on a local level, and to one family in particular, when workers and big business collide.  

I spent a year in London in 2001 performing in “Kiss Me, Kate,” and you can see first-hand the effects of the union-busting Margaret Thatcher era on the theater community there. They don’t have the same safety net that theater workers in the U.S. have.

Speaking of “Kiss Me, Kate,” you starred in that show alongside Marin Mazzie whose recent death has saddened the theater community at large. What was it like working with her?
I moved to New York in 1994, and one of my very first gigs was as Marin Mazzie’s lighting double for the PBS filming of “Passion.” I was new to town and the offer was $100 a day, free tickets to “Passion,” and all you could eat at the craft services table, which was a really good deal to me!

So I got to spend two days on a Broadway stage pretending to be Marin Mazzie, with director James Lapine putting me through my paces, and I’m in heaven. At one point, Marin Mazzie comes out of the wings in her wig and everyone is looking at my hairline to make sure Marin’s wig looks just like my hair. Right out of the gate, I got to meet this enormous star.

Losing Marin Mazzie had an impact on the entire theater community. She was one of the great leading ladies of my era.

What was it like to understudy Glenn Close in the 2017 “Sunset Boulevard” revival on Broadway?
It was one of the most thrilling jobs I’ve had in a career of over 25 years. Glenn Close is an extraordinary leading lady, and if you made up a list of the top 20 people who should understudy Glenn Close in “Sunset Boulevard,” I would not even be on that list. I figured I had no chance but I would make the audition the one chance in my life to ever sing these songs. When I told my friends I got the part they were like, “Wait, what?”

How many times did you get to play Norma Desmond?
Once! Glenn Close was very committed to the role and went on no matter what. After awhile, I figured I would just go through the show in the ensemble. And to be honest, I was fine with that. If someone is buying a ticket to see “Glenn Close starring as Norma Desmond on Broadway,” I have no interest in going on. I know the audience is there to see Glenn.

But on Mother’s Day of last year, she showed up with no voice. One hour to curtain I received the call that I was going on as Norma Desmond. I was on a train platform way out in Brooklyn where I live. My normal ensemble part was old hack by this point so I had planned to slide into the theater and get a quick dinner before I went on. I immediately called my husband so he could come see me. He ended up bringing 40 of our friends!

After the show’s opening sequence, I walked to Glenn’s dressing room and the entire cast was standing there. They started applauding and my whole body gave out on me. It was an incredible experience, but I’m glad I didn’t have to do it a second time because I wouldn’t want to find out what happened once the adrenaline wore off!

Your husband, Ethan McSweeny, just accepted the job of artistic director at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA. Does that mean we will see a lot more of you on DC stages?
When Ethan started his job there, I sent an email to my agent listing the theaters that were in a three-hour radius of Staunton, and completely unrelated, two days later, Matt Gardiner [Signature Theatre’s associate artistic director] asked if I wanted to do “Billy Elliot.” He hadn’t been contacted by my agent or anything, it was just serendipity!

Get tickets to see Nancy Anderson in “Billy Elliot.”