When Gay Willis first performed at Theater By The Sea 37 years ago, it was something of a lark. But her return this year, in a production of the musical fairy tale “Cinderella” by Rodgers and Hammerstein, represents a conscious plan to return to summer stock after raising children and performing and touring on Broadway.
When she first auditioned in 1985, Tommy Brent was the head of Theater By The Sea. Willis, a North Carolina native who worked at a dine-in near Washington, D.C., at the time, joined a friend on a convoluted day-long trek to Matunuck by plane, train, and car, then reversed the trip after the tryout to get back in time for the evening show.
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But the trip paid off. Willis, a soprano, landed the role of Tuptim in ‘The King and I’, eldest daughter Dorcas in ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ and Sleepy in a children’s production of ‘Snow White’.
This summer in Matunuck has been marked by mosquitoes in her dressing room, warm performances in the days before the air conditioning and loads of memories, says Willis, who this summer is playing the stepmother in “Cinderella.”
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“What a gift the universe has given me to be back here,” she says. “I have such good memories of this theatre. When I auditioned that day, the music director got up and wanted to play the piano with me. We just synergized.
Life between that first summer and now has been busy for Willis, who says a New York casting director who attended auditions at Theater By The Sea 37 years ago urged her to go to the Big Apple after the end of the season.
“He said, ‘You must be in New York. You have something special,” she recalls.
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When she moved to the city, she quickly and steadily received roles that landed her on stages around the world, just as the casting director predicted. Willis spent approximately 20 years on Broadway and touring “Show Boat” with names including Cloris Leachman, Dick Van Patten, Marilyn McCoo and Elaine Stritch; toured the world with Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman in “The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber”; and played Christine opposite Colm Wilkinson and later Ciarán Sheehan in “The Phantom of the Opera”.
She also had two sons, the youngest of whom is now studying musical theater in college.
“It started when I wanted to open up some of my old relationships for my son. He had auditioned last year for ‘Mamma Mia!’ at the Theater By The Sea, and I heard my old friend Kenny Ingram was directing ‘Cinderella’ this summer. I told him he should audition for the role of the prince,” Willis says. “He didn’t auditioned, but I did, to reconnect with someone I trust and feel supported by.”
When rehearsals began a few weeks ago, Willis was elated to find she was in the same dressing room as before, minus the mosquitoes and the heat. And, while she was disappointed she couldn’t walk a few extra steps to Moonstone Beach due to conservation efforts, she ‘couldn’t be happier’ to be back at the water’s edge. and on stage in Rhode Island.
If you are going to …
Where: Theater by the Sea, 364 Cards Pond Road, Wakefield
When: Until August 13
Information: theatrebythesea.com/cinderella, (401) 782-8587