HED:Ole Miss alum goes from Oxford to Broadway musicals
By Christopher R.C. Bosen
Don’t cry for Laurie Gayle Stephenson, Mississippi. She has fulfilled her dream.
Since the Dallas native and Ole Miss alum moved to New York City in 1979, she has enjoyed the type of Broadway success that most singers and actors never attain.
She captured the role of a lifetime in early 1994 when she was selected to play the female lead in the popular musical, “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway.
The road to success, however, was an extended journey for the talented Southerner who originally intended to pursue a career in journalism by attending college in Nashville.
“I loved Vanderbilt,” Stephenson said recently during a telephone interview from her Ridgeway, N.J., residence. “I had been there to visit and was all set to go there.”
Stephenson who lives with her husband of 11 years, attorney Todd Caliguire, and their two-year-old daughter, Sarah Kate was persuaded by a friend in Dallas to visit Ole Miss before she made her final college decision.
“I flew up to Ole Miss for a day and I just fell in love with it and I never looked back,” she said proudly.
The hand of fate
Instead of choosing singing as a career, the career sort of chose the singer.
While attending Ole Miss, Stephenson began to expand her singing horizons by joining a group known as The Group and participating with the Concert Singers.
During summers away from Oxford, the blond-haired, blue-eyed, soprano performed in the Southern Palace Show at Six Flags Over Texas amusement park. The experience led to her first job after leaving Ole Miss in 1978.
“I got a great job as publicity coordinator for Six Flags Show Productions,” she said. “I traveled around the country casting Six Flags shows.”
Unsatisfied with using her journalism education, Stephenson felt drawn to be a performer.
“I realized I wanted to be the one auditioning and I realized that writing press releases and news releases was not my thing,” she said. “I just decided that this was not for me.”
Putting her writing days behind her by May 1979, the effervescent performer soon found herself back on a theme park stage.
“That May one of the shows that I had cast in the fall was losing someone and it happened to be at the Great Adventure Park in New Jersey,” she said. “Because I had held the auditions and overseen the production of the shows, I knew the part. So I came up to New Jersey and I replaced this girl.”
A New York minute
During an off-day from performing that summer, Stephenson ventured into the Big Apple and what happened set into motion a career that has lasted almost 20 years.
“I went into New York to visit and when I was there I heard about Radio City Music Hall having auditions in September for their Christmas show,” she said. “I went back to the auditions and there were 400 women there and they chose six women.”
Before the final six were selected, however, the group was narrowed to 20 and Stephenson, whose theme park job was finished for the year, almost didn’t go to the final audition.
“I was set to go home to Dallas,” she said. “So I called my parents and I asked, ‘What should I do? Should I stay or should I just come home?’ I decided to stay over the weekend and I went back on Monday and they hired me.”
Two weeks later, after a quick trip home to visit and prepare for the winter in New York, Stephenson began rehearsals as a principal singer for the Christmas show.
“It was just such a blessing the way it happened,” she said of her good fortune in a city flooded with aspiring singers and actors. “I don’t know that I would have had the guts to just up and move from Dallas to New York without a job.”
String of success
The Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall led to Stephenson being cast in the Easter show and subsequently in the summer spectacular.
During this time she also found work in the world of daytime television. For five months she played the recurring role of Hallie on the NBC soap opera “Texas,” a spin-off of “Another World.”
Then she was asked to return for another holiday stint at Radio City Music Hall meaning she performed in the world-famous building for an entire year of shows.
“Looking back on it I realize, my gosh,” she said, “I was the luckiest girl in the world.”
Luck didn’t run out for Stephenson either.
After turning down a couple of chances to be an understudy in Broadway shows at the advice of her agent, Stephenson embarked on national tours of “Camelot” and “Annie” which ultimately led to the defining moment of her career.
“My big break came when I was offered ‘The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber: In Concert,'” she said. “That was the big turning point. My success came very late in life. I had basically been in New York for 10 years and I had done a lot of wonderful things but nothing on Broadway.”
As a member of the original company, Stephenson performed in the show which featured songs from many of Webber’s musicals in London and New York City for almost three years. Ironically, however, she wasn’t cast to sing the role she would later play in “Phantom.”
“They hired me to sing, ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,'” she said. “I was devastated and I went to them and said, ‘I think you’ve made a big mistake because I can’t sing this music. This is just not me.’ And they said, ‘Andrew thinks you’re perfect for this.’ They cast somebody else to sing Christine’s music.”
Though Madonna coveted the role of Eva Peron in “Evita” and portrayed the famous Argentinean in the film version of the musical, Stephenson was more enamored with the principal female role in “Phantom.”
Six months into the tour, Stephenson was asked to sing one of Christine’s songs the romantic duet, “All I Ask of You.”
Two years later, Michael Crawford, the original man and voice behind the Phantom’s mask, joined the tour. So Stephenson found herself performing with the actor who once sang the duet with the original Christine and the composer’s former wife, Sarah Brightman.
“I got to sing ‘All I Ask of You’ with him on the tour for six months which was really fun because he was the original Phantom,” Stephenson said.
Return to Broadway
Immediately after leaving “The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber: In Concert,” Stephenson accepted a job as the Broadway understudy to the leading role of Lily in “The Secret Garden.”
She performed the role numerous times before “The Secret Garden” closed and she continued to audition for her dream role of Christine in “Phantom.”
After several failed attempts to land the role in one of the touring companies of the show, Stephenson was finally chosen as the understudy for the Broadway production in 1994.
While serving as understudy for six months, a chance arose for Stephenson to play Christine in the touring company when one of the leading actresses decided to leave the show.
“They sent me out on the road for three months and little did I know that was kind of my try-out,” she said. “I actually opened in the role at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., which was just thrilling.”
At the end of the three months she returned to her job as the Broadway understudy and was offered to take over the role when the current actress’ contract expired six months down the road.
“When I opened on Broadway I had already done the role for three months so I felt really comfortable,” she said, adding quickly, “But I was a nervous wreck my first night on Broadway doing the role.”
Joy and pain
Stephenson soon discovered why two actresses are employed for every production of “Phantom” with each one performing just four times per week.
“It’s a very demanding role. It’s very physical,” she said. “You’re on stage all but eight minutes of the two hour and 35 minute show. And when she’s not on stage those eight minutes, she is changing clothes.”
The costumes involved included an elaborate wedding dress that weighed almost 70 pounds almost two-thirds of Stephenson’s body weight.
“There wasn’t ever a moment when I was doing the show that I wasn’t in pain,” she said with only a slight laugh. “Seriously, there’s just no way to describe it. But it was worth every second.”
The actress also recalls the joy of meeting the multitude of celebrities, such as Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, who would come to the show and then visit with the cast backstage. She also appeared on “The Late Show with David Letterman” twice and once did a skit with Bill Murray while wearing the elaborate wedding dress from “Phantom.”
Stephenson’s time as Christine Daae ended in May 1996 after almost three years with the show when she left after discovering she was expecting her first child.
Slowing down didn’t come easily for the actress during her pregnancy because she had been working consistently for 10 years. But the break gave her time to let her body recover from the demanding role of Christine and prepare for the demanding role of mother.
Christine in concert
Over the past few years, Stephenson has been performing Broadway songs in concert with orchestras in the United States, Russia, and London.
She now performs approximately one concert per month and returned to Mississippi twice last October for two special engagements the “Stars Over Mississippi” benefit in Amory and a gala concert celebrating the 150th anniversary of the University of Mississippi.
“They were both two of the most exciting things that I’ve ever done,” Stephenson said of the appearances. “It was so thrilling to be able to come back.”
Though she has remained close to friends she met while attending Ole Miss, she hadn’t been back to Oxford for almost 15 years before the concert.
“It was so emotional,” she said of the gala concert. “What a thrill to be able to go back to your college and do something like that.”
On Jan. 16, Stephenson will return to the south for an 8 p.m. concert with the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the Birmingham Civic Center Concert Hall in Alabama.
“I’m actually doing the concert with the guy that played Raoul opposite me in ‘Phantom’ on Broadway,” Stephenson said of the “Bravo, Broadway” concert which pays tribute to the musicals of Webber and Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Stephenson said her future plans include continuing her concert appearances and possibly recording an album of her own solo performances. For now, however, fans can hear her on the original cast recordings of “The Secret Garden” and “Prom Queens Unchained.”
While Stephenson has been offered other Broadway roles recently, none have evoked the passion from her she experienced while playing Christine.
“That role was so great that everything else kind of pales in comparison,” she said. “When you play a role like that all of a sudden, even though you’re the same person you were the day before, people treat you differently, they look at you differently, and they kind of put you up on a pedestal.”
Rather than being on that pedestal, Stephenson prefers a quieter life doing occasional concerts and spending time with her daughter and husband.
She also had some tried and true advice for other aspiring performers.
“I would say, ‘Stay true to yourself and follow your heart,'” she said. “Follow your dreams.”
Name: Laurie Gayle Stephenson
Family: Husband, Todd Caliguire, and daughter, Sarah Kate
Residence: Ridgeway, N.J. (30 minutes outside New York City)
Hometown: Dallas, Texas
Attended Ole Miss: 1974-1978
Hearing her: Stephenson will perform music from Broadway favorites at 8 p.m. Jan. 16 at the Birmingham Civic Center. Tickets range from $12 to $23 and are available by calling (205) 251-7727. She can also be heard on the original cast albums of “The Secret Garden” and “Prom Queens Unchained.”