Amy E. Johnson is a chameleon when it comes to her on-stage voices.
Whether it’s Sondheim or Rodgers and Hammerstein or other composers, she slides effortlessly from big-time belting to quiet ballads to laugh-out-loud comedy.
She gets to do a bit of all of that in “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” which opens Friday, July 15, and runs through Aug. 7 at Red Mountain Theatre. In it, she plays Marie, the “fairy godmother” who helps Ella live out her wildest dreams.
For Johnson, who grew up in Centreville and graduated from Bibb County High School and the University of Montevallo, it’s another leading role in a local career that, so far, has been busy, busy, busy.
She took some time to answer some questions about herself and the show:
Q. Were you always interested in theater?
A. I was always musical growing up, singing harmonies in the car with my parents and participating in summer theater. My first show was at age 4 or 5. I remember auditioning for James Hatcher a million years ago, back when Red Mountain Theatre was Summerfest, and attended their summer workshop. I was offered to share the title role of “Annie” that summer, but I ended up taking another offer with a different company. My high school didn’t have a theater program, and I needed some sort of creative outlet, so I joined the band and learned to read music by playing euphonium in marching and concert band. I went on to be section leader and was part of several honor bands throughout the state. I briefly played my horn once I got to Montevallo, but it was clear that theater was my true love.
I attended the University of Montevallo and graduated in 2006 with a BA in Theatre, and was active in College Night (PV!) and my sorority, Delta Gamma. I had a choir gig with my lovely friend, Laurie Middaugh, and have been a staff choir member ever since. After I graduated, I had a bit of a health scare and took a job at Regions so I would have health benefits and a more reliable schedule and income. I eventually began performing in Birmingham a few years after graduation.
Q. Can you give me an idea of some of the roles you’ve played here?
A. Fun fact: I worked as a crew member for quite a few years in Birmingham before I was ever cast, which was a huge testament to the training I got while at Montevallo. I’ve worked on everything from unload/assembly crew, light hanging, stitcher and costume crew, wigs and backup vocals. I’m super proud to be able to do more than just sing and act. Since then, I’ve had some pretty incredible opportunities onstage, including Judy in “9 to 5,” Amy in “Company,” Rosie in “Cabaret,” Lady of the Lake in “Spamalot” and Paulette in “Legally Blonde” (all at VST); the Baker’s Wife in “Into the Woods” (at Homewood Theatre); Fruma Sara in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Ursula in “Little Mermaid” and Madame de la Grande Bouche in “Beauty and the Beast” (all at RMT); Penny Pennywise in “Urinetown” (as a guest artist at the University of Montevallo); and Ethel Merman in “Book of Merman” (at Terrific New Theatre).
Q. What has been your favorite role?
A. This is such a tough question. I feel like I bring a little bit of myself to each role and leave with a little bit of each character when the experience is over. If I had to narrow it down, I’d say my most recent favorite has been Judy in “9 to 5.” I’d never consider myself a “leading lady” and, in fact, was told after college I’d never be cast in a lead female role because I wasn’t the right type. Over the years, I’ve watched more theaters fight type casting and embrace people who don’t look like the stereotypical lead. It’s empowering to be seen and hired based on talent and not the size of your body.
For me, Judy was a lesson for everyone who has ever let someone else determine their worth. I think we all need a reminder now and then that we have such beautiful, inherent worth. It’s easy to let the complications and nuances of life get in the way. But everything we encounter has the opportunity to be a lesson if we let it. Judy was a lesson in strength, perseverance, and remembering that you’re worth is determined by you alone. (Also, belting
“Get Out And Stay Out” was an endorphin rush like I’ve never experienced before.)
Q. Who are your theater mentors?
A. Such a great question. I’ve encountered some really incredible people in the theater world, from educators to directors, choreographers and fellow cast mates. The beautiful thing about being a mentor is that it’s not exclusive to leadership. I love that. If you twist my arm, I’d have to say my closest mentors are dear friends Henry Scott and Kent Zimmerman, college professor Dr. David Callaghan, my Kit Kat Girls (you know who you are), and Keith Cromwell and Roy Lightner. They’ve all been part of my life at very different intersections of the theater world, but they all have incredible gifts of knowledge, experience and compassion. For me, the Venn diagram of theater mentors and life coaches is a circle most of the time. There’s a lot of overlap. I’m very blessed.
Q. Are you doing theater full-time, or do you have a “day job”? How difficult is it to balance it all?
A. I most definitely have a big-kid gig or “day job” that keeps life moving when I’m between shows, sometimes two or three! I think most folks in the performance world have a hard time just keeping one job at a time. I recently left a position after 15 years with the company and am starting a new gig as the senior manager of social media strategy … on opening day of “Cinderella.” Ha! I didn’t plan that transition very well, but it’s an incredible opportunity.
It can be a lot to balance, which comes as no surprise. I’ve been really fortunate to have a team and employer that are incredibly supportive, so that’s a big piece of the balancing act. They’ve allowed me to use personal time and flex my hours during the week to ensure my work is done but still make it to rehearsals. This means I’m picking up my laptop at random times of the day or over the weekend to get projects done, but I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the support of a great team. As for the new day job and the balancing act, only time will tell.
Q. Do you get stage fright? How do you combat it?
A. I don’t get stage fright, per se, but I do get stage “OhMyGodWhatHappensNext” from time to time. It’s like a little blip in your brain where you second guess what comes next and have a tiny panic until you sort it out. I have been known to look over at someone in sheer panic and whisper, “What’s the first lyric?!?” And then it comes flooding back. Tons of fun.
On the flip side, I do have some pretty extreme audition anxiety. I have to be really thoughtful about audition days and prep very thoughtfully to make sure I feel comfortable going into the room. That means lots of studying and listening to music and a really specific get ready routine to make sure my brain and body are ready to go without any unexpected surprises.
Q. Any fun unexpected moments or gaffes on stage that you can share?
A. I have so many weird things that it’s hard to pick just one! One of my favorites, though, was probably back in early 2016. It had been a childhood dream of mine to sing on the stage of the Lyric Theatre ever since Cecil Whitmire snuck a few of us kids across the street from the Alabama Theatre during a theatre camp one summer. I had been cast as Ursula in RMT’s production of “The Little Mermaid,” and the incredible opportunity to sing at the grand opening ceremonies of the Lyric came up. I of course said yes. I was slated to sing one of the patter songs from the show in a gigantic Ursula costume, complete with tentacles and headpiece. During one of the two-night performances, I was exiting the stage and stepped on the front of my underskirt and went down like a ton of bricks. It happened so fast, I was in shock, but I quickly realized I could not get up. Like, at all. I had to crawl offstage to cheers and clapping under a 20-pound net of tentacles in front of a sold-out house at my dream theater. Gotta love live theater.
Q. Tell me about Marie. Who is this character in “Cinderella”?
A. Oh, Marie. She’s often called “Crazy Marie” in the show, and she’s a quirky little character who is really on the outskirts of society and marches to the beat of her own drum. Ella is kind to her, and is one of the only people who befriends her, getting a Fairy Godmother in the process. Once she’s revealed her true self to Ella, she’s really the maker of magic and sets things in motion for Ella’s dreams to come true.
Q. Rebecca Luker played her on Broadway. You both went to the University of Montevallo. Any thoughts there?
A. God bless Rebecca and her family. She was such a beautiful human being. While I was completing my undergrad at Montevallo, Rebecca and her husband, Danny Burstein, came to campus and conducted a master class. I was fortunate enough to sing for them and it was such a kind, encouraging experience. Both Rebecca and Danny were so approachable and generous with their time. She and I exchanged some really lovely conversation and I’ll always cherish that time with her.
I had a little moment of hesitation after her passing about performing the role of Marie – big shoes to fill and all. I’m no Rebecca Luker, let’s be honest. We couldn’t be more different as performers, physically and vocally. That’s an intimidating thing to take on, especially after losing her so tragically and so early in her life. But in the end, it’s not about matching what Rebecca was able to accomplish with Marie. It’s about making Marie mine, honoring Rebecca’s memory and finding the thing that makes this production special.
Q. What kind of wishes would you want granted right now?
A. One of the themes in Cinderella is kindness. In some of our first rehearsals, this topic came up and I shared with the group that I believe kindness is a choice. A powerful choice. And I truly believe kindness to others changes the world. Without giving too much away on my views of the status of the world we’re living in today, I’ll just say this: I’d love more kindness in the world, Alec, truly.
Q. You’re going from a master of the intricate score, Sondheim, to masters of classic Broadway melodies. Do you have a preference?
A. WOOF. They’re both so intricate, honestly, but in such different ways. Sondheim has an eclectic way of putting things together and after conquering two of his scores in less than a year, I can definitely appreciate the way his mind worked. I love the patter of Sondheim and the intentional, controlled chaos of his music – surviving “Getting Married Today” from Company is a different interview all on its own. But there’s something glorious about the Rodgers and Hammerstein score that transcends time while also being deceptively complicated. There are some beautiful subtleties incorporated with this score, it really operates like another character in the show.
This feels a lot like a “I don’t have a favorite child, I love them all” kind of response, but in all honesty, it’s hard to pick.
Q. Anything you’d like to add about “Cinderella”?
A. Set aside your expectations from the Disney cartoon version from your childhood and the movie version we moved on to with Brandy and Whitney Houston. This revived version of “Cinderella” is different than the ones we grew up on, but is timeless, and really funny. It has such depth beyond being a story about a girl who falls in love with a prince at the ball. It’s about choosing kindness, taking risks and offering people grace. It reminds us that magical things are possible, really beautiful messages that I think everyone can use these days.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. A break! I’ve been working on shows pretty much nonstop since mid-October, doing “Into the Woods,” “9 to 5,” “Company” and “Cinderella” while also balancing life and work. I’m looking forward to enjoying some quiet time at home with my partner, Morgan, and some long overdue travel.
I’ll be back to the RMT stage this winter for the 2022 Holiday Spectacular. I have my eye on a few things for 2023, but I’ll have to survive the dreaded audition season first.
“Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” at Red Mountain Theatre, July 15-Aug. 7; Tickets start at $25.