On Broadway: Moorhead grad Gulsvig lands ‘Hairspray’ role
By Tom Pantera,The Forum
Published Sunday, November 21, 2004
In 1998, Becky Gulsvig played the lead in Trollwood Performing Arts School’s production of “42nd Street.”
She was Peggy Sawyer, a fresh-faced Midwestern kid with big dreams of Broadway stardom. Peggy realizes her dreams in the play.
Art is beginning to imitate life.
Gulsvig, 22, is on her way to becoming a bona-fide Broadway star.
Since moving to New York City four years ago, she’s had a run of casting luck that would be the envy of many another aspiring actor.
Gulsvig capped that run of luck in October, landing a part in the hit “Hairspray.”
Based on the 1988 John Waters film set in the early 1960s, the play is about a young girl who forces the integration of a local Baltimore version of “American Bandstand” – and finds love along the way.
The play stars Bruce Vilanch as the girl’s mother, in a part always played by a man. In the film, the part was played by drag star Divine; onstage, it was originated by gay icon and playwright Harvey Fierstein, who was followed by Michael McKean (Lenny on “Laverne and Shirley”).
Vilanch, a comedy writer and former regular on “Hollywood Squares,” took over the part just as Gulsvig joined the show.
The show itself is a joyous throwback to an earlier era of Broadway musical, with catchy music and peppy production numbers. The cast is just small enough that Gulsvig is onstage and visible throughout most of the production. She plays Lou Ann, a dancer on the show, wearing a red bouffant wig that nearly doubles the size of her head.
“I spend more time onstage than if I was a principal,” or main cast member, she says. “I may not be in the forefront, but there’s not a lot of downtime for me during the show, so I love that.”
“Hairspray” is Gulsvig’s sixth acting job since moving to New York after graduating a year early from Moorhead High School.
She has a keen appreciation for a career path that’s already put her on Broadway long before other actors even get close.
“Some people, it takes forever,” she says. “My roommate’s been here 10 years and she’s been working constantly, but not on Broadway yet. Her time will come.”
‘Peter Pan’ principle
Gulsvig’s time began coming soon after her move to New York. After only four or five auditions, she landed a part as Wendy in a traveling production of “Peter Pan.” That show played Grand Forks, N.D., so family and friends could see her first professional job.
After that, she obtained work in a couple of out-of-town shows (including a Philadelphia engagement of “Baby Face,” a musical about, of all things, the Lindbergh kidnapping); two days of work playing a drunken teenager on television’s “All My Children”; and a couple of stints in a musical revue on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship.
She was back in Moorhead for a visit in August when her agent called with the news that she was up for the “Hairspray” part.
“They looked at me for other tracks, meaning roles in the show,” she says. “They looked at me for the tour. For a second there, I thought I was going on tour.”
She didn’t get the part in the touring company, but learned a couple of days later that she’d been cast in the Broadway production.
Not a bad career start for someone who rolled the dice at an age when many people are just beginning serious professional training. After graduating early from Moorhead High School, she moved to New York just before her 18th birthday.
“I purposely didn’t go to school right away because I felt I learn quicker as I go,” she says. “If I went to school, I’d just have to start over learning the way things really are in the real world. I also felt that I was marketable, because I knew what I was doing to a certain extent.”
But then, she adds with a laugh, “if it wouldn’t have gone well I’d have had to rethink this plan.”
She says her more classically trained colleagues “can get all technical. I’m not a real break-it-down kind of gal. I can do it, but I’ve felt that I’ve been fine. … You learn it as you go. There’s lots of people who’ve done it the way I’ve done it.”
She credits Rebecca Meyer-Larson, Moorhead High’s director of music theater, Kathy and Eddie Gasper and Trollwood for giving her the tools to act professionally.
Meyer-Larson says knowledge and talent has been only part of Gulsvig’s success.
“She has this little light behind her eyes and people are attracted to that light,” she says. “She mixes talent with hard work, but more important, people want to be around Becky. People fall in love with that light and want good things to happen to her.”
Learning her craft has been only part of Gulsvig’s education. She’s also had to learn how to live in a city considerably different from Moorhead.
She spent her first year in New York in a women’s residence not far from Broadway. She now lives in Harlem, sharing a three-bedroom apartment with two roommates.
“I think part of the reason (the move) went so well is because I was clueless,” she says.
She’s adjusted to the faster pace of the city.
“You have to have a bit of a shell to live here,” she says. “Sometimes, I think I’m more impatient. I go home (to Moorhead) and things go at a slow pace and it takes me a while to adjust.”
The bustling life is part of New York survival strategy, she says.
“When you’re walking down the street, you have to have a purpose to where you’re going or people hassle you. Not all the time, not in every area. But going home at night, I’m on a mission.”
Meyer-Larson says that Gulsvig’s New York state of mind hasn’t meant fundamental changes in her personality.
“She’s still Becky,” she says. “She still giggles at all the same jokes and she still loves to hear about what’s happening back home. She’s definitely older and wiser, but she’s not jaded.”
Gulsvig sees a future bright with possibilities – and options.
One of those options is finding another line of work if show business ever palls for her.
“I love this business,” she says. “I love what I do and I want to keep it that way. (I don’t want to) take it too much to heart and you have a lot of rejection and everything. But it’s really fun. I don’t want to take it too seriously. People get so wrapped up in it. The minute I stop enjoying it, I won’t do it anymore. I do it because I love it.”