“Hi! Is this Emily Skinner?”
“Yes, it is!,” responds a bright, animated voice on the other end of the line.
Most musical theatre mavens, including this one, know Ms. Skinner from her break-out role in the 1997 musical Side Show, for which she received a Best Actress in a Musical Tony Award nomination, alongside Alice Ripley who played her conjoined twin sister. From there, she went on to star in several notable Broadway shows, including James Joyce’s The Dead, The Full Monty and Dinner at Eight, as well as a slew of leading roles in high-profile regional theatres. She’s also featured on many recordings, including her self-titled solo album.
And now, she’s starring in the Chicago production of Billy Elliot the Musical as Mrs. Wilkinson, the down-on-her-luck ballet teacher who recognizes and nurtures Billy’s raw talent.
Skinner, who is currently deep in technical rehearsals (the show begins previews in a little under a week), graciously took time yesterday during her dinner break to speak with me about her role in the show, the rehearsal process and her diverse career.
“This is probably the most technical rehearsal process I’ve ever been in,” Skinner remarks with a laugh – which says a lot when looking at her extensive resume. She explains that while most shows take around four weeks to get up off the ground, Billy Elliot has taken nine weeks. “There are four rotating Billys [J.P. Viernes, Tommy Batchelor, Giuseppe Bausilio and Cesar Corrales], and we rehearse separately with each of them. And during technical rehearsal, we tech each scene four times.”
While the rehearsal process has been intensive, Skinner notes that the overall experience has been a joy. “Working with these young men who play Billy is so inspiring!,” she says. “They have a lot to take on – I think all of them, except for Tommy who played the role on Broadway, had only a dance background coming into rehearsal, so they each have to learn a whole new skill set [acting and singing, as well mastering a northern Newcastle dialect]. And they’re all really doing a wonderful job – I’m just in awe!”
Skinner’s own experience with the show stems back a few years, as she auditioned for the role of Mrs. Wilkinson when the show’s Broadway production was in development, which eventually led to her involvement in this Chicago engagement. And, as any good actress, she has her own take: “It’s interesting – I think I’m the youngest person to play this role, and I think that, in itself, colors things a bit differently,” she explains. “I’m trying to find the fun and the joy in Mrs. Wilkinson – and I’m also attempting to play her as someone who had a bit of a dance career in her day. When the show starts, she’s a bit shut down emotionally, and then Billy enters her world and inspires and transforms her. It’s a great role.”
And not only is a great role, it’s a great show, Skinner, a self-confessed “musical snob,” maintains: “The same team, director Stephen Daldry, book writer Lee Hall and choreographer Peter Darling, who created the movie are involved in the musical, and they’ve completely reimagined the story for the stage – which is phenomenal.” She also compares Billy Elliot to The Full Monty — another successful movie-turned-stage musical. “When I did that show in New York, I was just amazed at how perfectly they adapted it to the stage. It’s a hard thing to get right, and I think, in both cases, they succeeded wonderfully.”
And then there’s the Sir Elton John factor. “This is his very best musical score,” Skinner, who has yet to meet the iconic English singer-songwriter, says. “His work in this show manages to span many music genres – which is pretty extraordinary. Broadway tunes, Iggy Pop-inspired tunes, northern England folk songs – it’s all there.”
However, if you’re a fan of Skinner’s big, belty voice, don’t expect any showstoppers from her in this show. “This is much more of an acting challenge than a sing-and-dance-my-face-off kind of role. This show is Billy’s; we are there to support his story.”
Naturally, I couldn’t speak with Skinner without asking her about those larger-than-life roles she’s played over the course of her career – from the loopy Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd to the awkward Agnes Gooch in Mame (at the Kennedy Center opposite Christine Baranski in the title role), to the lusty Mae West in Dirty Blonde. What have all these roles taught her? “I think it’s confirmed something I’ve known innately for years: I love musicals that are like plays that are sung. It’s a challenge, and those roles all offered something unique and fun.”
I also had a dig a bit deeper into her experience in Sweeney Todd – my favorite musical. The production, which ran for only a week at the Lyric Theatre in Oklahoma, reunited Skinner with her Side Show costar, Jeff McCarthy, who played Sweeney. “Oh, it was a wonderful time! It was the first time exploring these roles for both Jeff and myself, so it was fun that we go to do that together. And we had so little time to learn that score! I mean, I had to learn the role of Mrs. Lovett so fast, I think now I’m prepared for anything – bring it on!”
And she’ll be “brining it” to her new role in Billy Elliot for a year — that’s how long she’s contracted with the show. Which gives her plenty of time to explore Chicago – a town she loves. “I’m thrilled to be here! Really, Chicago is my favorite town – and I can’t wait to start performances so I have time to explore the neighborhoods. But first I have to figure out that El system!”
You can catch Emily Skinner in ‘Billy Elliot the Musical’ at the Oriental Theatre. Performances begin March 18. For more information, visit BroadwayinChicago.com.