Each month On That Note! explores the myriad aspects of creating musical theatre, from performance to direction, choreography, design, and stage management. With the acclaimed A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder arriving at the Kennedy Center on January 13, playwright Norman Allen caught up with actor Lesley McKinnell to explore the highs and lows of life on the road with a hit musical.
As Miss Barley, Lesley McKinnell falls through a hole in the ice and drowns eight times a week at venues across the country. “She’s a Flora Dora girl,” the actor says of her doomed character. “I think that means she’s basically a glorified stripper from the early 1900s. She’s also very annoying. When she drowns, you’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s okay.'”
Touring with the Tony Award-wining, Broadway hit A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder, McKinnell returns to a familiar if transient existence. “I was on the road with the first and second national tours of Wicked,” she explains. “I got used to it. In a weird way, I feel like I’m back home.”
Currently performing for a quick week in Minneapolis, McKinnell took special pleasure in the show’s month-long “sit down” in San Francisco, where she got to spend the holidays with her grandfather. And she’s looking forward to three full weeks at the Kennedy Center. “For the longer stays I unpack completely,” she says, grateful that the touring company transports a personal trunk for each actor. “I feel like I’m living out of a closet, at least, instead of a suitcase.”
Like many artists on tour, McKinnell has touchstone items that can turn a hotel room into something suggesting a home. “I lit a candle this morning,” she says, noting that such details make a big difference. “It's the little things. The same candle. The same pillow. I know one guy who travels with a duvet cover. He puts it on the comforter in every hotel room so the bed always looks the same.”
Venues, like hotels, become a blur. “At my dressing station I put up framed photos to make it more permanent,” McKinnell says. She finds it hard, though, to name a specific theatre that she prefers over others. “Sometimes I don’t really realize where I am,” she admits. “And we perform on a stage within a stage, so it’s really our own space. One of my favorite theatres, though, is the Majestic in San Antonio. It’s decorated really cool. It’s like you’re in the Pirates of the Caribbean!”
While her multiple duties in the show’s ensemble don’t come close to the tour-de-force costume changes required of the musical’s leading man, McKinnell enjoys the rollercoaster pace. “Our quickest change comes after we’ve been playing a group of tourists,” she explains. “We run offstage to change into these half-costumes to become these old portraits on the wall. A scrim goes up and there we are, pictures come to life.”
The Kennedy Center run marks McKinnell’s first time performing in the capital, with one exception. “In 2014 one of my friends, Gregory Nabours, was one of five composers chosen by ASCAP to have his work performed on the Millennium Stage. It’s something they do every year. I was part of that performance, and one of the other composers that year was Steven Lutvak, who wrote Gentleman’s Guide! So it’s a great way to come full circle.”