Leigh Ann Larkin Hits Broadway
Getting a hold of Leigh Ann Larkin for an interview was a little tough. She lives in New York City, has a million things going on, and rarely checks her voicemail. Oh, and her doctor had just given her strict orders not to speak.
You’ve probably had your own doctor advise you not to lift heavy things, operate machinery, or eat sodium. Normal occupational etiquette suggests you not come in to work when you’ve got a communicable disease, lest you should have to weather the holier-than-thou glares of coworkers at the slightest sniffle, snuffle, cough, and a-choo. Likewise, most people with working immune systems can catch a bug and be confident that it won’t disrupt their lives in any irrevocable way.
But then, most people don’t wake up groggy from yet another late Sunday night Steeler game and go to work on Broadway.
Broadway, of course, is more than just a wide street in New York. It represents the Mecca of Theater in the Western Hemisphere, brings millions of entertainment pilgrims to the city every year, and does over $1.5 billion in annual ticket sales alone. It’s there that Leigh Ann Larkin plays June in the brilliant revival production of Gypsy: A Musical Fable.
And on the hallowed, light-strewn stage of this business, a common sinus infection can be life-stopping.
Thankfully, through a complicated combination of American Sign Language, email, messenger pigeon, and telepathy, Leigh Ann was able to tell me about life in the spotlight.
“Being a Pittsburgher on Broadway is really quite cool,” she started. “I absolutely love Pittsburgh and I am extremely proud to represent it in New York and on the Broadway stage. I love that people can finally see my work. I can finally say, ‘Come see my show on Broadway!’ Old teachers, friends, and relatives can finally see what it is that I do.”
And surely, beyond the thrill of recognition lies that magical aura only a place like Broadway can carry, the kind of feeling many little girls get when they first grab a hairbrush and sing along to The Sound of Music or The Little Mermaid.
“I love getting off the subway, standing in the middle of the lights of Times Square and saying, ‘I work here,’” Larkin gushed.
I have to admit, sometimes I get the same warm, teary-eyed feeling when I cross the Smithfield Street Bridge.
Certainly though, a life on stage isn’t all singing and dancing and Larkin has had her share of trials. For one, her last name isn’t really Larkin.
“Ah, the name change,” Leigh Ann began as though she were about to recite a familiar solo. “Well, Wielgus is a very hard last name to pronounce. I struggled with it a lot growing up, with others always butchering it. When I moved to New York and started working with my agent he suggested that I change my last name. I thought about it for a while, talked to my family about it, and came to the decision to change it.”
Changing a name, even if it’s a solid career move, is bound to raise some issues.
“I’m not going to lie, it was a very difficult decision. I think there were some hurt feelings and definitely a hurt sense of pride since your name and where you have come from is something you should be proud of. It connects you to your family and that is how others know who you are. I think that was and still is a concern. It’s like, how will people know who you are and what you’ve been doing all these years? When they hear the name Larkin they will never know it’s you. Ultimately, if you work this hard for something you want people to know that you’ve made it! But at the end of the day, if you’ve come this far, you have to do what’s best for your career.”
Ok, that all makes sense, but what name do you choose when you have the chance to rewrite your identity? Jasper or Pickadilly or Walking Bear? I guess you could always go with something that’s identifiable, simple, and conducive to alliteration.
“We all tossed around a lot of ideas. Then my mom actually suggested Larkin. It is my cousin’s grandma’s maiden name and I thought it was just beautiful.” (For the record, we do, too.) “I will always be Wielgus in my heart but Larkin just makes more sense in the Entertainment world.”
Aside from changing her name, Leigh Ann Larkin has been making sacrifices to pursue her dreams since childhood. At age three, she started taking dance classes at Ross Elementary. As she got older, Larkin devoted more and more time to her passion. That included an afterschool program associated with the Pittsburgh Musical Theater, dancing with a troupe called The Good Vibrations, and performing in numerous professional productions at the Byham Theater.
“I never really thought about it, I just kept going and never looked back. I spent most of my time taking classes. I definitely sacrificed a lot in high school. I didn’t have much time for hanging out with friends or school activities. I was a cheerleader for one football season which was a blast but I had to quit because I couldn’t juggle both cheering and theater. I remember during homecoming my senior year, I represented the wrestling team, but the night of the homecoming game I also had a show. So as soon as the ceremony was over I raced to the car that my mom was already waiting in with the engine running and we sped downtown to just barely make it before the curtain.” She laughed, “Both she and I will never forget that.”
Then it was Point Park College for a year before transferring to the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Around 700 hopefuls apply each year but the Conservatory only accepts 18 to 20. (Guess who got in.)
“I couldn’t believe that I was one of them! The students in the MT program were the most talented kids that I had ever met. They were all incredible. I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t gone to that school. I trained my butt off for four years and at the end of our senior year we did a showcase of acting and singing in New York City in front of dozens of Agents and Casting Directors. I got an agent, started auditioning and after various productions in various places I am finally starring on Broadway!”
But, to Larkin, it’s more than just being in a prominent show. This particular production is practically a Dream Team in the eyes of the theater world.
“I am a part of an original company of a Broadway Revival,” she explained. “I am playing a starring role opposite Patti LuPone (who I have loved for years and saw her in concert at Heinz Hall when I was 17), working under the direction of Arthur Laurents who is a legend, and I am singing solo on a cast recording! I have listened to hundreds of cast recordings in my lifetime and now I’m actually on one singing by myself!”
So after many, many years of voice, acting, and dance classes, countless hours in the gym, and adhering to strict vocal-rest regimens, Leigh Ann Larkin has turned her life’s passion into a career. “Being part of this business takes a tremendous amount of hard work and discipline and I don’t have time for much else. But for me it’s my dream, so it’s worth it.”
Larkin’s next challenge is mastering the world of television. She’s actually already had appearances on All My Children and The Guiding Light, but will have her primetime premier as Pepper in NBC’s Lipstick Jungle.
“I have a scene with Brooke Shields which was amazing! She is so lovely and was the sweetest person to work with but when you’re there working, your job is to focus on the work. You don’t want to be star struck because you’re getting paid to do a job just like they are.”
With so much experience under her belt, Larkin is clearly on her way to becoming a household name. Tom Cruise and Barbara Walters were recent audience members. She’s had Sarah Jessica Parker come backstage to compliment her performance, hung out with Daniel Radcliffe, and performed for a pre-Tony’s Award Ceremony show hosted by Mario Lopez.
Just remember the next time you hear it that it’s actually Pittsburgh’s very own Leigh Ann Wielgus… and that her favorite food is pierogies and every game day you’ll find her walking to work decked out in head-to-toe Steeler apparel.
“Socks, earrings, jersey, sweatshirt, and bright yellow sneakers. In fact, I came home for a day in August and had one priority when I got there, to stock up on as much Steelers gear as possible. And I did! My friends in the show laugh at me because I can’t focus on anything else when I am watching the game. I can’t talk to anyone and no one can talk to me. I’ve never been to a game and I’m dying to go!”
I’d wager there are probably a lot of people in show business that wouldn’t understand a thing like that. But Leigh Ann Larkin seems to have her priorities in order.
“I always tell people, one day I’m going to own season tickets and will fly in just to go to the games.”