Haley Henderson’s just a little bit anxious. She expects to pass herself off as a prim but forceful Salvation Army lass recruiting souls along Broadway. She’s pretty sure she can impersonate a British actress whose incessant cheerfulness can drive other people crazy.
But the real question is, can this ebullient college student – whose looks have often kept people from appreciating her intelligence – play an ebullient college student whose looks have often kept people from appreciating her intelligence?
She’ll find out in July, when she stars as unsinkable Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde” at CPCC Summer Theatre. That show will cap an extraordinary run: She’s first playing Sarah Brown, the female lead in “Guys and Dolls,” then holding down the significant role of Belinda Blair in the middle show, the farcical “Noises Off.”
Such responsibility should make a veteran sweat. But Henderson – who has never taken a lead in any play or musical – doesn’t seem flustered. She has the stamina to rehearse “Noises” in the morning and afternoon, run through “Guys” onstage at night and ponder chunks of “Blonde” in her spare time. Eating, sleeping and breathing are optional.
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“I saw myself as Vivian (Elle’s foe and later friend), so I sang her song – ‘Legally Blonde Remix’ – in my audition. And I never thought of myself as a blonde,” says Henderson, running slim fingers through short, chestnut-colored hair.
But Tom Hollis saw something in her that was right for Elle. Hollis, chair of the drama department at Central Piedmont Community College and head of the Summer Theatre casting team, gambled heavily on the 21-year-old he’d known less than one day when he offered her this job. That’s the nature of the cattle-call process they both understand so well.
First impressions count
Henderson is a rising senior at Belmont University in Nashville. So she had a short trip to the Southeastern Theatre Conference’s mass auditions, held last March in Chattanooga.
There Hollis and dozens of potential employers plopped down in front of 875 auditioners, each of whom was given precisely 90 seconds to do part of a song and/or a monologue.
Those who caught the eyes of Hollis and music director Drina Keen went on to dance auditions, where Summer Theatre choreographer Eddie Mabry taught them tough combinations. The best were called back for an interview; Henderson had to charm Summer Theatre folks at 10:30 p.m., in her last callback of the day.
“You have to make a good impression right away,” says Henderson. “I’ve had a lot of pageant experience, and you use the same skills: You get to sing only one song there, and you have to think on your feet when people interview you.” (She was third runner-up in the 2008 Miss Arkansas Outstanding Teen Pageant, singing another blonde’s theme: Glinda’s “Popular” from “Wicked,” which she says “is not me at all. My dream role is Elphaba.”)
Hollis sought four actors to complement local talent, which makes up 95 percent of each cast. He quickly knew he wanted her to be one of them.
“Simmons Hendrick, our former music director, never looked up at the stage during auditions,” Hollis remembers. “He’d say, ‘There has to be something to make me look up.’ Haley made us look up.
“She has a special quality to her vocal presentation and an unusual look: blue eyes and brunette hair. When we talked to her, she was very alive.”
Casting her in three big roles was risky. But “we discussed casting on the drive home, saying ‘I can see her for this but not for that,’ and we realized she was right for every part.”
He can pay stars only $300 a week, less than half a theme park might offer. (And Henderson turned down a theme park gig.)
But Hollis had a trump card: His star would walk away with three lines on her résumé that proved she could handle large roles, one after another.
That appealed to Henderson, who’ll bolt for Broadway after graduating from Belmont. And she needed to polish acting chops that had yet to catch up to her singing and hoofing.
How she has done it
She arrived less than three weeks before “Guys” opened June 15, and she has just eight days between shows. So before she came, she memorized most of the lines from “Guys” and imprinted “Blonde” songs on her brain during daily workouts on an elliptical machine.
As Hollis staged “Guys,” Henderson went back to her room every day – she’s staying with family friends – and ran over the blocking by herself five times: “I do better (connecting) blocking to dialogue.”
She had read the script for “Noises” to get a sense of the characters but began to memorize lines only when “Guys” fell into place. Lastly, she’ll work on the dialogue for Elle Woods once “Noises” is fully blocked.
Does she have down time?
“One day a week,” she says, noting that workdays run up to 12 hours. She spent her first bit of leisure at Carowinds, watching a Belmont friend perform.
The secret to keeping these characters fresh and distinct is to identify with them. Henderson can empathize with Sarah Brown’s vulnerability and powerful demeanor, Belinda’s desire to take care of everyone around her and Elle’s vitality.
“The challenge for me has been to balance all three roles, not to sell any short,” Henderson says. “There’s a lot riding on getting these parts right, but it’s a good kind of pressure.
“I’ve discovered here that I can push myself, that I have the drive it takes to commit to theater. I hope that drive will push me all the way to Broadway.”