Lawrence Toppman

Charlotte teen, starring in national Broadway tour, recounts moment she knew ‘This is IT!’

Abby Corrigan as Gertrude McFuzz

Abby Corrigan as Gertrude McFuzz in Seussical The Musical.
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Abby Corrigan as Gertrude McFuzz in Seussical The Musical.

Abby Corrigan experienced the pangs of first love again last night, as she does eight times every week.

Then she ran around in her underwear in public, singing at the top of her voice about new-found bliss in the realization she was gay.

At the age of 18, when most of her high school classmates are college freshmen, she’s pretending to be one. And strangers are talking about her.

Andrea Simakis, theater critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, had this to say when the Tony-winning musical “Fun Home” opened its national tour there:

“As Medium Alison, ‘Changing My Major’ is Abby Corrigan’s tour de force. That she’s 18 and a recent graduate of Northwest School of the Arts in Charlotte makes the transporting performance even more extraordinary. Her saucer-round brown eyes never blink as she drinks in a sleeping (woman) ... draped across her dorm room bed.... The young actress sings like a seasoned diva captured in the morning glow of a long spotlight.”

Well, maybe mid-morning. Bonnie Fraker, who taught her at NWSA, recalls a production of “The Music Man” years ago where Corrigan and Eva Noblezada (who’s preparing to play the title role in “Miss Saigon” on Broadway) were onstage together as teenagers in River City.

“The parts were small,” she says. “But wherever they were onstage, as soon as they did something, your eyes went to them right away. We have had lots of (graduates) get into good colleges or theater ensembles, but only two who went straight to big roles like that.”

They almost followed the same path: a win at the Blumeys – the annual student acting awards in Charlotte – followed by a trip to the Jimmys, the national competition for high school seniors in New York. But where Noblezada attracted the notice of casting agents in 2013, Corrigan had to be content with attention from a medical staff in 2014: Her appendix ruptured in New York just before rehearsals for the big night.

So it wasn’t until last year that her destiny began to unfold.

The kid turns pro

Emmy-winning musical director Michael Rafter, who had been married to “Fun Home” composer Jeanine Tesori, went to NWSA to lead a theater seminar. While there, he saw footage of Corrigan as Princess Fiona in “Shrek,” the role that won her the Blumey. Would she, he wondered, be interested someday in auditioning for “Fun Home”?

She would, but nothing further happened. So she went to New York in January 2016 for Unified Auditions, a cattle call for young actors. Her mom, Charlotte casting director Mitzi Corrigan, quickly e-mailed Rafter: Was anything available?

“On the third day, he replied,” Abby Corrigan recalls. “I got a call: ‘Wake up, Abby. You have an audition. Memorize three scenes and go over there.’ My agent has called me to get up and tape an audition before on a couple of hours’ notice, so I was used to it.”

She won the part of Medium Alison, the collegiate version of graphic novelist Alison Bechdel. “Fun Home,” written by Lisa Kron, adapts Bechdel’s books about growing up in a Pennsylvania family, where her married father was a closeted gay man and she herself came out at 18. (The show also has a Small Alison and Adult Alison.)

This moving musical, which upset “Something Rotten” and “An American in Paris” to win best musical, book and score at the 2015 Tonys, is an entree of undiluted angst with a side dish of joy. That’s Corrigan’s role: Medium Alison finds happiness and lets us know Bechdel will grow up to be a whole person, though her father’s suicide rends the family. When she sings “Changing My Major,” a paean to the older student she falls in love with at Oberlin College, the audience roars approval.

“The first night in Cleveland, when I heard all those people in the audience, I got really emotional,” Corrigan says. “I thought, ‘This is the coolest thing ever. This is IT.’ I’m always a worrier, and subconsciously, my body was freed of worry. This show is so special: The first professional role I ever get to play is myself!”

Not literally: Mitzi and Michael Corrigan, who’s a musician and manager of sign language interpreters, are alive and happily married. They’ve been supportive of Abby since she and Emma, her twin sister, played Nala and Rafiki in a backyard “Lion King” at the age of 6.

But Abby Corrigan knows what loneliness and isolation are like.

A world of her own

“I was kind of an oddball at a school where everybody wore uniforms (Eastover Elementary),” she says. “I would come home and be upset about the bullying – I cried about it – but I never changed my personality to suit other people.

“My acting propped me up. I played with imaginary creatures who were very vivid for me. I would tell my dad, ‘I see them. I know they’re there.’ I created a reality I felt comfortable in. That imagining helped me become a better actor.”

“When she was very small, she played in a way that got her inside the characters,” says Michael Corrigan. “Other kids would act like a lion. She committed to being the lion.”

“I never thought, ‘I’m gonna be an actress,’ ” says his daughter. “But I have always been an imitator. I would spend the day watching people and imitating them. My dad would tell me in restaurants, ‘Abby, stop staring at them. You can’t just stare.’

“The first person I think I imitated was Helen Keller in (the movie) ‘The Miracle Worker.’ I wanted so badly to play Helen that I would walk around the house ‘blind.’ My dad always called me ‘The actress without a script.’ 

Her mother thinks having a twin sister with Down syndrome may have made young Abby more of an entertainer. “Music brings Emma to life,” says Mitzi Corrigan. “So they played songs together and dressed up, and that connection has never been broken.

Twin sisters Abby (right) and Emma Corrigan brought “Cats” to life in a neighborhood theater version as children. Courtesy of Mitzi Corrigan

“Abby wants people to love her so badly. Fierce as she is on the outside, she’s self-doubting inside. We would have loved to have her do anything besides acting. But we told her, ‘If you’re unable to be happy doing anything else, then do it.’ 

Abby Corrigan says the bullying stopped (except for jealousy over casting) when she found her flock at NWSA. She played a lead in sixth grade – Gertrude McFuzz in “Seussical,” with Noblezada as Mayzie LaBird – and made her way through an incredible array of parts there and elsewhere over seven years: Jewish matron Golde in “Fiddler on the Roof,” the cross-dressing title role in “Peter Pan,” another cross-dressing role as the feral master of ceremonies in “Cabaret,” the assertive and arrogant Maureen in NWSA’s “Rent.”

Says Fraker, “She’s a quirky human being and an artist herself, so Maureen – she could identify with that. But Fiona was her breakout role: crazy and challenging stuff to sing, and a big tap number that was no problem for her. She has always been confident onstage, totally comfortable.”

Matt Hinson, who worked with Corrigan as a voice teacher at NWSA, also found her unflappable: “When a girl’s voice transitions from childhood to her teen years, wonky things can happen. She kept singing through that and evened out her voice, so she sounded the same throughout her range. That’s rare.”

Wowing a Tony-winner

So when Corrigan did get her “Fun Home” audition, she had lots of seasoning. Sam Gold, who won the Tony for directing “Fun Home” and also did the tour, expected to cast an older actress but quickly changed his mind.

“This is an extremely challenging role,” he says. “Most talented young actors are playing ingenues and love interests, and that’s very different from Medium Alison. Finding someone who can be the subject of a scene – not the object of it – who can have power and confidence and intelligence and wit? That’s hard. We struggled casting that role in every incarnation of the show.

“Abby walked in, and it was like seeing Alison Bechdel. She came in with such self-possession and ease and embodied the character seamlessly. I assumed when she talked about finishing school that she meant college. When she said, ‘No, high school,’ I turned to the casting director and asked, ‘Is it legal to put her in the show?’ Luckily, she turned 18 just before we started to work.”

Without “Fun Home,” Abby Corrigan would be in college now: She applied to six, was accepted everywhere, and three agreed to defer her if she wanted to enter later. But her contract with the musical runs through November 2017, including a week at Knight Theater June 27-July 2, and she hopes to go directly into another job.

Cast members have told her “Fun Home” is her college, her rite of passage to adulthood and an introduction to the industry she’ll work in all her life. The company will be in San Francisco and Los Angeles from January 25 through April 1, and Corrigan hopes casting directors will see her work there.

“I’ve grown up pretty fast and will do tons more growing,” she says. “I’ve learned that it’s OK to be alone, to not have to rely on anybody unless I really need to. Last year, I was constantly reliant on friends to make everything OK, and that’s not their job. You have to do that yourself.

“It can be scary learning so much in such a short time, but it’s a good kind of fear. Fear is important for an actor – not debilitating fear, but the kind that drives you to do more things. Sometimes fear is telling you, ‘This is something you have to push past.’ It’s very freeing once you get through that. You know then that this is what you’re meant to do.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232