Classic stories aren’t always kind to female characters. But rather than being simply damsels in distress, how these women adapt to their circumstances is how they reveal their initially hidden strengths and wisdom.
These are the roles at which Jill Blackwood, Austin’s marquee musical theater actor, excels.
Try just these emblematic roles on for size: Anna in “The King and I”; Julie in “Carousel”; Cinderella in “Into the Woods”; Amneris in “Aida”; Mother in “Ragtime”; Laurie in “Oklahoma!”; Janet in “The Rocky Horror Show”; Mary Poppins in “Mary Poppins.”
For 20 years, Blackwood has not only brought them fully and magnificently to life, but also many other parts from musicals and plays at Zach Theatre, TexArts, Austin Shakespeare, Zilker Productions and the late, lamented Austin Musical Theatre.
Blackwood returns to the Topfer stage at Zach Theatre starting May 30 as Dot, another complicated character, in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s masterpiece, “Sunday in the Park With George.” It’s Zach’s first full Sondheim production.
“When Broadway needs an ingenue to star in a classic Rodgers and Hammerstein, it turns to Kelli O’Hara,” says Dave Steakley, artistic director of Zach Theatre, the city’s top professional company. “For a bright-eyed, comedic actress, the choice is Sutton Foster, and when dramatic range is required, Audra McDonald is the one.
“Jill Blackwood is all of these great actresses synthesized into one.”
In fact, Blackwood, who has two sons, Thomas, 14, and Joseph, 9, with logistics expert Tim Blackwood, has twice come close to breaking onto the national scene. In both cases, her secret weapon was her skill with a horn.
“I started playing the saxophone in the fifth grade,” Blackwood, 42, says. “That was going to be my thing — band, jazz band, marching band, even into college.”
Years later, her dual acting and instrumental talents almost landed her in the national tour of “Cabaret,” and even closer to Broadway in callbacks for the revival of “Company.” In both cases, onstage actors also served as orchestra members.
REVIEW: Zach Theatre’s “Mary Poppins”
Blackwood split her childhood between Iowa, Kansas and Texas. She spent her early years in a closely connected Midwest community.
“Everyone knew each other,” she says. “I attended a small Catholic school. Everything revolved around the importance of family.”
The eldest of four, the self-described classic “good girl” learned leadership early on.
“My parents entrusted me with things that people don’t anymore,” Blackwood says. “My parents worked full time. I was responsible for waking my brothers and sisters up, getting them off to school. It was good for us kids. You learn independence, learn to be resourceful, to take care of yourself.”
Blackwood later attended Leander High School, class of ’93, when it was the only such school in the district. She dug into music, theater, English and trigonometry (“a puzzle you had to figure out”).
She landed in the cast of “Bye Bye Birdie,” playing one of the teenagers featured in the boppy song “The Telephone Hour.”
“That’s when I got the bug,” she says. “Linda Major, the theater director — she is still there! — took me aside and said I should join the choir. I didn’t know I had a voice. Now, I’d sing pop tunes in the closet, testing out this thing I didn’t know I had. Then it came to me: Hey, I can sing.”
She also could act. Only a sophomore, she landed a lead role in the school’s one-act competition version of “The Foreigner,” a popular comedy about xenophobia set in the South. Her senior year, Leander went all the way to state with “All Out,” a comedy based on a television game show.
“We played the Bass Concert Hall stage,” Blackwood says about the big University of Texas theater that hosts the University Interscholastic League state meet. “I received an honorable mention award. It was so exciting. But I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into music or theater.”
During high school, Blackwood had performed in the summer stock program at Southwestern University in Georgetown, so she decided to study music and theater. She received her first formal vocal training.
“The teacher announced, ‘You are a soprano,’” Blackwood remembers. “‘You have a voice in there, and I’m going to bring it out.’ Then I was cast in an opera, ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ as Cherubino, which is a mezzo-soprano role. My mom came to see the show. She cried and cried and said, ‘I didn’t know you could sing like that.’”
Blackwood is, in fact, considered a lyric soprano with a strong belting range. For comparisons, go to YouTube and listen to cuts from singers such as Audra McDonald, Shirley Jones, Marin Mazzie and Melissa Errico.
Blackwood landed many roles at Southwestern, but her first big pro break came as Grace in Austin Musical Theatre’s “Annie” at the Paramount Theatre.
“I didn’t know the company well when I auditioned for ‘Annie,’” she says. “Part of the reason I got cast — I wasn’t nervous. Another reason is that I fit the Broadway costumes that they had rented. I’m skinny with long arms! It was fun to work at the Paramount in my first big show. Even the dog had an understudy.”
She auditioned at Zach but figured that her presence was only a courtesy, because she was friends with music director Allen Robertson.
Then came a long run as the initially demure Janet in “The Rocky Horror Show.”
“All of a sudden, I realized I would be in my underwear,” she laughs. “And my parents live in town. But it’s Zach, and I always wanted to work there, so I said yes. Stephen Michael Miller was Brad. We both said, ‘I’m going to Wal-Mart and get underwear that I’m comfortable with.’ I didn’t even tell my parents. I mean, I was 24. Then at curtain call, opening night, there’s my mom and dad! My mom came five times, and she brought my grandmother, and there’s this giant penis on the stage. My grandmother said, ‘I don’t know what all that was about, but everyone was having so much fun, I had fun.’”
Then there are roles that nobody can forget, such as Clio/Kira, the ditsy Muse with the Australian accent in the roller-disco spoof “Xanadu.”
“I teach these early childhood music classes, and moms say, ‘Weren’t you in Xanadu?’” Blackwood says with a smile. “The two things I get recognized for the most are that and my Twin Liquors ad.”
“Xanadu,” a clever take on a failed Olivia Newton-John movie vehicle, came off as delicious fluff onstage. Yet it was exceedingly difficult, in part because any slight movement on roller skates could ruin a moment.
“It felt like a party,” Blackwood says. “We knew this was stupid, and we were reveling in it. I asked (actor) Barbara Chisholm if I looked ridiculous at age 37 running around in a little skirt. She said, ‘You would look ridiculous in that no matter what age you are.’”
More recently, she has played parts that are difficult to separate in an audience’s mind from their originators, such as Mary Poppins.
“You have to look at the originals for context, because those are what everybody knows,” Blackwood says. “Then set it aside and bring myself to it. I’m not imitating, but rather paying homage. I have to assume that if Dave cast me, I already have qualities that are in the roles.”
Although she thrives in musicals, Blackwood has played her share of leads in nonmusical plays, too. Once, Helen Merino, the only performer in Theresa Rebeck’s comedy “Bad Dates,” which includes a lot of costume changes, broke her ankle after opening weekend at Zach.
“I was terrified, but I learned the role in a week,” Blackwood says. “I had the script in hand on Thursday, and final tech the next Thursday. To this day, if I hear the pre-show music in the background at a mall, I get all terrified.”
She won special praise for her work in Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)” about the early years when the sexual device was used to treat women with “hysteria.”
“It was beautifully designed and came together beautifully, hilariously and movingly,” Blackwood says. “It really connected you to the person next to you. And Austinites like a good vibrator play.”
The trick to Sondheim
Except for a staged reading of “Merrily We Roll Along,” the upcoming Zach show is her first Sondheim musical since “Into the Woods.”
“From a technical standpoint, the No. 1 challenge is the music,” Blackwood says. “‘Mary Poppins’ has a driving beat, for instance. You can sing the songs without thinking about it. Sondheim’s music, on the other hand, is so intricate and so much a part of the storytelling, so much a part of the atmosphere, you can’t just rest and sing, you really have to be present and aware and in tune with the orchestra. It takes a lot of focus.”
Once a performer actually masters that, the technical and emotional connect.
“The music touches you in such a visceral place,” she says. “You can tell that this character is annoyed, that character is facing a decision, and so forth. Sondheim paints an emotional picture.”
“Sunday in the Park” is not an easy show to break into as an audience member, either. The first act finds a fictionalized version of painter Georges Seurat working on his huge and controversial canvas, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Dot, Blackwood’s role, is his primary model and love interest. The second act moves on to the contemporary world and the travails of making art that matters.
Blackwood brings to it four decades of life experiences that should deepen her interpretation.
“It’s a tough role,” Blackwood says. “I love roles like this. There are moments when Dot is strong and funny, and others when she’s going through tremendous heartbreak. It’s exciting and exhausting and beautiful. Also, I’m in a place in my life where a lot of this music and situation hits close to home. So maybe it’s cathartic. I’m using the experience of my heart to tell the story. We are singing this music in rehearsal, and people are just weeping.”
‘Sunday in the Park With George’
When: Various times, May 30-June 24
Where: The Topfer at Zach Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd.