From Broadway Debut to NYU: Catching up With Emerson Steele

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  • Aly Leia Wein

At only 14 years old, Emerson Steele had accomplished what most musical theatre actors only dream of: she made her Broadway debut in an award-winning musical, shared the stage with her idol, recorded a cast album, performed at the Tony Awards, and even won a 2014 Theatre World Award playing the younger version of Sutton Foster’s character in the acclaimed Jeanine Tesori/Brian Crawley musical Violet. She hit the jackpot of show biz success, but this ambitious Georgia native was just getting started.

Eventually, Violet closed - as all Broadway shows inevitably do, unless they’re Phantom of the Opera - and Emerson returned back home to Atlanta to take on the pivotal role of a normal teenager in high school. Some might have had a hard transition back to reality (after all, waking up at 6 AM for calculus isn’t quite as glamorous as performing on Broadway for thousands of adoring fans), but Emerson truly thrived in those formative years following her big NYC adventure. Not only did Emerson excel in school, but she also starred in regional productions, put on her own show at Feinstein’s/54 Below, and continued honing her craft as a professional singer, actor, and dancer.

Fast forward to 2019, and Emerson just finished up her freshman year of college at New York University’s prestigious Gallatin School for Individualized Studies. A truly remarkable young woman on and off the stage, there is no limit to what this fierce combo of beauty, brains, and one heck of a high belt can achieve! We caught up with Emerson to talk about her Broadway journey, everything that’s happened since then, and her exciting goals for the future. Check it out!

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Q: How did you get your start in the performing arts?

A: I tried just about everything: soccer, tennis, gymnastics. Then, I saw my neighbors in a dance recital when I was about seven years old and decided I wanted to give that a try. After that, I never stopped!

Q: Atlanta has a great theatre community - what opportunities did you have growing up, and what made you fall in love with musical theatre?

A: My first show I ever did was Annie at the Fox Theatre in downtown Atlanta - I was eight years old and auditioned on a whim. At the time, I was honestly so confused as to the difference between community theatre, professional theatre, and Broadway. When I got the call that I would be part of the orphan ensemble, I thought I was going to be on Broadway. Of course I then learned it was a professional production and not Broadway, but it really didn’t make a difference to me! From the moment I heard that overture for the first time, I was hooked. I just wanted to perform anywhere.

Emerson in her early theatre days performing regionally in Gypsy, Annie, and A Christmas Carol

Emerson in her early theatre days performing regionally in Gypsy, Annie, and A Christmas Carol

Q: In summer 2013, you played a young version of Sutton Foster's character in a one-night concert version of Violet at Encores! City Center - and when the show moved to Broadway in spring 2014, you got your big break! What was that experience like, making your Broadway debut at only 14, alongside a legend like Sutton?

A: It was honestly so surreal. I don’t think any of it truly felt like it was actually happening until opening night, I had to pinch myself daily! I was this little 14-year-old girl from Georgia and was honestly just so grateful to be there. I met the most incredible people, got to work closely and become great friends with my Broadway idol, and I got to do what I love most eight times a week. I will always feel so blessed I got to experience that. What a special way to make my Broadway debut!

Q: Tell us all about opening night, recording the cast album, and performing on the Tony Awards! What was different about your Broadway experience than you expected?

A: Everything was beyond incredible and special, and it only got better and better. Violet, and everything to do with it, was beyond the experience of a lifetime. Opening night was a whirlwind, but I will always remember how cool it was to have our opening on Easter, my favorite holiday. Recording the cast album was a total blast - we spent the whole day in the studio and sang and bonded. I have never felt more nerves in my life than I did during the Tony Awards, but it was also, quite possibly, my favorite memory from Violet. We got up at the crack of dawn on Tony Sunday, rehearsed at Radio City, did a matinee of our show, had a quick dinner break, and then we were off to the actual thing, and then an after party! I have never felt so much love and support as I did during the run of Violet. My family and friends really rallied around me, so many people flew up to see the show, and I received so many lovely messages. I guess that’s something I didn’t expect? It just really made me realize how lucky I am to have such a beautiful support system.

Left: performing on The Today Show with Sutton Foster and the cast of Violet (photo by  Dia Dipasupil ), center: onstage with costar Ben Davis (photo by  Joan Marcus ), right: on the red carpet opening night with Sutton ( Bruce Glikas )

Left: performing on The Today Show with Sutton Foster and the cast of Violet (photo by Dia Dipasupil), center: onstage with costar Ben Davis (photo by Joan Marcus), right: on the red carpet opening night with Sutton (Bruce Glikas)

Q: After Violet closed, how was it moving back home and settling back into "normal" life and school?

A: Initially it was difficult, I won’t lie. I immediately started high school, and a lot of my friends had moved schools, so I was pretty alone, but it ended up being the perfect balance. I continued to do shows in New York here and there, but I was also able to build somewhat of a “normal” life for myself in Atlanta.

Q: In the four years since Violet, you've kept very busy, starring in shows regionally and even putting on your own show at Feinstein's/54 Below. Did you ever feel that being a "Broadway kid" defined you or limited what people thought you could do?

A: Through my passion for learning and excelling in school, thankfully, I’ve never felt limited. I’ve actually felt the opposite. It’s like, woah, I have all of these interests (of course performing always being my main passion), and I’ve been able to really explore all of them and have always been supported by those around me to do just that.

Emerson as Sara Crewe in Theatrical Outfit’s A Little Princess, a promo for her  Feinstein’s/54 Below show , and as Penny Pingleton in Summer Lyric Theatre’s Hairspray

Emerson as Sara Crewe in Theatrical Outfit’s A Little Princess, a promo for her Feinstein’s/54 Below show, and as Penny Pingleton in Summer Lyric Theatre’s Hairspray

Q: If a ten-year-old aspiring actress came up to you and asked for advice, what would you tell her?

A: You will have people in your life who won’t believe in you or will tell you “no,” but instead of letting that deter you from your dreams, let it fuel you and fire your desire!

Q: Besides theatre, what are some of your other passions, and what else have you been involved with in high school?

A: I am incredibly passionate about community service and advocating for social justice. I work with an organization in NYC, myFace, that provides people with craniofacial differences with services and medical care. I also am a huge nerd and love school (especially math). I have also been working more on makeup and am trying to start my own business as a makeup artist.

Emerson perfecting her makeup artist skills

Emerson perfecting her makeup artist skills

Q: In the last year, you graduated high school and started college at New York University, enrolling in their famous Gallatin School of Individualized Study. How was the dreaded college application process for you, and what made you choose NYU Gallatin?

A: I do not wish the college application process on anyone - talk about stressful! I knew I didn’t want to go to school for theatre, so everything was based on my academic skills. That was a lot of pressure! Thankfully it all worked out, but it just was not an easy process for me. I applied to 12 schools, and thankfully got into three of my top four, but it was a process nonetheless. I chose NYU Gallatin because it allows me to immerse myself in everything I want to learn. There are no limits - I get to create my own major without very many restrictions! You have to be independent and self-motivated, but it’s the perfect program for me. The major I’ve created is called “How Fictional Works Depict Mental Illness,” so I’ll be combining my love for psychology with my newfound love for film and text. I also am so glad I get to be in NYC so I can audition and work on shows outside of school.

Q: Looking ahead, what goals do you have for yourself in the next four years and beyond?

A: I want to graduate NYU with all A’s (so far, so good!). I want to book a Broadway show. I want to be my best advocate and go after what I want. I want to believe in myself and not let the hard times and rejection get me down. I want to create a business or service of some sort (I’m not quite sure what yet). I want to continue to work my hardest. And I want to find some way to give back to the world and fight for what I believe in!

The future is bright for this leading lady!

The future is bright for this leading lady!

LIGHTNING ROUND

Favorite musical?

Come From Away

Most-played song on your phone?

“Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” by Billy Joel or “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen

Favorite NYC restaurant?

Beauty and Essex

Dream role?

Jean Valjean in Les Mis, Bobby in Company

Hidden talent?

Makeup

Favorite dance style?

Jazz/musical theatre

Favorite TV show?

Parenthood

What stresses you out the most?

Common App Essays (I never want to go back to that dark time)

What makes you smile?

My family and a good sandwich

Quote to live by?

“They will tell you you can't sleep alone in a strange place. Then they'll tell you can't sleep with somebody else. Ah but sooner or later you sleep in your own space. Either way it's okay you wake up with yourself!” - Billy Joel (“My Life”)

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KEEP UP WITH EMERSON

Instagram: @emersonsteele

Twitter: @emerson_steele

Facebook: Emerson Steele

YouTube: Emerson Steele

Website: emersonsteele.com

Follow this multi-talented gal on social media to stay updated on all the exciting things happening in her life on and off the stage!

All other photos courtesy Emerson Steele