Watching Emily Padgett perform the climactic dance scene in the national tour of Flashdance, it’s hard to believe she did not consider herself a dancer before being tapped for this musical. Sure, she had shown off her moves on Broadway in the ensembles of Grease and Legally Blonde and as sweet leading lady Sherrie in Rock of Ages, but the role of welder-turned-dancer Alex Owens required was much more challenging. With the help of director/choreographer Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, Memphis), Padgett underwent exhaustive training over two years and is now performing the show's water stunt across the country. Here, Padgett talks about overcoming obstacles as a performer, hating her choreographer's guts (and loving him, too) and what happens when she dances without water.
How long have you been attached to this show?
This summer will be two years.
Did you audition?
When I did White Noise in Chicago with Sergio [Trujillo], he got it in his head that I was right for this role. Voice-wise, I was right for it, but then the dancing came.
What did you think of doing such a dance-heavy role?
It was a lot of pressure because it’s Flashdance, and everyone has these high expectations of what that is. It took a lot of tears and a lot of hard work, but Sergio never gave up on me. There were many times when I thought, 'I don’t think I can do this, this is not for me, I can’t work this hard.' But he pushed me through and I learned a lot. It’s nice to be able to really can call myself a dancer now.
How much dance training did you go through for this?
In my early Broadway career, I was in the ensemble, but I didn’t cover any of the big dance tracks. When Flashdance came around, I had to learn how to stretch the right way, do progressions across the floor, work the ballet barre and learn how to spot correctly. I was starting from square one.
Did you ever wonder why Trujillo didn’t just cast a trained dancer?
There are so many great dancer/singers in New York, but when I dance, because it doesn’t come naturally for me, I have to fight through it. I think that’s what he liked about it, that it didn’t look easy. It looked like I was a fighter. My character is such a fighter, and they’ve built her that way in the show.
What’s your relationship with Sergio like?
When we’re not in the throes of things, we’ve very close. He’ll invite me to dinner and we’re friendly that way. But when we’re working, it’s a very coach-to-athlete dynamic. My need to impress him is great. He’s like my Bela Karolyi [the Olympic gymnastics coach]; there are days when I hate his guts for making me do this, but that’s what makes me get better. It’s a very special relationship.
Did you ever have any reservations about carrying a show?
Definitely. Not just carrying the show, but it was carrying a show and expressing myself through dance. I knew I could learn the movement and perform the steps with enough practice, but it was to be able to act through the steps. It was scary to try to get that message across.
How has playing Alex changed you as a performer?
I feel fearless in terms of expressing myself, being able to stand on stage and be comfortable in my own skin. I’ve put so much of myself into this character.
Alex is chasing her dream of performing. Obviously, this must have connections to your own life. How does relating to your character inform your performance?
When I first came to New York, I didn’t have an agent; I waited in line for auditions. I fought my way to get seen. In the show, there’s a whole class issue with Alex not feeling like she’s good enough to go to the Shipley Dance Academy. I’ve definitely been there.
What did you learn about mounting a new musical and originating a role?
It’s fun and exciting. I feel very close to the character, so in rehearsal when they wrote lines for me and I didn’t like a line, because I didn’t think it’s what my character would say, I had the urge to speak up. The creative team really listened to us though.
What's your attitude about reviews?
On a tour, you get reviewed every week. For us, it’s great because we can see what people think. I always like reading reviews, even if I don’t agree with what they’re saying. It’s nice to see how different people view you. It’s part of the job. I like to read them; it keeps you humble.
Now about that famous water scene: How cold is the water?
The colder the city is that we’re playing in, the warmer the temperature of the water. In a cold city, the crew takes precautions and heats up the water, because they don’t want the pipes to freeze. But they don’t do that in warm climates, so in Nashville, the water was freezing cold. It’s definitely a shock. I have no microphone when that sequence happens, so I’m always like, “OOOOOH!”
Has the water ever not come on?
It’s only happened one time and it felt very weird to do the show without the water. I’m used to taking a shower and starting Act II fresh, without all the sweat. I didn’t like that; I needed my water back. It looks so sexy from the audience, but backstage, it’s gross.
Oh my gosh! What was going through your head?
They told me five seconds before I went on that the water wasn’t going to happen. So I thought, ‘OK, how do I mime water?’ [Pauses] Well, you can’t mime water. I just tried to do the choreography as clean as I could. I thought about making spirit fingers that looked like water coming down, but I thought I’d fall if I did that.
You're as fit as can be for this role. How do you keep up your energy?
I try to get enough protein. I like those Muscle Milk drinks because they’re packed with protein and they’re a quick snack in between shows. The name of the game in this show is eating. When you don’t eat enough, it’s the worst.
This is a great role for an actress. How will this experience affect the choices you make in your career going forward?
Alex is sexy in this show and I was sexy in Rock of Ages. In my next show, I’d love to do something completely different. But it has been a dream come true to play a role like this.
See Padgett in Flashdance at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre from April 16 through April 21.