Alumnus Lands Broadway Role

Kate Ginley, Staff Writer

22-year-old Campolindo alumnus Erika Henningsen has made her childhood dream a reality, from playing Belle in the school’s 2009 production of Beauty and the Beast to starring as Fantine in the Broadway musical Les Miserables in New York City.

Henningsen said that high school prepared her for her career in several ways. “Obviously, I was lucky enough to experience the incredible direction of David Pinkham and Jamie Donohoe in various productions throughout my time there. The commitment they had to the craft was infectious. They treated their students and performers as adults and professionals. Thus, they made me feel that I could have a definite future in the field,” she said.

Jamie Donohoe, English and drama teacher characterized Henningson as a driven actress with a bright future in theater. Donohoe said, “Her success is due to her work ethic and natural talent (but mostly her work ethic).  Students like Erika (and Alex Breaux who is another ex-Campo students who played Broadway recently) are intense, driven and very, very hard on themselves [sic].  That drive helps them in many ways, but it can also paralyze a performer who is constantly thinking ‘Do they like me?  Am I good enough?'”

Henningsen grew up with a musical childhood. “I don’t know if there was a definitive time when I could say my love for musical theater took root. I grew up in the theater. Even though I partook in all the athletic and academic offerings Lamorinda had to offer, my home away from home was the theater since probably age 8,” she said.

Donohoe remembers Henningsen being a natural star even at a young age. “She, Mrs. Mayer and I performed a scene from Romeo and Juliet all four years Erika was at Campo.  We performed the scene for our freshman English students.  During rehearsals, I coached Erika in playing Juliet. As I recall, she was easy to direct. I would give her a note, and she understood immediately not only how to do it, but why I was asking her to make the adjustment.  Even at 15, 16 years old, Erika was incredibly smart, and she just needed a small push here or there. The rest was her,” Donohoe added.

Henningsen believes her high school experience prepared her for the pressures of performing. “However, Campo and the Campo faculty prepared me for this field in ways that many people would not expect. I’m speaking in regard to the academic rigor and critical thinking, [which] Campo equips all its graduates with before they venture into the world,” she added. “While many think theater is an emotional and talent driven business, it is equally dependent on an actors ability to think intellectually, to research, and to fully understand the world and story of their character.”

Donohoe said he has prepared Erika like everyone else for college or careers. “The way I prepare my students for Broadway is the same way I prepare students for college, for life, and for other careers:  this is a game.  Treat it as such.  Have fun.  Be your creative best and whatever happens, happens.  If you are worried about how others see you, if that’s your primary mechanism for measuring success then you have already failed–because you’ll never please everybody (and if you did, you’d sacrifice yourself),” Donohoe explained.

Even though she now has her dream career, it’s hard for Henningsen to grasp how far she has come. “The fact that this is my work and my job is unreal. It’s the coolest job in the world. How many people can say that? I am so lucky. Yet, while of course the venue and hype are bigger, a Broadway rehearsal process is similar to any other show. We learn the music, we block the show, we get on stage for tech, add costumes and orchestra and then BAM! It’s a Broadway musical. This experience is a bit different as I am replacing an actress who has played Fantine for a year already in the production. As such, our rehearsal time is a bit shorter and we only have one run through in costume before the first night in front of an audience. Crazy stuff,” she said.

Henningsen stills gets nervous after years of being on stage. “I get more nervous when my parents and friends are in the audience. The 2,000 strangers I usually feel okay about. In terms of settling the adrenaline, I do a lot of yoga and running to get the jitters out. No rituals yet; those usually come with time as I become superstitious about ‘good luck routines’ and such. I will say I always steam before a show with a humidifier. Gotta keep the vocal cords healthy,” Henningsen said.

Coincidentally, the current Campolindo choir is performing Les Miserables as this year’s spring musical. “It is pretty crazy. It was also the last show I did at the University of Michigan before I graduated and moved to New York. There’s something about Les Mis that makes me believe in a ‘fate-esque’ force. It’s such a beautiful epic piece and I’ve had the chance to visit it three times before this Broadway production. In that sense, I feel lucky as I’ve discovered something new with each permutation. I’ve grown up against the back drop of Les Mis. At any huge turning point in my life, as a child, then a student, then an adult performer, it has been there. That does feel a bit like fate,” Henningsen said.

Donohoe said that fate played no part in this coincidence. “It’s just so amazing that she’s in Les Mis.  I don’t believe in fate in Erika’s case because that signifies there is some outside force guiding her. There’s not. Erika’s casting is entirely due to her talent and work–I haven’t seen the kid in years but I guarantee you she out-rehearsed, out-worked all of her classmates in college and all of those folks who showed up for audition.  So, a cool coincidence?  Yeah, seems so.  And it’s the perfect role for her to begin her professional career,” Donohoe added.

Though the thrill of performing is gratifying, Henningsen would like to come back to her hometown. “I wish I could return to Moraga but unfortunately what I want to accomplish in my career will most likely require my staying in New York. Or Los Angeles,” Henningsen explained.

Like Henningsen misses her hometown, Donohoe misses his former student. “Hell yeah I wish I could see her again!  I miss that short kid.  I would have flown out to see her show if I hadn’t just already gone out to see Alex perform in NY,” he said.

Heeningsen is not quite ready to accept stardom. “I am not a celebrity. Trust me. But I guess my favorite part of being on Broadway is that it’s different every night. Though the story stays the same, we get to create something fresh each evening. At least…that’s the goal. Also, the die hard Les Mis fans make my day. You never know how great an impact you could have on someone until they meet you at the stage door to tell you so,” said Henningsen.
Henningsen does have dreams still unrealized. “To originate a part in a brand new musical on Broadway. That means no one before me would have done it. I want to put my stamp on something,” she added. “Maria in The Sound of Music. Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Mother in Ragtime. Or a role written specifically for me.”
Being a Broadway star herself, Henningsen explained how she gets starstruck by co-stars. “Initially yes, but they are the nicest people in the world. So welcoming. And at the end of the day they don’t feel like costars; they’re coworkers. We’re all in it together. It’s very much an ensemble piece as everyone is imperative to the success of show,” she said.
What does thrill Henningsen is when her vocals are combined with the live music from the pit for the first time. “The first time you sing with an orchestra is always the most incredible, out of body experience. It’s that final push that takes you out of the rehearsal room and into the story.”
Henningsen understands that her success in earning the Broadway role is part of a long sequence of small steps. “I guess the challenge I was lucky enough to face with each success upon moving to New York was accepting that every show is a process. Nothing can be right the first time and indeed there really is no definitive ‘right’. Fantine is a perfect example of a part that people love and identify with and have concrete ideas as to how it should be done,” she said.
“But the beauty of the character is that I can make it my own. I have to make it my own. And while my version may not please everybody, that’s not the point. It’s hard to accept this idea when I’ve worked so hard in classes and as a student to be “correct” but that term just doesn’t exist in theater,” she added.
Being on Broadway does have its sacrifices. “I can’t eat chocolate or ice cream. It affects my voice,” Henningsen said.
Henningsen is quick to point out that her success did not come easily, and that show business can often times be unfair. “Plenty of people work hard and the equation doesn’t yield the same success. In that sense, I am supremely lucky. If anything, I would say that for people at Campo who hope to also be working actors, never underestimate the importance of a well-rounded education. Yes, take all the arts classes you can but don’t let it jeopardize your academic intellect and curiosity. The best actors are those who care about the world beyond their field,” said Henningsen.
Donohoe thinks that Henningsen’s talent transcends musical theater. “I hope Erika got a sense of herself as a true actor.  I bug her about this a lot, the fact that she’s going to be a star in musicals (which is incredible) but that she’s got so much dramatic talent [sic].  She could be an incredible Shakespearean actor, and she’s got the chops to play a variety of roles in modern drama. Film too,” said Donohoe.