NEW YORK // AS A TEENAGER, NATALIE JOY Johnson suffered a double-whammy of rejection.
First, the Baltimore School for the Arts turned her down. Then, as a freshman at Mount Hebron High School, she didn't even make the cut for a production of Godspell.
At that point, many kids would have given up on acting. Not Natalie.
Perseverance -- and talent -- won out. Now the bubbly, driven actress is making her debut on Broadway, appearing in one of the season's hot new musicals, Legally Blonde, and "living the dream," as she puts it.
"It's funny," says Johnson, 29. "I guess things happen for a reason."
The Baltimore native's current role is the latest in a series of unconventional parts she has played on and off stage -- from award-winning temp worker to star of the New York cult musical bare: a pop opera.
Even in the mainstream hit Legally Blonde, Johnson is cast in one of the more offbeat roles. She plays Enid, the lesbian law school classmate of Elle, the lead character.
Elle is partial to pink; Enid prefers camouflage fatigues. Elle likes little black dresses; Enid sports pinstriped pantsuits. Elle, of course, is a blonde; Enid is a brunette.
Except that Johnson is, in fact, also a blonde. Not that many of her New York friends, including her boyfriend of two years, have ever seen her as a blonde. Her latest hair color of choice is ink black. When she starred in her first national tour, which turned out to be Godspell, her short tresses were pink. In between, her hair has been orange, red and, briefly, "platinum and black -- that was a little too Cruella De Vil," she admits.
But in her Mount Hebron yearbook (class of 1996), Johnson is as blond as Elle. The subsequent rainbow of hair colors isn't surprising for the daughter of a hairstylist. And if blondes have more fun, you couldn't tell it from this currently raven-haired actress.
Just watch her signing autographs on a recent Friday night outside the stage door at the Palace Theatre. Dressed in jeans with her high school L.L. Bean backpack strapped to her shoulders, the full-figured performer beams as she signs Legally Blonde Playbills and poses for photos with theatergoers.
The next morning, sitting on the sofa in her Harlem apartment with her legs curled under her, Johnson says, "I know it sounds cheesy, but it really is just such a wonderful time -- the fact that every night I get to go and do a show that I love with people that I love, having a great time on stage at the Palace. "
Johnson didn't get to Broadway the way most young actors do these days. Besides missing out on a performing arts high school, she chose not to attend an acting conservatory. Instead, she went to the former Mary Washington College in Virginia. She's the first person on either side of her family to graduate from college.
Nor do her parents' professions immediately suggest Broadway. But her folks, who divorced before Natalie entered grade school, have always been Natalie's biggest fans. Her father, Pete Johnson, a maintenance mechanic who sang in a rock band when he was younger, saw her in Godspell 24 times. "People get tired of hearing me talk about my daughter," he says. "I say, 'You're just going to have to deal with it.'"
Her mother, Dale Brown, organizes bus trips to New York to see Legally Blonde. The station next to Brown's at the Hair Studio in Arbutus is dedicated to the show, complete with bus-trip sign-up sheets.
No fear of hard work
Legally Blonde, based on the 2001 movie and Amanda Brown's novel, is about a seemingly vapid California sorority girl, Elle. When her boyfriend jilts her for not being serious-minded, she gets admitted to Harvard Law School in an effort to convince him otherwise and win him back. And Elle turns out to be more responsible and a harder worker than he'll ever be.
Hard work is something that Elle, Enid and Natalie have in common; it's a trait Johnson appears to have inherited from her parents. In high school, "Her work ethic was contagious, whether she was a lead or a supporting character," says Mount Hebron math teacher Tom Sankey, who directed her in a dozen shows at Mount Hebron and at the Howard County Summer Theatre.
Being a struggling actress in New York requires an even tougher work ethic. Initially, when Johnson couldn't land an acting gig there, she walked into a beauty parlor and offered her services washing hair. She's also done telemarketing and temp jobs (throwing herself into these with such fervor, she won an award for most referrals).
Her most demanding odd job was that of a singing waitress at Ellen's Stardust Diner. The servers at the theater-district eatery don't just sing, they sing while taking orders, making change and striding across the top of banquettes. At times, the diner broadcasts these performances on loud speakers outside the restaurant. When John Stamos was starring in Cabaret, he heard Johnson warbling away one night and wandered in to express his appreciation. (She immediately switched to a song from Cabaret.)
Johnson paid her acting dues in a series of off-Broadway shows. She was appearing in one of those -- How to Save the World and Find True Love in 90 Minutes -- when she got a chance to audition for Legally Blonde. "It's pretty much the coolest story ever," she says with characteristic enthusiasm as she launches into a blow-by-blow account.
Here's the story: On the night closing notices were posted for Save the World, one of her cast mates, who had already snagged a supporting role in Legally Blonde, told her the actress hired to play Enid had dropped out. With less than two weeks to go before the start of rehearsals, the musical was searching for a new Enid. "I was like, I want this so bad," Johnson says. "I'm ready. I'm ready."
At the audition, she sang an appropriately Legally Blonde-sounding song called "Pink Prada Purse," written for her by Jonnah Speidel, the music director she had worked with on her cabaret act (more on that later). After a couple of songs, Johnson had the job. "It's kind of that dream experience where you get offered it on the spot, which is very, very cool," she says.
In terms of personality, ebullient Natalie Joy Johnson appears to be quite different from her strident, power-saluting feminist character, Enid Hoopes. But Johnson acknowledges, "Sometimes I guess it takes characters to reveal the stuff about yourself that you don't know is true. I do tend to get really fired up and passionate about things. And I think that she's very comfortable being herself, which, as I'm getting older, I'm trying do more of."
There's also an odd coincidence in terms of casting. "It's kind of funny. This is not my first lesbian role," she says. "This is my third." There was a workshop of a play called Joy, in which she played a young woman "exuberantly exploring her Sapphic side." Then came But I'm a Cheerleader at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, in which she was cast as "a lesbian Goth girl."
"Apparently, I read rather butch," she says, "but as long as I'm working ..."
Johnson's budding career is also not without irony. After being something of a star in middle school at Ascension School in Halethorpe, she was crushed when she wasn't accepted at the Baltimore School for the Arts. Then came the Godspell rejection at Mount Hebron High in Ellicott City, where her father had moved. Her mother saw it as a life lesson. "She was very disappointed," Brown says. "I told her if you're going to try out, you're not going to get everything."
With hindsight, Johnson can be philosophical about the School for the Arts.
"It certainly was not pleasant when you get the letter that says, 'Thanks, but no thanks,'" she says. But "Hebron was great. Mount Hebron was awesome." Not only was she cast in every show after Godspell, she also did the morning announcements, served in student government and on the flag team, sang in the choir and jazz band, and was voted homecoming queen.
"They clearly picked the nice girl that year," she says with a laugh.
Four years later, right out of college, she landed her first professional job -- a tour of Godspell. Sankey, her Mount Hebron drama director, restaged the show and took the student cast to see the touring production. He then invited Johnson to do a master class for the students. "It's sort of ironic that that's the only show she didn't get into at Mount Hebron," says Sankey. "We have teased about it."
A few years ago on a trip to New York, Sankey and his wife stopped at Ellen's Stardust Diner when Johnson was doing her singing waitress gig. She broke into a song from Hello, Dolly!, in which she had starred at Mount Hebron, and, Sankey recalls, she dedicated it to the teacher who "cut me from my first audition in high school for Godspell."
One thing Johnson learned from that experience is that sometimes you have to make your own breaks. Last year, working with her music director, Speidel, she put together her own cabaret show, which she performed at Joe's Pub at New York's Public Theater.
"I feel like it's the thing that I'm best at. I just get to be me. It's just kind of a heightened version of myself," she says of the act, in which she performs everything from a disco funk version of a Van Morrison song to an R&B; rendition of a Hello, Dolly! number. "Belty and brassy -- that's definitely how I would describe myself."
Although she'd like to do more cabaret work, Natalie Joy Johnson couldn't be happier performing Legally Blonde eight times a week at the Palace. "I hope the show runs for a really long time," she says.
"It's such a joy and such a blessing. I'm so happy with where my life is now. There's something to be said for living the dream -- it's pretty much the coolest thing ever."
Natalie Joy Johnson
-- May 24, 1978, in Baltimore
-- graduated from Mount Hebron High School, 1996; bachelor of arts degree from the former Mary Washington College, 2000
-- Godspell, national tour (2000-2001); bare:a pop opera (2004); solo cabaret show, Joe's Pub (2006); Legally Blonde (2007- )
-- New York City