by Clark Groome
NEW YORK——“It all began at the Water Tower,” Mt. Airy native Rose Hemingway (née Szczesniak) said in an interview in her dressing room at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in New York. That’s where Hemingway is making her Broadway debut as Rosemary Pilkington in the well-received 50th anniversary revival of Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows’ “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.”
Hemingway, 27, was doing gymnastics at the Water Tower 20 years ago when she was tapped along with some other tumblers and gymnasts to be pirates in a production of “Peter Pan,” presented by the resident Spotlight Players. “From that second on,” she said, “I knew I’d found where I belonged. I quickly discovered it was the right thing for me.”
As the Mt. Airy native grew up, she continued to act. While a student at Mount St. Joseph Academy, she was in “Carousel,” “Hello, Dolly,” “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Bye, Bye Birdie.”
As the sixth of nine kids, Rose loved being the center of attention, so acting was the perfect fit. During her high school years, she was part of the Prince Music Theater’s Rainbow Company. It was there that she appeared in her first professional show, “The Snow Queen.”
Her parents “have been very supportive. They’ve been that way with all of my siblings. They wanted to make sure I got a degree. It didn’t matter to them that it was in music.” After graduating from the Mount in 2001, she went to Catholic University of America’s Rome School of Music in Washington, D.C.
Although she was a musical theater major, “I didn’t do a lot of acting in college … I was at a sort of transitional point in my life. I was trying to figure out whether I still wanted to do musical theater. I was immersed in it, but I was never a star in any of the productions. I was in the ensemble in a couple of things. I was by no means their star student.”
Rose moved to New York shortly after getting her degree in 2005. “I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to do musical theater, so I wasn’t pursuing it actively. I was trying to focus on straight theater which, if you don’t have an agent, is very difficult in New York.”
The result was that she spent a lot of time bartending, waiting tables and getting used to living in Manhattan, “which in and of itself is tricky. It’s different from Mt. Airy. My first two years I was doing that.”
One of the other challenges she faced was going to auditions and not being a member of Actors’ Equity, the actors’ union. Ultimately she auditioned for the Theatreworks USA musical “Junie B. Jones,” a children’s show that was going to tour in the fall of 2006. She got the title role and along with it her Equity card.
“It was really fun,” she says, “but definitely not a glamorous job.” The cast and sets traveled in two vans, one for the cast, the other for the equipment. “We had to put up the sets and tear them down. We performed in large auditoriums some days and others in the lunchroom of an elementary school. It was an adventure.”
That production was a turning point. “The reason I auditioned for it was that I knew I could get my Equity card doing it. I was so sick of not being able to get into auditions. I was fortunate that it actually ended up working out. I realized I really did enjoy musical theater and singing. I regained my passion for musical theater while I was doing [‘Junie’].”
After coming back to New York, taking acting classes and singing lessons, going to countless auditions and bartending, Rose was cast as Sophie Sheridan in the touring company of “Mamma Mia.”
It was on that tour that she met Geoff Hemingway, who played Sky, Sophie’s fiancé. Their onstage relationship was replicated offstage. They were married last November at Mt. Airy’s Holy Cross Church, her lifelong parish.
After a year she left “Mamma Mia,” returned to Manhattan and, a few months later, was cast in a production of “Parade” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Rob Ashford directed it. When the show closed, Ashford was planning to cast for the proposed 50th anniversary production of “How to Succeed” that was to star Daniel Radcliffe, the popular star of the “Harry Potter” movies.
In the middle of our interview in her dressing room at the Hirschfield, we could hear screams of glee from the street below. Radcliffe had arrived for the matinee. For all the hype and attention that Radcliffe has received as the lead in the show, Hemingway has totally enjoyed working with him. She is not a Harry Potter devotee, but when she met Radcliffe at the reading, “We immediately had great chemistry. We could both tell from the reading it would be a great fit. Daniel’s very mature.”
Radcliffe plays J. Pierpont Finch, the adorably manipulative young man on the make at the World Wide Wicket Company. Hemingway plays the secretary who falls in love with him. As an aside, Rose Hemingway’s legal name is, like her character’s, Rosemary. She thinks that’s rather cool.
She described the show’s first preview, with her parents and “25 of their closest friends” in the audience. “At the beginning, I sing ‘Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm.’ I start out, and [another secretary] Smitty’s with me. She walks off. I will never forget that feeling when she walks off. I was by myself, center stage, on Broadway. It was terrifying. I still get goose bumps. The beautiful thing about live theater, as cheesy as this sounds, is that it’s new every night. It’s really special.”
Rose would still like to do straight theater and perhaps film and TV. She concedes that while her role in “How to Succeed” gets laughs, that is the result of Abe Burrows’ great book. “I never thought of myself as a comedienne. This has been a real discovery for me.”
And Rose still thinks of herself as an actor who sings rather than a singer who acts. “I was always drawn to acting. As a kid I would sit in front of a mirror at my parents’ home and make up melodramas. Acting always drove me. Then I discovered I could sing, that I could use that as a tool.”
Hemingway’s Broadway debut has been well received. She was one of six actors and six actresses to win a 2011 Theatre World Award. Founded in 1944, the annual awards are the oldest given for a debut theater performance on- or off-Broadway. Previous winners include Harry Connick Jr., Reba McIntire, Kristin Chenoweth, Helen Mirren, Audra McDonald, Annette Benning, Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg, Wyndmoor native Laurie Beechman, Meryl Streep, Bernadette Peters, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Carol Burnett, William Shatner and Julie Andrews.
Rose Hemingway is in very good company. From the evidence on the Hirschfeld stage, so are those previous winners.