by Fred P. Gusoff
What do you call a girl from Mt. Airy who’s hit the big time on Broadway?
A rising star.
Jessica Hershberg is dancing and singing her way in the limelight of “Cinderella,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical. The play began a year ago on Broadway, and Hershberg joined up this year. Her first performance was Jan. 7, and there’s no end in sight.
“Cinderella” runs eight performances each week. Probably the world’s most beloved fairytale, it is on Broadway for the first time ever. Comic actress Fran Drescher, known best for her role on the former hit TV show “The Nanny,” plays Cinderella’s stepmother, while Canadian pop star Carly Rae Jepsen plays the lead role, but she’s under contract to play in just six shows per week. Guess who fills in the rest of the time?
“It’s great for me because I get to play Cinderella twice a week,” said Hershberg, who is in the ensemble the rest of the time. “My dream since I’ve been in New York was to be on Broadway.”
The 27-year-old performer was born and raised in Mt. Airy. She began studying ballet at age 5 at the Wissahickon Dance Academy (WDA) in Germantown, where director Nancy Malmed was “hugely supportive” of Hershberg and kept her on her toes. Jessica continued studying ballet for 12 years throughout high school, graduating from Germantown Friends School (GFS).
Hershberg attended the Miquon School prior to GFS. According to Malmed, Jessica was “a beautiful ballet dancer, and she was always cast in lead roles at WDA, but she soon discovered that she was even better at singing than dancing. She landed lead roles in GFS musicals as well as solo parts in choir concerts, managing to balance her two passions.”
The Mt. Airy native had her first professional acting job at the age of 12 when she was cast as Fern in the Arden Theater’s production of “Charlotte’s Web.” At 18, she enrolled in the University of Michigan, where she earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in musical theater. She moved to New York City right after graduation and has lived there ever since.
Hershberg took her first voice lesson at age 17 with teacher Randi Marrazzo, an opera singer and fellow Mt. Airy resident. “She’s wonderful,” Hershberg said of her instructor.
Northwest Philly’s newest lady on Broadway can count on visits from her parents, who still live in the house in which Jessica grew up — mom Betsy, father Theodore, a prominent professor at the University of Pennsylvania who was a top aide to Mayor W. Wilson Goode, along with Jessica’s brother Dan, who runs Philly Phaithful, a sports apparel store in Northern Liberties.
“They’re the captains of my fan club,” she said. “They’ve always been very supportive.”
Cinderella’s backstage family is also important, said Hershberg, who praised the “collaborative” way the Cinderella team works together, including the singers, dancers, lighting crew, props department and costume unit. “I have a great team of people helping me,” she said. “It’s an ecosystem.”
As great as the behind-the-scenes world of show biz is, Hershberg has kind words for what goes on at curtain time. “What an absolute privilege and thrill it is to be onstage,” she said.
“To get to sing some of the most beautiful music in musical theater history by Rodgers and Hammerstein and dance along to an incredible orchestra and wear the most glorious costumes and to help in telling a story that has such a beautiful, uplifting message — and to make a nice living from it? It’s magical, and I’m so honored to be a part of it every night, whether I’m in the ensemble or playing Cinderella.”
What’s it like working with Fran Drescher? “She’s so sweet and happy to be there,” said Jessica.
Live theater is always changing, Hershberg noted, and matinees tend to attract more children. The best part of it, though, is the audience. “Whether it’s conscious or subconscious, you’re always feeding off their energy,” she said. “It’s a living, breathing, changing thing.”
Hershberg doesn’t mind being approached by theater-goers for autographs after the show. “It’s kind of surreal,” she said. “It’s wonderful to have people want me to sign something for them. It’s really special.”
Before beginning her “Cinderella” stint, Hershberg performed in more than a dozen shows on Broadway and in regional theater, including “Baby It’s You!” “Little House on the Prairie,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Grease,” “Beauty and The Beast,” “Mame” and more. And that all followed “Singin’ in the Rain” in college.
Nobody knows when the curtains will close on “Cinderella” on Broadway. Where does Hershberg plan to take her career after “Cinderella” leaves?
“I’m thrilled to be part of the show,” she said. “Who knows what the future will bring?”
“Cinderella” is currently at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, at 53rd Street in Manhattan. For ticket information, visit www.cinderellaonbroadway.com or call 800-432-7250. “Cinderella” will also be coming to the Academy of Music in Philadelphia for one week, Nov. 25-30, this year. More information, call 215-893-1955.