Ann Harada is that rare Asian American musical-theater actress who’s never starred in The King and I or Miss Saigon. After a few summer stock stints as Bloody Mary in South Pacific, Harada realized if she was going to make it in theater, it would be as a character actor. In 2003, she originated the role of Christmas Eve in the irreverent puppet musical Avenue Q, a part she played on and off for six years. She’s been busy ever since, including a 14-month run as Madame Thenardier in the Broadway revival of Les Miserables.
Tonight, Harada’s first regular TV character, the long-suffering stage manager Linda, returns to the NBC series Smash. After filming nine episodes for Season 2, Harada left behind Katharine McPhee, Megan Hilty and the rest of the cast so she could originate the role of stepsister Charlotte in Roger & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. The show is now running in previews; it opens on Broadway March 3.
Before heading to the theater recently, Harada carved out some time to talk about her career, from her start in summer stock to her star turns as not-so-stock characters.
As a young actress, did you envision yourself playing roles in The King and I or Miss Saigon or South Pacific?
I always wanted to play these roles in the repertory, but I found I had a hard time getting cast in typically Asian parts, because for whatever reason, people were like, “You’re too American,” “You’re too funny,” or, “You’re so not right for this.” That just wasn’t going to be where my path was, and I just had to get over that.
Did that shift happen pretty quickly for you?
When you are a minority actor, you figure out right away that so much of the game is what people expect you to be, or think that you could be, based on how you look. When you don’t fit that mold, you have to figure out other ways to be seen. I had to start working on ways that I wasn’t being cast traditionally.
And by “traditionally” you mean?
There are a lot of actresses out there playing Tuptim who might be jealous of that.
Believe me, there was nothing I wanted more when I was younger than to be that ingenue. But that’s not who I was. And I’m a character actor. And when you are a young character actor, there is pretty much nothing out there for you, especially if you are Asian. Oh my God. I am such a late bloomer in terms of my career.
So how old were you when you realized that you were destined to be a character actor?
I’ll put it this way: When I saw Cinderella as a young girl, it never really crossed my mind that I wanted to play Cinderella. I was thinking, “I could be a stepsister.” I have always gravitated more towards those parts.
So is that how you got cast as Christmas Eve?
No. That was a complete stroke of fate. When Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx were developing (Avenue Q), they were literally looking for an Asian actress to come in and say, like, two sentences in “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” I went, and I was Christmas Eve from then on.
How were you able to take playing such an idiosyncratic character — a heavily accented Japanese therapist engaged to an unemployed puppet — and use the role as a stepping stone?
It’s always nice to be affiliated with a hit. When I went to auditions, people knew who I was.
Before you auditioned for Smash, did you ask any stage managers for advice?
No. It was only 10 minutes. It’s not like I did very much method work going into that first audition. But when I went back, I thought about a lot of stage managers that I’ve worked with, and I do kind of model myself after one of them.
Have you had good relationships with your stage managers over the years? Or are you a problem child?
Yes. I’m happy to say that I have. But I have been written up for laughing onstage.
In rehearsals for Bombshell, the show-within-a-show on Smash, whose side is Linda on? The actors? Or the creative team?
I would have to say she’s on the creative team’s side, but looking out for the welfare of the actors. Stage management is such a delicate row to hoe. You have to deal with everyone’s personal issues, as well as the crew.
In that sense, Smash seems pretty accurate. Linda knows who’s fooling around with who in the dressing rooms, but at the same time she’s trying to help hang the lights.
Absolutely. The only time I put my foot down was when we were shooting a scene in tech, and they had given me a yellow blouse to wear, and I was like, “No. C’mon. We’re in tech. I would be wearing black.”
Have there been many moments when they’ve turned to the theater people on set and, and asked you, “What would really happen here?”
Smash has been, for the most part, very good about listening to the people who have a lot of stage experience. There was one time when they had the stage manager’s console facing the wrong way. And I was like, “Please, for the love of God, don’t shoot it like that. We will get so much flak.”
Can you give us any hints about what’s in store for Linda? Any more break-out scenes, like dancing at the Indian wedding?
Nothing like that. There will be no singing or dancing for me, but there are some great moments in Linda history coming up, in terms of stage manager breakdowns.
Were you eager to get back onstage yourself?
Oh yes. I mean, it was bittersweet, but hopefully it won’t be goodbye forever.
You had to go fulfill your childhood dream of playing a stepsister.
Of course. And to be in a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical that has never been on Broadway.
Is it really Broadway material though? Their Cinderella was a made-for-TV movie that came out in 1957, and there’s a version licensed to elementary schools.
We have an entirely new book by Douglas Carter Beane (the playwright who wrote The Little Dog Laughed and Xanadu). It’s more cheeky and edgy. The dialogue is much punchier. It’s very funny, and there’s a contemporary feel to the humor, but there are no Justin Bieber jokes.
How would you describe your character, the stepsister Charlotte?
She is just pure Id. She is that girl who tries just way too hard. Just wants to be liked, and is so unsuccessful at it. Everything about her is so over the top. All of my dresses are various shades of hot pink. You cannot miss me. She is just too-too. But she’s not evil. She’s overeager.
And you like that, that she’s not the stereotypical evil stepsister?
Of course, because, what’s there to be evil about? You can resent a perfect person without being evil. I resent perfect people all the time.
So she’s the girl you feel sorry for at the dance?
Oh, yes. I would feel very sorry for her.
Is it fun, being back onstage and singing again, instead of herding singing divas for television?
It is the most fun you could ever have, to be in a show like Cinderella, with the funniest people. … I’m playing in the major leagues, with the best people there are. And I’m doing what I love to do. There is just not a better feeling in the world.