On August 6 the Broadway production of the Tony-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen welcomed Ann Sanders to the company at the Music Box Theatre, where she succeeded original cast member Jennifer Laura Thompson in the role of Cynthia Murphy. Sanders, who was most recently seen as Queen Iduna in Disney’s Frozen, is scheduled to continue in the part through October 20. The actor, whose Broadway credits also include If/Then, Leap of Faith, and Avenue Q, has the distinction of being the first Asian-American performer to play Anna Leonowens in The King and I and Belle in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway.
We recently asked Sanders to pen a list of her most memorable nights in the theatre; her responses follow.
Beauty and the Beast
My whole introduction to the New York theatre community started with Beauty and the Beast. It was the first Broadway show I saw, and later I was able to make my Broadway debut in the show. There were lots of shenanigans and backstage antics, from cast and crew kidnapping my Stuart Little doll (ask me about this in person), to mishaps like my wig getting caught in the Beast’s horns (visual required!). To this day some of my closest friends are people I met in that show.
There is a particular week that stands out in my mind—it was shortly after I joined the company when the unspeakable happened: September 11. In the days following we felt helpless, we weren’t sure if we should or could do the show. Then Disney Theatricals began offering free tickets to the relief workers, their families, people stranded in NYC. We would come out of the stage door each night talking with these people, and they thanked us for the respite, laughter, and humanity we shared together. I always knew the power of live theatre, but experiencing it in that way solidified my desire to make it my life’s work. Prior to those events I wasn’t sure I was going to make NYC my home, but that experience confirmed that I had to pursue theatre here.
2004 Tony Awards
As a little kid, I watched the Tonys on television and never dreamed I could actually be inside Radio City Music Hall seeing the performers I always looked up to in person. I was so grateful to be there with Avenue Q, celebrating all theatre artists. We were certainly proud of the show, but had no expectations. And then, wow!
However, the moment I remember the most is the second after “The Tony Award for Best Musical goes to… Avenue Q,” my phone started ringing, and it was my dad calling me. This surprised me because I knew he was nowhere near a TV at the time… I later learned that he was huddled up with a radio listening to a live broadcast of the Tonys with his phone in hand, as if he knew that we would win. Later that year I lost my dad to leukemia, but the idea of this sports-loving man putting everything aside to listen to his daughter’s Tony Awards broadcast will stay with me forever.
The King and I
The opportunity Bart Sher and Lincoln Center gave me in performing the role of Anna Leonowens was a unique experience, learning about her heritage (of being mixed race) and her bravery in choosing to do what she needed to do to support her family and educate people who she deemed marginalized. Working on that role made me a braver, more compassionate person.
The first night I went on, I was walking down the hall going to the stage, and it dawned on me that the King (Hoon Lee), Tuptim (Ashley Park), Lady Thiang (Ruthie Ann Miles), and I were all of Korean descent. I was proud and terrified…
In the moment before Anna enters on the ship, I thought, “What am I doing?”—perhaps what Anna must have felt when she first arrived in Siam. My dear friends, Fran and Patrick, from the wardrobe department, had taken a photo of my husband and placed it in my locket; I remembered that and clutched onto it, just as Anna may have done, remembering her husband Tom.
Plenty at The Public
I had long been a fan of the work of The Public Theater and hoped to work there one day. They have a tradition there that on the first day of rehearsals for each show, every single person who works in the building, from all departments, gathers in the lobby and forms a massive circle… We introduce ourselves to each other, and we are able to see all the faces of the people who contribute toward a single purpose—doing the best work possible. It’s no surprise to me that their mission is “Theatre of, by, and for all people.”
Working at the Old Globe and talking with George Takei for hours about his life growing up was a true privilege. In 1942, he and his family were taken from their Los Angeles home and placed in an internment camp and stripped of all of their belongings. They spent three years there, and when they were finally released, they received a one-way bus ticket within the United States, plus $20. The commitment he has to make sure people know this history is inspiring.
There is a small Star Trek reference in Dear Evan Hansen…and it brings a smile to my face every time I hear it… remembering those talks with George.
Dear Evan Hansen
For me, very often, the most memorable moments are in the rehearsal room. Most recently, this is happening at Dear Evan Hansen rehearsal—working with paragons of theatre like Michael Greif, the stage managers, cast, crew, musicians, choreographers, designers, everyone is collaborating at the top of their game—it is filled with joy and laughter. It is exhilarating to be in the room learning from them.
At night, I’m able to walk out with audience members and hear kids say they want to come back with their parents and parents saying they are coming back to the show with their kids. This is what I believe theatre can do best: speak honestly about the truest, most difficult situations. It’s not lost on me that it takes a commitment to diversity to cast me in some of the shows of which I’ve been a part. However, for me, storytelling is the fabric of our society, and when we choose to celebrate diversity, it tells every member of the audience they are a part of this tapestry.