It seemed fitting that the life-altering news came while she exuberantly moved her way through a dance class. When Columbus native Mary Claire King opened her email inbox on that September day and found an offer to join the new Broadway production of “War Paint,” she could have done a victory dance.
“Initially, I was just absolutely floored,” she said. “It was a really neat, exciting, New York moment.”
The 27-year-old 2008 Columbus North High School graduate was scheduled to play an ensemble role of Miss Beam and others in Tuesday’s preview opening of the musical, scheduled for the 1,200-seat Nederlander Theatre in New York City. Previews allow directors to fine-tune a show before a formal opening before critics and other members of the audience.
The official opening of the production, which found success during an initial Chicago run with King last year, is April 6.
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“You could say I have a few pop-out moments (in the show),” she said, referring to segments in which she is in the middle of scenes or songs.
“War Paint” focuses on the rivalry between makeup mavens Helena Rubinstein, played by Patti LuPone, and Elizabeth Arden, played by two-time Tony winner Christine Ebersole, set in the 1930s to the 1960s. It was an era when cosmetics became beauty tools for the classy and sophisticated.
“I think of this story as inspiring not only for women, but really for all people,” King said during a rehearsal break amid 12-hour workdays last week. “It really highlights these unexpected powerhouses, especially at the time they were forming their companies. Female CEOs at that time were hardly even dreamt of, let alone realized.
“But they were determined and felt passionate about what they were doing.”
Ditto for King.
During her high school senior project presentation in 2008, before she left Columbus for Syracuse University in New York, a teenage King gushed so extensively about her musical theater dreams that she exceeded her time limit. Now, those dreams are turning to reality.
“This is just the biggest leap,” she said. “This is what I’ve been reaching for for about 10 years.”
All while singing as Disney princesses at children’s birthday parties. All while teaching exercise classes. All the while working for a pediatrician.
It was worth it, she will tell you.
“I couldn’t have dreamed of a better debut,” King said, praising her leading ladies of LuPone and Ebersole that she has followed for years. “I admire them as actresses and as women.”
King also extends admiration to mentors such as Janie Gordon, whom King humorously refers to as her “fairy godmother.”
That’s because her former choral teacher at Columbus North High School has helped her dreams come true in significant ways.
As gifted and as Broadway-bound that Gordon always has sworn that King was, the teacher mentioned that humility probably is among her former student’s greatest gifts.
“Mary Claire is one of the most sincere, talented and humble people I have ever known,” Gordon said.
The teacher, who travels to New York to see Broadway shows every year, emphasized that many elements must fit for a performer to land a role in any production, since directors usually are searching for people with the right look, singing voice, height and more.
At a lithe 5-foot-10, Gordon said King literally stood head and shoulders above the rest of the cast in the Chicago version of the show.
“For this show, I think she’s perfect,” Gordon said.
Jo Ellen Watanabe of Columbus also saw the Chicago production and was impressed with King, a longtime family friend.
“It was neat to see her in several different roles,” Watanabe said, adding that she plans to catch the Broadway version this summer.
King acknowledged that being on the same Broadway stage as such veterans as LuPone and Ebersole is “surreal, to put it simply. With each new step, I am experiencing a kind of happy crying, and learning to cherish it all.”
She also spoke in realistic terms, having reminded herself of the fickle nature of the entertainment business — at some point knowing she eventually would have had to to ask herself how long she should wait for her big break before adjusting her goals.
“This business,” she said with a laugh, “is a tricky lifestyle for a person who really likes structure and stability.”
Parents: Peter and Cathy King.
Education: 2008 graduate of Columbus North High School. Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2012 from Syracuse University.
Professional work: Includes the Chicago production of “War Paint” last year; the national tour of “Catch Me If you Can”; appearances in various TV commercials and other smaller theater work.