Alysha Umphress got it backwards. You’re supposed to appear in Broadway musicals first, then become a gay icon. But Umphress had her gay following before she ever performed on Broadway. In 2005, still pretty new to New York City, she won “XL Star,” an American Idol-style singing competition at the now-closed Chelsea bar XL. Among her prizes: a monthlong engagement at XL and the cover of gay men’s magazine Next. She then began performing at other gay bars around town, including Splash, the Duplex, Vlada and Industry, as well as the Tides and the Ice Palace on Fire Island, and went on to be one of the original cohosts of the After Party, a weekly late-night show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre for the theater crowd.
Currently Umphress is playing psychiatry student and all-around mod gal Paula in the On a Clear Day You Can See Forever revival, starring Harry Connick Jr., at the St. James Theatre. A year ago she was performing at the same theater in American Idiot, the show in which she’d made her Broadway debut in the spring of 2010. For the past few months, while she’s been seen on stage in New York, she has been heard in theaters around the country in the new Bring It On musical. Umphress sings “Legendary,” a song that plays during the big cheerleading competition, in Bring It On—a film-to-stage musical scored by Tony winners Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda that’s in the midst of an eight-month national tour. She also does some voiceover work in the show.
Umphress was already a well-regarded nightclub singer in NYC prior to her Broadway debut in American Idiot. In addition to the gay bars, she’s performed at such jazz clubs as Birdland and the Iridium and was nominated several years running for a MAC Award as Best Female Jazz Vocalist. She’s also been a Nightlife Award nominee in the category of Best Piano Bar Entertainer.
She admits to being, in her words, “torn between two lovers” as far as jazz singing and musical theater are concerned. Jazz has been part of her repertoire since her voice teacher introduced her to Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald when she was a teenager. She sang with her high school’s jazz band—a gig that one year included opening for Diana Krall at the Fujitsu Jazz Festival in northern California (where Umphress is from)—and later, as a student at the Boston Conservatory, she audited jazz classes at Boston’s Berklee School of Music. But compared to theater, “breaking onto the jazz scene is even more difficult,” says Umphress, “because nobody buys records anymore, and nobody makes money from jazz. That’s going to be my labor of love.”
Which is not to say she’s merely settling for musical theater. That’s been part of her repertoire even longer—since she was a 6-year-old cast member of Annie at Crazyatrics, a Bay Area troupe (now named Belasco Theatre Company) in which children perform classic musicals. Umphress, who was born in Concord, Calif., and grew up in nearby Martinez, performed throughout her childhood at Crazyatrics and other local theaters, such as Pittsburg Community, Piedmont Light Opera, Center REP and Willows Theatre. She did such shows as Once Upon a Mattress, Into the Woods, Hello, Dolly!, Show Boat and The Wizard of Oz. And Annie—three times in all. After two go-rounds as an orphan, she played Annie the third time (in that first Crazyatrics production, one of Umphress’ castmates was Sara Darneille, now a dresser for On a Clear Day).
Umphress had her first professional job while just a freshman in high school: the principal role of Sue in Fab!, a musical about 1960s teenagers (known as A Slice of Saturday Night in the U.K., where it originated) that was presented at San Francisco’s Alcazar Theatre—next door to The Phantom of the Opera at the Curran. Her performance as Sue, a plus-size girl who longs to look like Twiggy, earned Umphress a Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle award.