For Evita cast member Erica Mansfield, the seeds of a Broadway musical career were sown in the kitchen of a neighbor’s house in Houston 25 or so years ago. The summer she was 6 years old, Mansfield learned to tap dance on the kitchen floor of her neighbor Maddy Surber, a former professional dancer to whom Erica had grown very close. They kept the dance lessons secret from Erica’s parents—until the end of the summer, when the little girl showed her mom and dad what she’d learned. “My parents were shocked and said, ‘Do what you want with her. Clearly she likes it.’”
So Erica started taking dance classes at the studio in Katy, Texas, where Maddy taught. After a year, both of them switched to Suzanne Semans Studio in Houston—and “I basically lived in the studio from that time on,” says Mansfield. A teacher at the studio, seeing that Mansfield was a natural all-around performer but not ideally suited for ballet physically, suggested she pursue musical theater, and as a preteen Mansfield performed in local productions of Oliver and The Wiz. When she was still in junior high, she was recruited to fill out the tapping chorus line in the high school’s production of 42nd Street.
Mansfield attended her local public high school, Stratford, which—while not a magnet school—has also produced such Broadway performers as Mark Price (Mary Poppins), Stephanie Gibson (The Addams Family) and Emily Mechler (who’s in Evita). For two summers Mansfield attended the Broadway Theatre Project, where she trained alongside her future Evita castmates Daniel Torres, Jessica Lea Patty and Margot De La Barre when they were all teenagers. That was in the early years of the Tampa-based program in the mid ’90s, when it was still run by founder Ann Reinking, who used the students to workshop choreography for what would become the record-breaking revival of Chicago. Ever since, Mansfield says, doing a Fosse show has been on her “bucket list.”
The former H.S. drill-team captain was born in France, where her American father worked for a French technology firm; he’d met her English mother while living in Europe (they divorced when Erica was 12). Her father once played the guitar, and her mother has worked in the styling business. “They’re both artistic in their own way,” Mansfield says, “and they both instilled in me from a very young age, If you have a dream you need to go for it; we will fully support any decisions you make as long as they’re productive.”
It was neighbor Maddy, though, who spotted young Erica’s knack for rhythm and performing. Mansfield was 5 when her family moved from France to Houston, and she bonded almost immediately with the older woman across the street. Erica would go over to Maddy’s house to swim in the pool, play with her dogs and watch Oprah with her. “When we’d have ‘best friend day’ at school, mine was this 50-year-old woman,” Mansfield says. “I just loved her.” Maddy did get to see Erica perform on Broadway, but she died of cancer shortly after Mansfield made her debut in Mamma Mia in 2006.
Now in her third Broadway show, Mansfield has progressed professionally step-by-step, from regional theater and tours to Broadway, from swinging to regularly playing a role, and through periods when she had to find other work to supplement what she was (or wasn’t) making from performing. “I’ve definitely had to work for it,” Mansfield remarks. “I’ve had lulls where I was working five jobs at the same time. The first five years, I couldn’t book a production contract to save my life. I don’t think I’m one of those people that it came easy for.”
Along the way Mansfield became a regular in certain shows, such as Mamma Mia and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and got to play highly coveted lead roles, like Cassie in A Chorus Line. And she’s obviously endeared herself to certain directors and choreographers, who have hired her time and again. Rob Ashford, the choreographer of Evita, directed and choreographed last year’s revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which Mansfield was also in. Choreographer Josh Prince didn’t have a spot for her in Shrek but remembered her from those auditions and contacted her to dance in 2009’s All Singin’, All Dancin’ at the Town Hall as well as the Kennedy Center Spring Gala, hosted by Liza Minnelli in 2010.