For the third straight year Kristen Beth Williams is understudying a Tony Award-winning role in a Broadway musical. This year it’s Judy Kaye’s reformable Prohibitionist in Nice Work If You Can Get It; last year she understudied Sutton Foster as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes, and in 2010 it was Katie Finneran’s boozy Marge MacDougall in Promises, Promises.
And it’s the words of those Tony winners whose roles she covered that guide and inspire Williams. Right before the one Promises, Promises performance where she went on as Marge (the day of Finneran’s wedding), Finneran told her, “Go big or go home.” Sure, there may be people in the audience who’d wanted to see a Tony-winning performer, but “you can’t go on stage apologizing for being there—just own it,” says Williams, who’s also taken to heart what she heard Foster say at a talkback when someone asked for the best career advice. “She said, ‘Say yes,’” Williams recalls. “Someone offers you an opportunity, say yes. Even if you’re terrified.”
Williams, a.k.a. KB or KB Dubs, got to play Reno Sweeney for five performances last December when Foster was ill. Actually five and three-quarters, as Foster started feeling sick during a show and had to leave partway through the first act. After the first full performance where Williams played Reno—a part she’d had in high school—“I called my mother on my way home and I said, ‘Mom, I just took the final bow on a Broadway stage.’ That last bow, that was me.” Looking back on it, she adds, “Words can’t really describe how it feels to accomplish your dream.”
Like Anything Goes, Nice Work If You Can Get It was directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. “It’s really wonderful to be in her ‘camp’ now, to feel like I’ve made it into that club,” says Williams. The two shows also both have scores out of the great American songbook—Anything Goes by Cole Porter, Nice Work by George and Ira Gershwin. Much of Williams’ time on professional stages has been singing and dancing to the great American songbook. She’s been in four different productions of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas as well as the 2008 world premiere in Chicago of Turn of the Century, which featured a number of Berlin songs. In 2008 she was also in the world premiere in Houston of the stage version of the Gershwins’ An American in Paris (which in the wake of Nice Work’s success is now being bandied for a Broadway bow). Even Promises, Promises has music by a legend of American pop music, Burt Bacharach. While she wouldn’t mind getting to break out in a contemporary rock musical, Williams is unconcerned about being typecast. “I love my little niche that I’ve carved for myself,” she says. “It doesn’t get any better than Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and the Gershwins.”
In Nice Work If You Can Get It, Williams’ regular role is Rosie, one of the “cheap chorus girls,” to quote Matthew Broderick’s Jimmy Winter in the show. (She’s the one with curly red hair.) She also understudies Jennifer Laura Thompson as Jimmy’s bride, Eileen, and Robyn Hurder as flapper Jeannie. Williams was very noticeable during the Nice Work performance of “Sweet and Lowdown” on the Tony Awards a few weeks ago, as she’s on Broderick’s arm in the number. She’d performed at the two previous Tonys as well, with Anything Goes and Promises, Promises.