What would Sheila say? The Chorus Line queen bee is mortified at turning 30 and fears for her professional future because of it. Yet here's Paula Leggett Chase, who turns 46 later this year, dancing in Curtains, her third Broadway musical in as many years. Last season she was in The Pajama Game; the year before that, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
Chase knows Sheila well. She's played her at several regional theaters, and stood on the line with her when she's played Judy in other regional productions. Chase made her Broadway debut understudying both roles during Chorus Line's original run.
Since then she's been in six more Broadway shows; worked extensively in regional theater, even winning awards for a performance; turned up on Letterman a dozen or so times; and had a regular TV role, the witch Mediva on PBS kiddie program Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego?, for two seasons.
And that's all with taking time off to have two children and two operations on her right leg. So when Chase went to see the Broadway revival of Chorus Line earlier this season—the first time she actually got to watch the show "since I was learning it at the Shubert way back when"—and she heard Sheila worry "How many years do I have left to be a chorus cutie—three? Four, if I have my eyes done?" Chase says she was thinking: "Ohhh…15...16, if you play your cards right."
Chase admits to some anxiety over auditioning for Curtains
because she's reached the age where she's transitioning out of being a dancer first and foremost. Choreographer Rob Ashford—whom she met in the early '90s when they were both in the Crazy for You
chorus—had contacted her after Curtains
' L.A. tryout about covering the Karen Ziemba and Debra Monk roles on Broadway. For the audition, she says, "I had to do this big, hard dancing first, and then another combination of partnering. It was a lot, and I was nervous about it. I've known Rob for a long time, and what if he was like, 'She's not quite what I remember'?" He obviously didn't feel that way, and now the 5-foot-10 Chase is Marjorie, the tallest chorus girl in Robbin' Hood
, the show-within-a-show of Curtains
Unlike Sheila, Chase's perspective has improved with age. Around the time she turned 40, "I started crossing over to where I was proud of my age, proud of what I'd done," says Chase. "When I was 40, I was pregnant with Dashiell, I was married to the most wonderful man in the world, I had my friends around me. I was fat and 40, and it was a great birthday!"
Dashiell, 5, and Kyler, 10, are her sons with husband David Chase, the dance arranger for Curtains who's been a musical director and/or arranger for more than a dozen other Broadway shows. They met doing Chorus Line at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse in 1991: She was Judy, he was the pianist and assistant musical director. In 1993, soon after they married, David was hired as assistant musical director for Damn Yankees at San Diego's Old Globe—which would send him cross-country for several months. She didn't want to be apart from her new hubby, so she went to an open call and got into the chorus. What she did for love: Damn Yankees is not a show that gives the female ensemble much to do. After the production moved to Broadway in 1994, with David taking over as musical director, she didn't stay in it for long.
"I took a big leap and gave notice without another job to go to," she says. Two days later, she was called to replace the actress playing Judy (who'd broken her wrist) for the final weekend of a Chorus Line run at North Carolina Theatre, Raleigh. She returned to Line, as Sheila, a few more times in the late '90s—at Maine State Music Theatre and Sacramento Music Circus. "It would come into my life and would be like an old, comfortable pair of jeans," she says of Chorus Line. Chase had played Sheila her first time 'round with the show, when she was only 25, at Mac-Haydn Theatre in upstate New York.
That was the second land-based job she got after moving to New York. A month after she arrived fresh from Indiana University in the mid-'80s, Ocean Cruise Lines hired her to perform on the Ocean Princess. She was at sea for nearly a year, then earned her Equity card in Carousel
at Indianapolis' Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, where one of her castmates was Casey Nicholaw, then a young gypsy, now the Tony-nominated director of Drowsy Chaperone
. Back on the East Coast, she did several shows at Mac-Haydn as well as Darien (Conn.) Dinner Theatre and the Claridge in Atlantic City. She "spent every spare moment taking class," partly to make up for lost time. Chase had started dance lessons in first grade back in Evansville, Ind., but in third grade dropped ballet, jazz and tap to concentrate on acrobatics. She studied and competed in gymnastics right through high school, then entered Indiana University as a voice major. Though she did some choreography for the Singing Hoosiers show choir in college, she'd had no real training in dance when she graduated.
Her break came with the late-'80s national tour of Cabaret in which Joel Grey reprised his legendary portrayal of the Emcee. For 10 months on tour, she performed right beside him as one of the "Two Ladies." Next, Chase—then still Leggett—was cast in Jesus Christ Superstar at Paper Mill (choreographed by Susan Stroman), but she quit when she got into Chorus Line during the final year of its record-breaking Broadway run. She left Chorus Line to do Annie 2 at Goodspeed but returned to take part in its last performance in April 1990.