GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Erica Mansfield of 'Evita'
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by Adrienne Onofri
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.
“I call myself ‘the long-term girlfriend,’” says Mansfield. “Once I’m in with somebody and they like me as a cast member, they keep using me.” The first director/choreographer with whom she had such a relationship was Tom Polum, who cast her in the first musical she did after moving to New York: Funny Girl at the Westchester Broadway Theatre in the summer of 1998. Over the next three years, Mansfield returned to WBT in Polum-directed productions of Oklahoma, Grease and Hello, Dolly! She got her Equity card playing Marty and serving as dance captain in Grease, and understudied three principal roles and was Polum’s assistant director/choreographer for Hello, Dolly! Polum also got her a job as an entertainer aboard Cunard’s Royal Viking Sun cruise ship in 1999.
For four holiday seasons Mansfield performed in a road company of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, in Detroit from 2000 to 2002 (playing Mrs. Claus the third year after understudying it the first two) and then in Houston and Dallas in ’06. Her first production contract came with the Mamma Mia tour in mid-2003. Mansfield stayed on that tour for 2½ years—as a swing and eventually dance captain and understudy for the lead role of Sophie—before she got a temporary slot in the show’s Broadway company during the summer of 2006. She would go in and out of Mamma Mia on Broadway for the next year and again in 2009-10, filling in for people on leave.
In 2008 she opened the Chorus Line tour as an understudy, covering Cassie, Judy, Maggie and Sheila. She went on in all four roles at various performances during her year and a half with the show, but of course she most treasures the “experience of going on for Cassie...the mirrors coming down—it’s that iconic role for a dancer.” (Her resemblance to Charlotte d’Amboise, who originated the part of Cassie in the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, has not gone unnoticed.)
Mansfield uses similar vocabulary in discussing her current job. “That’s another iconic show that I can’t believe I’m a part of,” she says of Evita, which is having its first Broadway revival since the 1979-83 original. “I love anything to do with a strong female character.” Evita also marks Mansfield’s first time with a regular track in an original Broadway cast. She was part of the original company of the Daniel Radcliffe-headlined How to Succeed but as a swing (and the first understudy for Miss Jones). Having joined Mamma Mia several years into its Broadway run and A Chorus Line right before performances began, she’d missed out on working on a production from its inception. “The rehearsal process is my favorite part of the whole process,” Mansfield says. “I love the getting-to-know-you process, finding that camaraderie with your castmates. I love to be in that studio creating something.”
For Evita, she was able to create an entire identity for one of the “descamisados”—the working-class Argentineans portrayed by the ensemble. “I loved having a say in who I am in the show,” says Mansfield. “Our director, Michael Grandage, was so passionate about making sure every story was efficiently told from every cast member. We have fully developed characters for every single scenario on stage: people I’m related to, people I know…every single detail.” Revealing some of her character’s backstory, Mansfield explains: “She works at a diner, so she gets to know a lot of people in the community.”
With the Evita cast, Mansfield performed “And the Money Kept Rolling In” on the nationally televised Tony Awards in June. She was dancing right near star Ricky Martin, whose fans clog 45th Street nightly waiting at the stage door. “He is a gem, an absolute doll,” Mansfield says of onetime pop sensation Martin. “He’s truly passionate about this show and is kind and gracious, no ego. People say he’s a saint—his adoring fans. They worship him, really. People cry, people bring gifts… It’s spectacular to see: It doesn’t ever go to his head. He believes in his work, his family, being a good person and doing a good job. He doesn’t even have a bodyguard.”
But Martin isn’t her favorite person in the Evita company. That would be pit musician Dave Roth, Mansfield’s boyfriend of nine years. They met on the Mamma Mia tour, where percussionist Roth caught Mansfield’s eye “shakin’ his tambourine to Abba,” and now live together in Astoria.
When Mansfield and Roth bought their apartment, she not only took pride in home ownership but also could put years of virtually makeshift living behind her. Her first home in NYC was a Salvation Army-run women’s residence with shared bathrooms and no air conditioning; she later sublet a Times Square apartment “where you could sleep in a single bed, get a Coke out of the fridge, make some soup on the single burner and go to the bathroom all at the same time,” and after that she slept on the couch in a shared studio for more than three years.
Work-wise Mansfield had humble beginnings too. After a summer season at Galveston Island Outdoor Musicals following her 1997 high school graduation, Mansfield thought she was getting her big break with a national tour of Cinderella and Schoolhouse Rock. Turns out, the tour never left Kansas except for engagements in Lincoln, Neb., and Dallas, and as long as they were performing within driving distance of Wichita, they’d stay in the producer’s basement. The company got around in a Suburban with a trailer hitched to it, and Mansfield was enlisted to load scenery and work the sound in addition to performing. “I don’t think any theater experience is wasted,” Mansfield reflects. “That was one of those ‘growing’ moments I had to have.”
She knew, however, that she was destined for New York. While in high school, Mansfield had come to the city on summer trips with her dance teacher and other students from the studio. She’d take classes at Broadway Dance Center and Steps and go to Broadway musicals. “My first summer here, the second I got off the plane, I was like, ‘There’s nowhere else in the world I can picture my life,’” recalls Mansfield, whose first Broadway show was Crazy for You.
She moved to New York on a Friday the 13th in early 1998 and the next day went to a Broadway Dance class taught by Frank Hatchett, the only person she knew in the city. He took her to an audition for a show he was working on, and she booked the gig: a ’40s revue at the Kit Kat Club following Cabaret’s Friday-night performances there. It lasted six weeks. In the eight-plus years that followed, Mansfield auditioned tirelessly but unsuccessfully for Broadway shows, and sometimes couldn’t book non-Broadway jobs either. The year before she was hired for the Mamma Mia tour may have been her most frustrating. She’d gotten her last job almost by accident—when she went out to Pennsylvania in the summer of 2001 to see her roommate in Lil Abner at Allenberry Playhouse and was asked to replace someone in Allenberry’s next show, Can-Can, who had gotten another job. But except for returning to the Radio City show, she wouldn’t get cast again for about a year and a half. To get by, she worked at sample sales, as shampoo girl in a hair salon, and leading bar mitzvah guests in dancing as employee of an event company, among other jobs. She also taught dance at the Coupé studio in Nyack and at NYU.
Mansfield auditioned repeatedly for Rob Ashford shows, including The Wedding Singer, Curtains and Thoroughly Modern Millie, before he cast her in How to Succeed. Dancing for him had been a goal of Mansfield’s from the time she saw Thoroughly Modern Millie: “I sat in the fifth row and I looked at that choreography and said, ‘I have to work for that man.’” She was tickled that when she finally made her Broadway debut, it took place in the Winter Garden Theatre (where Mamma Mia’s been playing since fall of 2001), as she’d auditioned on the Winter Garden stage over and over for Cats.
Those earlier lean years have made Mansfield’s subsequent accomplishments even sweeter. “At Tony rehearsal this year,” she relates, “I looked in the wing when I was dancing and saw Patti LuPone with Mandy Patinkin [stars of the original Evita], with his arms wrapped around her, singing along and watching. I was emotional knowing that I was finally going to be on the Tonys, but that took it to the next level. The reality of my journey really set in at that moment.”
For the past couple of years Mansfield has had a side job as artistic supervisor with Commonground Travel, a company that organizes international trips for youth choirs, dance troupes and bands. Commonground helps arrange performances by the traveling groups while they’re abroad as well as sightseeing and study opportunities during their trips. The company was cofounded by Mansfield’s friend Jill Gorrie, whom she met when they were both dancers in Westchester Broadway’s Funny Girl nearly 15 years ago.
Now Mansfield is trying to branch out into other lines of work. While in San Francisco with A Chorus Line, Mansfield filmed fitness, fashion and entertainment pieces for The View From the Bay, a local TV show that her mother was working on, and she’s been seeking other opportunities for TV hosting since then (watch her hosting reel here). Mansfield and her mother, Audrey, came up with an idea for a talk show titled She Said, She Said, featuring lifestyle topics from the perspective of two generations of women. San Francisco’s ABC affiliate, which was airing The View From the Bay, filmed a pilot for them but ultimately passed on the new show; mother and daughter have continued to shop it around.
Prior to moving to San Francisco for the View program, Audrey Mansfield (who now lives in NYC) was a longtime Houston-based visual-styling agent, representing hair, makeup and wardrobe personnel for film and photo shoots. Thanks to her mom’s tutelage, Erica is launching a visual-styling business for actors. “I have learned through the years that how you present yourself is just as important as how you audition,” Mansfield says. “I feel that many people lose out on opportunities based on lack of attention to this area. I’d like to help people seal the deal and feel they look their best when they go in for that nerve-racking callback.”
Another recent enterprise of Mansfield’s has been of a philanthropic nature: She and her boyfriend have established the Broadway Alzheimer’s iPod Drive, collecting donated iPods for distribution to nursing homes with residents suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Both of Roth’s parents have Alzheimer’s, and he became an ambassador advocate for the Alzheimer’s Association after he and Mansfield saw the documentary Alive Inside, which depicts how people with dementia can be uplifted and engaged by listening to music. The Broadway drive is accepting donations of used (or new) iPods through August 19; click here for more information.
Photos of Erica, from top: in a headshot; performing “Buenos Aires” in Evita on Broadway; backstage at Mamma Mia when she played Sophie, with castmates Joelle Brianne Graham (left) and Tiffani Barbour (right); with her boyfriend, Broadway percussionist Dave Roth, earlier this year; with Daniel Radcliffe during the Broadway run of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. [Evita photos by Richard Termine]