© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Annaleigh Ashford Barks Up The Right Tree On Broadway

Annaleigh Ashford plays the title character — a poodle mix — in <em>Sylvia, </em>at the Cort Theatre in Broadway.<em> </em>Matthew Broderick plays the man who finds Sylvia in Central Park.
Joan Marcus
Jeffrey Richards Associates
Annaleigh Ashford plays the title character — a poodle mix — in Sylvia, at the Cort Theatre in Broadway. Matthew Broderick plays the man who finds Sylvia in Central Park.

Annaleigh Ashford is down to earth. Very down to earth. Sitting in her Broadway dressing room, she talks about all of the people who've inhabited that same space – Denzel Washington, Ian McKellen and, most recently, Larry David, who left a sticker with his name by the toilet.

"Occasionally I like to remind myself, you know, the many fabulous people who have pooped where I am pooping," she says.

"It's disgusting," she adds in a whisper. "But magical!"

Ashford is no first-timer to Broadway. The Masters of Sex actress, who also also has a CD coming out next month, originated the role of Lauren in Kinky Boots, and won a Tony for playing Essie Carmichael in You Can't Take It With You.

But this week she opened in her first starring role on Broadway. And given her role, it's not inappropriate that she's talking about poop: She's playing the title character in A. R. Gurney's comedy, Sylvia. Sylvia is a dog.

Specifically, she's a stray labradoodle who's been adopted by a man going through a mid-life crisis.

Helpfully, Ashford has her own dog — a toy Australian shepherd, who she's been observing very carefully. She watched closely when her pet was in obedience and sheep herding classes last summer.

"You know, I pee at the very beginning of the play and they go, 'Did you do that Sylvia?' " she says.

"And I do that strange thing that dogs do, where they can't look at you ... they have, like, a dead-eye stare where they can't look at you and they look down. And I say, 'I won't dignify that with an answer,' which is exactly what my dog does, when she totally pees in the corner of the room!"

Ashford wears knee pads to romp around the stage, jump on the sofa, sit and roll over. She trades dialogue with Matthew Broderick, who plays the man who adopts her:

Daniel Sullivan, the director of Sylvia, calls Ashford a "sort of inspired clown."

"We don't have that many highly physical female clowns," he says. "I mean, she is really extraordinary in her ability to keep a thing very true and honest and, at the same time, much larger than life, physically."

That sort of inspired physicality won her that Tony last year in the revival of You Can't Take It With You, where Ashford played a not-very-good ballerina.

New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley says she stole the show — "From an incredible cast, a crackerjack cast," he says. "And she was so good at being bad. I mean, there was a real grace in the character's clumsiness. I could eat it with a spoon. It was just delightful."

It wasn't always easy for Ashford. The Denver native moved to New York at 17 to study acting. She went to lots of cattle calls and never got a callback.

But director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell remembered her and eventually cast her in Kinky Boots, where she played an English factory worker in love with her boss.

Ashford's off-beat charms were noticed by showrunner Michelle Ashford — no relation — who hired the actress to play the prostitute Betty in the Showtime series Masters of Sex.

"She was supposed to be a one-off and we cast Annaleigh, and she was so delightful and such a wonderful energy and so unlike everyone else in our cast that we thought, 'Well, we have to keep her,' " she says.

So the briefly-appearing prostitute participating in sexuality research became a regular character, and eventually the research team's office manager.

From hooker to finally, hound, Annaleigh Ashford says she's learned a lot, from observing people and dogs in those obedience classes last summer.

"Not everybody in the room knew that I was going to be playing a dog on Broadway in the fall," she says. "And so, sometimes I would do really weird things — I would, you know, copy what somebody else's dog was doing physically."

She earned some funny looks, but it paid off. Sylvia runs on Broadway through January. Then, Annaleigh Ashford — and her dog Gracie — return to Los Angeles to film season four of Masters of Sex.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.