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Kate Baldwin, star of Arena Stage’s ‘The Music Man,’ is a methodical actor

By Chip Crews,

Being born to a banker father and a scientist mother wouldn’t seem to guarantee success on the musical stage, but it’s worked out pretty well for Kate Baldwin. Not that her dramatic intensity, comic timing and, above all, that angel-sweet soprano can be traced back to the lab or the boardroom. But from the start, her method of attack on her chosen field was derived directly from her parents’ straightforward approach to theirs.

Which makes Baldwin a cockeyed pragmatist, one of the less common breeds of theater animal. Not for her the desperate hope-against-hope (“Gotta dance! Got-ta dance!”) of adolescent dreams and Hollywood fables. Ask her when she decided she wanted to go on the stage and she says, “I didn’t. I wanted to, I think, when I was in high school. But I didn’t think it was possible.”

Baldwin is speaking in a large multipurpose room at Arena Stage, where she’ll be playing Marian the Librarian in “The Music Man” beginning Friday, so we know her aspirations have a happy outcome. But the path to that outcome was systematic, step-by-step — and hers alone.

Referring to her parents, who raised her in Evanston, Ill., and later in the Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood, she says, “I had to have a very practical approach to a life in this profession in order to please them, which is of course my ultimate goal. . . . So I thought, ‘I won’t go to New York City until I have a job.’”

That first job, understudying the lead in a projected 1999 Broadway revival of “Finian’s Rainbow,” evaporated when the production crashed and burned on its tryout tour. But over the past decade, she has won a sterling theatrical reputation, playing a succession of famous roles to critical acclaim.

What sets her apart from her theatrical forebears, the Mary Martins and Barbara Cooks, is that she’s played most of her biggest roles far from Broadway, in regional productions.

The Music Man,” staged by Arena’s artistic director, Molly Smith, is only the latest such project — and possibly the last for a while.

Baldwin is somewhere in her 30s, though she prefers not to get specific about it. But her credits already encompass as many classic parts as the great Martin played in a lifetime. They include Eliza in “My Fair Lady,” Sarah in “Guys and Dolls,” Amalia in “She Loves Me,” Maria in “The Sound of Music” and Nellie in Arena’s highly successful 2002 production of “South Pacific,” the show that launched her on the path to regional renown.

The peripatetic life has posed organizational hurdles for Baldwin and her husband, the equally busy actor Graham Rowat. Those challenges have multiplied since the happy arrival a year ago of their first child, Colin James. The three make their home — that is, when they are home — in Brooklyn.

Phases and stages

On this sunny, cool spring day she’s happily contemplating a family summer in Washington, where “The Music Man” is scheduled through July 22. Rowat is planning to spend about half the time here and half in New York pursuing projects of his own. Colin will be a full-time Washingtonian, with a nanny aboard to help care for him.

Before coming to work today, Baldwin helped her husband assemble a videotape for a TV pilot audition.

“While the baby has his nap, Mommy and Daddy put an audition together, and then I have to come here and dance Marian the Librarian,” she says. “It becomes an exercise in planning and in scheduling, and it’s so complex. I think the key is — well, first of all, I married the right person. I married a man who is endlessly patient and loyal and good-humored and . . . willing to go along with my crazy plans.”

Washington has been a good-luck town for Kate Baldwin. After “South Pacific” closed in early 2003, she won a smaller part in “1776” at Ford’s Theatre. It was there that she met Rowat, also in the cast. They were married two years later.

Baldwin’s career has occurred in distinct phases. She graduated from Northwestern in 1997 with a degree in theater and, as stated, wasn’t going to move to New York without a job. So she went to work performing at a Chicago area theater.

A couple of years later she made a cautious foray on Broadway. “I asked my parents for their frequent-flier miles for Christmas one year,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I want to go and audition for shows in New York, and I live in Chicago, and there’s a flight that leaves every hour on the hour. . . . I can do an audition, and I can come back the same day.’ I auditioned for ‘Finian’s Rainbow,’ the Encores series. I got that one, as well.”

And so she concluded her Chicago phase and became a New Girl on Broadway. After “Finian’s” closed, Baldwin won a spot in the ensemble of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” then being developed. It played La Jolla, Calif., in the fall of 2000, after which the authors took a yearlong hiatus for rewrites and Baldwin joined the cast of “The Full Monty,” already running in New York. When “Millie” reached its final form, she returned to it.

Baldwin was living her dream as a working pro on Broadway, but something didn’t feel right.

“I wasn’t doing the kinds of things that made me happy,” she says. “I think of myself as a singer and an actor first, and a dancer a distant second. And in the show ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie,’ I was spending 75 percent of my time dancing and 20 percent of my time singing and only 5 percent of my time acting.”

What she realized was that “I was ready to explore a role.”

Around this time, Arena was casting “South Pacific.” When Baldwin won the role of Nellie, “Millie” was quickly consigned to her résumé.

And so she entered her Regional Limelight phase. In the years since the two Washington shows, Baldwin has appeared prominently in productions in Baltimore, Boston, Sacramento, St. Louis, Toronto and Millburn, N.J. (She also released two CDs and made a brief return to Broadway in the fall of 2009, playing the lead in, yes, “Finian’s Rainbow.” Critics were enchanted and she won a Tony nomination, but the show failed to catch on.)

But now Baldwin can foresee an end to this phase as well. Colin has been a happy and adaptable traveler through the first year of his life, but she believes that as he gets older he’ll need more constancy at home.

“I think this will be the last time we go out of town for a while,” she says.

‘When I dream my big dreams’

When Smith decided to stage “The Music Man,” she says, “I picked up the phone and called Kate. . . . This was the first role I cast, which is very rare. Usually it’s Harold Hill”—the titular Music Man. “But for me, Marian is central to the play — so is he, of course. . . . But I really wanted to have an opportunity to work with Kate again.”

Smith found to her surprise that “Kate’s soprano has more depth and richness than before. It’s because of her life experience, I think. When I first worked with her, she was a girl. And now she’s a woman. It’s been thrilling to hear.”

Marian is one more in a series of classic parts — is there one performance Baldwin is proudest of?

Quickly: “ ‘Giant.’ Yeah. I’m in love with that show.”

That musical, whose female lead she played in Dallas at the beginning of this year, is a work in progress based on Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel. The earliest version had a world premiere three years ago at Signature Theatre in Arlington, before Baldwin was affiliated with it.

Baldwin speaks tellingly about the “Giant” experience.

“In a way, it’s the pinnacle of what I think is your life in musical theater,” she says. “To create a role in a new show, from a script. I’m not trying to slight the production . . . at Signature, but I think the role is so different now that I can say it’s new. . . . And to be the first person and to put my point of view into her and to use everything I’ve got in order to bring her to life is — it doesn’t get any better than that.”

In mid-September, she’ll go back into rehearsals for “Giant.” It will begin previews in October for a limited engagement at the Public Theater in New York, concluding in December. “I know that there is a hope that there will be a life for it beyond the Public,” she says. “But I don’t know anything beyond the hope.”

In recent months she has participated in various other workshops and readings (“I am always looking for the next thing”), but nothing that she can talk about. At this point she’s booked through the end of the year, and after that her world is one of hopes, possibilities and question marks.

So maybe she could peer off into the far future of 2013 and beyond and offer —

She breaks in: “Some happy dream?” Yes.

“That any number of the projects that I’ve worked on the past year come to fruition and go to Broadway and run for a year or two, and that my family and I can be home in Brooklyn and I can go to work and do my Broadway show every night, and my husband has something similar that brings him that kind of satisfaction too. . . . When I dream my big dreams, it’s being in a Broadway show. Hopefully something new.”

So there you have it. For the next phase, it’s back to Broadway — and, she fervently wishes, in a role that’s hers alone.

Coda

At a follow-up conversation a week after the first one, Baldwin makes a proud announcement. Rowat has just been cast in the long-running Broadway production of “Mamma Mia!” as one of the three maybe-daddies. Rehearsals begin Monday, and he starts performances June 4.

So much for that family time in Washington.

“That’s just the actor’s life,” she says emphatically. “You think you have it all planned out . . . and then something happens that is equally wonderful and unsettling to make it all fall apart.”

The half-moon blue eyes brighten. “In the best of possible ways.”

Crews is a freelance writer.

The Music Man

Book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson. Story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey. Directed by Molly Smith. Starring Kate Baldwin and Burke Moses. Friday-July 22 at the Fichandler Stage, Arena Stage. 202-488-3300. www.arenastage.org. $46-$91, subject to change based on availability.

© The Washington Post Company