Ashford: From 'Ruthless' to the Good Girl of Tony Town

Even when she was 9 years old, Annaleigh Ashford was rendering people speechless.

When Steven Tangedal, her co-star in Theatre Group’s playfully raunchy 1995 comedy Ruthless: The Musical, watched the good girl from Wheat Ridge audition to play the bad, bad girl from Ruthless, he was struck mute.

“We just sat there silent,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh gosh – she’s good.’ We were all worried we weren’t going to be as good as her.”

Steve Tangedal and 9-year-old Annaleigh Ashford in Theatre Group's 'Ruthless the Musical' at Theatre on Broadway in 1995. Photo courtesy Steven Tangedal.  Ashford played an aspiring child actress who hangs a rival girl from a catwalk with a jump rope so she can star in the school play, Pippi in Tahiti, The Musical.

She’s come a long way, baby, in the years that have followed. But in all the important ways, she hasn’t changed a bit. She’s still a good girl from Wheat Ridge, and the rest of the theatre world is still wondering if they can be as good as her.

For the second time in three years, Ashford is nominated for a Tony Award, theatre’s highest prize, at tonight’s ceremony in New York. Not only are the awards named after a Denver resident (Antoinette Perry) but Ashford will be joined as a nominee by Colorado native Beth Malone.

Photo: Steven Tangedal and a 9-year-old Annaleigh Ashford in Theatre Group’s ‘Ruthless The Musical’ in 1995. Photo courtesy Steven Tangedal. 

Ashford is nominated as Best Featured Actress in a Play for her work as Essie in You Can’t Take It With You opposite James Earl Jones. She already has won a Drama Desk Award for her performance. Malone, a graduate of Douglas County High School and a longtime performer throughout Denver and Aspen, is nominated as Best Actress in a Musical for Fun Home the Musical, about a woman coming to grips with her father’s suicide.

Ashford has been ahead of her time from the beginning of (her) time. She graduated from Wheat Ridge High School at age 16 and from Marymount Manhattan College at 19. She made her Broadway debut in Legally Blonde the Musical in 2007 and has since appeared on Broadway in Hair, Off-Broadway in Rent, and as Glinda in the national touring production of Wicked. Her first Tony Award nomination came in 2013 for playing Lauren in Kinky Boots the Musical. This fall, she returns to Broadway as a dog who threatens to break up a marriage in A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia.

And to think it all started when she was 9, auditioning to play Tina Denmark in Ruthless at the former Theatre on Broadway. She was discovered by veteran actress Sue Leiser, who at the time also supervised auditions for the venerable Country Dinner Playhouse. Leiser already had signed on to play one of Tina Denmark’s grandmothers – a tart-tongued theatre critic who hates musicals. Ashford’s other grandmother would be played by Tangedal – in drag.

“Sue found Annaleigh at an audition for The Sound of Music at the Country Dinner Playhouse, and she said, ‘No, you have to come play Tina in Ruthless,’ ” Tangedal said.

The rest was Ruthless history.

Tangedal said the production never got to be too much for Ashford’s young sensibilities. Not even when Tina is sent away to the Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingénues. Partly because Ashford’s laid-back mother, Holli, was with her every step of the way. 

“It was like Annaleigh was one of the adults,” Tangedal said. “She was one of us. And she knew the material perfectly.”

Fellow actor Jeremy Palmer noted Ashford’s playful side during a production of Little Women at the Town Hall Arts Center back in the late 1990s.

“Annaleigh was part of a trio of March sisters who would see how many inappropriate things they could say or do to me during a scene change blackout,” Palmer said. “She claimed to be following the example of her older co-stars, since she was only about 14 at the time. But as an impressionable 16-year-old myself, I can’t say as I minded all that much.”

One of Ashford’s former teachers at Wheat Ridge High School says Ashford showed grace under pressure even when she wasn’t on the stage.

“One day, all of the power went out at school while she was in her Honors English class,” said Melissa Marilyn Hadden. Ashford was a freshman. “I was on hall duty and was commissioned to check on the classes in that wing. Annaleigh was leading a class sing-a-long of Disney tunes. We passed the time as Jasmine, Ariel and Belle.”

With hindsight, Tangedal now can say Ashford showed all the potential to be a Tony Award-nominated actress even at age 9. But he really knew stardom was an inevitability when Ashford made her Broadway debut in Legally Blonde. She has since appeared in films and on TV, including a choice role as a prostitute on Masters of Sex.

“She is a born comedian,” Tangedal said. “She knew how to work the audience even when she was 9 years old. She had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand.

“I am really proud to say I knew her back then, and I am proud to call her a friend.”

Should Ashford win the Tony Award tonight, there will be no small irony that in her very first stage performance at Theatre on Broadway, her ruthless character famously declares, gun in hand …

“There’s no money in Broadway!”

2015 Tony Awards
Sunday, June 1
7 p.m., CBS-4 in Denver


More testimonials:
Melissa Marilyn Hadden: I was just one of Annaleigh’s teachers at Wheat Ridge High School. She was an effervescent freshman, always joyful and loving toward others. She was such a giving performer, even when we cast her as a chorus member in Kiss Me, Kate. She wasn’t ever pouty to not have a lead, but jumped right in and also volunteered to be on the makeup crew.   She also organized and executed a fundraiser while there. I believe it was someone who was very ill. She brought in performers from all over Denver with whom she’d worked and put on a great show, even casting her teachers in some numbers. Her recent cabaret show at the Garner Galleria Theatre was truly magical – one of her favorite words. As I watched her sing, dance and interact with the audience, I realized this incredibly talented woman is still that kind and loving girl who hasn’t allowed fame to get the best of her.

Video: Annaleigh Ashford’s recent Day in Denver

More of our Tony Awards coverage fromNew York:
Colorado’s Annaleigh Ashford and Beth Malone both nominated for Tony Awards
Video: Coloradans in New York: Beth Malone
Our exclusive interview with Annaleigh Ashford
Photos: Annaleigh Ashford’s return to Denver for Lost in the Stars
Our backstage interview backstage at Kinky Boots including Andy Kelso
Video: Coloradans in New York: Aisha Jackson
Video: Coloradans in New York: Actor Andy Kelso

Video: Coloradans in New York: Playwright Max Posner
Video: Coloradans on Broadway: Actor Rebecca Eichenberger
Video: Coloradans on Broadway to high-schoolers: ‘Be relentlessly yourself’
Lin-Manuel Miranda on the power of theatre to eliminate distance
Broadway: The British aren’t coming: They’re already here!
Video: Watch Annaleigh perform at Miscast in New York

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