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Vanessa Hudgens talks her 'badass' Broadway 'Gigi'

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Margot Schulman

Now that Vanessa Hudgens has hit Broadway, Broadway has seduced Vanessa Hudgens. “I absolutely adore being in the theater,” she told EW. “I love the rehearsal process. I love being on stage. I love only having one shot to get it right. I just love the thrill of the theater. It’s left such a lasting impression on me that I kind of don’t want to leave.”

The actress, an alumna of Disney’s High School Musical series, is currently playing the title role in the revival of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s take on Colette’s novella. A stage version of the Oscar-winning 1958 film originally came to Broadway in 1973. This production, however, enlisted Call the Midwife‘s Heidi Thomas to adapt the piece, and features a Gigi described by Hudgens as a “badass chick.”

With Hudgens also set to play a different kind of musical theater badass in Fox’s upcoming live production of GreaseEW talked with the actress about what her life on Broadway is like.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you first encounter Gigi? Did you see the movie? 

VANESSA HUDGENS:  I first and foremost started listening to the music. My manager actually called me while I was at Coachella last year. He said that they were doing a revival of Gigi, and the producers were very interested in me for it. I was like, really? Because I don’t see how they see me as a 1900s Parisian chick. And he was like, no, they are actually really interested, so check out the project and let me know what you think. Because I’m such a musical person, that was what I first looked into, and loved the score. Lerner and Loewe, all the stuff that they’ve done I’ve always been a fan of—like with My Fair Lady. It had that same kind of tone. Then I watched the movie and kind of fell in love. I love Leslie Caron. Her portrayal of Gigi was just so fantastic that I fell in love with the project then. I also read my sides that I would have to audition with, and I was like, oh my God, the words just fit really well in my mouth and in my body. It just feels very natural.

How did you start to approach the project? Did you re-watch the movie?

I definitely watched the movie a couple of times, because I think Leslie Caron did such an amazing job embodying that young, tomboyish, free spirit, and then transforming into this really elegant young woman. That’s one of the most important things about Gigi, is to be able to see her in two different lights. I definitely watched it on my iPod a couple of times before each night of rehearsal, just to try to pick up that spirit that she brought to the character—then of course put my own spin on it.

I talked to Heidi Thomas before you even did the Kennedy Center run about updating the piece and removing some of the elements of the film that might seem weird nowadays. How you see Gigi existing as a modern character? 

Before she didn’t have too much of a say in what was going on. In a way, she was almost like a puppet being morphed into what others wanted her to be. And in our version, Gigi’s a lot more strong and independent and has a backbone, which is so wonderful. I feel like it is easy to be put in a box and to act a certain way, whether you’re in the spotlight or if you’re just a normal person. It’s easy to remain quiet and go under the radar, but Gigi’s not like that. She’s the one who speaks up, speaks her mind, calls people out, sees through people, and she’s smart. She’s very independent. She’s very intelligent. She’s just like a badass chick—badass in the world of the 1900s in Paris.

You rose to fame with High School Musical, and now you’re on Broadway doing a musical. Was there ever a point you wanted to get away from doing musicals?

No, I’ve always loved musicals. My first favorite movies were musicals. I have always loved them. There was never a moment where I felt like I was being caged into a certain light. It’s just something that I’ve always adored and would never have a problem doing.

Why come to Broadway now?

This was the perfect part. I had always said that I want to be on Broadway, but I was just waiting for the right role to come along, and I would want to originate a role. Even though Gigi has been done before, it’s completely re-thought of in this new light. I really get to put my own spin on it and create almost a new character.

Sometimes Broadway fans can be a little snobby about TV and film stars about coming to the stage. Have you faced any criticism like that, and if you have, how do you respond to skeptics?

Everyone who I have worked with that are Broadway veterans have been the most welcoming people I have ever worked with. Everyone has been so supportive—just constantly there for me if I need to ask them questions, which I do all the time, and give me their two cents, which is normally extremely relevant and very useful. I’m doing the best that I can. I’m working the hardest I’ve ever worked before, and I’m extremely proud of what I’m doing. So if someone doesn’t like it, to each their own. But I’m proud of what I’m doing. As long as you’re doing that, what more could you want?  

What has been the hardest part about coming to Broadway? 

Just the amount of work it takes: on your voice, on you physically, on you mentally. It’s just a lot of work, a lot of time staying completely engaged, totally focused, being as present as possible, and working really hard so that you can portray a character to an audience and be able to tell this story as clearly as you can. It’s so much fun, but I’m used to having a second take. In theater and on Broadway, there is no second take.

What has been the most fun part? What is your backstage life like?

Well, I never leave the theater. A lot of people go out and eat. I normally stay in my dressing room and order food in and watch, recently, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Honestly, the best part of it for me is being able to perform in a Broadway theater with an audience. It’s such a rush. And being in a theater that has so much history. You feel it in the walls. You feel it everywhere you go. It’s the biggest adrenaline rush.

Is Broadway something that you hope to continue doing?

I’m like, do I have to go back to film? I love it so so much. It’s my favorite.

Going ahead, I wanted to ask you about doing Fox’s live Grease. How did that come about? What are you excited for? Have you started working on that at all?

I know nothing really yet. The extent of my involvement thus far was going in and reading and singing for the director, and doing a couple of scenes. He’s fantastic. We really had a good time vibing off of each other, and just figuring out our own version of Rizzo. I’m sure it’s going to evolve a lot over time. The only way to really get it into your body is just to do it. But I’m really excited because it’s going to be such a different change of pace for me. Gigi‘s this really beautiful, free spirited, exuberant, lively young woman, and Rizzo’s like this bitter, badass, “I don’t give a beep” kind of girl. It will be a nice change of pace. I love, love nothing more than playing different characters.