It's an exciting week for theater lovers in the Nashville area. At long last, Hello, Dolly! lands at TPAC's Jackson Hall. The recent 2017 Broadway revival — starring Bette Midler as everyone's favorite meddling matchmaker Dolly Levi and David Hyde Pierce as Horace Vandergelder — won four Tony Awards. It's been one of the most celebrated musicals in recent years among Broadway fans (side note: theater legend Bernadette Peters stepped into the lead role in spring 2018, with Victor Garber as Horace; Midler and Pierce reprised their roles during the final six weeks of the show in 2018).

On the national tour here this week, another Broadway legend takes on the role of Dolly Levi: Betty Buckley. Best known in theater circles for her Tony Award-winning originating role of Grizabella in Cats, she's also played Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard among other stage roles. Many fans also remember her for playing the stepmom in the TV show Eight is Enough, and she played the gym teacher in the 1976 movie Carrie.

MEET ANALISA LEAMING

While it's always fun when a Broadway legend graces our home turf, it's equally special when one of the actors in the Broadway tours that come here are actually from Middle Tennessee! Such is the case with Analisa Leaming. She plays Irene Molloy on the tour, but she has a deeper history with the show. She was part of the 2017 revival cast with Bette Midler for the first seven months of the run in 2017. Leaming was part of the ensemble, and she was also the understudy for the Molloy character (played by Kate Baldwin on Broadway).

Leaming grew up in Murfreesboro. Her family moved there when she was in the sixth grade. She attended Bellwood Middle School and Riverdale High School. She spent quite a bit of time on the MTSU campus participating in the all-state choir, and she was also a student there in the Governor's School for the Performing Arts. After spending two years at the University of Memphis, Leaming transferred to the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music in New York where she earned her bachelor's degree in music.

Leaming has several regional credits under her belt, a few Off-Broadway titles and four Broadway roles, so far (in addition to Hello, Dolly!, Leaming has also played Anna in The King and I, Rosalie in School of Rock and Anita in On the 20th Century).

In addition to her career as a performer, Leaming also hosts an insightful podcast called A Balancing Act that focuses on uplifting conversations about life in the arts.

"My mom says I was singing before I could speak," laughs Leaming when I asked how old she was when the performing bug bit her.

I was recently fortunate to catch up with Leaming on the phone. She's bright, charming, present in the moment and delightfully engaging. We shared a joyful conversation about Hello, Dolly! along with her podcast and the power of meditation.

THE Q & A

How do you relate to Irene Molloy?

The show takes place in the 1890s, but Irene is a woman who is making a decision for her life. Yes, while at the top, she is deciding to marry a man who may make life easier, she knows EXACTLY what she's doing. She's not pretending. I love that she's in charge and she unabashedly wants to have fun and wants to have an adventure.

Even deciding to do this tour, I asked my husband if he would be willing to join me on the road for a year. We packed up our car and our dog, and we're having a great adventure. That is an element I love to infuse in Irene more than anything ... just this sense of play and adventure. Then it unfolds, as  you know, with hilarity in the hat shop!

Was the process of identifying with Irene and becoming her different when you understudied her on Broadway versus being her every night on the tour?

It really was, because we started back from square one for the tour. We were back in the rehearsal room with our incredible director, Jerry Zaks, and while you'll see some of the same bits [from Broadway], you'll see a lot of new bits.

Jerry really allowed us to find these characters and gave us the permission to really play. It's obvious when you're doing an exact duplicate as what was done before you. So he gave us freedom. Part of that, too, is that Betty Buckley had never played the role of Dolly before, so we were all discovering it together.

Analisa Leaming

What was it like when you got the call telling you that you landed the job on Broadway, considering you were going to be working with the amazing talents of Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce?

It was surreal, and it happened really fast. I went for one audition, and they called me the next day and offered it to me. That's not usually how it goes. There are usually many rounds of call backs. But, I also found out about seven months before we started rehearsals, so it was a surreal experience where I'd ask myself, "Is this really happening?" Then I'd keep checking in now and then with my agent asking, "I got that call, right? I didn't dream it?"

I will never forget seeing Bette play Dolly on Broadway, and at times, she became playful with the audience, bringing us into her arena in such a magical, endearing way. I've heard she did a lot of improvisation every night and kept the cast on its toes. What was your experience like working with both her and David?

A moment I will never forget was the very first day of rehearsals. All of the ensemble was together going over music, and Bette came into the room and introduced herself to us. She was quite nervous, which is crazy, but she said, "Listen, you all can dance better than me, you can all sing better than I can," then she got still and continued, "but none of you are as funny as I am!"

Of course, we all fell out of our chairs. And what she said was true. I did get to go on as Irene with her maybe 15 times, and it was never the same, we were always on our toes. She's truly one of the greatest comedians of our time. It was amazing to work with her.

David is truly one of the kindest people I've ever met and worked with. I'll never forget the first time I went on as Irene, there was a gift and card waiting for me in my dressing room after the show. It was from David, the card handwritten. It was the nicest card just praising my work. He didn't have to do that. Of course, sharing the stage with him and flirting with him in the hat shop was fun!

This is a unique experience for you, getting to work with two amazing legends (Midler and Buckley) in the same show, and they're so different from each other. What have you learned from these iconic women, and how have they helped shaped you as an actor?

As an actor, something they both have is this great gift of presence. They're so present in what they're doing. They're not a moment ahead, and they're not a moment behind. They're right there living and breathing the character. It really causes you to step up and do the best you can to do the same, just actively listen. That's the greatest gift I've gotten from them onstage.

Off stage ... they're both in their 70s playing this role. I can't think of another role for a woman of that age that demands of them what this role does. What I've learned from them is how they take care of themselves.

In other shows, there are leading men or ladies who are kind of like the cruise ship director if you will. They have parties, and they're always with the cast and socializing. These women aren't able to do that, and that's OK because they have to do what they do in order to do the show and deliver the performances. It's been incredible to watch because it's a sacrifice on your personal life.

What's the greatest thing you've gleaned from your experience working with legendary director Jerry Zaks?

That whatever you're doing, do it at 125 percent. To fully commit and be OK with him saying, "Thank you for trying that, never do that again." To be OK with that in a rehearsal experience where everybody's watching, but to really go for it because you know his style of comedy in this show is wacky, and you can feel unsure doing it.

Another thing is that it really is life or death. The minute you start playing the comedy or playing the scene in a way you thing you should, it's wrong ... you're wrong. If you can really make these circumstances life or death for you — that's how the show is so zany, yet it's somehow grounded in truth.

You said earlier you love traveling and the sense of adventure it brings. How does the tour experience influence your character perhaps in a way that's different from a sitting show?

I love to travel. I love being in new places. I love getting to explore. It's funny because you get this idea that you want to travel and automatically think, "Where should I go in Europe?" Just seeing this incredible country and going from the deserts to the mountains in California to the beaches, it's such an amazing experience. It's been so fun, and that, in turn, brings a different energy to the show each night. There's this aliveness. We've been exploring and experiencing new places during the day, and that affects what we do each night.

I assume growing up here in Middle Tennessee you've seen many shows at TPAC. What does it mean to you knowing you'll be on your home turf stage?

It makes me kind of emotional. I've seen so many shows there, and I was so transformed, especially by Les Miserables. It changed my life. If I could just go back and tell that girl sitting in those seats, "You're gonna be there!" I wish I could do that.

What are your top five favorite shows, and what is your dream role?

Only five??? OK ... The Sound of Music, Next to Normal, The Light in the Piazza, The King and I, and Into the Woods. My dream role is the one that going to be written for me someday.

Let's talk about your podcast, A Balancing Act, now beginning its third season. One of the things I love about it is that much of the conversation is more about the experience of the journey and being in the moment versus the destination. Can you elaborate on that, and how do you think that reality can help young people on their life's journey?

We live in a world where we're focused on outer attainment, and that's fine. It drives us forward as a species, but it's so easy to get caught up in having this incredible resumé or having this big house and the nice car and the great job. But you get there and are suddenly like, "This is it??? What was all that hard work for, and I didn't even enjoy any of it because I was so obsessed with getting the thing!?!"

That's been my experience, and I see it time and time again with artists on Broadway. They're quite unhappy because they thought Broadway or the bank account would bring them joy. As soon as I understood and learned that, I felt it was my mission to help artists slow down and enjoy the process, because we're always going to be in the rehearsal room, we're always going to be going back to auditions. If we can't enjoy that, I think we'll live an unhappy life, an unfulfilled life.

Now, if I had heard that in high school, would I have listened? But I have to say, I've been doing workshops and doing the podcast, and have spoken with high school and college-age students. Their feedback and response is amazing because they SO get it! They feel the pressure to get the perfect grades and get into the perfect college, so they understand it. It makes a difference to consider, "What if I were to actually enjoy my math class today?" What would that be like?

You maintain a daily meditation practice. How does that influence your life as an artist and performer?

It clears the cobwebs from your mind. It's like you're looking in a mirror that's very smudged and you're not seeing clearly. After you meditate, everything's a little bit more clear; the noise is lessened.

A lot of artists talk about how you've got to cut through the noise, especially with social media and the stimuli we experience on a regular basis. How are you going to tap into this vessel, your instrument, if you're so caught up in the noise all around you all the time?

For me, meditation is an incredible way to quiet those thoughts a little bit, to get them to slow down in between thoughts and just get to the root of what's there, what's important and tap into who I truly am. I think being a great artist is the pursuit of truth, so the more you can do that, the more you can come back and ask those questions of yourself. Who am I? And sit with that a bit, even if it's uncomfortable.

What advice do you have for kids who have their sights set on a career in the performing arts?

First, I would say it's about the art, so love taking classes, love watching. Watch the new stuff, watch the classics and immerse yourself in it. Love practicing. You have to learn to love practicing. Love practicing voice, dance, monologues. Just get in there. It's not about getting the role, it's about doing the work. Love exploring the craft, then you really won't care where you do it, because you love doing it so much.

The other thing is, and this kind of goes against what I just said — to love other things, too. Have other hobbies. It's OK to have other interests. One of the most harmful pieces of advice I hear being spewed left and right is, "If you can imagine yourself doing anything else, do that thing because a life in the arts is so hard."

I think that's harmful, because what happens is all these artists move to New York City and they often have no other skills or developed interests. Then they find they have six months between jobs or a job ended and now they have nothing. And they do what they call "soul-sucking" work like waiting tabes. That's what they call it. It doesn't have to be soul-sucking, but that's their perspective because they're not doing the one thing they know how to do.

The happiest people I see in this career have other interests and passions.

What do you hope kids in the audience take away from their Hello, Dolly! experience at TPAC?

I hope they leave with the joy of musical theater. I've been hearing that at the stage door. There's a new generation of people seeing this musical for the first time. A lot of times you'll hear, " I wasn't sure I'd like this, but I LOVED it! It was so fun!"

I think Hello, Dolly! is the quintessential Broadway musical from the music and costumes to the funny dialogue. I hope kids leave the theater with the joy of what this art form can be.

IF YOU GO:

HCA/TriStar Health Broadway at TPAC presents:
Hello, Dolly! Starring Broadway Legend Betty Buckley
TPAC's Jackson Hall
505 Deaderick St., Nashville
615-782-4040 | tpac.org
Showtimes: Tue - Thu 7:30 p.m., Fri 8 p.m., Sat 2 & 8 p.m., Sun 1 & 6:30 p.m.
Tickets: $45 - $90