Hair piled on her head, cigarette dangling out of her mouth and a slight stoop to her posture, Faith Prince can get a laugh just walking across the stage as Mrs. Wilkinson, the dissatisfied dance teacher in Billy Elliot the Musical. And the laugh’s even bigger if she’s rocking her shiny gold, fuzzy-trimmed ’80s coat.
On the road for nearly a year now, Prince is experiencing — if you can believe this — her first-ever national tour. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that since she made her Broadway debut as Gypsy stripper Tessie Tura in Jerome Robbin’s Broadway in 1989, Prince has worked steadily and on her own terms. She won a Tony in 1992 for her unforgettable turn as Miss Adelaide in the benchmark revival of Guys and Dolls, and she was nominated again for her role as the mother of the bride in 2008’s A Catered Affair.
In between Broadway gigs, Prince has worked fairly extensively in TV (“Spin City,” “Huff”) and raised a family. A few years ago, she and her husband, trumpeter Larry Lunetta, and their son, Henry, moved to Sacramento, which is where they met when they were working at California Musical Theatre’s Music Circus.
When deciding whether or not to hit the road with Billy Elliot, Prince considered the nice, long run in San Francisco at the Orpheum Theatre (part of the SHN season) and how easy it would be to drive home and be with her family on her days off.
“I was being considered for Broadway when Billy Elliot came over from London, but that didn’t work out,” Prince says. “Later on they talked to me about Chicago, but I was in Sacramento for my son’s first year of high school, and we had just moved my mother to Sacramento, so I said, ‘If you come to the West Coast, call me.'”
They called. And in addition to the West Coast, there were other cities in the deal.
“It’s been a great job,” Prince continues. “I really love the kids. I was a camp counselor growing up. With five young actors sharing the role of Billy, it’s like having five children of my own. You grow to love each of them for their gifts and really hone in on what they’re about and what they give the role. Some of them have a wicked sense of humor. Some are incredibly wise. For me, having five different leading men is golden. It keeps me fresh. I try to keep them in the present, and I never say the same line the same way twice.”
Prince, who will turn 54 in less than a month, is in her dressing room at the Orpheum. She’s not between shows. She’s between scenes in Act 2, when her character, Mrs. Wilkinson, only appears a couple of times. During the interview she has to excuse herself to go do a scene, but she comes back and picks up right where she left off, leaving the crankiness and the Northern England accent on stage.
Playing Mrs. Wilkinson comes rather naturally to Prince, she says, because there are English/Scottish/Irish women like her in the Prince family DNA.
“They substitute emotion for humor. There’s an irony inherent in them,” she explains. “My family was like that growing up. She’s a little colder than I would probably be, but I found that exciting and something to really tackle. It’s easier to play a colder person when you have a warm center. You get the complexity of both.”
Prince has to pretend she can teach dance to little girls (and one boy), which she does effectively even though she calls herself a “dance illusionist” because she can dance just enough to create the illusion that she’s moving the way she’s supposed to be moving. Being part of such a big machine — and Billy Elliot really is a massive, multiple-Tony Award-winning musical machine — has been an interesting experience for Prince, whose character is somewhat on the periphery.
“I’m used to being right in the center of everything, but I’ve enjoyed this and really learned from it,” she says. “I took what they [the Billy Elliot creative team] gave me and made it mine. That’s been a dual process for them and me. That’s who I am, and they knew that when they hired me. We found our middle ground, which has been great. They know how enthusiastic I am. I don’t miss a show. I’m that old Broadway war horse.”
Being on the tour has been a nice change of pace from the usual “who knows what’s coming next” aspect of show business life. Prince knows exactly which town is coming next and for how long. Sometimes the tour stops are long ones (like San Francisco) and otehr times just a couple of weeks.
But once the tour concludes, Prince will focus on her family and start thinking about dream projects.
“I’d love to do a series,” she says. “I think there’s still a great role for me in a series. And honestly, I’m at the age I’ve waited for all my life. I’ve always been an older soul. I could see myself doing a Hello, Dolly! or a Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd.”
She also has a second recording waiting in the wings, a follow up to 2000’s A Leap of Faith. It’s another live recording with stories and songs. She’s also writing a book for kids to be a supportive voice for young performers thinking about a life in show business.
Prince seems to be that rarity in show business: a funny, sensible, well-adjusted star. She says there’s a reason for that.
“I have a lot of things in my life I love that have nothing to do with the business,” she says. “Early on I knew I’d have to have steady things in my life. I love flowers, cooking, entertaining, shopping, putting things together, sewing, making things happen, creating things. I love show business, but if you depend on it to make you happy, it will always let you down. You have to have other things in your life that stabilize you no matter what. When good things come, that’s great. When they don’t come right away, they’ll get here eventually. That kind of mentality keeps you sane. And happy.”
Here’s Faith Prince delivering a bang-up version of her signature song, “Adelaide’s Lament,” from Guys and Dolls.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Billy Elliot the Musical continues through Sept. 17 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets start at $35. Call 888-746-1799 or visit http://shnsf.com/shows/billyelliot for information.