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Kate the Great by Matthew Murray

  • Kate Shindle, photograph by Michael PortantiereLooking at Kate Shindle today, you might not automatically think Miss America. Of course she's still as tall and beautiful today as when she was crowned in 1998, and her purposeful walk still bespeaks the traditionally determined pageant mien. But a streak of austerity has crept into her face and voice, and looking her in the eyes or talking to her for a few minutes is more like power-lunching with a Fortune 500 businesswoman than a New Jersey–born beauty queen.

    It's not so surprising that she's begun to assume this manner, as she's been living with it daily for the better part of a year. Since April, the 30-year-old actress has been appearing eight times a week in the Broadway musical Legally Blonde as Harvard Law student Vivienne Kensington, the hard-as-nails foil for hard-as-fingernail-polish Valley Girl Elle Woods (Laura Bell Bundy). While they're both fighting over Warner Huntington III (Richard H. Blake), their real conflict is whether the prestigious law school is big enough for both of them.

    Though the plot of the musical greatly hinges on the stalemate the two achieve, Shindle's been tackling this challenge of her character ever since the earliest workshops of the musical with a book by Heather Hach and a score by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin. "She feels under attack because her way of life is being attacked," Shindle says. "I thought, Vivienne can't just be a device in Elle's story....I was pretty aggressive in terms of sitting down with people and saying, 'We've got to think of her backwards. People who are mean don't turn nice. Think of her as a person who has the integrity and character and conscience to basically throw away her own legal career for someone she doesn't really like that much because it's the right thing to do.' It takes Elle the entire show to learn that Vivienne is right about certain things, [that] it's okay to be serious, it's okay to take yourself seriously and to be intelligent."

    Shindle evinces plenty of both qualities—as well as a healthy sense of humor—in discussing her life and career. She got her start on stage at age four, when she played a Valentine's Day card in a school play. (Her one memorable line: "I don't want to go to the shop, I want to stay here!") This led to high school, where she made her musical debut playing Fruma-Sarah in Fiddler on the Roof (and, she wryly notes, doubling as one of only two violins in the orchestra pit), and eventually to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where she earned her B.S. in Theatre and pursued the pageant career that peaked with her earning the title of Miss America.

    "You have to work really hard to regain your credibility coming out of a pageant," Shindle says. "It was kind of a Faustian bargain I didn't know I was making when I was 20: 'Ooh, a pageant may be fun!' But it definitely requires a sort of tasteful distance from it. I'm not ashamed of it, I'm really, really proud of what I did when I was Miss America, of what that program, almost in spite of itself, does to teach young women to be leaders in their communities."

    She grudgingly admits her talent performance—"Don't Rain on My Parade," from the Jule Styne–Bob Merrill musical Funny Girl—wasn't all she would have wanted, but is still thrilled to talk about her platform issue: AIDS education and prevention. This involved lobbying for condom availability in schools, as well as "lots of other things that don't necessarily endear you to Miss America's core audience," she says. "I personally feel that although I grew up Catholic, we have a moral imperative to teach people to not die for stupid reasons. And there are so many people that would keep that information away from kids. It's amazing, I would go into schools and they would say, 'Don't say this word or that word,' and I wouldn't, but then I'd insist on an open question-and-answer period so that if the students asked me something, I could answer. They were always fine with that, because they couldn't imagine their kids would ask about condoms, but they always did. Every single time."

    She also became the first Miss America to take her platform issue out of the United States when she spoke at the World AIDS Conference in Geneva Switzerland, and still cherishes the opportunities she had to communicate with young people about the dangers of the disease. "When you have the opportunity for people to tell you [about their lives], it's significant," she says. "If there's one thing people don't expect Miss America to be, it's of any significance whatsoever. Which is why I'm really defensive about it. When people introduce me as Miss America, it drives me crazy: "All the things you're about to think of me, please try to think the opposite, because it will make the rest of our relationship much easier."

    Even so, she doesn't discount or disparage the talent of tomorrow from using methods like Miss America or American Idol as an entré to the big time. "I think all's fair. Like with anything, there's an upside and a downside. American Idol has developed a kind of thread, particularly on Broadway: If your album tanks, you can always come to Broadway. It at least gets you in the door. Do I question the wisdom of some of the casting choices? Sure, but I do that with regular people. Everybody's got an opinion, and they're often all over the place. When I got to the end of [my year as Miss America], there were plenty of people saying, 'You should move to Washington, we want you to work for our lobbying organization, and by the way, we're really excited about running your congressional campaign in ten years.' There weren't a lot of people saying, 'You should go to Hollywood.'"

    She came to New York instead, in the fall of 1999, and dabbled in real estate as well as theatre. Her Broadway credits eventually came to encompass Jekyll & Hyde (where she eventually understudied the role of Lucy) and Cabaret, as well as more AIDS related work (such as producing a benefit performance of Stephen Schwartz's Children of Eden in 2003). But all the while, she was sowing seeds for the rest of her career, including Legally Blonde.

    "One thing that I tell anybody who asks me, 'I'm a performer, what advice do you have for me?', [is to] sing every single time you get the opportunity to do it, for anyone who asks you. When I first got here, I used to go to Sam's on 46th and Ken Lundie played the piano late at night, and I would sing with him and I would start to meet some composers. I met Larry through a kind of circuitous route, and then when the first reading came up, he recommended me. I didn't know [director Jerry Mitchell], I didn't know anybody. I got in there and they just kept inviting me back. Which is awesome, I have to say. If I could get every job without auditioning, I would be the happiest girl in the world."

    Kate Shindle with Charlie Pollack in Sympathy Jones. Photograph by Michael PortantiereHer keeping her face and her voice out there have also led to collaborations with some up-and-coming talents, including choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler; musical-theatre writers Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk, for whom Shindle appeared in their musical The Woman Upstairs in the inaugural New York Musical Theatre in 2004; and Masi Asare and Brooke Pierce, who wrote Sympathy Jones, in which Shindle starred at this past summer's NYMF.

    "I think it's a really good piece of material," Shindle says of the latter show. "It's smart, it's written by girls, which I like because women write for the female voice a lot differently than men do. No disrespect, because it comes in handy for me, but you shouldn't have every song have to top out at a B-natural or an F-sharp. I think people lose sight of that because they want the thrill, and a lot of male composers seem to find one part of the female voice exciting and that's all they write for."

    And that high A-flat she belts at the end of Legally Blonde's climactic title song? "Well, that's my fault," she says. "It's like a party trick. That's an actor thinking, 'I'm in rehearsal and I started out this number and I want to get it back at the end... What can I do?' Ultimately, a lot of times young girls will ask me at the stage door, what note is that, how do you do that? And I'm really careful to tell them, 'Well first of all, you kind of have to be a natural soprano who's just not trained enough to be afraid of belting that high.' Which I am. And all of it comes half a step at a time. You just keep at it and you try to do the vocal puzzle and figure out how that singer's getting there. To have a 15- or 16-year-old girl say, "Well, that person can sing that so I should be able to as well" [could be trouble], so I try to be as responsible as possible when asked."

    It's the coterie of young female fans, especially multiple return visitors, that has surprised Shindle most. "Our fans are really dedicated. It surprised me at first that people would latch on so thoroughly to a show like Legally Blonde. I understand if it's Spring Awakening or if it's Rent, if you feel like somebody's expressing something you've never connected with before as a 13- or 14-year-old. But I guess the lesson for me has been that a lot of these young girls do find a sort of profound connection with the show, that's why they keep coming back, I guess. They know their totals, too. 'Oh, this is my 51st time.' I can't say I entirely can understand what drives anyone to go to a Broadway show over and over again, but I'm glad they come, and I'm glad they bring new people with them.... It's a really nice group of people."

    How many of those fans were cultivated as a result of MTV's decision to air the show in its entirety last fall? "I definitely have spoken to numerous people at the stage door who saw it on TV and couldn't wait to go see it. Obviously, the conventional wisdom was if you see it on TV you won't see it in person. But I think what a lot of people didn't appreciate was they didn't do this in a vacuum. They looked at market research on what that demographic does after they see something on TV that has a live experience. If you are a 12-year-old who sees a show on MTV that they'd really like to see in person, it's not like you can just buy a plane ticket and go to New York. So what I think everybody anticipated is it will really help the tour; they're sending [one] out in June. [The producers] weren't desperate to get the show on TV; if it hadn't been MTV who came to our show and said this might work for our audience, they probably wouldn't have pursued it."

    Kate Shindle, Laura Bell Bundy, and Michael Rupert in Legally Blonde.  Photograph by Joan MarcusShindle says the live taping (which was preceded by two days of rehearsals and additional photography) was "a blast...it was like they handed out thousands of Pixy Stix. It was really exciting, people who were cheering for the show, people who wanted to see the show succeed, even if it was just for that night.... It was a great experience." The only downside? The taping was during September, one of Shindle's most hectic months because of Sympathy Jones and a Birdland concert with Michael John LaChiusa she ended up canceling.

    Still, Shindle's happy with her experience, and recently extended her contract until July. When we spoke, she didn't yet have any concrete information about the MTV reality show intended to find Bundy's replacement, though she says she's in favor of anything that brings new audiences to Broadway, and has nothing but glowing words for her costar. "I have no idea how she does [the role every night]," Shindle says. "And not only is she doing the show, she's doing a million press appearances, she has a very good attendance record, she's pitching TV shows and designing dog purses and releasing a CD... She's amazing. I feel like I'm busy, then I look at her and go, how are you not hospitalized?"

    Shindle's busy-ness comes in the form of finishing her first novel, which she's been working on for five years, called Crown Chasers, a fictionalized account of the cutthroat world of beauty pageants. And she's just started working on her second book, a young-adult novel about a 16-year-old girl who learns she's a witch. (Which, she promises, is nothing like the Harry Potter series.) Her interests in writing came about as a result of a screenwriting class she took a number of years ago, because she was "tired of waiting for someone to let [her] be creative." Judging by all the stage credits she's been accumulating lately, Shindle's waiting days could well be over.

    Photo credits:
    (1) Kate Shindle, photo by Michael Portantiere
    (2) Kate Shindle and Charlie Pollack in
    Sympathy Jones, photo by Michael Portantiere
    (3) Kate Shindle, Laura Bell Bundy, and Michael Rupert in
    Legally Blonde, photo by Joan Marcus

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