As one of Broadway’s brightest leading ladies, Ana Villafañe’s path to stardom has been unconventional, shattering many longstanding theater traditions. For the recent reopening of “Chicago,” for example, she was offered the parts of both Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly — sans auditioning — and was asked to pick her preference. (To make that difficult choice, she called up her friend Lin-Manuel Miranda for his expert opinion.) And before she was cast, she had never even seen the show, which she says made it that much more original. “What I love is that I got the best of both worlds,” she explained. “[I was] stepping into this iconic, legendary character, but I was able to create it from a place of my own authenticity and life experience.”
We sat down via Zoom with the star, who razzle-dazzled on stage, giving an equally sweet and spicy performance as Roxie, backstage before a Friday night performance. The Miami native-turned-Lower East Side resident told us about her early acting aspirations, and moving to New York in 2014 after landing her first Broadway gig — originating the role of Gloria Estefan in “On Your Feet!”, which was her very first audition on the Great White Way.
Villafañe also has a career in television and joined the cast of the series “Younger” in its last season. When asked about her future goals, she named stepping into the characters of Eva Peron in “Evita,” Mama Rose in “Gypsy” and Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.”
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I have an entire other apartment over here because everything has to be its own set, like my own set of makeup brushes, my own set of makeup. I have a perfume that I use specifically for the character. I’m kind of weirdly superstitious-ish about that stuff. But just warming up, I use playlists and music of the time period. I do foam rolling for my actual muscles ‘cause it’s a beast of a show, that is for sure.
When did you know you wanted to pursue theater as a profession? I know you wanted to go to an arts’ high school, but your parents had you go to a Catholic all-girls’ school.
I knew when I was 9 years old, when I did my first musical. And that’s when I realized that you could sing and be a different person and also that it could be an actual career. But it was also launched by watching the movie “Grease;” I love that movie. Movie musicals became my thing.
When did you move to New York and was if for “On Your Feet!”?
Yeah, it was in 2014 when I booked “On Your Feet!” I had two weeks to move out of my apartment in L.A. and to completely relocate to New York. I didn’t know anybody here. That was my introduction to the city, which was wild because my face was all over the subways and Times Square.
Was that your first Broadway audition?
It was very much my first Broadway audition, so I wore a leotard and character shoes because I thought that’s what you do. And the casting people told me, “Feel free to wear normal-people clothes.” So the next day I showed up in Doc Martens and a normal outfit and that was that. And I got the job that night, so it was very much a fairy tale.
The cast of “Younger” seems so tight knit, how was joining it for the last season?
It was amazing. Obviously, they had been together for seven years prior to this and then with the pandemic, it was very emotional for them to come back to work. Everybody was equally excited to be back on set and working together.
It was so weird because [Nico and I] had masks and then the shields and then all the protocols, and then pretty much 10 minutes later, it was like, “OK, well now you’re in bed, so start making out.” And it was like, “COVID who?” But it was really fun and a really safe experience. Of the leading men that I’ve worked with, he is at the top of the list. He’s so dreamy and so relaxed, because he’s been through it all, so it was a really safe environment for me as well. Those were my first sex scenes — so to be in bed with somebody that was making me feel extremely comfortable and just was super normal about it. It just didn’t feel icky.
You didn’t audition for “Chicago?”
I had never met the team. I had never thought about it. I mean I knew the music because it’s like canon, like every theater person knows “Chicago.” Every non-theater person even knows “Chicago,” because they’re all hit songs. So I knew the music from just listening to it my whole life and I had seen the movie back in the day when that came out, but I didn’t know the notes per se. As someone who had never auditioned and never seen the show, I really had to learn fast.
I saw on Instagram that the first person you called after you were offered both roles was Lin-Manuel Miranda.
It actually was because they gave me the option between choosing Velma or Roxie. It was a musical theater dream. When I met with the director, he was like, “Think about it; sleep on it.” Lin was the first person [I called]. And he was the one that was like, “Do Roxie, the emotional journey as an actress and I think with your age it just makes so much sense.” He goes, “The name on everybody’s lips.” I’m like, “You’re such a nerd.” So he’s to blame.
How did you prep to play Roxie? Did you watch past performances? And how did you want to make it your own?
I did not watch past performances. I rewatched “Fosse/Verdon,” the FX series. I remembered watching it when it first came out and it was so informative. But knowing that I was going into Roxie, I thought that it would give me a lot more information, and it did. And then me and my boyfriend would watch tons of old movies, everything from all the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers stuff, all the Audrey Hepburn. Things I’ve seen before, classics, but just to get into the time period and the style, the movement, the way that people even spoke back then, facial expressions.
And it was amazing because we had Walter Bobbie, the director, actually come back and be in the studio with us for three weeks, so I learned it from the horse’s mouth and I got to build the show from my point of view. He never tried to make me mimic anybody or imitate anybody’s previous performances. I was honest, but I had never seen the show on Broadway before. And he was like, “Well maybe that will be a good thing, because you’ll make it yours and you’ll do it as if it’s an original role knowing that it’s iconic, but bringing your own spice and your own personality and your own colors to it.” So I felt very empowered by that. They said, “Here are all the tools. Here’s the vocabulary.” They taught me all of the Fosse vocabulary, the techniques that are the building blocks for the choreography.
And I’m not a dancer first. I did dance as a kid and I can dance, obviously, and I did a musical before, but this is very specific. So I did a lot of ballet barre training and David Bushman — our dance captain here at the show, who’s part of the cast and who’s one of the swings, he was very, very helpful in taking the time to teach me everything. And I’m up there with Bianca Marroquín [who plays Velma], who is a world-renowned dancer. So it was like, “No pressure.” But I had to have the courage and rip off the Band-Aid and say, “Let’s go.”
The chemistry on stage is so strong. Is it the same in real life? Are you all friends?
Oh, yeah. It’s interesting because there are only four of us who are new to the show — myself, Christine who plays the Hungarian woman who gets hung, Celina, who is the one who [says] “ran into my knife” in the “Cell Block Tango,” and then Jeff, the guy who plays judge; he’s the one that I’m flirting with at the bottom of the ladder. And so us four kind of created our own little subgroup because everybody has known each other for years and years and years and worked together and there’s already a dynamic. So when we were in the studio, we would get lunch together and sit at the table together. But everybody’s been, for the most part, very welcoming.
The baseline for any Broadway or theater worker is just respect, because everybody knows that you can’t do this job unless you have what it takes, so that is one thing I love about theater versus sometimes Hollywood. Because the amount of talent you have to have, you can’t fake it. So the mutual respect is level one, but then on top of that, because of coming back after the pandemic and reopening Broadway, it feels like a very cohesive community, and on stage you really have to have each other’s backs because you don’t know what other people have gone through or are still going through. A lot of people in this building have families that they go home to, kids. So it’s a little bit different than what I’m used to in terms of originating a show with a bunch of young kids that were all like, “We’re on Broadway now! Where are we going after the show?”
The three leads - you, Bianca and Paulo [Szot, who plays Billy Flynn] - are all of Latinx heritage. That’s kind of rare, right?
I come from a show where it was the first Latin cast on Broadway, so to me it’s not weird. But I understand that it is weird. I had a very privileged experience in the theater because it just feels normal. To me, this is how it is and this is also how the world is. It’s a reflection of when you walk outside on the street in New York, there’s all different kinds of people and nobody thinks about it twice. And so it’s really cool, little by little, for that to become more normal for everybody. And so the fact that we’re all Latin is almost a coincidence. It’s like, “Oh yeah, and they’re Latin.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Follow Ana on Instagram @anavillafaneofficial
For more information on the show and to buy tickets, visit chicagothemusical.com