- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2008

NEW YORK (AP) - Long before Sierra Boggess became a mermaid, she was a less adorable sea creature. It was back when she was just a teen, performing dozens of short educational skits a day during a summer job in Denver.

Where exactly was that gig? An aquarium.

“I was dressed as a shark,” Miss Boggess says, laughing at the memory. “Sometimes I was a hammerhead. Sometimes I was a regular shark. I just wanted to sing and dance.”

Miss Boggess, 25, is getting plenty of opportunity to do that as she completes her graduation from shark to the title role of Broadway’s “The Little Mermaid.”

“This is what I’ve dreamed of my whole life,” she says. “Not my wedding — I was never that girl. It was, ‘What will my opening night on Broadway be like?’ ”

The role of Ariel is one of the best-loved in the Disney canon, a mermaid who falls deeply in love with a human prince and must choose between surf and turf.

Miss Boggess, a huge fan of the 1989 film, says she shares many of her character’s traits: independence, stubbornness and a love of fun. It also doesn’t hurt that she looks the part — she’s an athletic 5-foot-5 beauty with wide-set eyes, a ready smile and a siren’s voice.

“There is a lot of anxiety that comes with it, a lot of pressure, but you have to deal with it,” she says. “Not only am I dealing with a cartoon, but I’m dealing with a mermaid — two things that aren’t real.”

Thomas Schumacher, the president of Disney Theatrical Group, isn’t worried. “I think she’s off to become a real star,” he says.

During an interview in her dressing room before a recent preview, Miss Boggess wore jeans and huge fuzzy slippers as she sat cross-legged on a sofa. Though she has barely moved in, she has lovingly arrayed dozens of photos of her all-time inspiration: Barbra Streisand.

Miss Boggess won the role following a five-hour audition in New York during a break from playing Christine in a souped-up version of “The Phantom of the Opera” in Las Vegas.

At the audition, she sang the hit “Part of Your World” and one of the new songs, “Beyond My Wildest Dreams.” She danced, she performed with potential princes and sidekicks, and she sang some more.

As the hours dragged on, Miss Boggess began to notice fewer wannabe Ariels hanging around. “I was like, ‘That’ll do,’ ” she recalls with a smile. “As soon as I was done, I met my sister and had a margarita.”

The call from producers that led to her Broadway debut came three days later — while she was at the dentist’s office. When she got to her house, it was Miss Streisand with whom she chose to celebrate.

“When I got home, then I played this song from ‘Yentl’ called ‘This Is One of Those Moments,’ ” she says.

“I just sat there and said, ‘Oh … I play that song wherever something amazing happens. It calms me, and it helps me live in the moment.”

With the job in hand, Miss Boggess wanted to get into character immediately. Director Francesca Zambello suggested she go to an aquarium, not an easy task in Las Vegas. Miss Boggess found one — in the middle of a casino, naturally.

She started going to the Mermaid Lounge at the Silverton hotel-casino, where customers sip cocktails beside a 117,000-gallon tank containing thousands of fish and tons of coral.

Miss Boggess would show up when an on-staff marine biologist dived into the tank to feed the fish.

Another thing she did was learn how to glide. Actors in the show use shoes with embedded heels to simulate being under water, and Miss Boggess used her skating background to practice in her garage.

The first time she put on the shoes, though, she fell. “I always have to learn the hard way,” she admits. “It’s second nature now, and it’s weird not having them on, actually.”

Miss Boggess is the middle of three musical sisters — the youngest, 23-year-old Allegra, is a pianist who won a Young Musicians Foundation competition in Denver, and the oldest, 27-year-old Summer, is a professional cellist and Sierra’s roommate in New York.

Sierra recalls all three sisters belting out “The Little Mermaid” songs — and acting them out during family vacations in their Volkswagen van. The fact that the stage show had its out-of-town tryout in her hometown of Denver was icing on the cake.

One funny twist on her road to fame involved Jodi Benson, the voice of the original Ariel in the “Little Mermaid” film. Miss Boggess was a huge fan and remembers begging her mom to take her to a Benson concert long before she landed her latest role.

She and Miss Benson also attended the same school — Millikin University in Decatur, Ill. Miss Boggess, who graduated in 2004 with a degree in musical theater, got an e-mail from Miss Benson the day before she started rehearsals in New York.

“It was so sweet. She was talking about how blessed she is to have Ariel in her life and she’s so happy for me,” Miss Boggess says.

She’s still a little stunned by the speed of her rise — stunned, but grateful. Before Las Vegas, she was on the national tour of “Les Miserables” and was part of last year’s Lincoln Center “American Songbook Series,” performing songs by lyricist David Zippel.

Even the fallow periods in her career have been brief. When her show “Princesses” closed before its expected Broadway run, Miss Boggess became a hostess at an Italian restaurant.

It lasted only a few weeks: “I got sent home a couple of times because my clothes weren’t sophisticated enough,” she says. Soon, she landed her “Les Miserables” role.

“It feels fast. All of a sudden, I’m like ‘Here I am!’ It’s really amazing. It feels very right. It feels very much like this is how I should be making my Broadway debut.”

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