Actress Emerson Steele spent her 16th birthday in rehearsals.
For 10 hours.
The award-winning Steele, who splits her time between New York and Atlanta, is starring as the spirited Sara Crewe in “A Little Princess,” a musical that runs through Dec. 27 at Theatrical Outfit.
Her focus right now is on the show.
“As I get older, I don’t really care that much about my birthday,” Steele said. “To me, 16 was just another birthday. Even if I hadn’t been in rehearsal, I probably wouldn’t have wanted a big party … just some quality time with my family and my closest friends. My family and my cast made me feel really special!”
Steele will be in the Theatrical Outfit production for every performance except on Dec. 13, when she jets off to New York for the day to play the role of Swallow in the concert version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Whistle Down the Wind.”
Directed by Mira Hirsch, “A Little Princess” tells the story of Sara, the daughter of a Victorian adventurer, who gets shipped off to an English boarding school and must navigate a new city and a less than warm and fuzzy headmistress. When disaster strikes, she relies on her imagination and faith to help her through.
The musical is based on the classic book by Frances Hodgsen Burnett, which has been done in film, most notably the 1939 version, “The Little Princess,” starring Shirley Temple.
Steele said she watched that version a few times with her grandmother.
“Now, I thank her for that,” she said in a phone interview.
Steele loves the character of Sara. “She’s kind, she’s witty, she’s spunky and stands up for herself,” she said. “I believe in being a leader, and she is a big leader.”
Steele said she has been “super obsessed” with the cast album for the show for about two years. “I listened to it nonstop. I really, really, really wanted to play Sara Crewe. I know the novel and the movies.”
Steele is a few years older than Temple was when she played the role. Steele said there was a certain innocence and childlike quality with Temple, but “I’m sort of young at heart. I made a note to bring that to this role. I’m playing somebody who is 13, a little bit younger.”
Her character is a good role model for young people, Steele said. “No matter what age you are or where you’re from, she brings everyone together.”
The role of Sara is very challenging emotionally and vocally, Steele said. She has to sing high and low “and do all of this stuff I’ve never had to do all together.” Plus, she’s onstage for most of the show, with less than seven minutes out of view. And, during that time, she’s not relaxing but doing costume changes.
“I had to build up some new muscle to be able to do this role,” she said.
However, the young actress is no stranger to the demands of the stage.
She made her Broadway debut in “Violet,” starring Sutton Foster, at the American Airlines Theatre in 2014. She won a 2014 Theatre World Award for her debut performance on Broadway.
“Broadway is like every performer’s ultimate goal,” she said. “For me, it was, is and probably will always be.”
She also wants to do TV and film.
Being back in Atlanta has meant a reunion with other cast members, some of whom she worked with when she was younger.
Between performances, Steele, who started singing at age 6 with her mother in church, still manages to pull down straight A’s at Rivers Academy in Alpharetta. She wants to go to Brown University.
“Smart people make smart actors,” she said. “I feel like I really need to do well in school. Having knowledge of history and time periods of certain shows is extremely important.”
As for the future, Steele has her eyes set on one day playing Millie in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Evita” and Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables.”
Yes, that last role calls for a male actor, but Steele is undeterred.
“There’s color-blind casting, so maybe we can have gender-blind casting.”
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