'Superstar' singer has a Cinderella story

It's a Thursday night. About 6. Nicole Long is in her dressing room — her name's on the door — preparing to play Mary Magdalene in "Jesus Christ Superstar GOSPEL," the hit musical at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre.

Before the night's over, Long will stand alone on stage, bathed in blue and white lights, and belt out a soulful rendition of the showstopper ballad "I Don't Know How to Love Him." Later she'll take a curtain call hand-in-hand with the two leads — Jesus and Judas, both played by New York actors — and bow to a standing ovation.

She's asked what she'd be doing on a weeknight like this six months ago.

"I'd still be at work, reviewing financials," said Long, who before "Superstar" was manager for a health care technology company in Alpharetta.

Long, 39, might be the most out-of-nowhere success story of this, or perhaps any, local theater season. Her improbable journey — from ditching a singing career in her 20s for family life and corporate jobs, to her star turn on Atlanta's most celebrated stage despite never having acted professionally — is a no-hype "American Idol" narrative that gives hope to the undiscovered and unfulfilled everywhere.

Strikingly tall (almost 6 feet) and slim, with long, dark hair, the wife and mother of a teenager now plans for a new career in musical theater. Jody Feldman, head of casting at the Alliance, summed it up: "A star is born."

"There are days I come in and say, 'Is this really real?' " said Long, on leave from her office job at McKesson Corp. while the Alliance's gospel version of the 1971 rock opera plays through Feb. 22. "It's living the dream."

Just shy of success

Long's story begins in Knoxville. She was a shy kid who liked to sing but dreaded the stage. A pattern formed early: Her church or school choir would plan a show, Long would hang in the background, then be asked to sing and get the solo.

She shed her stage fright by high school and attended historically black Knoxville College on a vocal performance scholarship. She caught a break in the early '90s when a singer for Lionel Hampton's touring band got laryngitis before a show. Hampton pleaded with a professor to "send over everybody you got," Long said. Hampton picked her out of the pack, and she briefly traveled the East Coast with his band.

She'd left school by then and returned home to sing with R&B bands in search of a record deal. She moved to Nashville and made demos that went nowhere. She sang on a jazz fusion CD by trumpeter Rod McGaha, toured to promote it and thought "we were on the verge of success." Then the record company folded.

"I thought, 'I think I'm tired,' " said Long, by then married and the mother of a young son. "I went about refocusing my priorities."

She returned to school and at 28 got a business degree. She and her husband, Stan Long, a software salesman, moved to Savannah for better jobs, then to Alpharetta about six years ago.

Yet Long said of her singing days, "You don't ever get rid of that feeling," so sometimes she sang at church or at weddings. She and Stan, who had been a musician, spent nights at home writing songs together.

"I don't think she was frustrated. The life we've created is a joy in its own right," Stan Long said. "I think it was more of a dull pain that wouldn't go away. Saying, 'I'm still here.' "

An accidental 'Aida'

Last summer, a co-worker who'd heard Long sing told her about an audition for the Elton John musical "Aida," staged by the Chattahoochee Community Players, an amateur group in Johns Creek.

Long showed up without a monologue — she didn't know she needed one — but did sing.

"And I looked up, amazed by the voice coming out of this woman who'd never acted before," said Sarah Stoffle, a middle school theater teacher in Roswell and the play's director.

Long was cast as Aida. She had to learn everything about theater: stage direction, body positions, emotional cues.

"Being from the business world, she kept a spreadsheet of everything I told her," Stoffle said. "It was the most bizarre thing I've ever seen."

By her third and last

performance, a sold-out crowd inside the Chattahoochee High School auditorium, gave Long a standing ovation — in the middle of the show.

"That sparked something new," she said. "I knew I wouldn't be able to sit still in my office anymore."

Then Long heard about an open audition for "Superstar." She hoped to land a spot with the play's 27-voice choir. Almost 300 people auditioned in Atlanta and New York, including seasoned Broadway actors. Long showed up straight from work, still in her business suit, to sing for the show's creator, Louis St. Louis.

"I looked at Louis and we both said, 'This oughta be quick,' " recalled Darryl Jovan Williams, the show's vocal arranger who also plays Judas. "Then she opened her mouth and we knew we had Mary Magdalene. It was the most amazing audition I ever heard."

Ready for more

Some with the show were still nervous about Long's lack of experience. Auditions continued. But Long sang again at two callbacks. After the third, St. Louis said, "I was weeping."

"At some level you make an enormous leap of faith," said Susan V. Booth, who directs "Superstar." "I do think life experience matters. This is ... someone who recognizes the truth of an emotional moment and conveys it musically."

Booth and others say Long's future is bright.

Seated in her dressing room, rush hour traffic crawling outside on Peachtree Street, Long is asked what she wants now. She hardly pauses.

"More."

NICOLE LONG ON ...

• Ending her singing career and starting a family: "You get married, have a kid, do PTA, manage things at work and you figure out you are just who you are."

• Being cast as Mary Magdalene: "I said, 'Are you serious?!' I was in my office and the walls are pretty thin. So I went out to my car and literally cried, I was that jubilant."

• The difference being a singer and an actor: "The audience is not looking for Nicole Long. They're looking for Mary Magdalene. It's so much harder to be somebody else."

• Opening night: "It was scary as hell and exciting as all get-out. It was a heckuva adreneline ride."

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