Julia Lester on growing up with 'Into the Woods'

This interview is part of New York Theatre Guide's Road to the Tonys series on artists whose unique or long journeys with their show culminated in a nomination.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Julia Lester made her Broadway debut in Into the Woods last summer, making her eligible for a Tony Award for the first time. On May 2, she and her family joined thousands of others watching the Tony nominations as they were announced live from New York. But she wasn't necessarily listening out for her name.

"We just happened to be watching because we're big theatre fans, and we love to cheer everybody on," Lester said. But soon enough, the High School Musical: The Musical: The Series star was receiving cheers as she joined the nominees for Best Featured Actress in a Musical — alongside Broadway veterans Ruthie Ann Miles, Bonnie Milligan, NaTasha Yvette Williams, and Betsy Wolfe.

Lester's performance as Little Red Ridinghood in Stephen Sondheim's fairytale mashup musical began as a two-week Off-Broadway gig at New York City Center. The production went on to an eight-week Broadway transfer that earned Lester critical acclaim (New York Theatre Guide's critic called her "invaluable") amid a star-studded cast including Sara Bareilles, Brian d'Arcy James (both nominated), Gavin Creel, Patina Miller, and more.

She then departed the production — even as it extended an additional five months — to film High School Musical. But like Red does with plentiful baked goods, she'd taken her bite out of Broadway and left an imprint. (Her latest stage gig was a revival of The Secret Garden in Los Angeles, which Lester said she'd "absolutely" return to if its rumored Broadway ambitions are realized.)

Lester's Into the Woods success, it seems, was destined from a young age. She'd performed in the musical twice before: as the cow Milky White in elementary school and as Little Red at 18, both in Los Angeles. Her Broadway performance is a milestone in a journey she hopes isn't over yet.

"I can still continue to grow with [the show]," she said. "The characters range from a child to older, so I feel like I can still continue to do the show for the rest of my life."

Lester discussed her nomination, the importance of Into the Woods in her childhood, and the things she knows now (many valuable things) about Little Red that she never knew before.

How does it feel to get a Tony nomination for your Broadway debut? What's been going through your mind?

A lot is going through my mind, but also at the same time, nothing at all because I'm just completely stunned and shocked and honored and grateful. Even you saying a sentence like, "How does it feel to be nominated for your Broadway debut?" is such a dream scenario to me that it doesn't feel real.

Have you received any particularly meaningful responses to your nomination?

I was with my family when I found out about the nomination, so that was really, really special. I live on the West Coast, and I just happened to have a trip planned to be in New York [during] the nominations.

It was just so cool to be with my favorite people in the world, my biggest support system. And then I heard from everybody in the High School Musical cast and our showrunner, Tim Federle. Then, at the press day, I met so many people that I've looked up to for years, and they just were so complimentary and so congratulatory.

How did your past times doing Into the Woods inform your approach to Little Red this time around?

Every time I hear it or see it or think about it, I'm discovering new parts of the show that I never knew before. It's been really cool to grow up with the story. I fell in love with it when I was 10 years old for the first time because of those fairy tales and the magic and characters that I know and love. Then I got to revisit it again right after high school when I was a little bit older and understand more of the deeper meanings and larger themes and how the stakes were a lot higher, and then and then a few years later getting to revisit it again at 22.

Just being able to grow up with the show, and it grows with you — for the rest of my life, I'll be peeling back layers of the show and discovering new parts of it.

Into the Woods - 750 - NYTG

What parts of yourself did you bring to your Little Red?

I love Red's feistiness and her sarcasm and comedy and how, in moments of darkness and despair, she's this little beacon of light that can just throw a little one-liner on the audience and break up the tension a little bit. I really love that about her, and I love being able to discover just how much of those personality traits she really has in her.

It was all there in front of me — the way it was written, the lines that she says, it was so clear to me who Little Red is, and it was really cool to bring more spunk to her.

What did you learn from working with the Broadway veterans on this show?

So much. Every single day was truly a master class in acting and singing and performing. I have grown up a really diehard theatre kid, really obsessed with all of these people and with this cast. In rehearsals, I was truly on the edge of my seat, hanging on to their every word and thought and watching their process. It's so interesting watching people who grew up as your heroes, seeing how they work and watching them be human and make mistakes and try new things and be really unapologetic with their choices and just have a blast. To know that they are my friends and family now is really really special.

Do you have any favorite memories from the show?

I loved really discovering how goofy everyone really is. Everyone was there to have a really good time and nobody was afraid to have fun and be silly and nobody was too serious. That was super cool to watch because there was such a joy and freedom about our rehearsal room. So that was really lovely.

I keep mentioning the story of the first preview of Into the Woods on Broadway, when Gavin Creel threw his arms around me at the curtain call and was like, "You're on Broadway, it's real, this is happening," and gestured to the audience and showed me this really huge moment in my life and made it so that I could never forget that feeling. That was really special, and hopefully one day I can pass the torch and make a grand gesture for somebody like that on their Broadway debut.

How was Into the Woods a different challenge than approaching your work on screen?

Even the process for Into the Woods was very different than most Broadway show processes. We had two weeks to rehearse the show both times... I don't think anything could have prepared me for that. I've done a lot of theatre growing up, but never put an entire show together in, like — Encores! [at New York City Center] was 10 days or something ridiculous like that. Even though I was totally making the jump from screen to stage, it was still such a unique stage experience — not a lot of people get to experience something crazy like that. I don't think anything could have prepared me for that, even all the theatre I did growing up.

How do you hope that your performance inspired audiences?

Growing up, cast albums were the gateway for me to get into new shows and discover new musicals that I would end up falling in love with and being obsessed with. So it's really cool that we get to have a cast album. Some little theatre kid out there is listening to the cast album and hearing it for the first time, and maybe I am the Little Red they picture when they think of the show because my performance and our production was what introduced them to Into the Woods in general.

To know that kids who maybe want to play Little Red one day or want to embody Little Red are referencing my performance, which is what I did growing up, is really incredible and really full circle.

Read more Road to the Tonys interviews with 2023 Tony Award nominees.

Photo credit: Julia Lester in Into the Woods. (Photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

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