Conventional wisdom has it that actors should not audition in costume. But Julia Lester did so anyway — fashioning a red cape out of a circle skirt — when she videotaped her audition for the part of Little Red Riding Hood in the Encores! production of “Into the Woods” this spring.
Two weeks later — without even a callback — she heard from her agent: “Stephen Sondheim wants you to play Little Red.”
Indeed, it was her many bold acting (as well as sartorial) choices for the fabled girl bound for grandmother’s house — her raised eyebrow, brassy willfulness and wry sophistication — that captured the attention of critics in May and catapulted Lester to a Broadway debut at just 22 years old after the show transferred there this summer. (The Broadway run has just been extended through Oct. 16.)
“In Lester, we witness a major new comedic talent emerge,” said Johnny Oleksinski in The New York Post. “All her well-known jokes feel fresh, and she is unbelievably funny. My face was a lot red from laughing so hard.”
The New York Times called her “pert and twinkling”; The Washington Post, “uber-confident, rough-and-ready”; The Wall Street Journal, “deliciously impish and knowing.”
It was her aura of worldliness and tenacity that made the show’s director, Lear deBessonet, so certain in casting Lester. “I knew she was right 10 seconds into her audition video,” deBessonet said. “Having seen a number of Little Reds over the years, any sort of cutesy, girlie, victim thing was totally not of interest to me. As a woman, there are certain things I don’t ever want to see onstage again.
“For me, the defining quality of the character is hunger, this delicious power lust which is so refreshing and unexpected,” deBessonet continued. “It was immediate upon seeing Julia. I was like, ‘Yup, well: There she is.’”
Sipping water in a theater district hotel before a recent performance, in a braid and Doc Marten lace-up boots, Lester did come across as preternaturally comfortable in her own — admittedly callow — skin.
Despite her cherubic face and wide-eyed words about getting to share the stage with so many veterans (including Sara Bareilles, Gavin Creel and Phillipa Soo), Lester talked about how she has grown increasingly self-assured over the last few years.
“There is a lot of pressure on actors to live through other people’s eyes,” she said. “Learning to live unapologetically and as myself has been really important for me.
“Our whole career is based on what other people think about us,” Lester continued. “It’s quite a struggle to know that other people are silently or non-silently judging you on a daily basis.”
If onstage she seems experienced beyond her years, that’s because she is, having performed professionally since she was 5 and just completed her third season as Ashlyn Caswell in the Disney+ series “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” the musical drama about high school theater students. (The fourth season starts shooting in Salt Lake City in September.)
Show business also runs in Lester’s blood. Her great-grandfather and his siblings were part of a Yiddish opera company in Poland at the turn of the century. Her maternal grandparents, Helen and Peter Mark Richman, met doing summer stock theater. Her mother, Kelly, and father, Loren, continue to perform, as do her two older sisters, Jenny and Lily.
“We’re a big performing family,” Lester said. “I can’t stress enough how supportive we all are of each other.”
Her version of Take Your Daughter to Work Day was going to the Universal Studios lot and hanging out with her dad on commercial shoots. “I always knew from the second I was born that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Lester said. “So being able to be surrounded by it on a daily basis, and really learn from my family, is such a blessing.”
Born on Jan. 28, 2000, in Los Angeles, Lester had been in productions of “Into the Woods” twice before: first as the cow Milky White in a community theater production when she was in elementary school (her sisters played other parts) and the next time at age 18 as Little Red in a 99-seat theater in Los Angeles.
While many actors dread having to try out for parts — given their nerves and the statistical likelihood of rejection — Lester said she loves auditioning.
“You’re being given the opportunity to do what you were put on this earth to do,” she said, “which is to perform.”
Lester is also personally drawn to the character of Little Red, who, after being rescued from the mouth of the wolf, goes on to carry a knife for protection, to look after Jack (of beanstalk fame) and to grow up before the audience’s eyes. “She is so feisty and so funny,” Lester said. “In a lot of the moments when it’s really high stakes and dark themes are happening, she is a beacon of comedy and light. That’s always really fun — to be able to bring down the house during a quiet, serious moment.”
With her performance in this Encores! revival, which originated at New York City Center before moving to the St. James Theater on Broadway, the actress said she “wanted to reinvent the way people see Little Red.”
“When I was working on the script, I tried my very best to look at every line that she says, and really think about, ‘What’s the most unexpected way to portray what’s written?’” she said.
James Lapine, who wrote the show with Sondheim (who died in November), said it was the first time that he had seen an adult play the part, which its usually played by actors under 18. “She’s bringing something a little punchier to it and more emotional shadings,” he said. “She’s a more knowing Little Red Riding Hood.”
The show’s actors say they, too, have been struck by Lester’s sure hand in getting big laughs and by how she brings a modern sensibility to the role without bastardizing it. “She has that radar which the greats have — they know when to put their foot on the brake or the gas,” said Brian d’Arcy James, who plays the Baker, adding that Lester’s interpretation is “totally fresh but also honoring what’s preceded.”
Bareilles, who plays the Baker’s Wife, said she had been pleasantly surprised by Lester’s “natural fire” as well as by her palpable respect for the opportunity she had been given, for her fellow performers and for live theater itself. “She feels like an old soul to me,” Bareilles said. “She doesn’t carry any neediness or urgency to get seen. There is a reverence in how she approaches the work.”
As “a real die-hard theater kid,” Lester said, there is a pinch-yourself quality to what she’s living through, since she long admired from afar the very people she now finds herself performing next to onstage.
“I never expected that I would be making my Broadway debut in a Sondheim show, let alone be surrounded by so many people that I’ve grown up loving and watching,” she said, adding, “Every single person has taken me under their wing.”
While she is only committed to the show until Sept. 4, Lester said she would love to return to this Broadway production and to see it live on. “I’m sort of hoping for this show to be the new ‘Chicago’ and just be long-running forever and I can come back to it like home base whenever I am available,” she said. “This is definitely a show that I am not ready to say goodbye to anytime soon.”
The personal response she has received from members of the audience has been particularly rewarding. Well aware that, as a full-figured young woman, she may not meet the traditional physical definition of an ingénue, Lester said she was gratified that other young women have looked to her as an affirming role model.
“It’s taken a second to grow into myself and be comfortable with who I am, but it’s got to start somewhere,” she said. “If someone can say, ‘I see myself in you when you’re playing Little Red’ — when I’m standing on a Broadway stage — that’s exactly why I’m an actor and a performer.”
“I’m really grateful to the people who have seen beyond what I look like,” she added, “and seen what I can offer to the world.”