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The Avenue Q star has a great sense of humor about her role in Emojiland: The Musical
"Sometimes you get to play glamorous roles, and sometimes you get to play a pile of poo," says Ann Harada. That's not a metaphor. The beloved character actress, best known for her scene-stealing turns in Avenue Q and Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella, is playing the Pile of Poo emoji in Emojiland: The Musical Off-Broadway at Duke on 42nd Street.
The musical comedy takes place inside a smartphone, where the emojis are facing a "textistential crisis," aka a software update. Like Harada, many of the 14 cast members are Broadway veterans, including Lesli Margherita as Princess and Josh Lamon as Prince. Every emoji gets a solo or duet meant to charm or raise the roof.
While Margherita, Lamon and Emojiland cocreator Laura Schein, who plays Smize, previously appeared in the show at the 2018 New York Musical Festival, Harada is new to the project. Dressed from head to toe in brown, she gets a single song, a rousing number titled, appropriately, "Pile of Poo." Full of puns about excrement and featuring a backup chorus crooning, "Poo! Poo! Poo!," it's about getting back up when life knocks you down.
After more than three decades in showbusiness, Harada, 55, understands that sentiment. "You just have to keep going no matter what," she says. "As a performer, I have had to go out and perform many, many times when I was personally very distraught. You just have to keep showing up."
Harada's professional acting aspirations started when she was 15 and a student at the Punahou School in Hawaii, where Barack Obama was a schoolmate. ("He was on the basketball team and I was in the drama club and, unlike High School Musical, those two groups do not ever overlap in real life.") While playing Lucy in the school's production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, she recalls, "I totally forgot all my lyrics during my song! But I just made them up and kept going because I did not know what else to do. At the end of it I thought, well, maybe I can do this."
After graduating from Brown University, she moved to New York for an internship as a production assistant on a Broadway play called Sleight of Hand. It ran just over a month, but Harada learned a lot. "I got to sit in on some auditions. It was the first time I'd ever seen professional actors audition and I thought, oh, I am as good as that,'" she says, chuckling.
A year later, she was cast in the original Broadway production of M. Butterfly. "I loved being part of that," she says, and not just because it marked her Main Stem debut. It's one of a handful of times she's been cast as an Asian character. "No one has ever wanted to see me in The King and I or Miss Saigon," she says. "The feedback I get [for the latter] is I'm just not the bar girl type, or [for the former] I'm too brash and Americanized." But M. Butterfly's Comrade Chin "wasn't a stereotypical elegant flower; she was a tough, scrappy Communist spy."
It took more than a decade before Harada returned to Broadway, as an ensemble member in Seussical, which gave her the chance to sing and dance. "I knew I could sing even as a kid, but I did not know that anybody wanted to hear me," she says. Also, "I'm not a dancer, so even just to be able to learn that choreography, I was so proud of myself!"
Her next part "put me on the map." In 2003, after three years of workshops, she originated the role of Christmas Eve in Avenue Q at Off Broadway's Vineyard Theatre. As the hilariously blunt, heavily accented therapist with an underachieving fiancé, Harada had some of the musical's funniest bits, including a very un-PC verse in "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." The show was such a smash, it transferred to Broadway and ended up winning three 2004 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Harada didn't see any of that coming. "I'm so thrilled I was wrong," she says.
Avenue Q was a game changer for Harada, who went on to a succession of higher profile Broadway gigs: Madame Thénardier in a revival of Les Misérables ("It was a dream to be able to do that show—I never thought I would ever be considered for it."); multiple roles in 9 to 5 ("Dolly Parton is the loveliest person alive. She really set the tone."); and romantically challenged, not-very-evil stepsister Charlotte in Cinderella.
"Cinderella was the most fun I ever had in my life," Harada says. "We worked on it for a really long time before we got produced, so we all got to be really good friends." As usual, Harada got a showstopper: the Act II opener "Stepsister's Lament." "Charlotte was delusional absolutely," Harada says with a laugh. "But she was more comic than nasty."
Harada has also performed in some dozen shows Off-Broadway, at a raft of regional theaters and in a variety of TV series, notably Smash as Linda, the stage manager of the fictional Broadway musical Bombshell. Although she didn't sing and barely spoke in that role, it turned out to be "super rewarding. Even now when I meet stage managers, they are always very grateful that I represented them," Harada says. "When I went to London and saw my friends in Hamilton, the stage managers were so excited to meet me. I was just flabbergasted."
"This is why representation is so important," she adds, a sly reference to the industry's diversity concerns. "We keep saying that, but it is true: All groups just want to see themselves represented, and I think that is lovely."
But who wants to see—or play—poo?
"It made me laugh," she says of the Emojiland script. She also admired many of her costars. Harada has no qualms about playing her part. "In this show, Poo is a truth teller," she says. "Ultimately, she is not disrespected because of who she is." Besides, "it's good not to take myself too seriously. It's impossible to be too pretentious when you have to explain to people that you're playing a pile of poo."
Top image: Ann Harada. Photo by Marc Franklin.