"At the Muny season audition in New York, I was really gunning for Maria," Baldwin says. Yet it was only a few years ago that she was "too scared" to pursue a career in New York. "I don't think I ever chose to be a performer," she elaborates. "It's just something I always did and was encouraged by my parents to explore. It sounds so cliché, but as a kid I was always putting on plays. I would make my brother sell tickets. And I'd wear every bit of jewelry I could find, because the costumes were always the most important part."
Although she flirted with becoming an opera singer ("I started singing Italian art songs at sixteen"), she opted to major in theater at Northwestern University in her native Evanston. "I made it a goal to perform in every venue on the Northwestern campus, from the black-box theater to the huge auditorium," she says, "and also to be directed or taught by every single person on the faculty."
Perseverance paid off. Even before she graduated in 1997, she was cast in a series of Chicago musicals. Baldwin might have found a happy niche for herself in Chicago theater were it not for a New York casting director who passed through town. After he saw her perform, he asked, "Why don't you move to New York?" "Because I don't have a job in New York," Baldwin replied. The agent said, "Move there. We'll get you a job."
"He made it sound so easy, like they were handing out jobs right and left. But he also made it sound as if it was possible. And in fact it did become possible. I moved to New York with a job waiting for me, which is sort-of unheard-of."
Since arriving in the Big Apple six years ago, there's hardly been any stopping her. She hasn't snared that big Broadway lead yet, though she's performed in such recent hits as Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Full Monty and Wonderful Town. Instead the meaty roles have come in regional theaters. Her Nellie Forbush in South Pacific at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., garnered rave reviews. And last year she gave a memorable, bravura performance in the St. Louis Rep Studio staging of Robert Jason Brown's time-traveling, two-character musical The Last Five Years, which dissects the life and death of a marriage.
It wasn't easy: "A week into rehearsal, I said to the director, 'I can't make heads or tails of this show. I give up. I can't do it.' And he laughed, and then we started the very detailed process of trying to take each moment apart and put it back together again. I found that my struggle was with the show's structure. Once I forgot about the structure and simply lived in the play from moment to moment, it became much simpler.
"We also benefited greatly from the fact that the theater is on the Webster University campus. The students treated us like rock stars. They'd come to see it over and over. Jason's music really does speak to that age group. Last week I did a concert with him and I sang two songs from The Last Five Years. The minute he started to play the first vamp, the students in the audience went crazy. You'd have thought we were the Beatles." (A side note: The Washington Avenue Players Project begins a three-week run of The Last Five Years at the ArtLoft this week.)
Autumn promises to be just as busy as the summer has been. In September Baldwin opens in New York in the cabaret show Bush Is Bad: The Musical Cure for the Blue-States Blues. ("I get to play Condoleezza Rice, Laura Bush, Mary Cheney and God all in one evening.") And on October 2 she's marrying Graham Rowat, whom she met when they were both appearing in 1776. In lieu of a honeymoon, the next day bride and groom begin rehearsals for White Christmas, in which they'll co-star in San Francisco.
And so the whirlwind continues.