2021 Theatre and Dance
Although she didn’t articulate her desire to be on stage until later, Alice Ripley was drawn heart and soul to singing and performing in the spotlight as a child. Growing up in Cleveland, she took acting classes at the Lakewood Little Theatre (now Beck Center for the Arts). As a teen, when the room went quiet as she sang at a talent show or a wedding, the young show-stopper knew she was on track for her career aspirations to play lead roles.
For her 14th birthday, her stepfather took her to see the innovative production of Jacques Brel in the lobby of the State Theater intended to save Playhouse Square from the wrecking ball.
“That was a significant turning point for me,” she says. “I was determined already, but when I saw that production I realized I could do this. I realized that’s what I want to do, that type of music; I got that little fire in my chest, and I’ll never forget that!”
Alice immersed herself in any books about theater and acting that she could find. She decided to attend DePauw University, where she majored in Vocal Performance, before transferring to Kent State University, her father’s alma mater. She earned her BFA in Musical Theatre in 1986. Along the way, she performed in stage productions and landed her first paid acting job at the Red Barn Summer Theatre in Frankfort, Indiana.
Following college, she moved to San Diego, where she pursued roles at community theaters, until she earned her Equity card at La Jolla Playhouse, through a production of Silent Edward, a musical written by Des McAnuff, who was Artistic Director there. After Alice moved to New York, McAnuff cast her as an understudy for the role of Mrs. Walker in a production of The Who’s Tommy that premiered at La Jolla, but then kept her in the role when the play moved to Broadway. When the principal actor suffered health problems, she took over the lead and never understudied again.
Alice went on to lead roles in some of the most iconic Broadway productions of the next couple decades, including Betty Schaefer in Sunset Boulevard (1994), Bathsheba in King David (1997), Fantine in Les Miserables (1998), Janet Weiss in The Rocky Horror Show (2000), and Diana Goodman in Next to Normal (2008). Her heart-stopping performance in the Pulitzer Prize Winning Next to Normal won her a 2009 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. After seeing her performance as conjoined twin Violet Hilton in Side Show (1997), playwrights Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt wrote the highly demanding role of Diana Goodman for her.
“Winning the Tony made me feel so satisfied because I had been working so hard since I was a teenager,” Alice says. “I wasn’t focusing on ‘I want to be famous! I want to win a Tony!’ I was just focusing on wanting to be doing the work I needed to do to be an actor, but it was nice to be recognized like that.”
Christopher Schelling, a collaborator and musical director, remembers first seeing his friend in a production of Man and Superman when they were students at DePauw University. “She was 17 and shone brighter than anyone else because even at that age, she had a sense of herself as an artist,” he says. “She didn't play the role, she inhabited it. She is uncompromising as an artist, never opting for a safe option because a brave one is always within her grasp.”
A multi-talented artist, Alice has performed in multiple film and television roles and has written and recorded several albums with her band RIPLEY and solo. She once spent a significant amount of time studying, playing, and recording with other musicians in Nashville, and she continues to write music and perform solo whenever possible. While there, she also played a “Hee Haw” honey on the popular TV program and appeared in a Reba McEntire video.
Alice says she’s been contemplating the idea of some day returning to live in Cleveland, where her sister Christine lives and works as a visual artist. She has long drawn inspiration from Cleveland and Lake Erie.
“I’m still pinching myself that I won a Cleveland Arts Prize,” she says. “It’s such a thrill to have your work recognized, so this prize just makes my heart swell. My roots are here, and this is my hometown, so I feel like the resilience and renaissance that define Cleveland are part of me, too.”