Talent: Julia Lester – @julialester
Production: Into the Woods – @intothewoodsbroadway
High School Musical: The Musical: the Series – @highschoolmusicalseries
Press: DKC/O&M – @omdkc
Photographer: Austin Ruffer – @austinyourface
YEM Producer: Mordechai Laub – @Moocto26
Makeup: Steven Harris – @harristevenb, @makeupbysteven
Hair: Lindsay Lavin – @looksbylavin
Styled by Jake Sokoloff – @jakesokoloff
Wardrobe: Tanya Taylor (@tanyataylor), Dr. Martens (@drmartensofficial), Larroude (@larroude), and Nickho Rey (@nickhorey)
B-Roll: Jack Dwyer – @itsjackdwyer
Interviewer: Ryane DeFalco – @ryanedefalcoinpics94
TikToks: Daniella – @daniellaofficiall
The world met Julia Lester when she was cast as Ashlyn in the Disney+ original series High School Musical: The Musical The Series (HSMTMTS). The popular show is now airing its third season, after Ashlyn took center stage playing Belle in East High’s production of Beauty and the Beast last season. Now Julia is diving deeper into the world of musical theater by playing the role of Little Red in the Broadway show Into The Woods. YEM spoke with Julia in New York City to hear about the new season of HSMTMTS and what it’s like to be on Broadway for the first time!
Interviewer Ryane: Congratulations on the incredible year you’re having with season three of HSMTMTS airing and making your Broadway debut! How are you feeling right now?
Julia: Aw, thank you! Well, I’m super excited to chat and I love Young Entertainment Mag, so this is really exciting. It’s been a dream come true, especially with so many things happening at once. All of this is a new experience for me. I’ve just been really grateful for all the opportunities that have been coming up. I’m just getting used to the eight show a week schedule. High School Musical is rolling out at the same time, so this is surpassing any of my wildest dreams I could have ever had for myself. It’s been a great year and a great summer, and I’m having a lot of fun.
Interviewer: When did this whole experience with Into the Woods start for you?
Julia: The very first time I ever found out about the show was last summer when an article was released that Sara Bareilles was going to be playing The Baker’s Wife alongside all these incredible Broadway veterans, and I immediately thought I somehow have to be a part of that. A couple of months later I got an audition for it, which was so exciting for me because I know the show super well. I love Into the Woods, and I love Little Red. So, I made a little self-tape in my bedroom. Then a couple of weeks later, I got a phone call from my agent saying that Stephen Sondheim had watched my tape and had wanted me to join the cast as Little Red! I was so blown away and so shocked and definitely cried. I had a lot of time in between finding out I got the part and then actually coming to New York to perform it, so those next few months were definitely filled with a lot of built-up anticipation and excitement and a lot of hard work. I wanted to come in fully prepared and fully ready to take on this production and now here we are. Now I’m on Broadway and it’s been such a dream come true.
“just stay true to who she [Ashlyn] is and remember that she was the star that got to be Belle on stage last season”
Interviewer: Wow! Unfortunately, composer Stephen Sondheim passed away within the last year before the show opened on Broadway. But so much of his legacy is still present on Broadway, between Into The Woods and the revival of Company and even the West Side Story remake released last year. Since you mentioned that he saw your tape, it’s kind of like he picked you specifically for this. Did you get any chance to speak with him while the show was coming to be?
Julia: I didn’t, unfortunately, but I know that he has been such a cheerleader since day one. The fact that he was even involved in the casting process was so exciting. He was always extremely involved in any production of his shows. I was just so grateful that he was able to see me perform in some way. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting James Lapine, who wrote the book and directed the original production of Into the Woods, and he has just been so vocal about the fact that if Stephen was here to watch this production, he would be so blown away and proud of all of us. That’s something that we like to take with us when we’re on the stage every night. We definitely feel his presence in the theater each night and it’s just really wonderful knowing that he would be so proud of us.
Interviewer: That’s incredible. And this production has gotten so much attention because of the star power that is in the show. Sara Bareilles is the lead, and I think we recall during one of our conversations with you that you sang “Gravity” for one of your auditions for High School Musical? Is that right?
Julia: I went in singing a couple other songs that were quite musical theater, big explosive belt-y and Tim Federle, the creator of our show, said they were looking for more of a singer-songwriter feel to Ashlyn and asked if I knew any Sara Bareilles? She has been one of my favorite singers, if not my favorite singer, since I was six years old. When he told me that he was looking for a vibe sort of like that, I was like, “Oh, don’t worry, I know her entire library, I can sing any song you want.” The first one that came to mind was “Gravity,” which is such a beautiful song that’s so near and dear to my heart. Sara is a huge inspiration to Ashlyn in the same way that she is to me. That’s a really wonderful way that I can connect with my character, and now working with her is the biggest dream come true. I always say I never thought I would be in the same room as her, let alone sharing a stage with her every night. She’s just everything I envisioned and more. She’s so kind and so wonderful and leads this company with such heart and grace and humor and is really a true leading lady. I’m so grateful that we can work together in this way.
“I got a phone call from my agent saying that Stephen Sondheim had watched my tape and had wanted me to join the cast as Little Red!”
Interviewer: That’s such a full circle moment. Does she know how influential she was to your process and your whole career?
Julia: It’s definitely taken a beat to really express to her how much she means to me, and I don’t think I could ever really put it into words. But I’ve gotten more comfortable around her and was finally able to explain to her Ashlyn’s whole arc and she was so grateful.
Interviewer: What has it been like to be in a cast with so many famous performers?
Julia: It’s been really wonderful. I’m so grateful that with High School Musical I can be surrounded by so many theater people. That’s my community. That’s where I feel seen and heard and loved and accepted. It’s been really great getting to do the show with so many theater people, but I really haven’t been in a musical theater stage show setting for a few years now because of High School Musical. I was definitely nervous going into Into The Woods, but the second we had our first rehearsal at Encores!, I was reminded of the love, community, and family that musical theater brings together, and that was so wonderful to experience. All these people who are so experienced and are so well known by so many people around the world are just so real, grounded, hardworking, dedicated, and just as excited to be there as I was. To really feel that level of appreciation across the board from every single person was so wonderful and has helped me relearn how wonderful the musical theater community is.
Interviewer: Even though you’re working on two musical productions, whether it’s Into the Woods or High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, they are very different. What was it like kind of balancing that? Little spoiler for people that haven’t seen the previous episode of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, but there’s even a moment where Ashlyn is performing and there’s an Into the Woods little banner above it, so obviously a little nod to your work.
Julia: That’s actually so funny that you mentioned that the Into the Woods flag that was in the Camp Shallow Lake barn. I totally didn’t even put two and two together, so that’s really cute and very funny, as if our show can’t get any more meta. It’s really crazy. I try to keep things as separate as I can. Obviously, I want to be putting all my effort and time into the project that I’m currently working on, so when we were doing HSMTMTS I was very focused on that show. I was very grateful that I’ve known Into the Woods for a very long time. It’s a show that I’ve loved since I was nine years old, and so that was very helpful.
Interviewer: So much goes on during a Broadway show that each show could be different in its own way. What is it like to be performing the show eight times a week?
Julia: I mentioned before I haven’t done a show on stage in a few years now and I’ve gotten comfortable with the process of filming a TV show where you do things multiple times. Like you said, that spontaneous in the moment, eight shows a week experience has been very exciting. But it’s also nerve wracking, especially having come off of a TV show where you have so much time to do things over again until you get it right. During Into The Woods though, it’s happening right in front of the audience’s eyes. Something that I really love about this production of Into the Woods is that our director, Lear deBessonet, has been so wonderful in encouraging us not to be perfect. Something that I learned during the Encores! production is if there’s a line flub or a lyric that you forget to say, it’s really embraced by the audience. The humor and the heart of it all is accepted and applauded. If anything, it makes the show more enjoyable for the audiences that get to come see it. The show is constantly evolving and constantly changing, and it’s so wonderful that with each audience that comes in, we get to give them a very specific and special experience that no other audience will get to witness.
Interviewer: We also have a couple of fan questions for you that are from our Twitter followers! This first one is from @redlynsthinker: What was the first thing that came to your mind when you found out that Stephen Sondheim himself had chosen you to be Little Red? Love you so much!
Julia: Aw, thanks! Love you, too, @redlynsthinker. I didn’t really put two and two together that he personally would be watching my tape, so I was really shocked. I couldn’t think of anything except “No way – is this a prank?” As a theater kid, having Sondheim watch you perform in some way is like the highest form of praise and biggest goal you can think of, so I just was so excited and so shocked. When I told my family, they were equally as shocked as I was, and it was just a really wonderful moment that I will remember for a lifetime.
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Interviewer: This next one is from @ideasbassett: If you could give Ashlyn three pieces of advice for this season, what would they be?
Julia: If I could give Ashlyn advice? Oh, my goodness. She needs a lot of it this season, I’ll tell you that. I would say physically and mentally slow down, which is something that I need to remind myself of in these eight shows a week. Everybody in the world needs a second to take some time and breathe. I would say be true to who you are. I think especially in this season, going into a brand-new environment, you can be influenced by the people around you and can feel shy or nervous to really be authentic when you’re in a new setting. I would remind her to just stay true to who she is and remember that she was the star that got to be Belle on stage last season. I would also say have fun. When you really look at the season, it’s very high stakes and there’s a lot going on, but it’s also summer vacation and they’re at camp. I think I need to remind her to have fun because she can get lost in the mayhem and chaos of it all, but she deserves to have a nice summer with her friends and have fun.
“She [Sara Bareilles] has been one of my favorite singers, if not my favorite singer, since I was six years old. When he [Tim Federle] told me that he was looking for a vibe sort of like that, I was like, “Oh, don’t worry, I know her entire library…””
Interviewer: That’s great advice. Our final fan question is from @redlyncentral: Have you learned anything from Ashlyn this season? You’re giving Ashlyn some advice, but has Ashlyn taught you anything?
Julia: That’s a great question. I think Ashlyn is going through a very complicated time in her life right now and having a lot of questions about who she is and what she can offer to this world. Something that I really appreciate that fans will see as the show progresses is that regardless of how other people are viewing you and saying, “you are this way, you are this kind of person,” it’s always so important to see yourself through your own lens rather than through other people’s eyes. That’s something that she sort of slowly starts to realize as the season goes on. I try to remind myself of that in my everyday life. I think that was something that I was able to bring into Ashlyn, and at the same time, Ashlyn was teaching me. It’s been a wonderful season of growth and discovery. Sticking true to who you are is a big theme in this season, so I really appreciated that Ashlyn could remind me of that.
Interviewer: Awesome. I’m really happy that that’s one of the messages that viewers are going to pick up on this season. One last question: how do you think Little Red and Ashlyn would get along if they ever met?
Julia: Oh, my goodness. Something that I have noticed about Ashlyn this season is that if you cross her the wrong way, she will get feisty. She is not afraid to get a little combative. I would be a little scared if Ashlyn and Little Red were in the same room because they might get into a little fight, honestly! I think they would appreciate each other’s strengths and humor, just as long as they don’t say anything out of turn, they might actually be great friends. I think that they both are very strong and opinionated people, so they might actually be partners in crime if they really wanted to.
Interviewer: I love that. Now I’m going to be imagining what would happen if the two of them actually met and the kind of trouble they might get into.
Julia: They might actually level each other out pretty well, though, because while they both are a little bit mischievous, I think that Ashlyn could be there to calm the fire that is Little Red a little bit. She might take her under her wing and be her mentor, so that actually might be a nice dynamic. Though, I would be a little nervous to see if they do get into it because things could get heated, that’s for sure.
Season three of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is currently streaming on Disney+. Julia Lester will be playing Little Red in Into The Woods on Broadway until October 16.