Lesli Margherita is used to being told to tone it down. After all, the Broadway actor, now starring as diva Mona Kent in the ‘30s musical pastiche Dames at Sea, has made a career out of being over-the-top.
“Every show that I do, I’m always expecting the director at some point to go, ‘I want 10% less.’ Like every time,” Margherita told BuzzFeed News while seated where the audience usually takes in Dames at Sea at the Helen Hayes Theatre. “It’s usually like, the third week of rehearsal. I see them walking toward me and I’m like, Here it comes. I fully expect it.”
But the opposite happened with Dames at Sea, a satire of larger-than-life Busby Berkeley movie musicals performed by a cast of six that was originally staged Off-Off-Broadway at Caffe Cino in 1966. As it turns out, the show — and the character of Mona Kent in particular — may be the perfect fit for Margherita. During rehearsals for the revival, director-choreographer Randy Skinner actually asked her to go bigger with her torch song “That Mister Man of Mine.”
Mona is the established talent whose domineering personality and ego threaten to crush the dreams of young Ruby — a part originated by then-unknown Bernadette Peters and played in this production by Eloise Kropp — who steps off a bus in New York City and finds herself starring in a Broadway show.
Mona isn’t much of a departure from Margherita’s last role, the colorful and abrasive Mrs. Wormwood in Matilda the Musical. Margherita originated the part on Broadway and did more than 1,000 shows before leaving on Sept. 6. She was still acting in Matilda during rehearsals for Dames at Sea, which began previews Sept. 24. She would spend the day as Mona and then slip on her big blonde wig in the evenings to portray Mrs. Wormwood.
“In hindsight, I would have liked a week, maybe, just to have some downtime, clean my house, spend time with my dog. Or husband! Dog first, then husband,” Margherita said. “But it was a lot.”
She was exhausted during the overlap, although, she said, “I was so happy that I had a job, I didn’t care.” Luckily, the fact that both characters had some similarities meant it was a bit less of a strain on the actor. Plus, Mrs. Wormwood and Mona also have something in common with Margherita herself, she acknowledged with a smile.
“There are parts of me in both those women, the over-the-topness,” she said. “Mona came really easy to me. I knew who that woman was. I knew who that diva was. It was like pulling from Miss Piggy and Patti LuPone and all those over-the-top divas I knew.”
And she had the added benefit of being familiar with Dames at Sea: As an 18-year-old undergrad at UCLA, Margherita took on the part of Ruby. Her sister Lynn recently posted a clip of the show to YouTube: Margherita’s performance is strong, but she’s definitely better suited for the brassier role she’s currently playing on Broadway. And the actor herself is the first to admit it.
“I have so much makeup on and my boobs are huge, and I was Mona. I should have always been a Mona,” said Margherita, who saw herself as an ingénue type in her late teens and early twenties. “My college professor, when I got this, I called him and he was like, ‘I always knew you were a Mona.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know if that’s a compliment.’”
Compliment or not, Margherita’s ability to embrace her distinctive style has gotten her two notable Broadway roles, both of which have earned her critical adoration and a healthy fanbase. She had to move past an earlier conception of who she was — at one point, she was playing Belle at Disneyland, a role so far removed from her aesthetic that she calls it “such a joke” — before her career could take off.
“I wasn’t owning who I was. I was still pushing my boobs down and I still wanted to try and be the fresh face. I was never fresh-faced. And I always had this attitude, always seemed older than I was,” Margherita said. “Once I started owning it, I started working all the time.”
Along with leaning into her type, Margherita also adopted a new moniker: Queen. It had become a nickname among her friends in Los Angeles, and she decided to make it official with her cabaret show, All Hail the Queen. On Twitter, she goes by @QueenLesli.
But Margherita is quick to note that “Queen Lesli” is not about proclaiming her superiority. In her shows — as well as the tweets and vlogs she posts online — there’s a clear hint of irony to her self-professed royalty. Much like Mona, Queen Lesli can be a larger-than-life diva — and also like Mona, she’s prone to making an ass of herself.
“I would sincerely hope that nobody actually thinks that I think I’m that beautiful or that awesome, because what person does that?” Margherita asked rhetorically. Then, after a moment of reflection, she deadpanned: “There are many.”
“People that talk about like, ‘I was so amazing in this audition today,’ and write about it on Facebook, I’m like, What are you doing?” Margherita said of the actors who unironically gush about their unmatched skill, and being “#blessed” and “#grateful.” “It never occurs to me to be that person, so if I’m making fun of it a little bit, maybe it helps me deal with those people.”
At the same time, the decision to call herself Queen Lesli was also about Margherita showcasing the broad and brassy elements of her personality without worrying about what those around her thought. She likens Queen Lesli to Beyoncé’s alter ego Sasha Fierce: It’s about empowerment.
“It was like a defense mechanism, like, OK, you don’t like what I’m doing, I still am the ruler of my kingdom, I’m queen of what I’m doing,” she explained. “It made me feel better when I felt like shit or if people didn’t like what I was doing. It always made me feel better to be like, No, I’m doing what I’m doing. It came from not fitting in.”
But as Margherita now loudly preaches, being different is an asset in an industry where it pays to stand out. Her performances in Matilda and Dames at Sea have been called scene-stealing, precisely because she’s so unique.
But the risks Margherita takes as a performer mean that she will always have her critics — and while that’s something she accepts in theory, the reality can be harder to deal with.
“And then the wine opener comes out,” Margherita said, laughing. “People think I won’t care or that I’ll laugh at it, and eventually I will, but like anybody else, there’s late-night crying into my Kraft mac 'n' cheese. I think that everybody has to go through that, and then I can laugh at it later, but I’m just like everybody else. Reading a shit review is of course gonna affect me.”
For the time being, Margherita continues to do her best to focus on her work. In addition to Dames at Sea, she’s preparing for her next cabaret show, Broad, a celebration of the “controversial women of yesteryear” she’s performing at Birdland Jazz Club Nov. 30 and Dec. 7.
And no matter where she's performing, Margherita is thrilled to not have to hold much back. As for how that affects her prospects after Dames at Sea, Margherita acknowledged that she worries about typecasting — actors who say they don’t, she said, are “probably lying” — but she’s mostly too busy feeling grateful.
Actually grateful, that is — not #grateful.
“I’m just happy that people even know who I am, and as an actor, that’s kind of all you want. So typecasting is kind of the least of my problems,” Margherita said. “If I can keep doing it then fine, typecast away.”