Tennessee Alumnus

Called to Broadway

By Chandra Harris-McCray

Laura Beth Wells follows her dream to a role in Spider-Man

The hubbub of Times Square intensifies as the rain dances on the sidewalks during the mild June of 2009. Laura Beth Wells is partially huddled under an awning while she hands out discount fliers to passersby.

A mother takes one of the fliers that will earn Wells $8 if it’s used to purchase show tickets. “See, that’s why you stay in school,” the woman told her toddler daughter while sternly holding the circular in the child’s face. Little did the stranger know that she was snubbing a soon-to-be star. In just a few months, Wells would land her first role on Broadway.

Wells’ dream of being a stage actress started in Knoxville when she was a fourth-grader watching Peter Pan at the Clarence Brown Theatre on campus.

UT Knoxville was the only place she applied for college. “And I knew I would major in theater,” she says. She graduated in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree and went on to Kent State, where she earned a master’s of fine arts. She taught and performed for two years in the San Francisco area before taking the plunge and moving to New York City in 2002.

Landing a part in a Broadway play eluded Wells, and she settled for roles in regional gigs between many, many auditions. She briefly left New York to teach and act at Cornell and Syracuse universities before moving back to the Big Apple in 2006.

“I thought I had enough, but acting is like gambling — you just need one more audition,” she says.

While trying to land big roles, Wells became a professional job juggler — waitress, tour guide, usher, receptionist, sales clerk, telemarketer — to make ends meet.

“Except being a stripper,” she mocks, “I’ve done everything.”

Just when her parents were plotting an intervention after hearing their daughter cry over the demoralizing incident in Times Square, Broadway finally called.

“I have been cast in Spider-Man!” Wells shouted in the stairwell of a building where she was waiting to audition for Ragtime. This time she and her parents cried tears of joy. She got the part of Emily Osborn, wife of the madman scientist-turned-super villain Norman Osborn/Green Goblin, played by Patrick Paige.

Three weeks later, financial woes put a temporary halt to the production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Backed by heavy hitters of the super-selling band U2, Bono and The Edge, in Wells’ mind, it was going to happen. It was just a matter of when. While waiting, she did regional productions in South Carolina, Connecticut and upstate New York.

Nine months later in spring 2010, the show, billed as the most expensive Broadway production at more than $75 million, was back on. It was like reliving that lighting-in-a-bottle moment of the first call “that let me know that I had finally made it,” Wells says. The play opened in November 2010. She is currently on sabbatical for the birth of her first child — “who has already been in 190 productions in the womb,” she laughs — and will return to Foxwoods Theatre later this summer.

“We may just have another star on our hands,” says Vickie Wells (Knoxville ’73), referring to her daughter’s acting talent and her son-in-law’s voice as a Metropolitan Opera singer.

“I joke that all I need to put on my resume for the rest of my career is, ‘I can handle it — I was in Spider-Man.’”“The stage has always been my home. I finally have a stable job doing what I always dreamed of doing,” Wells says, somewhat in disbelief. “This is my Broadway debut. I joke that all I need to put on my resume for the rest of my career is, ‘I can handle it — I was in Spider-Man.’”

It’s an opportunity she’s been preparing for since she was 5.

The raised hearth of the brick fireplace in her childhood home in Farragut was her stage “and her audience was dozens of stuffed animals, with her dad playing everything from the fairy godmother to the king,” says Vickie Wells, laughing.

“She read everything and loved bringing it all to life,” says her father, Buddy Wells (Knoxville ’72, ’82), a retired social studies teacher who has acted in a number of productions with Clarence Brown Theatre, Tennessee Valley Players and Oak Ridge Playhouse.

“It was a family affair — her dad was oftentimes in plays with her, and I was helping behind the scenes,” says Vickie Wells, a retired high-school theater teacher.

Since her first performance in Clarence Brown’s The King and I at 9, “she poured every ounce of her heart and soul into it. She’s missed a lot of birthday parties and gave up trick-or-treating. She sacrificed so much,” her mother says.

Just as they cheered her on then, Wells’ parents are still her biggest fans. They make the 11-hour trek to New York City a couple times a year, and Spider-Man is almost always on the agenda, even though they’ve seen it six times.

“It never gets old,” Buddy Wells says. “Seeing her on stage still gives me goose bumps.”

Her mother adds, “And the tears still come.”