For Tony-nominated 'Once' star, a trying tryout
FILE - This May 18, 2012 file photo shows actress Cristin Milioti at the 78th Annual Drama League Awards in New York. Milioti is nominated for a Tony Award for best actress in a musical for her role in "Once." The Tony Awards will be held on Sunday, June 10 on CBS. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
NEW YORK (AP) — When Cristin Milioti arrived at her final audition for the musical "Once," her palms were slick with sweat, and she felt like she was going to pass out.
These were no ordinary audition nerves, though. In fact, Milioti, then 24, was already the hands-on favorite of the director, John Tiffany, who'd been blown away by her acting in an earlier meeting.
The problem was the piano. As "Once" fans know, the lead female, Girl, is a Czech immigrant in Dublin who plays the piano beautifully, and writes songs. But Milioti's piano playing was minimal — she didn't know how to read music, and the music director, she says, had deemed her "unteachable."
So the creative team had given her 10 days. Ten days to learn two key songs in the show — one classical, one contemporary. Those 10 days had been miserable. She'd practiced seven, eight, even 10 hours a day, borrowing piano time at theaters around the city, and a keyboard for nighttime. Since she couldn't read notes, her friend had made a chart of the songs: numbers for fingers, letters for notes.
And here she was, back in the audition room. "I messed up the Mendelssohn," she says of the classical piece. "But 'The Hill,' I nailed. I knew that. I left and called my boyfriend. I told him, well, I've done the best I could."
Anyone who's seen "Once" knows the rest of the story. Milioti got the job, and luminous reviews as Girl. Now she's nominated for a Tony as best actress in a musical, alongside such Broadway greats as Audra McDonald in "Porgy and Bess" and Jan Maxwell in "Follies."
"I can't believe I am even performing on the same street as these women, not to mention having my name called out along with theirs," says Milioti, now 26, slight and winsome, as she wolfs down a tuna sandwich in her publicist's office after a recent matinee performance.
So convincing is Milioti's Czech accent onstage that one imagines she'll at least sound vaguely European in person. But she's a Jersey girl — from Cherry Hill, N.J., to be exact, where she attended public high school. (It's at high school, amazingly, that she appeared in her last musical.)
After high school, Milioti spent a year studying at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts — an unhappy year, she says. "I wasn't a very good student," she says. "I prefer to learn by experience."
Luckily, she was quick to get roles, and soon she'd racked up a couple of Broadway credits — "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," and "Coram Boy" — as well as a number of off-Broadway roles. But no musicals. "I've tried out for lots of them, but it was never right," Milioti says, allowing that she even had a session with Julie Taymor to explore playing Mary Jane, the girlfriend in "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark."