How Stephanie Rothenberg Went from School Plays to Broadway
She now shares the stage with Glenn Close in the critically-acclaimed musical “Sunset Boulevard”—but before Stephanie Rothenberg landed on Broadway, she was the star of basically every single high school play. (I would know...I went to school with her!). After doing the Nashville theater circuit as a teen, she headed to NYC, where she was cast in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Below, get Stephanie’s advice on pursuing your dreams while still in school—plus why failure isn’t *really* failure at all.
What were you like as a teen, and what do you wish you could tell your teenage self now?
As a teen, I was really active in my local and school theater communities and focused mostly on that and my academics. I gave sports a try because I felt like I was missing out on something my friends all loved, but cross country reeeeeally wasn’t my thing, so I stuck to dance. Update: I still hate running. Not much has changed there.
There was definitely a period in my teens where I considered myself a mini-adult, maybe around 13. I was Bat-Mitzvah-ed and I was doing my first professional production,“The Diary of Anne Frank.” I was going to school in the mornings, then to rehearsal all day with the adults, and then to tutoring at night to keep up with my schoolwork. Looking back, that was a lot for a 13-year-old to handle, but I loved it.
It was one of the best professional experiences that I had growing up, but I’m glad I didn’t do any more professional shows during my childhood. That’s definitely a testament to my parents, because boy, did I beg them to let me move to New York and audition for shows on Broadway. But my parents said it then, and now I say it to young actors: You can only be a kid once. You’ll have the rest of your life to do great work. What you won’t be able to do is go back to 8th grade slumber parties and football games with your friends, times at the mall and the movie theater, and summers going to the neighborhood pool. That’s the stuff I remember from being a teen and I wouldn’t ever trade it for starting earlier in my career.
How exactly did you get to where you are now, professionally?
As with anything you want to be great at, it takes a LOT of practice. As a kid I took voice lessons and dance lessons, acting classes at school, theater summer camps, and put on lots of plays with my friends and my little brother, Bryce, in the living room. As I got older, I participated in community theater and a little bit of professional theater, and I started doing voice-over and recording work. I decided that I wanted to go to college to get a degree in drama and was accepted to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. A few years in, I started auditioning for shows on Broadway, and was cast in the ensemble of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” starring Daniel Radcliffe. I ended up leaving school, with my parents’ and mentors’ blessings, and started my career on Broadway at age 21.
It was fast and furious and hard and scary at times because I didn’t know if I could succeed. And then the night came when I was called on to go for the leading lady role I understudied, without any rehearsal, opposite Daniel Radcliffe! And that was when all of the training and practice I had since childhood supported me and enabled me to do my best work. It was terrifying and exhilarating, and a night I believe was the “make it or break it” moment of my career. A year later, I was offered to take over the leading lady role in the show opposite Nick Jonas, and I have been working in theater and TV and film ever since.
What's one thing you wish had known then that you know now about having a career?
Don’t be afraid to fail! Everyone fails. Failure is inextricably linked to success. Here’s some advice I once told students at my high school alma mater: You have be willing to take a big risk that you might fail in order to do something you never even dreamed you could achieve. The first time you don't succeed, it feels like you're falling off of a big cliff. The second time, it still hurts, but the cliff doesn’t seem as high anymore—you’ve felt this feeling before and it’s not as scary this time.
And you come to realize, it’s not really that much of a fall at all. Is it because you’re becoming more calloused and hardened to the fall? Or is it that you’re finding space in yourself that you never knew existed—where you are stronger, fuller, more open to fall down and get back up? You are learning how to fail. You are learning resilience. Instead of a “failure,” its an opportunity to learn and grow and discover your potential. Instead of feeling like you just took a fall, you will feel stronger and happier for having explored a new part of yourself, or a new passion, for putting yourself out there. You never know until you try!