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New York • Don't tell Maria Elena Ramirez she's lucky to have a principal part and Broadway debut in "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," one of the most critically lauded musicals of the theater year.
The Salt Lake City native learned early that success depends on the number of times you stick your neck out for a part.
Before graduating from Judge Memorial Catholic High School in 1991, Ramirez auditioned for every play, musical and small-scale drama her alma mater produced. The only show she didn't end up cast in was "Grease."
Nineteen years later, and now in her mid-30s, the raven-haired actress relishes her role as Rachel, the sensuous yet religious woman who marries Andrew Jackson, played by Benjamin Walker. After years of temp jobs and between-acting jobs that included small parts on "The Sopranos" and "Law & Order," Ramirez admits making it all the way to the center of North American theater is satisfying.
But no professional dwells on victory long enough to stop looking for that next big role. While a hit with most theater critics The New York Times ranked it No. 3 on its year-end list for the best in theater "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" couldn't rustle enough bodies into seats to continue its run into 2011.
"I just keep looking ahead, happy that I get to cross Broadway off my 'bucket list,' " Ramirez said. "If you come to New York City from another place and you don't know what you want, this place can really swallow you up."
Never forgetting what she wanted distinguished Ramirez's years at the University of Utah's Actor Training Program, from which she graduated in 1995, say those who remember her. She progressed to New York University's esteemed MFA program in acting, graduating 1998.
"Of course I'm thrilled for her to be doing what she's doing and see how far she's come. I imagine it's something akin to what parents feel when their children do well," said Kenneth Washington, director of the Actor Training Program at the time Ramirez studied acting, and now director of company development at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater. "But she is the one who did all the work. The credit is all hers."
Jason Bowcutt, community and performing arts coordinator at the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, attended the acting program alongside Ramirez. He knew right from Ramirez's freshman year that hers was a talent to watch. From a role in the David Mamet play "Edmund" at the U. to a Second Stage production of "Living Out" in New York City, what astounded him was her ability to cross a variety of roles, rather than settle into character types, he said.
"You're drawn to her work as if it were a light," Bowcutt said. "She knew how to do her best work every time, and get all that she needed to do her best, but she was never the selfish diva."
Taking her interview in the iconic Sardi's restaurant in the center of New York's theater district, Ramirez showed more enthusiasm for questions regarding "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," as opposed to life in big-city New York or memories of Salt Lake City. Lead actor Walker has throughout the show's run been dubbed Broadway's brightest star if not its outright sex symbol for his exuberant role dressed in tight pants, gun holster and eye-liner. All three are black, as is the play's mordant humor as Jackson, both candidate and seventh president, pushes American Indians onto the Trail of Tears, expands the United States' territory, and hosts sex- and bong-fueled parties in the White House, all to an emo-rock soundtrack.
As the man who "puts the 'man' in manifest destiny," the play plants Jackson at the source of various American political tendencies. He's the arbiter of change a mash-up of Barack Obama's suave appeal, George W. Bush's country boy and the tough-talkin' outraged populist of Sarah Palin.
Ramirez said "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" speaks volumes to how Americans "do politics."
"When I first read the script I was already used to wacky, over-the-top stuff," she said.
"I understood the genre, but certainly there's been nothing like this on Broadway. It's opened the door to new thinking about what might happen in a Broadway show."
"Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"
When • Through Sunday
Where • 242 W. 45th St., Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York City
Info • $51.50-$251.50; call 212-239-6200 for more information, or visit telecharge.com.