ST. PETERSBURG – You could never sing solo, when Emma Couture was around. Even if you were humming softly to yourself, she would jump in and belt along.
That girl couldn’t remember to turn in her biology homework, but she knew every word to every Broadway tune. She memorized every part, too, plus stage directions.
She couldn’t wait to be famous. To walk the red carpet. Win a Tony.
Emma grew up on stages across Tampa Bay, in shows at Abba Dabba and American Stage summer camps, Perkins Elementary, Thurgood Marshall Middle School, St. Petersburg High, the Francis Wilson Playhouse, St. Pete Little Theatre. She sang and danced on Norwegian Cruise lines with the Broadway Theatre Project.
"She came out of the womb performing," said her mom, Wilma Norton. "She was loud, messy, and had no sense of personal boundaries. She never learned to give a polite hug."
Emma was 19, a sophomore at Marymount Manhattan College in New York, directing her first college show, when, on Nov. 9, her heart stopped unexpectedly. She was rushed to the hospital but never regained consciousness.
Her dad, Pete Couture, said it’s some comfort that, "at the very end, she was doing what she loved."
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Her first role was Jesus. She was 6 months old when her parents swaddled her and lay her in the manger at St. Thomas Episcopal Church.
At vacation Bible school, Katherine Snow Smith remembers trying to cast a pre-school play. "Who wants to be the Good Samaritan?" Emma’s hand shot up. "Who wants to be the robber?" Again, only Emma. "You can’t be everything," Smith said.
Emma replied, "But I want to."
Rosie Chittick, Emma’s friend since elementary school, remembers her love for roast chicken and attention to detail. She once opened "The Elephant Museum" in her bedroom, Chittick said, with "business cards and visiting hours and a number to call for information and tours."
In fifth grade, Emma got to play a queen, surrounded by a gaggle of princesses. Someone’s mom made up her face for the first time.
Emma soon became known for her sassy sunglasses and matching accessories. She inked her thick brows, rimmed her wide eyes with kohl, painted her lips shiny red. While other girls hid their braces, Emma boldly beamed.
Through middle school, as other students tried on different roles, Emma was always "so Emma," classmates said. Eager to create her own spotlight. Her older sister, Hannah, kept telling her: "Not everyone has to like you."
"I know," Emma would say. "But I want them to."
She grew up in the Tampa Bay Times newsroom, where both her parents worked. She was obsessed with dogs, children and Disney. She walked neighbors’ pets, babysat their kids, read The Bell Jar a half-dozen times. She could out-trivia anyone, and, at age 12, won Jeopardy! Kids Week. She saved the $15,000, so she could go to college in New York City.
"We’d seen South Pacific on Broadway the year before, then West Side Story," said her mom, who now works for the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay. "She just fell in love with the city."
In high school, Emma performed in Almost, Maine, Hairspray and Annie. She left sticky notes for each cast member before performances, with messages like "Slaaay!" She starred in thespian festivals, directed peers in I Hate Hamlet and advocated for LGBT rights — which she insisted include a Q and + sign. She became district representative for Broadway Cares and raised more money for AIDS victims and research than ever before.
"I was so impressed by her spirit, talent, conversation and bright lipstick," said actor Mandy Gonzalez, Emma’s idol from Wicked and Hamilton, who coached her one summer.
Though Emma auditioned for numerous college BFA programs, she wasn’t chosen for any. Teachers and family encouraged her to find a Plan B, but Emma refused to entertain that idea.
"Very few of us are fortunate enough to find a true passion in life," said Carrie Johnson-O’Brion, a family friend. "I’m so glad to get to meet someone who not only found it, but was brave enough to pursue it."
At college, Emma gushed about NYC in texts and tweets, ended every post with at least three !!!s.
She got a job selling T-shirts at the Roundabout Theatre Co., so she could see the performances for free. She also became a barista and took a third job delivering food. Every paycheck went to Broadway tickets. In her first year, she saw 25 shows.
After each, Emma sprinted to the stage door. She met Sally Field, John Goodman, Patti LuPone, Joel Grey. She took a selfie with Lin-Manuel Miranda. She sang with Josh Groban in a 250-person chorus; her smile shines from the cast album.
The week she died, Emma texted her dad, excited that she had coached an actor and made a scene better.
A day before she collapsed, she sent one of her final tweets: "Just realized that I am exactly who I wanted to be in seventh grade."
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Hundreds of fans posted on her Facebook, saying she had given them courage – and unconditional love. Teachers, professors and professional actors praised her passion. Even the cast of Hello Dolly! sent condolences. They remembered that big-eyed girl outside the stage door, the one with the red, red lips and oversized smile.
Her parents donated her organs. They said Emma would be proud to know that she helped save four children.
Born: June 10, 1998
Died: Nov. 13, 2017
Survivors: parents, Peter Couture and Wilma Norton; sister, Hannah; paternal grandmother, Marie Couture; maternal grandparents, Keith and Rita Norton
A Cabaret / Celebration of Life will be held for Emma Couture at 3 p.m. on Wednesday at St. Petersburg High School: 2501 5th Ave. N. A scholarship for performing arts students is being established in her name through the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay at www.cftampabay.org/emmafund/
Contact Lane DeGregory at [email protected] Follow @LaneDeGregory.