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River Ridge High drama teacher has lived the Broadway dream

Diana Rogers, who for two years played Madame Thénardier in Les Misérables on Broadway, works with students at River Ridge High School this month during a rehearsal for Grease.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Diana Rogers, who for two years played Madame Thénardier in Les Misérables on Broadway, works with students at River Ridge High School this month during a rehearsal for Grease.

Diana Rogers perched on a metal stool and followed the script as her budding River Ridge High School drama students read their parts for Grease. If they were to be effective actors in a play set 54 years earlier, they would need perspective, a history lesson. She told them about 45 rpm vinyl records, virgin pins, Cookie and his comb from 77 Sunset Strip.

"Anybody know who Fabian is?'' she asked.

"Is he the one in the romance novels?'' one girl responded as others scrambled for the answer on brightly colored smartphones.

"No, that's FABIO!'' said Rogers, her voice rising above the giggles.

Rogers stopped them often, encouraging interpretation, preaching comedic timing. She implored them to feel free to insert their own personalities.

The students hung on every word. She has been to the mountaintop. They dream of getting there.

• • •

Rogers seemed more likely to become a cop than a Broadway actor.

As a young teen, she imagined herself dancing and singing on a stage, but as she recalls with characteristic bluntness, "I wasn't very good.'' She couldn't land even a bit part in a school play until her senior year, and that came after voice lessons.

She got better, developed a pleasing soprano and enrolled as an opera major at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. But an acute case of stage fright limited her stage options.

"I'd throw up at the thought of performing in front of people,'' she said.

She changed majors to police science, hoping to follow in the footsteps of her father, a career cop in a nearby suburb. But even with her connections, she said, the leaders of the small police department discouraged her. "They didn't want women as cops,'' she said. "That's all.''

She bagged groceries at a local supermarket to help with college expenses, which is how she met John Rogers, one of the managers. Two years into college, in 1973, she dropped out and married him. In another two years, they welcomed a daughter, Heather, and in two more years a son, Ryan.

Diana raised the children and sang at a community theater, but she still battled stage fright. "If I got a solo,'' she said, "I'd get sick.''

She took a job singing telegrams for Eastern Onion, which helped her conquer the nervousness. She thrived, inventing characters and costumes. "I still have my chicken outfit,'' she said. "It's funny, anytime I'd wear it, I'd run into somebody I knew and it would be like, 'So, Diana, 10 years out of high school and you're a chicken.' "

With her kids starting school, she decided it would be a good time to get more training. She enrolled at Northern Kentucky University and graduated at the top of her class. She returned to the Conservatory of Music, this time on a full scholarship. She acted regularly in local shows and during the summer in North Carolina. One week, in 1988, a national touring company staging Les Misérables came to Cincinnati. Its dance captain, always on the lookout for replacement talent, set up a room at the university for auditions.

"I still lacked confidence,'' Rogers said. "My friends literally pushed me into the audition.''

She sang two songs and the dance captain gave her two free tickets to the show. She surveyed the cast and didn't see any female characters that stood anywhere close to her 6-foot frame. She went home, wrote a thank-you letter and returned to classes.

Five months later, a producer for the Les Misérables national tour called: "We want you to come to New York.'' Rogers joined dozens of aspiring actors for auditions. She won the part of Madame Thénardier, flew to Denver to join the tour and began a "cram session'' of rehearsals.

She replaced the much shorter actor who wore a size 7 dress. "I was a size 10,'' she said. "The crew only had a day to adjust her costume to fit me. They held my dress together with safety pins.''

Rogers toured for two years, the only actor in the company with children. Heather and Ryan stayed home with their dad and grandmother but joined her on the road whenever possible.

"We learned the magic of room service,'' she said.

When she left the tour in 1991, she finished work on her master's degree in theater performance and took a job as a drama teacher at Indian Hill High School in an affluent community near Cincinnati. She enjoyed a large budget for productions and thought she might stay at this school for a long time. But a year into the job, she got an offer she couldn't refuse.

"Diana,'' the caller said from New York City, "can you be here Sunday?''

"Oh my God, yes!''

She would be Madame Thenardier again, but this time on the stage at the famous Imperial, which opened on Broadway in 1923. Rogers would play the shiftless, evil (but funny) innkeeper over the next two years. Andrea McArdle, who had gained fame starring in the Broadway musical Annie, played Fantine. Robert Cuccioli, who would later become famous for starring in Jekyll and Hyde, played Javert.

"All the performers were wonderful,'' Rogers said. "I felt like a football player must feel when he makes it to the NFL.''

Not that the gig paid all that much considering New York prices — $1,400 a week. "Glenn Close was doing Sunset Boulevard for $48,000 a week,'' she said with a laugh. "But, hey, I made it to Broadway.''

Rogers lived with a friend in a Manhattan apartment 16 feet long and 9 feet wide. "You had to back into the toilet,'' she said.

After two years, Les Misérables closed on Broadway and Rogers went home to Ohio. She found parts in touring companies, including Louise in Always Patsy Cline. In 1999 her husband's supermarket closed, and he transferred to Orlando. Diana taught drama at the Millennium Performing Arts School in Sanford two years, directed youth opera in Orlando and acted in musicals. Her husband accepted a management job with Whole Foods in Tampa and she joined the faculty at River Ridge Middle School before taking over the high school drama department in 2004.

Rogers continued to act in plays at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for Performing Arts in Tampa, most recently in Boeing Boeing. She wrote a musical about students confined to in-school suspension, presented it at the Ruth Eckerd Hall Hoffman Center and entered it in the New York Music Festival. Last summer she wrote another musical, Lessons From a Wayside Campground, geared toward middle school students. Currently she is writing a show to encourage children in kindergarten through third grade to read.

"It seems I have a knack for writing music,'' she said. "Who knew?''

With the big-screen version of Les Misérables capturing Oscar nominations — and some mixed reviews — those who know Rogers' Broadway background want to know what she thinks.

"I haven't seen it yet,'' she said recently after commuting an hour from her home in Brooksville, feeding her five horses, teaching five classes and rehearsing for Grease. "I guess I should go. I'm kind of busy.''

River Ridge High drama teacher has lived the Broadway dream 01/19/13 [Last modified: Friday, January 25, 2013 3:10pm]

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