Haley Swindal, George Steinbrenner’s granddaughter, talks returning to Tampa with new cabaret

Growing up in a famous family didn't stop the Broadway actress, who sings at the Straz Center on May 19, from forging her own path.
Published May 10

Haley Swindal won’t soon forget the time in college she played Sally Bowles in Cabaret.

Midway through a matinee, a man in the audience began having chest pains and had to be taken to a local hospital.

That man, it turned out, was Swindal’s maternal grandfather. New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

“It was a college theater, and it was overheated — we were all really hot that day,” Swindal said by phone recently. “I really think it was overheated, is what happened. It was pretty dramatic. They canceled the second act.”

When Swindal got to the hospital, though, you can imagine how Steinbrenner reacted.

“The way my grandfather is about baseball, I am about theater,” she said. “And when he said to me — and I knew he was okay — he was like, ‘Now, you go do that show! What are you doing here? Go do the show!’ I just did it. I went to my place because he wanted me to do it.”

Steinbrenner recovered and lived another four years. Swindal, who grew up in her grandparents’ adopted hometown of Tampa, went on to become a successful Broadway actor in New York.

In a way, her life and career will come full circle on May 19, when she brings her new two-person cabaret to Tampa’s David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. We Just Move On: The Songs of Kander and Ebb features Swindal and Jana Robbins performing songs by the songwriting duo behind Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman and — wait for it — Cabaret.

This isn’t the first time the 33-year-old Swindal, who just wrapped a stint as Mama Morton in Chicago on Broadway, has returned to the stage in Tampa. She has performed in touring productions of Jekyll and Hyde and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, and with Ted Neeley in Jesus Christ Superstar. But it is her first real starring role, and also her most personal.

The show delivers a narrative of “women who are strong but also vulnerable, women who kind of control their own destiny,” Swindal said. “This is the second or third stop, and probably the most important one for me, because of my legacy, because my grandparents saw every ballet recital at the Straz Center from the time I was 5. There is a strong root there, a strong connection there, and I feel like part of it is coming home.”

From childhood on, Swindal said her “best friend” was her grandmother, Joan Steinbrenner, George’s wife of 54 years. She spent weekends at her grandparents’ house, accompanied Joan on long walks and talks around West Shore Plaza. Joan also held season tickets at the Straz, where Swindal first saw Cats and Les Misérables, Carol Channing and one of her idols, Liza Minnelli.

“Oh my god, I wanted to be Sally Bowles,” Swindal said. “She was just so free-loving and free-wheeling and so loving, but also complicated.”

The perks of growing up in a well-known family (which includes her father, Steve Swindal, chairman of the board of Port Tampa Bay) went beyond singing at Yankees games. Once when Minnelli came to town, Swindal got to go backstage to meet her and snap a photo. Swindal would later become close with Minnelli’s sister, Lorna Luft, and friendly with Minnelli herself.

As a child, she was aware that her family lived under a bit of a microscope; she saw it anytime she went out in public with her grandfather. She was a debutante, marching alongside the granddaughters of former Gov. Bob Martinez in 2005. (“It was never my thing, but it was important to my parents and my grandparents, and honestly, I didn’t mind doing it.”)

But she also realized she had to forge her own path.

“I’ve always embraced my family, but for a while, I was about, ‘I’m going to do this, and I’m going to do it on my own,’ ” she said. “Not trying to hide from it; just saying, ‘This is who I am. I am Haley Swindal, who is a Broadway actress and singer, and this happens to be her family. Tell me about your family?’ ”

Swindal may yet follow in her grandfather’s footsteps in an unexpected way. Steinbrenner dabbled as a Broadway producer; his credits included 1970’s Applause and 1968’s George M!, starring Joel Gray, Cabaret’s original Emcee. Swindal has invested in productions like Something Rotten! and On Your Feet!, and backed off-Broadway productions like Benjamin Scheuer’s Drama Desk Award-winning one-man show The Lion. Along with Robbins, she’s developing a production about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway; and another about a grownup Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol.

“My dream is to do Damn Yankees live in Yankee Stadium,” she said. “We’re not really sure how far along that is. But you can say that I’d love to have a revival, and it may or may not happen.”

But her passion remains acting in shows like We Just Move On. Her big regret with the Tampa show is that her grandmother isn’t here to see it; Joan Steinbrenner died in December at 83. Going through her things, Swindal found plenty of her old theater programs that her grandparents had saved, including one from that college production of Cabaret.

“It is kind of a dedication to my grandparents, in a way, because it talks about mothers and daughters and grandmothers and families and the importance of them believing in you,” she said. “Without that, I wouldn’t have accomplished what I’ve accomplished.”

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

IF YOU GO

We Just Move On: The Songs of Kander and Ebb

Haley Swindal and Jana Robbins perform at 2 p.m. May 19 at the Jaeb Theater in the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. $25 and up. (813) 229-7827. strazcenter.org.

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