BY Molly Congdon
CLIFTON PARK — Hannah Corneau’s first memory of what influenced her to go into musical theater was when she and her older sister, Amanda, would play records of different musicals, and act them out.
As kids they spent a great deal of time dancing and singing in their basement. “West Side Story,” the tragic musical inspired by “Romeo and Juliet,” was their favorite performance.
It’s not surprising that as a 13-year-old freshman at Shenendehowa she landed the pivotal role of Maria in the very musical she had rehearsed with her sister so many times. Several seniors were not very happy that year, as one can only imagine, when the ingenue took to the stage prancing around during the fun number, “I Feel Pretty,” and taking the audience’s breath away throughout the romantic aria “Tonight.” It was the first real spark that ignited her musical theater career.
“Growing up in Clifton Park was fantastic because Shenendehowa had such an amazing music program with all of the choirs, drama productions and musicals,” Corneau said. “My childhood was rich in performing and immersing myself in the arts.” She starred in two more shows during her high school years: Guinevere in “Camelot” and Kate in “Kiss Me Kate.”
Then, after applying to 10 colleges including prestigious selections such as Carnegie Mellon, Ithaca, Boston Conservatory of Music and Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, she was accepted by her No. 1 choice: Syracuse University.
“It was cool in the sense that Syracuse drama shared a facility with Syracuse stage, which is like a professional Equity theater, so we were able to see professional theater all the time as well as professional actors who worked there,” Corneau said. “It was a program that challenged me every single day. It put me in a pool of people that were just fantastic and always working so hard, which made me work harder. So, it was extremely gratifying when I would excel or get parts that I wanted.”
She said her most significant accomplishment while studying within the blue and orange halls was securing the role of Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” her senior year — the icing on the cake to mark the end of her college experience.
She graduated early in the fall of 2010 with a bachelor of fine arts in musical theater and headed to Chicago. For two years, she worked at both Equity and non-Equity theaters, pursuing her showbiz dreams and also supplementing her income by waitressing on the side.
Then, one phone call changed everything.
The casting director of Barry Manilow’s musical “Harmony” — the true story about a German male group the Comedian Harmonists, who were a popular boy band in the 1920s and 1930s until their materials were destroyed by the Nazis and their music was mostly forgotten — was asking if she would like to audition for Ruth, one of the two female roles.
“It was absolutely eye-opening, inspiring and intimidating; I worked with some fantastic Broadway veterans that knocked my socks off every day,” Corneau said. “Barry Manilow was really inspiring and it was great because he was my peer in the workplace, not someone I was star-struck by. He was just a supportive force.”
She gained a great deal of knowledge during her travels with “Harmony.” Not only was she performing in front of larger audiences, but also the show was performed eight times per week and each one had to be perfect.
From that role, Corneau has won two Broadway World Awards, the Best Featured Actress for a Musical in Atlanta, Best Featured Actress for a Musical in Los Angeles. The part also earned her a Ovation nomination. “The Ovation Awards essentially are the L.A. Tony Awards,” Corneau explained. “Neil Patrick Harris has hosted them a couple of years.”
Harmony was a pivotal point in her career, the turning point that really brought her to the forefront. “Having a good credit on your resume can get you more and more jobs and connect you with more people,” Corneau said. And more jobs she did get. Last summer she understudied in “Ethel Sings,” her first off-Broadway credit. Then she was off to Washington, D.C., to play Hodel, one of Tevia’s daughters, in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“It was a great role,” Corneau said. “It was gratifying to tell that story every day.” What made this show dissimilar to other productions of the classic was that it was at Arena Stage. “The audience was on all four sides of us,” she said.
“I’d never done a show in the round before; usually the audience is in front of the stage and that’s it. It challenged me as an actor to maintain focus throughout the show.” Being able to act within a 360 degrees range is no easy feat. “My back couldn’t be to one side for too long; I had to be completely turning around, facing one way and the other constantly,” Corneau said. “It was a valuable learning experience to work in that environment.”
In February she will head back to Chicago to play the role of Fantine in “Les Miserables” at the Paramount Theatre, where she and her fellow actors will be accompanied by a 30- to 45-piece orchestra.
She called it a challenging role, like climbing a hill.
“For Fantine it’s such an epic song, ‘I Dreamed a Dream,’ ” Corneau said. “To make it my own and change it from what the public has experienced before, what with the movie with Anne Hathaway and the cast recording that everyone has listened to because it’s such an iconic score. I’m looking forward to making it my own and affecting the audience the way that I could only affect them.”
The actress has worked in many locations, including Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago and New York City — the place she currently calls home. “I’ve been living a gypsy life,” Corneau joked.
But no matter where she has gone, her family has always been there, cheering her on.
Her mother, Mildred Corneau, a social worker for the Northeast Parent & Child Society, and her father, Greg Corneau, an engineer who now resides in Florida, divorced when Corneau was 13. However, even though they don’t reside in the same household, they have always been there to support their daughter. Amanda, who now works in Washington at the National Children’s Hospital, also travels to watch her younger sister in action.
Hannah Corneau’s voice captures your attention. She has the ability to transform her sound from a delicate soprano to a powerful force that can reverberate to the rear mezzanine of any theater. “Going to school for musical theater you try to be as versatile as you can,” Corneau said. “Out of dancing, singing and acting, I always say that my voice is my strongest suit and the rest has just followed.”
Even though she has made a career in musical theater, she doesn’t spend her free time listening to only Broadway soundtracks. “Musical theater is fantastic and I love making it my livelihood. But truth be told, I don’t listen to musical theater a lot,” Corneau said. “I listen to a lot of Indian music, folk, Dave Matthews, John Mayer. If I didn’t go into theater I would definitely be a music supervisor who chooses music for movies and TV shows. I love immersing myself in normal music.”
No matter how many times Corneau steps out on the stage, it never feels the same. “I’m immersed in the world of the play,” she said. “I’m that character completely so I always feel differently because I’m always playing a different character.”
Like any true Barbra Streisand fan, the dream of one day starring in “Funny Girl,” belting out “People,” runs deep.
“It’s one that I need to be in someday,” Corneau said. “Hopefully one day it will come to fruition.”
One day, perhaps, you will see her face up on a bill all over Times Square. Someday, maybe, Clifton Park’s own will indeed be a “Broadway Baby.”