STARS ON THE RISE: Julia Lester, Girl of the Year
It’s Monday morning at the American Girl Doll Store and Julia Lester is pretty stressed. It’s not about her Broadway debut playing Little Red Ridinghood in Into the Woods—she’s living the dream there. Nor is it over her beloved role in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series on Disney+. To her, playing a theatre kid on screen is second nature.
No, Julia Lester is stressed out about which American Girl doll she’s going to pick today. The store associates are thrilled to welcome her back with open arms and a doll of her choice to take home. While we tour the store (and the Doll Hospital and the Doll Salon), Lester shows off her Samantha-inspired outfit. Based on one of the original American Girl dolls created in 1986, she’s completed a look that includes the iconic hair ribbon, thin choker, and even some combat boots that lean a bit more 2022 than 1904.
This past May, it was announced that the hit Encores! production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods would transfer to Broadway at the St. James Theater. Lester, the production’s breakout star, posted an Instagram carousel sharing screenshots of the announcement alongside a home video of her younger self singing and dancing. The caption: “The first things I remember ever wanting in life were an American Girl doll and a chance to tap my lil’ toes on a Broadway stage. Dreams do come true !!!!”
To celebrate her Broadway debut, I met Lester at the American Girl Doll Store in New York City, and she seemed immediately at home. Lester recognizes as many dolls as fans recognize her, asking for selfies and mentioning that they love High School Musical…, now in its third season. Two fans in particular, one even wearing an Into the Woods shirt, mention that they came to New York to see Lester, their first Broadway show (wild coincidence!).
We make our way downstairs to have lunch at the Café, a hot spot for birthday parties and celebrations, where diners are encouraged to pick a doll to sit at their table. For this, Julia picks Melody, referencing her own high school friend who played the character in a stage adaptation of the American Girl franchise (yes, you read that correctly.) As we head to our seats, whole tables turn and jaws drop as people recognize the actress, who is just as psyched to be here as they are. A few fans approach the table and Lester chats with them about the latest HSM episode. When the table is clear, I lean in and ask, “Is that still crazy to you?”
“It really is,” says Lester, giggling as she sets up the dolls to join us at the table. “Especially being in the American Girl store and having that happen feels really full circle.” American Girl has been part of Lester’s life for years—she recalls picking out her first doll around age nine and collecting outfits and accessories for years. In 2021, Lester even worked with the brand for its 35th Anniversary, hosting a panel discussion with student activists. Though just a year prior, a lot has happened since then, including the dream come true of her Broadway debut.
For some theatregoers, Into the Woods may be the first time they’ve heard the name Julia Lester, but for Disney+ subscribers, Lester’s been a mainstay on their screens for years now. The docu-style musical comedy, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series premiered in November 2019 and retains continued interest, with each season casting the fictional high school students in a different Disney musical production; this season is Frozen. The show is heartfelt and well-rounded. On screen, Lester plays Ashlyn, a creative and resourceful theatre kid (and a self-proclaimed American Girl Samantha). She is an unmissable and witty talent who lights up a scene and turns self-doubt into song. For the real-life theatre kid, Lester’s passion for being an actress began long before she became an East High Wildcat.
“Performing has been a huge part of my life ever since I was born. When you think about ‘take your kid to work day’ or when you learn about your parents career, it was always performing for me.”
Growing up in California, Lester was surrounded by artists at all times. Family birthdays and holiday celebrations involved musical performances, which is not unusual considering her actor parents, pianist uncles, and—best of all—two older sisters every bit as artsy as herself.
“I think most sisters can attest to the fact that you gain a personality by watching your older sisters grow up,” Lester laughs. “I don’t know who I would be today without the guidance of having older sisters in my life, especially [ones] who were so involved with theatre and music and everything that I was interested in.”
We start talking about Lester’s earliest theatre memories, including a community theatre production of Into the Woods that included Lester and both of her sisters. Julia played Milky White while Lily; the middle child, was Little Red; and Jenny, the oldest, The Baker’s Wife.
“We have a very familial bond with [Into the Woods]. That was a really important show for us.”
It’s one that can be fun and light or complex and difficult, contingent to a person’s own disposition. Depending on the environment, you could find fun fairy tales or much darker themes, and Lester’s character, Little Red Ridinghood, is a perfect example of that juxtaposition.
“I don’t think I really understood what the show was about when I was ten and auditioned for Milky White… but getting the chance to grow up with the show and really learn the deeper meanings behind everything as you get older is such a cool experience. You start out loving the show because of the characters and the fairy tale aspect, and then you become an adult and you’re like, ‘Oh this is actually heartwarming and touching and really deep and emotional.’ It’s a story that can grow with you. And I’m sure in the future, one day, if and when I’m a mom, the show will take on an even deeper meaning that I’m not even able to understand [currently].”
For now, Lester is surrounded by invaluable perspectives, working with a star-studded cast who bring years of experience, credits, and accolades to the production. She’s been swept into a cast of greats, with many of her scene partners becoming more like mentors after years of looking up to them onstage. The first Broadway show Lester saw? Something Rotten at the St. James, starring Brian d’Arcy James, who plays this production’s Baker (Lester’s on-screen costar Kate Reinders was also in Something Rotten). The songwriter Lester gets compared to in HSMTMTS? Sara Bareilles (“She’s so lovely and such a true leading lady” Lester tells me in the café), who plays The Baker’s Wife. Sharing the stage with idols can’t be an easy task for any artist, yet Lester’s been handling it with an astounding level of grace. She skips onstage and it appears as though she’s been at this for years. I ask Lester if she was at all intimidated considering the scale of the cast and the scope of the show. She nods.
“There were months building up to the first rehearsal where I was so worried and nervous that I wasn’t good enough or wasn’t meant to be there or, you know, just the normal amount of imposter syndrome,” Lester says. “All of that went away the second that I met [the cast]...they were just as excited as I was.”
Excited might just be an understatement. On social media, the Into the Woods cast seems to be having the best time backstage. After all, none of them were really expecting to be here this long, so it’s a happy surprise to still be open. Luckily, that joy has been well-documented online, with cast members and fans alike creating TikToks and crafting on-brand memes. There are also pictures that say a thousand words. On opening night, Gavin Creel (who plays Cinderella’s Prince and The Wolf) embraced Lester onstage, gesturing out to the sold-out crowd’s standing ovation. The photo, which Lester posted later that week, provides a glimpse into Lester’s relationship with the show.
“I was very appreciative that he helped me take in that moment because I was, of course, riding such an adrenaline high that I don’t know if I would have been able to really stop and breath and take a mental picture of that moment,” Lester recalls. “I could tell that somebody in his twenties had done that for him and he has [now] taken it upon himself to do that for somebody else on their Broadway debut…he really changed the game for me. In that moment, it became so real.”
And with the real comes the challenging. While the sparkle and smiles are entertaining, many don’t recognize the difficulties performers face when trying to maintain a Broadway schedule. Eight shows a week, each show nearly three hours long, is a lot. Even when it’s your dream job, this kind of schedule can take a huge toll. For words of wisdom, Lester’s been taking cues from some of the pros, including the beloved Joshua Henry.
“Joshua,” who plays Rapunzel’s Prince, “always reminds me [that] people live their whole lives wanting to feel the level of stress that we feel. I have waited my whole life to have this. So, in times where I say to myself, ‘I’m so tired, I just want to sleep,’ I remind myself of what he’s taught [me]. When I don’t have this schedule [anymore], I’m going to want that schedule. I just have to live in the moment and really appreciate the grind of it.”
It’s interesting to be having this conversation while Into the Woods is still running. When Lester was initially cast in the City Center Encores! production, the plan was for the staged concert version to play a limited two-week run in May, a much different commitment than eight shows a week. The first iteration found sold-out houses and quickly became the hottest ticket that month, with lines of fans desperate for canceled tickets—a phenomenon uncommon for a concert-style revival. Somehow, it seemed both obvious and impossible that the show would transfer to Broadway, with big names and big emotional stakes. Audience members seemed to unanimously latch on to its themes of grief, desire, and community. Into the Woods presents a world that quickly shifts from comfortable to unrecognizable, leaving its characters seeking familiarity and safety—something many are looking for now. For Lester, she’s taking all of the lessons with her.
“I can’t believe I get to go back to the show with this experience that has really changed me and changed the way I perform,” Lester says of starting to film Season 4 of HSMTMTS later this year. “Being back in the trenches at the St. James, and doing the show every week, it’s really unlike anything I’ve experienced.”
Our American Girl afternoon is starting to wind down and we’ve exhausted most of the topics on the table including dream roles (Lizzie Borden in Lizzie the Musical), career inspirations (Merritt Weaver, who Lester admires because she “consistently works all the time in projects that she's extremely passionate about”), and who she had dinner with the night before (Corbin Bleu, “best human in the world”). As we exit the crowded café space, the question of the day returns.
“Have you picked which doll you’re taking home today?” asks our store guide.
In the elevator back to the main level, Lester ponders. “I think the dolls with colorful hair were a big surprise to me. Maybe I should do one of those? Or do I go with the 2022 Girl? Because it's been quite a year.” It’s only August, yet 2022 has been a whirlwind for Lester. In these past eight months, she’s done everything she’d dreamed of.
Lester and I have discussed her accomplishments, along with the surprises and learning moments that come with a Broadway debut—all the things you want to hear about from a rising star making headlines with a remarkably thoughtful performance. What surprises me, though, is the way that Lester talks about the future. I partially expected extravagant plans and big specifics on the horizon, so I was surprised to hear how grounded Lester is right now. She’s stayed level-headed and thoughtful over the last few months, a demeanor that proves she is a performer here to stay. As we discuss the future, I reference the Instagram caption where she wrote about wanting an American Girl doll and a Broadway role. What dreams come next?
“I don’t even think that my dreams can surpass what this experience has been,” she says, blushing from what I assume is the self-awareness that comes with knowing you’ve accomplished your biggest goal, so far. “I just want to keep performing in any capacity possible. I would love to do another Broadway show, but even that is something that still feels like a very distant, far away dream, even while I’m in the middle of a Broadway run,” she laughs. “I want to perform, all the time, everywhere!”
Just as Lester mentioned at the beginning of our lunch date, today brings things pretty full circle. From the girl who wanted a doll and a role on Broadway to the star meeting fans in the American Girl Doll store, things are happening for Julia Lester, and we’re the lucky ones who get to watch.
In our final moments in the store, Lester decides she is going to take home Corinne, American Girl’s Girl of the Year 2022. She wants to commemorate her own big year, one that is surely just the beginning in the promising career ahead of her. Surrounded by possibilities, and hundreds of dolls, Lester chose to stay in the moment, driven by passion and her own confidence. She was the Girl of the Year all along.
Julia Lester will play Little Red Ridinghood at the St. James until September 4. Tickets and more information on Into the Woods is available here. Season 3 of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is now streaming on Disney+ with new episodes dropping each Wednesday.
(Video production by Brandon Schwartz)