'You Couldn't Ask for a Better Role.' Sara Gettelfinger on Playing Title Role in 'The Cher Show'

by Steve Duffy

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday May 22, 2022
Originally published on May 16, 2022

Sara Gettelfinger
Sara Gettelfinger  

When actress Sara Gettelfinger told her parents she was going to New York for three weeks, she didn't mention she was planning on finding an apartment, an agent, and work. She did, playing April in a production of "Company" at a theater company outside the city. Six months later, she landed her first Broadway musical — as "Bird Girl" in "Suessical," a musical adaptation of Dr. Seuss tales.

That was 20 years ago, since then Gettelfinger has steadily worked in musicals, including revivals of "Anything Goes" and "The Boys from Syracuse." She replaced Jane Krakowski in the Antonio Banderas-helmed "Nine," then was featured opposite John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz in the hit musical "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." She also featured as Cruella De Vil in the musical adaptation of "101 Dalmations."

She has toured and recorded as part of the musical trio  Three Graces, which blends the musical styles of its three members' backgrounds: Broadway (Gettelfinger), Opera (Joy Kabanuck), and Pop (Kelly Levesque). She has toured in "Fosse" and as Morticia Addams in "The Addams Family;" and in regional theaters has been featured in "Pippin," "Lone Star Love," a musical version of "Tom Jones," and "The Witches of Eastwick," the latter at the Ogunquit Playhouse.

Gettelfinger is currently starring in Ogunquit as one of the three Chers in "The Cher Show," the jukebox musical that played on Broadway in 2018-2019. It is the first time the musical is being performed at a regional theater. As with the recent Donna Summer musical, its titular character is played by three actresses at different stages of her career. Madeline Hudelson plays the youngest Cher, called Babe; Charissa Hogeland embodies Cher during her rise to fame with then-husband Sony Bono, called Lady; and Gettelfinger plays Cher when she became the superstar she is today.

EDGE spoke to Gettelfinger recently about channeling Cher, why there are three of them, and what she has in common with the star.

Charissa Hogeland (Lady), Sara Gettelfinger (Star), Madeline Hudelson (Babe). Photo by Nile Hawver, Nile Scott Studios.
Charissa Hogeland (Lady), Sara Gettelfinger (Star), Madeline Hudelson (Babe). Photo by Nile Hawver, Nile Scott Studios.  

EDGE: How did you get your start in musical theater?

Sara Gettelfinger: I grew up in a household with lots of music. There were guitars, mandolins, and banjos. My mother loved anything from musical theater to the opera. I have two younger brothers and all three of us are musicians. She took us to our first operas when we all turned five. As a toddler, I would force my parents to sit down while I did some kind of performance while standing on my toy box. It wasn't until I was in junior high when I realized it was going to be my career path.

I attended a performing arts high school and after graduation went to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. While there, I worked my butt off and three weeks after I graduated, I had an agent, an apartment, and my first job in New York City.

EDGE: What drew you to be a part of this musical?

Sara Gettelfinger: I had actually been sort of retired. I'd reached a point where I knew my dream roles would be when I was older. I've been six feet tall since I was in the eighth grade and always played older characters. I came to a crossroads in my life — work is great, but I have to take care of myself and my emotional health. I had taken a break from acting and have been mostly teaching. This role literally came to me out of nowhere. I was in New York last November for the 20-year anniversary of my first Broadway show doing a big reunion concert and I loved it. After the concert, I started auditioning for several things that I'd gotten calls about and the casting director came out and said, "They're doing 'Cher' the musical and you have to do this show."

I love Stephanie Block (Block won a Tony Award for playing her Cher role on Broadway.) They sent me the script, I read it and was blown away by it. It's sort of everything you could ask for in terms of a powerhouse leading lady. It's such a celebration of her work. There are some good life lessons and inspiring messages weaved throughout the story. Cher is an incredible icon. I had to be a part of this. As an actor, you just can't ask for a better role.

Sara Gettelfinger in "Pippin" in Los Angeles, 2009
Sara Gettelfinger in "Pippin" in Los Angeles, 2009  

EDGE: Can you tell us a bit more about having three different Chers, and how that works on stage?

Sara Gettelfinger : There are three Chers — The Babe, Lady, and my character, Star. Babe starts out the story from the very beginning. Then the show moves to Lady, where she goes from being on "The Sonny & Cher Show" to leaving Sonny and having her own show. My character comes in around the "If I Could Turn Back Time" era through the present.

It's cool to have the three actresses representing her age progression, and the different parts of her career. My character gets to play the ghost of Christmas future who gets to talk to my younger versions. It's really beautiful for her to be able to go back either as a foreshadow or flashback and get to speak to her younger selves.

EDGE: How do you make a role like Cher your own?

Sara Gettelfinger : The biggest thing that I have learned that was taught me by some of my greatest mentors and directors is when you have someone this iconic there are certain things in terms of the look, mannerisms, and giving the flavor of her voice, that are necessary. These are things that the audience is going to want to see. However, the show is the two-and-a-half-hour story of someone else's life experience, and you don't just want to be a caricature of that person. It just doesn't work, so you have to find the surface stuff; like the mannerisms, the voice, the physicality. You have to find a common bond and make it your own. I just want to make sure that I truthfully and genuinely portray Cher in a way that she would be proud of.

Sara Gettelfinger
Sara Gettelfinger  (Source: IMDb)

EDGE: And how do you prepare for a role like this?

Sara Gettelfinger : This has been kind of like heaven, because I've always loved Cher. As a singer, I have always gravitated towards women like Cher, Bonnie Raitt, and Melissa Etheridge because of their sound. I have always loved her as a singer and as an actress. I didn't have to prepare too much thanks to YouTube. It was a godsend. I spent hours and hours watching every video that I could find of her. I watched her mannerisms, studied her humor, and just listened to her voice. I really just wanted to capture her human experiences and the way she experiences life and navigates her super stardom.

EDGE: Do you have a favorite 'Cher-ism' you like doing?

Sara Gettelfinger : It's interesting because after watching all of the YouTube videos about her, nothing she does is overly exaggerated like so many people think. What I love about this show is that it is a fair representation of her as a person. Like now, how I am speaking to you normally, but when I speak as Cher, I have a different mouth position that's a bit more tense. There is also a different vocal placement that I use. There is a line that I don't cross that would make it more shtick.

EDGE: Did you find there were any similarities between you and Cher?

Sara Gettelfinger : Oh, absolutely! Other than the physical and vocal similarities, there are the different life challenges that we have both gone through. One of the things that made me fall in love with her was our shared sense of humor. The one thing that is so amazing and brilliant about her is she is so funny and self-deprecating. I love how she takes her work seriously, takes her family seriously, and has incredible integrity in what she does. But she does not take herself seriously.

EDGE: Favorite Cher song and movie?

Sara Gettelfinger : I absolutely love "Moonstruck!" The chemistry between Cher and Nick Cage is amazing. I watch it a few times a year. As for favorite song, there were albums I knew about especially from the '70s that I only knew a few singles from, but when I landed this role, I listened to many of them in their entirety. Her catalogue of songs is amazing. I really love "Half Breed" and "If I Could Turn Back Time." My favorite film song is "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" from "Burlesque." It is the song I auditioned with. It's a powerful and poignant anthem, so if I had to choose just one, it would be "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me."

EDGE: Cher loves her LGBTQ audience. Have you noticed and experienced that following supporting the show?

Sara Gettelfinger : I have been very fortunate to have the love and support from the LGBTQ community around me my entire life. I have shared my love for the LGBTQ for as long as I can remember. As a straight woman, I cannot believe how much they have given me. My connections with them have been the most open, loving, progressive, creative, and artistic connections that I have ever encountered.

More people need to approach life being open-minded and inclusive. Who cares who are you going to bed with! There are bigger and more important things in life to focus on. I am grateful that I get to play this woman who is not only an icon but a true advocate for the LGBTQ community. To me, it is an honor. I am moved every day about how important she is to a lot of the LGBTQ community. I take her role and my role within that community very seriously.

"The Cher Show" runs through June 25th at the Ogunquit Playhouse and Tickets and information:  http://www.ogunquitplayhouse.org/