Plenty of Viterbo University alumni come back to campus after graduation to watch shows in the Fine Arts Center. Lauren Johnson ’21 will be among the few who come back to be on the FAC stage instead of in the audience.
Since September, Johnson has been part of the nationally touring cast of the Tony Award-winning musical, Hairspray. She will be back Feb. 4–5 on the same stage where so many Viterbo musical theatre graduates like her have performed.
“That’s going to feel crazy. I’ve already been thinking about that,” Johnson said in a phone interview from a weeklong stop in Columbus, Ohio. “I can’t even really wrap my mind around it.”
Most nights on the Hairspray tour she takes the stage as Lorraine, a featured ensemble character, and there’s a certain comfort level in that. In 2018, during summer break from her studies at Viterbo, she played the same teenaged character in a community theatre production in a city near Omaha, Neb., where she grew up.
“I love this show. It’s one of those shows where you really can’t not have fun,” Johnson said. “To do it with the original choreography and some of the original creative team from the original run is amazing.”
In addition to portraying Lorraine, Johnson also is the understudy for a major Hairspray character, Motormouth Maybelle Stubbs, who was played onscreen by Queen Latifah in the 2007 movie remake of John Waters’ 1988 original movie. Motormouth is a record store owner, R&B deejay, and host of “Negro Day” on The Corny Collins Show, the 1960s teen dance show around which the Hairspray story revolves.
An understudy in normal times could go a whole run without being called on to fill in. COVID-19 has changed that. The first week Johnson hit the road with the Hairspray tour, she found out two hours before show time that she would take the stage as Motormouth that night and the next four performances in Oklahoma City.
Johnson had only had three rehearsals in which she played Motormouth, but she was ready. “I knew the material and knew the lines, and I had been doing some outside work on it,” she said. “It’s a bit of a challenge, playing someone so much older. The key is to not try too hard to appear older.”
The firstborn child of Mike and Carolyn Johnson (an accountant and travel agent, respectively), she was a natural performer from an early age, mostly in the form of singing. She didn’t really get into theatre until her first year of high school, when she was in a production of Once Upon a Mattress. She had no lines in the show, but she was hooked.
“It essentially changed the entire trajectory of my life,” Johnson said. “I thought, ‘I have to figure out a way to keep doing this.’”
Despite a late start, she quickly showed major promise, winning a chance to represent Nebraska at a national high school musical theatre competition in New York City, where she finished in the top four. “It was very humbling but it also lit an even bigger fire,” she said.
Johnson’s high school theatre director first put Viterbo on Johnson’s radar. The director had done her graduate theatre studies at the University of South Dakota under Janet McLean, who had moved on to teaching in the Viterbo theatre program.
With McLean’s recommendation, Johnson sought out Viterbo’s representatives, Matthew Scott Campbell and Rick Walters, at a college theatre program audition in Chicago. “They were so nice and made me feel so comfortable,” she said. “After that, I felt deeply that I was going to end up at Viterbo.”
Looking back, she’s glad she chose Viterbo and would recommend Viterbo's musical theatre program to anyone. “I felt like I knew everyone in the theatre program and all of my professors really well. I recommend the program to any upcoming college freshmen that I can,” Johnson said. “Even with the pandemic, I feel like I ended my senior year with all the same knowledge and experiences I would have had. And I felt like I was leaving as a unique artist.”
Johnson graduated just as Broadway and theatres in general were coming back to life after pandemic shutdowns. “It was the perfect time to graduate. They were casting everything again,” she said. “I graduated into a kind of renaissance of the theatre, which was very reassuring.”
After graduation, she landed work doing summer stock theatre in Iowa. She’s also done a number of Omaha theatre productions, including A Christmas Carol, Kinky Boots, and Little Shop of Horrors. In March and April of this year, she was booked to workshop a new musical in New York City, which she now calls home when she’s not on the road.
While Johnson definitely sees the attraction of doing shows in one place closer to home, she has loved getting paid to see the country in a touring theatre production. “If it’s the right show, I would absolutely go on the road again,” she said. “The most important thing is I don’t want to put too much expectation on what I would like my career to look like.”