From Understudy to Leading Lady to Quarantine: A Teen Broadway Star's Journey As Coronavirus Shutters Show

Presley is one of millions of teenagers across the country who are now missing their formative teenage moments.

It was just before 7 p.m. and Presley Ryan, about to step on stage in “Beetlejuice” on Broadway, grabbed a few pennies and placed them into her bulky black boots for good luck. 

“I wear them throughout the entire show because I am a very superstitious person,” Presley, 16, told from her dressing room at the Winter Garden Theatre March 10. 

Something she wasn’t banking on that Tuesday night was playing her final performance of Lydia Deetz, a role made famous by Winona Ryder that she in turn made her own, in the musical adaptation of the 1988 cult classic film. 

Presley is one of millions of teenagers across the country who are now missing their formative teenage moments: proms, recitals, spring musicals, graduations and sporting championships have all been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. For Presley, the opportunity to be the leading lady of a Broadway musical -- a less common but just as important right of passage for this young person’s life -- was put on hold.

  • For more on Presley's former routine, check out the video at the top of the page!

Just two weeks earlier, it was announced Presley would be permanently taking over the role of Lydia until March 31. Her chance had come after spending nearly two years as an understudy for the part. Finally, Presley would get the bigger dressing room closer to the stage and her name would get top billing on the marquee and in the playbill. Most importantly, she was getting the chance to shine. 

No show was scheduled to go on Wednesday, March 11, and then, on Thursday, March 12, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered Broadway shows to close their doors at 5 p.m. to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. New York City’s public schools closed shortly thereafter. Presley had nowhere to be but home. 

“I am home now with my family doing online school and I have been FaceTiming with the cast on Saturday nights via zoom calls,” she said. It was the new normal in a life spent in quarantine. 

A Day in the (Former) Life

These days, Presley’s life is less hectic than she’s accustomed to.

Before the pandemic hit New York, a typical weekday for the sophomore began at 7:30 a.m. She’d stop at Starbucks for a “Very Berry” hibiscus tea before making her way to her performing arts high school in Manhattan. The bell would ring at 8:15 a.m. for Presley’s first class of the day, and she’d go non-stop until 1:30 p.m., when the ringing bell signaled an end to academic responsibilities. 

Then, Presley would head to dance class at Rosie’s Theatre Kids. Next, Presley would have gone to physical therapy, the grocery store and warmed up for an hour before reaching the stage door on 53rd and Broadway with a cup of soup in hand from Pret A Manger for dinner. 

Presley spent about an hour getting ready for the show, and often could be found multitasking. As she got her makeup done and her long blond hair put into pin curls, Presley would scroll through Instagram and TikTok with one hand while using the other to hold up a special steamer called a PurMist to clear her vocal cords. 

“I use it before every show. It’s really good for your voice,” she explained. The soup carried in from outside and a cup of tea help cap off the voice care regimen. “I'm like, ‘Okay, how's my voice feeling today? How am I feeling physically?’ And I think I make those little check-ins throughout the day just to make sure that I am prepared to do a show tonight,” she said.

Never once on show days did Presley stop to take a nap, giving it her all from early in the morning until late at night. “On Wednesdays, I usually go to bed at midnight or 1 o'clock if I am feeling risky,” Presley admitted. On days with earlier show times, she’d hit the pillow around 11:30 p.m. “Most of my castmates get to sleep in, so I am definitely jealous of them.”

Grades Matter  

As the only kid in the show, her castmates don’t have to worry about homework, either. 

“Usually, I don't have that much time to do my homework, but my teachers are really good about letting me make it up and be late with it, which is actually great,” Presley said. Some days she will work on it in her dressing room during intermission or when she gets home from the show. “It's definitely hard to manage it all.”

“I’ve told Presley, and a lot of the other kids, the days are long,” Presley’s dance teacher Carlos Encinias said. “I don’t find any difference professionally than what they are doing. Even though they are very young, it is good practice for what they are going to have to juggle professionally if this is the field you're choosing.”

Presley recently took the PSATs. “You’re supposed to take it cold, so you don't really prepare,” Presley said. “It’s to see where you're at with everything. So I took the test and then I had to leave early for my matinee and so I bubbled in a bunch of answers and left.”

Despite rushing through the exam, “She’s really committed to being a good student,” her chemistry teacher Justin Golino said. “Her personality and will to do well always translates.”

Booking It

Presley’s will to do well may be one of the reasons for her quick rise to stardom. She always enjoyed the performing arts arts as a young girl, but the theater bug hit after she took an acting class at the suggestion of one of her mom’s friends. 

“One day she told me I should audition for a Broadway show. So I did, and I actually got a callback,” Presley recalled of an audition for the musical "Matilda." “Then, we were like, ‘Oh, this is actually something that I can maybe start doing.’ And ever since then I've been doing this.”

At 10, she was cast as an understudy for the two youngest Von Trapp children in “The Sound of Music Live” on NBC starring Carrie Underwood in 2013. She then starred as Cindy Lou Who in a 2014 production of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” at Madison Square Garden. 

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She was 11 when she originated the role of little Cee Cee in a musical version of Bette Midler’s “Beaches” in 2015. Presley’s big break came later that year when she made her Broadway debut in “Fun Home.” She turned 12 during the run. And at 13, she played a younger version of Natasha Lyonne’s "Nicky Nichols" in an episode of “Orange Is the New Black.”

Presley was 14 when she auditioned for a lab of “Beetlejuice” in January 2018 but “they actually didn’t end up needing me,” she said. So when the casting office called her to be a part of the out-of-town tryout in Washington D.C., “I was so excited. I was in the car with my mom, and I was over the moon. I would not stop crying.”

Presley, 15 at the time, needed a “wrangler,” or an adult who would stay with her at all times since she wasn’t allowed to be backstage without one present. “Being a teenager on Broadway I think is definitely very different from doing it as an adult for sure, but I actually really like it.” 

Now that she’s 16, she is free to be more independent. 

In “Beetlejuice,” Presley was originally cast as “the dead jockey” and understudied the “Girl Scout” who visits the haunted home of Lydia Deetz, a teenager whose mother died. She had stepped into both of those costumes multiple times before taking on the role full-time for eight shows a week at the end of February. 

Presley Ryan

“It’s definitely a big difference,” Presley said of changing parts. “I definitely still get nervous; not as nervous as I used to be in the beginning, but they're still different moments in the show where different nerves just come through my body, and I'm like, ‘Oh, I didn't realize I was nervous, and now I am.’”

TikTok Fandom 

As Lydia, Presley spent more time on stage than off, which meant less time to make TikTok videos. She has 210,000 followers on the platform from posting behind-the-scenes moments from the show. It’s a glimpse into a world audiences don’t get to see from their seats in the theater. 

The “Beetlejuice” TikTok fandom was born when Alex Brightman, who plays the title role, asked what the new teen slang terms were these days. That’s when Presley told him about TikTok and they started making short videos for the platform. Over time, the TikToks gained a huge following.

The cast’s willingness to entertain on another platform helped usher in a younger audience. A search using the hashtag #Beetlejuice garners more than 1.2 billion views. And the payoff has been seen elsewhere, too. The original Broadway cast recording got 100 million streams in its first five month and is the #1 top streaming Broadway cast album of the 2018/2019 Broadway season. “It's really cool to see that we have so many fans from TikTok that don't even know what ‘Beetlejuice’ is because I'll be on the street and I'll hear somebody like, ‘Oh my God, that's the TikTok show!’” 

“It’s definitely a different kind of fan base that Broadway has ever experienced before because this is definitely like a new thing,” she continued. “I think it's really exciting.”

At Home

For now, Presley has been passing the time making TikToks at home and focusing on her homework while she and her family wait to hear when shows on Broadway will resume.

Shows were originally slated to return Monday, April 13, but the Broadway League announced Thursday that shows will not resume until June 7. “Beetlejuice” was set to close on June 6 so “The Music Man” starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster can move in, meaning "Beetlejuice" played its final performance on March 10. The producers are still considering if there is an opportunity for “Beetlejuice” to return to Broadway in another theater. 

“I miss all the fans and I miss connecting with you all,” she said. “I hope everybody is staying safe and healthy during this time.”

“There are definitely a lot of things I want to do in the future. I haven't really made plans yet. I am still discovering who I am and what I want to do.”