Tessa Grady makes her living singing and dancing on Broadway stages. Her life is the dream of so many young performers.
And while she had a strong foundation in her trade, performing in regional theater groups, like the Cabrillo Music Theatre, it wasn’t until the 21-year-old found her way back into the classrooms at Santa Susana High School in Simi Valley that she developed a wider range of skills that makes her more marketable for producers today.
“The teachers told me you’re going to do everything differently,” Tessa said. “They stretched me. I said, ‘I’m an alto.’ Mrs. (Bevin) Abbe said, ‘You’re going to be a soprano.’ I thank her every day because I’ve played multiple roles as a soprano, and I never thought I could have that range.
“It was the same with the drama and dance classes,” she continued. “They would throw things at you, not just to make you uncomfortable, but to put variety in your skills. No performer can be successful if you only do one thing well. That’s what the teachers there already knew, that you’ve got to do it all.”
Tessa, now based in New York City, but currently working in Chicago in a new musical, First Wives Club, had been mostly homeschooled until high school. Her mom, Ginny Grady, knew that her extraverted daughter needed more people around her.
“I did my best to keep her socialized, but I saw that she needed a bigger pond to swim in,” she said.
Living in the Conejo Valley, Ginny Grady discovered Santa Susana High School and thought that between the school’s performing arts focus, small size and strong reputation for excellence, it was the perfect fit for her daughter.
“Santa Susana is an amazing school and it was the perfect transition for Tessa,” she said.
Tessa comes by her talent naturally. Her mother still works in theater, and has helped produce and direct shows at Cabrillo and even Santa Susana, after Tessa graduated. Tessa’s father, Don Grady, was a child actor who played the role of Robbie on My Three Sons. He went on to become a Mousketeer for the Mickey Mouse Club and stayed in the industry working, on the music side, until his death from cancer in 2012.
Ginny Grady said her husband wasn’t keen on Tessa’s theater ambitions and wouldn’t allow her to have an agent until she was 16.
“He saw that she had that spark and performing gene in her,” Ginny Grady said. “But he had his childhood cut short. I really appreciated that view that he brought into this aspect of it. It made her more grounded.”
So Tessa honed her skills locally and at school until she graduated. Then, with her parent’s blessing, she gave herself one year to work before she would apply to college.
“I had gotten signed with my talent agency my last year at Santa Su. I went into classes and training (vocal and dance) to make sure I didn’t fall behind. But that whole first year I worked in California. I was consistently booked. The next fall came around and I was trying to fill out my applications but I was so busy working I couldn’t find the time to fill out the applications. I said, ‘Wait a second. This is what I’m doing.’”
She decided to keep performing until she wasn’t getting any work. That has yet to happen. Instead, she received a call about two years ago for an audition in New York for Mama Mia! Of course she would go, she told her agent. She always wanted to live in New York.
But just as she was leaving, another call came in saying that the producers of Annie were very interested and could she audition for them? Annie, on Broadway! That was her dream.
She auditioned and they hired her almost immediately. Her role was the aspiring actress who walks through the stage singing while Annie and Daddy Warbucks are touring the city, a short but very sweet solo for this first time Broadway performer.
Annie folded about six months later and Tessa went on to land a role in the ensemble of Cinderella. She also served as the understudy to Cinderella.
Did she ever get to fill in for the star?
“They kept bringing in celebrities to be Cinderella. And they were never there long enough to get sick so I could take over,” she said.
Still, it was an amazing show to work on. It, too, closed about six months later, but Tessa was able to land more roles, never being out of work for long.
The hope now is that First Wives Club will take off in Chicago and work its way back to Broadway.
Learning life skills are an important part of high school as well, and Tessa says that Santa Susana’s teachers didn’t short-change her on those either.
“I think that high school teachers especially give you a chance to realize that people aren’t just going to let you pass through life with a smile and some charm,” she said. “They are teaching you that if you don’t pay your bills, buy your groceries, send in the paperwork and do your taxes that there are going to be consequences. I didn’t realize how much those lessons are worth until I came to New York. This stuff is important. These teachers are teaching you. They’re going to put their foot down and be hard on you because you’re going to be ready for life. That’s the best thing they give you.”