Growing up in Howard County, Caroline Bowman often fantasized about what it would be like to star in a Broadway musical.
On an October afternoon in Manhattan in 2011, she came one step closer to finding out.
"My cellphone rang and it was the casting director of 'Wicked,' " recalls the 2006 Glenelg High School graduate. "He said, 'Caroline, I'd like to offer you your Broadway debut.' '"
To make the moment that much sweeter, Bowman's mother, Connie, was by was by her side when it happened.
"I had just moved to New York City three weeks before and my mom was visiting," Bowman says. "She was standing right next to me when I got the news. ... I mean, how special is that? Nothing will ever top that."
Perhaps not, but landing the starring role in the hit musical, "Evita," probably ranks a close second.
On Sunday, Caroline Bowman will star as Eva Peron when the Tony Award nominated Best Revival of a Musical kicks off its 25-city national tour in Providence, R.I. The Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice production had a successful revival on Broadway in 2012 and was nominated for three Tony Awards. The bio-operetta chronicles the life of Argentina's charismatic former first lady and her rise from poverty to power. The show enjoys a spot in the pop culture lexicon thanks in part to its iconic number "Don't Cry for me Argentina."
What teenage girl with musical theater aspirations hasn't sung that song into a hairbrush in front of her bedroom mirror?
"I certainly did," says Bowman, 25, with a laugh during a recent phone conversation from her home in New York City. "I just recently sang it in rehearsal for the first time from the balcony," she says of the pivotal scene in "Evita" when Peron addresses an adoring crowd with a melody of regret and defiance.
"When I finished singing, I just started crying," the actress admits. "It wasn't until that moment that I fully realized the power of that song. I just felt it in my whole body.I don't think I'll ever forget it."
Bowman's Broadway career may have begun with a phone call but her knack for performing was apparently evident from a very young age.
"Even as a bald-headed 2-year-old Caroline had perfect pitch," says Fulton resident Connie Bowman of her daughter's singing ability. "She had such bravado and would always end with a really big finish which was hilarious."
At 12, a leading role
Connie Bowman, an actress herself, was active in community theater when Caroline was growing up and it didn't take long for the daughter to follow in her mother's footsteps. By the time she was 12, the performer landed her first lead role in a production of "The Secret Garden," staged by The Heritage Players in Catonsville.
From then on, it was full steam ahead.
"I noticed her talent immediately," says Susan Miller, Glenelg High School's theater arts teacher for the past 15 years. Even more impressive, she notes, was Bowman's work ethic.
"Caroline was the student who had the leading roles and yet was also the last one in the dressing room helping me clean at the end of the night."
"I was a total theater geek in high school," Bowman acknowledges.
In her freshman year, the actress won ensemble roles in Glenelg's fall and spring productions and by the following year, she was landing lead roles.
As a sophomore, she played Rizzo in "Grease" and in a unique casting decision; she also won the role of Leading Player in the musical "Pippin," a character normally played by a man.
"It's an emotional role and I thought Caroline could pull it off," Miller says.
Evidently, she was right. That year, Bowman's performance in "Pippin" won her the award for "Best Leading Actress in a Musical" at the Cappies, a program that honors the best in high school theater. She took home a golden trophy again the following year for her turn as Marian, in "The Music Man." At Glenelg, the actress also starred in productions of "Fame" and "Once Upon a Mattress" and would occasionally cross paths in the hallways with her father, Rob Bowman, the school's wrestling coach.
"Both of my parents were always super supportive."
That entailed toting their daughter to rehearsals for the Howard County Chorus and classes at the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts founded by Toby Orenstein, co-owner and artistic director of Toby's Dinner Theatre.
"I got my first professional acting job from Toby Orenstein," says Bowman of performing at the venerable Columbia theater.
Trips to China, Turkey
By the time it came for Bowman to head off to college, it was clear she would pursue an acting career. In 2010, she graduated from Penn State with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Musical Theatre. During her senior year at the university, the actress traveled to China to perform the lead in "Fame," and in Turkey she once again played Rizzo in "Grease." With the ink barely dry on her diploma, she then landed the role of The Lady of the Lake in a national touring production of the musical, "Spamalot." The part calls for a big-voiced belter and offered Bowman the chance to sing several show-stopping numbers.
When the 10-month long tour came to an end, Bowman returned to Howard County for a few regional acting gigs before following her dream to make it on Broadway. Her move to New York City two years ago was partially funded with the $2,500 she was awarded as the second-place finisher in the 2007 Howard County Arts Council's Rising Star competition.
Within just a few weeks of moving to the Big Apple, Bowman got that phone call to join the Tony Award winning musical, "Wicked." She was cast in the ensemble and as the understudy for the lead role of the green-skinned witch, Elphaba.
"Being an understudy is very challenging," says Bowman. "After each performance, I would go home and practice Elphaba's lines just in case I got the call that I needed to go on. I wanted the lines to be the last thing on my mind, so I wouldn't panic if I had to step in."
As it turned out, Bowman got to perform the lead role on three separate occasions, and friends and family were there to see it happen.
"Watching Caroline on Broadway for the first time was the most exciting night of my professional career," says Susan Miller, Bowman's former drama teacher. "I was holding her grandma's hand when (Caroline) walked on stage. It was truly a magical moment."
Bowman was still part of the "Wicked" troupe when she auditioned for a new musical based on a 2005 film about a struggling shoemaker and his drag queen business partner. The show eventually got the green light, and Bowman was part of the original cast when it opened in Chicago in October of 2012. Six months later "Kinky Boots," with music by pop star Cyndi Lauper, debuted on Broadway. In June, the show won six Tony Awards including Best Musical.
During the awards ceremony, Bowman made her national television debut when the cast of "Kinky Boots" performed live near the end of the program.
"That whole day I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience," the actress recalls. "We had to wake up really early for a dress rehearsal at Radio City Music Hall and then we got get bused back across town to our own theater to do a matinee show."
After taking their final bow at the end of that afternoon performance, the "Kinky Boots" cast got back on the bus to close out the Tony Awards show. It was a long day, so what happened next isn't all that surprising.
"After we came off the stage, I literally passed out," Bowman says with a laugh. "I don't know what happened but I fell to the ground. It was crazy how excited I was ... I was fine right after."
Many callbacks for 'Evita'
Given what was happening in Bowman's life at the time, it's understandable how she may have felt a bit overwhelmed. Just a month before her TV debut, the actress learned she had won the leading role in the national tour of "Evita."
"I found out I got the part on May 7, which is Eva Peron's birthday," Bowman says.
The good news came after a long and strenuous tryout process.
"My first audition was in February of this year and then I went through eight or nine callbacks," she says.
It can't be easy to navigate the ups and downs inherent with Bowman's profession, but the actress says her training makes steadying her emotions a lot easier.
"Yes, I use all I've learned when I'm creating a role or performing, but I was also taught that it's a skill to audition," she notes. "Sometimes you only have three or four minutes in a room with somebody to convince them that you're the right person for the part. Auditioning is my job. Getting to perform in a show is the prize."
Even so, it's a reward that requires a lot of work.
"I've done as much research as I can about Eva Peron," says Bowman. "I'm trying to learn as much as I can about her and use what I know about her life to help me develop my character."
On top of that, for the weeks leading up to the tour's opening weekend, Bowman has been rehearsing eight hours a day, six days a week.
"There is a lot of singing and dancing in 'Evita,' " she says. "It's very physically demanding but I love every minute of it."
Playing an iconic role in a hit musical is no small task, but it's one that Bowman embraces.
"I feel like every part of my journey to this point has prepared me for the next job," she says. "With 'Kinky Boots' I got to open a show on Broadway and feel what it's like to be part of a company — which is completely different than being a replacement, which I was in 'Wicked.'