NEW YORK — Elizabeth A. Davis is the kind of woman who sets goals, writes them down and puts them on the fridge. It just makes sense.
"People need to know where they're going. If you don't have a map and you're driving a car, you're going to end up who knows where. So I have a map," says the actress and musician.
How's the journey going these days?
"I'm getting good gas mileage," she says with a laugh.
Davis is indeed. After years of toil in regional theater and off-Broadway, she made her Broadway debut in March in the hit musical "Once" and promptly earned her first Tony Award nomination.
"I'm incredibly honored and very thankful," she says during an interview in her flower-filled dressing room at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. "I will carry it as a banner for all of us and say, `This is a nod for us, for our ensemble.'"
The show earned 11 nominations, including the lead actors Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti. Davis, who plays a friend of Milioti's character, was nominated for best performance by an actress in a featured role in a musical.
Next month, she'll face-off against Jayne Houdyshell from "Follies," Judy Kaye in "Nice Work If You Can Get It," Jessie Mueller from "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" and Da'Vine Joy Randolph in "Ghost the Musical."
Davis admits to being very competitive, but she isn't even thinking about winning the Tony. "I don't know if I could handle it. Up to this point, I'm like up to here," she says, patting the top of her head. "I'm like, `Guys, that's enough for one year.'"
The musical is based on the film "Once," which follows the love story of a Czech pianist and an Irish guitarist in Dublin. Made for about $150,000, the film earned $20 million, thanks in part to an original score that included the sublime, 2007 Oscar-winning song, "Falling Slowly."
The 31-year-old Davis has been with the show since it was developed at the American Repertory Theater outside Boston in the spring of 2011. She originally auditioned to play the lead role of the Czech pianist but there was a snag: She only plays piano by ear.
But the actress had too many tricks up her sleeve: Besides singing, dancing and acting, she has played the violin since age 3 and the production was in desperate need of a fiddle player. It didn't hurt that Davis looks like a model.
Davis was offered the role of Reza and she soon defined the part to suit her skills. Her Reza is now a whiskey-drinking Czech seductress who loves Irish soap operas and has some of the funniest lines. "I don't have regrets. I can't imagine a more perfect fit for me, personally," she says.
Watching Davis onstage is like watching a whirling dervish. One minute she's jumping up on a bar, the next she's moving tables, dancing while playing the violin, doing the tango or swaying delicately to the choreography. She does it all in a short skirt and boots, with an athletic grace.
"It is physically demanding," says the actress, who has sworn off alcohol and caffeine because they trigger migraines. "I'm being kept in shape by the show, I'll tell you that much."
She learned that she'd been nominated for the Tony when her downstairs neighbor excitedly pounded on her door and woke her up. Davis and her husband, Jordan Richard, a freelance TV director and tour manager for the band Atomic Tom, had turned off their phones.
John Tiffany, the show's director, gushes that Davis has been an incredible asset to the show and was absolutely delighted that she was recognized by the Tony Award nominating committee.
"Sometimes it goes the way you want it to. Elizabeth deserves it. She works really, really hard with no sense of expectation," he says in a phone interview. "There couldn't be a better example of divine justice."
Davis grew up in the Texas Panhandle town of Channing, population 356, and earned a bachelor's from Baylor University in theatre arts after deciding that a career in the orchestra pit wasn't for her. She also holds a master's degree in theatre performance from Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House.
Her credits include "The 39 Steps" at New World Stages, "The Misanthrope" at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey and playing Emily Dickinson at Theatre Row. Her TV roles include stints on "Fringe" and "All My Children" and playing Pretty Girl in an episode of USA's "White Collar."
"I have struggled immensely in this city," she says. "Definitely, I'm working my way up. There have been many nights of crying myself to sleep because I didn't know how I was going to pay the rent."
The show, which is the actress' first professional musical, has given Davis a chance to reconnect with the violin. And the one she has been playing onstage has a very personal connection: It was made in 1897 in Paris and Davis' grandmother bought it for her when she was 12. It is named Greta.
"To be able to have that piece of personal history onstage with me every night is so special," she says. An emotional highlight for her came when her family came from Texas to listen to her play on a Broadway stage with that special violin tucked under her neck. "I was onstage with tears running down my face. Just feeling – I don't know – the completion of a journey."
She and her husband had become fans of the simple, bittersweet film "Once" when they saw it during an early date in a downtown movie theater in 2006. She remembers walking out and debating what happened to the couple in the film – Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard. Fast- forward to today: Now she can text Hansard whenever she likes and recently played violin on Irglova's upcoming album.
Not that she's at all jaded. She admits to recently battling nerves while performing songs at a concert at New York University alongside established singing stars like Kate Shindle, Danny Burstein and Rory O'Malley.
"About 15 minutes before we went on, I was crying in the corner. I'm not used to this. I have never sung in concert. I don't know how to do this," she says. "It's just so brand-spanking new."
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