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Rita Wilson: Showing Her Moxie as "Roxie" on the Great White Way

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Yesterday afternoon, I finally sent the galley proofs of my book on fearlessness off to the printer -- which means the next time I get my hands on it it will be between hard covers and beyond my obsession to make any more changes.

I celebrated this milestone by going to see Rita Wilson making her Broadway debut as Roxie Hart in the ongoing revival of Bob Fosse's Chicago at the Ambassador Theater.

While working on my book, I had spoken to Rita about her lifelong dream of appearing in a musical, and facing all the fears associated with being 49 years old and never having sang or danced professionally before and then suddenly doing it for the first time. On Broadway. In a hit show. In a demanding star turn like Roxie.

And now here she was, just a few months later, living out her dream. It was a week after her opening night, and she was absolutely amazing -- funny, sexy, charismatic, completely owning the role and the stage. Call me a softie, but when the crowd jumped to its feet and gave Rita a standing ovation during her curtain call, I had goosebumps all over. This was everything I'd been writing about come to life: Becoming Fearless... and all that jazz.

"I'd always wanted to do a musical," a beaming Wilson told me after the show, "but I always had a reason for putting it off. I'll wait until the kids are older. I'll wait until I do that movie. I'll wait until this and that. Then, when the offer to do this came along, I had to ask myself, 'What are you really waiting for?'"

When Rita told her agents that she wanted to do the role, "It was like I was revealing to them my most personal secret... standing naked in front of them."

Still hesitant about saying yes, she called up Brooke Shields and Melanie Griffith who had done the show before her, and who encouraged her to take the leap. "They told me I'd have the time of my life... and they were right!"

I asked Rita if there was ever a time during the rehearsal process where she didn't think she would be able to pull it off. "Absolutely," she laughed. "I love doing puzzles, and I approached doing this show as if it was a puzzle that needed to be put together piece by piece -- so it wouldn't seem so overwhelming. But at one point I suddenly thought, 'This is just one big blue sky, how am I supposed to make sense of it?' But there were all these great people there to help me figure it out -- the dance captain, Gregory Butler, the musical conductor, Leslie Stifelman, my fellow actors -- and they helped me see that there was a piece of cloud over here and a sliver of sun over there, and little by little it all came together."

After the performance, a few of Rita's friends joined us at a bar near the theater to toast her. Nia Vardalos, whose smash hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding Rita produced, was exuberant. "Her fearlessness is contagious," she said. "I walked into the theater with butterflies in my stomach -- frankly, I was terrified for my friend. Would she be able to pull it off? After all, this is Broadway. But she more than pulled it off. The same tenaciousness she showed in fighting to have me keep the role in the film version of Greek Wedding, came through here. She took the leap and just soared."

Filmmaker David O. Russell was philosophical: "She was lit up like a Christmas tree. I've never seen her like that. She was radiating the liberating feeling people get when they've gone through the gauntlet. It's what happens when you overcome whatever fears are holding you back -- you move into this natural state of grace. It's like what Goethe said: 'At the moment of commitment, the entire universe conspires to assure your success.'"

"I loved the feeling," said Laurie David, "of seeing a friend emanate joy and talent from ever pore in her body."

The discussion veered to fear in general. "Growing up," said Kristen Gore, whose book, Sammy Hill is being turned into a movie by David Russell, "my fears were populated by the villains from Star Wars. I was constantly terrified that Darth Vader was lurking in the hallway closet or the Emperor was lying in wait underneath my bed. I still occasionally think of the world in those terms. For the last six years, I've felt like our country has been in The Empire Strikes Back phase of the original Star Wars trilogy. Hopefully that means Return of the Jedi is right around the corner."

Clearly still buzzing from the performance, Rita admitted that being a 49-year old Broadway virgin wasn't all bouquets and standing ovations."This is hard work," she laughed. It's incredibly demanding but the energy you get from performing in front of a live audience somehow carries you through and it helps you accept yourself with all your flaws and vulnerability. At one point in the show I come out wearing this tiny little silk outfit, and it's like, okay, this is me, this is who I am. It's very scary but also very freeing."

One thing is clear: we'll be seeing more of Rita on stage. Roxie always dreamed of being in vaudeville and, in the end, she becomes a star by killing somebody. As for Rita, to realize her dream, she just had to kill her fears.