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When Emily Jean Stone was 9 years old — long before she became Hollywood royalty as Emma Stone — she and her mother went to see the1998 Broadway revival of “Cabaret” during one of their regular theater jaunts from Arizona. The show’s dark portrait of pre-World War II Berlin didn’t faze Ms. Stone; her father had raised her on repeated viewings of the prison film “The Shawshank Redemption,” after all. But the singing changed the way she imagined her future as a performer.
“Listening to Natasha Richardson, I realized you could be an actor in a musical and not have the perfect voice I’d heard on cast recordings,” Ms. Stone recalled of the production’s star.
“I don’t have this gorgeous untouchable voice, and it was Natasha who really lit a fuse under me to try musicals and play Sally someday,” she added of Richardson’s Tony Award-winning performance as the sensitive and increasingly desperate singer Sally Bowles.
Yet in 2013, Sally and “Cabaret” marked a low point in Ms. Stone’s otherwise charmed career as her generation’s most genial It Girl, a reputation built on pretense-free performances in movies like “Easy A,” the recent “Spider-Man” series and the new, critically acclaimed “Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.”
Ms. Stone was first chosen last year to originate the part of Sally in the new “Cabaret” revival, only to drop out suddenly and be replaced by Ms. Williams, who has played the role since the first performance on March 21. “It was painful,” Ms. Stone said in her first public comments about the experience, during a recent interview near her home in the West Village.
Stars rarely discuss dream projects that they’ve fumbled, or mistakes they’ve made along the way, in as much detail as Ms. Stone offered, a reflection of the down-to-earth reputation that she exudes in person as much as on screen. Ms. Stone said she learned a good deal from the experience — the demands of being in demand, the need to say no sometimes, the humbling nature of being a replacement in a starring role on Broadway. And that a dream can come around again.
“I’d said goodbye to the idea of ever playing Sally on Broadway, and it upset me; it really upset me,” Ms. Stone, 25, said, in between bites of a turkey burger and fries. “But I think it also helped me learn about having a real work-life balance, as cliché as that sounds.”
Rob Marshall, who with Sam Mendes directed both the 1998 “Cabaret” and the current one, first contacted Ms. Stone years ago about other projects, and was impressed with her self-awareness and instincts: He had talked to her about playing Cinderella in his film adaptation of “Into the Woods,” for instance, but she said she didn’t have the vocal range for the part. (“She did ask, ‘Could I play Jack?’ ” Mr. Marshall said with a chuckle about the movie’s beanstalk climber; Anna Kendrick got the role of Cinderella.) But Mr. Marshall did think she had the voice to play Sally, so Ms. Stone flew to London in the spring of 2013 to audition for Mr. Mendes. Soon after, the part was hers.
“She doesn’t know how to sing a lyric without giving it color and feeling and point of view,” Mr. Marshall said of Ms. Stone’s audition and rehearsal work. “A lot of actors are preoccupied with the technical work and hitting the notes. Emma illuminates.”
As thrilled as she was to be cast in “Cabaret,” Ms. Stone quickly became worried about scheduling. While she had movie shoots with the directors Woody Allen and Cameron Crowe through 2013, the big concern was publicity events for “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” in the spring of 2014 — around the time that “Cabaret” would begin performances. According to her film contract, the publicity events took priority. A schedule was worked out that would allow Ms. Stone to do “Cabaret” yet miss several previews and more than a dozen regular performances soon after opening night.
“There was one day on the schedule where I would land from Tokyo in the morning and have enough time to make it to perform in that afternoon’s matinee,” Ms. Stone said, pulling up the sleeves of her black cotton sweater over her wrists and hands. “I realized that this schedule would turn the dream of playing Sally into a kind of nightmare. It felt like forcing something that wouldn’t fit. But I was telling myself I can do this, and everyone wanted to make it work, and it’s hard to say no when people are being so accommodating. But part of me also thought, ‘It’s going to kill me.’ ”
She said she also didn’t want to repeat an earlier experience where a plum opportunity turned into a hard time: The 2010 movie “Easy A,” a high school comedy that was her first starring role.
“I desperately wanted to do ‘Easy A,’ but my mom was also really, really sick, and I couldn’t go home to Arizona during the two-month shoot,” Ms. Stone said of her mother, Krista, who was battling breast cancer. “I was 20 years old, working on this project I loved but not sleeping and just working flat out. It was a really difficult time.” (Krista is now cancer free; mother and daughter got matching blackbird-foot tattoos after the treatments, with Ms. Stone’s on her left wrist.
According to Will Gluck, the “Easy A” director, Ms. Stone had “such a total work ethic” that virtually no one knew about her mother’s illness during its filming in Ojai, Calif.
“She was able to deal with it partly because the shoot was so hard and quick that we didn’t have very much time to think about other things,” Mr. Gluck said. “She is so fun in the movie, especially considering what she was going through. But by the end, I think not being with her mom had really affected her.”
Concerning “Cabaret,” Ms. Stone ultimately pulled out just before a publicity photo shoot with Alan Cumming, who has been reprising his performance of the Emcee from the 1998 revival. Making phone calls and writing emails about her decision was one of the most uncomfortable days of her life, she said.
“It was like breaking up with someone you love, but you know the breakup is the right thing,” she said.
For Roundabout Theater Company, the producer of the “Cabaret” revivals, Ms. Stone’s departure came as a jolt. She was the first choice to play Sally, and her star power would have generated significant ticket sales for the nonprofit company, which had been struggling with sizable budget deficits. (Leaders of Roundabout have emphasized they were bringing back “Cabaret” for artistic reasons, not financial ones.) Todd Haimes, Roundabout’s artistic director, said that he and others briefly considered trying to talk Ms. Stone out of her decision, but quickly decided to leave.
“I was in total despair, because I’d gotten to love Emma through our email, but also because I knew Sam and Rob weren’t going to stick with the revival just for the sake of doing it,” Mr. Haimes said. He had been through something like this before, when Megan Mullally quit a 2010 Roundabout production of “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” which was then canceled. “It’s just very rare when a star drops out like that. I saw six months of planning going down the drain.”
Mr. Marshall, for his part, said he was disappointed but understood Ms. Stone’s thinking, saying, “You don’t want to do something like this partially.”
Ms. Williams was the other actress that the “Cabaret” directors and Roundabout had been considering for Sally, and to Mr. Haimes’s surprise and relief, she accepted the role. When the show opened in April, Ms. Williams went on to earn mixed reviews, as did the production, but Mr. Haimes said he was delighted with her performance. Then, weeks later, he was notified that Ms. Stone was coming to see the show, and greeted her afterward. He had no agenda, he said, but Ms. Stone quickly told him that she still wanted to play the role. Mr. Haimes agreed, and plans were put in motion.
Ms. Stone said she wasn’t troubled by the reviews for Ms. Williams (whom she praised), or, for that matter, by the possibility of being compared to Richardson.
“There’s a really great gift in Sally that any insecurity, any sense that I’m not good enough, is all part of the character,” Ms. Stone said.
It did take Ms. Stone a while to wrap her head around the idea of coming in after Ms. Williams, since that sort of replacement casting — while common on Broadway — doesn’t happen in film.
“It was weird to think of wearing someone else’s clothes,” Ms. Stone said of taking over the part. “But this was my chance to do ‘Cabaret’ with Alan and in Studio 54, and that would never happen again.”
While Ms. Stone performed in theater throughout her childhood in Scottsdale — she made her stage debut in the first grade in the school musical “No Turkey for Perky” — Broadway had never been a destination in and of itself. She drew a contrast between her arrival in “Cabaret” and the plot of “Birdman,” where the main character (played by Michael Keaton) is a washed-up film actor who decides to star in a Broadway show in hopes of reviving his career. (Ms. Stone plays his daughter.)
“I’m not doing ‘Cabaret’ because I’m trying to reinvent myself or because I have some crazy idea that I’ve earned it,” Ms. Stone said, chalking up her good fortune to film celebrity. “Trust me, I’m not walking around deluding myself thinking: ‘I’m Patti LuPone! I’m Bernadette Peters! Get me my dressing room!’ I’m just glad the chance came around again to earn my stripes as Sally.”