In Leah Hocking's mind, there was never any question she'd be a performer.
From the time she was 4 years old, she wanted to be a "movie star - Marilyn Monroe essentially," she said.
"I have played a lot of trampy, sex-pot roles. Those days are gone. Now, I'm the mom."
Leah Hocking is Mrs. Wilkinson in 'Billy Elliot the Musical'
Hocking will play Mrs. Wilkinson, the ballet teacher, in the Broadway touring show, "Billy Elliot the Musical" coming to the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh, Jan. 31-Feb. 12.
"I always sang," she said. And growing up in Marquette, Mich., her mom took her to community theater productions. In fact, the first show she saw eventually became the first show she was in - "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," in which she played the part of Lucy.
It was in eighth grade she began doing community theater and then high school musicals; although, she was more involved in music than in theater, she said.
After attending Northern Michigan University in her hometown and Ohio State University, she moved to New York City when she was in her early 20s. She never did graduate from either of those universities - she sort of created her "own conservatory," taking acting, voice, movement and theater history classes, Hocking noted.
She did what every young actor does in the Big Apple - she worked as a waitress, bartender and hostess. And she did some summer stock. And eventually some off-Broadway.
It was around 1990 when she finished a summer stock production and had "$20 to my name," when she got a call "out of the blue," for the off-Broadway production, "Forbidden Broadway," as an understudy.
"And I've never looked back. I've never had to do another subsistence job. Life is good," she said.
She's had steady work on Broadway since her debut in 1993 in "Guys and Dolls."
That was followed by "Grease," "Jekyll & Hyde," "The Wild Party," "Mamma Mia!," "Hairspray," "Dance of the Vampires," "All Shook Up" and "Billy Elliot."
"The Wild Party" is "near and dear to my heart," she said. "It was the first role I originated."
She doesn't really have a favorite part, "they're all so different and interesting in their own ways." And she's never had a role she disliked. "Ultimately, they are all great experiences for me. I'm so lucky to keep working.
"I think the part I most long to play hasn't been written yet. But if I had to choose, I'd say any Tennessee Williams or William Shakespeare. It's a 'William' thing."
In the original Broadway company of "Billy Elliot," which opened in 2008, she was the understudy for the part of Mrs. Wilkinson, and she also played Billy's "dead mum" and was a member of the ensemble. She had plenty of opportunities to be on stage as Mrs. Wilkinson, she said, as the actress in the role injured her calf.
"I hadn't understudied for years, but this show is so great and the role is so great. I wanted to be a part of it," she said.
In April of 2010, she took a leave of absence from the Broadway show when her husband became ill with Lou Gehrig's disease. He died a month later, and Hocking stayed home with their 10-year-old daughter Mabel for a while - until she got a call this past fall to play Mrs. Wilkinson for the Broadway tour.
This is her first tour, she said, and "it's a completely different experience. I'm a bit of a homebody, so it doesn't come naturally to me." The role is demanding and exhausting, and she gets up early to spend time with Mabel, who, along with a nanny, travels with her.
One of the best parts of this show, she said, is working with more than one Billy Elliot. In fact, there are five boys who play the title role.
"It's great ... It keeps you on your toes," she said, and noted that working with different actors makes it "fresh and new" each night.
"It's an honor to watch those boys work, and they work hard."
She works hard, too. "It's a physically demanding part. The first act I run and run and run." The second act slows down, she said. "I could eat dinner" - it's that slow.
"I can't stress enough how this show is so universal - there's something for everybody. It's funny, touching, poignant. There are all different kinds of music - it runs the gamut."
In fact, she said, many people who don't like musical theater, "love this."
Hocking will be traveling with the "Billy Elliot" tour until May, but she may stay longer if Mabel joins the show as a ballet student.
"She's a natural singer, like me. She's going through the training. ... She's getting there. We'll see what happens. She's having a good time, regardless. We both are."
When Hocking and Mabel are in Pittsburgh, they'll have a chance to visit with family in Wheeling. Her late husband's brother lives in Wheeling. John L'Ecuyer and his wife, Jan, work together directing music at the Vineyard.
"Leah is a natural onstage," John L'Ecuyer said. "She is an example of a person who is doing exactly what they were born to do."
To see Hocking do what she was born to do, call 412-456-6666.