Time for The Big Day: Southold Actress Makes TV Debut Thursday

NBC's live version of "The Sound of Music" will air Thursday at 8 p.m.

After weeks of anticipation, excited friends and family are counting down the minutes until young Southold actress Ella Watts, 13, makes her television debut with big stars, including Carrie Underwood, on Thursday.

Ella recently won the role of Luisa in NBC's live version of "The Sound of Music," which will air at 8 p.m.

Her friends are so excited by her success, Ella said, that they are hosting parties for her, even when she's not there, and are watching football on NBC just to see her commercial.

Ever since she was a little girl, Ella has loved the "Wicked Witch of the West," a character in the Broadway musical "Wicked."

Ella's mom Hannah Gray said while other girls wanted to be the Good Witch, her daughter was never afraid of the more frightening "Wicked" character and begged to wear the green makeup and costume.

"The character, Elphaba, makes you know it's okay to be different," Ella said. 

For Ella, acting and singing on stage did much the same thing, offering her a glimpse into her future, and affording the young girl, who often felt she "didn't fit in," a place where she felt innately at home.

For Ella, who started acting at age six in a production of "The Wizard of Oz," and who has parlayed her love of singing into parts in "Thoroughly Modern Millie," at ACT Out East, in "King Arthur's Court" at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, and as the lead role in "Annie" at Riverhead High School, the stage has been the place where she has honed her special gifts and unique talents.

"I always knew I wanted to do this," Ella said. "I wanted to put myself out there and try new things."

"She used to worry about the honor roll and I told her, 'Don't worry about any of that. You're going to be on Broadway,'" Gray said.

Ella credits Our Lady of Mercy Regional School in Cutchogue, which she calls "Little Mercy," with affording her a solid foundation; her former teachers, she said, are thrilled by her success.

One teacher, Mrs. Tuttle, "saw everything beautiful in Ella," her mom recalls. "Ella grew up at Little Mercy."

Ella, who is currently in the eighth grade at Riverhead's McGann-Mercy, auditioned for the Broadway role of "Annie", where she met famed casting director Bernard Telsey, a Broadway giant who has become a mentor and friend.

Although she didn't win the "Annie" role, Telsey kept Ella in mind, and when the audition for the "Sound of Music" came along, he suggested she try out.

"He saw Ella's passion," Gray said. "He nurtured it."

Ella was with her mom at Magic Fountain in Mattituck when she got the call telling her that she'd been awarded the plum part.

Even before the big news came, after the auditions, Ella, riding home on the Jitney with her mom, said, "Even if I don't get the part, it doesn't matter. It was the best day of my life."

When she got the call, Ella began crying tears of joy. She said, "It was so exciting. I knew then that my life was going to be so much different."

Ella is the only young performer from Long Island to be chosen for the cast; the show will be performed live in Bethpage.

And now, the girl who has collected scores of Playbills and once stood backstage at every Broadway and community theater production, waiting for autographs, is being recognized from a television commercial promoting the "Sound of Music" and being asked to sign autographs herself.

"I was surprised," Ella said, of the first time she was asked to sign an autograph. "I didn't think people would recognize me."

Gray, who teaches drama, said her students are awed by Ella's success. "She gives them hope, that they can do anything," she said.

Despite long rehearsal hours and on-set tutoring, Ella said she is having the time of her life. The days start with music, then tutoring, then rehearsal, lunch, and more rehearsal, including scene blocking and dancing.

Performing with a cast that includes music superstar Carrie Underwood as "Maria,"  “True Blood’s” Stephen Moyer, Broadway luminaries Audra McDonald and Laura Benanti — whom Ella considers a dear friend — and Christian Borle of "Smash" as well as the other actors cast as Von Trapp children, has been a fulfilling experience, with the cast as close as family, Ella said.

Of acting with Carrie Underwood, she said, "She's just a sweetheart. She's so sweet."

Tony-winner Benanti, she said, is an inspiration. "I hope one day I can be like her. We're so close. Right now, she has my Chapstick."

She's also picked up some useful acting tips from the cast, including Borle, who taught her how to laugh without moving her mouth.

Behind the scenes, Ella said enjoying the perks, including craft service, but says while crew members often ask if she needs anything, she mostly does things for herself and has made close friendships with the production assistants on set.

Ella has studied voice and has loved singing since she was a small child, her mom said.

Acting, Ella said, "makes me feel as though there is a spark inside of me, that needs to be released," she said. "It's great."

Studying her script, Ella is asked where she sees herself in the future. "On Broadway," she said.


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