In the theatre business, it’s unusual for a college graduate to land her first job just weeks after earning her diploma.
And when that job is with the national tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats – one of the most popular musicals ever – it’s downright exceptional.
But as she showed repeatedly during her years at Fredonia, Elizabeth Ruff is far from common.
A native of the Rochester, N.Y., suburb of Brighton, this 2011 Musical Theatre alumna turned heads the moment she stepped on campus.
“Elizabeth is as talented a performer as we have ever had at SUNY Fredonia,” said Department of Theatre and Dance Chair Tom Loughlin, who quickly recognized her ability and cast her in the female lead of The Rocky Horror Show – as a freshman. “When I first saw her audition, I knew immediately she was a unique talent.”
Loughlin’s evaluation mirrored that of Clemmons/Dewing Casting, who identified Ms. Ruff’s talents during a mere 90-second audition in Memphis, Tenn., in her final semester. They offered her an audition for the Asian tour of Legally Blonde. However, her remaining semester commitments made that impossible, and she was devastated that such an amazing opportunity had passed her by.
That is, until a better one came along.
“I was very, very lucky,” said Ruff of the call that came soon after to audition for the ensemble of the 30th Cats national tour. “The stars were aligned.”
She impressed once again, and was originally cast in the “Female Vocal Swing” role. However, shortly into the month-long New York City rehearsals, she was awarded the role of “Jellylorum,” a calico-colored cat who helps an aging “Gus (The Theatre Cat)” recall his glory days for the audience via a song of the same title.
“I loved playing Jellylorum,” she says. “I was on stage all the time. I got to show off some of my opera and comedic skills.”
In addition, she was the understudy for “Grizabella,” the frail, elderly feline who sings the musical’s most famous number, “Memory.”
This classic ballad has been performed by dozens of the world’s biggest recording artists, including Johnny Mathis, Barry Manilow and Barbara Streisand.
And on March 18 in Madison, Wisc., it was performed live for the first time by Elizabeth Ruff.
She would be called upon three more times to perform the role during the coast-to-coast, 34-city tour across the U.S. and Canada.
She also had the thrill of delivering a solo performance of the national anthem at Wrigley Field before a Chicago Cubs game to promote the tour while it was there.
“It was incredibly nerve wracking every single time I had to go on (to play Grizabella),” Ruff admits. “She’s only on stage for 12 minutes throughout the entire show, but it’s a very important 12 minutes. When it’s over, there’s definitely a sigh of relief, but also a magical moment where you say to yourself, ‘I really love my job.’”
Ruff’s talents were evident at a young age. The only girl opposite three sports-minded younger brothers, she was usually a solo act, entertaining her family and friends (or just herself) at every opportunity. “My brothers would often say, ‘Elizabeth, stop singing for once in your life!’” she laughs.
Fortunately, she didn’t. She began playing piano and attending summer theatre camps as a child. At age 13, a family friend encouraged her parents to get her involved in more elite theatrical productions and further her theatre, music and dance education. She also studied at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music throughout high school.
“I wasn’t one of those kids that ran around saying, ‘I’m going to be on Broadway one day,’” she explains. “There was never any pressure like that, but my family was always really supportive of me.”
However, she “absolutely fell in love” with musical theatre while attending the National High School Institute theatre conservatory camp at Northwestern University the summer after her junior year of high school.
“That was a blast. There were 160 kids, a very selective talented group, and that’s when I realized that this was what I wanted to do,” she remembers.
As a Fredonia student, Ruff was a frequent face on the stages of Rockefeller Arts Center. In addition to Rocky Horror, she landed leading roles in productions of Kiss Me Kate, The Sound of Music and
A Christmas Carol. She also performed at the 2011 Commencement Eve Pops concert, and served as director of Disney’s The Jungle Book Kids for the annual Playground summer youth camp.
Ruff recognizes how well-rounded her experiences at Fredonia were.
“You learn about every part of the business. Not just acting and singing, but the scene shop, the costumes, the tech. There are a lot of times when you are really drained, because you want to do it all,” she recalls.
She often carried well over 20 credit hours most semesters, but believes that was a key factor in what set her apart during her audition and on tour.
“I could tell that the cast and directors appreciated that I knew a little bit about their world,” she says. “I don’t think I could have received the same level of education if I had gone to another school.”
Now that the tour is complete, she is preparing for “the big move” to New York, a decision which she is more financially prepared for thanks to this first job.
“You move to New York so that you can leave New York,” she explains. “You audition there, but you’re going to likely work for another company in another city for a while.”
The tour has also given her a good deal of confidence – as has her Fredonia education, which Ruff credits for the four years of training that prepared her for that 90-second audition and the six-month tour that followed.
“The atmosphere that Fredonia creates is so nurturing. You become friends with your professors. I mean, they’re definitely teachers – but they don’t treat you like children or think of you as ‘young whippersnappers,’” she laughs. “They’re there to help you mature, find out who you want to be, and discover the mark you want to make in the world.”
She especially remembers some advice she received from Director of Performance Ted Sharon, who describes Ruff as a “powerhouse on stage.”
“He told us, ‘Your goal on stage is not to make yourself look the best. It’s to make your partner look the best,’” she recalls. “I keep that in mind all the time.”
She’s also grateful to Professor Paul Mockovak, who has kept in touch with her since she’s graduated and helped connect her to alumni and industry professionals.
“Paul is one of the biggest supporters of our alumni. He connected me with an agent in Chicago while I was there,” she says.
However, she has a special appreciation for Loughlin, fully recognizing the impact the SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor had on her.
“He is a ‘no b.s.’ kind of guy and really laid it all out for you as to what you should expect,” she recalls. “He taught me that things aren’t going to be handed to you on a platter; you have to go find it. I was lucky to be cast in a lead role as a freshman. He took me under his wing and really helped me out.”
Loughlin is quick to disagree. “Liz is blessed with a powerful and beautiful singing voice, as well as being a gifted dramatic actor,” he says. “The talent she has is not something any one of us can really take credit for. She was born to perform; all we did was give her opportunities and get out of her way. She has big things ahead of her.”
In other words, this is just the first of many “memories” Liz Ruff will create.