Sandra Turley lived the dream of many aspiring performers when she was cast in the role of Cosette in Les Miserables on Broadway at the age of 21. She recounts her journey to the stage and how the gospel influenced her decisions regarding career and family. Now “happily retired,” she has taken on new roles, becoming a mother after lengthy infertility struggles, recently releasing a CD of Broadway hits, and inspiring young women around the United States as a professional speaker.
How and when did you discover your talent for singing?
Honestly, I feel that it was just born in me. I grew up in a really musical family, so by the time we could all talk, we were singing. When I was six or seven I realized I truly enjoyed it, and singing was more than just a thing to do. My parents put us in a little music company in California, where we were living at the time, and I remember being up on stage with theater kids my age, feeling the music so deeply inside of me, and thinking, “This is so amazing! I’m communicating through the movement and the music.” Later my family moved to Connecticut and occasionally my parents would drive us down to New York City to see Broadway shows. The first show I saw was Les Miserables, when I was thirteen. I sat in the audience with my mom, and by the curtain call I was crying with everybody else because it’s such a touching and deeply life-changing story. I looked up at everyone taking their bows and thought, “I am going to do that someday.”
I started formal vocal training in junior high and took lessons from a crazy, wild, and totally awesome teacher. But even before that, I learned from my mom, who is a naturally beautiful singer and has a very healthy voice. I just sang the way she sang, which gave me a great head start. Once I started real voice lessons, we were able to move quickly. That being said, my voice teacher emphasized mostly classical training. After years of me resisting and him forcing me to sing opera arias, one day it just clicked that I could do it, that I could sing the way I had heard in recordings, and it opened up my voice to a different level that I certainly would never ever have reached without training with him.
When I was a teenager I didn’t fully understand what my Broadway goal entailed. Throughout my junior high and high school years, I learned more and more about musical theater by auditioning for anything that was around our little area and performing in various plays, plugging away. I had a very healthy upbringing; it was never unbalanced. So I was a cheerleader, I was in student government, I was a pretty good student, and theater was another fun, exciting passion of mine. (In reality, boys were probably more my passion than anything else!) One amazing thing is that my mom was never a stage mom. She supported me in all that I did, but she was not pushy. I think if my mom knew then everything she knows now about musical theater and Broadway, there’s no way in the world she would have let me go into theater, because the business is so crass and difficult. But we didn’t know, so I started doing more and more shows and my parents were always supportive. I just loved the medium, loved the stories, and loved the communicative nature of music–how it can really touch people’s lives and how it touched mine. A lot of people showed encouragement for my talent, and others not so much. But by the time I was ready for college I still felt an inborn desire to continue singing and pursuing musical theater in particular.
How did you decide where to continue your training?
I started to research colleges and looked up BYU to see if they had a musical theater program. I knew I probably wanted to go to BYU, but being from the East Coast, and since none of my friends were going that far away for school, I looked first at NYU and Julliard. I quickly realized those weren’t going to be the places for me–for my spirit, at least. In addition to receiving great training, I really wanted to be in an environment where people believed as I did, especially with such a tricky major as theater, because that can get pretty risqué anywhere. I found out that BYU has a music dance theater program and I sent in an audition tape of myself singing and dancing. They accepted me into the program, which I didn’t even realize was quite as cool as it was. I got there and saw how small the freshman class was and how tight-knit that community was, since many of the kids had been to camps together and already took voice lessons from college teachers. I felt really excited to be a part of that group, but it was also the first time I realized that there are a lot of other great performers out there, and perhaps I’m really not so special. I was surrounded by immense talent, and my self-esteem took a pretty hard knock.
How did you cope with the self-doubt you felt when you got to BYU?
There are two aspects to that. First, I had to cope with self-doubt as a musical theater major. I highly considered changing my major by my sophomore year. I auditioned for the BYU Young Ambassadors and different shows on campus and never made it. This made me question, “Am I actually talented and is this something I should pursue?” But that’s the nature of theater, and I’m very glad that I didn’t give up right off the bat. Just because you go to one audition or 100 and nobody likes you, it doesn’t mean that at the 101st audition you won’t get hired. It matters who you’re auditioning for on that day, if you are the right person, the right flavor, the right color in the right moment. So I continued auditioning for different companies that came through Utah. Disney visited the BYU campus and immediately after my sophomore year they invited me to move to Orlando for a year to be the Little Mermaid in their singing production at Disney World. So when I was nineteen I moved to Orlando to work, and my eyes were opened when I saw how people were pursuing the business. That’s when I realized that I could do this and there is a path to get to Broadway.
Second, I had to cope with some spiritual self-doubt at BYU. Because I grew up in Connecticut where there were very few Latter-day Saints, my testimony was born out of the fact that I was unique and had to choose on my own whether I was going to follow the LDS Church and be different than everybody else around me. I took great strength in being different. Contrast that with living in Utah, where many people are LDS. For some people it’s easier to be in an environment where everybody has the gospel. But for my personality, it was the opposite. Living in Connecticut brought me so much closer to the gospel because I really had to dig deep and choose for myself. At fourteen years old I knelt down at the side of my bed and prayed, “I’ve heard my parents say this my whole life, I’ve been taught all these things, and is it really true even though nobody else around me seems to think it is?” I received a sure and strong answer to that prayer that the principles of the gospel I had been taught were indeed true, and from there my testimony grew. So I say all that to get to the point that when I eventually went to Utah, it was the first time that my testimony also got shaken. All of a sudden I was the same as everybody else, not just because of my faith, but also because I looked like everybody else, and I went to my classes and I sang like everybody else and I danced like everyone else. I had to come to grips with, “I’m not different anymore. I’m the same as everyone else and is that okay?” It was a journey for a couple years and I honestly can’t say I overcame it completely. I never questioned the Church, but it made me dig deeper and figure out again what I really believe. I have found over the years that I love being different, but I also love being the same. I know they’re such opposite thoughts to have at once, but I love that we have a gospel that brings us together and unites us, no matter where we live. It doesn’t really matter whether there’s one of us or ten million of us. If we have knowledge of our Savior that brings us together, that’s a really unique and special thing.
Will you walk me through how you got from performing at Disney World at nineteen to getting to Broadway?
I took a year off of school to perform at Disney World. One of the most amazing things that happened during my time in Orlando happened my very first Sunday there. I went to a singles ward and saw a really cute guy sitting in the back row of the chapel, but he was sitting next to two missionaries so I thought he was an investigator and figured I’d never see him again. By the end of church he had introduced himself as Josh, and by the end of that week he had scouted down my number from some friends and we went out on our very first date. I got home from that first date and bawled my eyes out, just sobbed because I thought, “Oh shoot, I just met my husband.” I knew it, and it was not at all anything I was thinking of or looking for or planning on at nineteen. It really caught me off guard, but we spent every single day together after that. He grew up in Orlando and was home for the summer doing an internship before returning back to BYU. He knew just as quickly as I did that we were meant to be. So while I moved to Orlando to pursue this theater dream and to be a mermaid, it quickly took a back seat to our beautifully romantic courtship. I have the fondest memories of being in Orlando and enjoying getting to know Josh and growing up and learning that there was going to be another huge phase of my life and our life together. We got married in the Salt Lake City Temple in March of 1999 and went back to Florida for a few months to finish up my contract with Disney World.
That fall we moved back to Utah to finish at BYU. While I was still going to school, the touring company of Les Miserables came to Salt Lake and held an open audition for the show. There were so many people there that first day. Again, your self-esteem shakes when you walk into the hallway and so many people look like you and sing like you. But there was something that felt magical to me. I had the confidence from having been hired before, so I went in knowing that I was a little bit different. Also, most girls my age and type were there to audition for the role of Eponine, whereas I knew that I should audition for Cosette, which was actually a spiritual experience for me. Everybody wants to be Eponine because you see the show and you fall in love with this character who is in love with someone who doesn’t love her. It’s so tragic and tangible because we’ve all been there, so we want to be her and we want to sing her song. But as I started to practice at home before the audition, I really felt like I needed to sing the Cosette songs. It was a pure and true thought, a prompting that I followed, and a real game changer for my life. Had I not gone in there auditioning for the role I was supposed to get, I wouldn’t have gotten it. They called me back the second day for the role of Cosette and I sang for them, and they were wonderful. The audition went great, they were smiling, and by the end they asked to take my picture and said goodbye, with no hint whether I was going to be hired or if they were just being polite.
At that point in my life, I was twenty, married for ten months, and had dreamed about Broadway, always with good intentions. I never pursued it because I wanted to be famous, to have people hear me and know me. I just really enjoyed the art of it, and that’s how it’s always been. And yet, at that age, going in and auditioning for Les Mis, being prepared, and then going home, I felt, “I am so blessed with the experiences that I’ve had, and if nothing else ever comes my way, no other big singing opportunity of worldly importance, it doesn’t really matter because I can sing forever. My voice is always here.” The phrase constantly popped into my head, “I will be perfectly content and very happy to sing with the angels in heaven, and I don’t really need anything else here to make me feel better about the talent I’ve been given.” I got to that great place of peace and acceptance, which brings confidence and security, which in turn probably allowed me to have a really good audition. Five weeks later, the Les Mis casting director called and offered me a job in New York City and told me that I had two weeks to move from Provo and start a whole new life. Everything fell into place. My husband’s job was great. He’d only been at his first post-college job for four days when I got the offer for Les Mis. When he told his boss , who was LDS, his boss asked how long we’d been married and then said we should go and they’d transfer his job to the New York office. We needed 48 hours to pray and make sure it was the right thing. We felt a great sense of peace and I heard the answer, “Yes, yes, yes. Go and enjoy it.”
What are the challenges associated with a Broadway or performing career?
I spent three and a half years on Broadway. I was the understudy for Cosette for a year and then got the job when they fired the girl playing the lead. Sometimes I got tired of it because it’s like the movie Groundhog Day, where it’s the same thing every day. But the themes and the stories of Les Mis are so universal that every day I found myself thinking on the themes of justice, mercy, life after death, and the Atonement, and I felt honored to be a part of the show every night. For many actors, the sex and drugs in the theater world are hard to deal with. They were not a challenge or even interesting to me. Interpersonal relationships were more of a challenge for me because I’m a people lover and a people pleaser. There are such a variety of personalities and lifestyles, with people quickly judging or labeling and assuming you can or can’t be friends. I worked so hard to have good friendships with everyone at the theater, but often, the simple fact that I was Mormon made friendship impossible. Relationships evolved through the years, some getting better, some getting worse. But it was these relationships and people’s opinions that affected me the very most. I learned that you should never label someone as merely one thing. We’re all so much more than that.
You say you’re “happily retired.” What made you decide to leave the stage?
It was an easy decision for me to “retire” from Broadway. After about two and a half years of marriage, we felt like we should start a family. While I wanted to stay on stage as long as possible, in essence I had mentally retired and knew that as soon as we had our first child I would be done with professional theater. But we were surprised to find that children did not come easily. I chose to undergo in vitro fertilization and had lots of drugs, tests, and shots. I would often get home from a show at midnight and then be up at 5:00 the next morning to catch the subway to be at the doctor’s for treatments. Eventually Les Mis closed and I did retire, hoping that motherhood would be coming soon. After finishing the show, I spent a few more years being a professional infertility patient and never attempted to audition for another show. My experience in Les Mis was so beautiful; I didn’t want any other show to taint the wonderful opportunity and memory that was Broadway for me.
Tell us about the transition into your role as a mother?
Working on Broadway was fun, but the next phase has been the most defining for me and my husband. Since IVF had been unsuccessful, we put in our papers to adopt a child and quickly got a call saying a birth mom had selected us to be parents to her child. We took our tiny baby girl home and were showered with baby things, since we didn’t have anything prior to that! We named her Eden. We spent the next few weeks in bliss, with our arms full with this perfectly gorgeous baby. Then our caseworker called and said something had come up with the birth mom, but that it would probably work out – not to worry. In New York they have a rule where the birth mom can change her mind up to 45 days after she gives up the baby. On day 42 we had to take Eden back to her birth mom. We thought it would be our Abraham experience, that we’d get to keep Eden in the end, just as Abraham got to keep Isaac and did not have to sacrifice him. But it didn’t work out that way. We talked endlessly and cried together, but in the end it didn’t work out how we thought. I’d never felt such anguish or pain or that type of loss. I prayed for peace and charity, and we were both blessed by the Atonement. I’ve never felt as close to the Savior as at that time. My husband and I became closer because we were having the same spiritual experience at the same time. We were both going through counseling and the grieving process, although we were at different stages of grief and different times. We talked and communicated a ton, and were intensely open about spiritual promptings and prayers. We clung to each other and grew together.
A couple of months after Eden was gone, we prayed for Heavenly Father to be able to fix whatever was wrong with my body and that I would become pregnant. We exercised our faith in His ability to heal, even more than we had previously. The experience of having and then losing Eden gave us the testimonies we needed to raise our children the way we wanted to, to create a family of depth, and to have the marriage we wanted. Of course we wish we still had our sweet Eden, but we wouldn’t change anything that occurred because of the lessons we learned. Miraculously, we ended up having three children in three and a half years and I am now pregnant with our fourth. Even though I’m glad to be on this side of the trial, I’m glad we were entrusted with such a difficult test. So much of who we are, my husband and I, is defined by that most difficult of trials of losing our first sweet daughter.
There are moments now, as a mother of soon-to-be four children, that I feel like, “I prayed so hard for these children to get here, but could we just slow down a bit? Does there have to be so much screaming?” Motherhood hit me like a ton of bricks and sometimes I feel like a failure. It’s not easy. I feel like I’m on a roller coaster as a mom and as a human being. I had preconceived notions of the kind of mom I’d be, but reality hit quickly and hard. There are things that I can say that I’m good at and other things I didn’t think I would struggle with as much…such as patience!
How do you balance work and family, deciding which events to perform at now?
Two years ago I had a spiritual prompting to pursue my next creative venture and record an album. It’s an offering I knew I was supposed to give. Les Mis was a precursor that Heavenly Father gave to use me as a voice to share the Spirit and the gospel with others. I feel so strongly that Heavenly Father gave me that credit so that others would listen to me, and I feel like I’m supposed to give the offering of my time and talents to do something for Him.
It’s a work in progress, trying to balance everything. We started the process one and a half years ago with recording the album, but I still find myself not sure. I’ve called some friends who work and have kids to see how they manage things, and I’ve been praying and going with my gut on what to say yes to and what to pass on. The word that keeps coming to my mind as I try to find balance in my roles is “compartmentalize.” Kid time is kid time; work time is work time. When I do this successfully, I’m able to get more done in a shorter amount of time.
How do you and your husband balance family responsibilities with your performing?
Everyone helps out. Most of my events are on weekends, so my husband can be with the kids. I often return home to find that they’ve watched all the movies I said not to and eaten lots of sugar, but they are all so happy and they’ve had a chance to spend super fun time with their dad. When things get hectic, I have to remember where it all came from.
How do you maintain your talent while managing three kids and a household, other responsibilities?
We sing all day long in our house. Music is part of us. I’ve been blessed with a naturally healthy voice that’s fairly easy to maintain and I count that as a great blessing, especially in these busy years raising so many little children. I don’t have a lot of time to practice, but when I do practice, my children quickly run into the music room to listen and sing with me. The kids’ renditions of my songs are far more entertaining than my own!
Why did you decide to do Time Out for Girls vs. Time Out for Women? What’s your message to young women or women in general?
I’ve always loved young women and still feel like a teenager in many ways. I understand young women and feel that we have an honest relationship, that they’ll listen to me and hear the message I have to share. I have found that the young women go into my events to listen to a Broadway star, but come out thinking about their relationship with their Heavenly Father, which is all that I could ever hope for. The message that I feel prompted to share with them is about fulfilling the measure of your creation and how innately creative each one of us is. We’ve all been created by Heavenly Father and we then in turn have a chance to create. It’s up to us to talk to Him and ask Him to help us see what He wants us to offer to the world. When I’m speaking to a group, I preface each song with an explanation of what’s happening in the story and then connect it to spiritual and doctrinal concepts. In essence, I am teaching familiar and simple gospel doctrine in a different language – the language of Broadway stories and music. This language communicates strongly to me and I see how quickly it touches many of the youths’ hearts as well. I strongly believe that people need to hear the gospel in their own language, whatever that may be, and I’m offering them a different way to hear and feel the Spirit.
What advice would you give to those wanting to pursue a career on the stage?
You have to have a rock solid testimony, which will allow you make the right decisions when faced with difficult situations. You can’t say that you’ll get your testimony once you start performing. It has to already be there or else you, your spirit, won’t survive. Performing beats down on your soul and asks you to question everything about who you are.
If there is anything else you want to do and you can live without performing, then pursue that. However, if you can’t live without performing, then you HAVE to pursue it.
What do you foresee for yourself in the future?
I see my CD and speaking to the girls as a time and offering right now. It’s not a job. It’s fun, an honor. I will perform for the rest of my life, whether it’s twice a month or once every ten years. As a mother, I want to continue to foster a home with the music and stories that I love and where we help each child develop their individual talents. I’m excited for the day when my kids “get it” and they get their own testimony of the things that my husband and I have been teaching them about the Savior and the Atonement. That is the absolute best future I can foresee.
At A Glance
Location: North Potomac, MD
Marital status: Happily married
Children: 6 year old daughter, 4 year old son, 2 1/2 year old daughter
Occupation: mom, singer/performer/speaker
Schools Attended: BYU
Languages Spoken at Home: English and British (we do a lot of funny accents and my oldest daughter is certain that speaking in a British accent is a different language)
Favorite Hymn: “I Know That My Redeemer Lives”
On The Web: www.sandraturley.com
Interview by Nollie Haws. Photos used with permission.