Stage & Dance

Singer with Kentucky on his résumé eagerly awaits his first Derby

Susan and Andrew Varela met while part of a touring company of Evita. He once played Stephen Foster in the Bardstown musical.
Susan and Andrew Varela met while part of a touring company of Evita. He once played Stephen Foster in the Bardstown musical. Courtesy of Susan and Andrew Varela

This week, singer Andrew Varela will get to cross off a big item from his bucket list: go to the Kentucky Derby.

"I'm going to have my arm around my wife, she'll be wearing a beautiful hat, and I'm going to take a sip of a mint julep — a real julep," Varela says and then inquires whether men wear hats at the Derby. "That's going to be it for me, when I see my wife smiling in the sun — it's a dream I've had for 20 years."

Varela is a guy who has had a lot of professional dreams come true, including playing Jean Valjean in Les Misérables on Broadway and the Phantom in the national tour of The Phantom of the Opera.

He is currently playing Inspector Javert in the 25th anniversary tour of Les Miz, but he will take a few days off to renew his relationship with the Bluegrass State. That tie to Kentucky started more than 20 year ago, when he put in three summers playing the title role in Stephen Foster: The Musical in Bardstown.

On Thursday, he and his wife, Susan Spencer Varela, whom he met when they were both on the national tour of Evita, will perform at the Kentucky Bluegrass Wine Auction and Derby Gala at Donamire Farm to benefit the Lexington Cancer Foundation.

The event usually raises more that $500,000 to support cancer research, education and patient care, says executive director Kristi Martin. And that's without headlining entertainment.

"It's wonderful to get this talent, purely donated, at no cost to the foundation," Martin says.

Although the initial run of tickets for Thursday's event is sold out, Martin says, additional seats are available.

The connection to Varela came through the family of Brenda Rice, president of the foundation board. She and her husband, Brent, became friends with the couple after the Rices' son Brandon had a chance meeting with them at a dinner in Los Angeles. Varela told Brandon Rice about his Kentucky connection.

"I auditioned in New York in 1991, got the job, came down to Bardstown and just fell in love with the place," Varela says from Norfolk, Va., where Les Miz played last week. "I was a kid that lived on the coasts — L.A., New Jersey and Florida. So in my mind, the chance to come to the South was such an adventure."

Among his memories of playing Stephen Foster is the chance to help deliver a calf at a farm in Bloomfield.

"I was getting ready to go out," Varela says. "It was a 2 o'clock matinee, and then Carol Anne (one of the people he was staying with) says, 'That calf's going to drop any second.' So I put on my gloves, went out and pulled and pulled. They named it Andrew.

"It was an incredible thing to do that and then go put on a show. I thought, 'Nobody gets to do this. This is the first time this has happened in the history of acting.'"

Since then, he says, he has not seen the Stephen Foster musical, which is staged annually at My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown, because he has been so busy.

Varela's visit comes, coincidentally, right after the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre announced it would present Les Misérables in October at the Lexington Opera House. Some students in the production will be part of Thursday's performance, and with the Rices' support, Varela and his wife are arranging to come back to Lexington during Les Miz rehearsals to work with the cast.

"It was like manna from heaven when Brent called because we always like to make professional connections to the shows we are presenting," says UK Opera Theatre director Everett McCorvey, "and we were trying to figure out how to approach that with Les Miz." Having thousands of Les Miz performances under his belt in two roles, Varela knows his way around the show.

When last year's Oscar-winning movie version of the show came out, the 25th anniversary tour had been on the road for a while. Varela says the tour didn't see much of a change at the box office due to the movie because "we've been selling out pretty much everywhere we go."

But he says it did change the conversation about the show, particularly with the stage actors' reaction to the movie.

"Personally, I was kind of mixed about it," Varela says of the movie. "But every one of those actors really committed to the piece. I feel like they felt the same thing we feel about it. You're not just going out there and tap dancing, hoping to save the kids' rec center downtown. This show's about love, revolution, redemption and faith, and those aren't things that can be easily tackled in a musical.

"Five million people saw it, and seeing YouTube videos of people bawling in their cars after seeing it, it's a testament to the story."


Kentucky Bluegrass Wine Auction and Derby Gala

What: Wine- and equestrian-themed event featuring auction of premium wines and entertainment by Broadway singers Andrew and Susan Varela and students from the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre.

When: 6 p.m. May 2

Where: Donamire Farm, 4151 Old Frankfort Pike

Tickets: $750 a couple; available at (859) 388-2620 and

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