Starlight to Spotlight

UMKC alumna Joy Franz (B.M. '64) has graced stages worldwide
Joy Franz in costume

Joy Franz’s (B.M. ’64) acting career has taken her all over the world. She’s performed on and off Broadway and in regional theater. She’s appeared in television and film and has even met two presidents — Harry Truman after being named Miss Independence and Jimmy Carter while performing in Hello, Dolly.

And yet, the UMKC alumna understands the importance of feeling at home. She carries out a couple traditions to ensure that’s the case.

When Franz, who has toured with productions such as Anastasia, Damn Yankees and The Sound of Music, goes on the road, she’ll bring along a double-burner, skillet and pot — insistent on making her own breakfast. She’ll purchase her favorite herbs and fruits, and she’ll even pick up some white biancas — her favorite flower— to fill her hotel room.

“It’s very important,” Franz says. “I make it like my home.”

Her actual home? That’s another story.

Nowadays, Franz lives in New York City, but her roots are grounded in the Greater Kansas City area, where she was known by a different name: Maybelle. Franz grew up in Overland Park, Kansas, before attending UMKC.

Some half-a-century later, Franz recalls the impact the university made on her career. She remembers the late professor Stanley Deacon helping her develop her voice and posture. She reminisces on conversations with Patricia McIlrath, a longtime chair of the UMKC Department of Theatre and founder of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre.

As far as Franz’s career has taken her, her roots in Kansas City have remained. It’s all part of the story of one of the most heralded theater performers to come through UMKC.

Finding Her Voice

As Franz recalls, she discovered her gift for singing in the fifth grade. She had performed in grade school but had no idea it would be her calling — at least until she was watching a television program hosted by Billy Graham and was captivated by a woman singing.

“I just had an epiphany,” Franz says. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s what I’m supposed to do in life.’”

Franz immersed herself in the arts, studying at the UMKC Conservatory and renting a room in a house just down the road. She spent large amounts of time at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and swears there was a patch of four-leaf clovers she’d seek out if she were to return today.

“The museum is so wonderful,” Franz says. “Right there by the university.”

Then came the journey that helped her career take off. After attending UMKC (then the University of Kansas City) from 1960-64 — and spending a few summers performing at the Starlight Theatre at the same time — Franz drove to New York to dive into life as a performer.

Franz had only $500 — more money in 1964 than today, she reminds, but certainly not a fortune. After about a year and a half, she made it to Broadway. Her first show was Sweet Charity, which happened to be the first Broadway show she had ever seen.

In Sweet Charity, Franz worked with multi-time Tony winners Gwen Verdon and Hellen Gallagher. She was the understudy to Golden Globe-winner Ruth Buzzi, and yet she left the show she was “very fortunate and so grateful” to land after just three months.

“Most people don’t leave Broadway roles,” Franz says. “I just had to do bigger roles than being in the ensemble.”

Joy Franz in costume
Photo provided by Joy Franz

Taking the Stage

Among her many performing credits, Franz originated the role of — meaning she was the first to play — the evil stepmother in Into the Woods. She felt especially connected to characters she played in Driving Ms. Daisy (Daisy), Mrs. Warren’s Profession (Mrs. Warren), Man of La Mancha (Aldonza), Damn Yankees (Meg Boyd) and Steel Magnolias (Clairee).

For Franz, a major part of acting has been finding ways to relate to her characters. She enjoys playing humorous roles, and she enjoys the dramatic and aristocratic characters, too. Her most recent major theater role was as the Dowager Empress in Anastasia — the grandmother of the titular character who spends much of the production searching for her grandchild.

“You always find some aspect of yourself you bring to the role,” Franz says. “I just relate to almost all of the roles I’ve played.”

The exception? “Cutting off a toe or a heel,” Franz says with a laugh. (Her character, Cinderella’s Stepmother, does that in Into the Woods.) But the Dowager Empress was a particularly memorable character for Franz given the perseverance she showed in the story.

Franz shares a similar message.

“Never give up on your dreams,” Franz says. “Rejections, good Lord, I certainly have had some. Persevere. Perseverance. If it’s what you love more than anything — with your passion — and you believe in yourself, you will succeed.”

What Comes Next

So what is Franz up to now? Looking for her next role.

The COVID-19 pandemic cut the Anastasia tour short — “It was heartbreaking,” Franz says — but the reopening of Broadway has led to new opportunities. Last fall, Franz spent a few days filming a small part for an upcoming Judd Apatow film. Recording auditions is still very much part of her life, and she’s also made time to catch up on Broadway performances she couldn’t see in the past while she was on the road.

“Broadway is open again, thank God,” Franz says. “It’s thrilling.Getting on the subway and coming up and seeing all the lights on,… I’m very excited and happy for everyone.”

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Published: Apr 18, 2022

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