Ripley’s performance as the bipolar Diana Goodman in “Next to Normal’’ earned her the 2009 Tony Award for best actress in a musical. She has originated numerous roles on Broadway, including conjoined twin Violet Hilton in “Side Show,’’ for which she received a Tony nomination in 1998. Ripley will be honored on Tuesday at a SpeakEasy Stage Company gala along with actress Paula Plum.
Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel. Tickets are $175; lounge seats for the entertainment portion of the evening are $50. Information is at 617-482-3279.
Q. Before the SpeakEasy gala, you’re scheduled to talk to a musical theater class at Harvard. What might you say to the students about musical theater as an art form and as a career choice?
A. Well, I will definitely refer to it as The Life. But it’s a lifelong commitment. There is no blueprint for a creative life. You have to make it up for yourself; it’s as unique as your own thumbprint. You’re in it for better or worse.
Q. Sounds like a kind of marriage.
A. This kind of commitment to the creative life could be classified as the ultimate commitment.
Q. You are one of 11 children. Did the need to compete for the spotlight at home have anything to do with you becoming an actress and singer?
A. You do feel kind of invisible, although anybody who knows me would laugh and say, “You’re anything but invisible.’’ I can make an entrance, I guess. I was just drawn to the stage. It’s like you’re handed an order and the universe says this is what you’re going to do with your life. You get that bug from a young age; there’s no explaining it. I was drawn to this family that is the theater.
Q. When you were portraying Diana, did people open up to you about their own families’ histories with mental illness?
A. Yeah, that was a regular occurrence. Playing Diana was definitely a challenge. You’re talking about reaching down through the inside of you, pulling everything up from your toes all the way, and giving as much as you can every time you do the show. I lived her life in two-hour segments eight times a week. I’m so grateful for having had that opportunity.
Q. Have you seen any evidence that “Next to Normal’’ opened doors in terms of subject matter that musicals could tackle?
A. It must be so that “Next to Normal’’ opened some doors. I’m not sure we’re seeing those shows yet. But right now I think there’s something that’s blossoming; there seems to be a wide array of things to choose from. There’s no denying that musicals are now rock scores: You have amps onstage; you have drums onstage. Bruce Springsteen doesn’t do eight concerts a week, I can guarantee you that. So you make the transition from somebody who sang in “Brigadoon’’ to somebody who’s basically singing in a rock band, if you talk about “Rent’’ and “Spring Awakening’’ and “Next to Normal.’’ I think that you’ll see more of those rock scores onstage, which is great, but hopefully we’ll always see shows like “Porgy and Bess,’’ too. When I saw that, I thought that was as good as it gets. I can’t imagine there would be any kind of musical theater that could be more beautifully executed. The performances by Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald, that’s it. If anyone wants to see how to do it, that’s it.
Q. You’ve portrayed some characters who are in extreme conditions. Are you drawn to roles that involve people coping with unusual circumstances?
A. I don’t think about it consciously, but it is true that if you look at the shows I’ve done, you are right. I am drawn to raw material, material that is up in the air, still in process, because I feel I have more of a say, more of a stamp on the experience. I’ll work on anything, but I prefer to work on new material. I’ll put the character on like a jacket or a coat and then you just wear it all the time. I always hope to grow into the roles that come to me. I hope that I’ll be ready to play them, and that playing that role will somehow play back to my offstage life. The theater is a job, but we’re weaving something together, something so that at the end of our lives there will be a big picture to look at.