NEW YORK — Laura Osnes is still in that pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming phase.
The 26-year-old actress is now starring in her fourth Broadway show, and originating a role for the first time, only four years after landing in New York by way of an unlikely vehicle: a reality TV show.
"I think if I had written it out myself, I wouldn't have planned it as good as this. In my wildest dreams, I never would have imagined all of the amazing opportunities that I've had," Osnes says during a break in rehearsals for "Bonnie & Clyde," which has music by Frank Wildhorn.
Thanks to talent and some good luck, Osnes has speedily gone from performing "Grease" in dinner theater in Minneapolis to doing the same musical on Broadway after winning NBC's "Grease: You're the One That I Want" in 2007.
After that, she replaced Kelli O'Hara in "South Pacific" and got the chance to sing and dance alongside her hero Sutton Foster in "Anything Goes." Now her two-and-a-half-year investment in bank robber Bonnie is about to pay off.
"This is my first originating role so it's just been so exciting to be part of this process pretty much from the ground up," she says. "It was kind of magical how the whole thing happened."
Osnes initially auditioned for an earlier Wildhorn musical — "Wonderland," an updated telling of "Alice in Wonderland." She lost the lead role of Alice to Janet Dacal but Wildhorn, the composer of such Broadway shows as "Jekyll & Hyde" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel," was impressed.
"He said, 'I think you're too young for Alice, but I'm working on this other musical that I think you might actually be really great for. It's a new musical about Bonnie and Clyde.'"
It turned out that even in defeat, Osnes had dodged a bullet: "Wonderland" was savaged by critics by the time it arrived on Broadway, and Osnes realizes that some people will be leery of Wildhorn's new work.
"If people come in skeptical, fine by us. Because we'll blow you away," she says. "It's Frank's best work ever. I'm a big fan of his and I love singing every song. I never get sick of them. I've been singing the songs for three years and it's still magic."
Osnes has been with "Bonnie & Clyde" from the very beginning, playing Bonnie as it matured during monthlong stints at the La Jolla Playhouse in southern California in the fall of 2009 and then at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Fla., a year later.
In between those two stretches, she was tempted by another offer. She was in the final running for a spot in "Bring It On: The Musical," a show loosely based on the popular 2000 movie about competing high school cheerleading teams that starred Kirsten Dunst, Gabrielle Union and Eliza Dushku, and produced a couple of sequels.
Osnes had to choose — gun-toting Bonnie or a pom-pom wielding cheerleader? A proven brand name or an original musical? Which was worthier of her investment in time? And which had the best shot of being a success or making it to Broadway?
"I just have learned in this business that you really have to follow your heart. That's what I did," she says, pointing to the "Bonnie & Clyde" script. "My heart was attached already to the people and the project."
Christopher Ashley, the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse and who directed the Broadway shows "Memphis" and "Xanadu," is glad Osnes stuck with Bonnie. She even worked with the creative team to deepen the character.
"This is the first role I think that really stretches what she can do as a dramatic actress and really explores the darker parts of the human soul. She's really extraordinary in it," says Ashley. "I'm really proud of her because I think it's a true bravura acting role."
The musical, which co-stars Jeremy Jordan as Clyde, explores both the intense love the two lead characters share, as well as their obsession with fame. The song titles reveal as much — "Made in America," ''This World Will Remember Us" and "Dyin' Ain't So Bad."
It wasn't so long ago that Osnes, from the Minneapolis suburb of Eagan, was playing Sandy Dumbrowski in "Grease" in a Minnesota dinner theater. When she found out a Broadway role was the prize of a national TV talent search, she signed up.
After winning and making her New York debut as Sandy, Osnes says she faced some resistance. "There was a stigma," she says. But while rival actresses may have resented her, casting directors knew who she was. "I'm still very thankful that I did the reality show because it put me on the map and it opened a lot of doors for me," she says.
Osnes moved to New York as a newlywed with her husband, Nathan Johnson, an actor-turned-photographer whom she met while the two were understudying Aladdin and Jasmine in production of "Aladdin" at The Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis. One night, the leads collided during the performance — Osnes recalls lots of blood and a chipped tooth — and she and Johnson went on together as replacements. On stage, they shared their first kiss.
After "Grease," Osnes replaced O'Hara in "South Pacific," which she says helped legitimize her after her unorthodox Broadway arrival. And then she won the role of Hope Harcourt opposite Foster's Reno Sweeney in "Anything Goes." That was pure bliss: Long before "Grease," Osnes had come to New York and seen Foster in "Little Women" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie."
She says it was surreal listening to Foster sing during the first day of rehearsal for "Anything Goes."
"I'm thinking, 'That's the voice! That's the voice that I've listened to and idolized for the last 10 years of my life!'" she says. "She was always my Broadway hero. Those are the type of roles I want to play. That's the type of voice I want to have."
Now she's living her own Broadway dream. Osnes is having so much fun that she and her co-star are cooking up a sequel to their current show.
"Jeremy and I have joked about doing 'Bonnie and Clyde 2: On the High Seas,'" she says with a smile. "Then we could be pirates instead of cowboys."