And with Ashford still breastfeeding her 7-month-old son Jack Clark, the Oscar-nominated actor has gotten all-too familiar with the machinery needed.
“Poor Jake has had to deal with all my weird breastfeeding pump parts,” the actress, 31, tells PEOPLE. “Isn’t that glamorous? Broadway is really intimate. We’ve crossed over to a special place in our friendship.”
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It’s not just Jake, though — his sister Maggie Gyllenhaal also got a peek at the process.
“His sister came backstage to talk to me after the opening night,” Ashford recalls. “And she came in and I was breast pumping and I said, ‘Oh, come in — you’ve had two babies!’
“I told her, ‘I feel kindred to you because you likely had to share a bathroom with Jake when you were teenagers!’ ” Ashford continued. “I feel like his sister sometimes because we share a bathroom too!”
The thing is, you don’t have to share a bathroom with Ashford to feel like she might be your sister. Spending time with the Tony winner — known for her breakout role in Showtime’s Masters of Sex — she treats all she meets as if they’re her closest friend, greeting fans, strangers and family with enthusiasm, laughs and a warm hug.
Perhaps it’s the glow of being a new mom. In September, Ashford and husband Joe Tapper welcomed their first child — and Ashford lights up when discussing little Jack.
“He’s so big,” she shares. “He smiles. He’s getting bigger every day — and so is his poop. He’s eating solids and mixing solids, so his poop is becoming real. That’s the sad thing!”
Jack is also a fan of his mom’s singing — especially when it comes to tunes from the revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine‘s 1984 musical Ashford is leading now.
“He loves the score,” Ashford says. “He loves Sondheim and Lapine — just loves their work. ‘Everybody Loves Louis‘ is one of his favorites. When he’s about to cry, all I have to do is sing it and he starts bouncing up and down.”
She continues, “I don’t know how long that will last, but it’s great for now. He loves dissonance. So if he becomes a composer, I think he’ll be inspired by this work.”
Balancing Broadway and motherhood has been challenging — “My world revolves around singing eight times a week and milk,” Ashford jokes. But it’s a lot easier now than when Ashford first joined the show — just five and a half weeks after giving birth.
Then just a five-performance fundraising concert (the show eventually transferred to the larger-scale production she’s in now), Ashford thought doing the part — which she calls a dream role — would be easy. “I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever, I’ll be fine,’ ” she remembers of when she was first asked. ” ‘When they’re that little, they just sleep the whole time. It’s not a big deal, I’ll be fine!’ ”
She wasn’t. “Cut to two weeks after having the baby — realizing I only had a few more weeks, bouncing on a ball, the baby had reflux, nobody was sleeping and I was singing Sondheim trying to get this part down.”
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Memorizing lines became a struggle too. “When you’re pregnant, they say, ‘Oh, you’re going to have mommy brain’ — this weird thing that happens where you can’t remember things and your brain doesn’t work. Well, nobody tells you, but it happens after the baby is born, too, and continues while you’re nursing.”
“I couldn’t remember the lyrics and I was having such a hard time. Because Sondheim’s music — it’s like learning another language. Thank God I learned the show.”
Things got worse for her first performance too, when she woke up with lactation mastitis — an infection that occurs within the tissue of the breast.
“Your ducts get clogged and you feel like you have the flu,” she describes. “You have malaise, you have a fever, you feel really achy, and your boobs swell up and they are like rocks that ache. They hurt so bad — and you have to pump as much as you possibly can to get it out.”
That meant pumping every time she was offstage. “Literally I would sing, walk off stage and put my boobs in these little pumps — standing there until I had to walk back on,” she says. “There was milk everywhere, tears everywhere and art everywhere!”
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Luckily, she’s gotten past all that now — and she credits Gyllenhaal with being their for her along the way.
“I couldn’t ask for a better scene partner and I couldn’t ask for a better friend,” she says. “This journey we take every night is a complicated one and it’s a very vulnerable one, and he just takes care of me. Being a new mom, it’s challenging, and he makes it a lot easier than it should be.”
And as she finishes up her run in Sunday in the Park with George, she’s still struck at how much being a mom has changed the way she looks at the world.
“My character says in the show in Act II that the only two worthwhile things to leave behind are children and art. And that line always meant something to me, but it means something so profound to me now,” she explains. “I feel a great responsibility to leave behind art that impacts the world. But I also hope this child that I leave behind becomes a man who wants to change the world and leave the world better than he found it.”
“So, you know … that’s a lot,” she continues, laughing. “No pressure!”
Sunday in the Park with George at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre runs through April 23.