"Always the bridesmaid" is a common phrase used to describe people left on the sidelines, but it can no longer be applied to Lisa Howard.
The actress, who has frequently appeared on Broadway in supporting roles in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, South Pacific, 9 to 5 and Priscilla Queen of the Desert, is currently performing at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in It Shoulda Been You.
The new musical, which chronicles a chaotic wedding day, features Howard as Jenny Steinberg, the maid of honor and older sister of the bride, Rebecca, played by Sierra Boggess. Jenny navigates the convoluted chaos of the two families: the outspoken Jewish Steinbergs, led by the powerful matriarch Judy, played by Tony winner Tyne Daly, and the waspy Howards, the family of the groom, including the passive-aggressive alcoholic Georgette, played by Tony winner Harriet Harris.
Armed with what Howard calls "the bag that holds everything," Jenny seems to have the wedding under control until Marty Kaufman (Josh Grisetti), an ex-boyfriend of Rebecca's, appears intending to stop the wedding. Madcap escapades follow, including plenty of secret romances, door-slamming and dirty laundry being aired. But despite the Tony-winning duo that she shares the stage with, it is Howard who takes the final bow at the curtain call. The decision, Howard said, was made during the musical's previous production at the George Street Playhouse, at Daly's insistence.
"I think maybe David [Hyde Pierce] had originally thought she would take the bow. And Tyne said, 'No! Lisa should,'" Howard said. "She's so gracious. She's been like that the whole time. She's just very kind and supportive, and I know she really believed in me and has been nothing but excited for me and helpful. George Street is a small theatre, and she shared a room with Harriet and gave me the single dressing room."
Howard ensures her leading-lady status when, after being insulted by her mother yet again, erupts with a jazzy, full-throated rendition of "Jenny's Blues," declaring, "I'm gonna get me a little something-something," said that throughout her career she has dreamed of being a leading lady.
"That's what you dream of and envision, I think, when you decide that you want to do this," she said. "I knew I was never going to be your typical chorus girl, so doing a role like this was the goal. I did envision it. I'm just glad I'm having this opportunity.
"Even if I hadn't, I still come to New York to do theatre and be in Broadway shows. For that goal, yes, I had achieved that goal already, four times," she continued. "This is just icing on the cake. The part becomes bigger and you get to do more of what it is that you love to do."
Throughout the musical, Jenny endures frequent snide and critical barbs from her mother, which drives the character's need to ensure her sister's wedding is perfect. "Sometimes you look up to your mom and emulate her and then because she's so hard on you, you're so hard on yourself," she said. "Because Judy is hard on Jenny, Jenny is hard on herself."
Howard, who works as a plus-sized model, thinks that criticism is something every woman can relate to.
"No matter what your size, I think every woman finds those flaws in herself and can relate to that from some point in her life. When you're a teenager you're thinking, 'This part of me doesn't look like my friends, and I'm not good enough' or 'I'm too skinny or too heavy or too tall' – all those things that women or girls – we look at ourselves and think, 'This isn't good enough.' I think no matter what you look like, at some point in her life a woman can relate to how Jenny feels in that moment.'"
Howard said that while she does not fit the physical type of a stereotypical leading lady, she appreciates that It Shoulda Been You presents a more realistic portrayal of both body image and romance to audiences.
"In life, girls who are above a size 14 do get married. They fall in love," she said. "It's all about confidence, and I think it just proves more to real life. You don't have to be a size zero for that to happen. I'm married. I know lots of girls who are. It happens. Of course, sometimes it doesn't, but that's true for anybody. I like that this is about a real girl and a real guy. I think it draws more people into the show and says, 'That could be me' instead of saying, 'That could never happen to me because I don't look like this person.' It brings it home."
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)