Life Behind the Curtain—The Show Couldn’t Go On Without Them

Tony Awards   Life Behind the Curtain—The Show Couldn’t Go On Without Them Direct from the pages of the 2016 Tony Awards Playbill, here are the stories of 21 people who make Broadway happen.
Chris Boneau, Phil Reno, Diane Heatherington, La Sonya Gunter, Craig Burns, Kate Dunn, Joell Soto, Jennifer Hohn, Adrian Bryan-Brown, Bess Glorioso, Rick Sordelet, Christian Kelly-Sordelet and Joseph Conger
Chris Boneau, Phil Reno, Diane Heatherington, La Sonya Gunter, Craig Burns, Kate Dunn, Joell Soto, Jennifer Hohn, Adrian Bryan-Brown, Bess Glorioso, Rick Sordelet, Christian Kelly-Sordelet and Joseph Conger Monica Simoes

It’s five minutes to places, and a few flights up at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, Kinky Boots’ top-notch makeup and wig tech teams are putting the finishing touches on the Angels before they hit the stage. In the orchestra pit of the St. James Theatre, strings are tuning up to take theatregoers to the Renaissance at Something Rotten! Ushers all over the city are stacking their Playbills and getting ready to hand them to eager theatregoers as they take their seats, press representatives are setting up for a show’s opening night after-party, photographers are at the ready on the red carpet and somewhere—in a rehearsal studio in Manhattan—casting directors are on the search for talent for the next Broadway blockbuster.

Long after the stars take their final bows, production assistants, dressers, marketing directors, designers, physical therapists and house managers keep the Broadway business running. They are among the minds at work behind the bright lights and creative forces driving the industry forward.

None of them will receive awards June 12, but each is an invaluable member of the unseen and all too often unrecognized workers who make Broadway happen from behind the curtain. We’re taking a step beyond the dressing rooms and going deep into the wings to learn about the lives of those who keep Broadway booming. These are their stories.

Steven Tartick, Creative Director of Digital, SpotCo Advertising

Steven Tartick
Steven Tartick Marisa Cohen

We’re always looking for ways of telling the complete story about a show, from an outdoor bus ad to a tweet. For our Fun Home campaign, especially when the show was launching and through the Tony Awards season, we were able to use digital—and in particular, digital video—to tell the full story of the show’s emotional appeal. We created some videos that turned out really beautiful, called “Your Journey Home.” A lot of advertisements are all about the acclaim, but these videos really got to the impact the show was having on audience members every day. The kids in the New York City Youth Pride Chorus were so moved by “Ring of Keys,” they decided to do their own arrangements for it. They recorded the song and came to see the show, and for many of them it was their first time at a Broadway theatre. We documented the whole process. You realize A) obviously the power of theatre to truly change people’s lives and B) how digital technology allows us to capture and share that in a way that means so much to a huge audience of people. The work on Fun Home has really been a career highlight.

Rick Sordelet, Fight Director

Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet
Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet Monica Simoes

When my son [Christian Kelly-Sordelet] started working with me, there was a moment we were in South Africa working on Beauty and the Beast, and it was like handing over the tiller of a big, beautiful ship to a young sailor and saying, “Take this to this course.” He got up and started doing the work, and he actually ended up staying there almost a week longer than me. I had to go to another job, and there was a moment of feeling the torch pass that was exquisite. It must have been what my original mentor, Albert Katz, felt. He tried to describe it to me one time, and he said, “You’ve exceeded everything I can teach you.” That’s how I felt watching my son taking over. This is what it feels like to watch one generation move on from the other.

Phil Reno, Music Director and Vocal Arranger

Phil Reno
Phil Reno Monica Simoes

The most life-changing [moment] was my first conducting job. I was only 20. I started conducting for this legendary summer stock producer named John Kenley in Ohio. I was supposed to play the piano for a show, and something fell through with the tour that was going [on]. He said, “Well, you conduct, don’t you, young man?” I said, “Of course I do.” He said, “Well, I need a conductor for my next show. It starts in ten days. You must know Oliver!, don’t you?” I said, “Of course I do,” and ten days later I had my first conducting job. I had to go join the musicians’ union, and I had a 17-piece orchestra, an all-Equity cast and a whole crew in a 3,200-seat theatre. There I was: 20 years old; I was still in college. I was a little nervous then because I thought, “Somebody is going to discover I don’t know what I’m doing and get wise to me.” But it went well, and it was a blast, and here I am almost 35 years later.

La Sonya Gunter, Makeup Artist

La Sonya Gunter
La Sonya Gunter Monica Simoes

To pay my way through school, I always did makeup, and then after I got out of college, I was a performer. I got the opportunity to do Dreamgirls, and the makeup artist did my makeup, and I was like, “Oh! I want to do that,” so I kept doing it. I worked at MAC, and I had a friend who actually left MAC to do Broadway shows. He called me one day, and he was like, “I’m doing a fundraiser, so if you’re interested, I’d like you to be part of it.” I said, “Okay,” and I said, “If you ever need help with anything, let me know.” [He was] the designer for Wicked. He called me in for that, and that became my first Broadway show. It was terrifying. Sometimes, when you do a Broadway show, there are a lot of things that are incorporated inside of the [performers’] tracks besides makeup, so I was running around, putting monkey heads on whoever needed one, running around the theatre. It was fantastic.

Joseph Marzullo, Photographer

Joseph Marzullo
Joseph Marzullo Bruce Glikas

Sometimes I have to pinch myself with what I am doing. Some of it is really, really exciting I have to say. Let me tell you about Liza. She is such a sweetheart. One of the years of the Tony Awards, the pressroom was at Sardi’s, and they had the photographers on a step platform, and the chair that I was on somehow fell backwards off the platform, and I fell right in front of her. I was fine, but she was so concerned about me. She said, “Get a doctor here! Get an ambulance.” She was so, so concerned. Not everybody is like that. She’s pretty rare, I must say.

Joseph Conger, Physical Therapist

Joseph Conger
Joseph Conger Monica Simoes

I started dancing when I was in high school out in Long Island. I went to college for dance performance at Southern Methodist University and danced with ballet companies, modern companies—more concert dance, as opposed to theatre. I danced until my mid-20s and then hurt my back. I was in a ballet company at the time, just lifting a girl, and threw my back out. I had to take some time off. I went through PT and pilates for rehabilitation and sort of fell in love with that area of work. I went back to school, got my doctorate and then started working here in the city on dancers and performers. [Through] recovering and healing myself, I developed a passion for that kind of work.

Diane Hetherington, Head Treasurer, Barrymore Theatre

Diane Heatherington
Diane Heatherington Monica Simoes

I had no idea about theatre at all—what it entailed or how it went. I grew up in Pittsburgh. I came to New York for a vacation, and I happened to walk past this theatre the day after I Love My Wife opened, and the treasurer was outside having a cigarette. Somebody introduced us, and he said, “Do you know how to do mail orders?” I said, “Well, yeah.” He said, “Well, go upstairs, and I’ll pay you out of my pocket until I can get you on payroll.” I never left. I bounced around from theatre to theatre once I got into a treasurer’s job, and I’ve been in the same apartment for 40 years. I walk to work, see the beautiful sights. It’s exciting. I think the best thing about theatre is that you watch a load-in, and you see the house completely destroyed. It’s just like boxes and dirt and such a mess, and it’s that way up until the first preview, and that afternoon they’re doing a run-through of the show, and by the show at night, it’s completely on. It’s really an exciting part of the business. To this day, I still look around and go, “I actually live here. I’m actually in the middle of this.” And, I fit in from the very beginning. Old-timers from the neighborhood said, “You sure you weren’t born here in a different life?”

David Alpert, Associate Director

David Alpert
David Alpert Kris Rogers

I think we all struggle with rejection and instability. Right when I moved to New York, my sister died, and it slightly derailed me, and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. And it’s affected every part of my life since then, with my benefit concerts and then with every show I work on. I think about how lucky I am to be doing what I love. She wanted to pursue musical theatre and wasn’t able to, but that was a huge challenge for me. Right after I moved to New York, that happened, and I wasn’t sure if I would continue. … The concert series that I produce, it’s something that I look forward to every year, and it’s the one stable gig that I have, if that makes sense. It’s something to look forward to, and it allows me to give back, and the friends that I meet throughout the year—we could come together and put aside the contracts and the reviews and the rehearsal process and just celebrate acceptance and come together as a community.

Charlie Rosen, Associate Musical Director and Orchestrator

Charlie Rosen
Charlie Rosen Marques Walls

My first time taking piano lessons was when I was three, and my father found out that I had perfect pitch around the same time. I come from a family of musicians, but they didn’t force me to do it. I always just took to it naturally. I was always just making noise and playing the piano. Once I learned colors, they realized I could tell white keys from black keys, even though I didn’t know anything about music theory, and away I went. When I first started doing [13] in Los Angeles, I was 15. When it got to Broadway, I had just turned 18. It was definitely a culture shock. It was really like being thrust into any professional world at a young age. It will certainly let you grow quick. Luckily, I had a skill set that could apply really well and really quickly and worked with people who really wanted us to succeed as young people instead of talking down to us. I think what was really awesome about it was that it gave me an insanely incredible jumpstart on understanding the nature of the business and how it functions backstage as a network of people with varied skill sets working toward one goal. But it definitely was a culture shock from what I can remember. Sometimes, when you’re 17 and 18, you’re not really a fully-formed human being yet.

Wally Carroll, Stage Doorman, Majestic Theatre

Wally Carroll
Wally Carroll Brian Mapp

Up at Actors’ Equity, there’s a job board. When actors are out of work, they check a job board, and one of the jobs on the board was work backstage. I came over here to the Shuberts, and they interviewed me, and I got a job at the Golden Theatre for two weeks. After the two weeks, I moved to the Majestic. The man [who previously had the job] never came back. I got his job. That was in October 1984, and I’ve been at The Phantom of the Opera ever since. It’s been almost 32 years. I could, at one time, get up at five o’clock in the morning, [film] a soap at seven o’clock in the morning and then come to work here. I could do that for a week—for two weeks. I could do a show, an Equity Approved Showcase that started rehearsals at ten o’clock in the morning until five at night, and then I’d come over to Phantom and do the show… but I can’t do that anymore. I’m 60, and it’s just too much. I wind up doing just this, which is nice, but it’s not what my intention was when I was starting out… It’s been wonderful, but I have to get out and start looking for acting work again. The money is nice, but money is not everything for me.

Tim Pettolina, House Manager, Richard Rodgers Theatre

Tim Pettolina
Tim Pettolina Ishmael Benaouda

I’m glad that I have had many years of experience before working on Hamilton. We’re in a routine now, so it’s not as stressful as it was when it first started with all the Secret Service and the president coming the first week. All of that was pretty insane, but now we’ve got a routine going. The President of the United States coming twice to the show… I mean, he only saw it once, but he’s been here twice, and just orchestrating that is beyond anything I ever thought I’d be involved with. I mean, I don’t want to get into specifics because of security, but let’s just say basically it started at 4 AM, and it ended at midnight.

Bess Glorioso, Production Stage Manager

Bess Glorioso
Bess Glorioso Monica Simoes

Everything I’ve always wanted in my career was to work on a brilliant hit show that people enjoy and that sweeps the Tonys, and that was Once. Working with that core group of people, the creatives, the actors who started it and bringing it from New York Theatre Workshop to Broadway and seeing how our little show just took off—it was the most magical moment on Tony night to say, “I was a part of creating this musical.” And, if my career ended right there and I never worked again, I would be okay with that. But, fortunately, I was lucky enough when Once closed, I got to work with David Hyde Pierce on It Shoulda Been You, which was unbelievable because not only is he an amazing actor, but it was wonderful to work with him as a director and working with his husband as a writer. Then, when I got offered to go in to meet with Bart Sher, I was like, “This is awesome!” I don’t know why I was nervous because I’ve worked with amazing directors my whole career, but I was like, “This is somebody who I’ve dreamed about working with.” I had just seen Otello that he did at the Met. I went in, and we talked for an hour at his office, and it’s like we had been friends forever. The next day, when I got the phone call saying he’d like me as the PSM on Fiddler on the Roof, it was like mic drop for me. I’m at the peak of my career doing a revival—a 50-year-old revival—and Sheldon Harnick is still alive, in the room. Everything that could possibly be awesome about this is awesome.

Craig Burns, Casting Director

Craig Burns
Craig Burns Monica Simoes

I remember early on working on Hairspray and casting the first national tour. We did open calls all the time because we wanted to find Tracy Turnblads who were new and raw and interesting and unseasoned. Bernie Telsey and I first met Keala Settle at an open call held in Los Angeles several months after the Broadway production opened. She didn’t have an agent or any professional experience. Her singing voice bowled us over, and her personality was zesty and infectious. She made an immediate impression on us and was one of those discoveries casting directors live for. I was in my early 20s, so the thing about that which was so interesting to me—especially working on Hairspray—was I was the age of these kids who were auditioning for me, and it was just so thrilling to give them those opportunities. I think that’s one of the most amazing things about casting for me—giving actors the chance to change their lives onstage, offstage, who they meet, the relationships that they form. It’s about cultivating talent and, in turn, affecting people, on both sides of the footlights.

Randy Cohen, Keyboard Programmer

Randy Cohen
Randy Cohen Taylor Hooper

I’ve loved this season because I’ve had Hamilton, which is rap and hip hop; I’ve had The Color Purple, which is much more soulful; I’ve had Allegiance, which had more ethnic qualities in it; and I also helped out with Bright Star, so I got to dip my toes in some bluegrass. It was really nice to be able to do so many different things in the course of one season. Being involved in so many different projects, it keeps my creative juices flowing. There’s always something new around the corner.

Kate Dunn, Associate Choreographer, Matilda

Kate Dunn
Kate Dunn Monica Simoes

I spent ten years in London at the Royal Ballet School and the Royal Ballet Company. That was my training. I left home when I was 16 to live in London from a really small country town in Australia, so that was quite a big deal. [I] stayed with the company until my mom passed away… I stopped dancing for a year then, actually. Eventually, I went back to live in London, and I kind of fell into musical theatre. Someone had said to me, “If a show called Contact comes, you should go and audition because it could be a show that you might get into because of your skills with modern dance,” so I went to this audition—and I thought it would be like A Chorus Line the movie. I didn’t even have heels or real dance gear. I just had the t-shirt and leggings and stuff, and I ended up getting cast.

I love performing, but I really love my current job as well, which is much more about teaching. The Matildas have eight weeks of training before they go into the show, and the ensemble kids usually have six weeks before they go in. You’re with them like four hours every day, so you create a really great relationship with them. The kids actually teach you, and that’s what I love. They inspire you to be your best. You want to be your best for that child. You want to give as much as you can give. You want to make them the best that they can be. You want to make them feel as secure as you can, as confident as they can [be].

Sierra Fox, Production Assistant

Sierra Fox
Sierra Fox Monica Simoes

I was in a stage management class at Fordham taught by Andrea “Spook” Testani, and when she got sick, her community of friends rallied to help with whatever commitments she had. Ana M. Garcia became my stage management professor for the last few months. She watched me applying for internships, staying in the city and not having any real paid work and struggling, and she said, “You know, we’re looking for PAs at Once.” So I went in one night in May and shadowed and very much tried to not get my hopes up the whole time, and that night I signed a contract and came onto the team. The first performance I worked was June 1, 2014, which I remember because they were handing out Pride Playbills, and it was the most exciting [experience] … My name wasn’t in it yet, but [I thought], “I’m part of this!” and also, “Something really cool is happening this month.”

Joell Soto, Lottery Manager

Joell Soto
Joell Soto Monica Simoes

Prior to Wicked, I worked at the Rent lottery. Right before they started a lottery system, they had people waiting in rush ticket lines, sleeping out in the street—and this is back when Times Square was not as nice, not as cleaned up. It was very gritty—a lot of crime in the streets back then, so the last thing [parents] wanted was their sons and daughters sleeping outside a block away from Times Square overnight to get tickets. I think they did a rush line for almost a year. It became a logistics problem. It wasn’t sustainable in that form—they had to add security—so eventually they started a lottery system. It kind of took off; it ballooned. It was definitely something that made that show special and, obviously now because of that show, doing lotteries… I would say just about everyone does lotteries. It’s almost the norm.

Jennifer Hohn, Dresser

Jennifer Hohn
Jennifer Hohn Monica Simoes

I have met a lot of fantastic actresses and actors, and you build relationships—friendships—and it feels like family because you talk about your life, your kids. And, of course, they look to us a lot of times as someone to confide in and listen to—what’s happening in their lives—because we spend so much time with our actors, and it makes me feel good that people trust me enough that they can talk to me about what’s happening in their life, and they’re interested enough to hear about what’s going on in mine. I’m able to share my life with them because we spend a good majority of our time in the theatre being that we’re there six days a week. I wasn’t even a Broadway person before I got into Broadway. This is a brand-new experience. I wasn’t exposed to it growing up. I mean, I went to go see plays and regional theatre, but nothing like this, so this is all a learning experience. Once I got into it, I fell in love with it. I started to see shows and experience it from backstage and as well as being in the audience, which made me appreciate it even more. It was nothing that I ever thought I would be doing… I’ve been doing wardrobe for 15 years, but I’ve only been on Broadway for eight.

R. Jay Duckworth, Properties Master, The Public Theater

Jay Duckworth
Jay Duckworth Monica Simoes

I got to the Public in 2008, and when I heard the job was opening, I wrote to everybody that I knew who could write me a letter of recommendation. I was like, “Could you please just write me a letter of recommendation if whatever I did helped serve your play?” And, I got 17 letters of recommendation. One was from Adam Rapp; Arthur Laurents, the guy who wrote Gypsy, West Side Story and started Sondheim’s career; Christopher Durang… I got a bunch of big, heavy-hitters and went into the office with [production executive] Ruth [E. Sternberg] and gave them the portfolio with all of these letters of recommendation and said, “I realize that this maybe is only a formality because you guys come highly recommended,” which is really, really ballsy, but I figured I needed to go in with all my guns blazing because it’s my dream job! She laughed, and we talked through my resume, we talked through what they do here, and she offered me the job. Whatever the prop is—it has to serve the director, the show, as well as the actor, and all three of them have to like it. And, it also has to be within budget. I think the challenges that I’ve had were filling up an entire room with weapons for Christopher Durang’s Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, so much so that people are just shocked by the amount of weapons in this guy’s stockpile—comically a lot. That was something pretty great. One of the other great things that we did was [with Elizabeth] Schuyler, when she was burning her letter. Being able to make a letter burn for two minutes and nine seconds—one piece of paper! So, finding the size of a piece of paper that you could cut up and a proper weight, so it didn’t ash away and that lasted the entire song but that burns itself out—for two minutes and nine seconds—was an incredible challenge, but it was pretty great. It was pretty neat.

Chris Boneau and Adrian Bryan-Brown, Press Representatives, Boneau/Bryan-Brown

MON_3928.JPG
Adrian Bryan-Brown and Chris Boneau Monica Simoes

Chris Boneau:
The best day that I could remember was when Adrian and I were just beginning our partnership, and I had a little office, and he was down the hall, and he buzzed and said, “Rocco Landesman wants to talk to you. There’s a Broadway show coming that I don’t think that I could handle, but I think you should do it.” So the phone picks up, and it’s Rocco Landesman, and he says, “Hi Chris. We haven’t really met. I’ve heard a lot about you guys. But I’m wondering if you want to work on Angels in America.” I remember standing up—those days you just can’t sit down because there’s a lot to do, and you realize that your life has been changed, and it was that moment. I knew about Angels in America. I had no idea it was going to take the path it was going to take, but it was the day that truly changed my life, and I think the beginning of our business, too. There were things right before, but that was the big, big moment. Guys and Dolls was happening right before that, so there was this year when it was all happening.

Adrian Bryan-Brown:
Guys and Dolls, the ’90s revival, kind of changed the perception on the way revivals were done, but we didn’t know it at the time. We just thought, “Oh yeah, we love that musical,” and then it grew to be… a little bit after it opened, you went, “Wow. This is really a game changer. Musical revivals, now, are not going to be thought of as these things that come in for a few weeks, and they’re rather tacky. This is going to be seen as a really important part of Broadway again.” And that was really exciting.

Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.

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