Stealing the Spotlight, Broadway Sidekicks Chat About the Ups and Downs of Being the Best Friend

News   Stealing the Spotlight, Broadway Sidekicks Chat About the Ups and Downs of Being the Best Friend They may be the sidekicks, but they're not second fiddle. Actors who have made their careers playing the best friends to Broadway's leading ladies men weigh in on the benefits of being the sidekick to the star.

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"I was built to be a sidekick," says the 5'1" Don Darryl Rivera. As Iago in Aladdin, he is the bustling loudmouth foil to the slick sorcerer Jafar. In the original animated film Iago was a parrot, voiced by comedian Gilbert Gottfried, so it was important for audiences to still feel the difference in size between the two characters. Although Jonathan Freeman, who plays Jafar, is about 6 feet tall, Rivera still exaggerates his stout stance for the stage: "I'll hunch over just a little bit or bend my shoulders so that dynamic looks even more cartoony — more comedic," says Rivera.

Don Darryl Rivera backstage at <i>Aladdin</i>
Don Darryl Rivera backstage at Aladdin

Such is the role of the sidekick — they'll hunch, excrete bodily gases, dress like a frump and even push aside their own dreams, just to make the lead characters look good. He or she was written to help their friend, boss, or sibling achieve their goals. "The hot people usually play the main parts," says John Cariani, who plays Nigel, the earnest and more studious younger brother Bottom in Something Rotten!, "and then the character-y people play the people who help them get the girl, or get the money, or get the job or fulfill their dream."

Still many actors like Rivera, Cariani, Ben Jeffrey (the smelly warthog Pumbaa in The Lion King), and Allison Guinn (lusty cab driver Hildy's sniffling roommate Lucy in On the Town), prefer the comedic opportunities that often come with such roles to playing a leading lady or man. "Simba has to be athletic, good looking, and sing high every show. I make fart jokes and act like a buffoon," says Jeffrey. "I think our Simbas have a lot of fun, but I get to run out onstage every night in a giant pig costume. It's awesome, and Pumbaa has enough heart and truth in his character that he never feels shallow or inconsequential — just silly and lovable."

Ben Jeffrey as Pumbaa
Ben Jeffrey as Pumbaa

Guinn agrees. "The good thing about being the sidekick is that you get to be the prankster, and you get to be silly. You're onstage, you get the laughs, and then you're off, so it's good for the ego to be the sidekick," she says, despite her less-than-sexy onstage appeal. "You get all the jokes!' When Guinn first auditioned for On the Town it wasn't the three main women's roles she was after. She felt a certain kinship with the awkward, bespectacled, always-a-step-behind Lucy, from the start. "I went in for Hildy originally, and after I sang, I asked, 'Have you cast Lucy yet?' Guinn remembers. "They said, 'No. Would you like to read for Lucy?' And I said, "Yes. Is that weird?" I loved Alice Pearce in the movie [version of On the Town] and I knew that was something I could do. People can relate to Lucy. I call her the everywoman of the play."

In some cases these actors have made careers of playing first mates to the captain of the ship. "I feel like my whole life is playing sidekick roles," says Cariani, which has included many of Shakespeare's clowns. But where exactly do these sidekick psyches come from, and are they extended offstage?

"I always understood the dynamic especially being a younger brother," says Rivera. "I was the tag along with my sister and her friends, so I think it was kind of ingrained in me to be a sidekick." Cariani says the fact that he's long admired his costar Brian D'Arcy James, who plays his elder brother Nick Bottom, has helped him build his character. "It made it really easy because Nigel looks up to his brother, and I look up to Brian," says Cariani, "but I hope not in a weird way, just in a healthy way."

John Cariani and Brian d'Arcy James
John Cariani and Brian d'Arcy James Photo by Joan Marcus

Lucy is Guinn's first professional sidekick role, but she says she grew up studying actors like, Abbott and Costello, Imogene Coca from "Your Show of Shows," and "I Love Lucy"'s Vivian Vance. "It's fun to finally be able to be considered for things like that," says Guinn.

For Jeffrey, it was a sidekick role in the business that landed him a leading man part in real life. "I met my wife doing a movie where I played the best friend of the character my wife's character ended up marrying," he says. "In real life, I was not the sidekick! But I have a lot of fun playing one."

That is the one thing about sidekicks: They may get most of the laughs, but they don't usually get the girl (or the guy). Unless, of course, you are Lucy Schmeeler or Nigel Bottom. "What's cool about Something Rotten! is that I'm actually the love story, which is really unusual," says Cariani. The elder brother Bottom is already married, (to Heidi Blickenstaff's character Bea), so Nigel gets a very sweet, sonnet-filled story line with the puritan Portia (played by Kate Reinders), while over at the Lyric Theatre, Guinn ends up attracting the understanding Judge Pitkin (Michael Rupert), amidst a bout of physical comedy that can only be described as anti-charm. "I do find love," says Guinn. "Lucy gets the rich judge, and the other people have to wait and see if their sailor comes back." But for the most part the sidekick character is not there to blow kisses and whisper sweet nothings. They're there to essentially take one — whether that be donning a warthog suit, sneezing all over the stage, or bending their own ideals — for the team. As Cariani says, with a sense of proud duty, "The sidekick role is to ultimately make sure the protagonist of the show is a guy you want to root for."

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