You're watching "The Good Wife" or "Law & Order" and the face behind the voice you listen to on your favorite cast album flashes on the screen. It's exciting to see beloved theatre stars pop up on TV, but the thrill of seeing them in both mediums is the result of a lot of hard work. Santino Fontana, Conrad Ricamora and Krysta Rodriguez all confronted the challenges of two full-time jobs this past year as they navigated the tricky nature of life between curtain calls and call times.
Rodriguez, star of this season's Spring Awakening and ABC Family's "Chasing Life," explains how much the minutia of scheduling comes into it. "My first time I was on TV was [CW's] 'Gossip Girl,' and I was doing In The Heights at that time," says Rodriguez. "Sometimes you miss a show. Otherwise, you try to get out of the shoot. It's always a tricky thing." Either way, she was only trading Washington Heights for the Upper East Side. The King and I's Conrad Ricamora lives a bi-coastal life, performing at Lincoln Center eight shows a week and flying to Los Angeles to film ABC's "How To Get Away With Murder."
"I have three different understudies that rotate and go on, and they just let me go whenever I need to shoot," says Ricamora. "'How To Get Away With Murder' is really great because they try to condense and shoot me out of an episode [filming all of one actor's scenes in a row in order to release them to their other commitments] really quickly." Sometimes, however, TV schedules get shifted around and actors can find themselves on the West Coast for an unexpectedly long time—yet another accommodation asked of their Broadway employers. In the case of an actor recurring on a popular TV show, theatre producers often feel the draw of the larger audience and fan base to be well worth the effort of putting in understudies.
While Santino Fontana was cramming words, music and staging in the abbreviated two-week rehearsal process for City Center's Encores! concert version of Zorba!, he was also in production on the new NBC series "Shades of Blue."
Preparing two roles simultaneously across a span of several thousand miles was strenuous, but manageable because of the vast different between the two pieces. "I was never worried about mixing up the two worlds from Zorba! and 'Shades of Blue,'" says Fontana. "Stein (and Weidman's) book for Zorba! was so specifically different from the gritty, almost stylized, dialogue in 'Shades of Blue.'"
According to Rodriguez, the Spring Awakening/"Chasing Life" pairing was tougher than the In The Heights/"Gossip Girl" duo. Because of the American Sign Language component in Spring Awakening (along with the intricate cueing developed for the Deaf and hearing actors to work in concert), the understudy tracks were highly specialized. When someone called out, it was a greater demand for the rest of the cast than on another show.
It takes a push and pull between Hollywood and Broadway to allow actors to take on these opportunities. Even with cooperation on all sides, factoring the travel in to the already taxing eight shows a week is an art form in itself.
Contrary to what you might expect, however, all three performers agree that the days on their TV shows, away from their Broadway musicals, are actually helpful. The multi-tasking keeps the stage performance fresh over a long run and provides an opportunity to rest their voices. Rodriguez and Ricamora both appreciate the break from singing in between performances of the vocally demanding musical roles they play.
Although Fontana feels he needs a break from vocal strain, not singing. "It's never the singing, it's always the screaming. Or the talking leading into the singing, that's the hard thing," he says.
"Doing anything eight shows a week is gonna test your body," he adds. Working overtime, Fontana talks about knowing his body and being more attune to a tickle in the throat or a crick in the thigh that needs to be taken into consideration, even though those things may be handled easily the rest of the run of a show. His workarounds to accommodate these issues may be very slight, as simple as remembering to relax his throat and face muscles before a speech he might handle less cautiously were he not constantly "on."
Indeed, a challenge these actors face along with playing their parts on television and on stage is taking care of themselves behind the scenes. All agree that drinking lots of water and getting plenty of rest are essential. There are no big show-biz secrets — no special elixirs or lozenges they rely on — but Fontana warns, "Ginger candy is really just sugar. It's not gonna help anybody." Sugar seems to be the common enemy for actors. The quick burst of energy it provides is a poor justification for the inevitable crash that follows.
"I have learned to stay away from craft services," laughs Ricamora. "There's all this delicious, terrible stuff and I never know when they're going to ask me to take my shirt off."
However overbooked they each may be, all three expressed tremendous gratitude for the opportunity to combine their beloved theatre work with the new-to-them frontier of on-camera acting (not to mention the higher pay and greater exposure TV and film bring). "I feel tired sometimes, but never in a million years would I stop what I'm doing right now," says Ricamora. "And, all my friends are actors, so of course I can't talk to them about how tired I am working on this TV show!"
Working on two crafts, Fontana notes the differences between the disciplines. "I think the biggest difference is just the responsibilities of the actor," he says. "I think I took for granted the power of a stage. An actor on stage is really in control of their performance. We are the editors. Every night. That's part of what makes a great actor a great actor, is being able to have the taste and the skill to weave together an evening, whereas on camera, we're doing five seconds at a time sometimes, little chunks that then are weaved together to create an illusion of a whole story. I'm just a generator of options for them. And I love that because I don't have to worry about how it's gonna make sense, or if it's gonna make sense.
"I guess the analogy would be, in theatre, your relationship with your cast members — it's like you're married to them, and TV and film it can feel like casual dating," says Fontana.
It's to everybody's gain that so many great stage actors are enjoying "extramarital" careers.