The Life of Fun Home's 12-Year-Old Understudy — Covering Two Boys, One Girl and Going On at a Moment's Notice

News   The Life of Fun Home's 12-Year-Old Understudy — Covering Two Boys, One Girl and Going On at a Moment's Notice
 
Gabriella Pizzolo, who understudies three different roles in the award-winning musical Fun Home, invites Playbill.com backstage to learn about the life of a child actress who has to be ready at a moment's notice.

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When Gabriella Pizzolo was told she would be performing for the first time in Fun Home on Broadway, her reaction was a fitting tribute to the woman who inspired the Tony-winning musical.

"I just thought, 'Caption: I am so excited for this. Exclamation Point!'" Pizzolo said, laughing. "I was so excited. And I knew this wonderful cast would be there to support me. I wasn't even nervous because they would help me through it."

Pizzolo is the understudy for the three children in Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel's graphic novel memoir: John (Zell Steele Morrow), Christian (Oscar Williams) and Small Alison (Sydney Lucas).

Gabriella Pizzolo, with some of the costumes for the three characters she covers
Gabriella Pizzolo, with some of the costumes for the three characters she covers

Performing is nothing new to Pizzolo, who made her Broadway debut in Matilda the Musical in 2013 after performing in local productions of Hairspray, Little Shop of Horrors, I Remember Mama and The Sound of Music as well as Les Misérables at Schenectady Light Opera. But Fun Home marks the first time she has played several roles — of different genders — in one production. "It was definitely hard to learn all the parts," Pizzolo said backstage in her dressing room before an afternoon performance. The petite 12-year-old actress, who frequently utters "Oh, my goodness!" and peppers her statements with mature phrases like "I must say," revealed that she color-coded her script with one color for each role while learning her lines. (John was blue, Christian was orange and Alison was "classic yellow.")

Pizzolo (second from left) with <i>Matilda</i> co-stars Ripley Sobo, Paige Brady and Ava Ulloa at the 2014 <i>Broadway Barks!</i>
Pizzolo (second from left) with Matilda co-stars Ripley Sobo, Paige Brady and Ava Ulloa at the 2014 Broadway Barks! Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Pizzolo went on for the first time mid-show, when Morrow wasn't feeling well, and she performed the demanding role of Alison June 23. The news came from the stage manager 15 minutes before the show began, and she quickly changed into her costume and prepared to perform.

"I was thinking, 'Oh my goodness. I'm on. For real.' And it was crazy and it was the funnest ever. Everybody was so, so kind," she said. "It was almost like I became Alison. It almost feels like there's nobody around you watching. It's just you and your dad and your family."

The opening scene of Fun Home features Small Alison asking her father to "play airplane," as she lies on her stomach on his feet, balancing in the air and singing, "I can see all of Pennsylvania."

"That was amazing," Pizzolo said. "I've done it before but never in front of an audience. It was an incredible fly."

Pizzolo, who must be at the theatre by half-hour and is backstage or watching every performance until the show is over, shares a dressing room with Lucas. The two have adorned the room with decorations that include a mural about the musical created by the two girls as well as a Fun Home Pride banner. It's in this room that she spends her time offstage, doing homework, reading and playing acting exercises and the card games Spit and Go Fish with her castmates.

The children also love playing BeanBoozled, said Pizzolo, a game that involves different types of jellybeans with one conventional flavor and one unconventional one.

Playing a round of BeanBoozled with her young castmates
Playing a round of BeanBoozled with her young castmates

"It's disgusting!" Pizzolo, who loves the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson book series and credited math as her favorite subject, laughed. "This was right before a show we played it. [I said], 'If it's really not good, don't try, because we don't want anyone vomiting.' We put paper towels in front of us so we could spit it out really quickly. Skunk spray [is the worst flavor]. That's really bad. Or rotten egg. It sounds OK — better than some other ones — but it's really, really not."

The playful atmosphere backstage at Fun Home (just outside Pizzolo's dressing room hangs a sign announcing "This hallway is 8.5 Zells long") may come as a surprise to some audience members. The musical is based on Bechdel's graphic novel memoir chronicling her identification as a lesbian and her father's subsequent suicide: serious material for the Broadway stage.

Fun Home's Broadway opening and subsequent Tony victories — winning Best Musical, Best Actor in a Musical (Michael Cerveris), Best Direction (Sam Gold), Book (Lisa Kron) and Original Score (Jeanine Tesori) — marked the first time a musical with a lesbian protagonist played Broadway and one of the very few that has featured book, music and lyrics by women. Read Playbill's exclusive interview with Tesori and Kron, about the creation of Fun Home, here.

The impact of the history-making Tony win is not lost on Pizzolo, who recalled watching the Tony Awards broadcast. "Oh my gosh, that was so amazing, and we were all together in that room crossing our fingers. We would be happy no matter what show won, but we were so just so happy that Sam, Lisa, Jeanine and Alison all decided to come together to make this musical. It's helping so many people, and it's doing so many good things."

Pizzolo's dressing room station
Pizzolo's dressing room station

Fun Home star Michael Cerveris shares how the musical has inspired audience members to reach out to him personally.

Fun Home's Tony victories were shortly followed by another victory for the LGBTQ community when the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage is a federally mandated right. The ruling was announced the morning of June 26, followed by an evening performance of Fun Home, including a speech by Beth Malone, who plays Big Alison, at the curtain call.

"Ever since I knew anything about this show, I was waiting for that day to happen," Pizzolo said. "It was an amazing feeling to be alive on that night, and it was just so much fun to be in the city and see everybody. I wore a rainbow T-shirt and everybody was so happy. That night was so magical. We all were so happy for [the audience] coming tonight of all nights. It was amazing."

Read more about Fun Home marking an historic change on Broadway here.

Pizzolo with Oscar Williams, Sydney Lucas and Zell Steele Morrow on opening night
Pizzolo with Oscar Williams, Sydney Lucas and Zell Steele Morrow on opening night Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Pizzolo's first performance as Small Alison was also a happy night for the actress, who, during the curtain call, was bowed to by her co-star Cerveris.

"I felt like bowing down to all of them," she said. "They just went with it, and it was so incredible to see how they were so supportive and loving and [saying], 'You can do it!' [They were] keeping me grounded throughout the whole entire time. Especially the first time it was just like, 'Oh my gosh. Oh my goodness. This is crazy.' It was the funnest thing ever.

"It's so fun to be an understudy because one second you could be doing homework backstage and the next second you're dressed up and becoming John Bechdel," she concluded. "It goes by so fast. It's so much fun. It keeps you kind of on track. You always have to be thinking."

(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.)

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