ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Understudy Action at Disaster! and Carol Lawrence's West Side Stories
By Seth Rudetsky
A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.
There's a reason that theatre is called drama and here 'tis: Jennifer Simard plays Sister Mary Downy in Disaster! and is hi-larious (see every review). Her husband is working on Aladdin in Toronto so she tries to visit him on her days off. Her flight was scheduled get back to NYC Friday at 1:30 PM, but we were slightly nervous, because flights can be unpredictable. (See this column about my flight to play for Patti LuPone in California or this one about Audra McDonald flying to Fresno to do a concert.)
So, our trusty stage manager Jeff Davolt decided to have an understudy rehearsal on Friday, just in case Jennifer's understudy had to go on. PS, because we just opened, we haven't started official understudy rehearsals yet. On Thursday, I got a text from our leading man (Matt Farcher) telling me that he was feeling really sick during the Wednesday matinee and he now had a fever. He was giving a heads up that there was a big chance he wouldn't be able to do the show Friday. Ah! His understudy is Robb Sapp, who played an adorable Boq in Wicked and whom I first saw in Zanna, Don't. In Disaster!, he plays Matt's best friend/nerdy sidekick. Robb had never rehearsed Matt's part so we scheduled a last-minute, panicked rehearsal Thursday.
If Robb went on, that meant that Saum Eskandani (who plays many different roles in the show and dies numerous times from various disasters) would have to go on for Robb and Drew Geraci (the associate director and swing) would have to go on for Saum. The other headache was the fact that Saum's role entails around 17 costume changes that Drew would have to run with the dresser. We all got together late Thursday in a last-minute rehearsal and ran everything. Blocking, songs and subtext were done in a few hours. We cancelled the rehearsal for the nun understudy on Friday and decided to make that a rehearsal onstage for all the new people who might have to go on Friday night to cover Matt and the people around him. Then, Friday morning came along, and Matt told us he was feeling much better and would be able to go on Friday night. Yay! Crisis averted.
Cut to, a few hours later I was at the gym with my trainer (now the secret is out — that's how I "still got it") and when I finished my session, I picked up my phone and saw that I had three missed calls from James. Uh-oh. Turns out, exactly what we feared was going to happen did happen: Jennifer Simard's plane was cancelled because of fog and the only other flight arrived in New York too late for her to do the show! SO! The nun understudy rehearsal that was cancelled was suddenly back on!
Backstory: Sherz Aletaha emailed me around eight years ago when she first moved to New York City (and was still in her teens!) and asked to be my intern. She helped me out a lot, and one day, she asked me to play a song for her. Oy! I liked her so much and was nervous that she was going to ask my advice after she sang. What if she didn't have a great voice? I didn't want to haul out the ol' "what great acting choices" chestnuts. Turns, out, her voice is gorgeous and I praised her up a storm! Then, a few years later, when we had the first reading of Disaster! at my apartment, I asked her to be in it. After that, she did the very first performance we did as a benefit for "Only Make Believe" (playing a variety of so-called victims, including my favorite; "woman who screams"). A few months later, we ran the show once a week at the Triad on 72nd St. and Sherz was cast again. We found out that everyone in the show could be Equity (even though it was only once a week), so Sherz wound up getting her Equity card doing that production. When we moved Off-Broadway, she auditioned for us (because this time she'd have to understudy leads) and we cast her as ye olde "woman who screams", plus as the understudy for a few parts, including the nun.
Sherz never had an official rehearsal, but she showed up calmly at the theatre at 3 PM and we ran her stuff in the show. She seemed to know it all. Suddenly, it was "places". Would she know the lines? Would she get the laughs? Would she hit the repeated high A's in "Signed, Sealed, Delivered"? The answers are, "Yes, yes and yes!" It was so exciting! She got laughs from her initial entrance (playing the guitar and singing "The Lord's Prayer") all the way to the end of the show and all of her song(s) sounded great. It was so much fun for the cast, too. We were all crowded in the wings, watching her and everyone was so happy whenever she'd nail a laugh or a sing a sassy note. I felt a particular pride because she started as my teenage intern and here she was, with her Equity card, playing her first lead in New York City. So exciting!
At the "Chatterbox" I had Carol Lawrence, the original Maria from West Side Story! I had never met her, but, boy, did I listen to her when I was a kid. She is a really fun person to talk to and had so many amazing stories! First of all, she grew up near Chicago and took tons of dance classes. When she was 13, her teacher told her that she needed to create her own act to find out what worked and what didn't; the theory was that at dance recitals, the parents are enthusiastic for their own kids and the other kids want you to fail. So, only in front of a paying, random audience can you find out what people really like. Carol said she'd pile up her hair to make herself look older (she was supposed to be 16 to work) and she performed her own act in clubs around the Chicago area. She'd be on the bill with a dance act, a comedian, a trio, etc... like a variety show. Carol said that certain men would ask her to have dinner between shows and her mother would sidle up and say, "I'm her mother. If Carol has dinner with you, I'll be sitting in between you both." The dinner invitations were thus withdrawn.
Even though Carole studied performing throughout her childhood, her father insisted that she become a lawyer. Carol went to Northwestern (not majoring in theatre) and right after her freshman year ended, she got an idea. Every summer, her father would take the family to Yellowstone Park. Carol had to write an essay about the trip and submit it to her teachers for extra credit. Her first year of college was no exception. Carol saw this as an opportunity to quickstart her career; she told her Dad that an even better place to write an essay about was New York City! It had the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, etc.
I asked if she mentioned Broadway to him. "Absolutely not," she responded. So, because her lawyer-like argument was so good, it convinced him to take the family to New York. She then told him she'd like to "audit" an audition to see what they were like. Carol showed up and asked the people running the audition if she could audit. They, naturally, told her there was no such thing. Either she auditioned or she didn't. So, Carol put on her dance togs and auditioned. She stayed for hours, and by the end of the day, she was cast in her first Broadway show!
She went back to her hotel and told her father who, naturally, forbid her from doing it. Carol said she cried, pleaded and eventually got down on her knees. Finally, her father told her that if she did the show, he'd disown her and if she were starving on the street one day, he wouldn't throw her a dime. She responded with, "Yay! I can do it!" She claimed that he was Italian, so she was used to his dramatic flair. Carol was 18 and cast in a show called Borschtcapades starring Joel Grey and his father, Mickey Katz. She dropped out of Northwestern and did the entire run of the show (almost a year).
She then talked about her West Side Story audition and told us that she was told to sing a typical audition song and, if she passed that, sing an aria. She decided that "Un Bel Di" would be her aria. When she told her agent, he told not to sing it because she wouldn't be able to. (He knew her mainly as a dancer.) She went into a little room with all the bigwigs (including Leonard Bernstein), and when they asked for her aria, her agent ran across the room and stood there with his hands over his ears! Well, after she sang, Berstein stood up, grabbed her hands and said, "Miss Lawrence, that was beautiful." Then he turned to the agent and said, "And you, young man, if you'll get out of that ridiculous position, I'd like to bring her back so I can hear her sing that in a theatre." And that was her first of 13 (!) auditions.
She finally got cast as Maria opposite Larry Kert and they became incredibly close. Jerome Robbins wasn't nice to either of them and they bonded because of it. Carol then found out that there was going to be a ballet in Act Two and Robbins had hired two ballet company dancers to play Tony and Maria. Carol asked if she and Larry could learn the dance. Robbins asked her why, "since she didn't dance." Carol, meanwhile, had mentioned at every audition that she did, indeed, dance, and had tons of dance credits on her resume. He then looked at Larry and asked why he was going to learn it since he could "barely walk." Nonetheless, Robbins told them they could learn it but if they stayed in the wings because he didn't want to see them. Carol said it was difficult to learn the steps from the side so she and Larry eventually snuck onstage and hid all the way in the back. Finally, Robbins must have noticed them, because one day he asked them to step forward and do the dance. And from then on, they did the ballet segment in Act Two! Brava manipulation!
I asked if the high C at the end of the "Tonight Quintet" was difficult, and she said it wasn't because everyone was singing. But the hardest part for her was the slow ascension at the end of "One Hand, One Heart" because it was so exposed. They not only had no body mics (of course) but there were no foot mics either! Carol said that the fire escape for the balcony scene was high up and all the way upstage and she would get notes to sing sweeter and quieter... but louder. So hard! She and Larry Kert filmed the "Tonight" balcony scene for Ed Sullivan and she said it was exactly how it was done in the show. Watch this amazing piece of Broadway history here! And speaking of Maria and Tony, Carol and I recreated the cover of the West Side Story album right after the Chatterbox… look!
If you want to see Carol back on the boards again, get thee to her new play where she hauls out her dramatic AND comedic chops: Handle With Care.
This week, because of Thanksgiving, we've added a Disaster! matinee on Friday. Fun! And the fantastic Sutton Foster concert will finally be available! You can find it at SethTV.com. And speaking of SethTV, I just put up an amazing video I had made back in 2001. It's an entire "making of" video all about the creation of the Dreamgirls concert with Audra McDonald, Lillias White, Heather Headley, Billy Porter and Norm Lewis! I filmed everything and made a fantastic compilation reel: Rehearsals, recording session, our appearance on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" and more! So thrilling. Watch the promo here and then peace out!
(Seth Rudetsky is the afternoon Broadway host on SiriusXM. He has played piano for over 15 Broadway shows, was Grammy-nominated for his concert CD of Hair and Emmy-nominated for being a comedy writer on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." He has written two novels, "Broadway Nights" and "My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan," which are also available at Audible.com. He recently launched SethTV.com, where you can contact him and view all of his videos and his sassy new reality show.)
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