ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Understudy Action at Disaster! and Carol Lawrence's West Side Stories

By Seth Rudetsky
25 Nov 2013

Seth with Sherz Aletaha
Seth with Sherz Aletaha

A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.

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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.

 Continued...