Waiting In The Wings With Broadway's Understudies

Megan Sikora and the ensemble of "Promises, Promises"

hide captionJust Dance: Megan Sikora (center) is a member of the ensemble in Broadway's revival of Promises, Promises. Sikora also understudies the musical's lead, Kristin Chenoweth, and featured actress Katie Finneran.

Joan Marcus/The Hartman Group

The oldest cliche in show business may be "the show must go on," but for a special breed of actors, it's their job. They're Broadway's understudies.

And while these actors aren't up for Tony Awards on Sunday, they put in overtime covering the ones who are.

Take Megan Sikora. In the revival of Promises, Promises, a splashy 1960s musical starring Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth, she's not just in the chorus — "I play Miss Polansky, who is the 'Turkey Lurkey' girl in the green dress," Sikora says, mentioning the big first act showstopper. "I play Sylvia and I play a very angry nurse and, you know, dancer, here and there."

As if that weren't enough, Sikora understudies Chenoweth and Katie Finneran, the odds-on favorite to win the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, for her loopy portrayal of a drunken barfly named Marge.

Katie Finneran i i

hide captionThe Lady Is A Vamp: Katie Finneran, who plays Marge in Promises, Promises, is favored to win a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical on Sunday.

The Hartman Group
Katie Finneran

The Lady Is A Vamp: Katie Finneran, who plays Marge in Promises, Promises, is favored to win a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical on Sunday.

The Hartman Group

Sikora is so absorbed playing her own roles eight performances a week, she doesn't have much time to see what those two actresses are doing.

"I'm onstage a lot, which makes it difficult to watch the ladies that I understudy and pay attention, because it's my responsibility, as an understudy, to know the ins and outs of their job, so that if I got thrown on, Sean Hayes would not be…," she pauses. "I wouldn't rock his boat, by doing something dramatically different."

Sikora says a lot of essential work gets done on Thursday and Friday afternoons, when all the understudies are called for rehearsals. "We have play practice, basically — that's what we like to call it," says Sikora. "And it's our chance to physicalize it … and say everything out loud … and really find your version of it, because I don't think anybody wants to see an understudy go on and just do a poor imitation of what they would've seen."

Tony Picks

Get Jeff Lunden's predictions on what shows will take home the top awards, plus a look back at the 2009-10 season.

Trying To Fill The Star's High Heels

So, imagine what it must be like to understudy both Tony-nominated stars of the Tony-nominated revival of La Cage aux Folles, Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge. That's Chris Hoch's job.

He says both roles are enormous, but "Doug's is the more terrifying — not only the parameters of the role itself, but his performance is just so outside the box, you have to give a flavor of that and it's absolutely terrifying! I wake up every morning and I pray for his health!"

Most Broadway insiders consider the British-born Hodge a lock to win the Tony for Best Leading Actor in a Musical, playing the fluttery drag performer Albin. In one number, Albin literally applies makeup and gets dressed in front of the audience. To prepare himself as an understudy, Hoch says, he's not only memorized the lines and the staging, but he's gone to transsexual sites on the Web and, during off hours, descends the four flights of stairs from his dressing room to get comfortable walking in high heels onstage.

"I mean, it's funny," he laughs. "I go down every once in a while and just walk around in the heels."

Chris Hoch i i

hide captionTwice As Nice: Chris Hoch understudies two Tony nominees in La Cage aux Folles: Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge, the favorite to win Best Actor in a Musical.

Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Chris Hoch

Twice As Nice: Chris Hoch understudies two Tony nominees in La Cage aux Folles: Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge, the favorite to win Best Actor in a Musical.

Boneau/Bryan-Brown

Hoch, who also plays the masochistic stage manager in La Cage, has understudied in several Broadway shows, and is well aware that he may never get the call to step into Hodge's pumps. He says actors shouldn't take the job expecting the lead actor to get sick and to become a star themselves.

He brings up the famous Bette Davis movie All About Eve, in which Davis' evil understudy conspires to keep the star offstage. "An Eve Harrington moment is always, I think, frowned upon by the company, for good reason," Hoch explains. "You have a big responsibility to your fellow actors when you do it, more so than you do to yourself."

A Chance To Take On An Outsize Performance

For some actors, being an understudy allows them to play roles they wouldn't ordinarily be considered for. Stephen Rowe has played small roles in several Broadway shows, like Frost/Nixon. Now, he's understudying a Tony-nominated star, Alfred Molina, in Red, a play about artist Mark Rothko. Molina and Denzel Washington, who stars in Fences, are running neck-and-neck for the prize of Best Actor in a Play.

Rowe knows it might be easy to think of himself as a second-class citizen, but learning the role has been its own reward. "I really was excited about doing this, because I thought it's a part that I really need to have challenge me," he says, sitting in his dressing room backstage at the Golden Theatre, with a well-worn biography of Rothko on the makeup table. "I really need to tilt at this windmill a little bit because I hadn't played a part of this size and this magnitude and of this forcefulness."

Stephen Rowe i i

hide caption'Red' All Over: Stephen Rowe understudies Alfred Molina in Red, a play about Mark Rothko.

Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Stephen Rowe

'Red' All Over: Stephen Rowe understudies Alfred Molina in Red, a play about Mark Rothko.

Boneau/Bryan-Brown

Because Red is a two-character play, Rowe doesn't have another role in the production, but that doesn't mean he isn't busy. He comes to the theater at least an hour before every performance; he watches the show from the audience twice a week, taking notes; and he runs lines backstage with the other understudy.

"I feel that I have to touch all of the lines in the play every day," he says. "If I lose touch with it, more than my day off, I get a little nervous."

And like a pinch hitter in baseball, Rowe always keeps his head in the game, just in case Molina goes down. "You have to start thinking about 'What would happen if…,'" he says. "And, you know, Fred is such a horse, as a man and as an actor, part of you thinks, 'Well, if I don't get a call by 4 o'clock, it's not gonna happen,' but it's a little bit of a mind game."

Rowe doesn't go home until after the start of the fifth and final scene of the play, just in case.

While it hasn't happened yet, Rowe is steeling himself for the inevitable groan of disappointment from the audience that comes with the announcement that he — not Molina — will be playing the part of Rothko tonight.

"I look forward to it," he says, smiling. "That's life, that's OK. I mean, the thing you do is you make sure you either have your ears plugged for that, or just sort of embrace it and say, 'Just you watch now. OK?'"

In the meantime, Rowe, Hoch and Sikora say they'll be watching the Tony Awards, rooting for the actors they cover.

Tony Predictions: A Broadway Season In Review

Denzel Washington, Viola Davis i i

hide captionDenzel Washington and Viola Davis are a troubled couple in Fences, which has 10 Tony Award nominations this year. Jeff Lunden predicts it will win Best Revival of a Play.

Joan Marcus
Denzel Washington, Viola Davis

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are a troubled couple in Fences, which has 10 Tony Award nominations this year. Jeff Lunden predicts it will win Best Revival of a Play.

Joan Marcus

The only thing you can predict about any given Broadway season is it'll be unpredictable.

As the theater world gears up for Sunday's Tony Awards, it's worth noting that this time last year, the most-anticipated musical of the 2009-10 season was Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, with a score by U2 rock stars Bono and The Edge, to be directed by Julie Taymor (The Lion King). Turns out, it's still anticipated, having been postponed several times for lack of money. With a Broadway-high budget of well over $40 million — part of which is being used to rebuild the Hilton Theatre, so the actors can fly around the auditorium — the producers insist it will happen. Sometime.

What was going to be this season's monster hit play? Lucy Prebble's Enron, an audacious dramatization of American corporate chicanery, complete with singing, dancing and debt-eating velociraptors. It came to town in April, after garnering raves and sold-out crowds in London. But not only did it get so-so reviews and small audiences, it was almost completely ignored by the Tony nominators. Enron lasted all of two weeks, losing its entire $3.6 million investment.

Quick Picks: Lunden's Tony Predictions

Best Play: Red

Best Musical: Memphis

Best Revival of a Play: Fences

Best Revival of a Musical: La Cage aux Folles

Do the critics really matter? The Addams Family, the new musical starring Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth, and Promises, Promises, the revival of the Neil Simon/Burt Bacharach/Hal David musical, starring Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth, got almost universally panned. But they're probably the biggest hits of the season, consistently grossing more than $1 million a week. Revivals of Finian's Rainbow and Ragtime got almost universal raves from the critics. They're long gone.

Can Hollywood actors really cut it, doing eight performances a week on Broadway? This season, the answer was a resounding yes. Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig impressed in the less-than-impressive new play A Steady Rain, as did Jude Law as Hamlet. Liev Schreiber (already a Broadway vet) and Scarlett Johansson (in her Broadway debut) headlined a stunning revival of A View From the Bridge, as did Denzel Washington in an equally exciting revival of Fences. And Catherine Zeta-Jones showed she had the stuff, singing "Send in the Clowns" in the first Broadway revival of A Little Night Music.

Did the economy affect Broadway? Not too much, it turns out. It was another record-breaking year at the box office — for the first time total receipts officially broke the $1 billion mark, though audiences were down 3 percent. And there was plenty of activity. Thirty-nine shows opened: 11 new musicals, 14 new plays, six musical revivals and eight play revivals.

And Broadway survived a terrorist bomb scare on May 1, when an SUV packed with explosive material was found parked right by the entrance of The Lion King. The New York Police Department shut down portions of Times Square, the vehicle was defused without incident and the shows, while delayed, went on. The NYPD's Midtown North and South New York precincts will be honored with a special Tony Award for Excellence.

And speaking of Sunday's Tony Awards, here are my picks for some of the bigger categories this year (in bold):

Alfred Molina i i

hide captionAlfred Molina stars as abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko in Red.

Johan Persson
Alfred Molina

Alfred Molina stars as abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko in Red.

Johan Persson

Best Play

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl
Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauftts
Red by John Logan
Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies

The nominators had a lot of options in this category. In addition to the aforementioned Enron, David Mamet had a new play, Race (starring James Spader, Richard Thomas and David Alan Grier); Martin McDonough was represented with A Behanding in Spokane (starring the Tony-nominated Christopher Walken); and Tracy Letts — whose previous outing, August: Osage County, was a Pulitzer- and Tony-winning hit — had a genial, if short-lived, comedy in Superior Donuts.

Still, the four nominees are all deserving. With In the Next Room, Ruhl made an audacious Broadway debut, a comic play about love and 19th century technology, while in Time Stands Still, Margulies wrote a probing exploration (with a multifaceted central performance by Tony-nominated Laura Linney) of journalists dealing with the aftereffects of covering the Iraq war. Both plays have closed, but Time Stands Still is reopening in September. Next Fall, which looks at a gay couple and their conflicts over religious beliefs, got rapturous reviews, but has yet to find an audience.

Which leaves John Logan's Red, a two-character play about abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne (both Tony-nominated) play mentor and student, in a play that not only looks at artistic aesthetics, but the craft of painting. While Rothko delivers what in other circumstances might seem lectures, the pair goes about their business: mixing paints, stretching canvases and, in one exhilaratingly choreographed sequence, painting an enormous canvas red. Critics and audiences have made it a hot ticket. Look for Red to win the Tony, along with director Michael Grandage and, maybe, Molina.


Montego Glover i i

hide captionMontego Glover is the female lead in Memphis, a musical about a white DJ who falls in love with a black R&B singer during the 1950s.

Joan Marcus
Montego Glover

Montego Glover is the female lead in Memphis, a musical about a white DJ who falls in love with a black R&B singer during the 1950s.

Joan Marcus

Best Musical

American Idiot
Fela!
Memphis
Million Dollar Quartet

For those who love musicals, this was a head-scratching season. Only two musicals opened on Broadway with original scores — The Addams Family and Memphis. The rest are so-called "jukebox musicals" — shows with scores from other sources. Indeed, to fill out the best original score category, the songs/dance music from Enron and the scene change music from Fences, by jazz musician Branford Marsalis, made the cut.

The Addams Family didn't get a lot of love from the critics or the Tony nominators — neither of its two nominations were for the big prize. Those that did get nods include Million Dollar Quartet, a fictionalized account of a real life 1956 recording session in Memphis that featured Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis; American Idiot, which stages Green Day's 2004 hit album as a kind of live-action music video; and Fela!, a biographical show that kinetically recreates the late Nigerian Afrobeat star's night club.

In another year, Fela!, a critics' darling, might have won the Tony Award, but the Broadway League and American Theatre Wing, which administer the awards, decided to boot about 100 theater journalists from voting. So, it looks like Memphis — the only truly "original" musical in the category — is poised to take the trophy, by default. (It's already won the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards.)

Memphis is set in the 1950s and tells the story of a white DJ who falls in love with a black R&B singer. The synthetic score is by Bon Jovi's David Bryan and the by-the-numbers book is by Joe DiPietro, though the two leads, Montego Glover and Chad Kimball, give riveting, committed performances. The show has only done middling business at the box office, so a Tony win could give it a significant boost.


Best Revival of a Play

Fences
Lend Me a Tenor
The Royal Family
A View From the Bridge

The Royal Family and Lend Me a Tenor, two comedies, had their charms and one enormously talented, scenery-chewing actress between them. Jan Maxwell is up for a Best Actress Tony for The Royal Family and a Best Featured Actress Tony for Lend Me a Tenor. She'll probably go home empty-handed, though — the competition in both categories is fierce.

The real race here is between Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge and August Wilson's Fences, two superb and superbly received revivals. The edge goes to Fences — with 10 nominations — since it's currently running and a sold-out hit. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis give heartbreaking performances as the troubled couple at the play's center and will probably take home trophies, as may some other nominees from the production. But don't count Bridge out — the central trio, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Hecht — hit audiences in the solar-plexus during the show's short run.


Kelsey Grammer, Douglas Hodge i i

hide captionKelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge star in this season's revival of La Cage aux Folles.

Joan Marcus
Kelsey Grammer, Douglas Hodge

Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge star in this season's revival of La Cage aux Folles.

Joan Marcus

Best Revival of a Musical

Finian's Rainbow
La Cage aux Folles
A Little Night Music
Ragtime

This is the only true slam-dunk category. La Cage aux Folles, starring Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge, surprised Broadway this season, taking a kind of old-fashioned musical (albeit with a gay couple at its center) and re-energizing it in an intimate setting with high acting values. Look for it to win Best Revival and look for Hodge's nuanced performance as the drag artist Albin to take a Tony as well.

The other nominated revivals all had their positives — Finian's Rainbow, with its loopy story, charming score and winning performances; Ragtime, which gained power in a pared-down production; and A Little Night Music, with some scene-stealing work from octogenarian Sondheim specialist Angela Lansbury. (But look for Katie Finneran, who steals a couple of scenes in the un-nominated revival of Promises, Promises to beat out Lansbury for the Best Featured Actress in a Musical award.)

The Tony Awards, hosted by Sean Hayes, will be presented on CBS from 8 to 11 p.m. Sunday.

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