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The Invisible Hands Behind Tony-Nominated Shows

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The Invisible Hands Behind Tony-Nominated Shows

The Invisible Hands Behind Tony-Nominated Shows

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The 60th annual Tony Awards are presented tonight at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The winners will be people whose names appear in the front of the Playbill: actors, writers, directors, designers. But hundreds of other people with names listed in the back of the Playbill have essential roles on the Broadway scene.

Jeff Lunden went backstage at several of this year's Tony Award nominated shows to meet some of them.

Mr. JEFF LUNDEN reporting:

Okay. You're the Lincoln Center Theater. You've scheduled a revival of Clifford Odets' searing Depression-era family drama, Awake and Sing, and the script calls for a scraggly poodle to wander onstage. Twice. And jump into a character's lap.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

LUNDEN: Who're you going to call?

Mr. BILL BERLONI (Theatrical Animal Trainer): My name is Bill Berloni. I'm a theatrical animal trainer.

LUNDEN: Bill Berloni got his break at age 19, when he rescued a mutt from a Connecticut dog pound and trained him to be Sandy, in the very first production of Annie.

Mr. BERLONI: All the animals that I've trained over the last 30 years are shelter animals, whether its dogs, cats, even the rats from The Woman in White. There is a rat rescue group of New York which I got these rats through. I use rescued animals to show that these animals are useful members of society, and hopefully encourage people to adopt.

LUNDEN: And Berloni says Awake and Sing's cast, which includes Ben Gazzara, Mark Ruffalo and Lauren Ambrose, have adopted the on-stage poodle into their off-stage hearts.

Mr. BERLONI: We came in and spent literally two weeks just letting the cast get familiar with the dog. His name is Barney. He's a poodle I rescued about five years ago. You know, becoming friendly, so that when he comes out on stage he's very relaxed. And part of the ritual every night is that Barney goes to everyone's dressing room, you know, and gets a cookie from everybody. So he's really become the family dog.

LUNDEN: Berloni says Barney's day-to-day life, appearing in a show that's up for eight Tony Awards, by the way, isn't much different from a working New York actor.

Mr. BERLONI: Barney is living in Brooklyn with my trainer, Rob Cox. He sleeps, you know, we keep him rested. He has a normal life. He goes for a walk three times a day. Then he comes on the subway, comes and does the show, and has this wonderful experience.

(Soundbite of song from "The Pajama Game")

Mr. HARRY CONNICK, JR. (Actor/Singer): (Singing) Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes.

LUNDEN: The Pajama Game, at the Roundabout Theater, is up for nine awards, including best costumes in a musical. The person in charge of making sure those 125 costumes are in tip-top shape and on the right actors is Susan Fallon, the show's wardrobe supervisor.

She oversees a staff of dressers and day workers who clean and repair the costumes in a little basement rabbit warren filled with bins of buttons, zippers, and fabrics. Fallon also works as a dresser on the show for Harry Connick, Jr. Sometimes she has to do something called a quick change, where one costume comes off and another goes on in the blink of an eye.

Ms. SUSAN FALLON (Theatrical Wardrobe Supervisor): We have to do it on stairs, and it's probably a 30-second change. It's after the small talk scene, and he runs down a half of a set of stairs. So we're changing him out of shoes, trousers, a belt, a shirt, and a tie, into another set, on stairs. There's a dresser in front of him and I'm behind him, and it's rather precarious, I have to say. But fun.

(Soundbite of song from "The Pajama Game")

Mr. CONNICK, JR.: (Singing) I don't want to talk small talk...

LUNDEN: Fallon often has to make other kinds of quick changes. When her phone rings, she jumps to attention.

Ms. FALLON: This is Fallon. Oh, hi. What's up? She is? Okay. We'll rock and roll then. Bye.

Well, there, it's a quarter to six. The show's at eight o'clock. And we just got a call that we have an understudy going on tonight.

Mr. CONNICK: (Singing) This is my once a year day.

LUNDEN: Understudies are invisible. That is, until they get the panicky phone call to go on, at a moment's notice.

Leroy McClain understudies three roles in The History Boys, the London import about public school education which is up for seven Tony Awards, including best play. He and the other understudies rehearse once a week, but appear onstage eight times a week, playing minor roles and moving the set.

Mr. LEROY MCCLAIN (Understudy): And we get to take a bow at the end, which is great. So because of that, if it were a situation in which we only just kind of had to sign in and then wait in the green room until after our characters' last scene had started and then gone home, I don't think we would've really necessarily bonded as well with the cast as we have.

LUNDEN: McClain says the understudies in the cast frequently go out for drinks after the show. And it was following a night of carousing that he got the stage manager's call.

Mr. MCCLAIN: Came out of the shower, still not quite awake, oh I have a message on my phone, picked up. It was Charlie Underhill. Oh, you know, Russell Toby's sick. You're going to have to go on for the matinee, which at that time was like in an hour. And so I panicked and I screamed, and got myself together, then got another message saying, oh, well you don't have to go on for the matinee, but you'll probably have to go on for the evening. So that made it a little less nerve-wracking. And then it was a surreal experience during that evening show, you know. It was just kind of like, okay, you know, I'm on stage with people I never acted with before, and it's just sink or swim, and luckily I stayed afloat.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: The Lieutenant of Inishmore is up for five Tony Awards, including best play. It's a bloody comedy about Irish terrorists. That's right, a comedy. As a matter of fact, the five gallons of stage blood splattered on the set and actors, and the number of guns fired, make this play something akin to a live action Quentin Tarantino film. Anmarree Rodibaugh is head of props department. One of her jobs is to mix the blood, which kind of smells like Reece's Pieces.

Ms. ANMARREE RODIBAUGH (Props Department Head): There's a lot of chocolate in the blood, a lot of chocolate and peanut butter.

LUNDEN: There's blood everywhere. It shoots out of little compressed air cannons hidden in pieces of furniture on the set. And after every show, that set has to be cleaned up. Even before the audience has filed out, Rodibaugh and her crew files on stage with hoses, buckets and mops.

Ms. RODIBAUGH: Almost every night we walk out and they start clapping and a lot of them stick around at the end and they're like how do you do it? How long does it take? And all these questions. They're all very interested in it, and there's actually five of us that clean up, but it takes all of us about two hours to clean up, so a two-show day makes for a long day. And an hour and a half preset before.

LUNDEN: Backstage at the The Lieutenant of Inishmore is a rather gruesome sight. There are lots of plastic human body parts and even furry animals that are caught up in stage violence. The dead cats are over here. Here's the one in the opening scene. It's a big cavity out of that so that blood can be filled in that cavity and the brain plops out as he twists his head. It took a lot of practice, a lot rehearsals to get the perfect little plop. You know, we try a lot of different fruits to try to get the right plop for the brain.

LUNDEN: What is the brain made of now?

Ms. RODIBAUGH: It's actually a peach. It's a peach half, so - they seem to like that the best. That has the best plop.

LUNDEN: Rodibaugh says as the Tony Awards are going on tonight, she and her crew will be cleaning the blood off the stage of the Lyceum Theater.

Ms. RODIBAUGH: We keep joking that they should have a best special effects and we should win. The best blood on Broadway. That should be the next award they give out.

LUNDEN: The Tony Awards will be broadcast on CBS this evening from 8 to 11 p.m. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

For pictures, audio and additional interviews with Broadway's backstage stars, including the music director of The Drowsy Chaperone, which is up for 13 Tonys, got to NPR.org.

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