Waiting In The Wings With Broadway's Understudies It's hard out there for Broadway understudies -- they have to learn extra lines, attend extra rehearsals and deal with the grumbling of disappointed audiences. And the pressure is even greater for those who find themselves understudying Tony-nominated actors.
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Waiting In The Wings With Broadway's Understudies

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Waiting In The Wings With Broadway's Understudies

Waiting In The Wings With Broadway's Understudies

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The oldest cliche in show business may be: the show must go on. For a special breed of Broadway actors, it's their job.

Jeff Lunden spoke with three understudies who cover roles for actors who may win a Tony Award tonight.

JEFF LUNDEN: The revival of "Promises, Promises," a splashy 1960s musical, stars Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth. But keep your eyes peeled for Megan Sikora. She's not just in the chorus.

(Soundbite of song, "Turkey Lurkey")

PROMISES, PROMISES CHORUS: (Singing) It's turkey lurkey time. Tom turkey ran away, but he just came home.

Ms. MEGAN SIKORA (Actress): I play Miss Polansky, who is the Turkey Lurkey girl in the green dress. I play Sylvia and I play a very angry nurse and, you know, dancer, here and there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

(Soundbite of song, "Christmas Day")

Ms. KATIE FINNERAN AND Mr. SEAN HAYES (Actors): (as Marge and Chuck Baxter) (Singing) Because its Christmas, not a time to be alone with memories...

LUNDEN: With all her different roles, Megan Sikora barely has any downtime during a performance.

Ms. SIKORA: I'm on stage 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 their job, to know the ins and outs of their job, so that if I got thrown on, Sean Hayes would not be - I wouldn't rock his boat by doing something dramatically different.

LUNDEN: Sikora says she sometimes sneaks a peek from the corner of her eye on stage. But a lot of her work happens on Thursday and Friday afternoons at understudy rehearsals.

Ms. SIKORA: All the understudies and swings get together and we have play practice, basically. That's what we like to call it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SIKORA: And it's our chance to physicalize it and figure it out, and say everything out loud and have other actors saying it to you 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.

LUNDEN: 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.

Mr. CHRIS HOCH (Actor): I cover them both, Kelsey and Doug. But Doug's is the more terrifying; not only the parameters of the role itself, but just his performance too is just so outside the box. So you have to give a flavor of that and it's absolutely terrifying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOCH: I wake up every morning and I pray for his health.

(Soundbite of song, "I Am What I Am")

Mr. DOUG HODGE (Actor): (as Albin) (Singing) I am what I am. And what I am need no excuses.

LUNDEN: Most Broadway insiders consider Douglas 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. Understudy Chris Hoch says to prepare himself, he's not only memorized the lines and the staging, he's gone to transsexual websites. And during off hours, descends the four flights of stairs from his dressing room to get comfortable walking in high heels onstage.

Mr. HOCH: I mean, it's funny. I go down every once in a while and just walk around in the heels. Wearing them well is a totally different ball of wax.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUNDEN: Hoch has understudied in several Broadway shows, and is well aware that he may never get the call to step into Douglas Hodge's pumps. Hoch says actors shouldn't take the job expecting the lead actor to get sick and to become a star themselves.

Mr. HOCH: Well, I think if you think of your time to go on as this is my time to shine and this is my big break, you know, and an Eve Harrington moment is always I think frowned upon by the company, for good reason. I mean, you have a big responsibility to your fellow actors when you do it, more so than you do to yourself.

LUNDEN: 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. Now, he's understudying a Tony-nominated star, Alfred Molina, in "Red," a play about abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko.

(Soundbite of "Red")

Mr. ALFRED MOLINA (Actor) (as Mark Rothko) What the hell does red mean to me? What, you mean scarlet? You mean crimson? You mean plum, mulberry, magenta, burgundy, salmon, Carmen, carmely, Caro? Anything but red.

LUNDEN: Molina and Denzel Washington, who stars in "Fences," are running neck-and-neck for the prize of Best Actor in a Play.

Stephen Rowe says it might be easy to think of himself as a second-class citizen, but learning the role has been its own reward.

Mr. STEPHEN ROWE (Actor): I really was excited about doing this because I thought, it's a part that I really need to have challenge me. Do you know what I mean? 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, if you will.

LUNDEN: 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. But Rowe is preparing himself for the inevitable groan of disappointment from the audience that comes with the announcement that he, not Alfred Molina, will be playing the part of Mark Rothko at this evening's performance.

Mr. ROWE: I look forward to it. Oh no, right? But that's life. That's okay. I mean, the thing you do is you make sure either have your ears plugged for that or just sort of embrace it and say, just you watch now. Okay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUNDEN: In the meantime, Stephen Rowe, Chris Hoch and Megan Sikora say they'll be watching the Tony Awards tonight, rooting for the actors they cover.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

HANSEN: To see pictures of the understudies and the actors they cover, as well as to read Jeff Lunden's Tony Award predictions, go to NPR.org.

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

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