Waiting In The Wings With Broadway's Understudies
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.