It was a year ago today that I moved to New York City to start work on the Broadway transfer of War Paint, a musical about the rivalry between cosmetic titans Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. The show starred Broadway legends Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, and I’d been hired to understudy Ms. LuPone and swing three ensemble parts as well.
(Before I move forward, I should clarify what understudying in general means, and the different levels of understudy jobs. An understudy (also known as a “cover”) is an actor who steps into another actor’s role when necessary – in the case of illness, vacation or other absence. A “part” or “role” encompasses all spoken lines and onstage movement (also known as “blocking,” which includes any prop or set moves assigned to a particular actor) and, in the case of a musical, any sung lines or dance moves. In addition, an understudy must also learn the covered actor’s backstage movement: i.e. where that actor goes after an exit, whether it be to drop off a prop, change a costume or wig, or just to get out of the way of a scene change or another actor’s path. This entire package is called the actor’s “track.”
There are several levels of understudy work. An “onstage understudy” is someone who is appears regularly in the show (often a member of the ensemble or someone in a smaller role), who is additionally employed to understudy a principal role should the need arise. An “offstage understudy” has the same kind of assignment, but is not a member of the regular onstage cast. An understudy who is listed as a “standby” does just that; he or she “stands by” to replace a principal should the need arise, and has no other duties beyond that assignment. A “swing” is an offstage understudy who covers multiple ensemble roles and can be “swung in” to replace a regular ensemble member in case of illness or absence or when an onstage understudy is “swung out” to observe the show from the house and take notes about the role(s) s/he is covering.
Prior to War Paint, I had only understudied twice: I was an onstage understudy for the U.S. premiere of Dempsey & Rowe’s The Fix at Signature Theatre, and I stood by for Claudia Shear in the West Coast premiere of Dirty Blonde. I’d had other offers to be an onstage understudy, but I always turned them down. Understudying is hard, hard work, and at the regional theatre level you usually end up tripling your workload in exchange for a very small bump in pay. (And at the regional level, you’re rarely going to see a union actor hired as an offstage cover; that’s because union understudies have to be paid the same base salary as the onstage company, starting from the first day they’re called to rehearsal. Hence, at the regional level, most understudies are non-union. Not so on Broadway, where everyone in the cast must be a member of Actors Equity.) I had never, ever swung a show before, but that didn’t keep me from seeing just how difficult the work is, and how hard swings have to work to stay on their game.
I was already nervous enough about covering a major star like LuPone, and the pressure of learning three ensemble parts into the bargain really made me sweat. In addition, the vast majority of the cast had done the Chicago tryout of the show back in the fall, and I knew I’d be something of an outsider when I joined them. But I comforted myself with the knowledge that Patti LuPone was a real pro who rarely called out of a show – and anyway, her onstage understudy (who’d also covered her in Chicago) would probably be tapped first in the unlikely event Ms. LuPone called out.
On Day One of rehearsal, one of the first people I met was Patti Cohenour, who was standby for Ms. Ebersole. I was in awe. Patti Cohenour had originated the roles of Eliza in Big River and Rosa Bud in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (for which she received a Tony nomination), so I felt outclassed right from the start. Patti C., however, could not have been friendlier or more encouraging, and she was my anchor in the swirling melee of the rehearsal studio. I received my script and score that first day of rehearsal, so I didn’t even have the opportunity to familiarize myself with it before we dived in.
God, there was so much to learn! We started with music, and I was in panic mode right away as I tried to sort out which of my ensemble ladies was singing what. I quickly determined that I’d need different-colored highlighters for each of the parts I covered (I marked the Helena Rubinstein material in yellow, and doled out blue, orange and green to the three ensemble tracks). Patti C. warned me that Ms. LuPone and Ms. Ebersole would not be called for rehearsal for a couple of weeks, and in the interim director Michael Greif would be using the two of us to “stand in” for the stars. This made things difficult when it came to staging the big production numbers. I wanted nothing more than to sit at the understudy table and scribble the staging for my three ensemble ladies, but instead I was on my feet, script in hand, stumbling through the Rubinstein staging, trying to simultaneously write down that blocking while keeping an eye on the ensemble tracks. Impossible. Not enough eyes. Not enough brains. Don’t worry, I told myself; when the stars get here, then you’ll be able to watch.
Meantime, though, it was watch, watch, watch, scribble, scribble, scribble, stumble, stumble, stumble. There were a few times that the ensemble was called late or released early, but often that meant I was still called, either to work with the assistant director on the Helena scenes, or for a fitting (not only did I have all the Helena costumes to be fitted for, I had my own set of ensemble costumes, with additional costumes for the specialty roles each of my ladies played). So I had a solid eight hours of rehearsal most days, after which I walked home to my Hell’s Kitchen sublet, ate some food and fell into bed. Sometimes I stayed up late, trying to memorize lines and music and staging, but more often I’d get up early to cram in some study time before I went to work.
Next up: The Stars Arrive