WAR PAINT – Looking Back (Part Five)

My sense of relief at the conclusion of opening week lasted right through Easter Sunday and the following Monday, which was technically our day off. In reality it was not a day off at all for the tired cast, which was summoned into the studio to record the cast album.

We understudies were poised to be summoned that day as well, as we’d been twice required to attend sessions where we weren’t used. One was the sitz probe (which is when the orchestra and cast members meet for the first time to work through the score), and the other was the day we filmed the B-roll (the B-roll is footage used for commercials and other publicity). The sitz probe was interesting, at least – it was great to be immersed in the wonderful voices and orchestrations – but being called for the B-roll filming was annoying. The onstage company was being paid extra for being filmed, but we just had to sit there and watch. Later on, however, the union ruled that since we were required to be in the building during the filming, the producers had to pay us the same as everyone else – so the joke was on them. This may have factored into the decision not to call us for the cast album recording, but I wasn’t sorry. We were now on a regular schedule, with no rehearsals except for a few hours of daytime understudy rehearsals on Thursdays and Fridays. I enjoyed a solid day off that Easter Monday, and on Tuesday worked on lines and music until I was called to the theatre for our first show of the week.

Everything seemed solid that evening, even though the onstage cast was tired after losing their day off to the recording session. There was also a cold working its way through the entire company. Ms. Ebersole and Ms. LuPone sounded a bit weary at the start of the Tuesday night show (in addition to the Monday recording call, they’d been called in to record the cast album starting Sunday evening, after the final performance of opening week – so they’d had a VERY long week), but an enthusiastic house seemed to buoy their performances, and I left the theatre Tuesday night in good spirits.

Wednesday was a two-show day, with performances at 2pm and 8pm. About 10:30 that morning I was pottering around my little sublet when I got a text from the stage manager. It read:


To which I responded:


I didn’t really have time to be terrified. I needed to be at the theatre at noon to sort out costumes. Only about half my Helena Rubinstein costumes had been completed; fortunately, early in the rehearsal process the costume department had pulled “emergency” costumes against this very situation, so at least I would have clothes to wear. I would also be in the very capable hands of Lyle, Ms. LuPone’s dresser.

I made myself eat something (whatever it was, it tasted like sawdust) and warmed up a bit in the shower. I texted Patti Cohenour to let her know what was going on, then headed to the theatre and to Ms. LuPone’s dressing room. There I met with Lyle, costume designer Catherine Zuber and Robert and Richard (the heads of the wardrobe and wigs departments, respectively), and for the next 30 minutes I got in and out of costume as they sorted out each change and matched shoes, bags and jewelry to each outfit. I had about twenty minutes on stage to step through the last couple of scenes in the show and vocalize a bit, then retired to the dressing room to put on my show underwear and start getting into makeup. Richard pin-curled my hair and got me into a wig-cap and Ms. LuPone’s double wireless mic rig.

Made up, wigged and mic’d to play Helena Rubinstein.

(A word about my mics and body mics in general: on Broadway and in most major regional theatres, lead performers wear two mics: their primary mic and a backup. In case the main mic fails – which isn’t unusual, particularly if sweat gets into the mic – the backup is ready to go. So the fit of the Rubinstein costumes wasn’t compromised, Ms. Zuber insisted I wear a mic belt with hanging pouches for the mic packs fore and aft; i.e. at the top curve of the buttocks in back, and right in front of the pubis in front. I was dubious in the extreme about this setup, but since I was also wearing Spanx pantyhose over the rig, everything lay flat and snug and nearly invisible. Suffice it to say I’m now a convert to the fore-and-aft setup. The microphones themselves were positioned at my scalp line and along one temple and their wires secured to my wig cap. The Rubinstein wig was seated on top of all that, pinned into place and the temple lace secured with adhesive for a nice, snug fit.)

As all this was going on, the stage manager also joined us. While I felt confident about the music and staging, I was less certain about the dialogue in some of the scenes. The reason was threefold: first, the few understudy rehearsals I’d had up to that point had been focused less on the Rubinstein material and more on the three ensemble tracks I covered. Second, since we had only “frozen” the show the week before, I was shaky on some of the most recent line changes. Third, I had not yet had a “put-in” rehearsal – a run-through of the entire show, in costumes and wig, with tech, with the full onstage company called. In fact, I had never actually done the latter half of the second act. Oh, I’d run the lines with Patti Cohenour and worked on them at home in my apartment, but I’d never rehearsed them on set – walked the blocking, handled the props, etc. I’d only watched it, and occasionally been called on to do the transitions into and out of those scenes.

Technically, since I’d never had a full rehearsal of the show, under Actors Equity rules I could have asked to perform “on book” – with the script in my hand. In all the furor of preparations, I didn’t even think about that, and my stage manager didn’t mention it. Instead, we ran lines together while I finished my prep. Some flowers arrived – a bunch of roses from Patti Cohenour, an arrangement from my agents back in DC, and a huge and gorgeous array of lilies from my husband (who was even then in the car driving up to catch the second show). I put them all aside to look at later. I was ready well before the “Places” call, and spent the time pacing the floor, humming the music, babbling snatches of dialogue and trying to stay calm and collected while other members of the companyΒ  – including Christine Ebersole, John Dossett and Douglas Sills – stuck their heads in to wish me luck on their way to the stage.

Ready for my first entrance – except for the enormous fur-trimmed coat I wore over this ensemble.

The performance began, but since Helena Rubinstein doesn’t make her first entrance until about 15 minutes in the show, finally it was just me and Douglas Sills, waiting for our cue to cross behind the set to stage left, where we’d make our entrance riding the “gangplank” unit, representing Rubinstein’s return to the U.S. after several years out of the country. I got smiles and thumbs-up from the crew once we were poised on the unit. The scene on stage ended with the blast of a foghorn sound cue, I braced myself, and slid onstage to start my show.

I wish I could tell you each and every little thing that happened, but to be honest, most of it passed in a blur. Every time I came off stage, stage management handed me off to Lyle, who hustled me into my next outfit. (Both the leading ladies had costume changes nearly every time they left the stage. Because there were no dressing rooms on stage left – only stage right – Christine Ebersole, who made the majority of her entrances from left, never got to go to her second-floor dressing room during the show. She and her dresser worked out of a small quick-change booth in the upstage left corner of the wings. At least I got to change in Ms. LuPone’s dressing room – the only one on the first floor.)

The things I remember from that first performance were the bobbles: scaring stage management by exiting in the wrong place, right into the path of an oncoming set piece (I dodged it) and three times going dry on my next line – all in that latter section of Act II. The first time I got myself out of the jam; the second time John Dossett bailed me out, and the third time Christine came to the rescue. I also remember sitting down opposite Christine in the final scene – the first time the characters of Rubinstein and Arden come truly face-to-face in the show – and being completely and utterly gobsmacked at how beautiful she is. At that moment in the scene and in that light, Christine was luminous, and…well, it took my breath away. I was already in awe of her kindness – normally Ms. LuPone took the final bow in the show, but when I suggested I bow second to last and Ms. Ebersole take the final position, she said no. And when I took that last bow, the audience was lovely, and Christine gave me a huge hug. That’s the other thing I remember, and treasure.

In Ms. LuPone’s dressing room, top of the second act. Yep, that’s a lot of jewelry.

Lest you think it was all sunshine and rainbows after that matinee, let me assure it was not. Yes, I got lots of compliments from the cast, but I was barely out of costume before the stage manager was back in my dressing room, with pages and pages of notes. I had roughly three hours to absorb them before I’d be back onstage for the evening show. I knew I needed to stay in the theatre and work, so some kindly cast members brought me a sandwich and a soda, and I sat with my script and studied until my husband arrived. He changed into his suit in the dressing room and then, at my request, went off to get some dinner while I continued to work.

The second show went more smoothly. One of the assistant stage managers quietly informed me that he could tuck script pages onstage where I could use them if necessary. I ended up only using them in one scene, in which Rubinstein is reading legal papers while talking to her lawyers, but knowing I had that option made me fear the scene less. Again I got reassurance and support from John Dossett and Doug Sills; again I had the last bow and a warm hug from Christine.

And again, I had notes. Pages and pages, this time not just from the stage manager but from the director as well. I was also warned that I would probably be on again for Ms. LuPone the following evening. By the time I was out of costume, wig and makeup, most of the company had already left the theatre, but John was waiting in the lobby, and we went to the place next door for a drink and a nosh, then back to the apartment and to bed. And no, I didn’t sleep very well – still too full of adrenaline. The show was on an endless loop in my brain throughout the night.

In the morning I was informed that I’d be on again that evening, although Ms. LuPone was improving and expected to be back for Friday evening’s show. I saw John off (although it had given me a huge lift to have him in the audience the night before, he had to get back to work) and I ran lines and music, then headed to the theatre around 6:30 pm and started the drill all over again. The Thursday night show was the smoothest yet, and while I was still not anywhere near relaxing onstage, I was, at least, starting to enjoy myself. It really was a joy doing those scenes with three Broadway heavy-hitters, and singing that beautiful score with an extraordinary orchestra.

All that aside, on Friday I was grateful to climb the five flights to my little station in the cramped ensemble ladies’ dressing room and once again listen to Patti LuPone’s masterful performance. That night, as I was leaving the theatre, she was standing in her dressing room, in her gorgeous “Forever Beautiful” costume, waiting for her next entrance. She hugged me and apologized (!) for putting me through such stress. I could only laugh. “Patti, that’s why I’m here,” I said, and went home to bed.

Next up: The Grind


One comment

  1. Pingback: WAR PAINT – Looking Back (Part Four) | Donna Migliaccio

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