WAR PAINT – Looking Back (Part Six)
As the run of War Paint continued, I settled deeper into my routine. A week or so after I went on for Ms. LuPone, the company had its first official “put-in” rehearsal – this one for the show’s four offstage understudies. It was a run-through of the show with full tech (although not with full orchestra – just a rehearsal piano). For me it was a bit like shutting the door after the horse had already escaped from the barn, but it was nice to step through the show in a little less stressed atmosphere, and to perform the piece with fellow offstage understudies Patti Cohenour (in the Elizabeth Arden role), Tom Galantich (as Thomas Lewis, Arden’s husband) and Tally Sessions (as Rubinstein’s associate Harry Fleming). The entire company, with the exception of the four leads, was called for this put-in, although they were not required to be in costume as we were.
Here are two photos as a “compare and contrast” exercise. Most of my Rubinstein costumes were finished, or nearly so, for the put-in rehearsal. First is the only photo I have approximating a “production photo” of me in the role; it was taken by our head of wardrobe during the put-in. I’m singing “Forever Beautiful,” Rubinstein’s amazing eleven o’clock number, which the elderly Madame R. sings in her boudoir surrounded by paintings and sculptures of herself. The costume still wasn’t completely finished at this point; in fact, as I was getting into it Lyle and I discovered that it hadn’t been put together properly at the waist. Lyle quickly ripped out a seam and fastened me into the thing with a big safety pin – fortunately this change happened during the Arden eleven o’clock number, so we had a bit more time than usual for the change. The jerry-rigging held during the number and the offending seam fixed afterward.
Next up is a photo taken much later in War Paint’s run. This one is in Ms. LuPone’s dressing room, and I’m wearing the completed costume. As you can see, there’s more embroidery over the bust and shoulders, and the gown has been fitted with a proper waistband. By that point in the run the wig master had also adjusted my wig style so it wasn’t scraped back quite so severely and was bit more flattering.
(NOTE: Included in the company’s contracts with the producers was a rider forbidding us to post photos on social media of ourselves or any company member wearing the show’s costumes. It was a detail either missed or disregarded by some members of the company, but the producers REALLY REALLY didn’t want photos of anyone wearing the Rubinstein or Arden costumes floating around on the internet. My guess is that they worried about losing control of the show’s “brand.” By the same token, any time a lead was out sick, the understudy going on in the part was prohibited from posting on social media that they would be performing the role, the rationale being that this would affect sales. You could post that you were going on if it was a scheduled absence – someone taking vacation or a personal day, for example – but not an unscheduled absence. (You could post after the fact all you wanted, though.) Since neither Ms. LuPone nor Ms. Ebersole had any scheduled absences from the show, Patti Cohenour and I were always flying under the radar when we went on. It was a bit of a disappointment, not to be able to announce when I was performing the role, but I understood. When Ms. LuPone or Ms. Ebersole went out, the producers handled disappointed ticket purchasers well, I thought – attendees who didn’t get to see the two stars were offered vouchers to see the show another time when the ladies were back on. I don’t know how many people actually took advantage of the opportunity to see the show again, but as a good-faith offer it was very smart.)
In addition to those two-a-week understudy rehearsals, I also had to be at the theatre by half-hour prior to every performance (I was usually there at 45 minutes to curtain, which would come in handy – more on that in a bit.) During the performance, I could either watch from the house – in a seat in the mezz or the rear orchestra if one was available; standing in the back if one was not – or watch/listen to the show on the backstage monitor in the ensemble ladies’ dressing room. One night I tried to shadow one of my ensemble tracks backstage, but it was nearly impossible because there was so little room in the wings and you were always in someone’s way. I discovered a third place to watch: the stage right fly space, where I could look down on the stage far below. It was a good place to track traffic patterns in the group numbers.
After the offstage covers had their put-in rehearsal, focus was shifted to getting the onstage covers ready to go on. During understudy rehearsals I was relegated to my ensemble tracks, and I can say now, without fear of reprisal, that it was an unmitigated pain in the ass. I was required to do the staging for one track per rehearsal, but was also called on to step in for the “specialties” (the solos and small speaking roles) for the other two tracks during the same rehearsal. Because of this, I never got a strong sense of each individual track – I was always having to factor in some portion of another track. Keeping the specialty lines and music separate for each track wasn’t hard (after all, I could run that stuff outside of rehearsal), but I had difficulty picking up the individual staging in the big numbers. With three tracks to remember and only three or four bodies to deal with instead of the twelve or so I’d have in performance, getting the traffic right was always a struggle. And because I was alternating the three ensemble tracks along with the Rubinstein track, weeks might pass before I’d have the chance to rehearse a particular ensemble track again. And there was really no place in the building to run the staging outside of rehearsal. Patti C. and I would sometimes step through numbers in the dressing room – Necessity Is The Mother of Invention, a big march number, lent itself most easily to this – but we’d have to squeeze between dressing tables and costume racks to do it.
(NOTE: If you were to look at the program for War Paint or even pull up its page on IBDB.com – the Internet Broadway Database – you’d see that there are only two people listed as ensemble understudies: dance captain Barbara Jo Bednarczuk and me. Everyone else is listed as understudies only for principal parts. This does NOT mean some of those people weren’t also “swinging” ensemble tracks – it just means they chose not to be listed as “ensemble understudies,” and negotiated that as part of their agreement with the producers. Protestations to the contrary, there is a certain “low man on the totem pole” stigma attached to swinging, especially if the actor in question has formerly played featured or principal roles on Broadway. Prior to War Paint, I wasn’t even aware this was a “thing.” Live and learn.)
A couple of weeks later the onstage covers got their put-in rehearsal, and during that rehearsal I covered the ensemble track of Joanna Glushak, Ms. LuPone’s onstage understudy. Not surprisingly, some of my costumes were not completed for that track, and due to a misunderstanding about wigs, my pin-curled head was exposed in several of the scenes. Afterward I spoke to the wardrobe department about the hat/wig issue and thought a speedy solution would be in the offing. Alas, not long after Joanna became ill 45 minutes before a performance, and as I was frantically trying to get prepped to go on for her, Wardrobe was still struggling to solve the exposed pincurls problem. It made for a terrifying experience, both backstage and onstage. It so happened that Patti Cohenour was on for Elizabeth Arden that same weekend (Christine Ebersole was out with a bad head cold, and Patti C. was fighting the same cold herself), so it was a rough time for all concerned.
And things were about to get rougher. Ms. LuPone had been fighting hip pain since tech, and that situation was rapidly deteriorating. There was also that damned company head cold, which would disappear for a week or two and then flare up again, first among the stage crew, then among the dressers, then among the actors and back again. Then the Tony Award nominations came out, with only four nods to War Paint (one each to our leading ladies, one for costume design and one for lighting design). Passed over for Best Musical – you can bet there was no joy in the Nederlander that day. And then the Tonys came and went, with no wins for War Paint and nothing to crow about in the publicity department. Sales began to lag. Spirits, too. In late September we were due for a one-week layoff so the two stars could have some time off; just before that break the producers assembled the company to tell us we’d be closing December 30th. We returned from our layoff with everyone rested but Ms. LuPone’s hip was no better; in fact it was worse still. Adjustments were made to her staging to limit the amount of sitting down and getting up, many of her costume changes were moved into the wings so she didn’t have to walk so far, and she was put into lower heels for certain scenes, but it didn’t help. She needed hip replacement surgery.
I was on twice more for Joanna (her other two absences were scheduled days off, so those performances were less frantic than the first one) but was spared having to go on in the other two ensemble tracks I covered. I ended up going on for Ms. LuPone six more times: another three-show spurt (that damn head cold again) and three single performances as her hip got worse. (And yes, notes and notes and notes afterward, every single time, and so many of the nitpick variety that it made me want to shriek.) It was hard to watch Patti suffer, but she’d throw her shoulders back and limp onto the stage and beat the hell out of her vocals and scenes. She was game, and amazing, but in the end, the pain was too much. The producers finally assembled us again and told us we’d be closing on November 5th.
Those last weeks were hard. Tempers grew short as unemployment loomed, hand-in-hand with the holidays. There had always been a certain amount of competition between the onstage and offstage covers, and that began to ramp up as opportunities to go on in the principal roles got fewer and fewer. (NOTE: Not only is there prestige in going on in a major Broadway role, but there’s financial benefit as well. Under the Equity Production Contract, when an understudy performs a principal role, s/he receives an additional one-eighth of her/his weekly salary for every performance. Or, as my fellow understudies were fond of saying, “Cha-CHING!”) Fortunately, I wasn’t on the receiving end of any of the ill feeling that resulted, but I was constantly on tenterhooks in case I had to go on for Ms. LuPone. One night an assistant stage manager came to me 20 minutes into the first act and told me to get into my Rubinstein prep because Patti wasn’t sure she’d be able to continue (she did). Another time I was walking into the theatre – I started arriving at the theatre an hour before curtain instead of my usual 45 minutes – and was told Patti was in pain and to get ready in case she couldn’t go on (she could, and did). I was struggling with my housing situation as well. I had to give up my 45th Street sublet on November 1st and had initially lined up another place that would take me through the original December 30th closing date, but had to let that go (along with the non-refundable deposit I’d made on it) when the producers moved the closing date to November 5th. I couldn’t find another sublet for just five days, so I ended up staying in the hotel right next to the theatre for the final week of the run. Company management helped me get a less expensive rate – only $250 a night (!), and John came up to spend the final week with me, so it wasn’t so bad. Still, my overriding emotion when the curtain came down on that final show was relief, and gratitude that I was going home.
SO…what was my big takeaway from the War Paint experience? That it was the hardest single theatrical job I’ve ever had. Yes, I made a lot of money, and yes, I have a nice fresh Broadway credit on my resume, and yes, I got to take the final bow in a major Broadway musical nine times – but I feel like I aged five years in those nine months. It was a LOT of pressure, made worse by the fact that I always felt like I was operating blind – that there was stuff going on behind the scenes that influenced actions and decisions affecting me, but I was kept in the dark about them. The constant nitpicking and notes, notes, notes about the most picayune stuff got to me, too. I found it impossible to get out of my own head during performances because any time I was a bit out of position or fluffed a line (said “the” instead of “a,” for example), I’d think oh God, I’m going to get a note about that. And I would.
And I got so tired of being at the bottom of the company heap. The understudies so often got little respect, and so often were an afterthought when it came to company events. (“Oh, and you guys are welcome, too” was the backhanded way we were invited to these things.) I think my lowest moment during the run was when I made a remark about my sciatica flaring up from so much sitting, and having one of the dressers tell me that I could do her job and she’d do mine and “just sit in a chair.” She was young and new at the job, and I know it was supposed to be a joke, but it still stung like hell.
So…would I do it again? In a word: no. Oh, I might understudy again, if it was a major star in a rewarding role, but I’d be damned sure I negotiated standby status, so I’d not only cover just one person, but also be guaranteed that I’d be the first choice to go on in that role. But I would never, EVER swing again. I wasn’t good at it; in fact, I think the people who ARE good at it are actors with a strong dance background – people who are good at picking up movement simply by watching, who can navigate from point A to B to C onstage without the benefit of motivation, who find satisfaction in that kind of work. I am simply not wired that way. Those actors who are can have all those roles…along with my endless admiration.
Wow that experience seems kinda hard but you could go through it, I think now i can appreciate the job of understudies more. I wish I could had been able to see you onstage.
Thanks, Alvaro. I thought it would be an interesting point of view to write, so I’m glad you found it edifying.
I’ve just re-read these all again (while looking at the notice about the book publishing company). Every musical producer and general manager should be forced to read these to understand a LOT more about the day-to-day running post Opening.
Thanks, Bobster. It certainly was a ride.