Tuesday, March 10, 2009

If They Could See You Now

Originally Posted June 22, 2007

Beth Leavel as the Drowsy Chaperone. Laura Benanti as Julia Sullivan. Sutton Foster as Eponine. Simone as Aida. Three significant characters in The Color Purple last August.

Yeah, I’ve got my fair share of those pesty little slips of paper saved in my Playbills to remember who I really saw in the role as opposed to who was originally listed. Sometimes it’s not a big deal. Like when you don’t know who Renee Elise Goldsberry is from Wilhema Van Butternose. Other times, it is a big deal—it’s someone you’ve seen before, read about, or has won a Tony—and you want to see that person in that role.

Truth be told, only a few times have I been sorely disappointed in seeing the understudies. At two different occasions, for example, I saw understudies for either of the Thenardiers, and they lacked either the vocal chops or the comedic skills to do justice to the roles; that was quite disappointing. But other times . . . You know, you can’t complain when you see Kenita R. Miller as Nettie or JoAnn M. Hunter as Lois Lane. And I still remember, quite vividly, how understudy Leslie Hendrix turned Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn into a comedic tour de force that made me howl in the Susan Stroman revival of The Music Man.

This understudy thing has become quite the issue of discussion. There are certain stars whom you hear repeatedly missing shows, either for known causes, such as illnesses, or for reasons up for gossip.

I love seeing Kaye Ballard discuss this shift in the times in Rick McKay’s Broadway: The Golden Age, saying that when she was in The Pirates of Penzance in 1982, “it was a joke! Every night it sounded like Nurse Ratched. ‘This one will be out, that one will be out, this one will be out. Someone’s breaking in a new pair of shoes; they’re not coming in tonight’ . . . I never saw anything like it.” In her sixteen months in Carnival!, she missed one performance when she had a temp of 104. Similarly, Carol Channing has been infamous for missing only one performance as Dolly Levi in her entire career, a result of food poisoning, but still going on to perform through cancer treatments, broken bones, and all sorts of illnesses. Ethel Merman was another star known for never missing performances.

While we should look back to see the examples set for us, it’s also important to note that there is a shift and that there are also several other factors going on.

First of all, times are different. The older generation in general valued work above all. I grew up in the generation of day care, latchkey kids, and two parents working. Quality family time was replaced with quality family purchases. It was the norm to put family first by putting work before family time.

I don’t think we can criticize people for choosing some things, like their children, over a performance. Twenty years from now, the applause will be history, but those children will live on, better people for having their parents there when they were needed. Those kids will fondly look back on vacation times taken with their parents and Thanksgiving dinners spent together, with an understudy going on for dad. I think, as a culture, we learned from the mistakes of our parents, and we’ve reacted to that. You hear about how people in general are working fewer hours and are sacrificing job for family in other professions—why not on Broadway? Who knows what mysterious reason people are out of shows—How do we know that there’s not a child going through rehab or a friend going through cancer who needs help?

And sometimes you hear of people taking time off to see a spouse’s concert or to take advantage of another opportunity. Ideally for their fans, their priorities would be the show, but . . . even Broadway stars are people. How can we criticize the value-based personal choices people make in such a situation? You shouldn’t have to sacrifice your marriage to be on Broadway. People did it in the good old days, but that doesn’t mean it was the right decision.

The requirements of roles have changed considerably as well. In the bonus features on the Rick McKay film, Ruthie Henshall jokes about the vocal ranges that stars are expected to have these days. Yes, stars back in the days didn’t have amplification, so they were still working hard, but I have a feeling that Sally Adams in Call Me Madam, for example, is half as vocally demanding as Brooklyn, Jekyll and Hyde, or Elphaba. You never heard Mary Martin mention almost passing out after singing “Do-Re-Mi” in The Sound of Music like Heather Headley talked about in Aida. The roles have changed, and the requirements to do those roles have changed as well.

This past winter, I, who never get sick, managed to catch every germ in circulation. I remember thinking, “What if I was on Broadway . . . Could I really get myself on stage to play even Corny Collins?” Once or twice, the answer would have been no.

But, a-ha, there’s also a flip side to all this. One of the big complaints of people interviewed in Broadway: The Golden Age and David Wienir and Jodie Langel’s book Making It on Broadway is the lack of Broadway star status on Broadway today. In the old days, people knew who Mary Martin, Janis Paige, John Raitt, and Alfred Drake were. Stunt casting consisted of Carol Channing as Ruth Sherwood in Wonderful Town, and a lesser name like Gretchen Wyler could be Lola once Gwen Verdon exited Damn Yankees.

The multiple-absence problem plays a hand in this. Actors become well-known when masses of people see them shining. It’s pretty hard for that to happen when you miss every other Saturday performance. Your producers can’t afford to have the audience too excited to see you in a show when, four months into the run, you’re gone for a week of vacation. When you acknowledge your own insignificance in the show by being gone often, then why should anyone else lift you up?

If you want to make a name for yourself, then you have to make choices. Even if you’re an un-famous Belle in Beauty and the Beast, that’s a chance to make a name for yourself. And though 98% of the audience will leave the theatre not knowing you, even if a few theatre people and those little girls waiting at the stage door walk out with your name permanently imprinted on their minds, you’re a step closer to being a star. I don’t know who was supposed to be Mayor Shinn’s wife in The Music Man that night, but I walked out knowing the great talent that is Leslie Hendrix. Honestly, if the sitcom I wrote had been produced, Leslie Hendrix would have been on my mind.

Being in show business is like being in any other business—you have to be scrappy and you can’t be successful unless you are going after every last dime. McDonald’s, for example, advertises its coffee. Coffee! The same thing you can buy anywhere for cheap, and McDonald’s spends millions to remind people that they have it. Eddie Bauer trains its employees to ask customers if they want socks or belts when they check out. Success comes in not missing a single opportunity, and on Broadway, one of the biggest opportunities is gaining fans.

I would have been sorely disappointed if I had gone to Tarzan and Merle Dandridge had been out. This is a business where you can’t afford to disappoint fans. It’s not movies where people can watch you do your thing a million times; you may have only a few chances to win that fan. If they come to see you in your show and you are gone, there’s a good chance they won’t have the money or chance to see you again. The bond will be broken.

Every missed performance is a missed opportunity, and a Broadway performer needs to weigh what’s important. If we don’t have more Broadway stars, that is partially because we don’t have enough people demanding that they be. I can’t imagine Gwen Verdon being in a show that lasts two months and having given her understudy a chance to steal that spotlight.

And really, maybe we should thank God we don’t have as many of those stars. I must admit that there are some shows where, if the audience were there for names, there’d be big refund lines every night.

Again, if people don’t see you, they’re not going to remember you. If you don’t value your own star presence, nobody else will acknowledge it either.

I still wish I had seen Beth Leavel. And I’m awful glad I got to see Marin Mazzie before she went on vacation. And how thankful I am that the night I saw Wicked Stephanie J. Block didn’t have the flu.

Still, I don’t know if we can ever judge people for the career choices they make. Why should making it to three performances in a Broadway show be any more important than being there for your children or supporting your spouse? How can I say whether someone’s flu or ankle pain or headache isn’t a good enough excuse? For me, what it comes down to is that Broadway stars are people, and their personal needs are no more or less important than mine.

Broadway Mouth
March 10, 2009

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