When Patti LuPone, Bette Mi­dler or a star from ‘Come From Away’ gets sick, the un­der­stud­ies get their Broad­way chance

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PE­TER MARKS

The text from the pro­duc­tion stage man­ager landed that April morn­ing like a light­ning strike. Patti LuPone, one of “War Paint’s” stars, would be out for two per­for­mances that day. Which meant her un­der­study, Donna Migli­ac­cio, would be go­ing on for her for the first time —and in a mat­ter of hours.

“What do you need?” the stage man­ager, Tripp Phillips, asked Migli­ac­cio.

An an­swer popped in­stantly into the ac­tress’s brain: “CPR.” It was just a few weeks into the Broad­way run of “War Paint,” co-star­ring LuPone and Chris­tine Eber­sole as life­long cos­met­ics-queen com­bat­ants He­lena Ru­bin­stein and Eliz­a­beth Ar­den. As an un­der­study for LuPone, as well as for sev­eral of the women in the show’s cho­rus, Migli­ac­cio — a co-founder of Ar­ling­ton’s Sig­na­ture Theatre and long a lu­mi­nary of Wash­ing­ton’s mu­si­cal-theater scene — knew full well a day like this might come. Just not quite so soon, when she didn’t even have all of Ru­bin­stein’s lines en­graved in mem­ory.

“It was the first time I’d have my wig on!” Migli­ac­cio re­calls. “I was try­ing to stay calm and good-na­tured. But I was dy­ing in­side. I thought, ‘Please God, just let me get through this.’ ”

The pen­du­lum in an un­der­study’s life can swing just this wildly: from event­less weeks in the theater wings to a day in the bril­liant light of cen­ter stage. Mostly, it’s a cool-one’s-heels as­pect of an ac­tor’s ca­reer, a wait-for-the-call side of the busi­ness, of­fer­ing the con­crete con­so­la­tion of a weekly pay­check but only oc­ca­sional, re­flected glory. Of course, there are the ex­cep­tions, both in fa­ble — for ex­am­ple, Peggy Sawyer, the cho­rus girl who goes on for the star with the bro­ken an­kle in the movie, and later stage mu­si­cal, “42nd Street” — and in real life, in which Shirley MacLaine is one of the most fa­mous cases. As a young dancer, she

Stand­bys for the Broad­way mu­si­cal “Come From Away,” from left: John Jel­li­son, Julie Reiber, Su­san Dun­stan, Tony LePage, Tamika Lawrence and Josh Breck­en­ridge at the Ger­ald Schoen­feld Theatre in New York.

subbed for an ail­ing star, Carol Haney, in “The Pa­jama Game” and, overnight, en­tered Broad­way leg­end.

Even with this ro­man­tic idea planted in ev­ery film and theater lover’s head — “Sawyer, you’re go­ing out a young­ster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” di­rec­tor Ju­lian Marsh tells Peggy — the job is less about be­ing plucked than hav­ing pluck. Beyond pos­sess­ing a cer­tain hu­mil­ity, an abil­ity to get over the re­marks of ac­quain­tances who say things like, “But I wanted to see you!,” an ac­tor who works of­ten or even in sin­gu­lar in­stances as a sub­sti­tute must have other spe­cial skills. One of the most use­ful is that of psy­chic jug­gler: the men­tal dex­ter­ity to be able to step with lit­tle no­tice into any one of sev­eral roles for which an ac­tor might be hired to cover.

“It’s the hard­est thing I’ve ever done,” says John Jel­li­son, one of six ac­tors who “stand by” for the per­form­ers of “Come From Away,” the hit mu­si­cal in which an en­sem­ble a dozen strong plays both the cit­i­zens of Gan­der, New­found­land, and the air­line pas­sen­gers stranded there af­ter the ter­ror­ist at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Jel­li­son and the other five —Josh Breck­en­ridge, Su­san Dun­stan, Tamika Lawrence, Tony LePage and Julie Reiber — are each re­quired to have the “tracks” of five ac­tors in their mem­ory banks. This in­volves not only know­ing the lines of each of their char­ac­ters (and ev­ery ac­tor plays sev­eral), but also the in­tri­cate move­ment, or block­ing, for each of their tracks, on a turntable set that’s con­stantly in mo­tion.

“Part of the joy as a standby is to be able to jump in and not miss a beat,” Jel­li­son says. “To be able to com­plete the story, to be a part of that ma­chine —that’s the pride and joy.”

“I have friends who are ac­tors who could never cover more than one track,” says Reiber, who, like the other “Come From Away” stand­bys, views un­der­study work as a par­tic­u­lar tal­ent. “It’s unique and dif­fer­ent,” Breck­en­ridge says. “And the key to be­ing truth­ful is to

“It was the first time I’d have my wig on! I was try­ing to stay calm and good-na­tured. But I was dy­ing in­side. I thought, ‘Please God, just let me get through this.’ ” Donna Migli­ac­cio, un­der­study for Patti LuPone in “War Paint”

Stand­bys for the hit Broad­way mu­si­cal “Come From Away,” clock­wise from top left: Josh Breck­en­ridge, Tony LePage, Julie Reiber, Su­san Dun­stan, Tamika Lawrence and John Jel­li­son. Each of the six is re­quired to have the “tracks” of five ac­tors com­mit­ted to mem­ory. This in­volves not only know­ing the lines of each of their char­ac­ters (and ev­ery ac­tor plays sev­eral), but also the in­tri­cate move­ments for each, per­form­ing on a turntable set that re­mains con­stantly in mo­tion. treat each role as if it’s my only role.”

Vir­tu­ally ev­ery per­former on Broad­way is re­quired to have at least one un­der­study. (Michael Moore, star of his own one-man show, “The Terms of My Sur­ren­der,” for ob­vi­ous rea­sons, has none.) How “un­der­study” is de­fined de­pends on the pa­ram­e­ters of the job or the deal an ac­tor ne­go­ti­ates, based some­times on their stature in the busi­ness. Migli­ac­cio, for ex­am­ple, is billed as an un­der­study for LuPone and sev­eral smaller parts, while Patti Co­henour, a Broad­way veteran who is oth­er­wise not in the show, is des­ig­nated as the “standby” for Eber­sole. (Two other mem­bers of the en­sem­ble are also listed as un­der­stud­ies for LuPone and Eber­sole, re­spec­tively.) The backup ac­tors in “Come From Away,” mean­while, are all cred­ited as “stand­bys” for the var­i­ous roles they un­der­study, all of which are con­sid­ered prin­ci­pal parts.

Th­ese are not to be con­fused with “swings,” an­other per­mu­ta­tion of un­der­study, re­fer­ring to singer-dancers who sub for reg­u­larly per­form­ing mem­bers of the cho­rus. In some in­stances, too, the ar­range­ments for a star’s sub­sti­tute are even more highly cus­tom­ized, as in the cur­rent smash re­vival of “Hello, Dolly!” Bette Mi­dler, a Tony win­ner for the role, plays Dolly Gal­lagher Levi on Wed­nes­days through Sun­days, two-time Tony win­ner Donna Mur­phy, listed as an “al­ter­nate” in the role, por­trays Dolly on Tues­day evenings and when Mi­dler takes con­trac­tual breaks. The crit­i­cal re­cep­tion to Mur­phy’s Dolly, recorded dur­ing a July va­ca­tion by Mi­dler, was very strong, but the box of­fice suf­fered in Mi­dler’s ab­sence, to the tune of hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars a week.

Step­ping in for a star seems a whole other di­men­sion of pres­sure, as Migli­ac­cio has learned in the sev­eral months since she took a bus from North­ern Vir­ginia, where she lives with her hus­band, John, to New York to au­di­tion for “War Paint” di­rec­tor Michael Greif and other mem­bers of the cre­ative team. She sang one of Ru­bin­stein’s num­bers and thought she had done

“When you’re all in cos­tume, with the stag­ing and the lights and the peo­ple say­ing the words in real time — it’s like driv­ing stick shift when you’re used to au­to­matic.” Donna Migli­ac­cio

well. “The song sits squarely in my meaty range, and Patti and I have the same meaty range,” says Migli­ac­cio, who worked her way up over the years from sub­ur­ban com­mu­nity theater to be­com­ing a well-known fig­ure at Sig­na­ture, Ford’s Theatre and Arena Stage.

Al­though she took the ride to Broad­way in 2009 with the Kennedy Cen­ter’s re­vival of “Rag­time,” play­ing Emma Gold­man, New York was never a pri­mary goal of Migli­ac­cio’s. Still, the tally of pluses of “War Paint,” with a score by Michael Korie and Scott Frankel and book by Doug Wright, quickly mounted. “You can’t ar­gue with the money, and you can’t ar­gue with a fresh Broad­way pro­duc­tion on your cred­its,” she says. “And the other thing is the chance to learn. Be­cause as an ac­tor, if you’re not learn­ing, you’re dead.” (Un­der­study salaries, like those of other ac­tors, are es­tab­lished by con­tract with the union, Ac­tors’ Eq­uity As­so­ci­a­tion; reg­u­lar en­sem­ble mem­bers who also un­der­study roles are en­ti­tled to ex­tra pay.)

She signed up for year, found a small apart­ment to sub­let in the theater district in short or­der, and used her down­time to work on one of the fan­tasy nov­els she’s writ­ing, in a se­ries called “The Gemeta Stone”; “Kin­glet,” the first, is now out. Time, though, was short in those first weeks, as she learned the mu­sic and the di­a­logue, acted as a stand-in for LuPone dur­ing some tech­ni­cal re­hearsals in the Ned­er­lan­der Theatre, and even earned a com­pli­ment from LuPone on her vo­cal skills. “She came up to me and said, ‘I heard you singing. You’re amaz­ing!’ ” Migli­ac­cio re­counts.

Still, in those pre­lim­i­nary weeks, the re­al­ity of singing for a Ned­er­lan­der crowd of 1,200 LuPone and Eber­sole fans hardly ever oc­curred to her. “My chances of go­ing on for Patti LuPone are slim to none,” she thought to her­self. “She’s a beast!” Un­til it ac­tu­ally hap­pened. “When you’re all in cos­tume, with the stag­ing and the lights and the peo­ple say­ing the words in real time — it’s like driv­ing stick shift when you’re used to au­to­matic,” she says. It was Wed­nes­day, April 19, and be­tween 10:30 a.m. and the 2 p.m. mati­nee, Migli­ac­cio had to be­come He­lena Ru­bin­stein — for a crowd ex­pect­ing LuPone. She didn’t even have time to think about that, or how dis­ap­pointed they might be. There was her own pri­vate panic to deal with, of quelling the doubts about know­ing where to be, about get­ting into 15 drop-dead gor­geous gowns and dresses by cos­tume de­signer Cather­ine Zu­ber, about re­mem­ber­ing all the darn lines. “I knew I was not solid on the last two scenes,” she re­calls.

He­lena’s songs — “Back on Top,” “Now You Know,” “For­ever Beau­ti­ful” — went smoothly, as the ac­tress felt sure they would be. When her mem­ory got a bit shaky to­ward the end, she says, Eber­sole, “bailed me out” in their one scene to­gether, when Migli­ac­cio was mo­men­tar­ily stuck on a line. All she felt af­ter the mati­nee was re­lief: “I was happy I sur­vived,” she says, laugh­ing. “I was happy it didn’t suck.”

John, her hus­band, ar­rived from Vir­ginia for the evening per­for­mance. At the theater, they em­braced. Flow­ers ar­rived from J. Fred Shiff­man, her Wash­ing­ton-based agent, a for­mer ac­tor him­self. A ham sand­wich with mayo ma­te­ri­al­ized, too, and, for­ti­fied for the 8 p.m. per­for­mance, she got through it, feel­ing more re­laxed, bet­ter able to en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ence.

The next day, she would be back to be­ing Donna the un­der­study. But on this night, she was He­lena Ru­bin­stein, the role in the show for which LuPone cus­tom­ar­ily took the last bow. Migli­ac­cio asked Eber­sole if she wanted to re­verse the cur­tain-call or­der. The an­swer, to her shock, was no. In a ges­ture Migli­ac­cio says she won’t soon for­get, Eber­sole gra­ciously gave that last bow to her.





TOP: Wash­ing­ton ac­tress Donna Migli­ac­cio in her dress­ing room at the Ned­er­lan­der Theater in New York. She is an un­der­study for Patti LuPone in “War Paint.” ABOVE: LuPone and Dou­glas Sills in “War Paint,” a mu­si­cal about cos­met­ics ri­vals He­lena Ru­bin­stein (LuPone) and Eliz­a­beth Ar­den (Chris­tine Eber­sole).

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