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BWW Blog: Jeff Blumenkrantz - Understudying on Broadway: Part Two – Sandra DeNise and Sarah Jane Shanks

In this second part of Understudying on Broadway (you can find Part 1 here), I'm discussing the subject with two women who each have tons of experience, Sandra (Sandy) DeNise and Sarah Jane Shanks, both currently covering the demanding, central role of "Alice Murphy" in Bright Star. (I should mention that they both also cover the role of "Lucy Grant," and additionally, Sandy covers "Mama Murphy!")

First of all, let's take a look at the impressive list of jobs they've held where understudying has been involved:


Rent (Tour), covering "Maureen"

Parade (Tour), covering "Mary Phagan"

Saturday Night Fever (Tour), covering "Stephanie" and "Annette"

Shrek (Tour), covering "Fiona"

Kinky Boots (Broadway), covering "Lauren" and "Nicola"

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (Broadway), covering "Phoebe" and "Sibella"

Bright Star (Broadway), covering "Alice," "Lucy," and "Mama Murphy"

Sarah Jane:

Wicked (Tour and Broadway), covering "Glinda"

The Apple Tree (Broadway), covering "Eve/Princess Barbára/Ella/Passionella"

Shrek (Broadway), covering "Fiona"

Promises, Promises (Broadway), covering "Fran"

Bright Star (Broadway), covering "Alice" and "Lucy"

Clearly these are two extremely versatile and accomplished performers, although Sarah Jane jokes that she's a "mediocre threat. I can sing really well, dance really well, and act really well, but I'm not amazing at any of them." [Note: Sandy and I heartily disagree.] "If you want someone that's a genius dancer, you don't hire me. You hire me because I can get it done, and I can cover the lead."

Incidentally, my own Broadway debut was as an understudy in the original cast of Into the Woods, where I covered "Jack," "Rapunzel's Prince," and "The Steward." Back then (1987), it was still common to have enumerated covers as a contractual term, i.e. first cover/second cover. I was the first cover for "Jack" so I was always the first understudy to go on when Ben Wright was out. No guesswork.

Today, it's very rare for covers to be enumerated, so the management retains the right to choose which understudy goes on at any given time. I was curious if this has presented any frustration through the years...

Sandy: In my experience, it's been pretty much about splitting it up evenly. "She was on last, so now it's your turn." When a show is new, they might favor the person who learned the part first, but once the show's been running a while, it's been pretty fair. There was one time when I wasn't put on, and I really didn't understand at all. And I was furious because the person that they did put on was a third cover who was scared to death, didn't even want to do it. And when I found out why, I was mortified. It had to do with the volume of my speaking voice, and I'd been given the note, but I didn't realize that it was so extreme that I wouldn't be going on again until I'd fixed it. I was so embarrassed....

Sarah Jane: My experience is similar to Sandy's in that it's usually split up equally.

Jeff: And when it isn't, does that make you crazy?

Sarah Jane: In the past, it made me crazy, partly because I used to be pretty obnoxious and entitled, if we're being forthright. And I did not handle it well when I was confused or hurt by the situation.

Sandy: Actors' egos are so fragile. Eventually you have to learn to not take it personally.

Jeff: When does that happen?

Sandy: You just kind of grow up. There are also certain times when it's frustrating on a monetary level...

Jeff: Because you're not getting the extra payment for going on?

Sandy: Yeah, you're like, wait a minute. If they keep putting this other person on, I'll never have the opportunity to make the extra money, and I don't understand why.

Sarah Jane: And it's important to be able to go home and feel the way you feel about it. Grieve it, be angry, whatever. But being professional means drawing a distinction between how you handle it at the theatre and how you handle it at home.

Jeff: Sarah Jane, you've been in the position of covering the star of the show on several occasions. What's that like?

Sarah Jane: First, I want to say, I love covering Kristin Chenoweth! She's very secure, she's not threatened in any way by her covers. She's not worried that you'll be good. She's glad that you're good. She celebrates the fact that you're good and that she can trust the role in your hands when she leaves. She sends me flowers and cookies and cards when I go on and says "thank you!" I would be the wind beneath her wings for the rest of my life.

In Promises, Promises, I did feel a little pressure about going on for her because of her celebrity, but it helped that there were two other "names" in the show (Sean Hayes and Tony Goldwyn). I would do this shameless thing sometimes... Kristin's first song was "I Say a Little Prayer for You" and when I was on, sometimes at the end of that song, I would hold the last note for a ridiculously long time because I knew the audience didn't know about me yet, and I wanted to win their trust. (For the record, sometimes Kristin would hold the note for a long time too.) But I felt like the audience needed a little something extra, a shameless show-off moment for them to go: Oh, we're OK now.

Sarah Jane, far right in white top, as "Fran" in Promises, Promises

Jeff: Were you ever expected/encouraged to do Kristin-isms or Sutton-isms?

Sarah Jane: Thankfully, no. In fact, in Promises, Promises, I was allowed to make several different choices that felt more right for me, and Sean and Tony were incredibly gracious about it. I remember doing a quick scene rehearsal with Tony, and he said, "Oh, you're really different. I have to treat you differently." And then he went, "Okay!" Like he was up for the challenge. And that put me at ease - I thought: Thank God, he's not making me feel guilty for just being who I am.

That said, I've learned so much from watching Sutton and Kristin's rehearsal process up close, being there from the beginning. I got the whole six weeks of watching them figure it out and get to that performance, the trial and error. I learned so much from those women.

Sandy: I had that experience watching Annaleigh Ashford in Kinky Boots, because everything I did up 'til then was re-creations.

Jeff: As an understudy, do you ever get to be in rooms you wouldn't get to be in otherwise?

Sandy: Sort of. I showed up to the first rehearsal for "History of Wrong Guys" because I assumed I was called, as I was covering that role. And I watched Annaleigh create it, which was one of the most magical things I've ever experienced. Getting to watch someone who's at the top of her game, fearless, making choices. Annaleigh will try anything, she trusts her instincts and keeps going until someone says no. It was a great reminder how important it is to be free, and that this is why people get hired, because they're so creative and they come up with it, they bring all the ideas. Later, I looked at the call sheet and realized I hadn't been invited, and I apologized profusely for intruding, but Annaleigh couldn't have been sweeter and honestly didn't seem to care. I'm so glad no one asked me to leave....

Sandy as "Lauren" in Kinky Boots

Jeff: Sarah Jane, tell your Wicked story.

Sarah Jane: Ha! OK... I was covering Kate Reinders, who was playing "Glinda." At the top of the show, "Glinda" is preset up in the bubble with just a thin piece of fabric separating her from the audience. It was one of those situations when they didn't have time to stuff the program with an understudy insert, so they had to do the announcement. Now Kate Reinders isn't a star, the kids who go to Wicked don't know who she is, but they know they're not seeing the "real" girl. So the announcement goes: "The role of 'Glinda' will be played by Sarah Jane Everman (my maiden name)." And then there's a huge "Boooooo!" And I'm up there trembling. And it didn't occur to me until the precise moment that the words were coming out of my mouth that my first line was, "It's good to see me, isn't it?" I thought, Please, just take me back up!

Sarah Jane as "Glinda" in Wicked

Jeff: Sandy, I had the great pleasure of seeing you go on in the role of "Phoebe" in Gentleman's Guide.... I was really struck by how accurately you captured the unique vocal sound of Lauren Worsham from the original cast. Was that forced on you or was that your choice?

Sandy as "Phoebe" in A Gentleman's Guide...

Sandy: I have to say, that particular show was a first for me in that I'd never been hired to sing legit, and I love to live there. It was one of the most at home understudying assignments I've had, no pop/rock, no high belting, no stress. Capturing that vocal quality felt easy and natural.

Lots of shows I've done have been reproductions, tours, etc. And when you're auditioning, you get the cast recording and you hear the person you're supposed to be covering. And I've always been a pretty good mimic. But as I get older, I'm trying harder and harder to just be me. Now it's more: Here's my instrument, here's what I can do, let me know if that works for you.

Jeff: Have either of you ever been thrown on completely unprepared?

Sarah Jane: Yes! In the pre-Broadway tryout of Shrek in Seattle, Sutton called out during previews. And the show was such that in my ensemble track, I didn't have a chance to watch her at all. I knew the lines and songs, but I hadn't been rehearsed, I didn't know her dances, I didn't know her blocking, I knew nothing.

She called out early enough in the day that the director was able to take me into a room and show me a few things, but there was no proper put-in. (NB: A put-in is a full rehearsal run-through with all the technical elements, i.e. lights, sets, costumes, special effects, to give a replacement actor [or actors] a chance to do the show before being in front of an audience.)

And there were some scary tech things that I never got to rehearse, like being on a lift ten feet in the air, or being on a bicycle seat that spins you with nothing to hold on to! They assigned an ASM (Asst. Stage Manager) to me for the whole show, and before every scene she would tell me where to walk.

Before this one scene, she said, "OK Sarah Jane, I'm going to push you out, and there's a yellow X and an orange X. DO NOT STAND ON THE ORANGE X! Get on the yellow one." Now it's dark onstage, and I'm in an ogre, i.e. fat, suit. And I can't see a thing! I'm thinking, "Oh please, let it be the right X!" And then it started rising, thank God!

Jeff: I can't imagine.... Sandy, you covered the role of "Fiona" in Shrek too. What was your experience like?

Sandy: I truly loved playing that role, and because I went on so much, I really became comfortable doing it.

One thing that was super fun about it was the final transformation into being an ogre at the end. You would run off stage, step into the dress, and just hold firmly still with your eyes shut while about six people frantically did things around you: someone painting your face, someone gluing a nose on, not to mention the wig and and ogre gloves. It was always a really exhilarating costume change, about 45 seconds long.

Jeff: Sarah Jane, you actually went on for Carmen in Bright Star when it played at the Old Globe a year and a half ago. Were you thrown on unprepared then too? By all accounts, you were great, actually able to be present and make choices!

Sarah Jane: Well, thanks! It was almost as extreme as Shrek. We had had our first understudy rehearsal two days earlier, but there was still so much I hadn't rehearsed. But at that point in my life, I was feeling more spiritually mature, and I didn't want to walk out on the stage feeling like I had to prove myself to anybody, because that's how I'd always felt in the past. So I just prayed, prayed, prayed, and by the time I walked out there, I felt like I was already loved, already approved of, didn't have to prove anything to anybody. I could just tell a story with people that love me. And that's how I was able to be present.

Sarah Jane as "Alice Murphy" in Bright Star, Old Globe

Jeff: Well, that's a big milestone for any performer, understudy or otherwise. What are you both willing to share with me about the prospect of going on as "Alice Murphy" in the Broadway production of Bright Star?

Sandy: I think these are the biggest shoes I have ever had to fill in my career. And while I am terrified about it, I am grateful for the challenge and feel like I have been prepared well. Alice is an amazing heroine, and I think it will be fun to see what she feels like and go on her journey.

Sarah Jane: I don't know if that day will ever come because Carmen Cusack is a beast! (And by "beast," I mean, she is amazing and can sing through any kind of ailment!)

I love telling this story every night, and I'd be honored to tell it from Alice's angle. The term "story telling" helps steer me away from the nerve-wracking pressure to "perform" well. If I think of myself as a storyteller, rather than a performer, I don't have to stress about living up to sky-high expectations or proving myself to myself, my castmates, or the audience. I just get to tell a story...and that, I can do.

If the time ever comes for me to play Alice, I'd hope to approach it with a confident and full heart. I'll focus less on giving them what they [the audience] want and more on simply giving what I have to give. Whether I'm in a lead role or in the ensemble, my faith tells me I can be generous with my heart instead of trying to earn validation. So...if I ever go on, I'll pray I can do just that. And I wouldn't mind if you say a little prayer for me, too!

Jeff: Thank you two so much for your time and stories and pictures! I hope Bright Star has a nice long run and that we get to see you both go on for all your parts!

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From This Author Guest Blogger: Jeff Blumenkrantz

JEFF BLUMENKRANTZ (Daryl Ames). Actor: Broadway: Into the Woods, Threepenny Opera, Damn Yankees, How to Succeed… , A Class Act. Off Broadway: Murder for Two (read more...)