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GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Cara Cooper of 'The Wedding Singer'

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Like many ensemble members who understudy principal roles, Cara Cooper yearns to be cast in such a part and get to play it regularly, not just when someone is ailing or taking time off. But in the meantime, she'd settle for a little advance notice when she has to cover a role.

A day's notice, say.

Or maybe just a few more hours than she's had in the past.

Cooper has performed the roles she's understudied in every Broadway show she's been in, and on a national tour too. And virtually every time, she was notified a matter of hours before curtain.

"Every time I've been an understudy, I've been thrown on in bizarre circumstances," Cooper laughs. It happened most recently during The Wedding Singer's previews, when she first went on for Amy Spanger as Holly. "I got the call at 12:30, we had to be here at 1 for rehearsal, and basically I learned the show in those four or five hours. I knew the lines, I knew the music, but there was so much that I never could watch because I'm on stage or I'm changing my costume, and things are changing so rapidly in previews that there wasn't a good way to keep a handle on it," Cooper says. "We went through the whole show, from beginning to end, on that Wednesday afternoon, putting me in that role and the swing who was on for me into my role. Thankfully, all of Amy's costumes fit me."

Cooper played Holly for a week in previews and another five or so times since the show opened. Usually, though, she's playing some half-dozen roles—a bridesmaid in the opening scene (which was performed at the Tony Awards on Sunday); the bride in the wedding where Robbie insults everyone; half of a happy couple at the mall; one of the stockbrokers in Glen's Wall Street office; the dancing stunt double for grandma Rosie during her rap number; and the Nancy Reagan impersonator in Las Vegas. "The variety of things that I do in the show is enormous," Cooper says. "Complete costume changes, my hair color changes every time I'm on the stage, even the lipstick is different."

Though her last-minute understudying gigs have been stressful, "it's such a thrill to be thrown on in that way," she says. "Frankly, some of my best acting moments have come in those situations, because you have to be so aware, you have to listen to what the other actors are giving you, and you have to just be in the moment and not worried about what will happen next because then you'll miss something."

Last year, Cooper was one of two understudies for Natalie in All Shook Up. The other understudy, Anika Larsen, would be playing the part when Jenn Gambatese took some personal days, but right before then, Gambatese got sick while Larsen was out. So Cooper went on in Gambatese's lead role. "I was prepared, I had had rehearsal," she says, "but it was another 'found out during the matinee that I'd be doing it that night.'"

The first time that happened was when Cooper was doing the 42nd Street tour in 2002 and she, the understudy, took over the starring role of understudy-turned-star Peggy Sawyer for an entire month. Catherine Wreford had injured her foot but continued to go on as Peggy—until the last night in Milwaukee. "I found out towards the end of the matinee that I was going on that night, so it was just a whirlwind from the time the show ended that afternoon until the time the show went up: trying to fit costumes on me, getting hair, putting me in the numbers," Cooper recounts. "I had had one or two rehearsals, but that show is so choreography-heavy that I certainly hadn't learned everything." Anticipating that Wreford may have to miss performances, the dance captain had taught Cooper the finale the night before—in the lobby of their hotel, the only available space with room enough to dance.

Since Cooper was still subbing for Wreford when the show opened in the next cities on the tour, she got reviewed. "In best show-biz style," the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote, "understudy Cara Cooper took over the role, and she was Peggy through and through, earnest and naive and lovable with flying feet."

Cooper later had the Peggy role all to herself when she starred in St. Louis Muny's 2004 production of 42nd Street, alongside future Drowsy Chaperone Tony winner Beth Leavel as Dorothy Brock. In between 42nd Street on tour and at the Muny, Cooper made her Broadway debut in Urban Cowboy. She was a swing but performed in the first preview, on opening night and several other times, due to a cast member's broken hand.

Of course, there was other turmoil surrounding that show. The day after it opened to disastrous reviews, producers announced it would close the following night. Then they changed their minds and kept it open until the Tony nominations. The experience made for a dizzying swirl of emotions. At first, Cooper says, "I was so young and so naive and just so enamored with the fact that I was making my Broadway debut, I don't think I put together that a show can close so quickly." When she was informed at the theater about the insta-closing, "I remember calling my family in tears, after we had just had this opening-night party celebrating that I was on Broadway." After the show was given another seven weeks of life, "everybody was just so grateful to come to work and thankful for every day that we got to do that show."

During the run of Urban Cowboy, she was dealt an even more frightening blow: a herniated disk in her neck that could have ended her career if it went untreated. The injury occurred during a performance, when her head hit her partner's leg during a flip onto his shoulders. Neither she nor her doctors understood the damage at first, since she felt pain in her back and arm, not her neck. Once it was diagnosed, "the doctors basically said, if you are in a taxicab and it jolts or if you trip down the stairs, you could be paralyzed—because it was so close to my spinal cord." So she had surgery to remove the disk. "I have a bolt in my neck," she states bravely.

Another internal adjustment took place as well. "It was definitely a time when I had to step back and say, 'Oh, my gosh, if I can't ever dance again, what am I going to do?'" she says. "I'm so thankful that I can still perform—and walk—but it was that time when the little things became important: spending time with my family and walking my dog. And figuring out what else in life is important, because you can get so wrapped up in this business and so single-minded about it."

Cooper's health scare was followed by another professional heartbreak: the collapse, right before its out-of-town tryout, of the Barry Manilow musical Harmony. Slated for a Philadelphia run in late 2003 en route to a Broadway opening the following year, Harmony had rehearsed in New York for four weeks. Then, three days before the company was going to leave for Philly, the producers said there wasn't enough money to get them there. "They shut us down right then and there," Cooper says. In the play—based on the true story of a popular German singing group of the 1920s—her roles included a Nazi youth. "I had to say horrible things, so it was certainly a stretch as an actor." She also understudied the part of Marlene Dietrich.

Cooper has been aided in handling the psychological rigors of her profession by her boyfriend of over three years, Graham Bowen, who's also a performer. Bowen's most recent Broadway show was Gypsy with Bernadette Peters, but he made his Broadway debut as a teenager in Big. "He gives me a lot of perspective," Cooper says. "Because he's been doing it for so long, he's very calm about it, whereas I can get sort of crazy. Here's an example of him calming me down: When the phone rang that I was going on that night in previews [of Wedding Singer], I just freaked out. I looked at him and said, 'I don't know if I can do this. I don't know a lot of the show.' And he just looked at me and said, 'Cara, they are going to teach it to you today, and you're going to be fabulous. Just take a deep breath.' He really sort of grounded me, and I said, 'You're right. You're absolutely right,' and I was out the door."

Cooper picked up some survival techniques of her own in her early years. She danced throughout her childhood, attending classes six days a week and participating in dance competitions. "I think they prepared me for the difficulty of going through the audition process. I remember once being upset about not winning and my dad said to me, 'It's not like you're running a race. There's no definitive winner; it's somebody's opinion of you.' That's really good to remember when you go into an audition and you don't get the job. It's like: 'Okay, that person didn't think you were right, but someone else tomorrow is going to think you're right.' Those were good lessons to learn early on," she says. "Learning how to not take things personally, and to walk into a room that you're auditioning in and think: I'm going to give them the best of me today, and that may be what they want, it may not, but that's all I have and that's all I am."

Her first public performing came in television commercials, which she started doing when she was a baby. She appeared in spots for such products as Pepsi, Jif and HBO—and, almost, Pampers. She had been hired for a Pampers commercial but learned to walk before it was filmed. At the shoot, she wouldn't crawl, even when she was placed on her hands and knees, so she had to be replaced with a more compliant child. Then, around age 7, she walked away from the work completely. "My mom was picking me up from my first-grade picnic," Cooper recalls. "All my friends were playing and having fun, and I didn't want to leave. I just looked at her and said, 'Mom, I don't want to leave school to go into those auditions anymore.'"

Growing up in Sparta, N.J., just an hour outside New York City ("but a far cry from the city—I passed cows on the way to high school"), Cooper was taken to the theater from a young age. Her first Broadway show, when she was still in elementary school, was the original La Cage Aux Folles ("I adored it, but barely knew what was going on"). But it was the early-'90s revival of Guys and Dolls—at the theater where The Wedding Singer is playing now—that she remembers best. She was in tears when the curtain fell. "My family were going, 'Why are you crying?' and all I could say was 'This is what I want to do! This is what I want to do!'" She did, literally—playing Adelaide in a high school production.

But Cooper, who graduated second in her class, had a fondness for science too and thought about becoming a doctor. "I hemmed and hawed," she says. "I remember my physics teacher in high school said: [in a Jersey accent] 'You're a smart cookie, Cara, I don't know why you wanna do this theatah thing.'"

In her salutatorian's address at high school graduation, Cooper spoke about "enjoying the journey and that the outcome is not what's most important but how you get there." She didn't realize at the time how meaningful that message would be in her adult life. "It's very fitting for what we do. In a career that's ever-changing, you have to enjoy the journey. You have to enjoy coming to work no matter what the size of the audience, no matter what the response. Every night we enjoy what we do, and the rehearsal process, as hard as it can be, is the journey that gets you there."

Cooper wasn't at her next graduation, from NYU in 2001, because she already had a job: playing Val in A Chorus Line at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre (directed and choreographed by Mitzi Hamilton, who'd played Val on Broadway). Performances began shortly before the semester ended, but Cooper had completed all requirements for her BFA in drama.

Cooper worked at Surflight Theatre on the Jersey Shore for two summers during college and spent the summer before her senior year in London, studying Shakespeare at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. "It was wonderful for no one to know I could sing or dance," she says. "I was an actor; that's all that I was, which was incredibly freeing. No one knew I could do it, so no one was going to ask me to do it."

She's particularly keen on Shakespeare's women who disguise themselves as men. She got a taste of it in the Twelfth Night-influenced All Shook Up, when Natalie became "Ed" in her pursuit of Chad (Cheyenne Jackson). Explaining the cross-dressing roles' appeal, Cooper muses, "I think it's very powerful for a woman to take on the physicality of a man and behave like a man in order to get what she wants. Never in my experience in shows have I had flat shoes on and jeans and not had to worry about keeping my legs crossed because I had a skirt on. I also think that whenever you're in a courtship phase with somebody, you do put yourself out there in a different way because you really want them to like you back. It's a take on that: putting a different persona out there because you think that's what's going to get them."

At the end of her RADA term, Cooper played Cordelia in King Lear. She hasn't done any Shakespeare since then but would love to. Actually, she'd like to do any nonmusical—it's one of her main professional goals at this point, and she wouldn't be averse to working at a regional theater outside New York if that's what it takes to cross over. So far, her nonmusical resume comprises one episode of the soap Guiding Light.

Even while she's planning her growth as an actress, Cooper from time to time reflects on her decision to be a performer instead of a doctor. "To this day I still say: Gosh, I should be doing something to help, to benefit the world in some way, because our business can be narcissistic and self-centered," she admits. "And my dad said, 'You do. You provide entertainment to people, and you give them an escape from their everyday lives. Entertainment has always existed for that reason.' That's a nice way to think about it."

Photos of Cara, from top: offstage and out of the many costumes and wigs she wears in The Wedding Singer; with her 42nd Street costar Beth Leavel in St. Louis, 2004; with boyfriend Graham Bowen at a Broadway Show League game last summer [photo by Tim Kovalenko]; as a New Jersey mallrat in The Wedding Singer, with Matt Allen (center) and David Josefsberg [photo by Joan Marcus].



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