NEW YORK — 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:
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 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 terror 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 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 contractural 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 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.