< Unsung Heroes of Broadway Defy COVID, Help Keep Shows Going
By Caty Weaver
14 January 2022

The theatrical magic that keeps New York's Broadway going during the latest COVID-19 spread has been performers ready to step in in an emergency.

Actor Carla Stickler went a step further. She returned to acting from retirement to save the musical Wicked.

Stickler launched a new career as a software engineer in Chicago three years ago. But she canceled her vacation this winter and went to New York City's center of theater performances, Broadway. She had agreed to replace a star of the show after much of the cast became infected with COVID-19.

A sign explaining the cancellations of 'Hamilton' due to COVID-19 cases at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in the Broadway area of New York City, December 17, 2021.(AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)
A sign explaining the cancellations of 'Hamilton' due to COVID-19 cases at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in the Broadway area of New York City, December 17, 2021.(AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

Stickler played the green skinned Elphaba in the musical play. She may have been playing an evil witch, but Stickler's effort was all good.

"It was like riding a bike," she said. "I got out there and I was like, ‘Oh, I remember this. This is really special, and I'm just going to try to enjoy every second of it.'"

Her effort is just one example of the work Broadway's understudies do. They are standbys and fill-ins who keep shows open. Often, they learn several parts with little official rehearsing.

The heavy pressure on theater companies to keep shows open is eased by these skillful performers. Actor Hugh Jackman recently praised the many understudies who kept his revival of The Music Man open.

Stickler said the recognition of these less famous performers is important. "I think they sometimes get overlooked," she said, adding, "it's been really emotional to see the outpouring of love for all what they do."

Stickler was not alone in trying to rescue Broadway. At one point over the holidays, eight of the 12 actors in Broadway's Come From Away were substitutes. They included two — Pearl Sun and Holly Ann Butler — who had left the production. Another, Marika Aubrey, returned to Broadway from the travelling show.

Josh Breckenridge is the musical's dance captain. He is also a standby performer for five of the six males in the play.

"It really took a village and it was a beautiful village," Breckenridge said. "I'm very proud of us for nailing it."

He also praised the crowds who watched the show, describing the support as wonderful.

Breckenridge has been on Broadway with The Scottsboro Boys, The Ritz and other shows. He hopes the theater system will learn from recent experiences and make changes to better meet difficult times. He called on the industry to employ more standbys and fill-ins.

"I hope that producers out there notice and start to hire more coverage so that we can avoid moments like this," he said. Breckenridge added, "We're literally the reason for the phrase ‘the show must go on.'"

Stickler was one reason Wicked could continue this holiday season. On December 27, she was driving with her husband and dog to Maine for a one-week vacation with friends. She got an urgent call from the producers to return to the musical.

Stickler had last performed the part on Broadway in 2015. She had spent 10 years with the Broadway company and starred in a national series of Wicked.

"Elphaba is just kind of something that lives in my body, and I think a lot of other understudies will say the same thing," she said.

"I think everybody is really doing the best they can," she said. "I do think the fact that the show has been able to stay open is a testament to how devoted the actors are to the show and how great and talented the group of people that they have hired over the years are."

While actors and crews working on Broadway are all vaccinated, wear masks and get tested daily, infections have spread anyway. Several productions, including Aladdin, Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, The Lion King and Six, suspended performances because of infected performers.

Stickler is staying in New York this week just in case Wicked needs her help. Then, she will then travel back to Chicago, but she would not likely refuse a similar call to act in the future.

"I would do it again in a heartbeat. I love the show," she said. "If I turn 100, I'll do it at my 100th birthday party."

I'm Caty Weaver.

The Associated Press reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for VOA Learning English. -------

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Words in This Story

understudyn. an actor who prepares to take the part of another actor if that actor is unable to perform

rehearse v. to prepare for a public performance of a play, a piece of music

revival n. a new production of an old show

nail it idiom to succeed at something in a notable way

literally adv. in a way that uses the ordinary and usual meaning of a word

devoted –adj. having strong love or loyalty for someone or something

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