by Diane Phelan
Recently, I hit my bucket list goal of performing a principal role on Broadway. I am currently in School of Rock - The Musical and just started understudying the role of Patty, Dewey’s nemesis in the show. It was something I had worked at for a long time, and after it happened, I felt a myriad of things: Gratitude, for everyone that got me there; relief, because I had built it up so much; anxiety, because understudying is anxiety-provoking in general; and also apathy. Even with all the buildup, it simultaneously felt like such a non-event. It was just another day at the show and I didn’t feel any different, save for the residual adrenaline coursing through my veins.
I have long dreamed of performing on Broadway in any capacity ever since I was in the ensemble of Hello, Dolly! at my high school, fervently chug stepping in my one-inch Capezios with the entire company in “Put On Your Sunday Clothes.” That feeling of being so alive and moving in sync with people, singing and dancing, felt like absolute church to me.
I went to NYU to study theater, and when I graduated, I had the opportunity to perform with national tours, international tours, and regional gigs either playing principal roles or understudying in the ensemble. I made my Broadway debut with Lincoln Center’s revival of The King and I, where I understudied a lead. I got really sick with Lyme disease and had to leave the production before ever getting to play the principal role on that stage. To be honest, I was really disillusioned after my experience at The King and I. As a performer of color, you often feel like your only chances to work on Broadway are in certain tracks or ethnic shows. I had believed the window of opportunity to do anything like that was past, as the canon of Asian shows that get produced on Broadway isn’t large. I had worked over a decade to get to Broadway, and at the time I was so down that I didn’t think I had another decade in me. So imagine my surprise and delight, to have made my Broadway principal debut as just some regular American chick in a blonde wig.
I think the difference with my dream of simply being on Broadway as that kid in school versus the bucket list one of having the opportunity to play a principal role lies in the specificity of different skill sets you want to focus on.
When you get to New York, it becomes clear that everyone is talented and hard working. But there are indeed different skill sets needed to do all the different types of tracks on Broadway. Playing a lead role on Broadway specifically, was to me, like a next level in a game I wanted to unlock. I had played lead roles many times in my career, but Broadway felt like another level somehow. What I was so thrilled about with this experience, first and foremost, was conquering a huge fear of mine of performing in front of a New York City audience and not buckling under pressure. Getting to check the bucket list item of playing a lead here meant that I got myself together and put aside any anxiety I have as a human to speak in front of a discerning audience at the highest level of my craft. I got to say I did that.
So playing a lead requires one skill set. Having the gall to get up on the most famous stages without losing your nerve is one skill needed for it. Principal roles are enjoyable because of the impact you get to make on the story being told - but you live like a monk and your life is centered around being able to perform for the show.
Understudying, standing-by and swinging are variations of one type of track, and they are incredibly challenging jobs to have. You live in a constant state of needing to be ready in an on-call situation. I do this type of job often (understudying and standing by - I swung a show once and I will forever bow down to those who do it on a regular basis!) and I’ve learned to be good at it, but boy that anxiety never gets easier. It’s a challenge to enjoy doing the role in this capacity until you’ve had at least three or four times at it and even then it feels like being shot out of a cannon.
Being in the ensemble has its own challenges, such as creating a full onstage life for your character without as much material as what’s written for principals. As well, often times there’s a heavier work load on the body for dance shows or say, holding freezes, in addition to filling in the story through extra vocals and movement. But it’s the best, in my experience, quality-of-life wise.
I have to say I thought it would be an easy pick of which type of track I’d rather do more, but honestly each show and experience is different. Right now, I absolutely love being in the ensemble of this show. I know a role is going to come by at some point again and I will arrange my life around that for a time. But no matter what, I still get giddy every time I walk into a theatre, regardless of the capacity. I just feel incredibly grateful to tell human stories on stages.