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The Ensemblist is an inside look at the experience of being a Broadway performer- from the first rehearsal through performing eight shows a week and beyond. Whether you’re an experienced theatre professional or a passionate fan, The Ensemblist will give you the opportunity to get to know new performers and the great work they do onstage, while also shedding light on some of the hidden innerworkings of the Broadway experience. Created and hosted by Mo Brady (The Addams Family, SMASH) and Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Chicago, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), The Ensemblist is the only podcast that shows you Broadway from the inside out. 

Blog

Covering a Loverly Leading Lady

Mo Brady

by Marialena Rago

 Kerstin Anderson

Kerstin Anderson

Covering a leading role on Broadway is exhilarating and stressful at the same time. When that role is also a beloved musical icon and you have other roles to remember, the stress can be mounting but the payoff is 'loverly.'

That is what life is like for Kerstin Anderson who understudies Eliza Doolittle in the Lincoln Center Theater revival of My Fair Lady. Anderson covers Lauren Ambrose’s role on Sundays and during the week she takes on a number of ensemble roles. “I am a flower girl in Covent Garden, a Maid in Higgins' House (fun fact: Fellow ensemblist Cameron Adams and I are the singing maids in 'I Could Have Danced All Night'), an aristocrat in Ascot, a repeat flower girl on Wimpole Street (I sell Freddy a flower and then give him side eye when he starts singing), a ball go-er at the Embassy Ball, and finally a reveler in 'Get Me to The Church on Time.'” 

The musical has a special place in Broadway and musical history. Lerner and Loewe’s tale of a flower girl turned lady has had a number of famous leading ladies as Eliza. Two of the most famous actresses are Audrey Hepburn in the movie musical and Julie Andrews in the original Broadway and London productions. Anderson has her own special ties to the show. “We definitely had the DVD, possibly the VHS as well, of My Fair Lady, and 'Wouldn't It Be Loverly' was a lullaby my parents sang to me before bed. I also played a maid in a production at The Forestburgh Playhouse.” 

 Kerstin Anderson with Harry Hadden-Paton and the company of  My Fair Lady.  Photo byJoan Marcus.

Kerstin Anderson with Harry Hadden-Paton and the company of My Fair Lady. Photo byJoan Marcus.

Knowing the musical definitely prepared her for her first night as Eliza, since she only found out a few hours before taking the stage that she would be going on! Anderson describes that day as “one of the craziest days of my life.” 

“It was before the Tony Awards, and we had only made it to the Embassy Ball in understudy rehearsals. I didn't have my own costumes yet, I had never sung with the orchestra, and I had never run the show before. I got to the theater early, and just took some time to breath in the beautiful Vivian Beaumont Theater before the madness began. I ran through the quick changes, walked through a scene with Norbert we hadn't touched in the rehearsal, and ran the two fight choreography bits with Harry. We have the most supportive cast, everyone was so supportive both backstage and on stage. I am eternally grateful for the flexibility and generosity of the fellow principals; they all just jumped on the train and went with me wherever I went. I don't remember too much from that day, but I do recall making my quick change and running up the stairs with enough time for Harry to say under his breath, "Well done." before continuing with the scene, "three...four... five marbles..." (I also got to do it the following day May 20, otherwise known as Eliza Doolittle Day, which was lots of fun!).” 

The role of Eliza is a demanding one. The actresses playing the lead role have to have her iconic cockney accent and then transition into speaking like a proper lady. Not to mention all the beautiful but challenging songs they have to perform. As an understudy, Anderson understands that she has to make sure all the other actors around her are comfortable with her performance, but she can also make the part her own. “My job, the way I see it, as an understudy is twofold,” she says. “It is to fill the gap when Lauren is out; I have to fit the mold that she created so as to not disrupt my fellow cast mates' shows and to make everything run smoothly. But it's also my job to tell the audience our story. If I’m going on, the audience needs me to be Eliza; not Lauren. By the simple fact that I am me, it becomes mine. Lauren and I bring very different things to the table, but if I may be so bold, I think both make for interesting and unique Elizas!” 

To take on the role and to become her own Eliza, Anderson tried to observe Ambrose, but she also did her own work to make sure she was prepared to go on at any moment. “Rehearsing can be a vulnerable thing, and extra bodies in the room watching you isn't always the best environment for creation. But I did a lot of work on the role despite not being able to observe. I took the songs to my voice teacher, ran lines with my fellow understudies, and once we were in previews I would watch the show any moment I wasn't on stage or changing my costume.” 

Let’s not forget that Anderson is covering Eliza and doing her usual track as an ensemble member, but she didn’t find balancing both challenging. “I think that's probably because by the time I had to rehearse and play Eliza I was fairly comfortable in my ensemble track. My ensemble track does interact with Eliza often which is actually quite helpful. It gives me check-in points.” 

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges to being an ensemble member and a leading lady in the same show. “What I do find tricky is the time in-between each go of Eliza. I've had about 100+ shows in my Flower Girl track; it's become second nature. But as Eliza, I've done less than ten, and every time I have a week before I get to try it again. The learning process is much slower. But I'm trying to have patience, learn as much as I can, and enjoy the process of getting to know Eliza!”