8 Broadway Artists Got Real About Life On And Off The Stage And Shared Their Wildest Behind-The-Curtain Stories
"Theater is community."
On March 12, 2020, Broadway closed its doors due to the coronavirus outbreak. Now, more than a year later, artists and fans alike continue to wonder when they will be able to safely return to the theater. Despite this unexpected and lengthy pause, the magic of live theater has persevered through the hearts of its dedicated creators and fans.
Over the past few weeks, I had the privilege of speaking with various Broadway artists, such as Drew Gehling, who originated the role of Dr. Pomatter in Waitress; Tony Award nominee and Drama Desk Award–winning choreographer Sonya Tayeh; and Pulitzer Prize, Grammy Award, and two-time Tony Award–winning composer Tom Kitt. I also hopped on Zoom calls with Tony Award–winning Broadway legend Beth Leavel; Waitress actor Dan Tracy; Grammy Award winner and Tony Award nominee Lauren Patten, who originated the role of Jo in Jagged Little Pill; and Broadway and TikTok stars JJ Niemann and Jared Goldsmith. We discussed the lives of artists on and off the stage, as well as Broadway's long-awaited return. Here's what I learned.
1. In live theater, things are always going wrong:
"We were in previews for Waitress, and the automation for the scenery broke," said Drew. "We were maybe 15 minutes into Act I, and we had to close down for 45 minutes. The crew was freaking out and the cast was sitting on stage wondering what we were supposed to do. Sara [Bareilles] was like, ‘I’ve got to go out there. I’ve got to talk to them.’ She went out on stage and sang a song that was cut from the show and 'Part of Your World' from The Little Mermaid, because everyone knows that song! We were backstage singing along with her, and suddenly, everyone was happy and goofing around. Then, the set was fixed, and we jumped right back into the show.”
"If you take yourself too seriously, the theater’s not for you."
"We were performing Dear Evan Hansen in LA, and there's this moment in the show where I say, 'A week from now, everybody will have already forgotten about Connor. You’ll see,' then there’s a blackout," said Jared, who played Jared Kleinman in the national tour. "I have like two seconds to run off stage in Wing 1, and Phoebe Koyabe, playing Alana Beck, replaces me on stage from Wing 2 to say, 'Everyone’s forgotten about Connor.' It all happens in a split second. There was one show where one of us stepped in the wrong spot, and we totally tripped on each other. I went flying off the stage. Someone even tweeted after the show that they heard a big crash after Jared’s exit. Looking back, it was pretty funny.”
"While on The Sound of Music tour, right in the middle of Maria and the Captain’s big romantic number, Maria tripped and just ate it," said Dan, who played Rolf in the national tour. "The next lyric the Captain had to sing was, 'Here you are, standing there, loving me,' and they just could not do it. For about five minutes, it was just them and the audience going back and forth losing it. Then, the rest of the show was magnetic because of that moment. Those moments really bring an audience to life.”
"When we were doing Dave in DC at the Arena Stage, there was a hole in the middle of the stage that had a lift on it. At one point in the middle of a show, the lift broke, leaving a giant hole in the middle of the stage. There was nothing we could do — it’s one of those shows you can't keep doing with a giant hole in the floor," said Drew, who played President Bill Mitchell and the title role. "Douglas Sills took my hand and said, ‘Darlin’, we’ve got to go out there.’
"They were probably the best audience we ever had."
So, Doug and I went out, in front of an audience of Washington dignitaries, and said, ‘We are so sorry, but the show is over for today. We cannot continue, but, for the next 20 minutes, we will answer, truthfully, any questions you ask us.’ So, we answered questions for 20 minutes, and as soon as time was up, we cut it off and said, 'Goodnight, everybody!' They did end up rescheduling that performance so the audience could see the end of the show, and they were probably the best audience we ever had.”
2. There's a lot going on backstage:
"Backstage for Jagged Little Pill, I shared a dressing room floor with Derek Klena and Kathryn Gallagher," said Lauren, who originated the role of Jo. "They call themselves Tweedledee and Tweedledum because they’re always doing something nonsensical. They goof off and get into trouble. I’m like the ‘mom’ of the floor, so I’m always witnessing whatever they’re up to. Kathryn’s a big fan of dance parties, so she’d put on Taylor Swift or something, and we’d dance before going to our places for the top of the show.”
"Benny Elledge played Cal in Waitress for a while, and Cal spends a lot of his time in the diner set. But, he would have to come out of the diner and walk around the side to get into the restaurant, where he would play part of a scene. When he would walk out and turn, he would be only about a foot and a half away from me backstage," said Drew. "I would stand there with a small spritz bottle of water in my hand, hidden behind a set piece. As he’d walk by, I’d just lift up the bottle and spray him in the face. Then, he’d have to go out on stage and nail his line, which was not an easy line. If I really got him good, I could tell he would take an extra second to get it together before starting on the line. I wouldn’t do it every time, because you can’t catch someone off guard if you do it every time. I’d come back to the show after being gone for six months, I’d wait a few days, and then on like a Sunday matinee, I’d spritz.”
"Not everyone can be a great artist, but great artists can come from anywhere and everywhere."
"Our Dear Evan Hansen cast usually did a circle backstage before the show to power up and come together," said Jared. "Sometimes we’d do little games, sometimes we’d make our own sentences and stories together, and other times we’d just talk about our day. It would help us connect and communicate. For me personally, I’d always warm up. Then, on days in between shows, to power through, sometimes we’d play Mario Kart, or find other ways to decompress and leave it all on the stage. It’s a very emotional show, and it was important to find ways to get into that emotional place together every night, then leave it behind at the end of the day.”
3. Celebrity encounters are a part of the job:
"We were doing tech for 'You Oughta Know,' and during a tech run, you conserve your energy. The whole purpose is to get the lighting, sound, and all of the other technical elements right," said Lauren. "I wasn’t doing it at full speed or anything; I was just trying to conserve my energy. So, we got to the end of the number, the lights came up a little bit, and Lin-Manuel Miranda was sitting in the audience. I was so shocked I just said, ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ He didn't even say anything. I was like, ‘I'm so sorry.’ I’d never met this man before! We started the number, and he wasn’t there. We ended the number, and boom, he was in the audience.”
"Figures like Katy Perry, Tom Hanks, and Nancy Pelosi all came to Dear Evan Hansen at some point, and oftentimes they were coming to see it for the first time," said Jared. "It was so wild to meet Tom Hanks and to know that his first impression of the show included me. We got to experience it together, and that’s so special to me.”
"I am so lucky to have gotten to work with some of my heroes, like Jeremy Jordan and Gavin Creel," said Dan. "These guys were at the top of my list, and then I got to work with them and learn to see them as people — really, really nice people who will go out of their way to make you feel seen and heard, and will treat you as a colleague.”
"When I was in Aida at Pittsburgh CLO, I got to work alongside the icon that is Emmy Raver-Lampman, and she was really good friends with Jonathan Groff from their time together in Hamilton," said JJ. "One night, we looked out into the audience and saw Jonathan there. After the show, Emmy invited us all to her dressing room to meet him. He was so nice, and we took tequila shots together.”
4. Theater artists work so incredibly hard:
"For Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical, we had one Zoom rehearsal. I was sight-reading and plunking out notes, and they would just tell me what parts to sing and where. There were like six of us recording all the ensemble vocals, so we all had to record multiple parts and send those out into the ether," said JJ. "Then, we had to record videos of us lip-syncing to the songs. I was also contacted by the choreographer and learned everything in maybe an hour and a half. Then, we had two days to send in all our videos. We rehearsed on Monday, Dec. 21, and our videos were due Wednesday, Dec. 23. People worked so hard, and during the holidays, to bring this together. I’m so glad it paid off.”
"For the first entrance of the cancan dancers in Moulin Rouge!, they have to run down the aisles, then do 36 kicks. I always watch them before they take stage, and the dancers will be in squats or full splits, or doing jumping jacks, trying to amp themselves up for this insane entrance," said Sonya, choreographer for Moulin Rouge! on Broadway. "I can’t even imagine what that feels like every show. I get my own adrenaline rush every time I watch it. I’m always like, ‘I’m sorry! This wasn’t my fault; it’s the way it’s written!’ But truly, that company is remarkable.”
"It's really hard to make it. My first experience as a writer was on a show that did not take. High Fidelity, a musical that I wrote with Amanda Green and David Lindsay-Abaire, ran for about 10 days. I was so lucky that the next musical I opened was Next To Normal, but getting there was a challenging roller coaster ride. It was a little over the course of 11 years that Brian Yorkey and I worked on it, from our first 10-minute musical at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, all the way to Broadway. One of my proudest moments is when Brian and I won the Pulitzer Prize for Next To Normal," said Tom. "It was very personal for Brian and I to tell that story. That was the musical we were staking everything on, but there were so many moments when it almost didn’t happen. So, it was truly such a privilege and an honor to have reached that moment and to be surrounded by the people that believed in us and helped us move forward.”
"If you take yourself too seriously, the theater’s not for you. It’s not hard, but it’s also so, so hard," said Dan. "It’s hard on your body, it’s hard on your mind, and it’s hard on your spirit. It’s challenging, and if you don’t have the right attitude about it, it’s just not going to work. They’re not going to let you in ‘the club.’ Theater is one of those things that just takes a really special kind of love to do.”
"You have to want it; it’s hard. There are a lot of years invested. You’re gambling, and you want your show to be a hit, and I’m so glad Moulin Rouge! was," said Sonya. "It’s such an important piece. It’s not just beautiful and fun; there’s a thickness to it. It’s about family, sacrifice, believing in life, and the notion that all are welcome. That’s what Broadway is, so it was such a dream that I got to do that and work with so many incredible artists with big imaginations. To be a part of that palette and to be nominated for a Tony is fucking nuts.”
5. Broadway is a community unlike any other:
"My Broadway debut was in 42nd Street many, many moons ago, and we had an incredible post-show ritual," said Beth, who was a replacement for Annie in the show. "There was this fabulous woman, Bobo Lewis, who was playing Maggie Jones. Every Thursday night after the show, a posse of us would go to this Thai restaurant on 8th avenue, have a beer, have some food, and listen to her tell stories. She would tell us all about theater in the '60s and '70s. We did that every Thursday until she left the show. It was amazing.”
"When you open a new Broadway show, you do a thing called the Legacy Robe Ceremony, where the ensemble member with the longest list of credits is presented with a robe for that particular Broadway season that is made with a piece of every other show that's opened that season as well. Every person who has ever won a Legacy Robe is then invited to attend every Legacy Robe ceremony for every Broadway show for the rest of the season," said Drew. "The person who wins it has to go in a circle three times on stage and touch everyone’s hands three times. Then, they have to go visit and bless every dressing room in the theater for opening night. In our cast for Waitress, Charity Angél Dawson won it, and I will never forget that ceremony. It was Broadway history, and there we were opening a new show.”
"Hold tight and daydream about us, because we are going to come back and we are going to give you an escape."
"When we first went into previews for Next To Normal on Broadway, a teenager found Brian and I after our production meeting," said Tom. "He told us that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder three months prior, he thanked us for our work, and he told us that he finally felt like he had something he could show his friends to explain what he was dealing with. Brian and I looked at each other in that moment and we said, 'Whatever happens, this means everything.' I’ve always hoped that I could give back with my work, and for this brave kid to share that story with us, it meant everything.”
"My most memorable experience at Waitress was actually watching the show closing night as a spectator, not as a performer, because I’d left to go work on another project," said Dan. "The whole thing was pretty magical. I was crying a lot throughout it, because that part of my life was coming to a close. When Stephanie Torns came on for her final entrance as Dr. Pomatter’s wife Francine, there were enough fans in the audience that knew about Stephanie’s journey with the show as an original cast member, and she got a four-minute standing ovation. That just felt like justice. Every understudy deserves that, especially if you understudy from the beginning of a run to the end of a run. So, she got to understand, for a brief moment, how appreciated she was by the fans of the show.”
"Live theater, to me, is community," said Drew. "I love the fact that everyone who does theater, at any given time, is just trying to get to the bottom of telling a story. Everyone is a storyteller trying to make a simple connection. Theater is community because community is what makes us people.”
6. Finally, artists and fans alike are eager for live theater to return:
"To the fans waiting for live theater to return, thank you for supporting our art. Hold tight and daydream about us, because we are going to come back and we are going to give you an escape, said Sonya. "And, hopefully, when you come and you sit in the seat, you’ll have the utmost nostalgia and a deeper mind to appreciate how art heals, because it really, really does.”
"Thank you for your patience. And, oh my gosh, the love I feel through Zoom, emails, and texts — it keeps my heart going," said Beth. "We are going to come back bigger and better, stronger and safer. I just can’t wait to be back in ‘the room where it happens.’”
"The Ratatouille moral that ‘anyone can cook’ is really what putting that show together was all about," said JJ. "Not everyone can be a great artist, but great artists can come from anywhere and everywhere. This show was really the first of its kind, and hopefully it will inspire a new generation of artists. I feel like Broadway has felt so elusive and elite for so long, but now maybe people will start to take chances on new writers, new artists, and new formats. The future of theater is exciting.”
"Anybody who loves theater, loves Broadway — I don't care what show it is, but you will want to be in the audience for the first show back because it's going to be unlike anything you will ever experience in theater again," said Lauren. "This has never happened. It's completely unprecedented for Broadway to shut down for this long. It’s shut down before, but never for this long. It will be electric. The energy and the celebration of it all will be once in a lifetime. So, if you can, be there.”