The Role of a Lifetime?

Long-running shows offer stability – if the actors can stay sane

When Saturday Night Fever: The Musical boogies its bell-bottomed way into town next week, please forgive the cast if they look a little tired. They’re nearing their 200th show. That’s six months, eight shows a week of singing and dancing to Night Fever, How Deep Is Your Love? and Stayin’ Alive.

The question is, How deep is their patience? And how do their brains stay alive?

“If you’re a true artist, you want to reinvent and stretch yourself, and that’s tough to do in a long-running show,” says Steven Allerick, who’s leapt onto the stage about 600 times in his one and a half years playing Simba in The Lion King.

“What you try to do is live in the moment each night,” he says. “You have to act as though you’re doing this for the first time. Then it stays fresh.”

Tamara Bernier, who plays the divorcee Tanya in Mamma Mia! (300 performances and counting), admits that when you repeat the same lines over and over, your mind can play tricks on you.

“You might get out onstage and think, ‘Wow, I’m saying the same lines I said yesterday. Hey, did I say them already tonight?’

“But the brain is like a computer,” she laughs. “If you bring up the program for Mamma Mia! it will start and keep going. If you forget a line, your mouth will say it. It’s muscle memory.”

Remembering lines is one thing. Pretending your character is experiencing moments for the first time is another.

Some performers rely on gimmicks to keep things spontaneous.

Saturday Night Fever’s Eileen Quinn enjoys the improvisation possibilities of an early scene set in a nightclub.

“Recently I touched the actor playing Tony on the thigh unexpectedly,” she confesses on the phone from Dallas, the stop before T.O. “Then he looked somewhere in the disco where he normally doesn’t. We were both in character, but we threw each other off in subtle ways to work harder.”

Graham Abbey, who’s in Stratford performing in Henry IV, Parts I and II and Henry V, arguably the most intellectually and physically demanding series of roles being played in North America right now, tries to change his performance each time out.

“I’ll deliver a speech to a different actor’s eyes, and suddenly we all become more alert and attentive,” he says. “It makes the play come alive.”

Not everyone likes shaking things up, though, however subtly.

“Changing your performance is like going through a red light,” says George Politzer, who’s trod the boards in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap for 10 of its 25 years. “It doesn’t show respect to the other actors.”

In the city’s big shows, especially the musicals, there are measures in place to make sure everyone stays on track. Call it theatrical quality control.

As former resident director of The Lion King, John Gray was responsible for keeping the show true to original director Julie Taymor’s vision.

He watched the show four to five times a week, looking for everything from “physical drift” – performers shifting incrementally from their spots from show to show – to more difficult problems like maintaining the emotional truth of a role. He says actors in comic roles are especially prone to playing to an audience for laughs.

“In the endless repetition, a performance can become rote,” he says. “The audience does not pay to see rote. They want to see something unique.”

Most people in the biz recall the Les Miserables debacle of the mid-1990s.

Years into the Broadway run, the show’s original Brit producers flew in unannounced, saw how stale the show had become and fired the majority of the cast – or rather, bought the actors out of their lifetime contracts. (Canadians usually sign one-year contracts.)

“I can see how that show could have lost its heart,” says Gray, who’s currently The Lion King’s production stage manager. “In some ways, a producer has a responsibility to help the actors remain emotionally engaged.”

Phyllida Lloyd, the original director of Mamma Mia!, believes performers shouldn’t stay in the show for more than two years. It’s not good for the show, and it’s not good for their career.

Granted, some stage roles are richer than others. Take a role like Shenzi, one of the hyenas in The Lion King. According to Gray, it demands “attitude, belligerence and coarseness.

“It’s fun to play, but you wouldn’t want to do it for 10 years,” he says. “A role like Simba, though, is a huge emotional journey. It could sustain you as an actor for a while.”

But just how many years are performers willing to give to a role?

“You basically put your career on hold,” says Bernier, who’s just signed on for another year (“my last!”) with Mamma Mia! After 10 years of doing alternative theatre, she’s enjoying this taste of financial stability. She can plan a vacation, for instance. Save money.

“But it’s also a sacrifice,” she says. “Casting agents forget about you. You might get typecast as a musical theatre performer.”

When Glenn Close played Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond on Broadway, she won a Tony Award, but her film career never really recovered. Whether this was because of her age or the fact that she was physically out of the casting loop is debatable.

Allerick, who won the coveted role of Simba two years after graduating from theatre school, won’t say how long he’s going to stay with the show. He’s young, telegenic, a film and TV producer’s dream.

The thing is, he loves performing to packed houses of 2,000. And he genuinely likes the role – an essential ingredient for actors facing a marathon.

“You’ve got to fall in love with the story you’re telling,” says Dylan Trowbridge, who’s more than halfway through his six-month stint playing Peter Pan – the serious version, not the musical – at the Shaw Festival.

And let’s face it, everyone enjoys the steady paycheque.

“How many acting jobs give you work for 52 weeks a year?” quips The Mousetrap’s Politzer.

Just don’t mention the show to the performers during their off hours. And if they’re in a musical, don’t ask them to sing their songs.

“My boyfriend and I have forbidden playing ABBA songs in the car,” says Bernier. “Sometimes I’ll sing the song Thank You For The Music in the morning. One part of me thinks, “Yeah, thanks for the music.’

“The other part thinks, “Shut the fuck up.'”

With files from Kia Kotsanis

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