by Peter Marks
[On 3 January 2014, I came across a 19-year-old article on the New York Times’ website that struck me as an interesting glimpse inside professional theater. I’ve posted several such articles from various sources over the years now, pieces about stage managers and dance captains My friend Kirk Woodward wrote an article on being a Broadway investor in “Broadway Angel” (7 September 2010). This time, I thought a look at the actors who replace the original stars in long-running shows, the actors who have all the chops of the famous stars (some of whom became stars because of this role) but whose names we often don’t know. It’s not a Ruby Keeler world, as you’ll read: These actors didn’t go on stage as youngsters and come back stars. They just did their jobs, excellently in most cases, and went on to other roles. Peter Marks’s “Broadway’s Anonymous Stars” was posted on 2 Feb. 1996 (http://www.nytimes.com/1996/02/02/theater/broadway-s-anonymous-stars.html).]
They have no entourages, no bodyguards, no marquee billing. They are headliners who make no headlines, household names who are known chiefly in their own households. When they walk the streets, no autograph hounds seek them out. When they go to work, it’s not by limousine, but on the IRT.
Oh, for the life of a Broadway star.
Yes, Julie Andrews can pack them in for a lavish musical and Ralph Fiennes can cause a stampede for Shakespeare and Carol Burnett can fill a theater with the promise of a Tarzan call. But there is another breed of star on Broadway these days, one for whom the relationship to an audience can best be described as stranger to stranger. The parts they play are big: they are among the most demanding and familiar in the contemporary musical theater. But talk about the fleetingness of fame. Here are actors who are famous only in costume.
It is a whole new category of celebrityhood: anonymous Broadway stardom. It is conferred, most often, on actors who take over the leading roles in the long-running mega-musicals, shows like “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Beauty and the Beast,” which were built to survive through time without having to rely on big-name players. By the time these replacement actors are cast, the original performers are long gone. The only remaining star is the show itself.
You know the roles, but probably not the people who fill them. Does the name Craig Schulman ring a bell? At the Imperial Theater, Mr. Schulman is Jean Valjean, the epic role at the heart of “Les Miserables” originated by Colm Wilkinson. How about Joan Almedilla? She is the unknown who was recently cast as Kim, the Vietnamese heroine of “Miss Saigon” and the part that made Lea Salonga a known. Or Davis Gaines? An actor from Florida with a powerful voice, he has played the Phantom in “The Phantom of the Opera” in Los Angeles and New York 1,675 times, a record unmatched by Michael Crawford or any other actor in modern Phantom history.
“I’ve counted the number of Christines I’ve acted it with,” Mr. Gaines said, referring to the character with whom the Phantom falls in love. “It’s now up to 10.”
But no matter how many times Mr. Gaines professes the Phantom’s devotion for this, that or the other Christine, the part will never really be his, in the original-cast-album sense of who puts his stamp on a musical role. It is the poignant problem that every anonymous Broadway star faces: despite getting the role of a lifetime, they still pine for a role of a lifetime that they can call their own.
“When I found out that I got the part, my sister goes, ‘You’re a Broadway star,’ “ said Liz Callaway, who for three years has sung the show-stopping “Memory” as Grizabella in “Cats,” the part that earned Betty Buckley a Tony. (Ms. Callaway’s sister, Ann Hampton Callaway, is a singer with whom she has performed in cabarets.) “I’m like: ‘What? Yeah, right.’ I don’t feel like a star at all. Not at all.”
Ms. Callaway is no stranger to Broadway. She herself was nominated for a Tony for her performance in the 1983 musical “Baby.” (Such is the roller-coaster nature of the business that 18 months later, a jobless Ms. Callaway went to work in a gift shop on the Upper East Side.) But the stardom question does not weigh too heavily on her. She commutes to her Grizabella job from a house in Westchester County that she shares with her husband, Dan Foster, a stage director, and their 4-year-old son, Nicholas. The part she owes to talent. The house she owes to “Cats.”
“I could never have bought it without ‘Cats,’ “ Ms. Callaway said on a recent weekday evening before getting into costume. During the house hunting, a mortgage broker had expressed doubt about the couple’s financial stability after Ms. Callaway gave her occupation as actress. But the broker perked up, she said, when she explained that she was in the now-and-forever production of “Cats.”
“This was very impressive to a mortgage broker,” she said.
And this, of course, is one of the great things about landing a mega-part, no matter how many people have played it before. The role may be a bit frayed around the edges, but the paycheck is always crisp. (The weekly salary for a replacement actor in a major role can be quite substantial, sometimes in the mid-four figures.)
What follows is a brief Broadway tour through the lives of five actors who day in and day out must put thoughts of their theatrical legacy aside and try to find ways to make their famous roles their own. It is not an easy job. In fact, it is one of the toughest assignments on the street.
Some people may think that a big part means a coddled actor. Mr. Schulman once imagined that, too. “I was thinking Champagne and limos,” he said. “Here I am, riding the 104 bus.”
“Les Miserables” has been a part of Mr. Schulman’s life since September 1987, when he was offered a role in the ensemble and as understudy for the actor playing Jean Valjean in the show’s national tour. Having trained as an opera singer, Mr. Schulman, a native of Commack, L.I., did not fully appreciate what the part could mean to his career. When he wavered, a friend yelled at him: “What are you, nuts? Take it!”
He did, and so began Mr. Schulman’s immersion in what he calls “the ‘Les Miz’ community.” (Mega-musicals are not just shows, it seems; they are tight social networks.) Not long after he joined the show, he took over the lead in Boston. And on Jan. 15, 1990, three years after the musical made its Broadway debut, Mr. Schulman made his.
Sometimes, being a replacement can seem a little like trying to shout in a soundproof room: does the outside world ever hear? “Even though I haven’t gotten the publicity or media accolades I’d like to have had, the buzz within the ‘Les Miz’ community is that this is the performance to beat,” said Mr. Schulman, 39, adding that he was chosen from among the various Valjeans to represent the United States at the show’s 10th anniversary concert in London last October.
Having established a reputation as a standout Valjean -- some critics have said his performance is on a par with Mr. Wilkinson’s -- Mr. Schulman leaves and returns to the show like a professor on sabbatical. Recently he signed a new six-month contract. He had tried to negotiate a better deal for himself, but was successful in only one area.
“I got them to pay for my parking,” he said.
Like Mr. Schulman, Mr. Gaines had worked his way up the musical ladder to become the eighth Broadway Phantom. But there is a mystique to the Phantom that makes it even more of a star purn than the other big mega-musical parts. (Norma Desmond, in “Sunset Boulevard,” is in a different league, in that the show’s producers have frequently gone to well-known actresses for both the original casts and replacements. Only for the road company have the producers hired an unknown.)
Thus Mr. Gaines has his own cult following and fan club. Even he is a little stunned by the part’s magic. “It still amazes me, the power that the Phantom has,” he said. “When people find out that’s what you do, they act as if they’re meeting the President.”
Since his face is obscured by a mask for much of the show, the 37-year-old actor often has to explain, out of makeup, exactly what it is that he does. It certainly is an icebreaker. “I was flying back to New York from Los Angeles,” Mr. Gaines said, “and the stewardess said: ‘Excuse me, were you the Phantom? You’re the most important person I’ve ever had on my flight!’”
The actor has a hard time squaring the Phantom’s charisma with his decidedly un-Phantomlike image of himself growing up in Orlando, Fla. “People look up to me as something bigger than life,” he said. “I see myself as this scrawny little nerd in glasses that everyone made fun of.”
And yet, despite the job’s perks -- “It’s changed my life,” he said; “I bought a home in L.A.” -- Mr. Gaines is not anxious to take on someone else’s part again any time soon. What he craves is a role for which he would have to be replaced. “I’d like to originate a role,” he said. “I’d like to do a new show, or even an interesting revival.”
Miss Almedilla’s story could be the basis for a musical on its own: with virtually no previous acting experience, she landed a lead in “Miss Saigon.”
It has all happened so quickly to this 22-year-old from Cebu city in the Philippines that she seems almost unable to take it all in. She says that even after the producers’ representatives told her last June to start learning the part, she did not fully grasp that it was hers. “When people asked, ‘Did you get the part?’ I didn’t really know at first,” she said.
Sitting in an office a block from the Broadway Theater, where “Miss Saigon” is playing, Miss Almedilla laughed at her own naivete. When she made her debut last summer, she was filled with the sort of self-doubt that even her more experienced colleagues in replacement roles often feel: could she handle such a big part? Did the producers simply want a re-enactment of the role as played by Ms. Salonga? (This is the most oft-repeated complaint among the replacement actors. “When you replace someone, they want you to do a carbon copy,” one said.)
Miss Almedilla, who says that she has a lot to learn about the theater (she is taking acting lessons at the moment), knew enough to perform it as she saw fit. “Every day, I try to create more technique, learn how to be more natural,” she said. “I never get tired.”
Still, it is a solitary sort of life. She lives with her parents in East Meadow, L.I., and each afternoon, she takes the train into the city and walks over to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Deeply religious, she sits there in silence to “get my strength.” And after each show, her parents sit in their car by the stage door, waiting to drive their daughter home.
Mr. McCarthy’s 6-year-old daughter, Anna, has an original reply when asked what her father does.
“My daddy is the Beast,” she says.
This is no reflection on Mr. McCarthy’s skills as a parent. He is, indeed, the character of that name in “Beauty and the Beast,” a role originated by Terrence Mann, and for which Mr. McCarthy is rendered all but unrecognizable eight times a week under a mane and fangs and breastplate. They take about 45 minutes to put on.
Mr. McCarthy, 40, had done a number of musical roles onstage over the years, but he was working in television, and living with his family in California, when the offer came to play a big hairy creature in a Disney musical.
Like the other actors, he is pragmatic about the tradeoff the role requires. “I have children now, and I have some financial responsibilities,” he said; he and his wife had a second daughter, Juliet, seven months ago.
At a time when musicals run for decades and longer, a part like the Beast or the Phantom can become a pleasant sinecure.
But for an ambitious actor, such a comfortable position can become a trap. Mr. McCarthy is quick to point out that no options have been closed to him as a result of taking the role, and that he would not stay long enough to be regarded in the industry as an actor who replaces other actors.
But then again, it’s a tough gig to relinquish. “God knows,” he said, “the money’s good.”
Ms. Callaway says playing a role that others have played, singing a hit song that others have sung and not having the responsibility for filling the seats the way above-the-title stars are expected to is not a bad way to earn a living.
And yet there is something missing. “They don’t give Tony Awards for replacements,” she said. “That’s the only thing different about being a replacement. There’s nothing like opening a Broadway show.”
She knows of what she speaks. In the New York production of “Miss Saigon,” she created the role of Ellen, the wife of the American serviceman who falls in love with the Vietnam bar girl. As the latest in a long line of Grizabellas, on the other hand, there is nothing much left to patent. The satisfactions come in performing well and in keeping up the quality of the show, long after friends and neighbors and most of the inhabitants of the metropolitan region have seen it.
Ms. Callaway, 34, has found a cozy niche. And though she is in no particular rush to leave, there are nights when she hankers for a different life. “Sometimes, when I sing my song at 20 after 10, it’s exhausting,” she said. “I think to myself: I should be home watching ‘Law and Order.’”
It just goes to show you: a job is a job is a job.
[Marks was the New York Times’ Off-Broadway theater review-writer from 1996 to 1999. Since 2002, he’s been the chief theater reviewer for the Washington Post.]