NEW YORK — The theatrical magic keeping Broadway going during the latest coronavirus surge has been the unheralded performers ready to step into any role in an emergency. Then there’s Carla Stickler, who had actually left show business but returned to rescue “Wicked.”
Stickler, who had launched a new career as a software engineer in Chicago three years ago, canceled her winter vacation and returned to New York to star as the green-skinned Elphaba while the cast was ravaged by illness. She may have been playing a wicked witch, but Stickler’s effort was all good.
“It was like riding a bike,” she says. “I got out there and I was like, ‘Oh, I remember this. This is really special, and I’m just going to try to enjoy every second of it.’”
Her effort is just an extreme example of the work Broadway’s understudies, standbys and fill-ins have made to keep shows open, often learning multiple roles with little formal rehearsals.
The stress on companies has been enormous, with many shows kept open by the skillful folk listed deeper in the Playbill. Hugh Jackman, who before he contracted COVID-19, took a moment at a curtain call to honor the multiple understudies who kept his revival of “The Music Man” open for as long as it did.
“It’s been such a really exciting moment to see understudies and standbys and swings get this kind of recognition for the hard work that they do,” Stickler says. “I think they sometimes get overlooked. And so it’s been really emotional to see the outpouring of love for all what they do.”
Stickler wasn’t the only former performer pressed into service. At one point over the holidays, eight of the 12 actors in Broadway’s “Come From Away” were substitutes, including two — Pearl Sun and Holly Ann Butler — who had left the show, as well as Marika Aubrey who was drafted from the national tour.
“Everybody kind of had to come together — the music department, hair, wardrobe, stage management, lighting, sound. Everybody to make this baby work,” says Josh Breckenridge, the show’s dance captain who wrangles all 12 roles and is a standby for five of the six male roles, who each involve multiple parts.
“It really took a village and it was a beautiful village and it delivered. So I’m very proud of us for nailing it. And the audiences were wonderful and with us every second. It really was a beautiful triumph.”
Breckenridge, who has been on Broadway with “The Scottsboro Boys” and “The Ritz” as well as toured with “The Book of Mormon,” hopes Broadway’s latest harrowing experience will lead to structural changes, like investing in more standbys and fill-ins during vacations.
“I hope that producers out there notice and start to hire more coverage so that we can avoid moments like this and be ready and not have to cancel on audiences,” he says. “We’re literally the reason for the phrase ‘the show must go on,’ right?”
Stickler was one reason “Wicked” could go on this holiday season. She was driving with her husband and dog on Dec. 27 for a week’s vacation in Michigan with friends when she got an urgent request to return to Oz. The cast was stretched and they needed her skills.
She had last performed the role on Broadway in 2015 but had been a swing — someone who covers a show’s ensemble roles — up until 2019. She had spent a decade in the Broadway company of “Wicked” and starred in a national tour, too.
“Elphaba is just kind of something that lives in my body, and I think a lot of other understudies will say the same thing,” she says. “You build up those neural pathways and they’re super strong, and all you have to do is kind of recall them.”
While her husband continued driving on, she flew to New York during a long, treacherous travel day dodging flight cancellations. She saw the show that night and then rehearsed over the next few days. She went on as Elphaba on Saturday night and the Sunday matinee.
“I think everybody is really doing the best they can,” she says. “I do think the fact that the show has been able to stay open is a testament to how devoted the actors are to the show and how great and talented the group of people that they have hired over the years are.”
While casts and backstage personnel up and down Broadway are all vaccinated, wear masks when not onstage and get tested daily, breakthrough infections have still spread. Several productions, including “Aladdin,” “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen” “The Lion King” and “Six,” suspended performances due to breakthrough cases.
Stickler is sticking around this week just in case “Wicked” needs her help. She’ll then fly back to Chicago, but she won’t ever rule out a return if the show needs her again.
“I’ve gone and done a lot of things last minute for the show in my life, and I would not put it past myself to do it again. I would do it again in a heartbeat. I love the show,” she says.
“I swear I’m going to be able to do this role on my grave. She’s so ingrained in my body. If I turn 100, I’ll do it at my 100th birthday party.”