How the Bobbie understudies keep ‘Company’ on Broadway running
When asked how difficult being an understudy in Company on Broadway is on a scale of one to 10, Britney Coleman exclaims, “25!” That is because in Company, the revival of the hit Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical currently running on Broadway, Coleman can play one of four different roles on any given night. She could be in the ensemble, which is her main gig in the show. Or she can be filling in for the supporting roles of Jenny and Sarah. Or she could be stepping into an even bigger, and more stressful, role: the lead character, Bobbie. She had to do so for a few performances in April when Tony winner Katrina Lenk was out with Covid-19.
Keeping four different characters separate in her mind is, to paraphrase Coleman, “pretty wild,” the actor remarks. “It’s never a dull moment. As understudies, we’re always on call. We never know what track it’s going to be.” (Track is the industry term for a character in a show.)
This season on Broadway, understudies have been the unsung heroes of the theatre. As different waves of the coronavirus ripped through New York City, and actors called out sick, understudies were called in to keep the shows running.
And sometimes, they were called at the last minute. Such was the case for Nikki Renée Daniels, who plays working mom Jenny in Company. Daniels is also pulling double duty as the first understudy for Bobbie (Coleman is the second one). She got the call to step into Bobbie’s red pantsuit for the first time on March 30, just three hours before showtime, after dropping her daughter off at school. Daniels played Bobbie for the rest of that week and the next week, while Coleman played Jenny. Daniels admits it was a surreal experience, especially when she had to play scenes with Coleman’s Jenny.
“It is so strange to say the Bobbie lines in the scenes that I’m so used to doing as Jenny,” admits Daniels. “I just find myself being like, ‘Where am I?’ Like, my brain was used to being in that moment in a different body.”
The understudies in Company have to rehearse twice a week during the day while performing in the evening. And they’ve been busy. In April, for multiple performances, there were eight to nine understudies filling in for actors who were out sick. This is a record for Broadway — in pre-pandemic times, it was considered a big night when three understudies were called in. Company also recently hired two more understudies, including Daniels’s husband Jeff Kready.
Daniels calls herself “Type A,” so she made it a habit of running through Bobbie’s lines and singing the characters’ songs on a weekly basis. “I have this app called Mind Learner. I recorded everyone else’s lines, except for Bobbie’s lines. So I can play through the whole show. I do that once a week, just to be sure that it’s in there.”
Unlike actors who only play one role every night, understudies have to make sure they know not just multiple characters’ lines, but also different choreography, entrances, and exits.
In a show like Company, with multiple moving set pieces, the wrong move can be hazardous. “My friends who saw the show the first night I was on said, ‘Oh my god, if you didn’t know what you were doing, you could have died dying on stage,’” Coleman says with a chuckle. “Like, if someone swings a chair around in the wrong direction, someone else could go down very quickly. If your left foot is six inches to the right, you will be stepping on someone, or someone will get elbowed.” Even during intermission, Coleman will sit backstage and review where she has to go during Act II.
None of these challenges take into account the other reason that Daniels and Coleman playing Bobbie on Broadway is a big deal: they are women playing a role that is traditionally played by a man. Tony-winning director Marianne Elliot retooled this revival of Company so that the male bachelor Bobby has become the female bachelorette Bobbie. She has a crisis on her 35th birthday about whether she should get married and have a baby. Bobbie even has a ticking clock that follows her throughout the show, to represent her biological clock — something that the male Bobby never had to deal with.
To Daniels, Bobbie is a career woman who “wanted to go into life knowing that she was in charge of her own destiny. I think she didn’t want to give that power away to just anyone,” she explains. “Society is pressing upon her that if she does want to take that leap and have a family, that time is running short.”
What Bobbie is feeling at the end of the show after singing “Being Alive,” one of Company‘s most famous songs, has been widely debated ever since the musical premiered on Broadway in 1970. In Daniels’s opinion, “Being Alive” means that Bobbie has decided “that she is ready to be a little more vulnerable and put herself out there, and risk falling in love.” Daniels also added that her version of “Being Alive” was inspired by Patti LuPone, who plays Joanne in this revival.
Lenk, Daniels, and Coleman have now joined the small club of women who have sung “Being Alive” on stage. In preparing for her version of “Being Alive,” Coleman was inspired by Lenk, who starts the song off quietly, like a prayer, before going for a full Broadway belt at the end.
“Watching Katrina sing, it really inspired me to find a path throughout it,” she says. “It’s not the big park-and-bark song that I think so many of us are used to seeing in concert versions. There’s such a journey to it, it’s really intimate. So that’s something that I really tried to emulate.”
When it was announced that Daniels would be filling in for Lenk in Company, Daniels started the hashtag #FirstBlackBobbie. After stepping into the red pantsuit, Daniels and later Coleman became the first people of color to play the lead in Company on Broadway. It’s been rare for a person of color of any gender to play the role; Jennifer Saayeng and Adrian Lester previously did so in London.
“It feels like a glass ceiling of sorts has been broken,” says Daniels. “Other than Vanessa Williams in Into the Woods, I can’t think of a Black woman that has starred in a Sondheim show on Broadway.” Daniels then adds, proudly, “People want to see people of color doing things that they’ve never done before. I’m glad that it was a moment, so that young performers of color would take note and say, ‘Oh, I can do this because it’s been done now.’”
To Coleman, being an understudy for Company also means that the show is different each night depending on who’s in the roles. So this Company definitely rewards anyone who rewatches it. “That’s kind of the magic of the show,” says Coleman, “that the writing is so good that it allows anybody to bring in their own personal flavor to it and it still works.”