Laurel Harris is a busy actress. The talented and agile performer has proven her mettle as one of Broadway’s most reliable standbys and understudies, having stepped into leads at a moment’s notice to play Elphaba in Wicked, Carole King and Cynthia Weil in Beautiful, and the title character in Evita. Broadway Direct sat down with Harris to find out what it takes to succeed in these unique and adrenaline-inducing theater experiences.
Tell us a little bit about your Broadway debut.
I made my Broadway debut in the revival of Evita. I was in the ensemble and covered the role of the title character. I will never forget how excited I was to get the phone call that I would be on Broadway after years and years of training, schooling, and hard work. What’s really cool is, I shared my Broadway debut with Emily Mechler, who is the current Glinda standby in Wicked. We share a dressing room and reminisce frequently about how we met years ago and ended up playing opposite each other years later in Wicked. What are the odds?
You have been a standby for a couple of Broadway shows. Tell us how the experience of being a standby differs from going on for every performance.
I have been an Elphaba standby. I was an understudy for Carole King and Cynthia Weil [in Beautiful] until I took over the role of Cynthia Weil briefly while simultaneously covering Elphaba. There was a week when I played Cynthia one weekend and Elphaba the next!
Can you explain the difference between a standby and an understudy?
A standby is different from an understudy in a few ways. An understudy is in the show every night and has a track that they play nightly, in addition to covering their principal roles. A standby is only in the show if they are on for the role that they cover. They are “on call,” meaning, they are at the theatre every night just in case something happens, but unless they are on for the role they cover, they are not in the show. Also, a standby is the first cover while an understudy is a second cover. If the lead is out, the standby will be called first.
How does one rehearse to be a standby? Do you get to brush up along the way to keep the material fresh in your mind, or is that something you do on your own?
A little bit of both. There are generally weekly rehearsals where either the standby or the understudy will be called. Those are opportunities to usually do the full show or at least most of the show with other cast members who cover principal roles. Other than that, you have to hold yourself accountable and make sure that you are always ready to go on at a moment’s notice. I will sing through the show a few times a week just to keep my stamina up and keep my voice in shape.
Walk us through how it works. How far in advance of going on as Elphaba do you know that you will perform? Is there plenty of warning or is it a mad dash to the theatre? Do you get a burst of adrenaline when it happens?
I played Elphaba on tour, so I feel very comfortable and truly at home being green. I always get a rush of adrenaline since this role means so much to me. As far as advanced notice, it could be as early as the night before or as late as halfway through the show! I only went on midshow once on tour, never here in NYC. I would say on average, however, I get a couple hours’ notice. There are of course some dates I’ll know about in advance if someone has personal days or vacation dates. Those are the best days since I can let my family know and they have a chance to travel here.
Do you have to get into the green makeup every night in case you are asked to go onstage last-minute?
I’m not painted green every night, but good question! If I get a call to go on midshow, they can get me ready in about seven minutes. That’s how long it took the one time I went on midshow on tour. On a normal show day, the entire process takes about 30 minutes. Our incredible makeup artist, Craig Jessup, does flawless work every show and makes me feel the most beautiful I’ve ever felt.
“Every show is an opportunity to touch someone’s life and to inspire another human being. It really is a gift.”
For an aspiring performer, name some attributes of an effective standby. What skill set or inherent qualities serve a standby best?
Always be prepared. Do your homework. Hold yourself accountable. Run the show by yourself so it remains fresh in your body and mind. Keep singing every week, every day, so your voice is in good shape. Trust yourself that you know the role even though you’re not doing it every night. Give over to the material and take the audience with you. Every show is an opportunity to touch someone’s life and to inspire another human being. It really is a gift. The hard work is always worth it.
When you go on as Elphaba, is there a particular moment in the show that you look forward to?
I always love singing to the balcony where I sat 15 years ago. I like to imagine that I am inspiring another young individual, just as I was inspired by Idina Menzel. I can only hope to somehow have a positive impact on someone’s life who I may never even meet. That is the greatest joy of performing, in my opinion. I also particularly love singing “Defying Gravity” in our current political climate. It feels very liberating and empowering.
Why do you think Wicked resonates with so many people? How does it resonate with you personally?
It’s a story of human kindness and empathy. Everyone can relate to being an outcast in some way. Everyone has had a moment in their life when they were vulnerable or felt ostracized, just trying to fit in. The story of Wicked celebrates the diversity and unique qualities of each human being. It reminds us that we are each special and gifted in some way and that that is a beautiful thing.
Elphaba is an activist and I admire her passion for fairness and equality. I have participated in several movements and protests throughout my life. Two years ago, my husband and I organized a concert to fight House Bill 2 in North Carolina, the infamous “bathroom bill” that was discriminating against trans individuals. We were lucky enough to have Stephen Schwartz and Jeanine Tesori, among other inspiring artists, like Beth Leavel, perform. All proceeds went to benefit local LGBTQI organizations in NC who were fighting HB2 or whose members were affected by the passage of the bill. Elphaba and I are both activists and I relate most with her in that way.
Let’s talk about dream roles. If you could play any musical theater role, what would it be and why?
I’ve always wanted to play Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. I love how sassy she is and brilliantly comedic yet witty. I really would enjoy playing more comedic roles. I am a goofy person and love portraying that aspect of my personality through a character. Most importantly, any dream role would entail relaying an important and positive message. Again, I am most passionate about a role when I know it is doing good, healing, teaching, engaging, and participating in important lessons and morals that translate off stage.
If you could offer advice to an aspiring performer, what would that be?
Trust yourself that you have the power and strength. Allow yourself to pursue this career as long as you have a passion for performing and giving back. Allow yourself to be big and take up space but be kind and humble. People want to work with nice people, so just be a good person and remember why you are here. Art is a form of social activism and social engagement. Use it to benefit society and each individual who is watching. You have the ability to completely change someone’s life or way of thinking. That is a very powerful gift. Use it for good.
Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.
Pictured above: Laurel Harris in Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus.