When the new musical Mormons, Mothers and Monsters had its opening Wednesday night at Barrington’s Stage 2, few people – even in the cast – knew that the “Mother” of the show, Jill Abramovitz was pushing through a serious throat infection as she gamely sang her part. And that actor Christianne Tisdale (seen above) would soon replace her.
And it is no small role, it demands a lot of a performer. At first Abramovitz had casually mentioned that her voice was a bit sore, but everyone chalked it up to the demands of the intensive rehearsals that precede a show’s opening. Every performer stretches their normal comfort level to meet the demands of being ready.
As a critic, I noticed, with pleasure, how rich Abramovitz’s voice sounded, and described her portrayal of the mother as fitting her like a glove. But the next day the performer was continuing her unsuccessful attempts to get to an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) to see what was wrong.
When she finally succeeded on Friday the news was not good. She had a serious throat infection, and was ordered not to use her voice – at all – for at least the next three to four days. Then they would see.
Meanwhile Christianne Tisdale was deep into the first week of rehearsals as Madame de Volanges in The Game, the huge musical slated to begin performances August 11 on the Barrington Main Stage.With the opening of the new show behind them, those involved were just beginning to relax a bit. Bill Finn who runs the Musical Theatre Lab for Barrington Stage Company was at home. Will Aronson, the composer, and Sam Salmond the book writer and lyricist were at Mission on North Street having a late afternoon beer.
Their phones began to ring.
Bill Finn remembers the call. “I was feeling pretty good until then because on Friday we heard there was going to be a positive review for Mormons, Mothers and Monsters from Don Aucoin the theatre critic of the Boston Globe. We all had about five minutes of unadulterated joy.”
The director and choreographer of the show, Adrienne Campbell-Holt noted that “She would mention that she had some pain during the rehearsals. So she was working through this while seeking a doctor to look at her. We sometimes hear things like this in rehearsal.”
“We have a doctor we rely on,” says Finn, “but getting someone to actually look at her was difficult.”
Like most rural communities, doctors – especially specialists – are not plentiful, and the few that are around are heavily booked, off-duty, golfing or on summer vacation. It is no accident that many have telephone answering systems that advise patients that “if this is an emergency, dial 911.” Shameful, eh? Campbell-Holt agreed that there was “enough drama here for another play.”
Will Aronson remembers that “We were sitting at Mission waiting for our order to come when we got the call announcing an emergency meeting, so we rushed back to the theatre.”
“Jill is a dedicated performer, and she kept apologizing, saying “this never happens to me”,” recalled Finn. I told her not to worry, it’s something that sometimes happen to performers.”
So when she finally got to see someone it was decided that it was a throat infection and that she couldn’t speak “for at least three or four days,” recounts Aronson. “At the least,” adds Campbell-Holt “which pretty much cancelled her appearance at the performer talk back which was scheduled that day at 4:00.
“We all gathered here, about a dozen of us, in the lobby of Stage 2 trying to generate ideas. Of course the evening performance was cancelled, and we were uncertain as to what to do. We wondered who might be around to take her place.”
“We needed someone who could learn very quickly,” added Aronson, “And we needed not only someone who could sight read the music, but act out what is in the book.”
“We soon focused on Christianne Tisdale,” said Bill Finn, “Since she is already here, in rehearsals for The Game which Julianne Boyd (the Barrington Stage Co. Artistic Director) is putting together now. I told Julie that we would like to ask her, would she let her out of some rehearsals in order to do this. She said yes, so we asked her,” recalled Finn.
“We came close to flying someone in from Chicago to do the part, but that person would have to be on book (script in hand) for the balance of the run. As it was we worked with Christianne all Friday night and she was so damn good at the two Saturday performances that we decided she was the best choice,” said Finn, “And she can finish out the run.” Boyd and Finn have worked together for years and will figure out the scheduling changes needed so that there is minimal disruption to preparation for The Game.
On Sunday after I talked with the creative team, I stayed afterwards to see Tisdale in action. Yes, she had the book in one hand for most of her scenes, but other than that she was, body and soul, playing the role of the Mother with great gusto and depth, only glancing at the script between her lines. When it came time for ensemble song and dance numbers she was totally involved. It was amazing, and I wondered just how it happened that she got so deeply into her role so fast. It was less than 48 hours since the crisis began.“She may still be somewhat dependent on the book, but she knows most of the part already,” said Finn. On Friday, just an hour or two after the crisis meeting, Tisdale was running through the songs and blocking, spending a total of six hours that day preparing to go on stage the next.
Though sidelined by her throat problem, Jill Abramovitz stayed on site to assist her replacement in any way she could. Even after the rehearsals concluded she laboriously wrote meticulous notes on all the blocking into Tisdale’s script, to share all the details connected with the performance.
While we all know the expression that “the show must go on,” such acts of selfless generosity as detailed here is why theatre people are so glued to each other. The desire of all involved to see Jill Abramovitz quickly bounce back to normal is equally balanced by everyone’s determination to see that Christianne Tisdale gets all the help and support she needs to quickly become familiar with her new role.
“As a director it is my job to make sure the actor is as comfortable and supported as possible, to establish the trust upon which all roles are built,” reflected Campbell-Holt. “And to learn the story in two hours,” noted Will Aronson, “Is absolutely amazing. She had never seen the show, knew nothing about it.”
And there she is on stage, in a new role, almost a perfect fit the first time it is tried on.
“Saturday morning we were sharing her with rehearsals for The Game, so Tiz (as she is affectionally called by her colleagues) was rehearsing two shows, did two performances for us, and was still smiling at the end of the day,” remembers the director. “And she will also be fabulous in The Game, even after all this craziness,” noted Bill Finn.
And what of “Tiz” herself, who was backstage preparing for her Sunday matinee as the other creators and I talked about her in the lobby.
I had sent an email to her, telling Tiz that I was working on this article. I didn’t want to take any of her valuable time but asked if she might “friend” me on Facebook so I could see what comments she might have posted to her friends.
She wrote back:
“Well, my fb page is ridunculous, but feel free to peruse.
I think it’s a great show. Have yet to SEE it, but it has an uber-talented cast and team and crew–who made a somewhat daunting job fun (in that freaky “oh my god what was i thinking?!?” kinda way).
Only knew three people…Bill Finn (whom i met last summer), Adam Monley (did “Fanny Hill” with him at the york and adore him) AND gorgeous Jill Abramovitz (with whom i’ve done a commercial and some concerts). She came in Friday night and when time ran out wrote the blocking in my script. She’s amazing.
Wish I could get off book but with “The Game” rehearsals to boot, my brain is fried.
Okay…that’s whats I gots to say!”
Now you have two reasons to go see Mormons, Mothers and Monsters. First it is a wonderful new musical taking its first baby steps on the way to the big time. And second it lets you see Christianne Tisdale, a real theatrical trouper at work under the most difficult circumstances. If she is this wonderful after 48 hours of preparation for MMM, can you imagine how gorgeous she will be fitted out in full flowing costume as Madame de Volanges The Game. The most telling comment on her Facebook page reads simply: “Christianne Tisdale is far from fearless. But she does it anyway.”
Words we all should live by.