ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Understudy Action at Disaster! and Carol Lawrence's West Side Stories

By Seth Rudetsky
25 Nov 2013

Carol Lawrence

Sherz never had an official rehearsal, but she showed up calmly at the theatre at 3 PM and we ran her stuff in the show. She seemed to know it all. Suddenly, it was "places". Would she know the lines? Would she get the laughs? Would she hit the repeated high A's in "Signed, Sealed, Delivered"? The answers are, "Yes, yes and yes!" It was so exciting! She got laughs from her initial entrance (playing the guitar and singing "The Lord's Prayer") all the way to the end of the show and all of her song(s) sounded great. It was so much fun for the cast, too. We were all crowded in the wings, watching her and everyone was so happy whenever she'd nail a laugh or a sing a sassy note. I felt a particular pride because she started as my teenage intern and here she was, with her Equity card, playing her first lead in New York City. So exciting!

At the "Chatterbox" I had Carol Lawrence, the original Maria from West Side Story! I had never met her, but, boy, did I listen to her when I was a kid. She is a really fun person to talk to and had so many amazing stories! First of all, she grew up near Chicago and took tons of dance classes. When she was 13, her teacher told her that she needed to create her own act to find out what worked and what didn't; the theory was that at dance recitals, the parents are enthusiastic for their own kids and the other kids want you to fail. So, only in front of a paying, random audience can you find out what people really like. Carol said she'd pile up her hair to make herself look older (she was supposed to be 16 to work) and she performed her own act in clubs around the Chicago area. She'd be on the bill with a dance act, a comedian, a trio, etc... like a variety show. Carol said that certain men would ask her to have dinner between shows and her mother would sidle up and say, "I'm her mother. If Carol has dinner with you, I'll be sitting in between you both." The dinner invitations were thus withdrawn.

Even though Carole studied performing throughout her childhood, her father insisted that she become a lawyer. Carol went to Northwestern (not majoring in theatre) and right after her freshman year ended, she got an idea. Every summer, her father would take the family to Yellowstone Park. Carol had to write an essay about the trip and submit it to her teachers for extra credit. Her first year of college was no exception. Carol saw this as an opportunity to quickstart her career; she told her Dad that an even better place to write an essay about was New York City! It had the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, etc.



I asked if she mentioned Broadway to him. "Absolutely not," she responded. So, because her lawyer-like argument was so good, it convinced him to take the family to New York. She then told him she'd like to "audit" an audition to see what they were like. Carol showed up and asked the people running the audition if she could audit. They, naturally, told her there was no such thing. Either she auditioned or she didn't. So, Carol put on her dance togs and auditioned. She stayed for hours, and by the end of the day, she was cast in her first Broadway show!

She went back to her hotel and told her father who, naturally, forbid her from doing it. Carol said she cried, pleaded and eventually got down on her knees. Finally, her father told her that if she did the show, he'd disown her and if she were starving on the street one day, he wouldn't throw her a dime. She responded with, "Yay! I can do it!" She claimed that he was Italian, so she was used to his dramatic flair. Carol was 18 and cast in a show called Borschtcapades starring Joel Grey and his father, Mickey Katz. She dropped out of Northwestern and did the entire run of the show (almost a year).

 Continued...