Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Lexington Herald-Leader on Dec. 31, 2006.
NEW YORK — Lyndy Franklin lives by her phone.
The call might come early, it might come late or it might not come at all. But the Lexington native and Sayre School graduate’s job is to be ready to go on stage at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in any one of four roles for which she is an understudy in the hit Broadway revival of the life-of-a-dancer musical “A Chorus Line.” She has to know all of those characters’ lines, songs and dances for the show that built its legendary reputation on tack-sharp choreography.
What a way to make a Broadway debut.
“It’s always been something I’ve been interested in doing,” Franklin says of being a “swing,” meaning an actor ready to go on for several parts. “It’s a great mental challenge to be ready to be thrown into a new track and a new character.”
“A Chorus Line” production stage manager William Joseph Barnes says being a swing is “probably one of the hardest jobs in theater, when you’re understudying seven or eight roles, and they’re all very specialized.”
Franklin, he points out, not only is set to go on for four of the main speaking parts (Bebe, Maggie, Connie and Kristine), but also for several of the dancers in “A Chorus Line’s” opening audition sequence — they appear only in the first scene and then leave. That opening scene, set to the song “I Hope I Get It,” is a humdinger of a dance number, designed to pop the audience’s eyes from the get-go.
It’s choreography Franklin knows well. Besides being a swing, she is also the assistant dance captain, meaning she is responsible for knowing where everyone on stage is now and where they’re going next.
It also falls on her to teach new cast members and auditioners their parts in the show. Even if Franklin has a night where she doesn’t go on stage, she’s in the back of the theater for every performance taking notes.
“It’s the hardest position that she is doing,” says Michael Gorman, a cast member from the original Broadway production of “A Chorus Line” and the assistant stage manager and dance captain for the revival. “It’s so masochistic with how many positions she has to fill, just like that.
“So watching her work, the first week, she had already created a bible, what we call a bible, which is all of the steps and blocking for each character, and she was even doing color coding. I said, ‘Oh, my God. You’re as anal as I am.’”
That organization and expertise sold Gorman and his colleagues on making Franklin his assistant, a position that he says bodes very well for Franklin’s future.
A ‘quadruple threat’
No one who works with Franklin was surprised to find out about her roots in dance.
She was an apple that did not fall far from the tree. Franklin’s mother, Luanne Franklin, is the director of the Lexington Opera House. But before that, she made her reputation in the Lexington-area arts scene as the owner of the studio Town & Village Dance in Paris (which she still owns) and as a choreographer for numerous local productions.
Very early on, Lyndy got interested in Mom’s work.
“Growing up as the daughter of a dance studio owner gave her an ability to cut through and see how to do things better,” Luanne Franklin says.
“She’s really a quadruple threat,” she adds, riffing on the term triple threat that is applied to the combo of singer, actor and dancer sought for most Broadway roles.
In addition to dancing, Lyndy and her mom began traveling to New York frequently with another Town & Village student: Laura Bell Bundy, who is now preparing to play the lead in the Broadway musical “Legally Blonde.” Though Lyndy didn’t choose to pursue work as a child the way Bundy did, she did decide early what her goals were.
Luanne recalls, “When she turned 16, and it was time to take driving lessons, she said, ‘I don’t need a car. I’m going to New York.’”
Lyndy finally did break down and get a driver’s license at age 19 because her road to New York wound through Oklahoma City University’s prestigious music theater program, whose graduates include Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth. Luanne says she was impressed when she and Lyndy visited Oklahoma City and one of the program heads said the school trains its students to go to New York to be actors, not waiters.
“I liked that attitude,” she recalls.
When Lyndy moved to New York, after graduating from OCU in 2002, she actually did get hired as a bartender. But the same day, she received a regional theater offer, which she took. Later that year, Franklin was cast in a national tour of “Fosse,” which came through the Opera House in April 2003. Luanne did not know Lyndy was in the show until after she booked it.
After “Fosse,” Lyndy put in three Christmases as an ensemble dancer in the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular” at Radio City Music Hall and did more regional theater in Texas, North Carolina and Philadelphia. They were all good jobs, but not the elusive Broadway debut.
A grueling audition process
Then, the casting notice for “A Chorus Line” went out.
“I said, ‘This is going to be it for me. This will be my Broadway debut,’” Franklin says. “I have loved this show since I was a little girl.”
An iconic dance piece, “A Chorus Line” was not just another show for Franklin. She recalls, “It was one of the longest audition processes I have ever been through, and I was cut twice along the way. “I walked into my first audition, and I couldn’t have danced the opening combination any better, and I got quickly eliminated. Smack.”
Franklin didn’t want to give up, so she called her agent, asking her to get her into an invited audition. But the casting agency didn’t want to see her. Then she got into another invited call, and after waiting a long time, got called back.
“I had two months to get nervous,” Franklin says. “I did my homework. I went to Lincoln Center and watched (a film of) the show; I rented the movie; I read every book that had been written on it; I had coaches -- vocal coaches, acting coaches, everyone was coaching me -- I wanted it so badly.”
She was rejected again.
“Pretty much, she decided this wasn’t going to be her show,” her mother recalls.
Franklin decided to tackle other projects — another Broadway show, or maybe a principal role at a regional theater — when the folks behind “A Chorus Line” called one more time. This time, she was hired before she left the last audition.
“You just can’t forget that moment you get your first Broadway show, because you start to think you’re never going to get it,” Franklin says. “I watched tons of friends make their Broadway debuts, and I kept getting so close. You just start to think, ‘Maybe I missed the little window.’ When you dreamed about it so long, and now that it’s part of my life, there really are no words.
“Every single night that I get to go on, during ‘What I Did for Love,’ I cannot help but get choked up, because as she’s singing all the lyrics of the song, it’s like a little slide show in my head. I’m think back to Town & Village and being in the studio with Mom and dance lessons and voice lessons and recitals and doing the musicals at Lafayette and all the little things I did when I was young that led to this moment. And,” she says, with a tear in her eye, “as soon as that slide show starts in my head, it’s the waterworks.”
On stage on short notice
Getting to go on has been a frequent privilege for Franklin. The swing position carries the additional responsibility of understudy rehearsals twice a week, where the actors keep themselves in tune with the parts they are covering.
At a Dec. 7 understudy rehearsal, Franklin played two parts, Bebe, who has a moment in the spotlight with a trio in “At the Ballet” — and Kristine, who solos on “Sing!,” a showy number about how she can’t, in fact, sing.
Usually, if an understudy is going on, he or she has a few hours notice. Sometimes, if a principal is on vacation, there might be several days warning. There are moments, though, Franklin says, when it is last minute.
She says one “Chorus Line” understudy was put in five minutes before actors were supposed to be in their places because the principal actor suffered food poisoning at dinner between the matinee and that evening’s show.
“Going on the first time is the biggest hurdle,” Franklin says. “After that, you have a lot more confidence you can do it, and the other parts are easier.”
A staging point for success
For some actors, being an understudy can lead to principal roles in the same show or other shows. But some actors also come to specialize in being able to cover numerous parts well and make a career of it. “A Chorus Line’s” directors see a career for Franklin on and off stage.
“She has a lot of possibilities,” Barnes, the production stage manager, says. “She’s a talented triple threat, and if she wants to move into choreography, she has that going for her.”
With “A Chorus Line,” Franklin is also becoming a custodian of creator Michael Bennett’s iconic choreography, able to take it to regional theaters, overseas and other companies, maybe even another Broadway revival someday.
“The important thing about dance is you must pass it on,” Gorman, the dance captain, says. “With Lyndy, we said, ‘Hey, you can pass this on,’ and it’s overwhelming to her at times. I’ll laugh at her or smile at her and say, ‘You have no idea what’s coming, do you?’”