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Born for Broadway

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Most people have heard of that old adage about what it takes to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Speak to Sara Schmidt—who plays 24 roles in Jersey Boys, the hit musical biography of ’60s pop group the Four Seasons—and you begin to suspect that getting to Broadway can’t be summed up in a cute formula.

In fact, your best attempt—patience, perseverance and physical stamina—goes out the proverbial stage window when you realize there are dozens of other talents much the same as you. And they’re likely to show up at the same audition.

“It’s strange when you walk into a room and you see seven people looking exactly like you,” Schmidt says.

Raised in Devon, Schmidt concedes that her Main Line upbringing has given her a better perspective on life in New York. She’s a natural at discipline, having grown up among an artistic circle of friends whose roster of extracurricular activities—in her case, dance, voice and acting lessons—was perceived as the necessary prelude to a creative career.

Still, the difficulty of “making it” (to use an appropriately vague term for getting anywhere in the business) is more clear to Schmidt than it’s ever been. After more than a decade in New York, working both off Broadway and on, she has earned a position of respect as part of the original cast of Jersey Boys. Among her colleagues on Broadway—specifically, her neighborhood around the August Wilson Theater at West 52nd Street—that means not only a steady gig but a chance to be part of a smash hit.

Since it opened less than two years ago, the show—subtitled “the story of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons”—has earned four Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (won by John Lloyd Young, as Valli). It has grossed more than $100 million, with an additional $50 million generated from performances in other cities.

Being part of “JB”—as devoted bloggers call it—has given Schmidt the exposure she’s long hoped for. She’s proud to be a lead female singer in a musical that also earned a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album and, at this writing, was holding steady at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Cast Album chart.

And, yes, she plays 24 different people, changing wigs (she has nine) and costumes each time. They include speaking parts as Valli’s mother, his girlfriend and his daughter, Francine—a complexity downplayed in the playbill as “Francine and others.” The multiple roles require her to be on stage almost constantly, especially in the first act, which traces Valli’s New Jersey neighborhood roots and his career’s meteoric rise.

For Schmidt—who wears a black-and-white waitress costume in one scene and is belting out the Seasons standard “My Boyfriend’s Back” the next—Jersey Boys is a dream come true. The night it opened on Nov. 6, 2005, Schmidt was singled out to take part in one of Broadway’s many good-luck rituals: the wearing of the “robe” and blessing other cast members before opening night. The practice dates back to 1950, when the lead dancer in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes borrowed a robe from one of the ensemble cast members and danced through the backstage area, bestowing good wishes on the cast. When that show became a hit, a tradition was born—one that specified the robe must be worn by one of the so-called “gypsies,” or cast members who typically move from play to play in search of work.

Schmidt proved to be the right choice. “It’s very unusual to have the same cast after two years,” she says.

Last year, Schmidt and her fellow cast members appeared on the Today Show and the Late Show with David Letterman. More recently, Bruce Springsteen—a “JB” personified—turned up to see the musical, and a photograph of him backstage with the cast appeared in Rolling Stone.

In speaking about her life thus far, Sara Schmidt recounts the saga of a “young girl’s move to the Big Apple.” It includes leaving college three times and stints on a stage in Minneapolis and a cruise ship.

“I left junior year and moved here when I was 20, in 1997,” she says.

Schmidt landed her first major job in an off-Broadway production of the Fantasticks. Later, she found work as an understudy in the Broadway shows Dance of the Vampires and Brooklyn.

Her parents, Dan and Julie Schmidt, encouraged her all the way. “I thought it would be a lot easier,” she says. “I had the skills, the training and the support. I had everything going for me. I guess I thought it would fall in my lap. It’s been much, much more difficult than I ever anticipated, by far.”

As an actress and a classically trained singer, Schmidt couldn’t ask for more: a musical praised for its high energy and fluidity. Indeed, the scenes alone demand a strong sense of character, as Schmidt and the rest of the ensemble cast take their cues from Valli and his Four Seasons.

Scenes and moods change on a dime, revolving from the sacred (church in-teriors, recording studios) to the prosaic (street corners, discos). The songs range from the instructive “Walk Like a Man” (also a Sopranos episode) to the near-comical “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)”—which was also Schmidt’s prom song—to the 1967 hit “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You.”

Described by the New York Times as “more of a no-holds-barred band biography than a jukebox musical,” Jersey Boys can be an emotional rollercoaster. Rousing any reaction, though, is what Broadway is all about.

“Keeping up with the energy is not difficult because it’s such a high-energy show,” Schmidt says. “It’s also so well written and seamless. Once you start, you’re just on ‘go.’”

Schmidt’s schedule isn’t just full, it’s “wacky.” “I’m hanging on for dear life,” she confesses, after performing in a recent Wednesday matinee.

On most days, everything is carefully timed to ensure that she’s ready when the curtain goes up. “I walk the dog by 6:20. I get food. I’m here by 7. I do my hair and put my makeup on while I eat dinner. At 7:37, I go downstairs and get my first wig on,” she says. “At 7:55, I’m putting my microphone on and brushing my teeth. At 8, the announcement happens, and we gather together and maybe talk for three minutes. Then at 8:05, there it goes. It’s the exact same thing every single day.”

When she’s not on stage, Schmidt is typically at work behind the scenes, doing what’s called voice doubling, or following the notes of the singers (including Valli’s signature falsetto). She just had her first vacation in more than a year—a trip to Bermuda with a pal.

Schmidt’s longtime voice coach and friend, Gail Reilley, sees Jersey Boys as an excellent example of why she tells her serious students that practice isn’t everything. “When you perform regularly—and we’re looking at eight shows a week—you have to take care of yourself,” Reilley says. “You can’t go out and party; you can’t spend the day shopping. You have to be ready to go on, day after day.”

Reilley recently drove up from her home near Norristown to see Jersey Boys—and Schmidt, of course. “She can hit the high notes, but she can also belt out the songs,” Reilley says. “A lot of shows require a belt voice. I told her that might be her ticket.”

A product of Conestoga High School’s exceptional theater program (where she graduated in 1994), Schmidt came to Reilley before she was 15 years old. She was an ideal student, says her former teacher—a real talent with a gift for remaining positive. “I love doing this and coming to work,” Schmidt says.

While Broadway has never had a reputation for “backstabbing,” says Schmidt, neither is it a place of close alliances and guarantees made on the strength of a handshake (“a Jersey contract,” as the musical puts it).

“I’ve been on hundreds and hundreds of auditions,” Schmidt says. “If you look at my resume, you’ll see that I’ve worked steadily for 10 years. And still I’ve only done maybe 15 professional shows. I’ve been on every audition possible. So if I get a job like this, I’m not leaving.”

And Schmidt feels good about her future. “You find yourself pushing so hard. It’s a real struggle,” she says. “Finally, you get to the point where you know you’re selling out your shows for at least two years, and it’s such a relief. It’s a calming sense that everything is going to be OK.”

To learn more about Jersey Boys, visit jerseyboysinfo.com.

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