"Once I performed in a mini parade in the parking lot of a strip mall in suburban Atlanta. The parade consisted of some random characters and a high school marching band," Dee Roscioli recalled, describing the weirdest gig she's ever done as a performer. "The shoppers were all just walking by and giving us strange looks." Little did those unsuspecting shoppers realize that they were witnessing a Broadway star in the making.
Roscioli has performed the role of Elphaba in Wicked over a thousand times all over North America and on Broadway. For countless Wicked fans, she's the one they imagine when they think of that misunderstood green girl from over the rainbow. Back then, however, she was just happy to have a job and be able to live the thoroughly unglamorous lifestyle of a working actress and musician.
"I worked in the Catskills once," said Roscioli's costar Kate Fahrner, sharing a story about a strange gig of her own. "We rehearsed outside, in the back of the theater. There were bears. We had to run away. I also got stung by a hornet because it was hanging in a jacket I wore in the show. It was a really fun experience though."
Show business? Unglamorous? Never, you might be saying to yourself. Well, wait until you see Roscioli and Fahrner's latest show before you make up your mind. The two, along with Donna Vivino, are currently starring in Douglas J. Cohen's new musical, The Gig, which is being presented for a limited run at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. The show deals with the realities of being a professional musician and the misperceptions that outsiders sometimes have of the business.
Like Roscioli, both Fahrner and Vivino have also spent several of the last few years in Oz: Fahrner played Glinda in the Chicago production of Wicked (opposite Roscioli), and Vivino played Elphaba on the national tour. Both women have also done stints as standbys in the Broadway production.
Appropriately, The Gig takes place at a Catskills resort in the 1970s. It follows a group of amateur jazz musicians who leave their "real jobs" (used car salesman, dentist, real estate agent, etc.) for two weeks to perform a gig upstate. There they meet waitresses Lucy (Fahrner) and Donna (Roscioli). They also meet the resort's headliner, a washed-up television star named Miss Ricki Valentine (Donna Vivino).
"She's really part of the fading glamour of the Catskills," said Vivino as she drove past some of the crumbling resorts of yesteryear, on her way back to New York City after a trip to the Adirondacks. There was a time when middle-class New Yorkers would spend their summer holidays at massive resorts in the Catskills like Kutsher's and Grossinger's. As airfare became more affordable, however, New Yorkers opted to spend their vacation dollars at more exotic destinations. "The seventies was sort of the beginning of the end of these big resorts," said Vivino, adding, "My character, Ricki Valentine, is trying to make a comeback. Her act is tired, and she needs to change with the times too."
Back then, Broadway performers and comedians would cut their teeth in the Catskills, playing in front of an audience of vacationers. Many of today's upcoming Broadway performers also get their start in front of the holiday crowd — on cruise ships. "I worked on a cruise ship for six months," said Fahrner, fondly recalling the $1.25 cocktails that were available to her and her fellow performers at the staff bar.
"I have a lot of respect for the performers who go on these ships for six-month contracts," Vivino opined. She performed on a ship as a special guest star for one week, and got terribly seasick in the process. Still, she enjoyed getting to meet a lot of her audience all around the ship and wouldn't mind going back to do it again. "I guess it's sort of like a Catskills gig on the water."
Needless to say, Roscioli, Fahrner, and Vivino have done a fair amount of traveling, and not just in their time with Wicked. (Fahrner and Roscioli actually met when they were both cast in a non-equity tour of Cats, during which they performed to a nearly empty auditorium in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the middle of an ice storm.) That kind of transient lifestyle can be very taxing on a performer's sanity, not to mention personal relationships.
Despite Fahrner's success in the industry, she's seriously considered leaving acting many times. "There's something that excites me about the idea of becoming a tax accountant and having that period of time be normal every year," she confessed, elaborating on her love for numbers and spreadsheets.
"She's still saying that, huh," Vivino responded when I brought up Fahrner's accounting fantasies. The two had plenty of time to kiki about their alternative nontheatrical aspirations when they were hanging out together in the standby lounge at the Gershwin Theatre during their time in Wicked. "I always wished I had gone into neuroscience," she revealed, adding, "I have a secret desire to get out of show business all the time. It's a secret everyone in the business has, but we never really do it."
While these three actresses have all secretly coveted "normal" jobs, the protagonists in The Gig peer longingly at the world of show business with a sincere desire to shake off "mere existence." Is this part of the human condition? Perhaps the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence. Of course, the reality of the matter is often far different when you get up close and personal.
Click below to hear song clips from The Gig: