The Walter Kerr Theatre, in which Falsettos is housed, is one of Broadway’s smallest theaters (975 seats), but its backstage is an endless warren of carved-out spaces. There is, however, no proper green room, so a narrow area just below the stage-door stairway serves that function. “We call it Flola,” said Tracie Thoms, when I spoke with her there the other night.
Thoms, who plays Dr. Charlotte in the show, explained that the name Flola emerged in rehearsal, when 12-year-old Anthony Rosenthal, who plays Jason, was asked by director James Lapine, to make specific the names of a girl his character might have thought of in the number “The Miracle of Judaism.” “At first he just said Flo,” Thoms said, “and then it became Flola. It became a company joke, and we use it for the makeshift green room – people are always flowing through here.”
As if to prove her point, a parade of actors and crew members processed past us. I asked Thoms if all this hubbub continued backstage during performances. “Once the show begins,” she replied, “we’re pretty much in our dressing rooms.” Since Thoms’ character – a physician who, in 1981, is intensely concerned that men are dying of an unnamed illness – makes her entrance in the second half, how does Thoms spend her time until then?
“I’m looking at my phone a lot,” she replied. Referring to Betsy Wolfe, who plays Charlotte’s partner, Cordelia, Thoms explained, “Betsy and I have adjacent dressing rooms. Sometimes we’ll see the other person posting on Facebook and we’ll extend a virtual ‘Hi.’”
Thoms, who grew up in Baltimore and graduated from Howard University before studying acting at Juilliard, said that backstage mobile phone activity was especially intense on election night last week. “We were seeing early returns come in during the first act. Then my character comes on and sings, ‘Something bad is happening.’ I had no trouble finding motivation that night.”
The day after the election brought another change in the temperature of the Falsettos performance. Thoms shared: “The first line of ‘Trina’s Song’ is ‘I’m tired of all the happy men who rule the world.’ “Stephanie” – Stephanie J. Block is Trina – “got an immediate ovation from the audience. They were going so crazy that she had to practically scream the second half of the song to be heard.”
Thoms’s vocal challenge as Charlotte is of a different order. “I essentially had to relearn how to sing for this show. The music for this part sits right in the break of my voice.” Thoms consulted Joan Lader, a noted New York vocal expert. “We worked a lot on placement,” Thoms said. “A lot of singing I’ve done in the past has been with pop and rock scores.” (She did Rent onstage and in the movie version.) “With those, I could muscle out the singing. I couldn’t do that with Charlotte. God bless Joan for helping me.”
Thoms sees a parallel between herself and Charlotte. “I have to support my cast in every way possible, and Charlotte feels that her role, in the midst of a health emergency, is to support the friends around her. With all her strength, even Charlotte is at a loss sometimes.” Thoms added: “In times of crisis – political, medical, or otherwise – we have to remember the healing power of art. When we’re scared or enraged, we sometimes don’t want to. But it helps us to cope.”
After the currently scheduled run of Falsettos ends on January 8th, Thoms will be performing a concert of love songs called “Seasons” at the Feinstein’s/54 Below nightclub in the Broadway-theater area. “More healing,” she said.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.