A conversation with Broadway Veteran Ellen Tovatt Leary

And her new novel The Understudy
A wonderful story about the life of a Broadway actress in the 1970s

By Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

Inspired while working in New York during the seventies, former actress Ellen Tovatt Leary wrote The Understudy.
Even though it is a novel, one might wonder if Nina, the main character's story, is truly about her...
"I certainly borrowed a lot from my own experience at that time. There are differences between me and Nina, we are not the same person...They say write what you know and I had such a good time writing it". Shared Tovatt Leary during our phone interview.

The Understudy by Ellen Tovatt Leary Artwork - Credit Harrison Houlé
Nina Landau, is a 28-year-old actress who had been performing leading roles at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. An audition comes up for a play at the Barrymore theatre on Broadway with a great deal of buzz and a famous director. Nina is reading for the lead role. The audition does not turn out the way she expected but still changes both her professional and personal life.

A book that cannot simply be put down. Each chapter is definitely a cliffhanger. The characters are solid.  Throughout the story, there is always this feeling of "what will happen next". People in the industry can appreciate it more, and sometimes the context will definitely feel like a wink with different references about opening nights, rehearsals, and audiences. But truly this book is for everybody. Non-theatre people will learn something new and also have a good time.

While reading about how theatre was being made in the -Great White Way- during that period you would think now things are different... 

"You know, it was in the seventies and it remains a male-dominated field. When I was working, there were no female directors at all and you wouldn't think about it. You would be happy to get a part. It is such a hard profession to get into. Our consciousness was not totally raised at that point." 
Explained Ellen.

Bittersweet read during these times
As mentioned above, The Understudy gives out winks for all who work in the performing arts and is overall a very nice read. Today more so being all the theatres are closed and due to the pandemic, the live activity is paused, although pulling through online. Still, it is not the same.
"When you are on stage you got to have a live audience to respond from the give and take that happens, you need that energy. It is a hard time for the theatre right now. I have friends completely in limbo because nobody is doing anything until at least January".

Ellen Tovatt Leary - Ellen Tovatt Leary

Why come out with this novel now in 2020?

"I thought it was an interesting time in New York, things were happening, it was the time where I experienced being an actress and I could be more authentic. Cell phones changed our lives. They go off in the theatre and interrupt so, I thought it would be better to stick to that time."

And it is definitely greatly appreciated to read a book about theatre with no cell phones ringing in the middle of a performance. Quite refreshing indeed.

Another thing is that the story is not all flowers and fiction. Tovatt Leary lands fiction with the human side of actors showing things like fatigue, distraction, and when to end a contract regardless of it being "the big break" or "the dream role".

Ellen Tovatt Leary - Credit Gene Klavan
In her words:  "This is basically, primarily a love story. I was lucky enough to act on Broadway. It is an inside look at what it is like in a very special area of the theatre. Backstage on Broadway. What happens? what do the stagehands do? what do the designers do? what is an opening night party like at Sardi's?" 

It is also a love letter to the city of New York. Describing the surrounding restaurants on Broadway, the subway, the bus, hailing taxis and how dangerous the city was then. A time capsule that opens a vortex so we can peek in and accompany Nina on her adventures. It is a great distraction but because it was written with great heart, it is too a reminder that brings back hope for the theatre during these uncertain times.

The Understudy  was released on July 1, 2020, and can be purchased here

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