On Broadway

February 28, 2011

Anyone who’s ever been in a show knows that tech rehearsal can be a long, tiresome slog for performers. Back when she was in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Megan Sikora amused herself and everyone else stuck in tech by “fooling around”—doing handstands and somersaults and other acrobatic tricks she’d learned in her dance competition days.


As it turns out, it was time well spent—and not just because the lights eventually were focused and the sound levels balanced. A few years later, when Sikora was cast as Bambi Bernét, the producer’s whiny daughter in the new backstage musical Curtains, choreographer Rob Ashford remembered all those tricks he’d seen at the Millie rehearsals. And he put them into “Kansasland,” the funny, brassy, wildly acrobatic number in which Bambi reveals that she’s not just a spoiled brat but a knockout dancer.


It’s a triumphant turn for Sikora, who just turned 30 and who has spent pretty much a lifetime working toward her Broadway breakthrough. Growing up in Pittsburgh, she decided at 11 she was going to be a dancer. At 13 she was tapped by her teacher, Christine Haynick of Christine’s School of Dance, to help train the younger kids. In high school, she came to New York with the school choir, and her fate was sealed. The minute she stepped off the bus, she says, “I knew I needed to be here. It just felt right.”


So far, it’s a story that could be claimed, with minor alterations, by many Broadway hopefuls. But there are some twists that are uniquely hers. For one thing, she didn’t grow up going to Broadway musicals or listening to them. “A lot of people I work with grew up doing musicals their whole lives. I really just grew up dancing.”


Ultimately, she thinks concentrating on dance was a big plus for her Broadway career: “When you study everything, everything you do is just sort of OK—you’re not outstanding in any way. Because I came from dance, I had one element that was really strong.”


Her mother prevailed upon her to go to college, and she did—as a dance major, at Point Park College (now University) in Pittsburgh. Almost immediately, she landed a role in a German-language production of Beauty and the BeastDie Schöne und das Biest—that was going to tour Europe. No, she didn’t speak any German, and neither did anyone else in the cast. They learned their parts phonetically.


So at 19, Sikora took a semester off and traveled through Germany and Austria. “I was being paid and seeing these amazing cities at such a young age. It was a musical, and I was dancing and singing and touring.” But her traveling companions were Broadway veterans who had done a lot more, mostly under better circumstances. “After listening to all those people complain for so long, I came home thinking maybe I was making a mistake. I didn’t want to be a miserable old person like that.”


She decided she’d just stay in school and see what happened. And what happened was that the Equity card that performers work so hard to get fell right into her hands, thanks to a summer job in the ensemble at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. The next year she came to New York to visit a friend, and tagged along to an audition for ballet dancers for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. “I don’t have a ballet dancer’s physique,” she says. “I’m much more muscular.” But she got that too. “Talk about culture shock,” she says of being one of the 20 Americans in a company of 100 dancers. “There was everybody from every country. And I got to meet sumo wrestlers!”


When she graduated she came to New York. And even with her dance degree, and her Equity card, and her professional experience, she “pounded the pavement.” She worked at Starbucks, she danced in the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, she did summer stock. For her first gig on Broadway, she hawked T-shirts and souvenirs outside Footloose. It was two-and-a-half years before she got a job inside a Broadway theater.

Then, she says, she started climbing the ladder, beginning with ensemble roles in Thoroughly Modern Millie, 42nd Street, and Wonderful Town. Being a swing (as well as an understudy and the dance captain) on Dracula, the Musical, she says, she learned “not to be a perfectionist.” The multiple hats she wore in Dracula helped her cover the demanding role of Glinda in Wicked. And going on as Glinda bolstered her confidence for Bambi. “Everything leads to the next thing,” she says.


She makes it all sound like a foregone conclusion, but as she worked her way up, she was also taking acting lessons and voice lessons. “You can’t ever stop,” she says. “The more you put into yourself and your craft, the more it’s going to give back to you. You can’t sit back and rely on the talents you have when you’re 18 years old.”


Ironically enough, in Curtains—the final collaboration between John Kander and Fred Ebb, who died in 2004—Sikora is doing just that. With all the cartwheels and somersaults and front and back walkovers, “Kansasland” looks incredibly difficult. But, says Sikora, “I’ve been doing the acrobatics since I was a kid. It all comes very naturally to me.”


The hard stuff, she says, is “the partnering—having to be on the same page with somebody else.” It helps that the somebody is Noah Racey, one of Broadway’s smoothest dancers. Sikora calls Ashford’s partnering moves “aggressive,” and it’s a good description of his choreography in general. “He knows I’m a daredevil,” she says. “So he’d be, ‘Go for it. Do something to get yourself over there.’ ” She loves dancing his choreography, she says, “because you have to be on it. You have to be 200 percent. You can’t just show up and do it.”


She’s probably right about that. But every night at the Al Hirshfeld Theater, she can make it look as if you can.


Sylviane Gold has written on theater for
Newsday and The New York Times.