Broadway

What It's Like to Understudy 3 Principal Roles in Broadway's Revolutionary Oklahoma! Revival

Nathan Sayers

It's one thing to understudy three different demanding principal roles in one show. But sometimes, Sasha Hutchings has to perform them all in one day.

Hutchings, a Broadway dancer who originated an ensemble role in Hamilton and was recently seen in "Fosse/Verdon," understudies both Laurey and Ado Annie in the current Broadway revival of Oklahoma!—plus the lead dancer, who performs the 13-minute dream ballet practically solo. Though she hasn't performed the dream ballet yet, she rehearses it every Friday, right before rehearsing the whole show as either Ado Annie or Laurey, then sometimes performing one of those roles in the evening show.

"As soon as I'm done rehearsing the dream ballet, I have to let that fade in order to fully immerse myself in Laurey," she says. "And if I ran Laurey earlier in the day and I'm watching her scene as Ado Annie, I have to let go of her lines. Once you start going down the thought pattern of that character, it takes you to a whole other place."

We talked to Hutchings about the mental and physical gymanstics of understudying three such distinct roles—and how her dance training helps her do it:


On Playing the Show's Foils

How do you switch between two characters who are so diametrically opposed? For Hutchings, it's been about finding ways to relate to both Laurey and Ado Annie, and putting their journeys within the larger context of the show. "These two women are coming of age when their state is coming of age," she says. "It's this exploration of, what are the rules, how am I able to operate in this new nation?"

"They go about it in different ways. Ado Annie is fully free. She's like, I want everything and I don't understand why I would have to say no. With Laurey, she's very focused on what is the correct thing to do. I relate to the tentativeness; feeling like whatever decision I make is going to determine the rest of my life. But I enjoy embodying Ado Annie's spirit; just following your instincts and really living in the moment."

Hutchings taking a mirror selfie in her dressing room. She is wearing a poofy yellow dress with black lace detail, with a choker on her neck and hoop earrings. Her afro is pulled back part of the way.

Hutchings as Ado Annie

Courtesy Hutchings

On Understudying Ali Stroker

When Hutchings went on for Ado Annie for the first time—just a week after the show opened—she had never rehearsed the role until that morning. (She credits her background as a dancer for helping her remember blocking and stage patterns. Having experience as a swing in Memphis and understudying the Peggy/Mariah track in Hamilton didn't hurt, either.)

Now, she's on for Ado Annie at least twice a week for matinees, as well as the occasional last-minute performance. Over time, she's learned how to adopt the role for her own physicality (Ado Annie is normally played by Tony-winner Ali Stroker, who uses a wheelchair). "There are capabilities she has that I don't," Hutchings says. "As a dancer, I had to figure out how to not be completely aware of my body because Ado Annie is coming of age so she doesn't know how to work all of these things."

Understudying Stroker has helped Hutchings see new layers of meaning in the show. "It makes for such a rich experience, being a person of color covering a white woman," she says. "Oklahoma! is not about race, but there are times where we allow that to be a storytelling moment. I'm not being asked to do Ali's performance. We have conversations about what it means for me to be onstage."

On the Unfamiliarity of the Dream Ballet

Hutchings has an impressive resumé as a musical theater dancer. But the dream ballet, choreographed by John Heginbotham, isn't exactly your typical musical theater fare.

"It's a bit of a different world for me," Hutchings says,"coming from musical theater and working with people like Andy Blankenbuehler who will explain every movement. The process is a little more free and you're able to find things for yourself."

Leaning into that unfamiliarity helps, says Hutchings, because the character—Laurey in a dream state—is also uncovering new feelings. "Dream Laurey is trying on these different ways of being in her sexuality," she says. "It feels foreign, but that's how it's supposed to feel. It's nice to get out of my comfort zone and go back to my dance roots."

On Letting the Text Guide Her

As revolutionary as this Oklahoma! is, none of the words from the original script have been changed. This revival seems to expose new meaning in the original text by lingering on the words—sometimes too long for comfort.

This focus on words has helped Hutchings dig deeper into her roles. "I try to make sure that as I'm speaking the lines, I'm letting them reverberate through my body," she says. "Even in the dream ballet there are lines from the show that inform some of the movement." At several points in the first act, Laurey and Ado Annie use words like "shakey" and "shiver" to describe how they feel when they receive attention from men—she channels those lines during moments in the ballet.

On Refining the Characters' Movement

Naturally, as a dancer, Hutchings has been focused on how her characters move through space. "Laurey is a little more reserved about the curves she has," she says. "She's aware of what that does to men but I don't know that she's completely comfortable with that attention. There's a groundedness and a strength and maybe even a masculinity. With Ado Annie I find myself sitting in my hip and chest out and open. For Laurey, she's just stacked on top of herself. She has a bit of a a fighting stance, she's prepared for anything."

The character's physicality also helps her to tap into them when she's had to run multiple roles in a day. "Finding a grounding movement or posture can help me be like, this is where we're at right now," she says. "If it's my first stroll as Ado Annie or the first stance that I take with Laurey, letting that completely take over."

Health & Body
Getty Images

Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with dancers at Atlanta Ballet, offers tips for creating a more body-positive studio experience:

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by NYCDA
Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell teaching an Ailey Workshop at NYCDA. Courtesy NYCDA

Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.

"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."

Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.

Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:

Keep reading... Show less
Broadway

We knew that Ivo van Hove and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's production of West Side Story would challenge our preconceived notions about the show.

But a recent Vogue story gives us a taste of just how nontraditional the Broadway revival will be. Most notably, van Hove is cutting "I Feel Pretty" and the "Somewhere" ballet, condensing the show into one act to better reflect the urgency of the 48-hour plot. (The choice has been approved by the West Side Story estate, including Sondheim, who has "long been uncomfortable" with some of the "I Feel Pretty" lyrics.)

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Left: Hurricane Harvey damage in Houston Ballet's Dance Lab; Courtesy Harlequin. Right: The Dance Lab pre-Harvey; Nic Lehoux, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox