The Stage Manager: A Look Behind The Scenes of “Hairspray”

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The man behind the curtain

BY JIM MERRITT. Jim Merritt is a freelance writer.

Backstage at the Neil Simon Theatre, Frank Lombardi is getting ready to launch this evening’s performance of “Hairspray” with the traditional theatrical call to action.

“Places, please,” Lombardi, the production stage manager, says into a headset from his post in the wings at stage left.

A veteran stage manager with about 20 years of professional theater experience, Lombardi, 48, of Brooklyn already has checked with musical director
Lon Hoyt to make certain the orchestra is ready.

Throughout the show, Lombardi will keep on top of every element of the show
– following a script heavily annotated with lighting and scenery cues. Two television monitors (one black and white, the other color) just above eye level
help him track the action onstage at any moment.

Drawing a black curtain across his right side (he smiles at a comparison to the Wizard of Oz), Lombardi consults his script and calls the first cue: “Lights 1.5 and house out,” he says into his headset as a glissando rises from the orchestra.

Control center

For the next 2 hours and 40 minutes, wedged between a concrete wall on one side and moving scenery, props and actors on the other, Lombardi will be the
calm eye of a controlled storm known as a hit Broadway show.

“In a Broadway show, everything is choreographed backstage just as carefully as onstage,” says Lombardi, a Washington, D.C., native who earned a bachelor of arts degree in English in 1978 from Columbia University. During his college years, he took theater courses at Barnard College and appeared in Barnard Shakespeare productions, but he has since given up acting.

“I think I always knew in my heart that I really belonged backstage,” Lombardi says. “I always wanted to be a part of the bigger picture.”

After a sojourn teaching high school English in Silver Spring, Md., Lombardi returned to Manhattan in 1984 and got a job working as an office assistant at Gatchell & Neufeld, a general management firm whose clients included the Broadway productions of “Sweeney Todd” and “Annie.” That job turned out to be his entree into the professional theater world.

“The experience helped me get into the Broadway circuit and gave me an overall vision of what New York theater was like,” Lombardi says.

He had served as the stage manager for Broadway productions of “Steel Pier,” “The Secret Garden” and Steven Sondheim’s “Passion” and was working on the Los Angeles production of “The Lion King” when he was hired for “Hairspray”after the original stage manager left for another production.
Running the show

Stage managers usually sign on before rehearsals begin and become masters
of just about every aspect of a production – maintaining tight control even after the creative team moves moves on to other projects. Coordinating props,
maintaining cast lists and making sure actors keep their edge are among the
many duties.

The stage manager becomes the eyes of the artistic team and may call the director in for a pep talk when the cast becomes complacent or overconfident
during a long-running production, Lombardi says.

Tonight, Lombardi’s attention never wavers even as star Michael McKean, dressed in full drag as “Hairspray” mom Edna Turnblad, performs vocal exercises. (Veteran comedy writer Bruce Vilanch, who had played the lead in the
show’s national tour, stepped into the role earlier this month.)

Between cues, cast members such as Peter Scolari stop by to pat Lombardi on
the back and chat. With their status as the quintessential theater go-between,
stage managers need excellent communication skills, says Lombardi, who has
learned to leave his ego outside the stage door.

Lombardi adds: “A stage manager really needs to be a diplomat with great people skills, a great creative eye and a very thick skin.”