In a perfect world, all the drama of a theater production takes place onstage.
But this is not a perfect world and sometimes there's far more going on behind the scenes than the audience could possibly imagine.
That was the case Saturday night when North Central College became one of the first schools in the country to produce a version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera."
North Central's longtime director, Brian Lynch, takes you behind the scenes with three actresses, Angie Snodgrass of Byron and Grace Heimerl of Naperville who were double cast in the lead role of Christine and Lauren Smith of Byron, who emerged as a most unlikely heroine.
Please understand that I am a song and dance man. I am not a writer by trade, so forgive me in advance, but an event happened this weekend that needs to be shared.
It is a human interest story that reflects so beautifully on one very talented young lady and her willingness to help a fellow performer when she was down. That young lady is Lauren Smith.
Let me backtrack. At the final audition for the role of Christine, we had narrowed the part down to three actresses: Angie Snodgrass, Grace Heimerl and Lauren Smith. We decided to double cast the part, partially because the role is so vocally demanding, but also to have a built-in understudy should something happen.
We ended up casting Angie and Grace in an extremely difficult final decision. It turns out that in this case two was not enough.
Both girls cast in the part were magnificent in their respective opening night performances. However, when Grace came in for the Saturday matinee, she had developed a cold that was affecting some of her high notes.
She felt she could sing the role and, using her best technique, was able to perform the matinee. The best thing for her to do was rest before she sang the following evening.
As we were waiting to meet as a cast on Saturday night before the show, I noticed Angie sitting by herself looking a bit upset. She told me she felt "a little scratchy." Apparently she is allergic to flowers and I can only imagine that she was flooded with roses following her opening night.
I told her don't worry, a little scratch is no big deal. Well, as she warmed up backstage, sounding beautiful, suddenly her voice was gone. There were notes she simply could not sing. (By the way, I found this out after I heard her onstage.)
It was obvious to me as she started singing Christine's opening aria, "Think of Me," that she was having severe problems; not so severe that many of the audience members knew, but severe enough that those of us who knew the show were gravely concerned for her.
I met her backstage after the "Phantom of the Opera/Music of the Night" sequence only to see her collapse in tears. As I told her later, there is nothing worse than having to perform in a show where you are the lead and everyone is waiting to hear a particular number.
As I tried to calm Angie down, Lauren Smith ran up to her and said she would sing the entire part offstage for her good friend.
"Whatever you want me to do, baby. I am there for you," she said. "I'll sing the entire role if that's what you want!"
Remember, this is the girl we did not cast in the part.
We figured out exactly how to make this work and proceeded to have Lauren do her own ensemble role in the show as well as singing Christine to help her dear friend, Angie.
It worked. People were so caught up in the story that the audience either forgot or forgave what was happening on the stage. On curtain call, the audience responded with a unanimous standing ovation.
But that was not quite the ending of this amazing night of selflessness. When Angie came onstage for her bow, she grabbed Lauren's hand and made Lauren bow with her.
The cast began sobbing seeing yet another selfless act. The two girls bowed together, leaving the stage sobbing in each others arms.
When I talked with Lauren afterward, her comment to me was "Well, I got to sing Christine. Not quite like I wanted to, but I got to sing it."
There is still more to the story. You see, Saturday night was sold out and we still had two performances on Sunday. I waited to find out how my girls were doing on Sunday morning before making any decisions as to who was singing what.
Maybe Angie would be better. Maybe it was some freak reaction to some medication and she would be able to sing like a bird on Sunday.
Maybe Grace would be fully over her cold and able to sing both shows. Yes, I needed to be concerned about my cast and their safety, but I did have two potential sold-out performances staring me in the face.
Angie was first in. She wanted to speak with me before anyone was around. No, there was no miracle cure. In fact, she sounded a bit worse.
Once again, being selfless and caring about the good of the show and her fellow performers, she said I should put Grace on, that she, Angie, could not sing it. Angie said it would not be fair to the two men playing the Phantom and Raoul to be onstage with her lip-syncing the part when we had another Christine.
Grace was not in yet, but I knew that she would not be able to sing two shows at the end of a difficult week. I told Angie that I also needed to think about Grace and getting through both shows and needed to save Grace for the evening performance, giving her as much rest as possible.
Again, the tears started, this time from both of us. I asked her what she wanted to do. She said that she wanted to sing Christine. I told her that could not happen, so what was her next choice. She said, if Lauren was willing, she wanted to at least be on the stage as Christine because she had so many people in the audience and she had worked so hard on the part. Lauren was once again willing to be the unsung hero who, in this case, sang, and sang beautifully.
It was, in many ways, even a better performance than Saturday night because Angie seemed resigned to the fact she could not really sing the role given her allergic reaction. Thunderous applause, standing ovation, and the same bow as Saturday night once again brought us all to tears.
It was a good thing we allowed Grace to rest, too, because her cold closed in. Through sheer force of will Grace was able to give us the closing performance of "Phantom of the Opera."
Was it the Pfeiffer Ghost? Was it fate stepping in giving all three wonderfully talented ladies the chance to sing this role?
Whatever it was, we owe Lauren Smith a huge debt of thanks. Her complete willingness to give of herself without any of the glory enabled us to have the show go on.
She is a truly wonderful young lady who makes me so proud to be a part of North Central College.