When Sarita Lilly didn’t make the cut for the chorus of the Broadway musical The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, she took it hard. Having appeared in the American Repertory Theater’s pre–New York run of the classic musical last year, the College of Fine Arts vocal performance doctoral student had high hopes of joining the Broadway cast, which included much of the original Cambridge lineup, including her idol, Audra McDonald, as an incandescent Bess. When the show, directed by Diane Paulus and written by Pulitzer-winner Suzan-Lori Parks, won the 2012 Tony Award for best revival of a musical, Lilly’s Porgy pals told her, “This award is yours, too.”
Lilly kept her head high and moved on—that’s show biz. But so is this: on her way to her job at the CFA dean’s office one June morning, she got the kind of call actors dream of.
The events of that long day—June 14, her sister’s birthday—still seem unreal, she says. It was four days after the Tony Awards, and with those involved in the show still basking in the glory, four of the female singers were ill. “I received a call saying that the girls from the ensemble were out sick, and they were desperate to have someone—me—to be in that night’s performance,” recalls Lilly (CFA’13). She packed in a frenzy and boarded the next Amtrak to New York City, arriving at the theater by 5 p.m.—in time to meet with the assistant stage manager. An hour later, she was onstage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, learning the blocking and preparing to sing her heart out on Catfish Row.
“My adrenaline was pumping consistently for at least a good 12 hours,” Lilly says. “I just wanted to look like I belonged on that stage.”
It was odd to be back at work with the company that had strung her along for months, then turned her down, saying she wasn’t what they were looking for, then called her up briefly, then let her go again. It was a roller coaster, and exhausting. But when it comes to singing on Broadway, she says, there’s no place for stubborn pride. She sang two chorus roles that night and had a few lines, filling in for both the funeral and the picnic scenes, with lines a beat apart—spoken by different characters. “So I had to deliver both lines in two different areas of the stage within two minutes,” she says. “It seemed completely nuts.” The director told her she didn’t have to be on stage for all of the four numbers if she didn’t feel comfortable, but Lilly had something to prove. “I was determined that it was going to be the best swing experience ever,” she says. “As a singer and actor you want to be stretched as far as you can—especially when they didn’t have the initial confidence in you.”
Lilly didn’t just hold her own. She triumphed. The Broadway production has signed her on as a swing—an understudy for chorus roles—for the rest of the summer and possibly through the remainder of the musical’s run. Despite an exhausting scramble for Manhattan housing and a heap of teaching and scholarly obligations back in Boston, she’s walking on air. After her debut, she was up in her hotel room until 3, replaying her exuberant turn on stage.
“This is the cake and this is the icing,” says the 35-year-old singer, who ended up on stage playing three different roles within a 48-hour window. “My Broadway debut consisted of me doing two featured ensemble roles in the same night with less than 12 hours’ notice.”
But she was ready. “I knew the show backwards and forwards from attending the Cambridge show as a swing every night, and I knew Porgy and Bess from being a singer and having done the songs in other venues,” she says. “I felt like I was up to the challenge.”
Lilly knows her way around a stage. She holds a master’s degree in voice performance from the University of Miami and a bachelor’s in voice from the University of North Carolina. She has studied at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria, and made her international opera debut in the title role of Puccini’s Suor Angelica in Urbania, Italy. Other leading roles include Mrs. Ford in Otto Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Dido in Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. A string of master classes at BU has paired her with opera giants Grace Bumbry (CFA’55) and Simon Estes, a former CFA professor of music.
“We’re so proud of her,” says Benjamin Juarez, dean of CFA. Lilly is “an exceptional diva with no ego,” he says, who “captivates, commands, and seduces as much with her soft, engaging voice as with her collaborative skills.”
“You never know about life’s twists and turns,” says Lilly’s voice teacher, Jerrold Pope, a CFA associate professor and chair of the School of Music voice department. “Sarita was ready for this one, and no one deserves it more than she. I couldn’t be happier.”
Her casting in Porgy is also a priceless learning experience, says Lilly, who recently hired an agent. “Being able to watch Audra McDonald every night is better than any master class,” she says. “Not in my wildest dreams did I think I’d get a chance to do anything but see McDonald in a concert, and now I have a rapport with her.” Lilly says she’s learning a lot from the “genuine, caring” stage and television star, whose Bess won her the Tony for best actress in a musical, but the most important lesson: “You can live your dream and still be you.”
As Juarez puts it, “This is Sarita’s moment to truly shine.”
Article written by Susan Seligson for BU Today.