For those seeking a career in the musical theater, life on the road can be a blessing and a curse. Being cast in a touring production of a Broadway musical means steady work — eight performances a week, a substantial paycheck and per diem that takes care of meals, lodging and other related expenses.
But traveling to a different city every week can take its toll on any performer, regardless of age. Being on the road also means living out of a suitcase for months at a time. Furthermore, an actor might be in San Francisco when an important audition is being held in New York.
For the two leads appearing in the Disney/Cameron Mackintosh tour of “Mary Poppins,” which opens in Oklahoma City on Election Day, this show is a major credit on their resumes and an opportunity they relish. The rigors of the road clearly haven't dampened their spirits.
Con O'Shea-Creal, a 2008 graduate of the University of Oklahoma, plays the happy-go-lucky chimney sweep Bert. Madeline Trumble, a University of Michigan grad, portrays the title character in this musical that catapulted a young Julie Andrews to fame.
While both have contracts that run through January, the young actors approached their roles quite differently. As a student at Michigan, Trumble had limited opportunities to perform because the musical theater program was so competitive.
“I never thought this was anything I could do,” Trumble said recently. “In college, I did a couple of plays and some ensemble roles, but this role seemed so out of reach. I got the (“Mary Poppins”) audition because of my showcase and then had about three callbacks before I was hired as an understudy on the tour. I'm even more appreciative of getting this role because of that.”
In contrast, O'Shea-Creal worked steadily as a student at OU, landing roles in “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “Anything Goes,” “Company” and “Urinetown.” He was also cast in Lyric Theatre productions of “Swing!” and “42nd Street” and appeared in four consecutive productions of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic's “A Very Merry Pops.”
Following graduation, O'Shea-Creal headed to New York, where he quickly landed roles in the Broadway musical “White Christmas” (limited holiday runs in 2008 and 2009), “Annie Get Your Gun” at the Goodspeed Opera House and “Singin' in the Rain” in Westchester, N.Y.
Resilience pays off
All the while, this versatile performer had his eyes on playing the chimney sweep in “Mary Poppins.”
“For a song and dance man, Bert was a role that was constantly on my radar,” O'Shea-Creal said recently. “I didn't know if it would happen, but I was determined to do everything I could to try to get there.
“I first auditioned for ‘Mary Poppins' in 2008 while I was in ‘White Christmas.' I probably went in about 10 times every year from that point. I showed up so often they knew what song I was going to sing. I also got to the point where I didn't think I could audition for the show any more.
“But I critiqued every aspect of my audition and kept at it. Last year, I think I was called back 14 times. A great gift from that experience is resilience. You audition no matter how many times they ask you to. It finally worked out for me. I had been understudying Bert for about five months and while I was on hiatus from the show, I got the call that I was going to take over the role.”
Based on the “Mary Poppins” novels by P.L. Travers and the 1964 Disney film, the stage musical opened in London in December 2004. Laura Michelle Kelly won an Olivier Award for her role as Mary Poppins; the production also won an award for choreography.
The Broadway production opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York in November 2006 and won a Tony Award the following June for best scenic design. Still playing to packed houses, the production will celebrate its sixth anniversary on Nov. 16.
Nine of the film's 17 musical numbers — written by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman — were retained for the stage production, which was subsequently augmented with seven new songs by British songwriters George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
O'Shea-Creal said that after hearing one of Stiles and Drewe's new numbers, one of the Sherman brothers reportedly called it “the best song he never wrote.”
The opportunity to perform in a city where you were born or attended school is a high point for actors in any touring production. This will mark O'Shea-Creal's first opportunity to return to Oklahoma City. He's also scheduled to conduct master classes for OU musical theater students.
“My whole family is coming down from Nebraska, and OU's musical theater school has bought up a block of tickets to see the show,” O'Shea-Creal said. “The Oklahoma performances will allow me to give something back and say thanks to all the people at OU, Lyric Theatre and the Philharmonic for giving me such great opportunities.”