( b. Jul 07, 1917 Rivers, Manitoba, CANADA - d. Oct 07, 2014 Englewood, New Jersey, USA ) Female
If there were a Tony Award for best understudy, Iva Withers might well have won repeatedly during her nearly three decades on Broadway. Though she appeared in the first Broadway run of musicals like Carousel, Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls, she never originated a starring role of her own. Instead, Ms. Withers made a career as a backup for actresses like Julie Harris and Carol Channing.
She grew up in Winnipeg, where she began appearing in local vaudeville productions at 10 and singing in church as a teenager. She went to New York in 1940, working as a night cashier at Stouffer's restaurant while auditioning for Broadway. She went to Rodgers and Hammerstein casting calls for about a year before Richard Rodgers selected her for the Carousel chorus. In time she became Jan Clayton's understudy.
A petite blonde with a powerful voice, Ms. Withers was a Broadway utility player. "Her motto was never to learn just your own lines -- learn everybody's," her daughter said. On Sept. 15, 1945, that work ethic helped Ms. Withers become the first actress to play the lead in two hit shows in one day. She was playing Laurey Williams in Oklahoma! while understudying for Jan Clayton as Julie Jordan in Carousel when Ms. Clayton became sick before the matinee. Ms. Withers played Julie in the afternoon and Laurey that night without a hitch.
Ms. Clayton left Carousel for Show Boat in 1946, and Ms. Withers took over. She also played Julie during national and British tours and a 1949 revival. In the early 1950s Ms. Withers replaced a pregnant Ms. Channing for the touring production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and played Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls after Vivian Blaine left the cast. She backed up Tammy Grimes in the play Rattle of a Simple Man and the musicals High Spirits and The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
In 1961, when she was Ms. Grimes's standby in Molly Brown, she received a startling phone call at her West 55th Street apartment in Manhattan: Ms. Grimes had fainted during the first act. "In seven minutes I was onstage," she told The New York Journal-American, which reported that the rest of the show went smoothly and that Ms. Withers received an ovation.
For all her winning moments onstage, Ms. Withers was not a perennial understudy by choice, and she continued to hold out hope for a star turn of her own. She finally got the chance in 1968, in the comedy Forty Carats, directed by Abe Burrows, in which she originated the minor role of Mrs. Adams. She also understudied for Ms. Harris as the female lead, Ann Stanley, and even played the Stanley role herself for a while before Zsa Zsa Gabor took over.
After Forty Carats closed in 1970, Ms. Withers struggled to find roles, and finally left Broadway. After her Broadway career, Ms. Withers returned to work as a cashier and became a physician's assistant.
"I am happy with everything that happened to me, although I had to struggle and work hard," she told The Times in a profile in 2010. "I got to work with all the greats: Meredith Willson, Jule Styne, Rodgers and Hammerstein. I'm very lucky."
Source: The New York Times obituary
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