The Life of an Understudy: an Interview with Finding Neverland’s Dana Costello

Dana Costello is currently performing in the cast of Finding Neverland at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. But she also has a very special role in this production: she’s an understudy. Costello has the responsibility of stepping into lead roles at a moments notice. We had the chance to catch up with the actress as she talked about the challenges of the job and what she’s learned from this very special production.

For those who don’t know much about Finding Neverland, could you tell us a little about the show?

FINDING NEVERLAND follows the real-life relationship between playwright J.M. Barrie and the family that inspired his play Peter Pan. When we meet Mr. Barrie he is one of London’s most famous playwrights who has grown tired of churning out the same old material. He meets the three Llewelyn-Davies boys and their mother, Sylvia, and begins joining in their games. Through these interactions he begins to remember the freedom of a child’s imagination, and rediscovers the world he invented when he was a child called Neverland.

You’re the understudy for the role of Sylvia. How much notice do you get before you go on as the leading lady?

I have been on for Sylvia only three times so far (that Laura Michelle Kelly is one tough cookie!). The first time I found out about three hours before the show. Thankfully by that time I had already begun understudy rehearsals and had a good idea of her track. I always make it a point to be ready to go on before we ever have an audience- because you never know what might happen! That can be hard in previews because the show isn’t set until the official opening night. For example: I also understudy Teal Wicks in the role of Mary Barrie and that was a much more hectic experience. Her track had undergone huge changes throughout the preview process; most of which I was never able to see because usually I am in a quick-change during her scenes. Two days after opening she was hurt and I was told I’d be going on- which led to a very late night of watching video and learning her brand new lines and blocking! (Shout out to my husband for playing all the parts in our living room to help me prepare. His accents are awful but his team spirit can’t be beat!)

You just recently got to step in for Laura Michelle Kelly for the first time. What was that experience like? 

That experience was terrifying and awesome! The most incredible part was the love from my cast and crew. Matthew Morrison, my dreamy co-star for the evening, was so supportive. He came in early to run lines with me and go over choreography. There is a real “go team” atmosphere backstage at Finding Neverland. Also, Laura has an exceptionally beautiful track. I felt like I had gone through every emotion in my arsenal, and then enjoyed a very cathartic ending. She’s so lucky she gets to do that every night!!

Dana snaps a quick selfie before her first performance as Sylvia.

You guys get a lot of children coming to see the show. How does that change the energy/atmosphere of the show? Do they ever get rowdy/call out to the actors during the show?

We do get a lot of kids and I love that! I saw my first Broadway show when I was very young and I remember it vividly. It changed my life! The audience makes a HUGE impact on the show itself. When we feel good energy from the audience, we have good energy for the show. It’s funny because we get a lot of large school groups and they are often our quietest, least rowdy audiences because they get a lecture before the show to be “respectful.” Sure, be respectful, but be engaged and let yourself enjoy it. That’s what theater is for: laugh, cry, clap, feel something! (Just don’t try to plug in your phone on the set…)

Do you have a favorite moment in the show? 

I don’t want to give it away but there is a scene near the end of the play where the Peter Pan characters perform for Sylvia and her boys. I have done that scene well over a hundred times and it hasn’t lost an ounce of magic. It’s incredibly moving.

There have been lots of ghost sightings/paranormal activity in Broadway theaters. Have you ever had any paranormal experiences in the Lunt-Fontanne or anywhere else?

No I haven’t ever had a ghost sighting- but I love the tradition and romance of a theater’s ghost light!

The cast of Finding Neverland.

You made your Broadway debut in Jekyll and Hyde. What was that experience like? 

I grew up listening to Jekyll & Hyde and I was SO excited to make my debut in that show. There is nothing like making your Broadway debut. I bawled like a baby during my first curtain call! Fun fact: I also understudied Teal Wicks as Emma in that show.

Costello and the cast of Jekyll and Hyde.
Costello and the cast of Jekyll and Hyde.

Have you ever had/experienced any onstage mishaps?

Oh I am the queen of mishaps! I have so many stories of tripping, falling, props exploding in my hands… you name it. Once I was in a scene where my partner was carrying me upside down while another actor danced on a table next to us. The table’s leg bent and that actor fell and the heel of his boot kicked me in the nose. I ran offstage with blood GUSHING out of my face- got cleaned up- and finished the show with two black eyes and toilet paper stuffed in my nose. Live theater is very glamorous…..

What have you learned from Finding Neverland?

I learned that creating an original musical is very hard work but is also really fun! The choices we made in the rehearsal process will live with our characters forever. That’s pretty cool. And to the gal who will play my part someday who now has to sing that high D… I’m really sorry about that. My bad. 😉

Why should people see Finding Neverland?

Finding Neverland is the kind of show that touches people. Growing up takes something from us- our imagination, our ability to see the good, to believe. We see a lot of ourselves in these characters and can’t help but to be swept away by their story. A few weeks ago I was “swung out” of the show (meaning I got to sit in the audience while our swing went into my track so that I could watch the tracks that I understudy). Even though I knew the story and the science behind the spectacle, I was completely carried away. By the end I was crying and jumping to my feet with the rest of the audience! Something very special happens in our theater every night and whether a person is on stage or in the audience- I think they leave feeling like they have been a part of something beautiful and extraordinary.

You can catch Dana and the rest of the cast of Finding Neverland at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Get more information and buy tickets here.

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