The Standby Star Who Stole Broadway’s Limelight
By DAVID BELCHER
Published: August 9, 2010
Iva Withers, 93, tapped her cane on the hardwood floor of her neat West 55th Street apartment with the ferocity of a dance instructor. She was about to describe a bit of Broadway musical history: the afternoon and night when she played the leads in what are now two classics.
Marcus Yam/The New York Times
Remembering how Rodgers and Hammerstein had signed her to a three-year contract in 1945, she said, “There was even a Saturday that summer where I played Julie in ‘Carousel’ at the matinee and Laurey in ‘Oklahoma!’ in the evening,” shuttling between the Majestic and the St. James Theaters on West 44th Street.
The energy level of that trouper is still there 65 years later, as Ms. Withers reminisced at her home about her Broadway career. It was an unusual one in that she was a standby or replacement for famous names in famous roles from 1945 to 1970, yet never originated a lead part of her own on Broadway, though she was the first Julie Jordan in the original London production of “Carousel.” She knew a lot of those working in the show business of her day and remembers them on cue.
“Iva represents one of the last living links to the golden age of Broadway,” said the theater and film historian Foster Hirsch, who interviewed her when he wrote his 1998 book, “The Boys From Syracuse: The Shuberts’ Theatrical Empire.” “The Shubert brothers became less historical and more like real people when she shared memories about when they ruled Broadway.” He added, “Iva has complete recall.”
It is those memories that will be tapped again by Mr. Hirsch on Wednesday at the Showbiz Store & Cafe on West 21st Street in Chelsea, where the Harvardwood Club, an alumni arts organization of Harvard University, is presenting an evening with Ms. Withers.
Five feet tall (“without the heels I wore in ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’ ”), with a slender figure (“If you’re a dancer you have to control what you eat”) and perfect posture (nearly 80 years of almost daily dance classes), Ms. Withers arrived in New York in 1940 from the Canadian prairie province of Manitoba, where she was born in 1917. She had come to study singing, she said, so she could improve her voice when she performed in church, but by 1944 she had found an agent (“in the Brill Building”), and the next year had signed a contract with the creators of “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel.” Losing a brother and a “sweetheart” in World War II nearly sent her back to Canada, but she ultimately decided to stay.
Beginning in 1945, she was the replacement in the original companies for the roles of, among others, Laurey and Julie, as well as Miss Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls.” She toured with “Carousel” and, in the early 1950s, “South Pacific” (as Nellie Forbush), and replaced a pregnant Carol Channing when “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” went on the road.
Yet the Broadway of today doesn’t really know her. She left the industry in 1970, partly over frustration that the notoriously cheap producer David Merrick wouldn’t pay her more, even though she was the standby (the performer who stands in the wings in case a lead actor cannot go on) for two roles and an understudy to Julie Harris in Merrick’s production of “Forty Carats” on Broadway.
But mostly she left because her husband of nearly 30 years, the Broadway actor and dancer Kasimir Kokich (who previously had been married to the ballerina Alexandra Danilova), had a drinking problem that Ms. Withers felt was ruining their lives. “We all loved Kasimir but we couldn’t help him,” she said. “He returned to his native Croatia and died in 1982.”
She supported their two children by doing clerical work for several doctors, retiring at 77. Because of them, she said, she figures she still has some of the best health care in New York. The cane is for balance, she explained, after she sprained her ankle in a fall two years ago in her home, but it wouldn’t surprise you if she used it to tap dance.
The bookshelves in her rent-controlled apartment ($80 a month when she moved in 61 years ago) brim with photos and show posters that celebrate a life in the theater, which wasn’t all roses. Two printable memories:
“John Raitt was the biggest egotistical jerk I ever worked with,” she said, still sounding annoyed about the first Billy Bigelow in “Carousel.” “I performed more than 600 times with him and he never once said ‘Hello,’ never once said ‘Good evening.’ ”
On Mary Martin: “I suspected she was never nice to me because I was the first person who made you forget who had done the original Nellie Forbush.”
The blue eyes were still flashing as she turned philosophical: “But I am happy with everything that happened to me, although I had to struggle and work hard. I got to work with all the greats: Meredith Willson, Jule Styne, Rodgers and Hammerstein. I’m very lucky.”
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, who died on Tuesday at 97 at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, N.J., made a career as a backup for actresses like Julie Harris and Carol Channing.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Kim Kokich.
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 in the original London production of “Carousel,” as well as during a national tour and in a 1949 Broadway revival.
“Iva Withers’s Julie has a modest though unconquerable spirit — just right for the part,” Brooks Atkinson wrote in a review of the revival in The New York Times in 1949.
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.
“I’ve been only in hits, but I’ve built my career in following people,” Ms. Withers told The New York World-Telegram and Sun in 1953. “I’m still wondering what will happen when they give me something to create.”
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.
Pearl Iva Edith Withers was born in Rivers, Manitoba, on July 7, 1917. Her parents, Edith and Roy Withers — a seamstress and an insurance salesman — had immigrated from Ireland around 1913. 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 shortened her name for the stage.) 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 Ms. Clayton’s understudy.
In 1943 she married Robert Strom. A few years later she met the ballet dancer Kazimir Kokich, who was also married, while performing in the national tour of “Carousel” in Chicago, and they fell in love. They annulled their marriages and married in 1949.
Mr. Kokich died in 1982. In addition to her daughter, who was a reporter for NPR, Ms. Withers is survived by a son, Jerry, a former dancer with the Joffrey Ballet and a ballet coach; and two grandchildren.
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.”