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Leading Role vs. Featured Role

Date: Jun 10, 2010


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Lead performance. Supporting performance. Leading Actress. Featured Actress. Come awards season, these distinctions get made all the time, and it’s easy to take them for granted.

But what do they mean, really? Are supporting roles and leading roles so different? Do they demand such dissimilar things from an actor that they should be considered separately when it’s time to hand out trophies?

Why not ask Jan Maxwell? At the 2010 Tony Awards, which will air live on CBS on Sunday night, she’s nominated for Best Actress in a Play (for last fall’s remount of  The Royal Family) and for Best Featured Actress in a Play (for the current revival of Lend Me a Tenor.) As much as anyone who’s been on Broadway this season, she knows what it takes to craft a large role and a small one.

Often, she says, it’s a matter of obligation to the material and to the audience.

She notes that in Lend Me a Tenor, her character Maria, the wife of the titular singer, doesn’t really drive the farcical plot, about an opera company’s frantic attempt to pass off a lowly theatre manager as a renowned performer. While the leads are trying to get things done, Maria barrels in and obstructs them, accusing her husband of cheating, weeping when she feels ignored, and frightening the meeker characters. Instead of taking actions herself, she’s designed to provoke reactions in others.

Fittingly, Maxwell’s highly physical performance makes her a force of nature. During one temper tantrum, for instance, she turns a fancy pillow into a deadly weapon. “I didn’t think about the pillow until I saw it on the set,” she says. “I just naturally picked it up and went to town.”

But that’s not to say Maxwell is mugging. As Tenor playwright Ken Ludwig told TDF Stages in March, she opens her performance with a tender scene, which makes her fury even funnier by contrast.

And discussing the pillow moment, she says, “I asked [director] Stanley [Tucci] if I should can it. Everybody in the cast was working on these bits, and I was starting to shy away from them. I didn’t want to be the one who pushed it over the line.”

Ultimately, Maxwell found the balance between bravura and reserve. That’s crucial for a supporting performance, since a smaller role needs to jolt a production without halting or overwhelming it.

“If you believe in the reality of what you’re doing, then it helps you avoid looking forced,” Maxwell says. “A lot of us have gone completely insane on our partners [in real life], so you ground [your performance] in reality and then stretch it a little bit.”

Her performance in  The Royal Family also demanded a mixture of theatricality and relatability. As Julie Cavendish, the reigning prima donna in a famous family of actors, she tries to hold her family together, until she has a gloriously comic breakdown at the end of the second act. Maxwell performed her collapse with operatic passion, yet she also evoked genuine frustration. Instead of a hysterical clown, she made Julie a real person who had reached the end of her rope, and the scene crackled with honest emotion.

Crucially, however, Maxwell didn’t let it linger too long. “I was the engine of the show, and I had to keep my foot on the pedal,” she says.

In other words, Maxwell can luxuriate in Maria’s behavior, since Maria isn’t responsible for making us feel like the play itself is moving forward. But since Julie has the most stage time in The Royal Family, Maxwell not only had to covey her journey as a character, but also had to pay attention to the rhythm of the entire production. “I was thinking about what everyone else on stage needed, what information was going to be helpful, the movements and the reactions and the cues, and what wasn’t going to be helpful,” she recalls.

She adds that unlike Maria in Lend Me a Tenor, who has roughly thirty minutes of stage time, Julie is in front of the audience for almost the entire show, and that creates a different responsibility to the crowd. “The audience really gauges their journey through her, and that’s not the case with Maria,” she says. “You can’t indulge. There may be moments you think are beautiful, but you can’t linger on them. You need to let the audience decide what’s beautiful without forcing it on them.”

As her Tony nominations attest, Maxwell is just as comfortable driving a play as she is pulling pranks from the back seat. On Sunday night, she could very well be rewarded for knowing how to do both.


Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor

(Photo by Joan Marcus)