Spotlight on Mamie Duncan-Gibbs

by Tom Moran

Certain Broadway performers are like hidden treasures that real Broadway aficionados keep to themselves. Pretty much unknown to the general public, their talent, passion and devotion to theater are cherished by a small but knowledgeable core of theater lovers. Christine Baranski was one of these before she went off to do sitcoms. Before hitting it big in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, Kristin Chenoweth was another of these hidden treasures. And Chicago's Mamie Duncan-Gibbs is certainly another.

Duncan-Gibbs has been entertaining Broadway audiences for years – most notably as one of the Hunnies in George C. Wolfe's 1992 musical Jelly's Last Jam. And since 1996, she has been in the ensemble of the current Broadway revival of Kander and Ebb's Chicago. Duncan-Gibbs is also an understudy in the show, and when I spoke with her recently, she had just finished a week of performances in the role of Velma Kelly, one of the two sexy vaudevillian killers in this darkest of dark musical comedies. She knows that when she fills in for a star in the lead of a Broadway musical, her first job is winning over an audience that has paid $75 to see someone else in the role.

Duncan-Gibbs (far right) with Brent Barrett and Chicago's Merry Mistresses

"Usually they're mad," Duncan-Gibbs tells me in the lounge of the Shubert Theater before a performance, "because whoever they came to see, whether it's Bebe Neuwirth or Ute Lemper, or whoever, isn't in the show that night. But by the end of Act One they're okay. Then they're cheering, and as soon as the curtain comes down you hear the buzz, and it's like 'Whew, okay, they're gonna stay for Act Two.' "

Duncan-Gibbs was not one of the original understudies in the show. But early on in the run, a crisis arose that almost sounds like something out of 42nd Street: "It was during previews, and we were at the Richard Rodgers. Ann Reinking had already hurt her voice and I think her back was bothering her, so she was out -- and we had one standby, Nancy Hess. Then one night Bebe hurt her ankle, and we had to cancel a Monday night. It was right before the [1996] election, because I remember I had promised my kids we'd have all of Tuesday together. Well, that Monday they canceled a show, and I went to the director and I said, 'You guys make me sick. When I auditioned for the role I know I did a good job I assumed you had your butts covered.' I was so angry. But at the same time I looked at my watch and I said, 'Look. It's 7:15. I can give you till midnight tonight. And I can give you all day tomorrow. If you work with me, we can have a Wednesday matinee.' And they said, 'Okay, we're gonna go away for an hour and we'll be back, and let's see what you know.'"

"Well I knew the music, just from listening to it, but I didn't know one dance step. And I went upstairs and stretched and vocalized, and basically I auditioned that night. At 8:15 they came back, we ran through the music and Walter Bobbie worked with me on the material. We worked until about 11:00. The next day I came in at 11:00 in the morning, we worked until about 9:00 in the evening, and he said, 'Are you sure you want to do this? It's a lot.' And I said, 'No – we have to do this.' And it was the most exciting experience in the world, to open on Broadway in that role."

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Photo: Carol Rosegg
Courtesy of the Pete Sanders Group