3 Montclairians driving to ‘Chicago’ for the holidays
Three Montclairians — Jennifer Dunne, Arian Keddell and Michael Scirrotto — are anticipating spending the holidays together in “Chicago.” They won’t be flying off to the Windy City. Instead, they’ll be hopping into a black Toyota RAV 4 and commuting the 17 miles to the Ambassador Theater in Manhattan on an almost daily basis to perform in the Kander and Ebb musical.
As cast members in “Chicago,” the second-longest-running musical in Broadway history, their holidays will differ distinctly from those of most of their neighbors. On Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, they’ll break away early from celebrations with friends and family to entertain audiences full of strangers who are making their own holidays special by seeing the show.
Mid-November to the beginning of January is the make-or-break time of year for Broadway shows. For theatergoers, tickets are particularly difficult to score for Thanksgiving week, even tougher for Christmas week. And audiences expect to see the very best.
Many performers have spent years honing their craft to reach this level. “When you finally book that gig and you finally get that dream, you know you don’t get to celebrate your Christmases or your Thanksgivings with your family anymore, especially if you don’t live in a two-hour radius of them,” Dunne said.
“We love what we do and we’re so proud of what we do,” said Dunne, who is married and has two young daughters, “but the holidays do become a little bit hard for us.”
The thrill of being on Broadway doesn’t diminish over time. “You have this inner clock that’s telling you, ‘I can’t wait to go to work,’” said Scirrotto, who lives in Montclair with his partner. They time their celebrations to accommodate the show schedule. “You’re strategic about having people over at a certain hour of the day,” he said. “The hardest part about it is that you have to say goodbye to them while they’re all still enjoying each other’s company and having fun.”
It helps to know that they are making the holidays special for the audience.
“To know that people have made a special trip to New York City, to your theater, to come and see a show really makes it worth it,” said Keddell, who lives down the street from her brother and his family. “It’s always worth it, but there’s just that extra little sparkle knowing that someone was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have planned this thing and it’s the holidays and there’s all this excitement around it.’”
Dunne has been part of the “Chicago” cast the longest of the three carpoolers, signing her contract in 2012. In the Playbill, she’s described as a swing, which means that on any given night she can be called upon to play one of half a dozen roles.
Sometimes she fills in for someone who is on vacation, so she has advance warning of what she’ll be doing. Other times, if someone calls in sick, she may have only a couple of hours’ notice. This has been especially important since the COVID-19 pandemic, because a positive test can knock out a performer for 10 days.
Being a swing requires tremendous focus to make sure the various roles don’t get confused. “I’ve done five different parts in a week,” Dunne said. To make sure she keeps the roles straight, she has notes that she reviews before every performance.
But the challenge of being a swing, she said, is part of what has allowed her to stay with the show for 10 years. She doesn’t get bored because she’s not doing the same thing night after night.
Scirrotto, who joined the cast in 2014, plays several ensemble roles, including Harry, the jury and the spirit of Bob Fosse. “I never leave the stage,” the carpool driver said with a laugh.
He said he especially appreciates the job security “Chicago” has
provided. At the time he was
offered the job, he had a couple of other shows to choose from.
“When I chose ‘Chicago,’” Scirrotto said, “my agents were like, ‘It’s not a new show. There’s not going to be so much hype. You really want to go to “Chicago”?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I want to be in Chicago. That’s my dream.’”
As it turns out, one of the other shows closed after two months, and the other lasted a year and a half.
“‘Chicago’ is a gift,” Scirrotto said.
Keddell joined the Broadway company in October 2019 after spending a year in the national tour company, where she played Annie and was an understudy for Mama Morton. Now she plays Mona in the ensemble.
Being an understudy in the national tour company helped her stretch as a performer, Keddell said, adding that her current role is very satisfying. “It was nice coming into this company just going, ‘OK, I can focus on this, this piece of the puzzle,’” she said.
All three describe their drives into and out of the city as a nice touchstone. They refer to Scirrotto’s car as “Mikey’s Mario Kart.” They spend the time catching one another up on their daily lives and laughing a lot. Only occasionally does the conversation veer into shop talk. They’re much more likely to engage in their own version of “Carpool Karaoke,” belting it out to Elton John or Prince songs.
“We joke that those rides are basically like our therapy,” Keddell said.
And every night those rides return them to Montclair, a place they call home.
Keddell, who grew up in Elmira, New York, and began her career in ballet, enjoys being near her brother. And she is delighted to continue ballet classes at the Sharron Miller Academy for the Performing Arts.
“It’s my joy,” she said. “That’s my bliss. That’s where my heart lives.”
Scirrotto, who grew up in Jupiter, Florida, said that Montclair has been “a godsend.”
“My partner and I felt it was very important to be in a community that we viewed as diverse and inclusive,” he said. “We wanted to feel welcomed. We wanted to be surrounded by arts and like-minded people. And we wanted to be surrounded by beauty.”
For Dunne, who grew up on a farm in Traverse City, Michigan, the connection to Montclair is visceral.
“I feel like I have a piece of who I was,” she said, wiping away a tear. “That is so exciting to me because I didn’t know if I would ever be able to provide that for my girls – a place that felt like who I was before I hit the New York City sidewalks.
“To be able to provide a place of greenery for them, where we’re actually touching the earth on a regular basis – like actual dirt – is really, really so special to me.”