How a Broadway Horror Story Led Gary's Kristine Nielsen and Julie White to the Tony Awards

Taylor Mac’s Tony-nominated new play Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus serves as an imagined follow-up to William Shakespeare’s most violent play. As it turns out, it’s path to Broadway was similarly chaotic.

Mere days before previews were set to begin, actress Andrea Martin was forced to step down from a lead role in the production due to injuries related to an accident she suffered during rehearsals.

The My Big Fat Greek Wedding actress, 72, broke four ribs in late April while preparing for the bawdy comedy — which she was supposed to be co-headlining with fellow Tony winner Nathan Lane. She continued rehearsing for a week, but producer Scott Rudin later announced she would no longer be able to perform the role.

As is customary on Broadway, the show must go on! Enter Kristine Nielsen, 64, who was also starring in the show. She stepped up to the plate to assume Martin’s role. Julie White, 57, a 2007 Tony winner for The Little Dog Laughed, was then called on to replace Nielsen.

“I am heartbroken to have to leave the production and have tried to convince the doctor that my funny bone is stronger than my broken ribs,” Martin said in a statement at the time. “But regretfully, I must follow the doctor’s orders. I love everyone involved in this beautiful play and will miss them profoundly. I will be there cheering them on from the audience at the Booth Theatre.”

Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus tells the story of two servants (Lane and now, Nielsen) ordered to clean up the bodies after the fall of the Roman Empire in the year 400 (as told in the blood-soaked conclusion of William Shakespeare’s first tragedy, Titus Andronicus). Along the way, they run into a midwife on the verge of death (White).

With just under a week to rehearse before beginning previews in April, Mac’s show pulled off a remarkable feat, earning 7 Tony nominations including Best Play and nods for both Nielsen and White.

“It was unbelievable,” Nielsen recalls to PEOPLE of the 6-day rehearsal period. “I mean it’s still sort of a blur to me because we had to do it so fast without panic, and without worry and a great deal of trust. You’re shot out of a cannon — so you don’t have time to really think about it. You just do it.”

“I did have three minor breakdowns,” she laughingly admits.

For White, the pressure was even more intense as she hadn’t been involved with the production until she was brought on at the very last minute.

“I stepped into a thing that was already made,” she says. “Immediately from the start, the lights were there, I knew what I was wearing, I had that crazy wig — I was in costume within my third day! It was really crazy.”

A month into Gary‘s acclaimed run on the Great White Way, both actresses admit they’re still figuring out the play as it goes along.

Says Nielsen, “It’s like an onion — you keep peeling it. There’s always something that comes in and surprises you. It’s such great material like that.”

“I consider acting like surfing,” White muses. “Like that surf board is your play, and the ocean is the evening that you have that time. You always know how to do it, but it’s always going to be different.”

Martin hasn’t been by to see Gary, the women reveal, but Nielsen says the Broadway veteran has been “incredibly encouraging” throughout the process.

“I called her when the transition happened and she emailed me back a beautiful note. And on opening night she sent me some lovely flowers and a wonderful note, kind of more personal. I’ll keep that to myself.”

Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus is now playing at the Booth Theater.

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