One of our few living links to Broadway's golden age reminisced at a small shop in Manhattan's old printing district last night. Sharp as the proverbial tack and with perfect recall, 93-year-old Iva Withers talked to a beyond-capacity crowd of theater lovers about her long career as the eternal standby. Withers played more performances of some of Broadway's greatest musicals than their original stars did, but never got to open one of the new shows on Broadway, so never became a household name like Mary Martin or Tammy Grimes. Is she sorry? Not a whit, it seems.
Born in 1917, the petite Canadian dancer first came to New York just to take voice lessons, but when she impressed a gentleman at an open call a few years later with a medley from Oklahoma and later asked "Who's he?" it turned out to be Richard Rogers. Her career eventually took off, but not before personal tragedy took her her to England in 1942, where she spent seven wartime months searching for the fates of her brother and her sweetheart, both of whom had gone off to fight and lost their lives.
Indomitable, she bounced back to Broadway and became a contract understudy. Replacing original star Jan Clayton ("so fragile, so adorable"), Withers played over 600 performances in Carousel, co-starring with John Raitt—who, alas, never stopped thinking of her as a chorus girl, and refused to say hello for the entire run.
Yet Withers went on tour with the show (working through a severe foot injury), brought it back to New York, then opened it in London. Over her career she also replaced and understudied the likes of Carol Channing and Julie Harris and took over starring roles in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, South Pacific, and Guys and Dolls, among others, working along the way with Agnes DeMille, Rouben Mamoulian, Noël Coward—all the greats.
Withers is still feisty, and ever-thankful for her long and colorful career even though it ended on a sour note: during the 1960's, still understudying, she found producers starting to begrudge her the "extra $75" she was supposed to get when called upon to fill in at a performance. Fed up with the business, she quit the stage and never returned. But over her substantial career as Broadway's perpetual hard worker, Iva collected endless stories of performing and hobnobbing with theater royalty. Approaching her idol Mary Martin when they were performing in adjoining theaters, she was refused an autograph: "You're one of us," she was told. Years later Zsa Zsa Gabor learned her role in Forty Carats by watching Withers' performances, yet after Gabor took over, "the awful thing is she never learned all the lines."