Krysta Rodriguez won't let cancer slow her Broadway return

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — Rehearsing a Broadway musical is a stressful time for any actor. There are long hours and last-minute changes. Now imagine undergoing daily radiation burns at the same time.

Such was the unenviable position Krysta Rodriguez found herself in this summer as she prepared for the return of "Spring Awakening" while also battling breast cancer.

But the 31-year-old veteran of TV's "Smash" and Broadway's "The Addams Family" gets uncomfortable if anyone calls her an inspiration.

"I'm not doing what anyone else wouldn't do. You get cancer, you try to cure cancer. I don't really know many women my age at least who would be like, 'Oh, well. Guess it got me,'" she said. "That's not in our nature, anyway. So I don't really feel like I deserve any sort of accolades for that."

The new production of "Spring Awakening" represents a homecoming for Rodriguez, who was in the show's 2006 Broadway premiere as an ensemble member and understudy. This time, she plays Ilse, a free spirit who runs away from home.

Rodriguez was an understudy for the role in 2006 and adored it. This time, the show by the inclusive Deaf West Theatre has deaf and hearing actors and is performed simultaneously in English and American Sign Language.

Michael Arden, the director and a friend of the actress since they were in a workshop of "The Addams Family," said he and the cast have daily been astounded by Rodriguez's example.

"She is such a hard worker and she has dived headfirst into this," he said. "It's a lesson to us all: Sometimes you can choose to be owned and be ruled by our afflictions. But sometimes we can use it as a tool."

Rodriguez, a California native, starred in Francis Ford Coppola's musical "Gidget" in 2000 and the TV show "Colby's Clubhouse." Her other Broadway credits include "A Chorus Line," ''In the Heights" and "First Date."

A year ago, she got word that she had an 8-centimeter tumor in her breast. Her health and youth led doctors to initially dismiss the thought of cancer: "The fact that it was not detected before that is simply because no one thought it could happen."

While mammograms aren't recommended for women under 40, she got a second opinion — something she urges other young women to do when things don't feel right.

At first, she told only family and friends. She filmed a movie "My Bakery in Brooklyn" and directed "A Chorus Line" at her high school.

"You're told in the very beginning of being an actor, 'There are hundreds of people in line, ready to replace you.' So you never want to be sick. You never want to be less than your best. There was an idea that, 'If I tell people this, they're not going to want to hire me. I'm a liability.'"

There was no way to hide, though, when her signature bob started falling out due to chemotherapy. But she kept working, even landing a TV job on ABC Family's "Chasing Life," playing a character with cancer.

She credits her parents and her boyfriend for withstanding the brunt of her stress. "I feel a little bit ashamed when people say they're inspired by me. I'm like, 'Oh, gosh. I need to be handling this better,'" she said.

The schedule of "Spring Awakening" has mirrored Rodriguez's own personal battle against The Big C. She started rehearsals in Los Angeles the day of her last chemo treatment, and ended the run the day before she underwent a double mastectomy. (In the musical, she whipped off her wig to reveal her bald head.)

A self-confessed workaholic, she started the blog ChemoCouture to share beauty secrets and wisdom for cancer patients. (Under "8 Things Not to Say to Someone Who Has Cancer" are "Are you scared?" and "Natalie Portman looked really beautiful with a shaved head.") Her writing flair and irrepressible humor led to interest from Cosmo magazine.

Rodriguez was recovering from surgery when she heard the show was transferring to Broadway. (Her scars have been incorporated in the New York show.) The first preview in New York coincided with her last radiation treatment. (She celebrated by going to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter with her boyfriend.)

"What I have learned is that everything is less awful than you think it's going to be. You sort of see this thing and you think, 'This is going to be so terrible.' And you get to it and you get through it," she said.

"Life continues on around you. You still go to dinner with your friends, when you can. You still work, if you can. You do what you need to do. And then it's over."

Cancer hasn't dulled Rodriguez's wit or spirit. Though in pain due to her tissue expanders, she rubs her scalp — now looking Mia Farrow pixielike — and embraces the endless hair possibilities ahead.

"I'm going to go nuts, I think. I have a rare opportunity. Most women would not volunteer to have their hair look like this," she said. "I definitely feel more free."