When my sister was in high school, she played a Bird Girl in Seussical, so of course I went to see her. I had never heard or seen anything from the show before, but I figured it would be cute. I walked out that night convinced that Gertrude McFuzz was now a dream role.
I didn’t think I would ever have a chance to play her, but a friend of mine at work kept telling me about this theater he worked at, and how he wanted to propose Seussical for the upcoming season, and that I needed to audition. Everything finally fell into place, and I can safely say that it was the most nervous I’d ever been at an audition. At this point, I had never been an actual lead in a musical, outside of understudying for Carrie, and there were a lot of talented people who came in. I sang Teen Fiona’s verse from “I Know It’s Today” and was asked to stay to read from the script, and then sang some of the music for Gertrude, Mayzie, and Sour Kangaroo. It took several agonizing days- almost a week!- to hear back, but I was cast as Gertrude, and I literally burst into tears.
Playing Gertrude was both one of the easiest and hardest roles I’ve ever played. On one hand, I knew the show backwards and forwards coming into the rehearsal process, and I understood exactly how I wanted to approach playing the character. On the other hand, I got really anxious about singing. Really anxious. I was a mess. Luckily, my friend Cara was the music director and she was literally the most amazing coach, and I made a lot of improvements.
I also had one of the most fun casts I’ve ever worked with. It was a really hilarious group of people, and I’ve been lucky enough to do multiple shows with several of the cast members now.
The opening weekend was fantastic. I was in great voice, I felt fantastic, and both my brand-new boyfriend and my family from Nashville were able to come see me. It was amazing!
And then I got the flu.
I thought it was just allergies- I have so many of them, after all. But I was feeling worse and worse, and I eventually dragged myself to urgent care. And sure enough- I had the flu. While I was playing my dream role.
My sweet boyfriend took good care of me and I spent a lot of time resting my voice and sleeping, but I was still not up to par. Luckily Gertrude is a character role rather than, say, Christine Daae, so I could use some raspiness and squeakiness, but I was miserable. I could usually get through act one, but I had the worst time battling through “All for You” in Act two. Luckily, I had three fantastic Bird Girls to back me up, and my Horton was literally the most patient and sweetest person I could have possibly worked with. In the end, I got most of my voice back, even though it didn’t sound as good as I would have wanted it to, and I still got to play my dream role.
I also got to make my costume for Seussical! The costumer and director both agreed, as long as the dress was in a sort of 1950s style and lavender. With those parameters, I had plenty of freedom! I looked at a lot of 1950s children’s party dresses and simple Lolita outfits. Gertrude is the plainest of the birds; I didn’t need anything fancy or detailed, but I knew the kind of shape I wanted.
I ended up using Simplicity 8324, their Alice cosplay pattern, but simplified it a lot. I eliminated the pinafore and a lot of extra ruffles and trims and cut everything from a very soft lavender linen that I originally bought for a Rapunzel cosplay (which still hasn’t happened, oops). The underskirt was made of white muslin, but I cut it differently from the pattern. To cut down on bulk at the waist seam, but for maximum fluff, I cut the base as a circle skirt, and then added a 10″ long ruffle to give the skirt more volume.
During the first dress rehearsal I realized I wasn’t getting the right amount of poofiness, so I added my trusty Malco Modes petticoat underneath. I also realized I needed shorts, since my skirts were short but I was moving so much! Because they would be visible (especially when I rolled across the stage at the beginning of “All for You”) I used Simplicity 8154, a lavender bedsheet from Walmart, and lace from my stash to make a pair of bloomers.
The director wanted most of the characters in converse sneakers, so I bought a lavender pair on Poshmark. Initially my hair was going to be down and curled, with a white bow, but I looked entirely too much like a contestant on Toddlers and Tiaras. After the first performance, I bought two small bun forms and put my hair up in two high buns, similar to the original Gertrude in the Broadway production. For makeup I used a lot of purples from my Wet n Wild Petal Pusher palette and my Urban Decay palette, and I combined several lip color to make the perfect pinky-purple lip. Comment below if you’d like to see a hair and makeup tutorial!
The most important thing, though, was my tail. Or rather, tails. If you haven’t seen the show, Gertrude has a plain one feather tail, and she thinks that Horton the elephant will notice her if she had a prettier tail. The cool girl of the jungle sends her to get pills to make her tail grow, and Gertrude ends up with a tail so long and heavy she can’t fly. So you can see how this was a challenge.
For the one feather tail, I made a big butt bow out of the same lavender linen that fastened to the back of my dress with one large snap in the center. Attached to the bow was one long, slightly scraggly peacock feather that stood straight up from my back. It was the right combination of sad and wimpy, but still noticeable from the audience.
The first time Gertrude’s tail grows is onstage, in the middle of the song. When I constructed the white petticoat layer in the dress, I added a pocket with a zipper closure in the seam between the circle base and the ruffle. Inside the pocket I sewed three feather boas. At the right point in the song, one of the bird girls took off my bow and single feather while the other two unzipped the pocket and pulled out the other boas. It was a great moment that worked really well onstage!
As soon as the number was over, I ran backstage to put on what we affectionately called “the mega tail.” I built a reinforced belt that wrapped around my back, and I attached four keychain loops along the belt. The tail itself was a panel of lavender felt that I backed with canvas to make it sturdier, and then I attached a whole slew of feather boas- some from the theater’s shop, some from the dollar store, and some from Joann’s. I also hot glued individual brightly-colored turkey feathers to pipe cleaners and added them to the ends of the tail.
At the top of the panel I had four large loops from large hook and eye sets. So when it was time to switch, the bird girls (or whoever was handy backstage) would stuff the growing tails back into the skirt pocket, zipped it shut, and hung the panel onto the keychain loops. It worked so well!
My first attempt I used large hooks, but the panel kept popping off when I moved. With the locking loops, the panel stayed in place and moved with me easily.
The downside? It was heavier than it looked! All in all it was fairly lightweight, but I ended up wearing it for about an hour and a half straight. It rested right on my lower back, so it weighed me down a bit, especially during the end of act one when I was running around a lot. I also got super sweaty, not going to lie. It helped that the reinforced belt was strapped and overlapped over my lower back, which gave me a good base, and the four points of contact distributed the weight evenly. They ended up designating a chair to be my “tail chair” backstage. It was tucked away in a corner, out of the way, (since Gertrude doesn’t do much in the middle of act two) and I draped the tail over the arm.
I also could only take bathroom breaks when someone took my tail off. Usually I waited until act two- in the beginning, Gertrude is onstage for a few minutes in the beginning, so after that I would run backstage, have someone take my tail off, run to the bathroom, and then have someone put my tail back on. It was a little chaotic!
Productions usually vary, but I ended up keeping the tail on for the beginning of “All for You.” At the top of the scene I snuck through the audience with my tail trailing behind me and army rolled across the stage (tangling the tail around me). During the song, Gertrude dramatically recounts her process of getting her tail taken off. So as I sang the “pluck pluck pluck- ouch, it hurt a lot” bit, the bird girls popped off my mega tail while one of them snapped my one feather tail back onto the back of my dress, just in time for me to turn around to sing “and suddenly Gertrude could sail” and show the audience that my one feather was back. The Cat took my mega tail offstage, and that was that! In our total fifteen performances, we were able to do all my tail transitions without a hitch.
I’m hoping to do a video showing the three different tails and how they work, and a makeup and hair tutorial for Gertrude, so comment below if you’d like to see those, or have any questions about Seussical!
(I also made the puppets for the Cat to use in act two! They were a super quick project made from clearance tee shirts I bought from Target and some scraps and buttons from my stash. I didn’t use a pattern, but they worked pretty well!)