Over on Twitter, West End leading lady and all-round good egg Gina Beck (@Gina_Beck) has written an impassioned response to a series of missives that have been on The Stage’s letters pages of late.
The subject concerns understudies performing in place of highly-advertised and well-promoted names in West End shows, triggered by a letter complaining of a matinee performance of Wicked where several of the named leads were unavailable.
Beck tweeted the following (using the twitlonger web service to circumvent Twitter’s enforced 140 character limit), which I hope she won’t mind me repeating in full here:
I’m angered by a recent series of letters to @thestage complaining about seeing understudies in musicals.
Let me give you a little synopsis: Paul Hanson was “disappointed and frustrated” not to see the big stars in Wicked one matinee despite the show not being sold on ‘names’: “If this had been a Saturday night performance, would the show have gone ahead with so many understudies?(five)” he asks. John French goes on to imply that young West End stars have no stamina, as on the same night that three principals were absent from Love Never Dies “round the corner at the Garrick Theatre where all of the main actors were over 60, they were all present”.
No offence, but I don’t think the actors in the farce “When We Are Married” really need the same stamina and vocal health required for such roles as Ramin’s in LND or Rachel Tucker’s in Wicked. Paul Younger goes on to say, “How would you feel if you bought a Wembley ticket for a Take That reunion show, only to discover a tribute band on stage?” – which is not the same thing at all.
A musical is hardly ever just a vehicle for a big star to present themselves to an audience, it’s a group of actors working together to tell a story. I can empathise that it’s disappointing if your favourite stars are absent when you’ve paid to see them and perhaps if producers are going to sell a show on a ‘name’ there is a case for having a refund clause, but it seems highly insulting to the rest of the company working so hard to say you felt ‘cheated’ and that your night was ‘ruined’.
After all, do these writers not realise that stars such as Lee Mead, Ramin Karimloo and John Owen Jones were all understudies once – and the very people Paul Hanson would have been “extremely disappointed” to see.
Personally, I couldn’t agree more. Over the last year or two I’ve seen several shows where one or more of the lead actors has been indisposed and the understudy has gone on their place. I’ve seen Rachel Jerram as Kate/Lucy in Avenue Q, Tiffany Graves as Charity in Sweet Charity, Matthew Goodgame understudy for Noel Sullivan as Danny in Grease (and most of the male regulars ‘act up’ to cover as a result)… Most recently, I went to see Jersey Boys the week before last, and the two key roles of Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, among a few others, were both played by understudies (Ben Evans and James Winter respectively, who were both excellent).
And yes, when you first see the paper slip in your programme, or the poster on the way into the auditorium, there is inevitably a twinge of disappointment. I feel it too, even though in every single case I’ve cited above, the show has not been weakened by the change in cast. In fact, in many cases I’d say it has been strengthened, the surge in adrenaline palpable from every single member of the ensemble as they rally round to make doubly sure that the audience gets their money’s worth.
Theatre, West End theatre in particular, is an industry that demands performances day after day after day. “The show must go on” isn’t just a cliché, it’s an expectation, of producers and audiences alike. Without our hardworking alternates, understudies and swings, having to learn not only their own role but other people’s as well, commercial theatre would grind to a halt.
As I say in the sidebar of this blog, this is my personal space and the opinions I express here are mine alone, not those of my employer. However, everyone who knows me at work knows this is an issue I’ve felt strongly about, and have suggested various ways in which we can throw a little more light on the unsung (if you’ll pardon the pun) heroes and heroines of theatre. I even suggested – only half in jest – that it was a shame that none of the major awards had a category for “best understudy”. The major barrier to such an award, of course, is that booking a date for the judges’ attendance is likely to be difficult, to put it mildly…
Following the volume of discussion that has broken out on Twitter after Gina Beck’s initial tweet, I think it’s time that we look at this subject more closely. Watch this space.
Edit: I meant to include a link to this blog post, which both articulates the audiencegoer’s perspective well, and includes comments from other readers that include a long and cogent alternative point of view.