Don’t underestimate the understudy

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.

Rant over!

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.

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.

6 thoughts on “Don’t underestimate the understudy”

  1. Completely agree. I went to see Flashdance (actually brilliant, don't judge!) in its last week and the lead actress was quite, quite astonishing. Discovered afterwards that she was the understudy. On the basis of that performance, she should quite clearly have been the lead.

  2. My personal feeling is that it is not a question of whether or not a particular show is weakened by the presence of understudies. I think you are right to state that, in most cases, the production is unlikely to suffer. Having said that, fundamentally, it is my belief that if I – as a theatregoer – have paid to see a particular production, I want to see the cast whose names are on the posters, on the advertising material, and who have featured in the reviews I have read of that production.

    I mean no disrespect to understudies – who, of course, are, on the whole, accomplished and give excellent performances – but the fact remains that if a production is advertised as starring Elaine Paige/Michael Ball/Benedict Cumberbatch/Rachel Weisz/whoever, then when I turn up at the theatre clutching my ticket, those are the artists I want to see on the stage.

    For example, I spent £55 on a ticket to see Ken Stott in A View from the Bridge and I heard on the day that Ken Stott was off that night. Fortunately, the Box Office allowed me to exchange my ticket for a different date. But if I had been forced to watch his understudy, would that powerful production have suffered from the absence of Mr Stott? Undoubtedly. Thinking of other examples, one of the most dire evenings I have ever spent in the theatre was sitting through a performance of the play, Feelgood, featuring Henry Goodman's understudy, who was terrible.

    I'm sure that the productions you quote in your post, Scott, which you saw with understudies in lead roles – Sweet Charity, Avenue Q etc – didn't suffer from the absence of the principals. But I presume I'm right in assuming that you had previously seen (or went on to subsequently see) those productions with the full cast as advertised. Most people only go to see a particular production once and if certain actors don't appear at that performance, people don't necessarily have an opportunity to revisit a production at a later date in the hope of seeing an actor they didn't get to see last time.

    I think we need to move away from being critical of theatregoers who say they feel "cheated" and "disappointed" or who say that their evenings were "ruined" when they are faced with watching performances filled with understudies. They have a perfect right to feel that way, and that is no insult to the hard-working understudies.

    When I saw Next to Normal on Broadway, I was very unhappy that Alice Ripley was off at the performance I had booked to see. Her understudy was, as it happens, very good but was the absence of Ms Ripley detrimental to my experience? Yes, because I had specifically wanted to see her Tony-winning performance and was annoyed that I had paid $130 to see an understudy. (Who, as I say, was excellent.) But did I feel cheated, and disappointed? Yes, I did. And that is my right.

    1. "I presume I’m right in assuming that you had previously seen (or went on to subsequently see) those productions with the full cast as advertised".

      Er, actually, no. With the exception of Avenue Q, which I have seen several times with several cast changes, each of the shows I cited I saw only once.

  3. I've usually been lucky with seeing shows that have the primary cast onstage, but I saw Legally Blonde with the understudy in the lead role. She was great! There is that twinge of disappointment when the understudy is in the main role, but I've often thought that if the person is chosen as the understudy, they have to be pretty good. Tam Mutu does an excellent job as the Phantom in Love Never Dies and Katy Treharne was a wonderful Christine when I saw her in September. They probably give more to the performance as they don't often get the chance to shine.

    Basically, I agree with Gina Beck. Understudies are the next big names.

  4. DramaMean UK,

    This is my opinion exactly. We have a right to feel sorry for not seeing a particular actor if we come to see her/him especially, without being disrespectful to understudies, who are in 95% of the cases (but not 100%) excellent in my experience. Illnesses and injuries do happen, so we can't really complain, but feeling dissapointed, yes we can. Why ciriticize these feelings?

  5. As a student actor, tonight is my first performance with an understudy going on (in the role of my husband). At first I was terrified, but as I watched the other students freak out, flip-out, flip-a-$&#@#$, I began to have many of these same thoughts and ideas. And I found this blog to be very helpful and comforting. I think if the cast rises to the occasion and puts on their big-boy pants, everything will be just fine. But we've got a couple diva's and worry-warts that are going to have to get over it and just do their job. We'll see… :D

    I've come to the conclusion that it's just one of many adventures to be had in live theatre.