Understudies seem to be in the spotlight as seldom before at the moment, thanks to Natasha J Barnes’ ongoing -and, by all accounts, triumphant- occupancy of Sheridan Smith’s title role in Funny Girl over at the Savoy, and also Ria Jones’ massively acclaimed appearances as Norma Desmond in the ENO Sunset Boulevard when leading lady Glenn Close fell ill recently. Both ladies had particularly daunting mountains to climb in that they were (still are, in the case of Ms Barnes) subbing for above-the-title star performers, whom large portions of the audience are there specifically to see. It is disingenuous to pretend otherwise -despite protestations on social media that “you paid to see the show not the star”- just as it would be churlish not to point out that both understudies gloriously silenced their detractors and boo-ers (literally in Ria’s case) by giving brilliant performances.
Over the years I’ve seen more understudies, stand-bys and alternates than I care to remember. The huge majority of them have been pretty damn good, and in a few cases rather better than the people they were deputising for.
As I mentioned in my first post, my first experience of seeing a cover was at my first “grown-up” show Evita where I saw the entire original London cast (David Essex as Che, Joss Ackland as Peron, Siobhan McCarthy singing ‘Another Suitcase In Another Hall’….) except for the leading lady. As it turns out, Susannah Fellows -the alternate Eva Peron- was sensationally good, and I’ve since seen her starring in her own right in West End shows such as Aspects Of Love, Nine, City Of Angels….. Many years later and through a mutual friend I got to attend the opening of a shop Susannah was setting up in Maida Vale and I felt a little bit starstruck. She was graciousness itself even when I blurted out that I had first seen her onstage when I was 8. (Nice one, Alun).
Still hell bent on seeing Elaine Paige’s EP, I insisted on having Evita tickets for my birthday the following year as well, much to the consternation of my parents (“why don’t we go and see Annie instead darling, for a change?” “NO! Annie is for girls! And Americans!” I really was a delight.) Once again, no Elaine …….this time we got the new alternate Marti Webb (Susannah Fellows having defected to the RSC, in a showbiz climbdown that blew my 10-year-old mind……how could you give up wearing that big white dress twice a week? HOW?!!) and she of course was also thrilling in the part. This was before Tell Me On A Sunday so she was a bit of an unknown quantity going in. I definitely think seeing two absolutely terrific covers in succession at that early stage of theatregoing made me more chilled-out and forgiving about getting to a venue and discovering that the lead is out.
Not that there haven’t been times when I’ve been extremely disappointed, initially at least. The most recent example of this was last Summer in New York when, just after winning the Best Actress In A Musical Tony Award, Kelli O’Hara succumbed to the flu and missed a couple of performances of The King & I at Lincoln Center. Myself and The Divine Pam (I call her that because she really is divine, and, er, her name’s Pam) turned up for our Saturday Matinee and sure enough there was the sign up stating ‘At This Performance, the role of Anna Leonowens will be played by Betsy Morgan’. In the States they have the policy that if the star name above the title is absent you are entitled to an exchange or refund. However, I was only in town for a week and all my other theatre slots were filled, so we had no option but to go in and see the show with Ms Morgan. We were so glad we did: she gave a beautiful performance; gorgeously sung, sensitively and -where required- powerfully acted, just completely entrancing. She received a resounding and well deserved ovation, which is all the more impressive given the outright hostility in the lobby before the show. Listening to a gaggle of aggrieved, spectacularly entitled Upper West Side matrons take on the box office staff, house manager, security guards and indeed anybody within earshot is something I hope you never experience. Terrifying.
Actually, my track record of seeing understudies on for high profile performers in New York hasn’t been the best: I missed Norbert Leo Butz literally three days after press night in the mammoth lead role of the Big Fish musical, Josh Gad -one of the two leads- in the original cast of The Book Of Mormon (his cover, Jared Gertner, was screamingly funny and went on to star in the West End premiere), Billy Porter just after winning his Tony for playing Lola in Kinky Boots, and even that notorious old trouper Chita Rivera -who hardly ever skips a show- was M.I.A. when I went to see the Roundabout revival of The Mystery Of Edwin Drood at Studio 54. Of all of these, it was the last that was the biggest disappointment: it wasn’t that the understudy wasn’t good -she was fine- but she was clearly attempting to give a carbon copy performance (complete with nudges, winks and asides at the audience, the show being set in a Victorian Music Hall) despite being about 30 years younger than, and having approximately 1/5th of the charisma of, the person she was replacing.
For Chita Rivera’s most recent Broadway appearance, playing the vengeful Claire Zachanassian in the jet black Kander & Ebb musical The Visit in 2015, the producers got around the problem of the main draw possibly being absent by casting another star as her stand-by, in this case the much loved Donna McKechnie who created the lead role of Cassie in A Chorus Line on both sides of the Atlantic and who went on to have a distinguished theatre, cabaret and recording career. Unfortunately, this highly unconventional show failed to find an audience and folded before Ms McKechnie could take to the stage; it was however an unusual feeling for The Divine Pam and I to get to the theatre on the night and really not care which leading lady we were going to see. For the record though, Chita was magnetic.
Closer to home, I remember arriving at Her Majesty’s the first Saturday night after The Phantom of The Opera had opened and being astonished that Sarah Brightman wasn’t appearing. I had already seen her alternate, Claire Moore, playing Audrey in the West End Little Shop Of Horrors so I knew she could sing, but was completely unprepared for the extraordinary soaring soprano -a rare combination of sweetness and power- she brought to the role (which she later took over full time). The biggest disappointment about the original cast recording of Phantom was, for me, that it’s Brightman rather than Moore singing Christine.
Working in the Box Office at the London Palladium I was on the receiving end of audience disgruntlement at star absences on more than one occasion. Towards the end of his year-long run in Saturday Night Fever heart-throb Adam Garcia seemed to be off more than he was on, at least from the Palladium stage. He was however frequently to be found around showtime in the Oxford Circus McDonalds where he cheerfully dispensed hugs and autographs to the very same hormonally crazed teens who would then come into the theatre and scream abuse at the staff because they were going to have to watch the understudy (Michael Rouse, who was very sexy as it goes). It is hard to reason with a hysterical 16 year old frantically waving an autographed MaccyDs napkin in your face.
The same occurred a couple of years later when Elaine Paige (yep, her again) missed many performances of The King & I. It was an older crowd but they could still get just as vicious when they discovered their star was off, refusing to be mollified with the assurance that they would be getting just as good a show (let’s be real here….a BETTER show) with the stand-by. And who was that? The wondrous Claire Moore yet again. In fact Claire gave so many (consistently glorious) performances as ‘Mrs Anna’ that the Olivier Awards judges that year attempted to nominate her, rather than the Macavity-like Ms Paige (“Not There”), for Best Actress in a Musical. The producers put the kibosh on that though, more’s the pity.
Perhaps because for the most part plays are less physically demanding than musicals, I have seen a lot less understudies in dramas and comedies over the years. I caught a clearly unwell Maggie Smith in Peter Shaffer’s Lettice And Lovage back in the 1980s. She was croaky as hell and kept a well- and oft- used tissue up her sleeve throughout the performance, but her comic timing was still masterly. However, had she had to deliver a musical number that had any more than about two notes in it, I suspect we may have been looking at putting the understudy on…… And I would’ve been very disappointed 😉