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Archive for September, 2012

When I was a teenager back in the 1980s, my Mom would occasionally take the family to a show at a local dinner theatre. I still remember the one time when our waiter informed us that he would be playing Curly in that evening’s performance of Oklahoma! Actors doubled as waiters at this particular dinner theatre. Our waiter, whose name was Kevin, was not the principal Curly—he was the understudy. Kevin was young, possibly only a year or two out of college.  He was good-looking and very personable, and we hadn’t heard of the actor who was supposed to play Curly anyway, so we had no objections whatsoever. When the show started, my family was cheering for Kevin, and he turned out to be a wonderful Curly. His youth actually added to the characterization, and I was happy to see this young actor get a chance to show what he could do. I wasn’t disappointed in the least that I hadn’t seen the main actor. Now, of course this was a dinner theatre and not Broadway or the West End, but that experience stayed with me over the years to the point where I have come to truly respect and appreciate understudies, and I have seen some great ones since that I have never regretted seeing instead of the billed actors.

I’m writing this post as a direct reaction to a conversation I saw on Twitter yesterday. Tam Mutu (@tammutu), a wonderful actor and singer who is currently playing Javert in Les Miserables in the West End, asked a series of questions about theatregoers’ opinions of understudies and received a variety of responses. I did respond to one of his questions, but because it was Twitter and limited to 140 characters, I think my response was inadequate. I also looked at a lot of the responses and saw the whole dialogue that developed, and I thought this would be a subject worth writing about. I’m not going to go over all the Twitter responses, but I’m going to respond to some of Mr. Mutu’s questions individually and also try to explore the whole idea of understudies and why I think they are so worthy of respect.

Tam Mutu’s first question was (to paraphrase) “would you rather see a show with an ill principal actor or a healthy understudy?” To this question, my answer is easy—a healthy understudy. This is for the sake of both the principal and the understudy, because if a performer is ill, he or she should be resting. Singing through a cold can damage the vocal cords, and it’s much better if a performer sits out a few performances rather than hurting his or her voice in the long run. Also, understudies are trained performers who work hard and are just as dedicated as the principals. Some understudies have even been given their big breaks because they went on for the scheduled star on particular night, and a producer happened to be in the audience to see that understudy give an amazing performance. Shirley MacLaine in The Pajama Game on Broadway is a famous example.

Now, the word “star” brings up another issue for me. I often wonder if the reason a lot of people get disappointed when the understudy is on is that there is a perception that they are somehow getting “second best” because the understudy isn’t as well-known. I don’t think in terms of “stars” when I see shows generally, unless it’s a legend like Bernadette Peters or Michael Crawford, but the fact is that even legendary veterans like these are human beings and they can get ill. It’s much better for them if they take a little bit of time off and get healthy, and in the meantime, the audience potentially gets a real treat, like when I saw Anything Goes on Broadway and both “star” performers—Sutton Foster and Joel Grey—were off. That allowed me to discover two wonderful performers in Tari Kelly and Robert Creighton, and I did not for one minute feel like I was getting “second best”. In fact, when Tari Kelly came to St. Louis to star in the Muny’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, I was excited because I had already seen her on Broadway and knew what a great performer she was.

This also brings me to another question Tam Mutu asked on Twitter, which was about what a person would do if they went to see their favorite performer in a show and they were off. That’s about the only time when I would possibly be tempted to exchange my tickets, especially if I had traveled a very long way to see a particular performer (as I have done a few times). I might postpone a special trip if it involves flying, but if that’s not possible or if I were already there I would most likely see the show. I have never exchanged my tickets because an understudy was on and probably wouldn’t in that case either, because I would want to see the show and the rest of the cast, but I can’t say the thought wouldn’t cross my mind. I do think that after seeing the show with the understudy, if it’s possible I would try to see it again later in the week (depending on how long I was in that city) if the favored performer was back in. I don’t blame other people for exchanging their tickets, though, especially if they can’t afford to see the show twice. It’s not about seeing “the star” in that case. It’s about seeing someone you really admire as a performer (whether they’re famous or not) and made an extra effort to see, and it’s understandably a letdown if you get there and find out the understudy is on, no matter how great the understudy is. Even though I probably would still see the show, my response to Mr. Mutu when he asked if people would change their tickets if they knew in advance that a performer would be off was basically “it depends on who it is”, and that is why. There is no disrespect whatsoever intended toward the very hardworking understudies or the performers who take time off for much-needed recovery from illness.

In addition to favorite performers, sometimes there’s just a performance that is so talked-about that you really want to see it, and so when there’s an understudy on, the disappointment is understandable. I wouldn’t change my tickets in that case either, though, because that has happened to me. When the Next to Normal tour came to St. Louis, starring the Tony-winning Alice Ripley as Diana, I have to admit I was disappointed when I looked at the cast board upon arriving at the theatre and saw that Ripley was off. Once I sat down and watched the show I was very glad I got the chance to see her standby, Pearl Sun, give an outstanding performance. I did get an opportunity for discount tickets to see the show again, so I bought them in hopes of seeing Ripley, and when I did I was glad I had seen both performers because they each brought something different to the role. I also saw Jason Watson, the standby for the role of Dan, the first time I saw the show, and thought he was wonderful as well. It was a great experience to get to see the show twice with different leads each time. I understand that some people won’t be able to do that, but I was happy that I did.

I guess the point of all of this is to say that talented performers are everywhere, and just because someone isn’t a “star” or a household name doesn’t mean they’re not a fantastic performer and possibly (like Shirley MacLaine and others) a future star. Also, when you get to a show and find that the understudy is on, while I do understand being disappointed if the principal was someone you really wanted to see, please try not to think you’re getting “second best”.  The understudy just may surprise you. Also, it helps to remember that actors are not super-human and that they do get ill occasionally.  It’s understandable to be disappointed, but please don’t blame them when they need to take a few days off. Thanks to Tam Mutu for asking such thought-provoking questions and I really look forward to seeing him as Javert when I see the show in October. If unfortunately he is off, though, I’m sure his understudy will be great as well. Thanks also to all the wonderful understudies I have seen over the years, starting with Kevin at that dinner theatre years ago. Great talent is great talent, whether the performer is a “star” or not, and these unsung heroes have proven that year after year.

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