Understudies: Do they have the Easiest Job in the World?

MTAS Blogger Dawn Bush (@Dawnydancer) discusses the role of understudies in this weeks blog…


It’s the stuff that Theatrical dreams are made of. The star of the show can’t go on, and an audience member cries “I know the role!” In the dream, she goes on, performs with jaw-dropping brilliance, and becomes an overnight star.

Stage.pngIn the summer of 2016, for one girl, Melissa Bayern, that dream looked like becoming a reality. The Stage reported the incident, with the headline screaming: “Audience Member Covers for Performer after Last Minute Illness.” It happened at a performance of Into the Woods at Manchester Royal Exchange, and such things are, indeed, what dreams are made of.

Pondering the role of understudies (beautifully covered by Dries Janssens in his blog). My interest was piqued exactly because of the dream-like quality of the story, which I was sure wasn’t all it appeared to be. Did it suggest that just anybody – even a random audience member – can understudy a role, if they know the words? They don’t even have to perform that often. Isn’t it the easiest job in the world? Couldn’t anyone do it?

The problem that I have with it– call me cynical if you like – is in the detail. A quick re-read of the article tells me that it’s not quite that simple.

There is no doubt in my mind that such a substitution would cause problems. An audience member might know the songs and even the lines, if they’ve seen it over and over; but there is far more to understudying a role than simply knowing the words. Blocking, timings, costume – does it fit? Is the music in the right key? Are there any quick changes? There is often notoriously little room backstage, how did she know where to be, and when? Did the other actors spend the majority of their time pushing her about? Understudies have to be physically and mentally ready to go on at a moment’s notice. Did she have time to warm up? What about the relationship with the rest of the cast? How on earth did they cope?

Some years ago, I saw a performance of The Taming of the Shrew at the RST. It starred comedienne Josie Lawrence as Beatrice, and was a brilliant performance from all concerned. I remember noting with amusement that the young man that played one of the servants must be quite tall, as the trousers he was wearing did not meet his shoes by about ten centimetres; I thought it was odd, but part of the character’s comic nature. It wasn’t until the end of the performance, when much was made of the young man – Josie Lawrence herself stepping forward and congratulating him with the gift of a bottle of champagne, the cast around him giving him a heartfelt round of applause – that I twigged. The palpable sense of relief from the cast (I’m convinced I saw retrospective sweat on their brows!) indicated that the young – very young – man had stepped in at the last minute to understudy the role. His trousers were too short because the costume belonged to someone else.  The important thing to note is that it didn’t make any difference to my enjoyment of the performance.

The point I’m making is that the substitution of one person for another – particularly in Musical Theatre, where the skills required are broader than in straight plays and are known as Triple Threat (Acting, Singing, Dancing) – is a very huge deal.

A few years ago, I had surgery for a fairly major problem. In my case, my surgery was done by the main consultant surgeon; but if he’d been away, and they had substituted someone else, would I have demanded they delay the surgery until he was back? Absolutely not! I knew I could trust that the person they put in place would have the appropriate skill, training and experience to do the job just as well.  I wouldn’t expect the replacement to be someone who’d watched Mr Consultant Surgeon do a lumpectomy a few times, and firmly believed they could do just as well. So it is with Musical Theatre.

ghostOk, so a poor performance isn’t life-threatening; but it really galls me when people think that, if they’re not getting a star name, they’re getting someone that is somehow less. Less prepared? No. Less rehearsed? On the contrary. Less skilled? Probably not, in fact in some cases, the understudy might have more skill than that soap star or pop star who’s the crowd-puller. (I’m not looking at anyone here. The picture? I don’t know what you mean….!)

In the notorious case of Sheridan Smith and Natasha Barnes (Funny Girl) many people were more than satisfied with the performance of the understudy; and I have one dear and lovely friend, an actress by profession, who would have preferred to see Natasha Barnes, as the unpredictable nature of Ms. Smith’s performance on the night she went made her feel quite uncomfortable. This is not to underestimate Sheridan Smith’s skill, but actors are sometimes too ill to perform; and public or private pressure shouldn’t make them feel they must appear. funny-girlNatasha Barnes is now a West End star in her own right – simply because she did her job, and she did it well, utilising all her training, skill and experience.

There was a recent hoo-ha on Twitter, when the Cameron Mackintosh group forbade their understudies to tweet when they were going to be appearing. Now, given the behaviour of many audience members, I can understand that such tweeting might cause a whole host of administrative problems. If it gets out that a star is not performing, the audience will often want to book an alternative performance, or change the tickets if they’re already bought. The situation is further exacerbated by the differing terms and conditions of Broadway and the West End; on Broadway, the audience is deemed to have paid to see the star, and is given a refund or replacement without question. In the West End, although many productions are understanding and will at least exchange your ticket for another date, they are not legally obliged to do so; you have paid to see the show, not the star. The reason for forbidding understudies to Tweet their performance dates is likely to be due to the sad fact the house will not be as full. However, I think it very dubious that the Cameron Mackintosh group felt it necessary to clip their understudies’ wings in this way. They don’t get to perform on a regular basis; they want their family and friends, as well as industry professionals, to have the opportunity to see them in action – in the first instance, to clap and cheer and be proud of their relative’s achievement, and in the second, to generate more work.

I know that in this enlightened group, most of us wouldn’t consider asking for our money back if the star we want to see isn’t appearing, but I wish this attitude extended to audiences everywhere. I understand that if you’ve paid a lot of money to see a particular person, there is going to be a certain amount of disappointment; but surely, it’s better to see a production featuring an excellent, healthy understudy than to see a star who’s sickening for something give a second-rate performance?
Back to the Melissa Bayern story, and am not surprised to find that, although it’s undoubtedly the fairy-tale that many performers dream of, it’s backed up by Melissa’s 3 years of hard work at Drama School, the fact that she’d only just performed the role at that school, and her willingness to spend 5 hours rehearsing at short notice. She had costume fittings and dance rehearsal, and played the role for 7 nights with lots of help from the cast, including them telling her when her next entrance was and where she needed to be. The clue is in the detail – the kudos that goes to the cast, who were “incredibly adaptive and supportive.” Whatever her skill level, it had to be better for the cast to have her, a relative novice, than the person who was trying to perform with script in hand. Good for her – but not, I’m sure you’ll agree, an ideal situation.

So if you are one of those that think understudies are akin to the audience-member-who-stepped-in, go and have a read of the blog from Dries that I mentioned earlier; and take the time to watch the video link. Any doubts you might have about the skill required in understudying a role will be put to rest; and you will certainly think twice about crying out “I know the role!” should the star, the understudy and all the swings be sick at the same time.

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