In Praise of Understudies: Theatre's Unsung Heroes
In the hit Broadway musical 42nd Street, understudy Peggy Sawyer finds herself at the centre of a fairytale-like situation, taking on the lead role in Julian Marsh's latest musical when the star sprains an ankle, leading to one of the greatest showbiz stories of all time. It's a theme that has been often reworked and retooled across various mediums, but it very much remains a common occurrence within the theatre industry.
Last week, understudy Natasha Barnes found herself in that exact situation, when it was announced she would temporarily take over the role of 'Fanny Brice' in Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre, filling in for Sheridan Smith who is currently taking a break from the production. At first some audiences were upset at the news, but as soon as news got out of Barnes' incredible performance, audiences have found themselves enjoying being apart of this "Star is Born" story.
Whilst the fictional situation may be familiar with many theatre fans, there are as many real life examples of understudies getting their big break when circumstance and chance find themselves in their corner. From Shirley MacLaine who happened to be spotted by a Hollywood executive whilst standing in for Carol Haney in the original production of The Pajama Game, to Sutton Foster, one of Broadway's biggest names, who got her initial break as understudy to Erin Dilly in Thoroughly Modern Millie and went on to win her first Tony Award for the same performance. Life as a understudy is filled with much anticipation, expectation and above all, bravery.
Understudies, swings, covers and alternates are the unsung heroes of theatre and provide a vital lifeline for any production. Prepared and ready to take to the stage at just a moment's notice, their skill at memory, coordination and ability to work under extreme pressure is second to none. A theatre company is like a house of cards, and just one element being removed can lead to a full re-shuffle to ensure each track is covered sufficiently. This takes into account not just illness or absence, but also cast holidays and previously arranged engagements, which can mean in long running shows that casts are kept fresh week on week, as new people cover multiple different roles.
Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street
There is perhaps a misconception regarding understudies of their abilities to perform in their own right, and that is a myth that's quickly dispelled by anyone who has the pleasure of witnessing their performances. Understudies remain thoroughly prepared and ready to go on throughout each show, and sometimes go on in the middle of a running performance. They are required to remain as physically fit and vocally stable as though they were performing the role each night, and have to show extreme mental strength in order to be able to assume the role at any given time. When performing a role regularly 8 times a week, elements of the performance get under your skin and the continuity allows a consistency to build up for the actor. For the understudy, this confidence and muscle memory isn't developed, and so each performance becomes a spontaneous and exciting journey from start to finish.
One of my favourite understudy stories of all time comes from Elaine Sritch, who tells the story of being Ethel Merman's understudy in Call Me Madam on Broadway whilst juggling another contract. Merman was renowned for never missing a show, and her strength and zeal was well-know to all in the industry. Stritch was so confident in Merman's ability to perform at every show that she negotiated a supporting role in the Broadway revival of Pal Joey. Each night she would check with Merman at the half, and when confident she wouldn't be appearing as Mrs Sally Adams, would travel to the theatre to play Melba Snyder in Pal Joey, arriving in time to sing the second act show-stopper "Zip". The greatest challenge to this came when the show was trying out in New Haven, and Stritch found herself commuting between the two jobs, some 80 miles away from each other, but through sheer grit and determination she managed to make it work.
Elaine Stritch recounts her time as understudy
Whilst that's perhaps an extreme, and certainly 'old school' example of an understudy's commitment and ability to juggle separate contracts, it certainly highlights their agility, determination and above all their versatility. Actors are, before anything else, human beings. Despite their apparent immortal presence, performers at all levels suffer the same anxieties, illnesses and vulnerabilities as we do, encompassing both physical and mental health. Theatre is by its very nature ephemeral, and unlike film exists as a living breathing art form, and one that is susceptible to change and development.
Whilst many productions throughout history have relied somewhat on the 'star name' to attract audiences to a particular title, with it comes the same risk that the star becomes bigger than the show itself. Nowhere was this more significantly seen than in the original production of The Producers, with stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick creating theatrical alchemy for the real life producers behind the scenes. Their performances became so revered that the show failed to sell once they had left their initial contracts, and they found themselves tempted back to the production where in turn they could demand one of the highest stage salaries ever offered. Brad Oscar is yet another example from the same show who was picked out of the ensemble to star in the leading role, and has since gone on to become one of Broadway's most celebrated musical comedy performers.
There are multiple examples of cautionary tales for producers choosing to back celebrity-led productions. With the risk factor in investing in a new show already at a maximum (around 20% new musicals manage to turn a profit) the presence of a box office draw often secures investors, theatres and even supporting cast members. In real terms, the benefits clearly outweigh the risk, and under ordinary circumstances problems rarely arise. The industry is once again debating the issue of understudies covering lead roles and the audience's entitlement to see the star which has been advertised as the unique selling point. Both Funny Girl and the ENO's recent production of Sunset Boulevard are examples where demand from fans bled into social media and created a separate layer of problems, that in turn have helped become fodder for the tabloids who wish to present this as a modern issue, commenting negatively on the industry model.
The company of Funny Girl
Whilst I firmly understand the disappointment that comes from learning that a famous face is otherwise indisposed, having been in that position on multiple occasions in both London and in New York, I am fully converted to the thrill and excitement that comes from seeing an understudy take a leading role. I remember at the age of 11 seeing Joanna Riding step into the role of Eliza Doolittle in the National Theatre's production of My Fair Lady at Drury Lane, and whilst Martine McCutcheon's absence from the production was widely speculated and reported, my younger self was blown away by Riding's phenomenal performance, that even in my older eyes remains definitive. Rather than feel short changed, I instead felt uniquely gifted to be one of a select amount of people who would have this very tale to tell, and have gone on to follow Riding's career with vested interest.
I felt this exact warmth once again this week watching Natasha Barnes lead the company of Funny Girl, in the daunting yet utterly thrilling role of Fanny Brice. Having previously enjoyed Sheridan Smith's portrayal, I couldn't help but bask in Barnes' warmth and utter enjoyment. Having found myself pulled to my feet for a standing ovation, I felt genuinely blessed to have been in the room at the birth of what will only be a shining career. Understudies are the lifeblood of the theatre industry, and without them a company would simply not be able to function. Like Peggy Sawyer, Natasha Barnes went out a “youngster” and came back a star, and I for one am grateful to have been there to witness it.