On Seeing the Understudy

Hey there theatre nerds! We’ve got a lot to talk about this week.

I’m really excited about what’s going to be coming up in the next few weeks on this blog. I’m planning lots of Q & A’s, and in fact, I’m making it my mission to do a Q & A with a member of every musical opening this season! I’ve got my first one coming up with Jesse Nager who plays Smokey Robinson in Motown! Keep your eyes peeled.

In addition to that, I have a feature coming up on Waitress choreographer Lorin Latarro.  She is also responsible for the movement in Curious Incident and musicals like Hands on a Hardbody and Scandalous.

So that’s what’s coming up in the near future.  I hope you’re as excited as I am for it!  Now onto my thoughts for this week…

Getting the White Slip

If you walk into any Broadway theater with me, you will notice the very first thing I do is search the walls frantically for a “IN THIS PERFORMANCE THE ROLE OF _____ WILL BE PLAYED BY ______” board. Then I look for those white slips peeking out from the Playbills that notify the audience of any casting changes.  The search becomes especially frantic when the show stars someone I really look up to as an actor.  If I’ve traveled all that way and spent all that money, I want to make sure that said actor is in the show.

It’s always disheartening to see those little white slips in your Playbill or names on that board, especially when they say that the star is out of that performance.  And that’s what I saw last Wednesday at Shuffle Along.  Audra McDonald and Billy Porter were out of the matinee.

To be fair, Audra tweeted a few days before I saw the show that she was no longer allowed to perform two show days because #preggo.  And to be even more fair, every Broadway performer–pregnant or not–has the right to call out of any performance for any reason.  And they are not even required to tweet about it!  Over the past couple of weeks I’ve seen many angry fans tweet at performers, practically yelling at them for not being in the show when they saw the performance.  That makes absolutely no sense, but we’ll get to that later.

Even though it was disappointing at first to hear that I would not be seeing Audra and Billy, I got to see two wonderful performers, Darlesia Cearcy as Lottie Gee and Arbender Robinson as Aubrey Lyles.

A Totally New Performance

Both of these roles are usually played by well-known, Tony-winning power houses, but to be completely honest, by the end of act one, I had all but forgotten I was watching understudies.  The thing is, we all–myself included–are so quick to dismiss understudies as “lesser than,” people who aren’t as good as the original actors.  Now I’m not trying to belittle the performances of Audra McDonald or Billy Porter–Tonys don’t lie, y’all–but we have to remember that when it comes to casting Broadway shows, talent can take a backseat to box office draw.  In other words, actors may not get cast in a show not because they aren’t good enough, but because they aren’t well known enough.  Darlesia and Arbender might not have that “box office draw”–yet– but their talent is top-notch. Understudies, despite this preconceived notion that most of us have, are just as talented as the original actors in those roles. Don’t believe me? Just see one for yourself!

Arbender and Darlesia are powerhouses. Both roles require true triple threats–absolutely no room for faking it. These performers brought their A-game and it was amazing to watch! Arbender’s big number in the second act was heartbreaking and beautiful. It was emotional and ethereal. Delesia’s big number also blew me away; her voice is powerful yet light, clear yet bold. It was a true joy to watch these two actors get to absolutely kill it in lead roles. And these are quite challenging roles!!

Not only do I respect the talent of these performers, but I respect their ability to be able to step into a leading role at quite literally a moment’s notice. Not to mention the fact a lot of times performers are making their debuts–maybe in that role or maybe even their Broadway debut. And you, as an audience member, get to be part of that history! Seeing an understudy perform is almost like seeing behind-the-scenes of a Broadway show. That’s a gift!


Actors are People, Too

Many people get upset when they find out a star will be out of the show when they are seeing it. And that’s totally understandable. I’ve been there. Heck, I think we’ve all been there. But the truth of the matter is we need to remember that these actors are people too. (Except Cynthia Erivo…her voice makes me think she has to be from another planet.) The show is their job and they are allowed to call out sick, take personal days, and take “half days” just like people with more “traditional” jobs do.

As I mentioned before, I’ve seen quite a few tweets to actors (that have since been deleted), berating them for not being in the show for a particular performance. 8 shows a week is a lot to handle for any performer, no matter the role. The toll on an actor’s body and voice doing 8 shows a week is a big one. And don’t forget about life outside of the theatre! In addition to taking care of, or spending time with, friends/family they usually have outside commitments: other work (labs/workshops), auditions, classes, interviews, and a slew of other responsibilities. It doesn’t take a genius to realize they can’t do it all at once! Inevitably, they will have to miss performances so they can continue doing their job.  The show will still be fabulous, and no, you aren’t entitled to a refund.


The first reaction of many people when they find out their favorite Broadway star isn’t in the show is to get angry. And I’m not saying that’s not a valid reaction, but please understand that actors are people too. They need time to rest and take care of themselves, physically and mentally. AND, as we’ve discussed, their absence brings a whole new energy to the show.

In short? Seeing the understudy is not a bad thing; quite the opposite. That’s why I’ve learned to love seeing those little white papers in my Playbill. They remind me that each and every performance is different and new, and if that isn’t exhilarating I don’t know what is.




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