One couldn’t help but notice the slight hysteria surrounding understudies this week – see Sheridan Smith and Funny Girl – but is this really anything new? Cast your minds back to missing performances from Martine McCutcheon in My Fair Lady, Tamzin Outhwaite in Sweet Charity… the list goes on.
If I see the ‘At this performance’ sign in the box office, my heart fills with delight as opposed to despair. Who knows, you may witness the birth of a new star. You can guarantee the understudy will be grabbing the moment by the horns, surrounded by a supportive company all working as one. This often results in a highly focused electric performance.
One of the most famous understudy stories was that of the now legendary Shirley MacLaine stepping into Carol Haney’s dance shoes for the press night of The Pajama Game on Broadway. The director/producer Hal B Wallis was an audience member at one of MacLaine’s performances, and signed her as a contract player for Paramount Pictures.
On a personal level, our wonderful understudy to Peggy Sawyer on 42nd Street (a show about an understudy becoming a star) went on for our press night with an hour’s notice! It literally was the story of the show played out before our anxious eyes. When I was a performer, I understudied Lord Evelyn Oakley in Anything Goes at the Drury Lane and was thrown on for the dress rehearsal. It is moments like this that you live for as an understudy, admittedly it didn’t make me a star but I had a lot of fun doing it and thankfully no one was killed in the process!
Understudies and Swings are the infrastructure of any long running musical – they should be celebrated, revered and cherished.
So instead of complaining and asking for your money back next time you discover the star is off think yourself lucky – you maybe about to witness the next leading lady/man of the future.
Remember from small beginnings come great things.