There’s a fine art to covering the lead in a Broadway show, and it involves much more than memorizing lines. Here’s the backstage scoop on an understudy’s life, from how much they make to why there’s a lot of shoving going on onstage.
March 2, 2015, Garth Wingfield – newyork.com
It’s happened to every seasoned theatergoer: The usher shows you to your seat, hands you a Playbill, and you open it to find one of those little inserts announcing, “At this performance, the part of Major Character usually played by Broadway Biggie will be played by Someone Else.” True, it can be a little frustrating for the audience. But there’s also something inherently exciting about the whole experience. Who is this new person? Have they played this role before? Will you see Broadway magic in the making? We’ve lifted the curtain on what it’s like to be an understudy on the Great White Way. What goes into understudying may surprise you.
For starters, there are several different kinds of covers You could be seeing many kinds of replacement actors from your perch in the audience. First of all, there’s a principal understudy. That’s someone who’s a regular member of the cast, usually in the chorus, and who understudies one of the leading roles. Then there’s a standby. This is a performer who does not appear in the show each night but is there specifically to cover a major role that on a typical night is played by the star whose name is on the marquee. The standby often signs in before a performance at the stage door, sticks around to make sure the star enters stage left, then hangs out in the green room or stays in a 10-block vicinity of the theatre, a cell-phone call away. And then there’s also a swing, who is someone who doesn’t perform in the show regularly but who knows all the different chorus “tracks,” or various staging and costume changes a particular actor follows, and steps in when needed.
The more you memorize, the more you make Lots of variables come into play in determining how a performer gets compensated. But here’s one example: According to Actors’ Equity Association, if you’re in the chorus and understudying a principal role, you’ll make a minimum base salary per week, which is currently $1,861. Then you’ll automatically get $50 on top of that each week for every role you cover. Plus, if you go on, you’ll get 1/8th of your weekly pay on top of that for every performance you give center stage. It all adds up to some complicated math — and a considerable payday if the lead’s out for a couple of shows in a row.
Sometimes a star is born In the Broadway musical 42nd Street, diva Dorothy Brock has broken her ankle and director Julian Marsh coaxes small-town understudy Peggy Sawyer out of the wings with the now legendary line, “You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star.” It has happened! Lots of understudies end up inheriting the roles made famous by their predecessors. Megan Hilty, who was a standby for Glinda in Wicked, not only took on the role herself but went on to star in TV’s Smash, playing an unknown, up-and-coming actress who eventually snagged the starring role in a Broadway musical. The biggest recent example of an overnight star being made courtesy of a twisted ankle or something like it is Sutton Foster, who was the understudy in Thoroughly Modern Millie during its out-of-town tryout. The lead got replaced. Foster got the gig. And she won the Tony Award for Best Actress when she opened in New York. You can’t make this stuff up.
Got nerves of steel? You’re on! To be sure, it takes a pretty sturdy constitution to be a Broadway understudy. Rebecca LaChance, who is a member of the ensemble of Beautiful – The Carole King Musical and is one of two understudies for leading lady Jessie Mueller, remembers her first time in the spotlight: “It was our last night during our pre-Broadway run in San Francisco. I got to the theatre, heard Jessie was out sick and went on with an hour’s notice. I’d never had a rehearsal. Suddenly, I was trying on wigs, getting into costumes, singing through all the songs with the music director. It was a blur.” Actors affectionately refer to an understudy’s first time on stage as “shove with love,” when the other performers gently guide the newbie, making sure they hit all their marks. “There was lots of shoving with love the first time I went on,” LaChance laughs.
Imitation is the highest form of flattery, sort of Stepping in for the lead is a tricky business. For one thing, an understudy has to replicate what the original star is doing, to a degree. “You have to honor the performance of the actor you’re covering,” explains Merwin Foard, who has covered 30 actors, either as a standby or understudy, in his 16 Broadway shows. Foard was featured in the 2012 documentary The Standbys while he was a standby for Nathan Lane in the role of Gomez Addams in The Addams Family. He is currently standby by for Jafar and the Sultan in Aladdin. “You don’t want to mimic, and you don’t want to throw the other actors, so you have to know the staging and choreography perfectly. There can be no curve balls. But you want to bring your own version of [the role] to life.”
There’s backstage blocking, too What happens on stage is just part of the story. There’s a whole carefully calibrated dance that happens backstage in very tight quarters involving the stage manager, dressers and multiple stagehands. And the understudy has to fit into that flow seamlessly. “You think you know what you’re doing on stage but then you’ve never done the offstage stuff,” says veteran actor Nick Corley, who appeared as a G-Man in the ensemble and understudied two principal roles in the recent revival run of You Can’t Take It With You. “There are quick changes and very specific patterns so you don’t bump into anyone. The first time you go on, there’s no time to even think about what’s coming up in the next scene in terms of acting.” Typically, during previews, understudies are on their own, taking notes as the principals rehearse, until understudy rehearsals begin in earnest once the show officially opens. “It’s terrifying,” Corley says, of getting thrown in early. “But then again, I’m a nervous person. Some people handle it with total ease.”
Multiple understudies, tremendous possibilities If you look at the bottom of the cast list page in your Playbill, you’ll often see many actors listed at understudies for the same role. There’s something of a pecking order for who gets to go on when the star gets the flu, but beyond that, it’s up to the powers that be. If there’s a standby, he or she goes on first, no question. But if that actor is out too — or if the show doesn’t have a designated standby — it’s a collaborative decision between the director, stage manager or general management team. In most shows, the understudies aren’t enumerated. So it could be a practical choice of who has had the most recent understudy rehearsal or whose costumes and wigs are in the best condition. At other times, the management likes to rotate the understudies to keep them all fresh. But occasionally, a favorite rises to the top. And sometimes, an understudy who’s only performed the role once or twice gets a shot in the spotlight and hits it out of the park.
When you take on a role, you get the star treatment The moment you’ve been dubbed the major cheese for the night, you’re immediately escorted to the star’s dressing room. You work with the star’s dressers. The sound personnel show up and make sure to mic you correctly so the crew knows when to turn on and off your amplification. But as nice as that is, Beautiful understudy Rebecca LaChance offers this perspective: “It’s still completely daunting, especially after Jessie [Mueller] won the Tony for Best Actress. People have paid all this money to come see her, they see my name on the board in the lobby and they groan. They don’t know me. You have to charm them immediately or else. I mean, I start the show on stage alone at a piano. I hope by the evening’s end I’ve won them over. I think I usually do, but it’s a lot to face.”
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