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Have you ever seen an understudy who particularly impressed you? Tell us here!
For an actor, nothing can be more exciting—or terrifying—than going on as an understudy.
Understudies are the unsung heroes of the theatre. When performers are unable to go on, for any number of reasons—they might call in sick, take a vacation, or suddenly depart from a production—their understudies stand ready to perform instead. An understudy learns every detail of the role he or she is covering, including all the cues and blocking, without any guarantee of getting to perform. That’s in addition to knowing their own role inside out.
Sometimes an understudy has a few days or hours notice before they go on in the role they are covering; other times it’s a matter of minutes. In rare cases, an understudy can take over in the middle of a show. I remember seeing a production of Sheridan’s The Rivals at Lincoln Center Theater. Everything was going fine until two-thirds through the first act, when one of the actors failed to materialize for an entrance. The stage manager stopped the show, announcing that the performer had become ill. After just a few minutes, the show went on with his understudy, who until then had been playing the minor role of a servant. He quickly adjusted to his new role, turned in a fine performance, and received a warm ovation from the grateful audience at the curtain call.
One famous former understudy is Shirley MacLaine, whose Hollywood career began when she was covering for Carol Haney in the original Broadway production of the musical The Pajama Game. Haney broke her ankle, and MacLaine took over the role while she was recovering. Shortly thereafter, a Hollywood producer caught MacLaine’s performance, signed her to a contract with Paramount Pictures, and made her a movie star.
An understudy who covers a role when a star is out, but doesn’t otherwise appear in the show, is called a “standby.” He or she stands by at or near the theatre, ready to perform on a moment’s notice.
Other understudies have regular parts in the show, often as a member of the ensemble. When they bump up to a featured or starring role, another chorus member or a “swing” (a performer whose job is to cover any number of chorus parts or “tracks” when someone is out) goes on as the understudy’s understudy.
So the next time you arrive at the theatre and there’s an announcement that begins, “At tonight’s performance, the role of…” don’t be upset. Who knows, you might be seeing the next Shirley MacLaine, or at the very least, a performer who has been waiting in the wings for their big opportunity, a chance to shine in a role that usually belongs to someone else.