Why, in this day and age, in the world of theatre is the word understudy still considered to be a somewhat dirty and unspeakable word? Surely it must be time to shake the idea that ‘no one likes an understudy’.
Now, I understand that we live in a world in which people love to see a celebrity, love to see the star of the show, and I know that the want to see them can be a pivotal deciding factor when it comes to deciding which show to see. What I don’t understand is the obvious and uncalled for disappointment when the ‘star’ doesn’t perform and in their place is the understudy. It isn’t right, the show wont be any different if it happens to be a different from billed cast. It isn’t fair on those who happen to understudy the role of the ‘star’. They are giving it their all to perform to the best of their ability, and they are just as good as the ‘star’. Respect can go a long way, and understudies surely do deserve the respect.
I think it can be said that people seem to forgot that performers are people too. They are not robots, they can not perform every single show. That is just not possible. Illness and injury can happen to anybody and everybody deserves a holiday every now and again. It is on these occasions that the understudies are called to step up to the role and save the show. There wouldn’t be a show if it wasn’t for the understudies, and the swings of course. Swings are the hidden heroes who can play multiple roles, sometimes all in one show. Originally understudies were not in the show unless they were needed to be on for their understudy role, but now it is more common for them to have their own role and for someone else to cover it when they step up. Swings often cover these roles, and they save the show by doing so.
The biggest and most ridiculous case of people hating on the understudy happened quite recently, with the production of ‘War of the Worlds’ at the Dominion Theatre. People were getting very angry at the fact that leading man Daniel Bedingfield was often not performing, and later left the show completely,leaving the understudy to take his place. Some even took to social media demanding a refund on their tickets because they didn’t pay to see an unknown understudy in the leading role. Really people, is that needed? There would not have been a show for you to enjoy without that understudy saving the day. I will admit that the Dominion Theatre, in my opinion, is famously bad for announcing understudies, but that wasn’t change the fact that the understudy who stepped up to the roe for War of The Worlds wasn’t shown any respect at all.
I have seen quite a few understudies in all of the shows that I have seen and they have all been amazing! I can not imagine the pressure they feel, having to step up and cover the role that someone else has gained recognition for. They are fully aware that there may be disappointed people in the audience and still go out there and give it all that they have got. In my opinion, that makes them stars, it makes them heroes. People who start as an understudy to the ‘star’ often go a long way in their careers, maybe becoming the ‘star’ themselves with someone else understudying them. But to me, the understudies are stars too.
For example, a while back now, I saw Callum Francis play the role of Lola in Kinky Boots, the understudy to leading man Matt Henry. Admittedly it was the first time I had seen the show so I had nothing to compare but Callum was absolutely outstanding and had the audience in raptures. I’ve since seen the show two more times and cannot say that Matt is better than Callum or that Callum was better than Matt. It shouldn’t be about saying who was better. Both perform amazingly and both are more than deserving of the recognition they have. Matt has now gone on to win Best Actor in the musical at both the What’s on Stage awards and the Olivier Awards last year and Callum is now playing the leading role of Lola in Kinky Boots in Australia!
My most recent trip to the theatre truly made me realise how incredible understudies and swings are. Half A Sixpence is a show that is incredibly close to my heart, and a few weeks ago I saw it performed live for the second time, with no less than six understudies/swings performing in their alternate roles! Not only was Sam O’Rourke on as leading man Arthur Kipps in the place of Charlie Stemp, but he only had an incredibly short amount of time to prepare for it, being told that night not long before the show that he was performing the leading role! I can not imagine the pressure he felt, performing in a role that Charlie had recently won best actor in the musical for. Not only that, but Charlie is on posters all other London. People would have come to the show expecting to see him, but instead it was Sam. And he was amazing! It was so lovely to see the reaction of the audience in the curtain call when he took his bow. Respect for an understudy! The atmosphere was electric and Sam blew the roof of the Noel Coward Theatre that night!
With Sam being on as Kipps, fellow understudy Matthew Dale, who normally played a smaller ensemble role played Sam’s regular role of Buggins. Harry Morrison stepped up from his role of Carshot to play James Walsingham, bringing in hidden hero swing David Birch to cover the track for Carshot. Annie Wensak played Mrs Walsingham, bringing Samantha Hull from the ensemble to cover the aunt role. Overall, there would not have been a show that night if it hadn’t been for the incredible understudies and swings of Half A Sixpence. I respect them so much, being able to change roles at the drop of a hat.
I just wish that everyone else would respect the understudies and the swings. You aren’t going to get a worse show just because the ‘star’ isn’t there. I feel sorry for those understudies who must know that there are going to be disappointed people in the audience, the feeling that people are going to be disappointed to see you must be horrible. But yet, they go out and they perform giving you the amazing show that you paid to see.
Come on people, its time to change. The West End is home to many amazing performers, not just some select ‘stars’ and their ensemble back up. It takes an entire cast to perform a show, not just the billed ‘Star’.