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Understudies


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#1 theatreboy06

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Posted 18 March 2007 - 03:42 PM

A lot of talk recently in the papers and on this forum (see Plays / Equus - the farce) about understudies.
I think the problem in most cases is that producers realise understudies are a necessity, but they don't want to spend money on paying and rehearsing actors (and someone to rehearse them - an assistant director or similar). It's a gamble - why spend money on understudies that may never need to go on? But when a principal does go off, surely it' in the producers' interests to have a solid understudy ready, so that they can face their audience with a clear conscience and say the understudy is perfectly capable of performing the role and performing it well.
A half-cocked approach to understudies - hiring them, rehearsing them a bit but not enough - is the worst of all possibilities. You do the show, still pay everyone, but then have to give all the money back to the disgruntled patrons, just as you would if you had cancelled.
Musicals also seem to attract a better calibre of understudies than most plays. There is a sort of stigma in understudying in a play that isn't there in musicals. Also, understudies in musicals are usually from the chorus - they have been rehearsing the show for as long as the principals and know it almost as well. In many plays, understudies do not arrive until the last minute, and often don't play smaller roles in the show.
What are the best understudies we've seen? I saw a great one on for Anna Maxwell-Martin as Sally Bowles in Cabaret recently.

#2 Jeeno

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Posted 18 March 2007 - 03:52 PM

Avenue Q has fantastic understudies: top of my list being Gabriel Vick, such a fantastic Princeton/Rod, also Clare Foster when she's on as Kate/Lucy and Luke Evans does a really good Trekkie/Nicky as well.

Oh and Mark Powell was a very good Che in Evita when he was on for Matt Rawle.

#3 Guest_Skylight_*

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Posted 18 March 2007 - 04:38 PM

I've seen a lot of understudies and the quality has varied dramatically.  Flaminia Cinque replacing Julie Walters in The Rose Tattoo was superb.  Peter Cadden replacing Peter Bowles in The Old Masters was dire; I left at the interval.

#4 Orchestrator

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Posted 18 March 2007 - 05:21 PM

QUOTE(theatreboy06 @ Mar 18 2007, 03:42 PM) View Post
A lot of talk recently in the papers and on this forum (see Plays / Equus - the farce) about understudies.
I think the problem in most cases is that producers realise understudies are a necessity, but they don't want to spend money on paying and rehearsing actors (and someone to rehearse them - an assistant director or similar). It's a gamble - why spend money on understudies that may never need to go on?

Because of a combination of law with regard to holiday entitlement and insurance policies most West End shows are well-provided with understudies. In a big show (more than 20 in the cast) the chances of seeing a performance with no understudies/swings/covers is very small, and it would take a keen eye to spot the understudies if no announcement has been made. The actors' weekly wage includes at least 6 hours rehearsal per week so, as long as the resident/assistant director, dance captain and MD/asst.MD are doing their jobs, 6 weeks into a run everything should be learned and honed. I'm sure some producers skimp on costs and, yes, such cost-cutting might well result in losing money down the line when punters demand their money back or a show is cancelled and the insurance company won't cough up because the understudies weren't employed or adequately rehearsed.
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#5 M George

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Posted 18 March 2007 - 10:17 PM

QUOTE(theatreboy06 @ Mar 18 2007, 03:42 PM) View Post
What are the best understudies we've seen? I saw a great one on for Anna Maxwell-Martin as Sally Bowles in Cabaret recently.


Jason McGann was on for Glenn Carter when I saw Whistle Down the Wind and he was excellent in all respects and Lee Mead understudying Ramin Karimloo in the recent 'Miss Saigon' tour also stands out for me.  Also, years ago (must have been about '93 or '94) I saw a girl called Sarah Ryan go on as Christine in Phantom of the Opera in Manchester and, having already seen the  show with the principal cast, she totally blew me away with a magnificent performance.  13 years later and I chanced upon the website for the same girl with recent clips of her singing and on the clips she doesn't sound half as good as she did then.

The vast majority of times I have seen an understudy go on I have not been disappointed, however I remember on particular occasion when Phantom made a return to the Manchester Opera House (bout 98', '99 ish) and at the performance I was at the Phantom understudy was on.  Well, he was awful.  The quality and tone of his singing was unpleasant to listen to and he couldn't act and subsequently the whole performance of the show was detrimentally affected by this dreadful piece of casting.
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#6 guest22

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Posted 19 March 2007 - 02:14 AM

I saw Cassidy Janson perform as "Elphaba" when Kerry Ellis was unwell, and she was absolutely wonderful. She thoroughly deserved the ovation which the audience gave her.

#7 curzon

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Posted 19 March 2007 - 09:49 AM

I remember one particularly dire performance of "Les Mis" when I was working on it. Due to a combination of holidays and a nasty bug going round the company every single major principal (except the Thenardiers, I think) was off and we were so short of company that the resident director went on for several minor parts. Fortunately he was Ken Caswell so it wasn't like he hadn't done the show before.... wink.gif

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#8 Matthew Winn

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Posted 19 March 2007 - 11:32 AM

I saw something similar to that in the national tour of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 2002. Illness had septimated the brides and there were only half a dozen of them available, so company manager Natalie Cole got into costume and filled the gap.

(Mind you, specifying the number of characters in the title of a show is a problem waiting to happen. It falls into the same class as: Never precede any demonstration with a comment more descriptive than "watch this".)
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#9 armadillo

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Posted 19 March 2007 - 01:01 PM

I saw a Sondheim review at the Library Theatre in Manchester where the director had to go on. He was OK (ish) but he clutched at his music the whole time which surprised  me since he must have directed a dozen Sondheim productions (and this wasn't his first night on as understudy I think). It may have just been nerves and wanting a prop. It was OK, though - I feel less harshly towards a little theatre like that who are charging 12 a ticket than to a West End theatre charging 45.

But my experience is that in the provinces you are less likely to see an understudy. As with all jobs, there is less sickness if people know there's nobody to cover for them (not that I'm suggesting it's a good thing to make people work when they are ill). Short runs probably help too.

#10 JIJane

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Posted 19 March 2007 - 02:42 PM

I was an understudy last year for the two leads in a UK tour of a play. As it happens, the cast had only 10 days of rehearsal and the understudies (me and one other guy covering the male leads) - were not rehearsed. All we could do was go through the play ourselves (jumping from part to part) and try and make sure we knew our lines back to front, if anything. Needless to say, I used to pray every day that nobody would get ill and I didn't have to go on. Being an understudy is scary enough as it is (especially when you are covering big soap names in the provinces and know the audience will boo if they see you, the "unknown" instead) - but it's a complete nightmare if you have not had even one rehearsal.




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