As an avid theater-goer and enthusiast, something has recently caught my attention that is very frustrating. As audience members we tend to acknowledge those who deserve it. However, there’s a group of people that has gone long enough without being given their long over due credit and appreciation. These are truly the theatrical unsung heroes: the understudies, standbys and members of the ensemble.
These actors work tirelessly on their tracks , or the role they follow in the ensemble. However, there is also a group of people, the swings, who could be put into one of these tracks at any time. It could be known before, but they could also be thrown into a show at the last minute if something comes up and an actor has to call out of the show due to an emergency.
Standbys and understudies, basically, the hardest working people on Broadway, but also the least acknowledged. Not only do these actors have to know their own choreography and staging, if they are an understudy for a principle, they also have to know the staging, lines, blocking, etc. for whatever role(s) they cover. That’s a lot of material.
One recent instance that comes to mind is in Mean Girls the musical. Tee Boyich, understudy for Cady and one other role, was given hours to learn the role of Janis. Literally on hours notice, she had to have the lines, blocking and songs down pat. According to reports I heard, she nailed the role even though SHE HAD NEVER GONE ON FOR IT BEFORE. Understudies and standbys are truly superheroes, and deserve our attention and appreciation.
When Idina Menzel hurt herself during Wicked, her understudy was there; she was painted green and sent in to cover act two. You absolutely never know what could happen in live theater, and that’s why you need to have appreciation for anyone you see in any show. Who knows-you could see the next star being born-and not even know it.
So the next time you want to say, aw man! We’re seeing an UNDERSTUDY? or want to (rude) pull your playbill away from someone at the stage door, remember the journey they were on to get to that Broadway stage, and feel honored you got to see them.
(Photo: Shoba Narayan in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Photo by Nick Gaswirth.)