This is something I feel incredibly passionate about so felt the need to write about it. I know it’s something also dear to those who work in the theatre industry through following them on Twitter and seeing their opinions as well.
The long and short of it is to appreciate whoever is performing in front of you on stage. If that person is the principal cast in that role, a 1st-cover, 2nd cover, standby, alternative, emergency cover or whoever. This person is doing their job, working their ass off, hitting every note, nailing every dance move and performing for your enjoyment. I therefore implore you to not disregard actors if they are not the principal. This does not make them any less worthy of your appreciation and I’ll be damned if you think it.
To cover some basic lingo at first, “covers” are the same as “understudies”. 1st cover is the 1st person who would cover the principal if they were on holiday or sick, and 2nd cover is the 2nd person who would do so. If both the principal and the 1st cover were off – one would be sick and other on holiday, that’s where the 2nd cover comes in. “Alternatives” are those cast to regularly play a principal role, for example Jean Valjean in Les Miserables has an “alternative” actor, as they regularly have Mondays off to rest. In cases where there are “alternatives” shows then have 3rd covers as well.
My knowledge on standby’s (in shows like Wicked) is more limited but I do know the casting process for standbys and principals in Wicked is exactly the same.
Therefore, all the actors in a show will have been cast on their talent and ability, and while that’s all I really know about the industry and can’t explain why the principals and understudies are cast as such, what I do know is that the understudies have the ability to perform the specific part in a show for you with no problem.
Just Don’t be Rude
I can only imagine how disheartening it would be as an understudy to know you have your chance to play a principal in a show, whether it be a massive West End hit or a small show opening off-west end, to then be hackled on social media for being the understudy. I’ve seen numerous tweets from disappointed theatre-goers that they don’t have the principal on for a certain show, and I’ve also seen replies from sometimes disappointed, most often angry, performers, so I know what a prominent issue this is.
I’ve covered the identity of the above tweeter because I didn’t ask his permission beforehand to use this, but among his other many credentials, this guy has been understudy in two very big West End shows. He was understudy as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables and Miss Trunchball in Matilda. This only goes to show how annoyed performers get because of the sheer disrespect they often receive. Just don’t do it. Watch the show, enjoy the performers, don’t be rude anyone for doing their job.
Understudies save the day
Let’s not forget that without understudies, shows would not survive. And that’s not just West End, that’s off west-end, tours, and everything. Cast and crew need holiday like the rest of us and with roughly 30 members per West End show, understudies are needed on a regular basis. Casts of shows, like the rest of us, get sick. Understudies go on regularly if performers are ill or feel their performance won’t be their best. Understudies also go on mid-show sometimes if performers feel they can’t carry on. This is the main point of a standby in Wicked; with such demanding songs, their understudies need to be on hand to finish the show. Would you rather the show ended half way through and that was that? Didn’t think so.
The hit musical Chess opened in April 2018 for 5 weeks and it made headline news as half way through their opening night, leading man Tim Howar had to disappear as his wife went into labour. Understudy Cellen Chugg Jones took over despite never having had a full run-through of the show, gaining a standing ovation from the audience and masses of praise from his co-workers and theatre fans.
Similarly, actress understudy Koko Basigara was thrown into playing the role of Jasmine on her first night in Aladdin with the new 2018/19 cast. I can only applaud her at this – I can’t even imagine the nerves of opening night with a new cast to a hit show, let alone unexpectedly playing the leading lady! (Her Instagram post about it is here.) BRAVO!
And just earlier this summer, front of house team member Jennifer Caldwell stepped into a leading role in Knights of Rose when neither the principal nor the understudy could perform. Rather than being disappointed at this, audiences should be applauding such desire to keep the show going at all costs and should be thanking the amazing understudies we have.
Understudies give a fresh character
I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been to see Les Miserables in the West End because of the different actors playing some of my favourite roles. Admittedly, I’m sure I like Les Mis more than the average person and I got to know the cast quite well over a few years, but it’s true that each actor plays characters slightly differently, giving a fresh look and perspective. Over 10 years, I’ve seen 7 different actors play the witches in Wicked and over my 15 times of seeing Les Mis I’ve seen more understudies than principals in the main roles. I’ve even travelled to shows especially when I know certain understudies are performing because I was excited to see specifically them in the role. Getting to know the cast at the stage door is definitely a way to get more involved with the understudy community and makes it even more exciting to see them in their professional dream roles. Don’t forget as well, understudies are likely to be incredibly excited to play these roles and I know from experience how grateful performers are when you support them.
Understudies aren’t always what you want – I get that
What I will also mention that I am very aware of, is that sometimes you do book to see a show to see a certain performer. I am incredibly guilty of that. Just last month I was dying to see Kelli O’Hara in The King and I (see my blog on that here) and I know I’d have been gutted had she been on holiday or ill. I’m also aware that many “big-name” actors come to the West End, such as Ian Mckellen, Ken Wanatanbe (also in The King and I), James McAvoy, Jude Law and many others. Again, I have been victim of seeing a show for a specific actor…
…for example, here’s me after I BURST into tears following meeting James McAvoy after seeing him in The Ruling Class, which I wouldn’t have gone to see had he not been in it…
…so I understand the heartbreak at not getting the principal actor you want. However, I still don’t think it necessary to take to criticising the understudies or being too disappointed. As I’ve said, all understudies are beyond capable of providing you with an outstanding show and they should be appreciated, not disrespected.
So, watch the show, enjoy the performance, praise the actors and don’t be rude no matter who is performing.