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Studying the understudy

Many West End stars began as understudiesThe entertainment industry is one of the hardest to work in, especially so when it comes to live performance. There are no retakes in theatre, so any mistakes are there, up close and personal, for all the audience to see. On top of that, performers are constantly being judged, and every choice is scrutinised and dissected by the fan base who all have their own opinions on how it should have been done; it’s impossible to please everyone.

It’s a tough business for everyone, but I think understudies in particular can have a hard time of it. Having to go in front of an audience who came expecting to see someone else, and having to deal with their disappointment and perhaps even an unwillingness from them to accept the substitute on their own merit, is not a pleasant experience. All too often I see online comments from people complaining about seeing the understudy instead of the star they wanted, as well as personally witnessing theatregoers actually walk out of the theatre when the understudy was announced. It’s disheartening for the performers, not to mention an insult to them and the talent and hard work that got them to that position in the first place.

I once spoke to several performers who were understudying lead roles in West End shows for an article on the difficulties they face, so I have some idea of how negativity like this can affect them. That’s why it’s a blessing that, as with most things in life, there is a flip side to matter.

Yes, there are people out there not prepared to give the understudy the chance to impress, and all too many of them unfortunately. Yet there are also people out there who give the understudy the recognition they deserve for doing such a hard job, and more, show a preference for their performance over that of the absent ‘star’ of the show.

I’ve recently seen theatregoers discussing the current casts of two big West End musicals online, and it was interesting to note that many were in agreement that the understudies for some of the principal roles were better, in their opinion, than the regular actors. Now, I’m not here to comment on these shows or pass judgement on any individual actor, so I shan’t be naming names, but I did find it rewarding in the sense that there was such a wave of positivity being directed towards these understudies.

I think more people should give understudies a chance and have that faith in their ability to deliver one hell of a performance. It’s somewhat of a running joke in my family that my mum is a bit of a theatre jinx, as nearly every time she travels from Lincolnshire to London to see a West End show, and/or a particular performer, they’re not on that night. We’re off to see Phantom in a few weeks, and there’s a slight air of trepidation that one of the main cast will have a last minute absence. In the past though, that has led to the discovery of unknown talent, so it wouldn’t be the end of the world if that were to happen. I’d never seen Tam Mutu perform on stage until the night we visited Love Never Dies at the Adelphi Theatre and saw him as The Phantom. Now, that’s a big, iconic role anyway, and one which can be very hard to do justice to – especially if you’re understudying Ramin Karimloo’s Phantom. He gave an outstanding performance though and was a superb Phantom, which goes to show that an understudy show is not necessarily a weaker one. I’ve since followed Mutu’s career post-Love Never Dies and have been beyond pleased to watch his rise to the elevated status of a West End leading man.

Every theatre fan has their favourite star performers, and I know there’s a large community of people out there who particularly root for the understudies and have their favourites in that circle of performers. These fans follow their favourite understudies and will specifically go to see them when they’re on, from last minute performances to booking tickets when cover dates are announced. When my daughter wanted to see Les Miserables, her favourite musical, for her birthday a few years back, Alfie Boe was starring as Valjean. I consciously chose a night when the Alternate Valjean, Jonathan Williams, was on instead however. It wasn’t a slight to Boe though, don’t get me wrong. He was so popular with audiences following the show’s 25th Anniversary concert at the O2 Arena that it was difficult to get decent seats for his performances, and also, I knew Williams through his involvement with the Orton/Gould musical, My Land’s Shore, having covered several recording sessions for the musical’s studio cast recording.
I think he’s a fantastic talent, and I wanted to see his take on Valjean as I already felt I knew what I could expect from Boe’s Valjean after the O2 concert. I also wanted my daughter to see him perform. He was probably one of the best Valjean’s I’ve seen, and I know he had plenty of other followers throughout his Les Mis stint. Sometimes, the theatre experience can actually be bettered by choosing to see an understudy performance.

I think many people just automatically assume that the understudy is simply not as good as the regular performer. In my opinion, that is a very narrow-minded assumption as I can say from personal experience that I’ve seen plenty of understudies who have delivered outstanding performances, and who would be fantastic in the role full-time. Seeing understudies also provides an opportunity for theatre-goers to find new favourite performers, and that’s always a good thing. All the leading men and ladies in the West End started off as unknown talents in the ensemble and as understudies. Nothing comes from nothing and everyone has to start somewhere.

By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25

Thursday 21st May 2015