6 Things You Didn’t Know about Being a Broadway Understudy
This blog originally posted on Backstage in 2015.
I’m currently the only male swing for Broadway’s “Amazing Grace,” a musical about the 17th century English slave trader who wrote the world famous hymn, and the understudy for the lead role of John Newton. Throughout my career, I’ve been an understudy for the Broadway productions of “Beauty and the Beast” as Lumiere, and as Prince Eric in “The Little Mermaid.”
Each show has taught me something completely different about the experience of being an understudy, and you may be surprised by what those lessons are.
- Rehearsal does not exist. Aside from being a replacement in “Beauty and the Beast,” I had no rehearsal before I went on for Prince Eric, or for John Newton. You are responsible to know the role whether or not you get to do it on its feet. I ran lines in Denver for “The Little Mermaid” with the other understudies between tech scene changes, but when the show moved to New York, all of the lines changed and we had to start over! In Chicago, I was thrown on stage during the first weekend of previews of “Amazing Grace” when an accident happened to our lead actor. (Read my blog about the experience here.) As frightening as this sounds—and it is the actor’s nightmare—it is a great lesson in taking each moment as it comes. You have no other option in this situation but to live in the moment.
- You’re an insurance policy. Sure, being an understudy feels validating; in “Amazing Grace,” I was only the second person ever to play this epic role. However, you’re still only there as an insurance policy. Your job is to make certain the show happens so the audience gets to experience the story, and the producers don’t lose their money. The good news about this is that you bring fresh new energy to the show. You can let go of any expectations around playing the role like the actor you understudy, and simply bring yourself to the story.
- Some audience members will be disappointed. When I stepped in as Lumiere, the role was being played by a soap opera actor. Mostly known to housewives, he wasn’t known as a stage performer, singer, or personality, but that didn’t stop women at the stage door from telling me, “You were great. You weren’t him, but you were great.” Sometimes, when they make the pre-show speech, the audience would groan. It will probably happen to you as an understudy at least once, but I can guarantee the audience will just be that much more surprised at the end of the show when you’ve nailed it!
- Sutton Foster’s story is one in a billion. Perhaps the most famous understudy story in recent years is Sutton Foster’s. She was the understudy during the out of town tryout of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” The lead got sick, she went on, and voila! Tony Award. That’s the story we hear. But if you ask Foster, I’m sure she would say something different. I’m sure she would say, “I was just doing what I always do, committing to my job 150 percent.” After all, the way you do anything, is the way you do everything. Be ready to commit, because you never know where it can take you.
- It feels a bit like skydiving. Especially the first performance you go on, it’s a rush like nothing you’ve ever experienced. The scariest part is taking the first leap, but remember a beautiful, loving, cast and crew will always be there support you. You will surprise some people at what you’re able to accomplish in the role, and you may even surprise yourself. At the end of my first performance as John Newton, it felt like I ran a marathon with tears at the finish line. Then, the producer gave me a champagne toast. It was a night I will never forget.
- There’s a Twitter account for that! Want to know what understudies are going on and where? Follow @understudies on Twitter. They keep track of who is going on at what show. Maybe you’ll see a once in a lifetime performance this upcoming Broadway season. While you are at it, you can follow me on twitter, too @bretshuford!
See you on the stage!
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