I went to see Dreamgirls the other week (you can read that write-up here) and one of the understudies to Amber Riley, Karen Mav played the role of Effie White. She was sublime, acting and particularly singing was flawless. But there were disgruntled audience members who were griping that Amber wasn’t in situ; that they had paid money to see the billed start of their choice. Now, I understand that there is often what is referred to as celebrity casting, for example, Sarah Harding in Ghost or Miranda Hart or Craig Revel Horwood in Annie but surely the role of the understudy should be given fair and due billing?
When I booked the tickets to see Dreamgirls, I was informed that Amber Riley would only play the role at certain times. Now for me, I see a celebrity casting as an added bonus. I would have seen Jersey Boys (when it was running) regardless of whether Jon Lee of S Club 7 was playing Frankie Valli, or not. I think it is the case that the understudies that you are seeing now, will be the ones you will be paying for in the future. Look at Natasha Barnes who was an emergency replacement for Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl. Having gained critical acclaim she then went on to play the title role of Cinderella at the London Palladium.
Understudies and swings are the bricks and mortar of any show. They have to learn and be fluent in all aspects of the characters they are covering, be ready to be in the zone and get on stage at a moment’s notice, sometimes even having to come on mid-show if necessary. And here’s the thing, that second is the understudy’s shining light. They get to take on the role they have studied diligently for (alongside the other roles they are cover for), not knowing whether they would even get a chance to perform it, especially if it is for a limited run.
Let the understudies shine. They deserve their moment too. Next time the star of your choice is not on as promised, give the cover a chance. They may not be who you want to see, but you will no doubt get to see an effortless performance of a very high standard.
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