Understudies deserve more respect!

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Natalie Andreou’s Elphaba Standby bio in a programme of Wicked

When I saw Wicked for the first time, I was completely blown away by the show itself, but also by the leading ladies. They were so incredibly talented. Before the show I had quickly glanced at the poster outside the theatre, so I knew I was seeing two ladies called Emma Hatton and Savannah Stevenson, playing Elphaba and Glinda respectively. When the show ended I knew I had to remember their names, because they were incredible. Three days later I went back home to Belgium and I looked up these two women on youtube hoping to find some West End Live footage of them. I did find some footage, but they looked very different than they did a few days ago. I was confused, so I checked out Wicked’s official website. Turns out I didn’t see the leads at all. I saw their standbys, Natalie Andreou and Sophie Linder-Lee.

Because of this experience I have a huge amount of respect for people who are ready to step in at any given moment. It shows how amazing standbys, understudies, swings and alternates are. Thanks to them, the show can go on even if one of the leads is ill, on vacation, stuck in traffic… Without them, shows would have to be cancelled half the time.

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Glenn Close as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard

Earlier this year when Sunset Boulevard was playing in London with Glenn Close in the lead role, the American star fell ill. This meant her understudy, Ria Jones, had to go on. There were reports of people booing and even walking out of the theatre. By the end of the show, Jones got standing ovation. You could say it’s their loss, but they were still incredibly rude. Some people even asked for refunds. They should understand that this is just how theatre works. I understand that you might be disappointed if the big star fails to show, but that doesn’t justify such disgusting behaviour. You paid for the show, you got the show. That’s just the risk of live theatre. You can’t expect performers to be on every single show. They are human beings, not robots. You should be thankful that there are amazing understudies waiting to step in at any given moment.

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Three Christines. From left to right: at the time: Alternate Emmi Christensson, Lead Celinde Schoenmaker and Understudy Lisa-Anne Wood. Picture taken from Wood’s Twitter.

But there are some people who don’t respect them at all. There are people who start complaining when the lead is out, because they paid a lot of money to see this big name. Well, I have some news for you. You didn’t pay to see a big name, you paid to see a show. Quite frankly I think it’s incredibly disrespectful to complain when an understudy is on. Some people these days have an incredible sense of entitlement. They moan and groan when an announcement is made about an understudy being on. Show some respect, people.

This annoying audience behaviour has been bugging me for quite some time now. But what really made me want to write this blog is a tweet I saw yesterday. The Phantom of the Opera’s Nadim Naaman tweeted “Don’t EVER be grumpy that an understudy is on. Could write you a list of current leads who used to be understudies, but I’d need 80 tweets.” I completely agree with him, although I think 80 tweets wouldn’t nearly be enough. What really bugged me was one person’s reply, which said “I will be grumpy because I don’t want to pay to see someone not deemed good enough to play the role full time.” That attitude is just so ignorant. Maybe he’s being serious. Maybe he’s just a troll. But that doesn’t change the fact that many people actually believe this. So let’s settle this once and for all. Understudies, standbys, swings, alternates and any other kind of covers ARE GOOD ENOUGH! That’s the whole reason why they’re an understudy in the first place. The producers and director deem them good enough to play the lead role when the principal is unable to perform for whatever reason.

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When you see an understudy, you will NOT see an inferior show. They are highly skilled professionals, who are not only ready to play the lead role at a moment’s notice, most of them also have another role in the show on top of their understudy duties. That means they have to know two roles, if not more, inside out. And let’s not even get started about swings, who often have to learn ten or more tracks. Sometimes they even have to switch between tracks mid-show. It’s all very complicated, but take it from me, they are more than good enough.  Some of the best performances I’ve ever seen were by understudies or other covers of all kinds.

So please do yourself a favour and stop making a fool of yourself by saying dumb things when you have no clue how hard it is to even get a job in the theatre industry, let alone to be considered good enough to play a lead role at any given performance.

If you’re still not convinced, please watch this video about standbys, understudies and swings.

By Dries Janssens: @DriesJanssens3

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