Monday, October 02, 2006

The Curse Of The Understudy

The Curse Of The Understudy

Have you ever purchased a ticket for a show, long in advance of the performance, only to be disappointed with the words, “In the role regularly played by [insert name here], tonight’s performance of [insert character’s name here] will be played by [insert name of understudy/standby/swing here]”? Has that frustration only been compounded knowing it was the star or one of the stars whom you specifically paid to see in the first place?

If your answers to either or both those questions were yes, I invite you to share with me the name of the show and the performers who skipped the performance. I also invite you to share what your reaction was to that news and whether you thought the understudy/standby/swing adequately measured up to your expectations of the show….that is, aside from your initial disappointment.

Why do I ask? Well, my reasons are twofold.

One is that it used to be the mark of a consummate professional if the thought of missing a performance was anathema to the actor's fundamental make-up. There is plenty of lore about very ill stars who heeded the call that “The show must go on.” Ethel Merman certainly comes to mind as one trouper who'd never miss a performance -- in fact, the great Elaine Stritch worked a vignette into her eponymous one woman show (Elaine Stritch: At Liberty) about her role as Merman’s standby during the run of Call Me Madam back in 1950. So confident was she that Merman would never let anything keep her away from performing that Stritch confidently took on a concurrent role in another show at the same time all the way up in Connecticut.

My second reason is that I finally took in a performance of The Drowsy Chaperone this past weekend only to learn that Sutton Foster was temporarily out. I inquired why she was out and learned that she had just married actor Christian Borle (Monty Python's Spamalot) a week or so earlier. While I’m certainly thrilled for Foster, I wasn’t thrilled by the fact that this was not the only time I had paid to see this Tony-winning actress perform only to be disappointed when I arrived at the theatre.

Shortly after she won her 2002 Tony for Thoroughly Modern Millie, I made tracks to the very same Marquis Theatre to see her perform. I even bought a ticket for a sure-to-be-there Friday night performance. But when I arrived, she was out and her understudy was in. While I enjoyed the show, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have enjoyed it more with Foster.

Fast forward to March 2005 when I went to see Little Women. My desire to see the show was completely founded on the hope I’d be able to see Sutton Foster finally perform (OK, I also wanted to see the incomparable Maureen McGovern). But when I arrived, I learned once again that Foster was a no-show (in her defense, I later learned that she was ill). Regardless of the reason for her absence, I was underwhelmed by the show. However, when Foster was subsequently nominated for her second Tony, I couldn’t help but feel cheated in missing this rising star once more.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I entered the Marquis Theatre on Sunday afternoon. I knew that Sutton Foster was portraying Jane Roberts/ Janet Van De Graaff and had earned a third Tony nomination for the role. So when I saw those dreaded words on the board, “In this performance, the role of Janet Van De Graaff will be portrayed by…” my heart sank. I had even joked in advance about the possibility of her being out. At the Marquis, I was told that she and Borle tied the knot and were now vacationing for two weeks in Hawaii.

The additional irony is that Foster's character in The Drowsy Chaperone is contemplating leaving the stage to marry her beau, Robert Martin. I couldn't help but wonder if that irony wasn't lost on Foster.

Now, I don’t necessarily hold Foster responsible -- I mean she did get married, after all. Yet when you’re paying good money to see a thrice Tony-nominated star only to find her away from each of the shows for which she was nominated and for which you’ve paid specifically to see her, I think you can be forgiven for starting to wonder what the deal is with her or the show or the ticketing companies.

Personally, I track sites like Playbill and on a daily basis, not only for the latest theatrical news, but also to ensure I’m not disappointed when I step foot into the theatre and learn that a star is out. It would have informed my decision when I purchased my ticket on June 15 if her absence had been announced or if Ticketmaster had listed key dates when Foster would be absent from the production (of course, that’s assuming that the impending Foster/Borle nuptials were already set). I certainly would have planned appropriately.

Fortunately, I have found myself disappointed only a few other times: John Lloyd Young was out of Jersey Boys one Friday night in advance of the Tony Awards. I thought his understudy Michael Longoria was excellent. But not seeing the much ballyhooed star of the show certainly dampened my appreciation for what was ultimately named Best Musical.

Another huge disappointment was when Nathan Lane began his serial absences from The Producers in early 2002, reportedly due to strained vocal chords. Of course, I had purchased my tickets for that show way back in May 2001 and anxiously awaited my turn in seeing the dynamic duo of Lane and Matthew Broderick. They were the reasons why I wanted to see the acclaimed show (as good as Brad Oscar was, it wasn't the same). Fortunately, in early 2004, I finally got to see the real deal Lane/Broderick team as they celebrated their triumphant return to the show.

Did Sutton Foster’s absence make me enjoy The Drowsy Chaperone any less? Well, yes, strictly from the point of view that I’ve yet to be able to see her perform. I keep hearing how great she is, but I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone with my own first-hand knowledge. Thankfully, she has an exceptional understudy in Andrea Chamberlain, who is very ably filling her shoes (my personal review will be posted soon). But will it give me pause the next time Foster’s in a show when I decided whether or not to see it? You bet.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets, and hopefully you’ll have better luck in seeing Foster!
Related Stories:
Jersey Boys' Valli Understudy Gets Spotlight (June 15, 2006)
Is It Just Me, Or... (June 14, 2006)
The Tonys: If I Could Vote...for Best Musical (May 31, 2006)

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At 03 October, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess you should have written that note you contemplated last June to see if she would be there.....oh, there was a mention of the wedding in USA Today's weekend magazine a day before the wedding. I guess the one-week honeymoon just didn't suffice.
To me the star was Martin and what incredible things you can imagine while listening to a recording or a story and how he showed everyone to do that.

At 03 October, 2006, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...


You are spot on with your comments concerning Bob Martin. As I hope you've had a chance to see in my review of the show itself, my highest praise comes for his incredible performance. I'll never listen to a cast recording the same way again -- and I'll look forward to hearing his running commentary each time I listen to The Drowsy Chaperone.

Thanks for sharing!

At 03 October, 2006, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

There's two other comments provided by Stephen Mosher to this story that were posted under the [title of show] article. I invite you to see what he has to say!

In response to his posting, I want Ste to know how much I appreciate his story -- as well as plug for the talent of Sutton Foster.

Personally, I don't think I'd ever not see a show just because the principals happened to be out. Several years ago, I bought tickets to see Mary Tyler Moore in Neil Simon's "Rose's Dilemma" Off-Broadway. But before the show ever debuted, Moore departed the show. My sole reason for buying tickets was to see Moore in person. Yet I still went to see the show and thoroughly enjoyed it.

So while I may have been disappointed this past Sunday by Foster's absence, I was every bit as determined to give her understudy a chance to show me her stuff. And did she ever "Show Off"! I'm glad I saw Andrea Chamberlain -- you can bet I'll look forward to seeing her in future productions, too.

At 04 October, 2006, Blogger StephenMosher said...

I CAN'T believe I posted my comments under the wrong story. I must have been groggy from having just woken up....


Sorry, Steve.. I'll get it right next time.

At 11 March, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...



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