Broadway shows are one of the most exciting forms of entertainment in New York City, and being able to see one of your favorite actors can only add to this excitement. However, these actors are human too, and many are not able to perform at every show. In this case, Broadway is blessed with brilliantly talented actors that are referred to as understudies. Whether or not they are on stage every night, these actors are the ones who step in for someone who is unable to perform.
Understudies are vital to every show, and their job is one of the most difficult. Being a swing, understudy, standby, or any other form of cover in a show necessitates being prepared to step on stage at any moment; if there’s a show, they must be ready. Sometimes they’re told beforehand that they will be going on, but there are many instances where they are given no warning– they just receive the call. Even when the show has already started, they could still be asked to go out.
Zach Adkins, who was an understudy for Charlie on the Kinky Boots tour, explains, “My first time going on for Charlie Price… was mid-first act. I changed out of my factory clothes and I was on for Charlie in the middle of a scene.”
As someone who was an ensemble member, along with being an understudy, he had to change his dynamics in the show as quickly as possible. And now as an ensemble member and understudy for Dmitry in the Broadway musical “Anastasia,” he must be prepared for the same circumstances.
Like Adkins, the possibility of being put into a show at any moment is always up in the air. Knowing this, each understudy has their own way of preparing themselves. A swing, Gerald Caesar, explained that in “A Bronx Tale,” actors have created tracking cards in order to learn and remember their blocking. They are able to look at these cards to refresh their memory.
Like those in “A Bronx Tale,” Kathryn Boswell, a swing and Anya understudy in “Anastasia,” finds note taking to be one of the most important factors in staying prepared, but some swings have other methods– such as watching a video.
In shows like “Bandstand,” where they play instruments on stage, they have a practice room inside the theater where the actors are able to practice.
Matt Cusack, an understudy in “Bandstand,” says, “We have a practice room setup with monitors… we can see the conductor and hear the guys playing, and we can play along while the show is going on.”
Besides reviewing their tracking cards, or practicing during the show, understudies are also given some rehearsal time. Depending on each show, they are able to come into the theater during the week to work. Coming in one or two times a week to run through the show, work on scenes, and collaborate with the other understudies helps them learn the show, and naturally makes stepping into the role a lot smoother.
Michelle Aravena, a swing and Rosina cover in “A Bronx Tale,” explained how even with these rehearsals, many only get to run through their roles about twice a month, depending on the show. It’s important for them to utilize every moment they have with the characters that they cover because practice is limited.
A big contributor to learning the show, and establishing their characters, comes from watching others. Most are given the opportunity to step away from backstage and watch the show from the house. Whether they stand in the back or fill in an available seat, they are able to view the show in its entirety and watch the principle actors.
While on tour with Newsies, “I would go out for specific scenes or dance numbers in order to freshen up,” described Becca Petersen. Now as a swing and an understudy for Julia in “Bandstand,” she does the same.
Being able to go out, tracking sheets in hand, and following whoever she covers gives Petersen a full view of her tracks, which helps her give her best and most accurate performance when she’s called on.
Yet, not all follow their specific track, but rather observe those their character interacts with.
Olivia Puckett, a standby in “Dear Evan Hansen,” emphasized, “It’s more helpful for me to watch the others…When I’m preparing for Zoe, I watch Jennifer Laura Thompson, my mother in the show, to see her energy and reactions so I can better expect what’s going to happen when I’m on.”
Puckett feels she already knows the bodies of her own characters, so being able to view how other characters interact with hers helps establish what she must do.
Although these actors are given rehearsals, they do not get to rehearse with the principle actors. They are used to interacting on stage with another understudy, but not necessarily with anyone else.
While on for Anya in “Anastasia,” Boswell explained, “I was hearing myself on the mic for the first time… wearing the costumes for the first time… and I was so used to doing things with the other understudies compared to doing it with the leads.”
Things will always feel unusual when they step on that stage. They’re also working with someone new, which is why staying alert and watching others becomes so essential; it’s very crucial for an understudy to know what the other actors do on stage.
Keeping the show consistent is important for everyone involved; their performance can not be too different from what the actor they cover does because this could throw off others during the show. However, the characters they cover are very much their own. They are not confined to doing only what one actor does. They need to find the line between putting themselves into their character and completely creating a new one.
“I’ve found a way to bring myself into it while not screwing everyone else up on stage… this is Olivia… she is bringing a new energy, but it’s not a completely different show,” says Puckett.
They have to establish what they are able to do that wouldn’t conflict with anyone else on stage. The energy that they are able to bring is completely different from from anything anyone else could, which makes their performance individually theirs.
Petersen adds, “At times where everyone [ensemble] is a normal person in society… I choose to be myself in whatever that circumstance is… It’s a big thing to keep the show consistent, but it’s fun to make the character your own.”
As said, they must be similar to the regular performance because that’s vital to the show, but both Petersen and Puckett point out that implementing themselves into their characters situation makes that character unique to them. They know the lines, choreography, and blocking– which remains consistent– but when on, it’s their performance. Being able to bring themselves into their characters involves them in the story that they’re trying to tell.
“Actors love surprises,” exclaims Adkins. “In rehearsal, all the other understudies know exactly what you’re bringing to the table, but then you jump into the show… and they have no idea what you’re about to serve up to them and they are on edge to find out.”
All the actors know that the whoever is on is new and will be bringing a new element to the show. As Adkins said, actors love surprises, so when someone is called on, all eyes look to them to see what they can do. They know how to find a balance between themselves to not stray too far from what is routinely done, so it’s exciting to see what they are able to bring to a character that may not have been done before.
Finding differences in their performance compared to another actor’s is important, but it is also essential for understudies to find the differences between each of their characters. Most don’t only cover one track in the show, so this means they are introduced to several different characters.
For swings, who cover several roles in the ensemble, it could be easy to accidentally blend their characters together; they need to establish a different relationship with each of them. Even if the character is just in the ensemble, it doesn’t mean they’re any less specific.
Michelle Aravena was able to point out, “They [ensemble] each have their own specific kind of energy and role that play.” Each character is there for a reason and are not just randomly placed there.
Finding the unique qualities in each of those characters creates a more personal and realistic performance. Even so, it is easier for some understudies to find the differences between their tracks. Matt Cusack, for example, covers Davy, Nick, and Johnny in “Bandstand.” At the surface, these guys could be similar– besides the fact that they play different instruments. Yet, the show was written to give each of these characters a trait that singles them out, which are problems that surface due to them fighting in the war. Because each of these men have different ticks, Cusack is able to distinguish who he is playing that show and why that particular person acts the way they do.
There are also understudies like Puckett, who covers two girls that are completely unrelated. She has acknowledged the fact that Zoe and Alana both have different age ranges, motives, and lifestyles. Puckett doesn’t need to dig deep into these two characters to find their differences, but rather focus on how to play two characters that have opposing attributes.
Despite all the difficult work that being an understudy entails, these actors are doing what the love. Audiences should never be disappointed when their show is granted with an understudy. In fact, when asked what they would like every audience member to know about understudies, they all wished everyone could understand the hard work and dedication they put in to give the audience a show.
Gerald Caesar wants to emphasize that when your playbill carries an understudy insertion, everyone should know that the actor on stage will be excited and ready to give them a show. They don’t get to go on often, so the performance that they’re giving will be their all.
Puckett states, “We signed up to keep the machine running, and when shit hits the fan, we’re here to save the day.”
They’ve in astronomical amounts of effort to be on that stage, and while it may be disappointing to miss your favorite actor, they will not dissatisfy you. And hey, you never know who you may discover.