Too many understudies underwhelm! Or do they?

We spotted this letter in the Stage (3rd February 2011), complaining about the overuse of understudies, a topic which we are currently very interested in ourselves.  Here is our response:

“We sympathise with the writer of your recent letter about understudies.  Sadly weekday matinees are both the likeliest time for school parties to attend, and the usual time of the week for substitutes to be inserted.  In some cases this is to ensure that relatively inexperienced performers do not overstretch themselves.  We had similar anxieties recently going to see Phantom of the Opera.  In our case the performers were not household names by any means, but we were desperate to see John Owen-Jones and Sofia Escobar having admired them in other productions.  We agree that there is now a bizarre two-tier ‘star system’ in operation in the West End.  Our advice regarding merchandise is – don’t buy it!  If the performance was truly memorable you won’t need it.  And you certainly don’t need to pay top price for tickets.  It only encourages producers to keep putting the prices up.  We notice that the writer does not mention whether the understudies were any good.  Our guess is that they were likely to be equally up to the task, and if this was the case, perhaps it would have made an interesting debate for his students, after all, Lee Mead himself was an understudy once.  Of course there is no accounting for taste – we are waiting for a cast change before we go to see Wicked.”

What do you think?  Has anyone out there enjoyed the understudy more than the ‘star’?

Update 8.2.11:  See our letter on The Stage website

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2 Responses to Too many understudies underwhelm! Or do they?

  1. We have been amazed numerous times when understudies have taken the place of ‘Star’ names however its a shame that the writer of the letter to the stage – didn’t take note that Wicked doesn’t sell the show on the *Name* – however it would be an interesting debate if the show in question was for example Wizard of Oz (yet to open) and so many understudies were on stage as all the promotion material and posters for this show sells on Danielle Hope and Michael Crawford.

    I would argue though that the use of untrained actors in high profile and demanding roles is to the overall detriment of the training/commitment of the actors and the overall experience and ‘Final’ product which is then sold to the public.

    We complain if we buy something that isn’t to standard in a supermarket, yet why to theatre producers think they can get away with giving substandard products in theatre?

    Sorry for my ramblings but you raised some very interesting questions and this allowed me to think out loud.

    John Roberts – Editor!


  2. rageoffstage says:

    Thank you for your comments. Talking about audiences as consumers seems to be taboo, but we are determined to challenge that here. This seems likely to become a more pressing issue as prices continue to rise with no guarantee of quality. Interestingly, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ website has been fairly transparent and made a virtue of a necessity by putting one of the runners-up in as an alternate. As you’ll have seen we are no fans of TV casting and plan to post more on this topic soon, so we look forward to the continuing debate.


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