The Role Of The Understudy
In many ways, working as an understudy is a tougher job than playing the title and/or leading role in a show. Hear me out. An understudy can be asked to learn multiple major roles in a performance and have the expectation to perform any of those roles at any time, theoretically as well as the original cast member for whom they are taking over. Put simply: it’s difficult, laborious work, often without praise and glory.
I know I have personally been guilty of having negative connotations towards understudies in the past.
If you were to walk up to any one of my friends or family members and ask who my idol is in the theatre industry, they would unanimously answer; Idina Menzel. It’s been this way since 2003 when I got the Wicked soundtrack and I heard the final note in “Defying Gravity”. I’ve never looked back.
When If/Then came to Broadway a few years ago, to say I was thrilled would be an understatement. At that point in time I had never seen Menzel perform live before and now I would get to see her play a leading role in an original musical basically created around her. It was a dream come true. I went to the show three times.
I remember two nights before my third time seeing the show, something happened that was terrifying to a super-fan like me: Menzel’s understudy had gone on.
I immediately started to panic and began searching every website in existence for news of when she would be returning. With no information available, I spent the next two days agonizing over whether I would have to suffer through a performance with her understudy (and obsessively watching YouTube videos of her in preparation). Jackie Burns, Menzel’s understudy in If/Then, is an incredible actress and vocalist, and has followed in her footsteps previously playing Elphaba in Wicked. Yet, I still found myself saying and thinking things like “she’s good, but she’s not Idina,” and “she isn’t the original.”
I was fortunate enough to see Dear Evan Hansen two times: the first time was the weekend of the 71st Tony Awards when leading man, Ben Platt, was unfortunately out on vocal rest; and once this past weekend where I had the indescribable experience of seeing Platt play (and own) the role he originated. The performances were strikingly different. Platt’s ability to connect with an audience and make them feel such a wide range of intense emotions was unlike anything I had ever witnessed. His raw emotion, attention to detail, and complete immersion in the character was miraculous to watch onstage. Colton Ryan, Platt’s understudy, was extremely talented, but it came down to the fact that he simply was not Ben Platt. For me, it was a completely different show.
However, I respect Ryan immensely. In addition to being the understudy for the character of “Evan”, he is responsible for two other male characters as well. In the performance I saw, he hit every note, had humorous moments, and evoked an emotional response from the audience. Additionally, because of Platt’s almost freakish attendance record, Ryan has not had a ton of experience performing as “Evan Hansen”, which made it all the more impressive. This is what I was thinking as I watched him sing “Waving Through a Window”, the second song in the musical, when the man sitting next to me leant over and whispered “Wait…Ben Platt isn’t performing today?” When I gave him the unfortunate “No” he said a few choice words and abruptly stood up and left the theatre. I was stunned: 1) because it took him that long to realize it wasn’t Ben Platt, and 2) he literally got up and left in the middle of the show. I was even more stunned when just moments later, a young girl about my age rushed into the theatre, took the man’s seat, and immediately started crying as she watched the show, so grateful that she had gotten a seat at all.
This was a defining moment for me and changed my entire perspective of the show I was watching. I’m sure I was not the only one in the audience who was disappointed as a result of Platt’s absence. I could not believe someone had been so ungrateful and did not give the understudy or the show a chance at all. In my opinion, that shows such disrespect for the other incredible cast members and the show as a whole. I wanted to ask him how he thinks it feels for Ryan to get up in front of a sold-out Saturday night crowd expecting to see Platt and perform without any insecurities or anxiety.
As the show went on and other, less angry, audience members realized that Platt was in fact not the one onstage belting his face off, something incredible happened.
Whenever Ryan finished a song, the applause lasted just a little longer and was a little louder than normal. His bow was met with a standing ovation and thunderous applause.
Though I am thrilled I got the chance to see the incomparable Ben Platt perform live in this show, witnessing an audience’s reaction to an (unexpected) understudy was a special experience as well. Colton Ryan was lucky. So many understudies rehearse and prepare and stress over when they will be called upon to complete an immensely difficult task and it never happens. The bottom line is that for a few nights Ryan got to play “Evan Hansen” on Broadway, and he did it well.
The theatre community, supportive, empathetic, and respectful by nature, knows the value of understudies. On July 10th, casting director Stephen DeAngelis hosted an event entitled AT THIS PERFORMANCE, which gives alternate, understudy, and standby performers the chance to showcase their talents. This event is wonderful because it allows the theatre community to take a step back and realize how many talented people there are in the industry that may never get a chance to be that leading man or lady.
There is a reason why originals are, well, originals. We all want to see the original cast of a show. We listen to the soundtrack and memorize their voices. We read articles and reviews about them. They are the ones we want to meet at the stage door. We will all compare those who come after them mercilessly, but the originals do not last forever. They will move on and when they do it is the understudies who will take over and have the future prosperity of their respective shows in their hands. We need to support them.
Understudies, as incredibly dynamic and talented as they are, cannot be the originals even though we want them to be. However, that doesn’t make them any less of a performer, or a person for that matter and we as dedicated patrons need to treat them appropriately.
PS. To the man who left within the first 30 minutes of Dear Evan Hansen: you missed an incredible piece of art and I hope you found something as equally enriching and entertaining to do with your day.