Understudies – ready or (sometimes) not – have been much in the news lately, with the high-profile absences of Connie Fisher Richard Griffiths and Billie Piper from respectively The Sound of Music, Equus and Treats putting the spotlight on those who execute a largely unsung professional duty, which they have to do to the collective groan (whether inwardly suppressed or verbal and/or even physical as some patrons fall over themselves to get to the box office for a refund or exchange).
Of course the circumstances are sometimes absolutely unavoidable – we’re not talking here of Martine McCutcheon who famously gave fewer performances in the role of Eliza Doolittle than her understudy did when My Fair Lady premiered at the National’s Olivier, but was seen going on lunch dates and shopping trips when she was supposedly ill. I returned home from Gran Canaria yesterday to the news that I won’t be going up to Stratford-upon-Avon tonight for the long-scheduled press night of King Lear, after all, as it has had to be postponed: Frances Barber, who plays Goneril, has sustained a serious knee injury in a bicycle accident, and isn’t able to appear.
As a result, director Trevor Nunn (who has already barred the press from attending The Seagull until nearly the end of its run, as I’ve previously blogged about here), has issued a statement, “It is very unfortunate that Frances’ injury means we must delay the press performance of Lear but Ian (McKellen) and I both feel that the production should be seen in its entirety as it has been rehearsed, and that it would be unfair on the understudy to be reviewed in only her second performance in the role. Frances will have to undergo surgery in the next few days. We are hopeful that she will soon recover and be able to resume her role in Lear, and as Arkadina in the forthcoming production of The Seagull.”
It may not be fair for the understudy to be reviewed this early (though I’m sure we’d all have made allowances), but it doesn’t seem fair to me, either, that Nunn doesn’t pay her the courtesy of actually naming her (she is called Melanie Jessop). And tonight’s performance is going ahead – as is the post-show first night party – but just without critics present. The performance is good enough, in other words, for paying punters to see – and the cast to celebrate – but not (yet) to be reviewed.
By contrast, Andrew Lloyd Webber made very generous public acknowledgement of Connie Fisher’s understudy when she took over: ”The Sound of Music is a fantastic production with an enormously talented cast and we are very lucky in that, in Connie’s absence, the role of Maria will be covered by Sophie Bould, who has been receiving standing ovations for her portrayal of Maria.”
Of course, that was to some extent a case of damage limitation – stressing that the public weren’t being sold damaged goods without their star (and one they had personally voted for!). But Bould was at least both named and praised.
Performers who, Peggy Sawyer-like, goes out an understudy and come back a star may be few and far between, but it does happen. (Ask Shirley MacLaine – in her current life, that is, not a former one! MacLaine famously stepped in, so to speak, for Carol Haney in The Pajama Game when Haney broke her ankle — and became a star; Haney, by contrast, is little remembered today.) It is one of my eternal regrets that I missed Jeremy Northam’s Hamlet at the National – he was understudying Ian Charleson, and when Charleson was ill, I got a refund. Northam has gone on to become a considerable actor in his own right.
But early on in my Broadway theatregoing career, I remember trying to see Liza Minnelli in The Rink for a second time (I’d seen her once already). But she was repeatedly off. Finally, I turned up at the box office one morning and they had not received notification of her absence yet. So I bought a standing ticket at the back of the theatre for the matinee. As the lights fell, the announcement was made: she was off after all. It was too late to do anything else. So I stayed – and Liza’s understudy was someone called Mary Testa. She has become a stalwart of the New York stage – someone whom I have always followed in the years since. She’s appeared in a couple of Michael John LaChiusa musicals, Marie Christine (at Lincoln Center) and an off-Broadway revival of First Lady Suite, and I remember sending Michael John an e-mail saying how I often referred to her as “Dame Mary Testa”. He replied, “She’s not a dame – she’s a broad!”