Broadway's Underclass

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:14

    "I came to see Patti LuPone,” Ruth from New Jersey states plainly. It’s a Sunday afternoon outside of the St. James Theater where Gypsy has been leveling audiences for months, and I’m trying to find out why people are really coming to this show. “If Patti weren’t in it, I’d want my money back,” Ruth continues. She could get it too, thanks to “nonappearance insurance,” which guarantees Ruth will see Patti—an above-the-title celebrity—and if she doesn’t, it’s refund time. Nonappearance insurance, which has been around for years, assures the celeb-driven audience that if their favorite star doesn’t perform in the show that day, they can get their money back. But only if the celeb’s name appears over the title. If their name is under the title of the show, no matter how famous the person is, tough.

    Ruth is just being honest, and she certainly isn’t alone. Most of the people I speak to are all geared up for Patti-fest ‘08, and they’ll be pissing razors if her understudy performs. Some are even concerned that I’m not a writer at all, just a clever way for the producers to tell the audience they’re going to see—gasp—the understudy.

    To this crowd, it’s the worst thing that could happen. It’s a feeling that isn’t always just in the front of the house. Jamie LaVerdiere had the experience of being the original standby to Matthew Broderick in The Producers. The first time he went on? The second night of previews. Broderick had been sick, so Jamie was thrown into the rodeo. When the announcement was made that Ferris Bueller did, in fact, take a day off, Jamie silenced the speaker in his dressing room to keep from hearing the crowd’s reaction. He walked to the stage for his cue, his focus steely, and while standing in the wings, a stagehand said, “They really let you have it. Don’t let it get to you.” Before he could process that, he stepped onto the stage and opened his mouth for his first line. Just then, the door to the theater swung open, and a taxi laid on its horn. Then (like he needed a “then”) there was heavy mic feedback when the horn stopped. The cards were stacked against him, but when he was finally able to speak his line, the audience erupted into applause.

    He had won them over just by getting through all that, and went on as Leo for the next week. “It was surreal. Suddenly I was the celebrity, and after the show each night, people screamed for me and wanted my autograph outside the stage door,” LaVerdiere recalls. But a week later, it was over. Broderick was back, and LaVerdiere went from the bright stage lights to sitting in the dark wings, waiting for the next time he’d be called up to the majors. “It’s like going from the eye of the storm to just watching The Weather Channel,” he muses.

    This is the challenge of the forgotten, sometimes unjustly dreaded performer— the celebrity understudy. Understudying can be rewarding, but it can also be a slapin-the-face kind of gig—few if any rehearsals, the anxiety of being called to perform at very short notice and the lingering possibility of never performing—but throw in the fame factor, and “tough” isn’t quite the word for it anymore. The other cheek gets slapped as well. Understudies get paid in addition to their base salary for their work. Celebs are a whole other tax bracket. Indeed, Broadway stars can pull down 10 grand a week. Money aside, it comes down to recruiting the big names in order to get butts in the seats. Margo Lion, a producer of Hairspray, tells me that it comes down to making the show a happening. “Every producer is trying to make his or her show an event,” she says. “In this competitive environment, it helps to bring a name to attract a broader audience.” But she says that a name won’t stand on its own. “The critical thing when you cast is to make sure the person can create the role properly. Most producers don’t feel entirely comfortable just casting based on a name.” Still, fame is a big draw on Broadway for audiences (if it weren’t, “Usher” and “Chicago” would never have been synonymous unless he had a particularly eventful layover at O’Hare), so tackling the challenge of stepping in for fame is a David and Goliath undertaking. Say you’re an understudy to the most famous thing belting on Broadway; one day you get a call—you’re on that night. You race to the theater, throw on your costume and head for the wings to await your cue.This is your moment. Then it’s announced that the star isn’t there and that you’ll be performing instead.

    The audience groans and boos. Before you can say, “This isn’t in my contract,” you have to take the stage—in front of an audience that is angry simply because you weren’t on an ‘80s sitcom. Talk about performance anxiety.

    Not all celeb understudies have stomach knots as they wait for an audience’s reaction. Heather Ayers, Megan Mullally’s standby in Young Frankenstein, said her first time out was a blast. “No actor can control what an audience will do,” she says. “They can only control their performance and their connection to the material and the other actors. In Elizabeth’s first number I got to sing ‘TITS!’ at the top of my lungs, center stage. From that moment on, I felt the audience on my side.” Sometimes understudies do just have to trust the material itself. Dane DeHaan, the understudy to Haley Joel Osment in the open-for-a-week American Buffalo said he didn’t worry about how the audience would take him. “Once they’re engrossed in the world of the play, I think they’ll forget it’s not [the celebrity] and enjoy the experience.” It’s rare, but there are occasions when an audience’s experience allows them to see both celebrity and understudy. In The Diary of Anne Frank, Lori Wilner was the understudy to Sophie Hayden in the role of Mrs. Frank. Sophie hadn’t been feeling well, but went on anyway—with Lori in the audience.

    “At intermission, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and the stage manager told me I was on for the second act.” Was the audience wallowing in angry confusion? Hardly. “A woman thanked me after the show,”Wilner recalls. “She said it was such an amazing experience to see two takes on one role in the same performance.”

    If people go to Broadway to enjoy a live production, how necessary is celebrity casting? The debate is hot, particularly among understudies themselves. Wilner is against it, calling it the fast food of theater. “I’m a purist. [Bringing celebrities] deadens people’s ability to watch theater and to really get the story, because they’re concentrating on who they’re seeing.” But Ayers, from Young Frankenstein, brings up a solid point about celebs that might actually fit the roles.

    “Megan was extremely qualified to play Elizabeth. Not everyone knows that she started out singing on Broadway and what an amazing voice she has.” LaVerdiere isn’t exactly for it either but plays a good devil’s advocate. “It’s complicated. If a celeb boosts box office, then everyone works longer. However, an excellent production will sell regardless, so tread lightly.”

    In an earlier era, the celebrity might even jump at the chance to act as understudy. Liza Minnelli who is, against all odds, charming the pants off of everyone who sees her new show at the Palace, once stepped into a production of Chicago as an understudy when its star, Gwen Verdon, recovered from surgery. In All His Jazz, Martin Gottfried’s Bob Fosse biography, the author writes, “The notion of her being a replacement posed no ego problem. A star’s magnitude could in fact be measured by how little ego had to be massaged. Richard Burton had just completed a stint spelling Anthony Perkins in Equus. In Liza’s case she was never even going to be advertised in Chicago, billed, named on a marquee, or listed in a program.”

    Today, that’s not the case. Daniel Radcliffe is in Equus. Clay Aiken was in Spamalot. Katie Holmes is in All My Sons. Let’s face it; we’re such a fame-obsessed culture that celebrity alone often draws people to theater in droves. While it’s true that entertainment is entertainment, and theater and film or TV have a lot in common (Marissa Jaret Winokur and Harvey Fierstein have reappeared in Hairspray, much like Clooney’s homecoming to ER), live theater will always be its own animal. It comes down to this:Why are you seeing this show? If it’s just to see Shirley Famouspants in a role anyone could play, maybe you belong at the venue where the performers are inside the big screen. But if it’s to experience everything three-dimensional live theater has to offer—costumes, language, lights, controversy, set design, emotion, scene changes, spontaneity and the possibility of getting hit with actual stage spit—well, then, you’ve come to the right place for exactly the right reason.