If you’ve never been to a Broadway show, you’ve never experienced the dread, the utter dread, which accompanies a small square white piece of paper dropping from your Playbill after you’ve taken your seat. The square usually reads something like:
At tonight’s performance
the role of King Lear, usually played by Brian Dennehy
will be played by Bryan Adams
In the old days audience members would take the fall of the white paper as an opportunity to rush the box office and demand their lavish ticket price back. (Those rules have now been changed and understudies are posted on a board in the lobby before you enter the actual theatre. You miss the notice, it’s your fault.
But just as the name on the marquee has come to define the history of theatre (Lee Cobb in Death of a Salesman, Cherry Jones in Doubt, Carol Channing in Hello Dolly!) so have the names on the white paper defined and reinvigorated life for the avid theatregoer. On not-so-rare occasions audiences were rewarded for their patience with the gift of discovery. Some of the great names in theatre history stepped onto the stage for an ailing lead and seemed to never step off: Merman, Robards, Stritch…etc. Hell, Huffington Post did a top ten list on the subject a few years back.
But there are others elements to the understudy’s performance that should not be overlooked: the lowering of expectations coupled with the raising of compassion. Suddenly a dropped line or two from the understudy is tolerated because, you know, he or she is just out there doing their best. And the audience now celebrates a well-performed soliloquy or musical number with greater affection because that audience is now behind the performer. They are rooting for the little guy. This is his/her big moment!