Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

TheIndispensable Understudy

Saturday, March 22, 2014

by Meghan Randolph, Assistant Director - LEND ME A TENOR

It's the most infamous adage of the theatre: "The Show Must Go On."

And indeed it must, as the characters learn all too well in Ken Ludwig's LEND ME A TENOR, produced by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre in the Cabot Theatre from April 10-27. The story, set in 1934, centers on the Cleveland Grand Opera Company and their performance of OTELLO, which is slated to star infamous Italian opera singer Tito Merelli. Unfortunately, a series of bizarre events leads producer Henry Saunders to believe that Merelli is suddenly incapacitated, leaving him with no choice but to disguise his assistant, Max, as the singer so as not to lose the support of their eager audience.

tenorvertWhat is a producer to do when a star can't go on? The answer seems simple: hire an understudy, a substitute performer to play the role in circumstances that require it. It is the understudy, however, that can provide an even more complicated problem.

Audiences tend to regard understudies as second best; a cheaper version of "the real thing," for which they are still required to pay full price. Understudies for star performers have it even worse; they are met with disdain and anger when they are called to do their job. In LEND ME A TENOR, Saunders is advised to have the understudy, Albert Rupp, perform in Merelli's place. The producer responds, "Of course!...Stick a note in the program: 'The role of Otello will be sung by Albert Rupp. And then, if there is anyone left in the audience when he takes his bow, they can stone him to death! The ultimate operatic experience." Indeed, Saunders is so hesitant to use the understudy that he would rather have Max perform unrehearsed but disguised as the actual star.

Typically understudies are not asked to directly impersonate stars, but many are required to come as close as possible in their interpretations, mimicking the every move of the headliner they are covering for. They must assume a role so seamlessly that the audience is not aware that anything is out of the ordinary. In covering for a famous performer, this is a virtually impossible task; audiences are often loath to accept an understudy in place of a star.

In 1964's HELLO, DOLLY!, the title role of Dolly Levi was played by famed Broadway actress Carol Channing. When Channing was ill or on vacation, producers employed a devious tactic: they would make an announcement at the beginning of the performance stating that the role of "Mrs. Levi" would be performed by an understudy. They intentionally neglected to use the character's full name of Dolly Levi and quickly dimmed the lights so that theatergoers would not have time to look at their programs to realize that the character of Mrs. Levi was in fact the "Dolly" of the title. The performance would be underway by the time they realized that Channing would not be appearing.

The producers of 2003's THE BOY FROM OZ made an even bolder choice. Rather than allow an understudy to perform in the place of star Hugh Jackman, they elected to cancel performances when Jackman was unavailable. An understudy was hired and prepared, but never used.

So Saunders' concerns within LEND ME A TENOR are far from unusual. So why would any actor agree to take the terrifying risk of being an understudy?

Though it can be truly thankless, actors accept understudy jobs not just for their resumes, but for the thrill and potential that come with the position. Legendary showbiz stories abound in which understudies fill in unexpectedly and are skyrocketed to stardom. Shirley MacLaine was seen by a Paramount Pictures producer when she filled in for Carol Haney in THE PAJAMA GAME on Broadway. Soon after, she appeared in her first feature film, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, and eventually won the Academy Award for Best Actress for TERMS OF ENDEARMENT. Sir Anthony Hopkins owes his fame to Sir Lawrence Olivier coming down with appendicitis during a 1965 production of THE DANCE OF DEATH, in which he was Olivier's understudy. Hopkins went on to create countless memorable roles, most notably Hannibal Lecter in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Catherine Zeta-Jones was first spotted during her appearance in 42nd STREET, where she filled in for the role of Peggy Sawyer after two other actresses fell ill.

A similar story occurred in the glamorous world of opera in which LEND ME A TENOR is set. In 1965, famous coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland was starring in Donizetti's LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at the Greater Miami Opera. Her leading man fell ill and was without an understudy. She was traveling with a young tenor familiar with the role in question, and he went on for the lead at the last minute. It was the American debut of one of the most legendary opera singers of all time, Luciano Pavarotti.

Such is the paradoxical life of an understudy. Their jobs present them with the opportunity to demonstrate skills and earn fame, cloaked in the possibility that the audience will hate them before they even walk on the stage.

Actress Gina Beck, famous for her starring roles in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and WICKED on London's West End, defends understudies and their place in the theatre. She insists that these unappreciated performers bring "energy, enthusiasm, and a different approach to the part which often enlivens the whole performance." And while the job can be frustrating, many cite it as incredibly rewarding. Former Milwaukee Repertory Theater actor Jeffrey Tambor, now famous for his role as the patriarch on ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, recalls, "All my friends said…do not understudy. You'll regret it for the rest of your life…I've never regretted it once."

When their moment comes, the show rises and falls on the understudy, their ability to improvise and their fearlessness. As we learn in LEND ME A TENOR, the understudy, whether cast in advance or implemented at the last minute, is the quiet cornerstone that allows the curtain to rise.

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