Broadway understudies describe playing backup for a living, from replacing famous actors to ad-libbing lines
theater, understudies never know when — or if — they'll be called upon to go on stage.
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For up-and-coming performers or even established ones, being an understudy can be both an unnerving and exciting experience: You never know when you'll be called upon, if ever, to go on stage. Because of the sheer randomness of the position — acting as a replacement on short notice — it behooves the understudy to always be prepared and ready, even if they never make it in front of the audience.
Playing backup is an odd but necessary job, so Insider recently asked some understudies how they manage.
Reaching for the stars
When Josh Lamon made his
"I began the show as a swing," he told Insider. "Their job is to cover everybody in the show — you swing from role to role. One day you can be on for somebody, the next day you're on for somebody else. Most of your job, especially in the beginning, is to watch the show, trying to memorize where everybody is at all times."
To help him focus on multiple roles, Lamon — whose other Broadway credits include "Groundhog Day" and "Finding Neverland" — had two different copies of the script.
"I understudied eight or nine people, which was terrifying," he said.
Stepping into new roles
This kind of multitasking came in handy for actor Michelle Beth Herman when she got cast as both a swing and an understudy in the national tour of "Les Misérables" in 2017. The experience was as all-consuming as it was enlightening.
"They don't teach you how to be a swing when you get a bachelor's degree in musical theater," she said.
Like Lamon, Herman had to learn multiple roles in rehearsal — a process she described as "pretty fast, because the show was a machine that came from Broadway." To help focus, Herman color-coded all of her notes.
They were also both at the theater, even when they didn't go on. But Edmund Gaynes, whose extensive
Working with time constraints
Gaynes, who later worked as a Hollywood casting director before segueing into his current position as theater owner and producer, did go on for actor David Cassidy in "Fig Leaves" a few times when the show was in previews in New York.
"I only had a two-hour rehearsal," he recounted. "David had a lot of lines and two numbers with a lot of staging and singing. I pretty much winged it. I didn't really know his lines, but I got through.
"I had a lot of baptism by fire. That was the sixth Broadway show I had done. I had done hundreds of live TV shows. If you got nervous on live TV, you couldn't work. If you made a mistake, they couldn't yell cut. I also did a lot of stage plays. I was pretty well immune to [being nervous on stage]."
For Herman, it took a while for her to go on in "Les Miz."
"I didn't hit all eight tracks until six or seven months in the run," she said. "Things started to pick up when people started to leave and contracts were up. [Before then], I would sit backstage, work out, watch Netflix and hang out with the stage management."
Taking center stage
One time, she went on in the middle of the show, doubling as a male body for one number. Lamon also had a similar experience as an understudy for the lead, Brooks Ashmanskas.
"He got sick during the show," said Lamon. "I was in my little corner backstage reading a book. I went on for him in the second act."
To get the audience on his side and mitigate their disappointment at the sudden casting change, Lamon ad-libbed a line "where I basically said I know I look different." It worked and the crowd cheered.
Lamon was prepared, having already gone on for Ashmanskas when the latter was on vacation. Still, dealing with an audience's disappointment when you're called at the last minute to sub for an indisposed or unavailable performer can be stressful. It can be doubly so if the performer is a celebrity.
Overshadowed by fame
That was the case when Lamon understudied for Wayne Knight, who played Newman on "Seinfeld," during the limited 2018 Broadway run of "Elf."
"I never went on for him, thank goodness," he said. "You don't want the audience to be mad that they're not seeing Wayne Knight. They want Newman, not me."
Hearing an audience groan or ask for refunds because a star is out can be very disheartening.
"The understudies are Broadway veterans," Herman said. "I remember having a conversation with my resident director from 'Les Miz' about this. He said: 'We cast people for understudies who can play that role.' It frustrates me that audiences believe we're less than or not enough because we are."
Both Gaynes and Lamon echoed her sentiments.
The final act
Yet Herman said it can be rewarding to be "the person who saves the show — to have the power and confidence to step in and know all [my fellow performers] onstage will have my back."
If Lamon has any advice to impart to actors cast as understudies, it would be to "honor the blueprint and learn the show."
"Watch it as much as you can, practice as much as you can, and be very kind to yourself," Lamon said. "But at the end of the day, it's just a show."
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