Understudies: The Real Stars of Broadway

Yesterday I went to see Evita on Broadway.  I got the tickets through TDF and was able to get them pretty cheap because Ricky Martin was not going to be in the show.  It was bolded and highlighted on the page, but as far as I’m concerned, seeing a Broadway show for $45 is exciting no matter who is playing the lead.  I was surprised when I got to the theater to see people handing back their tickets when they found out Ricky Martin was out.  I know those people are Ricky Martin fans before they are Broadway fans, but still, that’s insulting to the performers and to the institution of live theater.  Never mind the fact that understudies bring a new energy and excitement to the show that’s completely different than the lead.

I really started to appreciate seeing understudies when Spring Awakening was on Broadway.  I saw that show too many times to count (I think somewhere around 13), and was excited when there were understudies on for any of the roles in the show.  On the message boards for Spring Awakening (back before the twitter), people were always talking about their favorite actors for favorite roles and were jealous if someone got to see an understudy take the stage for the first time.  That’s part of the excitement of seeing a Broadway show, you never know what’s going to happen: who’s going to play a role, who’s going to be the best.  I love being surprised by the talent of someone who’s not “supposed” to be on stage.

Jeremy Kushnier was the cover for Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar last season.  I saw Josh Young play the part and Jeremy.  Now, clearly I’m biased, but Jeremy was amazing! The rock ‘n’ roll edge to his voice and the strength behind it suited that part so well.  Anyone who had gone to the show hoping to see “tony award nominee” Josh Young and had returned their ticket because Jeremy was on instead, would have seriously missed out on a great performance.  It’s a risk you take that your favorite actor will be out of a show when you go and see it, but it’s a risk that almost always pays off.

When I saw Bye Bye Birdie with John Stamos and Gina Gershon, I almost wished I had seen the understudies.  In the case of a show with celebrities in the leads, the people covering them are the people who have been paying their dues in theater.  Natalie Hill, Gina Gershon’s understudy, had done two shows before Birdie.  The celebrities sell tickets, but, in a lot of cases, its the rest of the cast that carries the show.  My favorite part of Bye Bye Birdie was watching the kid performers absolutely killing it, while Gina Gershon looked super confused and didn’t sound so good.  Even John Stamos fell a little flat (and I love him! Shout out to Uncle Jesse!).  Probably watching one of their understudies, someone who had lived and breathed theater for years, would have been more satisfying and increased the quality of the show.

I saw Ricky Martin perform at the Tony Awards with the cast of Evita and heard a lot about his performance.  I decided to see the show without him in it because I wasn’t so impressed.  Meanwhile, I heard amazing things about his understudy, Max Von Essen.  Max has been in Les Miserables, Jesus Christ Superstar and a bunch of off-Broadway shows.  He’s been doing theater for years and played the role of Che beautifully.  And he didn’t take anything away from the show by being “Ricky Martin.”  I was impressed by his performance and happy that I got to see him in the role.  Never mind the fact that Rachel Potter as the mistress absolutely STOLE THE SHOW with her solo “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.”  Honestly, when you go see a Broadway show, you can never know where the most impressive moment is going to come from, and it is sure to be completely unexpected no matter what.

Broadway, in other places: I ::Heart:: Times Square and Do You Still Know All the Words to Rent?

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