"To the Lady on My Right" : Appreciating Understudies & Standbys


Cassie Smith

To the Lady on My Right, 

The show we were about to see was based off what I presume is your favorite Disney movie, Aladdin, so I understand your excitement and anticipation. You were impressed by the bio in the program detailing the credits of Michael James Scott, and wanted to see what this actor would bring to a character as iconic as Genie. I realize your distaste upon finding the little note in the front of the program indicating that standby, Korie Lee Blossy, would fill those shoes for our May 23rd performance at Cleveland Playhouse Square's Key Bank Theatre, but the remarks you made prior to the show's first chord about the "disappointment" of seeing someone other than the lead in that role is misinformed, undeserved, and diminishes the hard work that these actors must dedicate to their craft.

Let me be the first to admit that it's totally valid to have that feeling when opening up your program because I was hoping to see MJS too. I had the pleasure of watching MJS shine in the company of Something Rotten! three years ago in New York and wanted to watch him own the stage as the Genie that night. While I would've loved that, I was eager to see what Blossy would bring to the role, and let me tell you, my entire family was charmed with his antics. But you spent the 10 minutes leading to the start of the show complaining to your guest about how it "sucks to see the second string" and your frustrations with the actor who should've taken the stage and how he “better have a good reason to be out tonight.” As someone who has been an understudy, it frustrated me to know you were counting the actor out before he got the chance to sing a note.

But the reality of the matter is that these actors are actual people. Like every other person in the building, they have families, responsibilities, and other factors that sometimes call them from their job. Just as your boss wouldn’t want you working when you aren't at your best, the cast and crew want to give their best performance every night; if you need a day off or a quick vacation, why can't they take one as well?

While the show jokes about people paying others to sing and dance for them, that's literally the contract an actor signs with an audience: you are going to spend your hard-earned money on my show, and I'm going to earn my paycheck with my hard work. As an actor, our physical wellness is imperative to our ability to give the best performance for each audience. If I don't take the necessary time to let my vocal chords heal, give proper attention to my mental health, or go to physical therapy, I can't provide you with the quality show you paid for.

For those who don't know, understudies and standbys are the individuals who know the roles of other actors in the event that that actor cannot make the performance. While there are some notable differences between the two titles, their mission is to seamlessly step in to the character’s shoes so that the show may go on at the caliber it would have should the originally cast individual be the one on stage. They must quickly establish chemistry with their scene partners, and this task alone is no easy feat.

These individuals are rock stars and deserve more credit than the disgust they are often met with upon their tiny flyer at the front of the playbill. Whether it's Ohio State University alumnus Sifiso Mazibuko (a standby at Hamilton: An American Musical in London), or a high school understudy for Rizzo in Grease, these people have to know their scripts, learn countless vocal parts, and master quick changes, so it’s a privilege to have their energy on stage for your performance.

I'm not really sure how we can change this misconception about understudies and standbys, but we need to shift the conversation. These people work as hard as the rest of their cast and while it's ok to have some disappointment, most of the time you haven't watched the show to know which person does a “better” job.

Though I would've loved to see MJS again, my family and I adored the Genie we saw on stage. And I have this feeling that the lady to my right also felt the same, as she was one of the first people on her feet during the curtain call, and her enthusiastic applause during the Genie's big numbers was comparable to that of the many kids in the crowd.

Instead of immediately feeling bad about not seeing who was cast, let's encourage a mindset that promotes fighting for the cover to succeed.

Cassie is a 2018 graduate of The Ohio State University with a degree in theatre and strategic communication. She's fascinated with the human narrative, looking for a job, and trying to figure out how to get cast in the touring production of Mean Girls the musical. @Cass175