I remember being with a group of friends at a performance of Mary Poppins. At the end of the show, one of my friends turned to me and said, “I’m so glad we got the real Mary Poppins. I mean, I know the understudies have to be really good, but you can tell the difference when it’s the real one can’t you?”

What my friend didn’t realise was that she had just watched a performance by the “understudy” – Sarah Bakker. There had been no announcement before the show that the “understudy was on” and unless astute theatre-goers had either checked the cast board in the foyer or knew their performers well, they had no idea. Indeed, most audience members for that performance went away very impressed by the performance of whom they assumed was Helpmann Award winner Verity Hunt-Ballard.

Sarah Bakker, a finalist in the Rob Guest Endowment in both 2009 and 2010, performed the title role of Mary more than a hundred times throughout the tour of Mary Poppins. She went on to understudy the role in New York and fulfilled a dream of playing the title role in the Broadway production.

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Sarah Bakker as Mary Poppins

I was reminded of this conversation when this article appeared on Twitter recently: Dear West End Producer Would You Let Your Understudies Tweet When They Are Appearing?

Whether the performers are understudies, alternates, standbys or swings, it raises several issues.

The first is whether changes in the leading roles should be announced just prior to the commencement of the performance to alert audiences? This risk is, of course, the reaction from audiences.

During the last Australian tour of The Phantom of the Opera, the advertising around the theatre declared “Anthony Warlow is the Phantom”. However, to many audiences Simon Pryce was the Phantom of the Opera, not Anthony Warlow. Pryce is now better known to audiences as the “Red Wiggle”.

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Simon Pryce understudied Anthony Warlow

Sitting in the audience on a Saturday night, the pre show announcement was made: “Tonight’s performance of the Phantom will be played by Simon Pryce”. A very loud, collective groan rumbled so loudly throughout Melbourne’s Princess Theatre, it was no doubt heard by Pryce himself. The audience had paid to see the man billed as THE phantom. The ushers on duty that night said Warlow “had missed a lot of performances” and some audience members complained they had returned five or more times and had still not seen Warlow in the role.

All was redeemed, however, when Pryce delivered an outstanding performance and received a thunderous applause and a standing ovation during the curtain call, proving he was just as good as the performer everyone had paid large amounts of money to see.

Understudies work hard to ensure they are at the top of their game and ready to take on the leading role at any moment.  It was Teddy Tahu Rhodes who said, “When you’re the lead and you see the understudy you’re just as intimidated by them. Honestly, they are often equally as good, if not better than you …”

These days, announcements about changes to lead roles are generally not made. Instead, any cast changes are made public via a cast board or a computer screen in the foyer – for those who care enough or take the time to check. Unless a mishap occurs mid-show and an immediate change of cast has to take place, it is usual for any changes to go unnoticed by most of the audience. But should they? Should the understudies, who have worked so diligently to ensure they are show-ready for the leading role, be given the credit they deserve by at least being publicly acknowledged? And wouldn’t it also be fair to the principal performer for audiences to be aware it is not he or she up on the stage?

The second issue is this: If the changes are not due to last minute illness or injury, but rather planned in advance, should they be made known to the public also in advance? There’s nothing wrong with a performer taking a holiday after months of doing eight shows a week – but why not let people know?

Many producers will not allow their understudies to post anything on social media informing the general public – and their fans – that they’ll be stepping into a leading role for a particular performance. Any excitement has to be reserved for close family and friends only.

The reality is that most people have already purchased their tickets in advance and often well ahead of any planned schedule of cast changes, let alone last minute cast changes due to illness or injury. Refunds are not available if a leading performer is off and the audience will still be there on the night regardless. The small number of Australian audiences who purchase their tickets just hours prior to the show may not necessarily purchase tickets for the night their favourite leading performer is off, but are highly likely to return when they know he or she is performing.

It may even be in the best interest of producers to notify the public if an understudy is to perform that day. There are certainly theatre goers who will snap up a ticket, often at the last minute, only because an understudy is in the leading role. I know of theatre fans who work in the CBD who will check a cast board at a theatre on the way home, just in case an understudy has been listed for that evening in the hope of seeing a slightly different version of a well-loved show. There are fans of emerging talents who would eagerly rush to buy last minute tickets to see the understudy take to the stage.

When a Melbourne reviewer happened to be at a performance of Aladdin at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre when standby Gareth Jacobs took to the stage as the Genie, there was considerable excitement on Twitter, with plenty of interest from others hoping to see him in the role – in addition to seeing the critically acclaimed Michael James Scott. For some it’s the curiosity factor: to see how Jacobs performs in this demanding role in comparison to Scott. It’s not that we don’t want to see Michael James Scott, it’s that we want to see BOTH Michael James Scott AND Gareth Jacobs.

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Gareth Jacobs is the standby Genie

Some Matilda fans would happily buy tickets for four different performances simply to see each of the young leading ladies take to the stage, as each girl brings her own unique style to the character.

While production companies don’t promote who is off each performance, it’s obvious to many fans following social media. When Mark Vincent and Marina Prior posted photos and details of their concert together later that day, it was pretty obvious there were would be an understudy in both The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady that evening.

Many audience goers don’t actually care who is on and who is off for most shows. Unless the performer is a household name it makes very little difference who is in each role. For the fans and followers of individual performers, however, it makes a huge difference.

Would it really hurt to announce cast changes via social media each day?

I loved Jemma Rix’s performance of Molly in Ghost the Musical, but I would have returned to see Rob Guest Endowment finalist Samm Hagen perform the role. (Hagen is currently playing the role of Pat in Kinky Boots.)

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Samm Hagen as Molly in Ghost

However, there are some producers doing the right thing by their audiences – and their cast members. When the performance schedule was announced for The Production Company’s season of Dusty, certain performance dates were highlighted with this comment: *In these performances, the role of Rodney will be performed by John O’Hara.

Todd McKenney is billed in the principal cast list, but is unable to perform on specific dates due to other pre-existing commitments. On those performances, John O’Hara will take on the role. Fans of Todd McKenney can purchase tickets for the dates McKenney is expected to perform, while fans of John O’Hara can select tickets on the alternate dates. Everyone is happy!

Bravo to The Production Company for some forward thinking and transparency. Let’s hope other producers may follow the lead.

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