Richard Jordan: What’s the difference between an understudy and an alternate?

Natasha J Barnes Natasha Barnes received acclaim when she took over from Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl
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Last week, this newspaper published The Stage 100, its annual list of industry movers and shakers. Naturally, the eye is drawn to the number one spot, but equally significant in 2017 was the number 100, held by two actors: Ria Jones and Natasha J Barnes.

Both made headlines last year in the West End, performing the lead roles in Sunset Boulevard and Funny Girl respectively when those shows’ stars were forced to miss a number of performances.

In these productions, both actors were credited as “understudy”, but I believe this term can in some instances misrepresent an actor’s work where “cover” or “alternate” would be a more appropriate credit.

Barnes was hired as an actor to play a role in the ensemble of Funny Girl but she also had the responsibility to understudy Sheridan Smith. Her big break came when Smith was forced to take a leave of absence over several weeks. Both Smith’s departure and Barnes’ performance in the musical became news, though the latter was simply doing her job in the same superb way that so many other ensemble actors and swings who also have understudy responsibilities within a company undertake nightly without the recognition they deserve.

Jones, on the other hand, was not hired as an ensemble member understudying the lead. She was specifically engaged just to cover the lead role and this is where such credit becomes important. Jones created her own interpretation of the role, rather than simply copying Glenn Close. She is also already a well-established musical theatre name in her own right with an enviable list of leading musical theatre credits. For those in the industry familiar with her work, Jones’ success in the role of Norma Desmond should come as no surprise.

It was the same with the last West End revival of Sunset Boulevard in 2008 at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Presented as a more intimate reworking of the musical, it credited Jessica Martin as understudy for Norma Desmond. Like Jones, Martin is an established actress with her own list of West End leading actor credits. She too was hired from the outset solely to cover the lead role and also gave her own brilliant and skilled performance in the part when called to go on.

The representation in programme credits on these productions for Jones and Martin should have been as “cover” or “alternate”, not as “understudy”. This is an important distinction, both in the recognition and understanding that it affords to both audience and industry.

Last week I made a trip back to see Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre. The big difference between myself and many other audience members attending was that I had returned specifically to see the brilliant Broadway actress Marisha Wallace playing Effie White. Wallace has been flown over to cover the role while Amber Riley recovers from pneumonia. Being in this audience was an electric experience: I watched many of them take their seats disappointed that Riley would not be performing, only to be completely won over by Wallace’s own mesmerising performance in the title role.

From the start of the West End run, Dreamgirls has made a clear distinction of naming its covers as “alternates for the role of Effie White” while also listing a named understudy. The disappointment is that like so many alternates or covers, White may well not get her performance reviewed, which it richly deserves to be.

On the plus side, social media affords recognition for covers and understudies. Of all last year’s covers, alternates and understudies, Barnes may benefit most from her big break. The media love stories about unknown actors who step up, save the show and become stars. Barnes now appears in the title role of Cinderella at the London Palladium, which completed a remarkable career-changing year for her. The audiences who saw her in Funny Girl had a unique opportunity to witness the tipping fulcrum of her success – an ‘I was there’ moment.

But it is important to note the distinction between her role as an understudy, and those of Jones and Wallace as alternates. They’re not interchangeable.