It’s possible you were there but I sincerely hope not. I refer to the performance of a community theatre show by Solent People’s Theatre back in the mists of time (somewhere deep in the 1980s) shortly before which one of the cast of four lost his voice and, at about an hour’s notice, I was forced to go on.
I genuinely cannot recall the name of the show – some things are so painful they cannot be remembered – but I vividly recall the ice-cold terror that clutched me when the call came.
I wasn’t even the understudy: I was the assistant director and I’d only been with the show for two weeks. But I knew enough and could sing all the songs so on I went and, thanks to the generosity of the rest of the cast and a little nudging, I got through it.
The memory hurtled back last week when the question was raised: who is Evan Hansen? I don’t mean literally. You’d have to have spent the last three years in a strict silent order in the middle of nowhere not to know that he’s the eponymous character of Broadway’s biggest musical sensation since Hamilton. What I mean is: who is playing him?
That question became newsworthy last Tuesday when Sam Tutty, the 21-year-old newcomer who beat 8,000 others to the role, was forced to miss performances due to illness. These things happen, although rarely at press previews at which seats were due to be filled by critics itching to write reviews for publication after Tuesday’s opening night.
Tutty was replaced by Marcus Harman, his alternate, who then played the rest of the week while poor Tutty recovered. Meanwhile, the production office and press team leapt into overdrive, pulling back tickets from the guest list in order to accommodate the critics at sold-out performances that Tutty would be playing.
It is, of course, hardly the first time actors have stepped up in an emergency. And, coincidentally, Dear Evan Hansen is playing at the Noel Coward where Gillian Anderson and Lily James recently played star and understudy in the most celebrated take on the subject: All About Eve.
Most times that understudies go on, audiences wind up loving them not just for surviving but for saving the day, or, rather, night. After their moment of glory, though, it’s generally back to waiting in the wings. On occasion, however, understudying has reaped dividends. Who, for example, remembers Carol Haney?
About the only people who do are Fosse-holics, since she danced with the legendary dancer and choreographer in the film of Kiss Me, Kate in 1953 and won a Tony the following year, duetting with him in the fabled number Steam Heat playing Gladys Hotchkiss (they don’t name ’em like that any more) in the hit musical The Pajama Game.
But a month or so into the run, she injured her ankle at a midweek matinee and one of the ensemble took over. Hollywood producer Hal Wallis, in that night to see Haney, was so taken with the understudy that he signed her to Paramount. Haney may be largely forgotten but her understudy was Shirley MacLaine, 85 and still working.
In fact, MacLaine had already done a short stint in the role when Haney was injured earlier in the run, but that doesn’t take away from the story. Yet more pressured than MacLaine, Edward Bennett was pushed into the spotlight in 2008 when he stood in for a seriously indisposed David Tennant on the London press night of Gregory Doran’s Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet – which meant not only did he lead the play, he was also (very well) reviewed. That certainly didn’t do his career any harm: he has just given a highly praised performance playing the lead in Hugh Whitemore’s Alan Turing drama Breaking the Code at Salisbury Playhouse.
And then there’s Ria Jones. She’d been busy in the industry for three decades when she agreed to understudy Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard at the London Coliseum. Close had to cancel four performances and, as Jones later said, those performances changed her career. The same could be said for Natasha J Barnes, who was catapulted into the headlines after standing in for Sheridan Smith, who withdrew during the run of Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory and again at the Savoy. Job offers and a recording contract with Sony Music followed.
Corny though it is, sometimes the famous line from the director to his protégé Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street rings true: “You keep your feet on the ground, your head on those shoulders of yours and, Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star.”
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict