The Stage was one of several publications this week that believed it had seen Ruthie Ann Miles reprise her Tony-award winning performance as Lady Thiang in The King and I when it opened at the London Palladium on Tuesday. She was also named – and duly praised – in reviews in the Times and the Independent.
In fact, the role was being played by Naoko Mori, who shares the billing for the role in the programme.
Unless you were a keen follower of Broadway news, the sad backstory to Miles’ non-appearance in the show might not have come on to your radar. Back in March, she was seriously injured as she crossed a road and a car ploughed into her and a friend, both of whom we were out walking in Brooklyn with their young children. Ruthie’s four-year-old daughter Abigail was killed; so was her friend’s one-year-old son. Ruthie was also pregnant at the time; in May, she lost that baby before she was born.
The producers of the London run of The King and I had held the role open for her to step into. But she has not joined the show. The unfortunate mistake that critics have now unwittingly made must now no doubt compound the pain of her absence – but also disrespects the performer who is actually playing the role.
There has clearly been a communication failure. Both actors are listed online and in the programme. Plus, given the double casting, the press agent for the show might have made critics aware of who was playing the role on the night.
It’s not just critics who need to be served with the right information, but the rest of the audience, too. In New York, where playbills are given out free to every audience member, the information is readily available, and they are always ‘slipped’ with little notices if performers are off.
In London, though, audiences have to buy programmes, of course, and not everyone does. It is also no longer the case that pre-show announcements are made of any changes to the expected cast. So it becomes the audience’s personal responsibility to seek out the cast board – usually electronic now – on which that night’s cast is billed. If I’m not attending a first night (when I should have access to a press agent to make sure I have the correct information), I make it my habit now to seek out the cast board and photograph it on my phone.
In so doing, when I revisited Young Frankenstein a couple of weeks ago I found out that I would not be seeing Hadley Fraser in the title role, but his excellent cover Josh Wilmott. Other members of the audience could easily have laboured under the misapprehension they were seeing Fraser, though.
Perhaps Equity needs to put a new protocol in place for making sure this information is fully and effectively communicated to audiences and critics, so that credit is given where it is properly due. It could start with nightly free cast lists being printed and available to all audience members (as they do at the National, where those free cast lists are duly slipped if there’s a cover on).
Of course, you are booking to see a show, not a particular actor, and no one can control precisely who it is you’re going to see from night to night (though cast holidays should also be notified on a production’s website where they are known, in case fans are booking to see specific performers).
Up-to-the-second information is now shared freely online; I love a Twitter account called @WestEndCovers that provides daily tweets of which covers are appearing across the West End, where known.
Theatres and producers should share this information routinely with their customers, too, not least to ensure that the right actors are credited for their work.