In the classic movie "All About Eve," an understudy goes to great lengths to obtain the leading role (think Bette Davis having car trouble). Today, such conniving would hardly be necessary.
One of the symptoms of a troubled season for Broadway is that the Hollywood stars it has grown to rely on are proving difficult to keep on the bill. That's catapulting understudies - the breed of actors not regularly featured on "Entertainment Tonight" - into top-billed spots.
Consider the case of Sara Gettelfinger, the understudy for Jenna Elfman ("Dharma & Greg"), in the revival of the musical "Nine." She unexpectedly found herself in a starring role on Broadway when management decided that Elfman's singing voice wasn't strong enough. Understudy Patricia Hodges took center stage in "Rose's Dilemma," the latest Neil Simon comedy, after star Mary Tyler Moore walked out during previews - reportedly because of artistic differences with Mr. Simon.
And the understudy for former sitcom star Jasmine Guy had to get into costume at an intermission during a preview of "The Violet Hour" to (permanently, as it turned out) replace the apparently ailing star.
Even for those who spend their time waiting in the wings, though, a job as an understudy can itself constitute a big break.
"You're doing back-flips to get a Broadway understudy job," says Bob LaVelle, an actor and instructor on leave from the Actors Studio Drama School in New York. "If I could get an understudy job at a Broadway show, I would be singing, in the bel canto style, songs of joy from the 15th century. It's a very exciting thing to work on Broadway in any capacity."
While the role of understudy doesn't typically lead to starring roles, they always have been a theatrical necessity. Even high-profile stars such as Nathan Lane ("The Producers") or Bernadette Peters ("Gypsy") will call on understudies to cover for a temporary absence or illness.
When an absence is known in advance, it can give an understudy the chance to have friends - and the industry - see what they are capable of.
"Whether or not it does anything, it's just great to have your work seen," says Kelly McAndrew, the understudy for Ashley Judd in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," who performed at a Sunday matinee this fall when Judd was attending her sister's wedding. "I was absolutely thrilled, because Ashley has a very strong work ethic and she's a very hard worker, and so I didn't know if I would ever go on, because you never wish anyone ill."
At least one understudy won't be reaping such benefits: The producers of "The Boy from Oz," a musical about the life of Australian singer-songwriter Peter Allen, recently decided to cancel some performances rather than deal with inevitable ticket refunds when star Hugh Jackman takes a few days off in February, March, and April.
With ticket prices so high, it's not surprising that people return them if a substitution is announced. "I'm paying $100, I want to see Hugh Jackman," says Arthur Kopit, the writer of "Nine." "If you're paying $35 or $40 you want to see the show. That's the problem with Broadway. Broadway has brought that problem upon itself."
But such situations are rare, and understudies on Broadway are often praised by those in the industry. An understudy in a Broadway production might go on to play a lead role in the touring cast, for example, or star at a regional theater.
"They're all really good and they've had a lot of training, because you can't put someone who has had no Broadway or major theater experience into a show and expect them to open," says Mr. Kopit. In a field saturated with stars, he points out what some theatergoers may already have observed themselves: "If you have a star who's come out of television, or even movies, there's a very good chance that the understudy is a much better actor on the stage."
In the case of Elfman, she was the second TV star the "Nine" producers had cast in the role of Carla (the first was Jane Krakowski from "Ally McBeal," who won a Tony for the part), and when she didn't work out, they decided to go with the understudy, Ms. Gettelfinger.
"She was terrific," says Kopit. "They felt that we couldn't get anyone who was better on short notice and it was quite exciting for her to go on."
On Broadway, understudies often juggle a part in an ensemble cast with knowing the lines of several other characters they might replace. Some hold the slightly more prestigious title of "standby," and are free of any duties other than being available to cover for a principal role. Even so, actors say that memorizing the lines isn't the most difficult aspect of the job. "You have to think of it as they are paying you to worry," says David Manis, the understudy to Kevin Kline as Falstaff in "Henry IV." "That's the hard part of it, it's not the acting, it's not the learning of the lines."
So far, the 20-year veteran actor, who also plays Pistol in "Henry IV," has not had to fill in for Kline, but says he had a near miss recently. "He was really having some vocal problems and for a moment - it was a Saturday night - I was thinking, 'Heck with going on tomorrow afternoon, I wonder if they're sending me on for the second act.' "
Mr. Manis went home to mentally prepare for the possibility of replacing Kline the next day, only to find that his services wouldn't be needed.
"In some ways, the worst-case scenario understudying is you go through that nervousness, and then you don't get to go on," he says, adding, "although I know a lot of understudies in shows I've been in who've said 'Oh, no, I don't want to go on.' They feel like ... 'it's a job, and fine, but I don't really want to do it.' "
For Price Waldman, standby for Scar in "The Lion King" and a former principal character, filling in is bittersweet: "I don't get to go on that often, and when I do, it's great, it's a great high. But if I had to do the show regularly, eight times a week, like when I was playing [the physically demanding role of] Ed the hyena, my body probably couldn't take it."
He says one of the most important jobs for an understudy is supporting the other actors. "You want to have your spin on the character - you don't want to just be parroting what the normal person does - but you want to hit the marks that the other actors are used to."
When they do hit the stage, sometimes a career is made. Shirley MacLaine became a star after she was discovered when filling in for Carol Haney in "The Pajama Game" in 1954.
More recently, actress Sutton Foster started as an ensemble member and understudy for Millie in a California production of "Thoroughly Modern Millie." By the time the show opened, Ms. Foster had been given the title role - and she won a 2002 Tony for the part after it moved to New York.
And there's always that rare moment when the understudy is as well known as the star. LaVelle recalls seeing a performance of "Inherit the Wind" where Tony Randall filled in for George C. Scott.
Manis says that one of the hardest understudy jobs had to have been in "Starlight Express," where everyone was zipping around on roller skates. "If you stepped two or three feet too far, you could be knocked into Row Q," he jokes.
His own nightmare story as a back up came early in his career, when he was the understudy for a night of one-act plays. "I'm a very pale, tall, thin guy [and] I would have had to go on for a swarthy middle-aged Italian laborer with a thick accent and spend the play working with a live cat that I had of course never met."
His tongue-in-cheek admonition to the actor in that role was simple: "If you ever miss, I will kill you."