The power of the understudy

RENT understudy list
These were the understudies on during a RENT performance in Cheltenham.

All too often understudies are overlooked or forgotten, pushed to the side and avoided, and sometimes not even mentioned. Yet a show without understudies, especially an intense show with a long run, would be cancelled just as much as the shows ran. Understudies and swings are vital to any production so why is it a theatre may not mention when one is on or people will return tickets?

My first trip to see Wicked I had the pleasure of seeing Elphaba stand by Alice Fearn. Along with my programme I got given a well-designed A4 page letting us know Alice would be on instead of the Elphaba at the time, Rachel Tucker. However, I saw no other signs saying Alice was on, and nowhere was it mentioned that Rosa O’Reilly was on as Nessarose. Luckily I found out which understudies were on from a twitter account which is well known in the West End world, @westendcovers who tweet the known understudies for West End and other large UK shows. Multiple times I have seen that an understudy will be on and immediately hurried on down to London to see them on in a role other than their usual role, or only wished I could have made it.

raff mimi
WestEnd Understudies announcing Raffaella was making her Mimi debut

One understudy/super swing/incredibly talented human is Raffaella Covino. An ensemble member and understudy for Nina in In the Heights, and female swing in the RENT UK 20th anniversary tour, she never fails to amaze. Having seen her as part of the ensemble in In the Heights multiple times, I got the chance to see her play Nina the next time I visited. I was completely stunned by her performance, the emotion she put into the role really gave it a special feel and getting to hear her sing solo parts rather than her usual place in the chorus was exciting. As well as this I got the chance to see her in multiple different ensemble tracks in RENT, and once she went on last minute as Mimi despite having never played the part before. At In the Heights it was mentioned on the understudy board that Raffaella Covino would be playing the role of Nina tonight. At RENT only main characters were on the understudy board, perhaps most audience members wouldn’t know which character “Alli/homeless person/’seasons of love’ solo” was though.

Why would some shows, like Wicked, not display which understudies are on? Are they ashamed the main actor has an injury or illness? Are they worried the understudy isn’t up to scratch? Or do they simply not think it’s important and people won’t notice anyway? Not only is it unfair on the audience member not knowing who they’re seeing, it can be upsetting to the actor as well as they won’t get the recognition they deserve for a role they are prepared to perform at any minute on top of their own role. In fact, understudies are so prepared they are able to go on mid show if absolutely necessary, as the show must go on! This happens a lot more frequently than you may first think. At the newly opened An American In Paris Alyn Hawke went on mid show as Henri taking over from Haydn Oakley as last minute as possible.

Emma Vanessa
Emma Kingston as Vanessa in In the Heights. Photo – Emkingston on Instagram

Another way to make sure the show will happen is call on an old cast member to help out. Whilst this is a lot less frequent I know of two cases where it has happened. The first was at In the Heights, Sarah Naudi and all her Vanessa understudies were either off due to illness or understudying another role, but no way did this mean the show wouldn’t go on! A last minute call to the wonderful Emma Kingston who had previously played Vanessa and an hour before the show began she was at the theatre and ready for the show to go ahead. The other case I am aware of is slightly different, and concerns the title role of Matilda in Matilda the Musical. With children in musicals there are often three or four kids per role, with four being the case in Matilda. The Matildas work in pairs with one being on stage and the other being backstage as stand by, however in this case, all four actresses who were playing Matilda at the time were off ill. Another last minute call to the parent of an actress who had finished her run as Matilda a few months before and she was on stage reprising her previous role that evening.

In the end, not only are understudies crucial for frequent performances, but they are also extremely talented performers and will give their all to the role just as the main cast member would. And although it can be disappointing to miss out on seeing the star of the show, especially if it’s someone you’ve been looking forward to seeing for weeks, months, years even, who knows where the current understudy will be in a few years, chances are they’ll be starring in a show themselves with a talented new bunch of understudies behind them.


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