Understudy For Performers

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bednobs | 18:56 Sun 01st May 2022 | How it Works
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How does it work in West end shows? I saw wicked yesterday and both the main parts were the understudies. They were both utterly amazing, and I can't imagine how the main stars are any better. Do they usually know when the undrstudies are going to be on? Matinées? Do they get paid to sit around when they aren't needed?


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they'll usually be playing some other role, or in the chorus line or something, so they'll already be on the payroll.
The main performers are usually contracted for a set number of evening shows in a week, and the understudy(ies) will take on the roles for matinees and some evening shows.

Some shows like the Bob Marley musical have four leads who alternate.

We saw the 'Tina' show with the understudy at a matinee, and as you say, i defy the lead to be any better, she was amazing.
The understudies that you saw were probably 'alternates', who appear as ensemble players (e.g. in the chorus) most of the time but step up to take leading roles when the big stars of the show need a break. So they're most definitely not paid to 'sit around' most of the time.

However a production might also have 'standbys', who can fill a main role at a moment's notice, and 'swings', who can take on ensemble roles when needed.

More info here:
As others have explained, in musicals the understudies are usually part of the ensemble and are contracted to understudy a particular role. Sometimes they go on when the leads are sick other times the leads are only contracted for maybe 6 shows a week instead of 8.
It’s hard work being an understudy because in the afternoons on non matinee days you have to do understudy rehearsals and the ensemble have to learn how to perform with one or two less dancers, villagers or other crowd scenes. They go on to perform in the evening either in their usual role or as understudy for the lead.

In a straight play though, the understudies do tend to be paid to sit around until they’re needed. Sometimes they might help backstage but they are more often or not on hand continuously rereading their lines or helping the cast to fine tune their performances.

Many extremely talented people are working as understudies hoping that one day they will get a lucky break.
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Thanks all. It sounds much harder to be the second choice rather than the first!
Indeed, although its good training and often makes the dedicated even more so.
My sister bought tickets to see David Essex in Godspell, some time in the 70's.
After the performance, she complained that David Essex wasn't there and some 'new' bloke, the understudy had played the main character.
The 'new' bloke was Robert Lindsay!

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