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BWW Blog: Jeff Blumenkrantz - Understudying on Broadway: Part One - Nuts and Bolts

Those of you who have seen Bright Star know what a tour de force the role of "Alice Murphy" is for our Tony/Drama Desk/Outer Critics Circle-nominated leading lady, Carmen Cusack. And while she seems to be indefatigable, ever in great voice, and able to do eight brilliant and emotional shows a week, plus any number of extracurricular appearances, it's only a matter of time (or vacation) before "Alice Murphy" will fall into the hands of one or both of her understudies, who have been preparing diligently for the big task. Lucky for us, those two women are the super-talented and highly experienced Sandra (Sandy) DeNise and Sarah Jane Shanks, who, in their regular Bright Star tracks, carry an already heavy load as members of the ensemble, acting, singing, dancing, and set-moving their way through almost every scene in the show.

I thought it might be interesting to write a blog about these two women's experiences and about understudying in general, so we had a great conversation about it over Japanese food last week. But before I roll out that interview, it occurred to me that there might not be a ton of information out there about what it means to cover a role on Broadway/Tour, so I'm going to err on the side of over-explaining in this two-part blog entry. For those of you who are curious about the nuts and bolts, it goes a little something like this:

For every principal role in a Broadway show, there are usually two people who understudy it. They both have at least a partial, if not full, set of costumes/wigs, and they're ready to go on for that role at a moment's notice. They can be in the show, either in an ensemble role or a smaller principal role, or they can be standbys, who are full-time employees without a "regular" role in the show and only perform when someone is out. (For the record, there are also swings, who, like standbys, don't have a "regular" role but are at the theatre full-time to cover ensemble tracks, and often, as is the case with Bright Star, cover principals as well.)

Typically, understudy rehearsals begin just after a show's official opening. (Read that twice and remember it when you see an understudy go on during previews.) On a Monday-dark show schedule, understudy rehearsals happen on Thursday and/or Friday afternoons, and they are led by a combination of the stage managers, the dance captain, the musical director or assistant MD, and occasionally the director, choreographer, and/or assoc. director and assoc. choreographer. These rehearsals often take place onstage, wherever there's a piano in the theatre, and sometimes even in remote rehearsal studios across town.

In Bright Star, in which many people cover two or more roles, they've already completed the process of teaching everyone their first roles, which took about a month of twice-weekly rehearsals, and they're almost done with the second pass, which has everyone learning their second roles. Once that's complete, it's expected that they'll bounce down to one rehearsal a week, mixing up who plays what when.

As you might expect, there are many pros and cons around understudying. On the con side, there's the burden of learning multiple roles and the anxiety of performing them, often with little notice. Plus, there are up to ten extra hours of rehearsal time per week. On the pro side, there's the joy of working on multiple roles and the thrill of performing them, often with little notice. Plus, each time you go on, you receive extra $$.

In Part Two of this blog entry, I'll be sharing tidbits from my conversation with Sandy and Sarah Jane, who have both distinguished themselves not only as excellent performers in their own right but also as exceptional and dependable understudies in such shows as Wicked, Kinky Boots, Shrek, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, Promises, Promises, and more!

Up Next....

Understudying on Broadway: Part Two -Sandy DeNise and Sarah Jane Shanks

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