BWW Exclusive: At This Performance: The Rise Of The Broadway Understudy
It's a Sunday morning in the spring of 2017. In the corners of social media filled with devoted fans of Broadway musical theatre, a buzz begins early in the day. Ben Platt, the star of the season's runaway hit Dear Evan Hansen, will not be performing that day. Instead, his understudy, ensemble member Colton Ryan, will be making his debut as Evan.
Much of the show's image has centered on Platt's above-and-beyond performance as Evan. One might assume that news of his absence might be met with wariness, especially among the intensely passionate fans on social media. But instead, a funny thing happened:
"GUYS COLTON IS ON TODAY OMG WHAT BREAK A LEG MAN!!!"
"@coltonthewizard BREAK A LEG TODAY ANGEL!"
"I love @coltonthewizard. A good quality dude who is gonna get the good quality credit he deserves. I'm so proud break a leg"
Understudies on Broadway are nothing new. What is new, however - or at least newly noticeable - is the growing eagerness of fans to see such a performance.
Take the debut of Zach Adkins as Dmitry in Anastasia (coincidentally, a college classmate of Ryan's). Word got out a day prior to his first performance this fall, and the Twittersphere promptly erupted with enthusiasm for the affable, richly voiced actor previously best known for a handful of promotional performances and a tongue-in-cheek Twitter bio that reads, in part, "Golden retriever connoisseur."
Despite a few days of advance notice that the principal Dmitry, Derek Klena, will be absent, when the day arrives, Adkins is somewhere between nervous and excited, waiting in the background of a scene until he emerges to lead the opening number.
"You feel it all bubble up right before [the first entrance], that fear of 'Is this all going to come out the right way? Am I gonna go up on all my lines?' and you have time to sit there and think about what's about to happen," he admits. "But you find ways to push it down and talk yourself into what you're about to do... And it's like, okay, this is do or die. Whatever happens happens, but this is your show and you have to take the reins and you have to drive it, and after that - you just go for it."
Waiting in the wings
"Going for it" is not as easy as it may seem. Established fans often come to associate a particular actor with a role, perhaps even coming to see that actor in particular. Casual theatergoers, meanwhile, may open up their Playbills to find an understudy slip and automatically assume that they're getting someone "second-rate."
Meanwhile, the actors face their own set of challenges. Not only do they have to connect with audiences, they also have to create a connection with their co-stars who are used to performing opposite someone else. Getting that pitch-perfect can be a challenge even for the most flexible and talented actors.
"Real human connection onstage, especially as an understudy, you don't always get that, because you're thinking about a hundred different things. If I can get someone to connect with me genuinely, then I did it for the night," says Adkins.
There's a bit of scarcity at work when it comes to understudies. Because of the rarer nature of their performances and the inability to predict when they'll be on, seeing an understudy has become an especially valued experience among the most devoted fans. The sheer excitement around seeing a different take on a role was also mentioned by several fans interviewed.
"Understudies are your chance at getting to have those different ideas about the characters, making you see something that maybe the main actor didn't have," comments Nisa, a fan who identifies a common theme: the desire to explore different facets of a character. It's a surprisingly literary underpinning to this phenomenon, with fans diving into college-literature-level analyses about the smallest nuances of performance and finding textual support to back up their interpretations.
Sometimes, that "something different" is especially significant. When Shoba Narayan stepped in as the principal Natasha during Denee Benton's vacation from Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 in March, she became the first South Asian leading lady on Broadway since Bombay Dreams nearly fourteen years ago. Nearly every person I interviewed who called Narayan one of their favorite understudies mentioned this - and not because of some vague diversity support, but because they had very personal connections.
"The fact that I was finally seeing a woman who looked like me on Broadway for the first time was a very important factor that attracted me to the show itself and caused me to become a fan of [Narayan]," says Lar, a young woman of South Asian descent. A fan who identified themselves as "Chai" agrees: "There is something so amazing and unique about seeing a woman who comes from an ethnic background similar to mine."
The circumstances surrounding Comet's closing - a rollercoaster of diversity accusations and business revelations in which fans on social media were just one thread in a tangled web - tended to obscure moments like this, but these fans certainly were moved.
"At this performance... "
Understudies also gain fans for their interpretations of characters. In Comet, for instance, the heroine Natasha had to somehow be sympathetic, youthful, and innocent while still doing some incredibly selfish, thoughtless things. It's a delicate balance to walk, and fans of Narayan's portrayal praised her for "embodying the kind of innocence [that] the role demands," as one fan succinctly put it.
While Narayan's fans adored the way she built on the core of a character as played by the principal, Adkins developed a reputation for bringing forward a completely different variation on his character - one that is influenced, he explains, by his own personality and day-to-day check-ins with co-stars, as well as by the core characteristics that make Dmitry "Dmitry." While describing the character, he uses the adjective "happy," something which doesn't necessarily mesh with the sarcastic, brooding image that the film's and Klena's portrayals touch upon.
"I think that's who I am as a person, I'm a little more 'smiley'," Adkins laughs. "Dmitry's a con man, so why not use that smile to get what you want? [He's] happy, he's in the neighborhood he grew up in... he's emitting joy, but also trying to find this way out."
It can be hard for an understudy to truly put their own stamp on a role, hemmed in as they are by the requirements of set-in-stone words, notes, and blocking, as well as by the expectations created by the actors who regularly perform the roles. That's why many understudies, Adkins included, say they learn from watching the principals, but also try to avoid direct comparisons, instead drawing on their own rituals, direction, and understanding.
The one thing they can learn from their principal counterparts? How to handle fan interactions. As the theatre world builds its case for modern, mainstream relevance in a globalized, digital era, those avenues of connection can result in a little too much connection.
Fans and "stans"
Among surveyed fans, a large portion (nearly 80%) mentioned some form of social media as a factor in their support for or exposure to understudies. Dear Evan Hansen fans in particular seemed to latch onto social-media-savvy understudies - unsurprising, given the practical fact that overwhelmed principal performers are often unable to respond to the onslaught of fan comments.
"I'm a fan of Colton [Ryan] because mostly he is very interactive with his fans on social media, more than any of the cast, I believe," says Abby, one fan who lists Ryan (who departed the company on November 26) among her favorite understudies.
In some ways, the ease of social media has been a boon for understudy performers. Clips of their performances at promotional events (main cast members sometimes do not perform at these events) can easily make the rounds. And on social media, where leading actors are often the recipients of a constant deluge of comments and shout-outs, the din is considerably lesser around understudies, making them often more accessible to the average fan.
This is certainly the case with Adkins, who has quickly developed a reputation for his unironic use of fan-speak and his upbeat, one-of-us personality on Twitter.
"People just aren't positive anymore... and everything I tweet, it's not just for them, I'm saying it to myself too. I just tweet it, and I know somebody out there might need to hear it," he explains, referencing his Twitter feed, on which he often tweets out positive affirmations and jokes around with fans
There's another side, of course. Social media and access can also mean that these fans feel a little too close to their favorite actors or associate them a little too closely with the roles they play. DEH's Mike Faist, a Tony nominee for portraying the emo, angry Connor Murphy, has spoken in the past about the difficulty of well-intentioned fans who connect just a little too intensely to the characters and the actors who portray them. Much like any other group with a shared interest, theatre fans on social media are a mixed bag: predominantly sweet young people who just want to share their joy, with some overzealous folks among them whose interactions cross lines.
Some - often those who attempt to get the attention of actors with remarkable frequency - identify themselves as "stans," a denotation that has a rather unsettling etymology: it either derives from a portmanteau of "stalker" and "fan" or is a reference to the eponymous obsessive fan in Eminem's 2000 song. Either way, its use as an identifier by young fans is worrying, as are the fans who seemingly compete with one another to be the most prominent among the fan community. Ultimately, attitudes like this do nothing but reduce their supposed favorites to pieces in a Pokemon Go game: gotta catch 'em all!
But in many cases, it's a supportive environment, and you won't catch this writer vilifying young people for passionately enjoying themselves at the theater (within reason, of course), especially if it means giving a little extra appreciation to performers who live in a place in between star quality and anonymity, as understudies do. Their very job description requires them to have the charisma to lead a show and yet also seamlessly blend into the ensemble. Interactions with genuine fans can be mutually supportive, as these performers can thrive on the positive energy while giving back to their young fans in the form of friendly interactions or, in some cases, advice - there are still a lot of young performers who long for the Broadway stage more than the bright lights of Hollywood.
"It never comes from a place of anything but love," Adkins comments, and that seems to be the running theme here. The rise of fandom surrounding understudies is, for the most part, based on genuine enthusiasm and affection - on both sides, in many cases - and if that can help break down some of the stereotypes surrounding understudies in the theatre world, well, all the better. Theatre isn't the pop-culture tastemaker it once was, zeitgeists such as Hamilton excepted, but this social-media-based, youth-centric phenomenon is living, tweeting proof that it's still connecting with the tastemakers of the future. Don't count out the theatre yet -and don't count out an understudy either.