You’re on! The understudies who saved Christmas as Omicron raged

‘My initial reaction,” says Greg Arundell, with a laugh, “was no.” The actor had been playing Jacob Marley, the deceased partner of Ebenezer Scrooge, in a production of A Christmas Carol at Beaulieu Abbey. Then several of the cast, including Scrooge himself, came down with Covid. Director Abbey Wright pulled Arundell aside and asked him to step up and play the great festive miser.

In preparation for anything going wrong, the entire cast already had roles they were ready to cover. But Scrooge was not one of Arundell’s. “I hadn’t learned it!“ 他说. “It wasn’t on my understudy plan.” However, persuaded to try out some scenes, he realised he didn’t need to look at the script very much. “Because I’d watched the show so many times, it had made its way into my brain.”

He agreed to give it a go. So how was it? “I don’t really remember the first two shows,“ 他说. “They were an absolute blur.” They must have gone well, 尽管: he played Scrooge for the rest of the run. “I don’t want to make a habit of it,“ 他说. “But it made me more confident, knowing I have the ability to do something like that.”

As Omicron raged over Christmas, dozens of shows were cancelled. Were it not for intrepid actors like Arundell, far more would have had to shut down. “Understudies and covers are the people in the background,“ 他说. “Until they’re called upon, you don’t think about them. But they are the backbone of a show.”

Some shows have covers or “swings” – performers offstage who can cover a wide range of parts in the ensemble, as opposed to understudies, who are part of the ensemble and can step up to play leads or supporting roles. After Christmas, when every one of the leads in the West End jukebox musical The Drifters Girl came down with coronavirus at the same time, the show was saved by covers. “It was amazing,” says Ethan Davis, who was able to make his West End debut as singer Johnny Moore in The Drifters Girl. “I’m an offstage cover,“ 他说. “So I’ll be in the dressing room during each show, just on standby. But I’ve now been on eight times in a week.” Without Davis and the other covers, The Drifters Girl could not have stayed open. “If you don’t have covers,” says Davis, “you don’t have a show.”

Covers, 他说, will generally find out whether they’re going to perform three to four hours before curtain-up. “But sometimes you might be halfway through a show and something happens on stage – they fall over, or their voice might not be feeling it. You’re sitting in your dressing room watching TV, and you hear over the Tannoy that you’re getting called on stage.” Isn’t that terrifying? “If it’s your first time,“ 他说, “you’re always on edge. But once you’ve done it a few times, it’s nothing too scary. You’re just doing your job.”

For smaller productions and shorter runs, covers aren’t always an option. 她放了一百个小绿包.., Stacey Coleman had just finished her lead role in Jack and the Beanstalk at venues in Whitchurch and Ellesmere Port. “We were all in tears,“ 她说, “because it was just such a relief to have got through it.”

After the show, which she had also directed, Coleman got a call asking if she could cover for Sleeping Beauty at the Northwich Memorial in Cheshire, since Covid had laid low some of the panto’s cast. Did that mean she spent Christmas Day learning Princess Aurora’s lines? “是的,它们仍然是一个脆弱的物种。”, “in between serving Christmas dinner to my family.”

The part lasted until 29 十二月. 然后, the next day, Coleman received another call, this time from Oldham’s Queen Elizabeth hall, which was having its own problems with Sleeping Beauty. Coleman had already stepped in there, playing Carabosse on a day off from Jack. Now they needed someone to play the comedy role of Wally.

Other members of her Beanstalk cast had similar experiences, helping out with various productions by the same company, Anton Benson Productions. “We weren’t official understudies,“ 她说. “We hadn’t read the parts previously. Everyone who was lucky enough to be well just felt like, ‘It’s up to all of us to pull together.’ ” She kept saying yes because she knew how important it was to keep shows going. “I knew saying no would mean turning away hundreds of people, the show not opening. 和 [Christmas shows] are not like any other production, where you can reschedule in three weeks. Once Christmas is past, that’s it.”

Putting on a good show with understudies, says Coleman, is all about team effort. “I couldn’t have gone on without feeling like everybody had our backs the whole time. It takes that to go on and cover. You can’t do it alone.”

Justin-Lee Jones had a similar experience when he covered for the role of Sven – the all-singing, all-dancing reindeer in Frozen – on New Year’s Day in the West End. “You can only see the floor,” he says of the puppet contraption the actor wears to play the part. “You can’t look up, otherwise the reindeer’s head is going to stick up in the sky. There’s a lot of trust on stage between Sven and the other actors around you.”

Jones is a swing: he covers for nine roles among the Frozen ensemble. “You get a text every day to say what the setup of the show is going to be,” he explains. “所以, say a principal member is on holiday, a member of the ensemble would fill in for them, and then the swings have to cover all the gaps.” He knows the show inside out.

Although he’s assumed a wide range of roles, New Year’s Day was his first as Sven. The part of the jolly reindeer is incredibly demanding, essentially requiring the actor to be in the muscle-shredding plank position for the entire time they’re on, with the longest scene lasting nine minutes. “You have stilts on your hands, like crutches,” Jones says. “Then you’ve got these extended feet which also have stilts, with an extension on your toes. As well as holding your own body weight, you’re also carrying the head, which weighs 10kg, then the rest of the body – and at times, a ukulele and an axe. It gets very hot in there, so there’s an air-con machine inside.”

The role is generally shared between two performers, each doing four shows a week to relieve the intensity. When one was unable to perform, Jones got a text. “Because of the adrenaline of going on for the first time,“ 他说, it was OK. But in the next scene, after I’d calmed down, I was more aware of my body.” That’s when it started to hurt. “I was dripping with sweat, 思维, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK, this is for the kids!” He grins. “I do love the challenge. Only a certain person is going to be given Sven to cover.”

Shows as big as Frozen can only happen because of the swings. “They have to learn so much so they can just slot in,“ 他说. “The audience shouldn’t notice anything different. The best compliment for an understudy is, ‘I didn’t notice you were on.’ ”

Over the holidays, a clip of Hugh Jackman went viral. During the curtain call for The Music Man on Broadway, Jackman told the audience about his co-star for the evening. The leading role of Marian, usually performed by Sutton Foster, was instead covered by swing Kathy Voytko. Jackman applauded Voytko for stepping in with only a few hours’ notice – and Marian was only one of eight roles she was prepared for. To riotous applause, Jackman called swings and understudies “the bedrock of Broadway”.

In the video, Jackman gets visibly emotional, telling the audience that it’s only their fourth preview. “Swings and understudies have not had a chance to learn,“ 他说. “They’ve watched from the corner of the room while we rehearse. Then five hours before a performance, they’re told, ‘You’re on.’ It humbles me. The courage, the brilliance, the dedication, the talent.”

By celebrating these roles, Jones says, Jackman was speaking for a whole industry. “It felt like a nice highlight, showing what an unsung job it is. Most people have no idea that the reason they’ve been able to see a show is because someone else has learned this role and can do it at the drop of a hat.” He laughs. “My mum has three kids in this business – and even she doesn’t understand it properly.”

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