Opinion

Do Audiences Have A Right To See Sheridan Smith? The Great Understudy Question

By Johnny Fox Last edited 19 months ago
Do Audiences Have A Right To See Sheridan Smith? The Great Understudy Question

"At this evening’s performance, the title role will be played by …"  

Understudy; it's somewhere between a trending topic and a dirty word as arguments rage over whether or not London's theatre audiences should be compensated for missing a favourite star.

Two recent cases have brought this to a head: the first at the London Coliseum where Michael Grade’s production of Sunset Boulevard sold £5 million worth of tickets at a good 30% above English National Opera’s usual rates, much of this on the strength of Glenn Close's name. Close has since been struck by a chest infection, meaning she's had to bow out of some performances.

The second — and more tumultuous — understudy issue has been going on at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and subsequently the Savoy Theatre, where Funny Girl has been disrupted by issues surrounding its hugely popular star Sheridan Smith. Speculation on social media (and in the Daily Mail) is rife, suggesting Smith was variously drunk, raving, locked in her dressing room or screaming expletives at her producer. Did the cast actually boo when the house manager announced the show was suspended for 'technical difficulties'? How 'technical' can a show be if you can put it on at the Menier, the simplest of black boxes?

'Understudy Makes Good' is of course the stuff of theatrical legend. Ever since Warner Baxter took Ruby Keeler roughly by the shoulders in 42nd Street saying "you’re going out there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star", audiences have rooted for the kid from the chorus who made it big. Shirley MacLaine used to sing ‘On Carol Haney’s broken leg I rode to fame’ about her big chance in The Pajama Game, and more recently Martine McCutcheon's repetitive disinclination to turn up in My Fair Lady at Drury Lane made a name for understudy Alexandra Jay, swing Kerry Ellis and replacement Laura Michelle Kelly.

Even the great opera singer Maria Callas got her break in 1950 at La Scala when she sang Aida as a replacement for the indisposed, and highly indignant, prima donna Renata Tebaldi. Callas never looked back.

Glenn Close's West End appearances in Sunset Boulevard have been blighted by a chest infection

No doubt Callas was a completely adequate replacement for Tebaldi, and Natasha J Barnes is smart and funny and sings well whenever Sheridan Smith isn’t appearing as Fanny Brice. But she isn't the telly star so many people came specifically to see. Smith is a curiosity though — any criticism of her reliability is instantly countered on social media by a thousand starstruck girls named Kayleigh who appear to speak on her behalf.

The mounting expectations of her young fans must make her work constantly harder. Each time she scores a television success like Mrs Biggs or Cilla (which she once told us was the hardest thing she'd ever done), she’s driven by their eagerness and her own determination to ever greater heights. Whilst you can craft these on screen over time with a huge team of writers and directors working around you, the lonely exposure — and the burden — in a stage lead every night must be much more daunting. It's easy to see why anyone would be occasionally stressed by that — regardless of anything to do with drink, family crises or unsuitable men.

Always ready with the right sarcastic remark for every situation, Noel Coward wrote of actors who persist in appearing despite any setback:

Why kick up your legs when draining the dregs

Of sorrow’s bitter cup

Because you have read some idiot said

‘The Curtain must stay up’

You do feel protective of Smith — as though she needs wrapping up in something between a cashmere blanket and a strait-jacket and told: "Take a year off, tend to your dad, sort out your personal life, then come back with a new agent and a new PR team and amaze us all with new creative work." At 34, no-one needs to push themselves through pain barriers in the name of musical theatre.

But the question remains: should you get your money back if the one you came to see is 'off'? In America there's no debate – if the name 'above the title' doesn't appear, you can have a refund or rebook for another date. Even in London, concert promoters don’t think twice about it – if Liza Minelli is indisposed, nobody thinks to substitute her with any of a dozen impersonators who could give almost the same show. But for theatrical productions, it's discretionary.

When she took time out from the Menier to be at her father's side during his cancer diagnosis, Smith so sympathized with fans that she offered to pay for wasted train fares and hotel rooms, guilting her producers into offering ticket transfers to the Savoy run. She obviously appreciates what her appearances mean to people.

As for Sunset Boulevard, Grade/Linnit has so far made no announcement about rebates for performances missed by Glenn Close. When we saw Ria Jones fill in for Close's part, a disappointed American couple sold us their centre stalls 'premium' seats for less than half of what they'd paid, preferring to go out to dinner than to see an actress they hadn’t heard of. Yet as soon as Jones began to croon "No more wars to fight, white flags fly tonight" you could feel the entire audience unclench and relax – she was impeccable in the singing and almost copied Close's taut and subtly acted interpretation. It would in any other circumstances have been an excellent show. Just maybe not for £185 a seat.

But do the Americans have a point? Yes. Whereas a routine substitution of one actor with another may not materially affect most productions — and many big musicals like Wicked or Phantom are deliberately designed to be resilient to all cast changes — if it's a big name that comes right at the top of all the posters, you should be entitled to see them.

Last Updated 05 May 2016

Andrea

I went to see Legally Blonde on a bank holiday Monday when it was on at the Savoy Theatre and there were at least 3-4 understudies (including Sheridan Smith). I wrote to ATG saying that that was not acceptable and, on that occasion, I received comps to see another show (Blood Brothers). Andrea - London

Caz

A few years ago I had (much sought after) tickets to see David Tennant in hamlet with the The RSC in London. Mr Tennant put his back out and his role was to be played by Ed Bennet (stepping up from Laertes), while Laertes would then be played by one of Rosencrantz or Guildernsern, and the replacement R or G to be played by one of the guards. A big change round. A lot of people were returning tickets and upset about the 'star' name not performing - although Patrick Stewart was still playing Claudius. I went to see the play anyway as I had already seen it with Mr Tennant in Stratford upon Avon and was interested to see the cast in their different roles. I enjoyed the play. However, I live in London and only had to get the District Line to the theatre. If I had travelled a long way and perhaps booked a hotel for the evening with the aim of seeing my favourite star in a show, then I would be disappointed in not seeing the reason I had bought the ticket. Rather like ordering a steak, paying for a steak and then getting falafel. It might be the best falafel in the world, but it isn't what you ordered. Understudies are often great and have the cast and audience rooting for them to do well, but I think if the show has been sold on a star name, then a refund is only fair.

Stephen F

Hi John! I'm sitting opposite two girls in a fast food restaurant (don't ask) reading out your article aloud and they '...are like so angry that you'd date to write about this when you clearly don't understand meet stand the issues'!

They clearly didn't get that you were quoting others (ie not your own opinion) with the tweets you reference.

Also top of their list of gripes was that you mention Sunset Bvld before Funny Girl because 'clearly Funny Girl is like a much bigger show and Sheridon is waaaay more talented than Glen Close'

It's actually hysterical. You have touched a nerve!!!

Jo

I'm a bit torn on this.
I've booked tickets for some shows for the simple reason that I wanted to see that particular show, not necessarily knowing the cast. If it was headline or understudy I'd be none the wiser.
I've also seen other shows where I chose to go simply because of one of the actors, I wanted to see them specifically in that particular role.
In the later circumstances I would be disgruntled if there was an understudy, I'm sure it would be a fine performance, but it's not who I wanted to see.
So a refund policy would soften the blow but how do you monitor it? There are some people who are indifference to the cast but as the theatre are offering refunds then they might just ask for one! Then as a consequence theatre tickets would go up...then people become annoyed at the expense of seeing a show...and then there's more refunds for understudies...and tickets continue increasing until the theatre has to shut down! Not what we want

Paul

When a show is sold so heavily on a star name and they don't appear, it's not unreasonably to feel a bit agrieved. I've seen both Funny Girl and Sunset recently and in each case the main draw for me was Smith & Close respectively. Thankfully I got to see both but if I hadn't I might well have asked for tickets for another performance at no extra cost to me. Indeed, I seem to recall that Smith was offering just that for her army of Twitter fans who missed out. Of course these stars are only human and prone to illness like the rest of us. I do think however that the US policy over 'star' shows is one worth considering - you get the star, or you are compensated

Juno

Here are the ads

Funny Girl
http://cdn.westendtheatre.com/...

Sunset Boulevard
http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-SQ87...

Names above the title, both of them. There's your answer, I think: whatever reason you may have for seeing the show, the producers' priorities are clear, and you're entitled to rely on them.

Conversely, look at the National Theatre and no matter how big the stars, and their faces on the posters, the thing in big letters is the name of the play.

Anna Wright

Shame you made mention of the Menier Chocolate Factory in relation to the technical issues cited - Funny Girl is currently at the Savoy, as indeed it was when these 'issues' arose, so a very different theatre to the Menier.

Peter Haydon

Caveat emptor folks - and shallow types who only go to see the star and not the show deserve to see the understudy. "Does theatre deserve better audiences?', should be the question.

Fashion and Frappes

I cannot imagine seeing an understudy when watching Kevin Spacey in and as Clarence Darrow. I definitely think if the play is sold on the basis of the 'star', paying audiences deserve to see the star.