In the Playbill for the Chicago preview engagement of The Producers, you'll see Brad Oscar's name several times, not under "Cast" but rather below the heading "Understudies." Before making its way to the Great White Way, the Mel Brooks musical featured Ron Orbach (Laughter on the 23rd Floor) in the role of that nutty Nazi, Franz Liebkind.
Oscar, who garnered a Tony nomination this year for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical, played most of the shows in Chicago when Orbach's knee was injured in rehearsal. So, the man who was listed as understudy to Max Bialystock, Franz Liebkind and Roger DeBris saw his name move up the page and next to the role which was now his.
The understudy-star relationship has been the focus of many plays. In 42nd Street (a Best Musical Revival Tony nominee this year), stage star Dorothy Brock literally breaks a leg and is replaced by fortunate understudy Peggy Sawyer. Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tony-winning The Phantom of the Opera spotlights another lucky understudy Christine Daae, who fills in for the prima donna Carlotta who refuses to go on. And even film focuses its lens on understudy Eve Harrington who pinch-hits for Broadway star Margo Channing in Joseph Mankiewicz's 1950 film "All About Eve."
The role of the understudy has long been an unappreciated assignment, but for some driven performers it was merely a stepping stone on their path to Greatness on the White Way. Among the nominees this year are a few former fill-ins who have worked their way up to, or actually on to, the stage.
Oscar's Producers castmate Cady Huffman, last seen in Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, was a member of the dance ensemble and an understudy for the role of Pearl in Bob Fosse's last original musical Big Deal. Five years later, she would be nominated for a Tony Award for her role as Ziegfeld's Favorite in the Tony-winning The Will Rogers Follies. Now, ten years the latter, Huffman is up for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical. Seussical's Kevin Chamberlin, who earned a Tony nom this year for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical, is no stranger to the musical's co-creators, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. In 1992, he was part of the ensemble and an understudy for two roles in their My Favorite Year. He went on to roles in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, One Touch of Venus and Triumph of Love before receiving his first nomination (Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play) for his work in Dirty Blonde.
Mary Testa understudied the role of Joice Heth in Barnum before stepping up to roles in Marilyn: An American Fable, Forum and Marie Christine. Her last Tony recognition was a nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress for On the Town before this year's nod in the same category for 42nd Street.
Many understudies have also gone on to win Tony Awards. Here are some actors who have gone from backstage to Tony rage:
John Cullum, currently Off-Broadway cautioning audiences not to "be the bunny" in Urinetown! The Musical, has a theatrical resume that reads long and wide. Before taking home his Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and two Tony Awards for his turns in Shenandoah and On the Twentieth Century, he was the understudy for the Count and Hero in The Rehearsal.
Understudy Savion Glover would replace Jimmy Tate who was understudy to and replaced Alfonso Ribeiro in The Tap Dance Kid. Glover would go on to star in Broadway's Black and Blue (which earned him a Tony nomination), and Jelly's Last Jam (in which Tate would be his understudy) before finally garnering his first Tony Award for his work in Bring in 'Da Noise Bring in 'Da Funk.
Judith Ivey, now in Follies and a two-time Tony winner in the Featured Actress in a Play category, was an understudy in Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce and for the title role in Pam Gems' Piaf. She would then win her Tonys for Steaming and Hurlyburly.
Donna Murphy would rise from swing singer-dancer in the Neil Simon Marvin Hamlisch musical, They're Playing Our Song, to Tony winner for Best Actress in a Musical for Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion. She would then become Broadway's new Anna and repeat success in the Best Actress category for her performance in Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I.
A list of some other up-stepping understudies follows:
Understudy for Charlotta Inanovna, the governess in The Cherry Orchard
Tony Nomination for Featured Actress in Brighton Beach Memoirs
Tony Winner for Featured Actress in Death of a Salesman
Understudy for Woman #1 (Leslie Uggams) in Blues in the Night
Tony Winner for Featured Actress in Bring in 'Da Noise Bring in 'Da Funk
Understudy for Rat in Wind in the Willows
Tony Winner for Featured Actor in Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella
•L. Scott Caldwell Understudy for Mrs. Baker (Lynne Thigpen) in A Month of Sundays
Tony Winner for Featured Actress in Joe Turner's Come and Gone
•Michael Maguire Understudy for Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood
Tony Winner for Featured Actor in Les Misérables
— by Ernio Hernandez