It's rare to open a Playbill at a long-running Broadway show these days without at least one understudy slip falling out. Understudies are the all-too-often unsung heroes of the stage, stepping up for sick and injured actors, often with only a moment's notice. Though it can be disappointing to arrive at the theatre only to find the performer you were excited to see is out that night, anyone who's seen understudies go on can tell you that they are usually superb in their own right — and they also often turn out to be stars in the making.
Today, we're taking a look at famous Broadway performers that you may not know began their careers waiting in the wings as understudies. Several of them even got their big breaks from going on when the performer they were understudying was out.
1. Shirley MacLaine, The Pajama Game
Shirley MacLaine may be the most legendary understudy success story. Her famous story even became a lyric in Applause, the "All About Eve" musical that tells the story of the ever-opportunistic understudy Eve Harrington.
As the story goes, MacLaine, who was in the ensemble in addition to understudying Carol Haney, was preparing to give her notice and leave the production when she arrived at the theatre and learned that Haney had been injured — and MacLaine was on. The audience that night just so happened to contain powerful Hollywood producer Hal Wallis, who saw star potential and whisked MacLaine away to Hollywood where she became a movie star. The real story is slightly less romantic; MacLaine went on for Haney for several weeks. Haney returned and MacLaine returned to the ensemble, but then Haney injured herself a second time. It's during this second stint in the role that Wallis most likely caught MacLaine; by the end of August 1954, it was being reported that MacLaine had been signed to a contract with Paramount. It wasn't quite as overnight as legend would like us to believe, but it was nevertheless an impressive break for MacLaine, who went on to become a star and household name. She's appeared in such films as "The Matchmaker," "Can-Can," "The Apartment," "Irma La Douce," "Sweet Charity" and many others. She continues to work today, with two films currently slated for release later this year.
2. Sutton Foster, Thoroughly Modern Millie
If Shirley MacLaine is history's most prominent understudy, Sutton Foster is probably the most famous from recent memory. She had appeared on Broadway in Grease, Les Misérables, Annie and The Scarlet Pimpernel, but she was originally hired as the understudy to leading lady Millie Dillmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie. The role was originally to be played by Kristin Chenoweth, who ended up turning it down in favor of a sitcom deal. Erin Dilly next signed on, but left during the out-of-town rehearsal process due to creative differences with the production team. The then-unknown Foster was promoted to full-time Millie for the out of town tryout in La Jolla, and she created the role on Broadway as well. Completing this modern-day Peggy Sawyer story, Foster went on to win a Tony Award for her performance.
Foster is now one of Broadway's brightest stars, having gone on to head up the companies of Little Women, The Drowsy Chaperone, Young Frankenstein, Shrek the Musical, Anything Goes and last season's Violet. This summer, she will appear in the Encores! Off-Center production of The Wild Party.
3. Bernadette Peters, Gypsy
At the tender age of 13, Bernadette Peters was a Hollywood Blonde and the Dainty June understudy in the second national tour of Gypsy, thus beginning a long association with the work of Stephen Sondheim. The story would end there except for the fact that for many years Peters' bio listed Dainty June as a credit — no mention of being an understudy. Peters took the occasion of her 1996 Carnegie Hall concert (recorded as "Sondheim, Etc.") to set the record straight, saying the lie had been her mother's idea. She apologized to the actress that actually played Dainty June, Susie Martin, who appears not to have performed since the early 1960s.
Peters, on the other hand, went on to success on stage and in movies, winning Tony Awards for Song and Dance and Annie Get Your Gun.
4. Matthew Morrison, Footloose
Matthew Morrison made his Broadway debut as a replacement ensemble member and understudy in Footloose. Following his time with the Broadway company, Morrison took on the role of Chuck full-time for the national tour, where he also understudied the leading role of Ren.
Morrison was also initially cast as the Link Larkin understudy in Hairspray. When James Carpinello, who had been originally hired for the part, left the production during the rehearsal process, Marissa Jaret Winokur, who played Tracy, lobbied for Morrison to be promoted to full-time Link. Ultimately, the creative team chose to go with Morrison, who created the role on Broadway.
Not an understudy anymore, Morrison went on to appear in The Light in the Piazza (earning a Tony nomination) and South Pacific before leaving Broadway to become music teacher Will Schuester on TV's "Glee." He's currently back on Broadway heading up the cast of Finding Neverland as J.M. Barrie.
5. Patina Miller, Sister Act
Sister Act began its life as a stage musical adaptation at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2006. The production starred Dawnn Lewis as Deloris, and Patina Miller was in the ensemble and understudied Deloris. After another regional try-out, the show was extensively re-written and workshopped for a London opening, suddenly with Miller moved up to the leading role full-time. She created the role on London's West End and took it to Broadway as well.
Miller went on to play the Leading Player in the last revival of Pippin, winning a Tony Award for her performance. She's also found success in television and film, appearing in "The Hunger Games" series and, more recently, "Madam Secretary."
6. Cheyenne Jackson, Aida and Thoroughly Modern Millie
We best know Cheyenne Jackson today as a leading man, but he made his Broadway debut in Thoroughly Modern Millie in the ensemble and understudying the roles of Trevor Graydon and Jimmy Smith. He moved from Millie to Aida, where he stood by for the role of Radames. He was next hired to be the understudy to the lead for All Shook Up, but when things didn't work out with the performer initially chosen to head up the cast, Jackson was promoted. He created the role of Chad on Broadway, winning a 2005 Theatre World award for his performance.
Jackson hasn't understudied since making his Broadway debut as a leading man, though he did act as a last-minute replacement in Xanadu when original lead James Carpinello was injured during previews. Jackson went on to leading roles on Broadway in Finian's Rainbow and The Performers, and has appeared on television and film in such titles as "United 93" and "30 Rock."
7. Elaine Stritch, Call Me Madam
Another in the list of famous understudies to Ethel Merman, Elaine Stritch stood by for the role of Sally Adams in Call Me Madam. With a 17-year difference in their ages, Stritch may have seemed an unlikely choice to cover a Merman role, but as Stritch so eloquently put it in her one woman show Elaine Stritch at Liberty, "I was 20. I looked 40. I got the job." Ultimately, she took over the role full-time when Call Me Madam toured, and, of course, Stritch went on to become one of Broadway's most iconic performers.
While she never understudied again, she did take a job playing Martha in matinee performances of the original production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Her next Broadway show following that run was Company, in which she introduced her most famous number, "The Ladies Who Lunch."
8. Max von Essen, Evita
Max von Essen was not unknown when he joined the Broadway revival cast of Evita as both Migaldi and the understudy to Ricky Martin's Che; He had appeared in both the original and 2006 revival productions of Les Misérables, Jesus Christ Superstar and Dance of the Vampires. It was his practice of sending Saturday Intermission Pics (or SIPs) to fellow performer and friend Andrew Keenan Bolger that also contributed to his prominence; the photos received a lot of attention on Twitter and posting SIPs has become a common tradition for casts regionally as well as on Broadway.
Von Essen went on as Che several times, including two week-long stints while Martin was out. He's currently back on Broadway playing Henri in An American in Paris, a performance for which he earned his first Tony Award nomination. 9. Taye Diggs, Carousel
Taye Diggs made his Broadway debut in Lincoln Center's 1994 revival of Carousel. He was in the ensemble, but he also understudied the role of Jigger. After his time in Carousel, he briefly performed at Disneyland Tokyo. When he returned to New York, he was cast in his first major role: Benny in Rent. He met his future wife Idina Menzel in the cast, and they both remained with the show when it transferred to Broadway.
Diggs went on to a successful career on and Off-Broadway, as well as television and film. In addition to stage appearances in Chicago, Wicked and The Wild Party, he has played major roles in "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," "The Best Man," "Brown Sugar" and "Chicago." On "Private Practice," he played opposite his Carousel co-star Audra McDonald.
Diggs will soon be back on Broadway once again, as the latest actor to fill the high-heels of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
10. Vivian Vance, Anything Goes
Today we know Vivian Vance best as Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy, but 16 years earlier she was on Broadway in Anything Goes, understudying Ethel Merman. Yes, this funny lady had quite the singing voice as well. After Merman left the production (a rare instance of her not completing an entire run), Benay Venuta took over and Vance stayed on as her understudy.
Vance worked steadily on Broadway through the late 1940s, and even appeared alongside Merman again in Red, Hot and Blue. In 1950, Desi Arnaz happened to see her in a play she was doing in La Jolla, and the rest is history. She was hired to be Lucy's sidekick and best friend, which she played in one form or another for much of the rest of her life.
(Logan Culwell is a musical theatre historian, Playbill's manager of research and curator of Playbill Vault. Please visit LoganCulwell.com.)