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News ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Understudies Examining why some actors have no understudies.
The irreplaceable Patti LuPone in Gypsy. Photo by Joan Marcus


Ask is a weekly column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email [email protected]. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.

This week's question comes from K. Raftery of Staten Island, NY.

Question: I often look over the understudy/standby list, which is found in the Playbill for a show. However, certain leading roles don’t seem to have an understudy or a standby listed. Two recent examples I can give are Patti LuPone's Momma Rose role in Gypsy and Kevin Spacey's role of Jim Tyrone in Moon for the Misbegotten. I don't understand how that can be valid. Does any actor have to vow that they will not be ill?

Answer: The rules regarding understudies are complicated and vary among theatres. According to the Broadway producers’ contracts with Actors' Equity, all Broadway shows are required to have understudies for every role, "except parts of stars and bit players." According to Maria Somma, a spokesperson for Actors' Equity, the only definition of a "star" comes in the part of the contract that talks about what actors from other countries are allowed to come to perform in New York (a completely different issue that we won't discuss here). That section describes a star as an actor with "widespread acclaim and international recognition."

Under that definition, Kevin Spacey clearly counts as a star. Therefore, on Broadway, he wouldn't need an understudy. But Broadway producers can still voluntarily choose to have one for him, and that's what the producers of A Moon for the Misbegotten actually did. According to a publicist for Moon, Spacey's understudy was Eugene O'Hare, who normally played Mike Hogan and was set to fill in for Spacey’s James Tyrone if need be, though Spacey never missed a performance.

But strangely enough, the questioner is correct in that in the section of the Moon Playbill that lists the understudies, there isn't any understudy for James Tyrone. It's actually in O'Hare's bio where it states, "He is also the understudy for Kevin Spacey." (The publicist for the show did not know why this bit of info was stated in the Playbill in this unusual way.)

Rules for non-Broadway theatres vary, depending on what type of Equity contract the theatre has. For instance, in the Public Theater's downtown performance spaces, if a show runs six weeks or fewer, no understudies are needed. This past spring, the Public had to cancel a performance of King Lear when Logan Marshall-Green, who played Edmund, was sick and unable to perform — the Public’s first such cancellation in years. When a show extends beyond six weeks, the Public has to hire understudies for the extension. The Public's Shakespeare in the Park productions during the summer are on a separate contract from the theatre’s downtown productions, and aren't required to have understudies no matter how long the shows run, though the Public chooses to hire them anyway, for the shows' entire runs.

City Center Encores! has its own special contracts with Equity, and according to the contract that applies to City Center Encores! new summer productions — Gypsy is the first — performers are generally required to have understudies, though stars do not have to have one, and LuPone does not have one in Gypsy. If she were to be absent, the performance would be cancelled. Encores! has no understudies for its spring concert readings, which run for only a weekend.

Stars get this special provision because many people come to the show to see the star, and in certain shows a star is irreplaceable. Think of an extreme case: Should the producers be required to hire an understudy for Elaine Stritch in her solo show Elaine Stritch At Liberty?

Eve Best and Kevin Spacey in A Moon for the Misbegotten.
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