Theater enthusiasts and those who love (or tolerate) them know that, in the heart of Manhattan, on an island in Times Square, can be found the TKTS booth. TKTS, a discount ticket service operated by the non-profit Theater Development Fund (TDF), works like this: Every day (twice on Wednesdays and Saturdays), Broadway theaters have unsold tickets. Rather than let these seats go unused, these theaters (along with some Off-Broadway houses) release tickets to TDF, which then sells them at discounts ranging from 30-50% at the TKTS booth. Would-be theatregoers then stand in a (usually very long) line for these tickets. The catch, of course, is that one never knows which shows will be available on any given day (note to the uninitiated: Forget "Book of Mormon"). Nevertheless, if you are simply in the mood to see a Broadway show, you can usually find SOMETHING worth seeing.
So it was yesterday, as I traveled into Manhattan to check off another item on my New York to-do list. I got to TKTS around 12:30, planning to see a Wednesday matinee. The line for musicals was unappetizingly long (it usually is), so I decided to go to the considerably shorter "Plays Only" line. As I neared the ticket window, I looked at the list of available shows and narrowed my options down to "The Nance" or "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike." The former stars Broadway icon and occasional meerkat Nathan Lane as an aging Vaudevillean; the latter, which just won the Tony Award for Best Play, is sort of a Chekhov play by way of Christopher Durang--which would probably appeal to the kind of people who understand that description.
Unsure which way to go, I placed an emergency call to DOS who, despite living in the wastelands of Florida, still keeps track of the world of theater. DOS recommended "Vanya and Sonia. . . et al." "if for no other reason than that Nathan Lane has been out sick for a week." A not unreasonable judgment, of course, but it got me thinking: What about Lane's poor understudy?
Look, I understand that people go to the theater for an experience--or, rather, an Experience, something other than what they can get from the latest Hollywood blockbuster or from staying home and watching a "Game of Thrones" marathon. This Experience, however, has become increasingly unaffordable for the average theatregoer. Ticket prices for popular musicals verge on the astronomical, and even a discount--DISCOUNT--ticket for a straight play can run you upwards of eighty bucks. So I sympathize with the impulse to pass on a play when the star is out sick, particularly when that star's presence is the show's primary draw. (There might, for example, be Durang enthusiasts who will see one of his plays regardless of the cast, but how many people will flock to a play by. . . y'know, whoever wrote "The Nance"--that guy!. . .unless it has a major star?) Indeed, it is standard practice for theaters to offer refunds for ticketholders of a performance when a star is replaced by an understudy.
I am here to tell you, though, that this is flawed reasoning. To take the example of "The Nance," Nathan Lane's understudy is a man named Stephen de Rosa. While he has nothing close to Lane's name recognition, DeRosa is an accomplished actor in his own right, having numerous credits on stage and television (he is perhaps best-known for playing Eddie Cantor in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire"). Furthermore, understudies do exactly what the title implies: They "study" under the direction of the star and the director. When called upon to perform, a good understudy will essentially duplicate the star's performance; indeed, you might even see a better performance from the understudy: A star may become complacent in a role, but understudies know they may only have that one chance to make an impression. And in this day and age, when every theatergoer is a potential reviewer--a free-lance writer, a Twitterer, a (ahem) blogger--understudies know that a good performance could actually earn them some significant acclaim.
So the next time you go see a show, don't fret about whether the principal star will appear or not. Most likely, you will get to see your A-list performer. But if you end up with an understudy, you're probably not missing much. Remember, even Nathan Lane probably understudied someone early in his career.
Oh, yeah, I went to see "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike." Julie White, who just replaced Sigourney Weaver, was fine.