So You’re Seeing A Hamilton Understudy*? I’m Jealous.

You’ve been anticipating the day for months. You paid a significant amount of money to be in the room where it happens and see the most talked about musical in years. It’s won Tonys and a Grammy and other countless theater awards – the creator literally was named a genius for the masterpiece – then the day finally comes. And it’s July 10th. Or basically any day after July 10th. You missed the original Broadway cast by a day.

In the span of a week, four of Hamilton’s principal stars, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Phillipa Soo and Daveed Diggs all took their final bow while Renee Elise Goldsberry also announced she’d be leaving this fall. All of them departed to pursue other opportunities and legitimately take a break. Are you one of the people upset about this? Well apparently you’re not alone.

And while I guess I expected there to be some backlash, I didn’t expect to see this headline the other day:

First of all, this isn’t a review – Samantha Tomaszewski wrote an article for the New York Post (established none other by the bastard, orphan, son of a whore Alexander Hamilton) in which audience members from the first post-Lin & co. spouted off their frustration on missing the original Broadway cast by a day.

“I’m extremely disappointed because I really want to see Lin-Manuel Miranda. It’s like going to see a band you like but they get someone else to be the lead singer. You’re not really getting what you originally paid for.” Ok, Kiara.

Ashley and Matt from Florida paid $500 each for orchestra seats in December, and were also disappointed. “When we found out…  it was a little heartbreaking. We considered selling them but figured we would be at a loss because no one would want to pay as much to see the show without Lin.”

These two quotes are the most negative ones in the article. Neither said it was a “total letdown”. I guess Samantha took a page out of A. Ham’s book of dramatized writing.

But to play Devil’s Advocate, I get it though. I will pay to see shows only because someone famous that iI love is in it. I just went to a concert version of West Side Story solely because Jeremy Jordan and Angelica Schuyler-to-be Karen Olivo were starring in it. Sorry, I’ll pick up those names I just dropped. Had it been people I wasn’t interested in, I wouldn’t have paid money to see a 1957 musical that’s been done a million. But Hamilton is different.

Molly & I are seeing Hamilton in October (#Hamtober) and my mother recently asked me, “Isn’t the guy who wrote the show leaving?” (loose translation from Tagalog). I said yes, but that seeing Lin wasn’t the only reason I bought the tickets. Would I love to have seen Lin in the role he created? Yes. Would it have been amazing to see Leslie and Daveed and maybe Renee in the parts they won Tonys for? Of course. But Hamilton is a musical that transcends the people who are in it. Obviously stellar writing needs a stellar vessel to act it out, but if you have a story and score as good as Hamilton, the actors playing the parts are almost secondary. If you’re mad you’re not seeing Lin, you’re missing the point.

Second, you have to remember most of these cast members have been with the show a long time. Just because Hamilton has received acclaim over the past year and more so in the past few months with all its awards, it doesn’t mean the actors just started their respective runs. For starters, Lin has been working on the show for SEVEN YEARS. And in 2013, when it was titled The Hamilton Mixtape, Daveed, Leslie and Chris Jackson assumed their roles of Lafayette/Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and George Washington respectively, in a workshop production at Vassar.

Lin and Chris Jackson at the 2013 Hamilton Mixtape workshop at Vassar

By 2015, the show became the Hamilton it is now (for the most part), and debuted Off-Broadway at the Public Theater. That version picked up all the remaining Original Broadway Cast members, including Renee, Phillipa, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Anthony Ramos and Oak Onaodowan. A lot of the ensemble members have also been in the company since the Public, and in case you’re a pedestrian Broadway fan strictly because of Hamilton, these folks do 8 shows a week. That’s more times than there are days in the week. And it’s the same show over and over again. Lest us forget that this is also a physically and emotionally demanding show. While some might think otherwise, doing a full on production for 3 hours, sometimes twice in one day, it can be draining. You try dying twice in one day as Laurens/Phillip. Four deaths if you’re doing a matinee.

Third, and probably most importantly, put faith in the casting directors for the show. They’re the ones who picked out the OBC in the first place, and they’re responsible for the current bench on Hamilton is way, way, deep. We touched on it during #HamilWeek when discussing the ensemble members/swings – these are people who have had leading roles in shows Wicked and Rent. They’re not just timid backup singers. They’re integral cogs to the entire Hamilton machine and often times know more than one role.

Actually, let’s back up a bit. *Understudy = every person that steps into a leading role. The actors filling in while parts like Lafyette/Jefferson are being recast have been around the block a few hundred times.

There are three types of cast members you need to get to know:

Understudy: Regular performing members of the cast (usually ensemble members) who also cover other roles for when the regular actors are on vacation or can’t perform at the last minute. Hamxample: Ensemble member Carleigh Bettiol is an understudy for Eliza, while other ensemble members like Sydney James Harcourt and Austin Smith both understudy Burr and Washington, among others. A tweaked version to this is a Stand-By, like Alysha Deslorieux, whose job is to just understudy the three principal female roles of Eliza, Angelica and Peggy/Maria.

Alternate: An actor scheduled to play a role for a set number of performances per week. Hamxample: Javier Munoz (current A.Ham/#Javilton) was Lin’s alternate on Sunday afternoons, and 2 shows a week toward the end of his run.

Swing: Swings understudy ensemble tracks, and possibly principal roles, which is the case for Hamilton. Hamxample: The ultimate swing is Andrew Chappelle, who covers Lafayette/Jefferson, Madison/Mulligan, Laurens/Phillip, Burr, King George, and all the male ensemble tracks (I believe).

Anyway, all this to say, these stand-bys and alternates and swings whose name appear on the little insert of your Playbill aren’t just randos. They’re talented folks who have worked hard to memorize MULTIPLE roles. Sure, they’re not who you’re accustomed to per the soundtrack, but you’ve already listened to that a million times. What about hearing it in a while new way? It might even make you see the show differently. These are people who bring a freshness to the role and new excitement, since they don’t do it every single night. It’s part of the magic of live theatre. With a different cast of multiple possibilities, it’s truly a new show every time, not to mention the actors’ performances vary depending on the audience’s energy and reactions as well.

Much like everyone else who has tickets for the rest of the show’s run, we’re not going to see the OBC in its full version, and I’m okay with that. You should be too. I remember seeing Wicked on Broadway a little over a year and a half after it premiered, and although it was sans Idina and Kristin, it starred Tony nominee Jennifer Laura Thompson as Glinda and vocal gymnast Shoshana Bean as Elphaba and I was still in awe. So much so that I legit cried 90% of the time. The music, story and outstanding performances all were stellar, and made me forget I wasn’t seeing the OBC.

We as theatergoers owe it to these actors to respect their craft, as corny as that may sound. The “understudies” already have the added pressure of proving to the audience that they’re worthy, so why add fuel to the fire? Imagine you had a friend in the chorus of a Broadway show, and they suddenly get called up to play the leading role for that night’s performance. You wouldn’t complain. You wouldn’t compare them to how good the regular actor is. You’d be proud and support them, because you know they have so much talent to share that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

So to Kiara and Ashley and Matt – I am jealous of you. I am jealous you got to see these standbys/swings/understudies/alternates take center stage. I am jealous you are even seeing the show at all. And I’m sure there are millions more who are jealous too. I hope you get what you paid for.

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6 thoughts on “So You’re Seeing A Hamilton Understudy*? I’m Jealous.

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