For Broadway audiences, there might not be anything more disappointing than an announcement that one of the main cast members of the show you’re seeing has been replaced for the performance you are seeing. It’s particularly frustrating when the cast member being replaced is the major star that convinced you to buy the ticket in the first place.
In fact, the actor who replaces that actor might be dreading it as much as you are. As Stephanie Riggs, the director of the new documentary The Standbys, points out, that replacement actor knows how the audience feels: “When that piece of paper falls out of the program, there’s a definite sense you’re not getting your money’s worth.”
As such, being an understudy or standby (an “understudy” is an actor who is already in the cast in a smaller role, while a “standby” is a replacement actor who has no other role in the production except to go on when the primary actor cannot) can seem like a thankless job. Then again, stars such as Dustin Hoffman, Bebe Neuwirth, David Hyde Pierce, James Gandolfini, Natalie Portman and Britney Spears have spent time as understudies and standbys, meaning that it could be a steppingstone to a leading career.
In other cases, it’s a lucrative experience. Actresses Elaine Stritch and Danielle Skraastad served as standbys for Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam and Katie Holmes for All My Sons, respectively, and neither star ever missed a performance. Stritch recalls, “It was the greatest vacation I ever had in my life.” Skraastad reveals that Holmes was generous despite the fact that she didn’t have take any of her workload, saying, “Katie gave us all presents for the first preview, a nice gift for opening, and for closing, I got a cappuccino machine.”