by Mo Brady
According to the Actors’ Equity Association Production Contract, which governs most Broadway theatres, performers accrue a week of vacation every six months. But those planned absences are not the first time actors miss performances. Performers may be out of the building due to illnesses, contracted personal days or for press events that conflict with performance times.
That’s why every role in a Broadway musical is covered by at least two actors. These understudies and swings begin rehearsing parts they cover often before the show even opens. This kind of overpreparedness means that the production will always be ready for actors’ absences - planned or unplanned.
Long gone are the days when ensemble actors were cast just to play their own track. As the pursestrings of Broadway musicals have gotten tighter - and productions have run longer - almost every actor not in a leading role is hired because of their ability to understudy.
The ensemble positions that cover principal roles are challenging jobs. They lack a lot of the glamour and prestige of playing a leading man or lady, but they must be just as talented and skilled. These actors attend understudy rehearsals and put-ins, working more hours than their principal counterparts, in exchange for the occasional opportunity to step into the spotlight as a leading character.
For these understudies, a principal actor’s vacation week means a few important things. It means the chance to dig their teeth into a role they cover, not just once every few months, but for days at a time. The promise of scheduled dates in their understudy track means they can settle into the role and its rhythm.
A week going on as a principal role can also be a financial boon for actors. While Broadway actors’ salaries are certainly healthy, the amount taken out for taxes and agency fees can mean that these performers take home less than 50%. But when actors go on in their understudy roles, they can make hundreds of additional dollars per performance. A leading actor’s vacation can afford an ensemble actor to put money away for a down payment or a much-needed holiday.
While a standby may have it written into their contract that they have first right to perform if the principal actor is out of the show, there is rarely this formal agreement for understudies. Ensemble covers rely on the good grace of the show’s creative team and management to be “put on” in leading roles.
Imagine a Broadway musical. A show that is doing well at the box office, consistently making more than $1 million a week. As positive word of mouth grows, those employed by the show begin to structure their lives around an extended run. Actors in the building begin to put in for vacations, and their covers begin to plan their lives around the chance to understudy.
But when you bypass an ensemble understudy to bring in a temporary replacement, you’re conveying to the in-house cover that they are less than capable. If the principal actor is going to be out of the show for months at a time, that’s one thing. Or if the production hasn’t already hired temporary replacements for injuries, bringing a new cast member in could make sense.
Of course, any actor must be talented to be brought into the show to temporarily cover a vacation. They are no doubt kind, easy to work with, and have their own artistic desires and financial obligations. Bringing in an outside actor to cover a principal’s vacation may make the show more money at the box office. But it also costs money to rehearse that actor, make costumes for them, and to spread the word about their engagement in the show.
More importantly, it can be a slap in the face to a cast member, especially one who you rely on day in and day out to help your production run.