by Mo Brady
Theatre lore thrives on the stories of great understudies stepping into roles. From Shirley MaClaine's star-making turn in the original production of The Pajama Game to Sutton Foster’s famed ascension into the title role in Thoroughly Modern Millie, some of Broadway’s best-known backstage stories feature talented actors stepping up to the plate. Just this week, the theatre community celebrated Tee Boyich’s Broadway debut, where she went on for a role in Mean Girls that she doesn’t even cover with less than five hours rehearsal. In these cases, the understudies are championed and celebrated (and for good reason, they are wonders to behold).
But when an understudy’s performance doesn’t make the headlines, is it any less remarkable? This week, I saw SpongeBob SquarePants with two swings performing onstage: Alex Gibson (on for Jon Rua) and Juliane Godfrey (on for Vasthy Mompoint). What struck me about each of their performances was not how much they stood out, but how seamlessly they fit into the show. SpongeBob’s ensemble tracks are extremely busy, with actors swiftly changing costumes and moving set pieces. The most impressive part of Juliane and Alex’s performances were that they never seemed to miss a beat.
Not only did each actor fit into the performance, they each looked to be right at home in their roles. From Alex’s LOL-inducing turn as a Hamburger Showgirl to Juliane’s smooth moves as a Plankton backup dancer, these actors weren’t taking simply on the roles of other actors - they were making the roles their own. I’d argue that is what makes a swing, standby or understudy truly remarkable: not simply their ability to step onstage with competence and grace, but to keep the audience’s focus on the story.