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The Show May Go On

Are actors felled by the flu, or simply bored by the boards? A special report on absenteeism among performers. logo
From The Lion King
Shelley and Mark Lee of Independence, Missouri, were thrilled to have secured orchestra seats for The Lion King for themselves and their two children during Christmas week. The tickets were purchased 10 months in advance at the box office by Shelley's brother, a Manhattan resident. Imagine how the Lees felt, after waiting so long to attend one of Broadway's biggest hits, when they learned they would be seeing understudies in the leading roles of Simba, Nala, Rafiki, and Mufasa--as well as in the featured roles of Shenzi and Banzai, two of the show's three celebrated hyenas.

"The notice in the Playbill was typed up on a nice little sheet," says Shelley Lee, "so they apparently knew for awhile that those understudies would be in. When you see that five or six of the lead roles are going to be played by understudies, you think, 'Hey, I paid full price for my tickets, and I'm not going to get a full-price performance.' The show we went to had been added to the schedule; they knew for almost a year that it would be added. We actually paid $90 apiece for the tickets instead of $85, because Disney was charging more during the holiday period." According to Mark Lee, "It was obvious that we were dealing with some folks in the main roles who were uncomfortable. This was the first time I've experienced that many understudies in leading roles, and I was really surprised by it. I think it destroyed the flow of the show."

The Lees' experience at The Lion King is not unfamiliar to theatergoers. It's difficult to obtain hard-and-fast figures on the subject, but it seems clear that the number of scheduled and unscheduled performer absences from Broadway and Off-Broadway shows has increased over the past several decades.

"I thought the show was compromised," says one Off-Broadway producer unlucky enough to attend a December performance of Kiss Me, Kate when both of the musical's stars, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie, were missing in action. "Refunds were offered, and I would estimate that about 100 people asked for them; I would have taken a refund myself if I hadn't had out-of-town guests with me. Kiss Me, Kate is a hot show. I had to pull a lot of strings to get good seats. It's always disappointing when you see a show and one of the leads is out; but when the two major leads are out of a show that's built and advertised around them, it's beyond disappointing."

Small consolation though it may be, theatergoers normally have the option of getting their money back if one or more big-name actors are absent from a performance they attend. "The policy in Shubert houses is that, when an above-the-title star is out, the patron is entitled to a refund," says an assistant treasurer for the Shubert Organization. "During The Blue Room, neither Nicole Kidman or Iain Glen had understudies; the deal was that, if either one of them was out, the performance would be canceled. Nicole got sick at the end of the run, so the last few performances were just canceled and the ticket prices refunded."

Aside from pre-scheduled absences owing to specific conflicts, some of today's Broadway stars have enough clout to contractually limit the number of performances expected of them. This was the subject of a recent feature article in The New York Post which listed Audra McDonald, Dame Judi Dench, and Carol Burnett among those whose contracts have not required them to put in the usual eight-performance week. Three-time Tony Award-winner McDonald, for example, was scheduled to sing, act, and emote only six times a week in the operatic musical Marie Christine during its limited run, perhaps partly in response to her reputation for frequent absences from Master Class and Ragtime.

"A lot of people around the business know that I have a penchant for missing shows," McDonald said in an interview given before the opening of Marie Christine and subsequently posted on Playbill Online. Attributing her absences to a lack of vacation time since she first hit it big in the Lincoln Center Theater revival of Carousel, McDonald underscored her reasoning for taking frequent breaks: "I'm not going to do a show when I am at a point where I could vocally damage myself, just so that tongues won't wag...I defy anyone to survive a decent run [in Marie Christine] doing all eight performances."

Over and above vocal conservation, there are other reasons why performer absenteeism might sometimes seem to be on the rise. Alan Eisenberg, executive director of Actors' Equity, attributes a recent rash of unscheduled no-shows more to a particularly virulent flu season than to any overall trend. "If it appears that actors miss performances more often than they did in the past," says Eisenberg, "it may partly be due to the high profile of the actors on Broadway now. 'The show must go on' is a producers' dictum. We certainly want our performers to perform, but there's also a legitimate place for recognizing injury and illness, withstanding pressure from the management, and not performing when appropriate. Actors should perform when they can, but not when they're ill or injured."

Mitchell and Mazzie in Kiss Me, Kate
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
In fact, extraordinary lengths are sometimes taken to give audiences their money's worth when illness or injury strike a cast. In order to avoid cancelling altogether a recent performance of the Stephen Sondheim revue Putting It Together, the production's female understudy was enlisted to replace actor Bronson Pinchot in the heretofore male role of The Observer--this because male understudy David Engel was already filling in for John Barrowman in the role of The Younger Man. As for the extremely disappointing double-absence at Kiss Me, Kate noted above, a press representative for that production states that it was, in fact, the flu which caused both of that show's stars to miss performances. And in regard to Shelley and Mark Lee's dismaying experience with The Lion King, a spokesman for that show notes that it "has a large ensemble cast, and that makes for more vacations and subbing than a smaller cast," going on to insist that "understudies and standbys are kept well rehearsed, and the quality of the show is undiminished."

Still, it seems incontrovertible that things have changed since the heyday of Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, and other legends who were famous for performing come hell or high water. "It was no problem for Julie Andrews to do eight shows a week of My Fair Lady way back when, before they had body mikes," says one actress who spoke with TheaterMania on the condition of anonymity. "Now they hire people to do only six performances a week of Christine in The Phantom of the Opera! I know for a fact that there are people out there who can handle an eight-show week and still sound great, because I've seen and heard them. Do people miss shows because they're honestly concerned about hurting their voices, or are they just lazy? Maybe they're not being taught that you have to show up on time, and you shouldn't miss performances unless you absolutely have to."

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