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Performers who cover leading roles are essential pieces in Musical Theatre shows

Five cast members of some top West End shows –Kieran Brown (LOVE NEVER DIES), Nikki Davis-Jones (WICKED), Hugo Harold-Harrison (PRISCILLA), Ross Hunter (WWRY) and Carley Stenson (LEGALLY BLONDE)– tell us about the pros and cons of their jobs.

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Nowadays musical theatre marquees and posters are often headed by “stars”, performers who have acquired certain popularity and prestige and have the “power” to allure people to the ticket office.

Once the audience is in the theatre, they may be surprised with the work of the cast and crew, more than 50 people who work daily in a show. Each of their contribution is extremely important for the success of the show. Musical theatre is entertainment, and the aim of all the people involved is nothing less than to entertain.

For a performer, eight shows a week is a big deal, and doing them during a whole season can be extremely tiring, specially for the leading roles who endure a lot of pressure each time they are on the stage. As it’s known “show must go on”, even if the “stars” of the shows are on holiday or ill. That is the reason why understudies, alternates or standbys exist in Musical Theatre shows. They must be prepared for standing in for a leading role at any moment, facing the fact that maybe they are going to be compared with the main performer, and facing the fact that they are doing in one night something that they are not used to do. That involves a lot of commitment and effort.

Leading role understudies are extremely important for the musical theatre industry. They are performers with extensive training, and most of them have been working for many years in musical theatre. We have wanted to know more about their work in depth and we got in touch with five of them: Kieran Brown (LOVE NEVER DIES), Nikki Davis-Jones (WICKED), Hugo Harold-Harrison (PRISCILLA), Ross Hunter (WE WILL ROCK YOU) and Carley Stenson (LEGALLY BLONDE). They are currently working in top West End shows, so they can let us know their views regarding the pros and cons of being a cover.

Kieran Brown: I am in the Ensemble in LOVE NEVER DIES and I understudy the role of Raoul Vicompte De Chagny. In my own track I have the busiest of the ensemble boys, playing the Stage Manager, Reporter, Barman etc, and I am pretty much featured in most of the scenes in the show which is great as it keeps me busy. For me being in this show is literally a dream come true. I have been living abroad for a few years, and have done some other shows in the UK, but not in the west end since I did LES MISÉRABLES a few years ago. When the CD of LOVE NEVER DIES was released, I fell in love with the score and the story and I always wanted to be in it. When I decided that I was returning to live in the UK in January, my agent asked me which show in the West End I would most like to be in and my answer was... LOVE NEVER DIES! Two weeks later I got an audition and I got the job straight away. I was SO happy! I really love the show, and so far am having the time of my life!
Nikki Davis-Jones: I am In WICKED and I am the Standby for Elphaba. My job entails being in the theatre each night but not performing in the ensemble. I am literally on ‘standby’ in case anything was to happen to the leading lady during the show. I cover her holiday/sick/voice rest.
It means a great deal to be in this show as it was always one I wanted to do. And I never imagined I would play Elphaba, in my opinion it’s one of the best roles in the West End and I am lucky enough to perform it on a regular basis.
Hugo Harold-Harrison: I have been in PRISCILLA for one year. I am in the ensemble and I am first understudy to Tick, one of the three principle roles. It has been such fun joining the cast a year ago but more than that, working at the Palace Theatre is a childhood dream come true. It is such a prestigious place to work and inspiring to go through those doors every night and up to the dressing rooms. The cast and crew there are without a doubt the most fun to work with. It´s a family environment and like the show everyone is always up for a laugh and a giggle! We are all very close and make the job a joy to do eight times a week!
Ross Hunter: I cover the role of Galileo Figaro in the West End musical WE WILL ROCK YOU, It’s a great show to be involved in. It’s my first show out of training and rock music has always been close to my heart to I’m very lucky to be a part of it and performing a role I’ve always dreamed of playing.
Carley Stenson: I play Margot and understudy Elle in LEGALLY BLONDE. I love being a part of this fun show. It’s a great group of people and you can’t help but be happy in it.

Kieran Brown: For me the hardest part is trying to not copy what the actor playing the part is doing. We each as actors have our own take on characters, and these have to fit with what the story dictates, but I think it is important to do it MY way, and not the way that the actor playing the role does it. Of course, the difficulty there is that the actors you are playing opposite are used to doing it a certain way, so if someone new comes in and changes things it can throw them. It´s about trying to strike a balance.
Nikki Davis-Jones: The hardest part of being an understudy is the not knowing day to day if you are going to be on or not. With a role like Elphaba my day time before a performance is all about preparing for the show, Down to what and when I eat, when I start vocally warming up, how much exercise I can do. So it´s hard if I´ve had a busy day and then last minute I´m put on for such a demanding role it is such hard work. I suppose my life revolves around the person i understudy... but that’s my job and I love it.
Hugo Harold-Harrison: This is my second time understudying and I am loving it. The last job I did it in (GREASE) I always felt very nervous and unprepared because I covered two parts and a lot of dancing and lines. Whereas here I was rehearsed and ready to go in the first week! Basically the thing that probably prepared me for this was that I used to be Alternate which means, I used to go on once a week, when Jason Donovan was in it! That meant that very early on I had to throw myself in and just learn. Since Jason has a family and a radio show, I used to do his Monday shows. The part is really charming and has a real journey so it was nice to get to grips with the ins and outs early on.
Ross Hunter: The hardest part for me is stamina, due to WWRY being such a big sing it’s important to always be on top of your game at all times. The more you do it though the more you get used to when and where you need to sing more or less.
Carley Stenson: Understudy to Elle is hard as it is such a big role – Every scene bar 1! You have to be on your toes constantly in case you get the call. You also have to keep up the role in your own time as there may be a lot of time between performances.

Kieran Brown: That is a difficult one. If a show is sold on a name then that is one thing. However, even “stars” get sick, have other commitments. If people are given notice that the star is off and are allowed to change their tickets, then that is their decision. But in the West End, only the very best people are employed, so people who complain are being VERY disrespectful to the actors understudying. In MANY cases, the actors understudying the role have WAY more experience (and in some cases, TALENT) than many leads, who only get the jobs because they have been in some reality TV show or other and have a following. It is a sad but true trend. I know some VERY talented people who are PERFECT for roles which have gone to some ex TV star, purely to sell tickets. I think it is important to give understudies a chance. You might be surprised - in fact most times you WILL BE! It´s also worth noting that some of the biggest stars in the Musical Theatre scene started off by understudying leading roles - that is how they got their big break!
Nikki Davis-Jones: A lot of people when they go to the theatre to find out the understudy is on are disappointed, even me in the past! But I have to admit, most people who play the lead roles have been an understudy at some time in their career and quite often you see a fresher performance not only from that particular actor but it has an effect on the rest of the actors when there is a different take on the role.
Hugo Harold-Harrison: I certainly got a lot of that but our box office will always alert the public at the box office if the leading performers are off so most of the time they know they are seeing the cover. The thing to remember is that apart from die-hard fans of the “star” actor or singer, the people who sit down to watch the show and enjoy the story. The best compliment to get is when the fans say that they enjoyed my performance in spite of the lead being off. That´s when you know you´ve done your job properly! You are there to do the part justice!
Ross Hunter: It’s sad that people think that. We have all had the same training. People have to understand that covers are equally as good and able to do the job. These covers that you see could be the stars of the future.
Carley Stenson: I think they won’t be disappointed for long when they see how good the covers are. Everyone is brilliant. Everyone has their own way of doing things.

Kieran Brown: SO far I have been very lucky, with no complications understudying Raoul! The first time I did the part with costume and make up, etc however, I was given a moustache. The production team then decided I didn´t need one, so before I went on for the second scene they yanked it off me quickly, which must have looked VERY strange! To have a moustache one minute then it´s gone 2 minutes later!
Nikki Davis-Jones: The only time it has been complicated for me is when I know the leading lady is not feeling great, but I am getting sick too and the pressure of always being ready and fit was hard. When my job requires me to step in at any time and I can’t it’s very frustrating. I suppose I´m only human though.
Hugo Harold-Harrison: The last person who played Tick (currently Richard Grieve) was a dear friend of mine called Ben Richards (SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, FULL MONTY) and it was both difficult and wonderful covering a mate. On the one hand, I was grateful and enjoyed going on for him but on the other hand, if your friend is sick or going through something difficult, you worry for his well being! We had such a close bond that we were able to help each other out and communicate for any holidays or days off without anything being awkward! I love being an understudy in Priscilla because although I love going on for the lead role I have such fun and stay so busy in my own ensemble track that I never have that longing or desperation to be on. It is part and parcel of my job and I am grateful to be in it!
Ross Hunter: Yes. One time I was on my holidays and I was back in my hometown of Middlesbrough (approx 300 miles from London) and I was the only cover Galileo they had due to illness etc. So I had to rush back at 3pm afternoon for the night time performance. I got a bottle of wine out of it so it wasn’t a big deal and that is the joy of being an understudy sometimes!
Carley Stenson: I never played a cover/understudy before. It is very intense and exciting.

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