Daniel Radcliffe in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying"! Al Pacino in "Merchant in Venice"! Ricky Martin in Evita! Bernadette Peters in Follies! Angela Lansbury in...well, anything!
Well-known, well-loved actors in lead roles that drive audiences to the shows. Or, if you're a theatre geek like me, just a much-admired lesser-known actor whose place in the cast sent me racing to the "buy tickets" button. So you buy the ticket and wait with bated breath...and then you get to the theatre and the "at this performance" sign announces a role being played by an actor other than the one you came to see. Or, if you make it through the lobby blissfully ignorant, a little slip of paper flutters to the floor at your feet when you open your Playbill..."at this performance." But even if there's no lobby sign or Playbill insert, there's still the looming possibility that you'll hear the disembodied voice just before the house lights go down..."at this performance"... You can sometimes hear the audible sigh of relief from the audience when no substitutions are announced.
Despite what I'm about to write, I in no way want to suggest that actors that are not originally cast in lead roles, or as sole lead in a role, are any less likely to give a magnificent performance on a night they perform. It has to be true that, just as there are shows that will appeal differently to different people, there are individual performances that will do the same. The fact that one actor is given the part can't mean that one or more other actors wouldn't have been equally satisfying (and maybe more!) in the part. Casting is an art form, and there are many more talented actors than there are parts in shows to be had.
All of that being said, there are still reasons I might want to see a particular actor play a role in a show...not necessarily a lead role, by the way; sometimes I want to see an actor in an ensemble cast, or in a supporting role. I am over-the-moon to see Ron Rifkin in "The Twenty-Seventh Man" later this winter at The Public Theater. I have loved Ron Rifkin since "One Day at a Time," and the appeal was cemented during the run of "Brothers & Sisters," on which he played Saul, the closeted (until very late in life) brother of Sally Field's matriarch character. I will certainly be disappointed if something prevents his presence in the cast on the day I see the play. But I also feel confident that, if that happened, whoever does play the role will be impressive.
This all came up because I attended a performance of "One Night With Janis Joplin" at Arena Stage a couple of weeks ago, intrigued to see the performance of the actress who had received the primary billing and most of the press, Mary Bridget Davies (this is an article about her from the Cleveland run of the show). She was already known for playing Janis in a previous show, "Love, Janis," and was highlighted on the Arena Stage website for her ability to inhabit Joplin. When the show began, I thought the actress didn't look like Davies (I'd just seen her interviewed on TV the day before), but as there'd been no announcement, or insert in the program indicating it wasn't her, I thought I must be wrong. I thought the show was great; and the lead performance clearly got the crowd involved and admirably recreated the persona I remember of Janis Joplin. It was not until the next day as I was reviewing the program more closely and saw the photos of the actors, that I realized I'd seen the "alternate" for the role, Alison Cusano.
So I'm torn; I thought Alison did a terrific job, but the marketing of the show had really gotten me excited about seeing Mary Bridget Davies. I had missed the "fine print" on the website that the role was being shared by the two women. I read a comment that said, incorrectly, that we had gotten the "third string" ("not even the understudy"). The truth is that Mary and Alison were sharing the role; an "alternate" is just that, a performer who alternates the role in certain performances, particularly if the role is demanding on the voice. You'll see this in "Evita," for example; Elena Roger alternates the role of Eva with Christina DeCicco. And frankly, I was not particularly impressed with Elena Roger (who gets the lead billing), and would be interested to see Christina in the role (but probably can't really afford to see it a second time). If you're interested, here's one example of definitions for the terms "alternate," "swing" and "understudy."
It got me thinking that if the show thinks two actors are both right for the role and the role calls for an alternate, balance the billing! Give both actors the credit. I was mystified by the lack of announcement the night of the performance as to which actor was performing that night. That said, I suppose it makes sense for a show such as "One Night...," that seeks to recreate a concert experience; you might not want to take the audience out of that moment right away by highlighting that it's not really Janis Joplin.
I spoke with an Arena staffer the next day about it, because I wondered about the marketing choices that created an expectation that the reason to see the show was Mary Bridget Davies' performance; and lack of announcement that night. I just thought that Alison probably deserved some more prominent billing as well.
By the way, it is generally thought (and often plays out that way) that if an actor whose name appears above the show title in the marketing does not appear, you may be entitled to a refund of your ticket price (but I would suggest addressing the situation before you sit through the show); the assumption being that you bought the ticket at least in part to see that actor. There are ways to determine if an actor has a planned vacation from a show (following them on Twitter is often helpful :)) prior to buying a ticket. Telecharge will post that information, if they know it, on the ticket website.
In the case of "One Night...," Mary Bridget Davies was definitely not billed above the show title. But the emphasis on the website had been about her. I did not expect a refund; I really was just curious as to the lack of attention being paid to the other performer. Thanks to Arena, I will be seeing the show with Davies a bit later this month, am fascinated to see how I feel about the two performances.
Actors also sometimes have to "call out" at intermission if they find they can't complete a performance. This happened at a performance of "Ghost The Musical," when Da'Vine Joy Randolph (Oda Mae) was clearly sick during the first act and her understudy took over for the second act. It was interesting to see the contrast, and the show did not suffer for it; although I preferred Da'Vine Joy in the role :).
Lessons I've learned: the actor does not have to be a major star to be the reason you really want to a show; read the fine print on the website before you buy tickets to find out if there are scheduled performances with an alternate performer; don't assume you'll be disappointed if you see the alternate/understudy; they may blow you away!
P.S.. This evening I will be seeing "Glengarry Glen Ross" with Al Pacino in the starring role (and his name appears above the title); but he's not the reason I'm seeing the show! It's the rest of the cast, particularly Richard Schiff ("West Wing") , Jeremy Shamos ("Clybourne Park"), John McGinley (many appearances in movies/TV). I saw Al Pacino in "Merchant of Venice" and he was amazing; but so was the rest of the cast and production...ironically, the person in the cast I was particularly interested in seeing was an actor I'd loved from television, and sure enough, he was the one that was not in the show that night...oh well, it happens.
UPDATE: So, everyone was in the cast at "Glengarry," And everyone was in the cast for "The Heiress," including Dan Stevens, Judith Ivey & David Strathairn, all of whom I really wanted to see. But it didn't occur to me that this early in the run, at a Saturday night performance, that I wouldn't see Lilla Crawford in the role of "Annie," when I saw the show last evening. She was the young actress cast after a very long audition process, and I was looking forward to seeing what magic she had that had bested all the other hopefuls. Her understudy is Taylor Richardson, and truthfully, I can't imagine how I would want her performance to be any better than it was. She was wonderful and charming and the very embodiment of this beloved character. Will I see the show again to try and see Lilla to compare? Maybe if the opportunity arises; but I really can't think of something I missed last night :).