As is usually the case, Broadway is playing host to a few London shows this season, most of them playing with large chunks, if not all, of the original casts from the West End productions.
This weekend I decided to risk getting caught in the Christmas mobs that invade Manhattan each year, and catch the Saturday matinee of King Charles III, starring Tim Piggot-Smith in the title role of Charles.
Subtitled, “A Future History Play,” it begins as Elizabeth II has died, and Prince Charles is now to ascend the throne. After meeting with a Labor Party Prime Minister, Charles is expected to accept a bill regarding privacy in the press. He is not happy about this, and some wickedly entertaining dialogue (and a bit of civil unrest) gets in the way of his coronation.
Tim Piggot-Smith is superb in the role of Charles, showing both strength and a bit of pouting while Margot Leicester is often hilarious as Camilla, without overplaying her role. Harry is predictably adorable as played by Richard Goulding, and William is all business in the hands of Oliver Chris.
I really loved the look of this play. There are no ornate sets, as you might imagine for a play set inside Buckingham Palace. The entire set is a brick wall, which curves along the back and the sides, and plays both inside and outside. The various locations set up rather casually and the actors often go up or down the aisles. The lighting is dark and somber throughout, with some great candle lighting in several scenes that set beautifully against the brick. Live, brooding music is provided by a cello and an oboe.
The show is on a limited run, which began in September and is due to close at the end of January. A Sydney run of the play is due to begin in March of 2016 with Robert Powell in the role of Charles.
At the curtain call, in the middle of a standing ovation, Tim Piggot-Smith stepped forward. I was expecting the usual Equity Fights Aids speech, but he threw a curve ball.
Usually when an understudy goes on, there is an announcement made, pre-curtain. Sometimes, you get a little note in the Playbill as well. At this performance, there was no such announcement.
The audience was delivering a standing ovation, when Mr. Piggot-Smith stepped forward to announce that the role of Jess (a young anti-royal who has a brief relationship with Prince Harry) was played by an understudy, Rachel Spencer Hewitt. He explained that the actor who usually plays the role, was taken quite suddenly ill, and Ms. Spencer Hewitt sprang into action with no warning. The audience gave her a rich round of applause, and the few audience members who were not yet standing, now stood. The cast then turned to her, and applauded her while tears streamed down her face. Then, Mr. Piggot-Smith added that we had all just seen her Broadway debut. At that point, I had a few tears running down my face as well. Rachel is a graduate of…you guessed it, Yale School of Drama.
Here is an ad for the London Production, which is precisely as it plays in New York.
Pulling a Shirley MacLaine
One of the most enduring Broadway stories, is the one about Shirley MacLaine, who took over from an injured Carol Haney in The Pajama Game, and went on to be…well, Shirley MacLaine.
The Pajama Game, was Shirley MacLaine’s first Broadway show, and she was hired to sing and dance in the chorus and understudy for the much beloved, Carol Haney. Haney broke her ankle very early in the run, and was out of the show for several weeks. During that time, MacLaine’s performance was seen by producers in New York and in Hollywood, and she was quickly signed to a Paramount contract.
In the movie, All About Eve, Ann Baxter plays Eve Harrington, a young actress who connives a sinister scheme to keep a Broadway star, played by Bette Davis out of New York so that she can go on in her place on a night when the critics are in to see the show. In Applause, the musical version of the story, which starred Lauren Bacall in the Bette Davis role, the Broadway “gypsies” sing, “She pulled a Shirley MacLaine,” as they jealously acknowledge that she is no longer one of them.
Understudies are necessary. I have been an understudy and I have had understudies. While I have never known or worked with an Eve Harrington, I would be lying if I said that things are always easy among actors and the person who has their own identical set of costumes just in case. As an understudy, you don’t have the benefit of full cast rehearsals, and the idea of going on and making a mistake is terrifying. As the “overstudy” you can be concerned about the person going on and being better liked than you are in the role, which is one big reason actors are known to perform in a state of unwell, just shy of being in a coma.