Last night there was uproar in the West End, when 69 year old Glenn Close was ill and unable to perform in Sunset Boulevard at the English National Opera. Audience members demanded a refund for their tickets which they had bought specifically to see the star. But did they pay up to £150 to see Glenn Close or did they pay to see Sunset Boulevard, staged in the London Coliseum with a huge on-stage orchestra and a very talented cast?
The understudy in any show, whilst perhaps not as well known as the lead performer, will be equally as good in the role and so customers who have booked to see a show will not be affected by the quality of the performance. As they say, the show must go on and theatre is usually well prepared for these situations. In the case of Sunset Boulevard, Glenn Close’s understudy Ria Jones was in fact the original Norma Desmond when the show was being workshopped, long before Glenn Close came along and so it is in fact an incredible honour to be able to see her perform the role that she helped to create. Sadly, the uneducated audience members who apparently booed at the beginning of last nights show didn’t realise who they were actually about to watch. Those who did stay to find out soon forgot about Glenn Close and Ria Jones received a standing ovation at the end of the show.
Let’s not forget one of the West End’s current leading ladies, Kerry Ellis, who was discovered by Queen guitarist Brian May whilst watching her perform as the understudy to Martine McCutcheon in My Fair Lady. He cast her in his musical We Will Rock You and then she was the first British female to play the role of Elphaba in Wicked when it transferred to London and subsequently performed the role on Broadway. The understudy in a show may or may not be a name you have heard of, but you would certainly feel smug if one day you could tell your friends ‘I saw her before she was a huge star’.
In the recent run of Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Sheridan Smith took a couple of days off due to a family emergency and her understudy took over the role. Many people complained and Sheridan Smith herself offered to pay for those unhappy to return to London to see her in the role during its West End transfer. People said that she was undermining the ability of her understudy to perform the role as well as she would but was she just being wonderful to her fans who had travelled far and wide to see her perform?
On the flip side to this though, is the fact that all the advertising for Sunset Boulevard includes Glenn Close’s face and a huge selling point is that she is in the show. In this case, because it has been so heavily marketed as ‘Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard’ should ticket exchanges be made available to people who chose not to watch the performance and would rather wait until another night Glenn Close Is performing? Whilst many theatre goers would say the show must go on regardless of who is performing, I think the way shows are being marketed these days (with the promise of a big star) should be taken into consideration. Perhaps this should be a lesson to theatre marketing companies to put a ‘*subject to availability’ caveat on these things as the chances are, in a five week run, a 69 year old will be unable to perform once or twice.
At the end of the day, live theatre is just that. Live. If you don’t want to run the risk that a certain performer may be ill or unable to perform on the date you go then don’t buy a ticket. If you want to guarantee seeing Glenn Close then watch the film Fatal Attraction or listen to the recording of her singing Sunset Boulevard. You can’t be much of a Glenn Close fan if you would rather she be wheeled on stage like a performing monkey and collapse during the performance because she is so unwell, just so you can get what you paid for?
If you want to experience a live performance of a West End show, with a huge orchestra and very talented cast, then go along and you might just get the added bonus of seeing a celebrity on stage as well. However it is hard to avoid the fact that more and more shows these days are marketing themselves based on the star name and so it has to be understandable if people get upset when they don’t perform.
West End Wilma