Should ticket buyers have the right to be upset if an understudy is performing?

The six-time Tony Award winning musical, The Light In The Piazza, is currently playing a three week limited season at London’s Southbank Centre. The show stars Grammy Award winner Renee Fleming and Disney actress Dove Cameron, alongside a stellar West End cast.

Last week, the Southbank Centre tweeted “Due to the indisposition of Dove Cameron today, the part of Clara will be played by Molly Lynch at this evening’s performance of The Light In The Piazza. If you wish to change your tickets for an alternative performance please email”.

A huge backlash followed on Twitter, with angry theatregoers complain at the disrespect shown for understudy Molly Lynch.

Twitterer @doonakebab said “I realise you have probably done this due to people complaining when Dove was off previously. But the answer to them is ALWAYS ‘it is unfortunate she is unwell, but she is a human being. I’m sorry but you bought a ticket to a show, not a person’.”

@MTlivesinme replied “Couldn’t agree more. Whilst this may look like good customer service, it’s actually encouraging the completely incorrect idea that the understudy isn’t worth seeing. You pay to see a show, not a name.”

The Southbank Centre were quick to apologise for the error saying “We’re sorry. We were clumsy. Molly Lynch is doing a superb job in the role of Clara and has had great feedback from audiences. We did not mean to infer that Molly’s performance would be a reason to swap tickets and just wanted to highlight the wider exchange policy. Understudies play a vital role in any production and we are thrilled Molly is having such a success.”

Some people will have booked specifically to see Dove Cameron perform and so do they have the right to be upset if the understudy is on? Well, maybe, because it is not their fault they don’t understand how theatre works (and it is easy to forget that ‘celebrities’ are real people and can get sick). When companies offer refunds or ticket exchanges if the star name isn’t performing, it is feeding the idea to people that they can guarantee they will see a particular performer another time if they want to do so. But, this is not the message we should be sending – all shows should be embracing their understudies, shouting about them from the roof and making your average theatregoer realise that they exist and often save the show.

I champion for the idea that press should be invited to review understudies on scheduled performances (covering holidays etc) so that they can get some well deserved media coverage and also the general public can start to understand how theatre really works, that sometimes the lead performer can’t go on stage but that their understudy is just as worthy of being seen in the role.

The West End production of 9 to 5 the Musical made a wonderful shout out on their Twitter page last week announcing “A glorious reminder that @LuLawrence5 plays Violet from Mon-Weds next week, before Caroline Sheen rejoins the show from Thurs. She’s more than a little bit brilliant. #firstcoverrealness”. This was a wonderful start to seeing West End productions publicity promoting their understudies performances and I hope they are paving the way forward for a change in how this is handled with every show on stage.

And lets be honest, if theatre fans were officially told in advance that a third-cover Elphaba was going to be performing one night (for example) more people would flock to see that particular performer in the role, than the few people who might be upset not to see the lead performer.


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