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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

A Broadway primer on standbys, understudies and the like

Donna McKechnie, the original star of "Chorus Line,"

Donna McKechnie, the original star of "Chorus Line," at the opening night of "The Visit." Credit: Timmy Blupe

As the 2014-2015 season shifts quickly from Tony drama to summer-tourist diversion, we have a window of opportunity to find a few explanations of Broadway mysteries that might confuse more than just me.


These may sound as if they're the same jobs. Certainly, the announcement of cast changes at the start of a show tends to elicit the same instinctive dismay. But there are very real distinctions.

An understudy is a performer in the company who has studied to be ready, as necessary, to do up to three principal roles. He/she gets an additional $50 weekly for each role understudied.

A standby -- perplexingly called a "general understudy" in the Actors' Equity Association contract -- does not perform with the company. He/she often is a standby for a single star. According to contradictory backstage lore, standbys are either required to be at every performance or just required to sign in and wait a few minutes or they're required to be within the Broadway area or within a phone area.

According to Maria Somma, national communications director for the actors' union, each show negotiates its own standby policy.

The most famous standby this season has been Donna McKechnie, the original Cassie in "A Chorus Line," who has been standing by for Chita Rivera in "The Visit," which unfortunately closes Sunday. McKechnie did not go on since the musical opened in April. Given the great-trouper legend of Rivera, 82, this is no surprise.

aWhen I look back on my career many years from now,a says McKechnie, despite never having the chance to play the role,  athe opportunity given me, to be a part of this history- making musical, will be one of the high points of my entire life. Just to be ain the rooma with . . . the one and only Chita Rivera says it all. Itas a no-brainer.a

Most famous standby this season is Donna McKechnie, the original Cassie in "A Chorus Line," standing by for Chita Rivera in "The Visit." McKechnie has not gone on once since the musical opened in April and, given the great-trouper legend of Rivera, 82, she may never get on that stage.

Less famously, but still compelling to me, is a Pomeranian named Rocco who, according to the representative of "Living on Love," never did get to go on for a Pomeranian named Trixie before the show quickly closed in early May.

And a swing is a chorus member who understudies other chorus members -- that is, other performers in what Somma describes as being on the same "track." She directs us to the eight names listed as swings in the program for the 19-member chorus of the dance-driven musical, "An American in Paris." "That is a lot to learn," she marvels.

Just to confuse things a little more, Taylor Trensch, who subs for Alex Sharp in the exhausting lead role at the Wednesday evening and Sunday matinees of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," is not an understudy, a standby or a swing. The show is an example of what's called double casting.

Here's another surprising factoid. Everyone -- principal or chorus -- gets a minimum weekly salary of $1,861. Everything else is negotiated.



If you have ever scanned the weekly reports of Broadway statistics, surely you've wondered how shows often list more than 100 percent attendance. For example, the week that ended May 31 had four theaters filled beyond capacity -- "Fun Home" (102.8 percent), "The Book of Mormon" (102.5 percent), "Fish in the Dark" (101.6 percent) and "An American in Paris" (100.4).

Mystery solved, and the answer is less interesting than the question. The extra points have nothing to do with piling more butts on each seat. The improbable percentages apply to theaters that have standing room. Let's not forget, however, they also must have hits big enough to need it.



On June 1, 2009, the Broadway League changed the way it reports weekly box-office receipts. Before this, the weekly take was really the "net gross" -- that is, the money that came in minus fees or commissions from credit cards and group sales.

Six years ago, that changed to reporting "gross gross" -- which includes the fees and commissions. In fact, the League liked the idea so much that it also retabulated the 2008-2009 season. Thus, though it is hard to underestimate the heft of this season's historic $1.3 billion gross, the numbers in the mirror may be smaller than they appear.



I can't answer that. But I can tell you that Andrew Lloyd Webber, of all unlikely revolutionaries, gave a roof-raising speech last month at the London Press Club Awards.

Lloyd Webber, whose Really Useful Group runs six West End theaters, complained about uncomfortable seats and bad sight lines in many of London's treasured Victorian and Edwardian theaters. "Human beings have grown taller and bigger," he dared mention the obvious. "These theaters were built at a time when there was a class structure we don't have any more, with seats up in the galleries . . . . There are theaters from which, frankly, you can't see . . ."

He continued, alas, to claim that "London would be a more vibrant place if we allow a more flexible use of theaters recognizing that some of the theaters may no longer really be exactly what we want for the 21st century."

I shudder to imagine the damage that could be done to Broadway's invaluably landmarked theaters in his quest for more flexible structures than the ones that "aren't fit for today's purpose."

Don't mess with the architecture. On the other hand, is it too much to ask a flourishing industry to sacrifice a bit of its massive gross grosses to put in fewer and wider seats? Even Andrew Lloyd Webber notices that he is being squashed.

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