Life As A Theatrical Understudy

Aug 23, 2011

There is no more heart-stopping understudy story (that I'm aware of) than Elaine Stritch's much-told tale of understudying Ethel Merman in "Call Me Madam" while simultaneously being cast in the 1952 debut of "Pal Joey," with a first entrance in the second act.

Stritch figured she could do both jobs. Merman was the Bret Favre of Broadway divas. Her back-up never got playing time. But then Richard Rodgers moved "Pal Joey"  to New Haven for pre-opening tinkering. Merman found an ex-boyfriend with an MG who would race her New Haven after she checked in with Merman every night. Then came a blizzard. You have to hear Strich's expletive-filled rendition which ends with her begging a family in a private car to drive her from the train station to the theater where she arrived two lines before her entrance.  Usually, the drama cuts the other way. The understudy finds out, without much notice, that tonight's the night.  Leave your comments below, e-mail colin@wnpr.org or Tweet us @wnprcolin.