Ken Davenport posted some interesting information about the impact of absenteeism in Broadway shows on Producer’s Perspective. He was curious to learn if the need to have an understudy stand in was having an impact on audiences so he commissioned someone to study the question.
The impetus for this was the increasing rate of absenteeism in Broadway shows, particularly West Side Story. I had read the NY Post article Ken links to back in August and I couldn’t believe there was such a high rate of absences given that there are no lack of performers who are just as talented waiting to step on to the Broadway stage. Cameron Mackintosh did clean house on Les Miserables when he felt the quality was flagging so it seemed pretty risky for actors to appear to be slacking off. In retrospect, I suppose there is always the teensy little chance that the Post sensationalized the problem beyond the reality.
While some respondents to the survey liked the idea of an understudy having a chance to surpass the star, absenteeism was generally seen in a negative light. The perception was that it is becoming more prevalent and that the quality is not the same. Some respondents felt that they had to apologize to the guests they asked along or advise their friends not to attend the show. On the whole, people said they are becoming more cautious about their ticket purchases.
Davenport suggests the Actors Union and Producers get together to explore the problem. It should be noted that his survey results said people thought there was more absenteeism, but there was no study done on the question of whether there actually is more absenteeism over all. Though as a practical matter, the truth has little bearing if audiences have decided the problem is widespread and are acting accordingly. As Davenport suggests, better training of understudies may begin to reverse the perception that understudies are offering a vastly inferior product.
One of the commenters on the entry suggests that the understudy notice in the program book may have a psychological effect prejudicing a person against the show before the curtain rises. (Though I have attended a show where there was a small flurry of the notices falling out when I opened the Playbill. That certainly didn’t help my confidence.) Of course, eliminating proper notice probably runs afoul New York’s fraud laws.
While reading the entry, I recalled Holly Mulcahy’s September column on The Partial Observer about substitutions in orchestra programs. I wondered if the practice of changing up a concert offering was undermining confidence in orchestras as much as changes in casts are in Broadway shows. And has anyone ever done a study on that?