Hire The Understudy

I didn’t watch the musical Rent live on Fox this weekend, even though I am obsessed with the talent and charisma that is Brandon Victor Dixon. For various reasons, my husband set a recording on the broadcast. On Monday, I learned the broadcast wasn’t live at all. One of the performers (Brennin Hunt) broke his foot during a dress rehearsal, so the network ran a pre-recorded rehearsal rather than the live show.

The show must go on. Unless the show is on Fox.

This is the problem with staging a major musical production on television. Television does not hire understudies. Far from being second best, understudies are amazing. In some shows, one understudy might learn three (or more!) separate roles—lines, music, choreography—just in case one of the primary performers falls ill. Understudies have to be great and they have to be ready. I’ve never been disappointed with the performance of an understudy.

I am disappointed in Fox. Why couldn’t they hire a few understudies for this latest production? Understudies are integral to live theater and they shouldn’t be pushed aside just because the studios want to showcase some star power.

The truth is, television is not great for live events. The best television is highly scripted, produced, and edited. Scenes are shot out of order and actors have time to recover and rest between takes. Live theater is a start-to-finish sprint of rotating sets, costume changes, complicated choreography, and the knowledge that no matter what happens, you can’t stop or start over. Miss a line? Deal with it. Hit a bad note? Keep singing. Spill the prop lemonade all over the floor? Prepare to be sticky. You don’t get second takes during a live production.

Still, many people never have the opportunity to see live theater. Even towns with great community theaters rarely have the resources to put on big musicals. So unless you live in a larger city or you travel, you might never get to see a live musical. For that reason, I’m all for bringing these musicals to the masses in whatever way we can. Musical theater shouldn’t be reserved for the wealthy.

That said, the people and networks behind these live productions need to do better. They need to keep the action on the stage and let go of the studio sets they use for scripted programs. They need to stick to the original book and score. They need to save commercials for intermission. And they need to hire understudies. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I’ve seen Rent on stage and I loved it. The music is fun and modern. The characters are young and beautiful and tragic. It’s a piece of art about the joy and pain of making art. I remember when Jesse L. Martin took a sabbatical from Law & Order to perform in the original Broadway production of Rent. I loved him as Detective Green, but I loved him more for ditching the hit television show to chase his dreams on Broadway. It was so meta.

One of the primary plot points of Rent is that the pursuit of art is important. You might be poor or sick or beat down or heartbroken, but you can still write, sing, dance, and play music. Unless, I suppose, you’re employed by a major television network. Fox was prepared for a commercial production; it wasn’t prepared for art. It’s a real shame, because Fox has more resources than your average Broadway show.

Take note, future producers of live television musicals: hire the understudies. They matter. If you don’t have what it takes to produce live theater, don’t do it. Stick to your pre-taped procedurals and leave the magic for the stage.

One final suggestion: find a way to cast Brandon Victor Dixon and Jesse L. Martin in the same show. That’s a guaranteed hit.

You’re welcome.

Tiffany Quay Tyson
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1 thought on “Hire The Understudy”

  1. Bravo! I am reminded of a time when live TV truly was brilliant. I’m thinking of Playhouse 90’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (written by Rod Serling), which aired in 1956 (7?) and starred Jack Palance and Keenan Wynn (Ed Wynn has a minor, but powerful, performance). Thankfully, a kinescope recording preserved the performance (that’s how I saw it); some libraries carry it on DVD under the title “The Golden Age of Television.”

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Tiffany Quay Tyson