The last three shows I've been to, though, have each been preceded by the announcement (via leaflet inserted in Playbill) that one of the lead roles would be played by an understudy. All three times! (Of course, I now believe I have some kind of weird star-sabotaging Broadway curse... I imagine a disconsolate understudy eating kale in her bed when she gets an e-mail from a stage manager that's like "Duboff is coming to the show tomorrow night!!! U know what that means! Start warming up!")
Given these circumstances, I have been spending an unusual amount of time lately thinking about understudies. The initial feeling, of course, is one of intense disappointment: you shelled out all this money for the ticket and you know you're not going to see the show again (meaning you'll never get a chance to see the "real" actress do her thing). It feels like you're parched in the middle of the desert and all you have to drink is a warm can of off-brand soda. "I'm just so annoyed," you'll whisper gravely to your friend, as if your laptop's been stolen or something. "Can you believe this luck?"
The show begins, and the wide-eyed understudy comes out and starts doing her thing, and you can't help but wonder whenever she's singing what the real lead's voice sounds like. But, as the show goes on, you start to pick up on the understudy's hustle, the way she over-enunciates a little and lurches into each song. You imagine her texting her friends that morning something like "I can't believe I *finally* get my chance today!!!" You picture her drinking all this tea and reviewing her notes over and over and grinning dumbly as she puts on the costume that's been wrapped in plastic in her closet for weeks. She's been watching the lead every day in rehearsal and has this whole entire performance - a symphony of reactions and gestures and high notes - stored away inside, ready to be revealed at a moment's notice.
Before you know what's happening, you're full-on rooting for the underdog. Sure, there's some cognitive dissonance going on - it's nice to think you haven't been completely short-changed - but there is something that really ends up inspiring you about this understudy, playing the part with gusto and enthusiasm despite knowing that everyone in the audience is disappointed to be seeing her on stage.
The show ends and you turn to your friend and you both do a wide-eyed nod. "She was actually, like, really good, right?" "Yeah, I mean, great, I think?" You make a mental note to Google her when you get home, but, invariably, you end up forgetting.