When you see a Broadway show and an understudy goes on, you know about it; whether it’s in the playbill, via announcement or on a sign hanging outside the theater, the management goes to great lengths to make sure the audience is told. However, almost every night, Broadway orchestras have understudies that you aren’t told about.
I should know. I’ve spent my life as one of those understudies, or “subs” as we’re called. I worked as a keyboard sub on Broadway shows including “Les Miserables,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “The Producers” and “Ragtime.” It’s a job that’s as exciting as it is terrifying.
Here’s how you do it: When you’re asked to sub, you first sit in the orchestra pit during a performance, watching the player, music and conductor.
If you do well, you’re asked back to sub. If you clank, you don’t get a second chance.
You also tape the show. It’s against the union rules, but it’s pretty much an open secret. You have to tape it so you can practice at home, playing your part along with the rest of the orchestra. Rehearsal time with the real live musicians? Nope, not for the subs.
The first time you play the show with the orchestra is during the actual performance, with an actual paying audience. This is why blood pressure medicine was invented. If you do well, you’re asked back to sub. If you clank, you don’t get a second chance.
One of my scariest experiences came while playing Kander and Ebb’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman” starring Chita Rivera. I didn’t feel I was completely ready to play and started to panic as soon as the show began. Suddenly, to add to my agita, a few sound technicians ran into the pit and started fiddling with my keyboard because the conductor told them there was a problem. Apparently, every note I played sounded like Ethel Merman during an earthquake.
The technicians couldn’t find anything wrong with the keyboard and to my horror, the vibrato continued unabated. Finally, I realized that because I was so nervous, my leg was shaking on the volume pedal! That’s right. The volume was going up and down at the rate of uncontrollable quivering. I gently lifted up my leg and suddenly the conductor looked over and mouthed, “It stopped!” I shrugged my shoulders, told him I had no idea what happened and kept my trap shut for years.
Another pit terror happened when I played “Seussical.” While playing the first act, I looked up and noticed that hanging above my keyboard was an enormous water bug. I was horrified that it might fall on me, but because a lot more of the act remained, I couldn’t run screaming out of the pit.
Throughout the act, I had heart palpitations every time dancing began because I knew that as the actors executed the Kathleen Marshall choreography, their thumping and stomping would shake the floor of the stage, which was the ceiling of the pit. Each sassy step could completely loosen the tenuous grip of the water bug…
There’s a lot of drama in the the orchestra pit: the unreliability of being a constant understudy, the demands of diva actors and the humiliations inflicted by cheap producers. My book is fiction, so you won’t find any of the above stories in there. Most people would never believe that a shaking leg would affect the sound of a big-budget Broadway musical or that a water bug would make a pianist vow to get a new job. But believe me, everything you’ve read is true. And I have the wrinkles to prove it.
Seth Rudetsky is the Broadway host on Sirius Satellite Radio. As a pianist, he has played for more than a dozen Broadway shows including “Les Miserables,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Ragtime.” He is the author of “Broadway Nights: A Romp of Life, Love, and Musical Theatre.”