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The Downfall of an Understudy

Maren Wade’s Confessions of a Showgirl: “The Downfall of an Understudy” Photo Credit: Patrick Rivera

We’ve all been there. That moment when you live out a dream and realize it’s not at all what you expected. Lisa, though petite in stature, had tall dreams of starring in a Broadway show. After years of hard work, Lisa’s dream came true. Okay, I have a confession to make: Her dream came true minus a few details.

So the show wasn’t on Broadway; it was on the Las Vegas Strip. However, it was once on Broadway and, more importantly, Lisa was going to be the star. Actually, “star” is a loose term. I think her official title was “understudy” to the star. (For those who don’t know the term understudy, it’s the person who learns all of the star’s moves, grows close to the star and then hopes an injury befalls him or her—ideally nonfatal.)

I won’t mention the name of the show to protect the guilty, but let’s just say it’s a musical named after a windy city … in Illinois.

The regular star of the show never needed a day off, so Lisa never got a chance to go on for Velma. (Whoops, I gave it away.) It was frustrating and comforting all at the same time. As much as Lisa wanted to perform, she also dreaded it.

Can you imagine how scary it must be getting that call, moments before a show begins, to play a role for the first time? Well, what happened was even scarier.

The first act flew by, and all that jazz. But not for the regular Velma, who was fighting back nausea the whole time. By intermission, all that jazz was coming up in the bathroom. The stage manager pulled Lisa aside and told her she had five minutes to get into character.

It’s important to note the audience had just watched the entire first act with a Velma who was a 5-foot-10 blonde supermodel. In Act Two, Velma was going to transform into a 5-foot-2 brunette spitfire.

Lisa was pretty self-conscious about this mid-show change. She asked the stage manager the obvious question: “Don’t you think the audience is going to notice that Velma suddenly shrank eight inches?“

“You’re an actress,” the stage manager answered. “Act taller.”

So Lisa did what understudies do. She went on as Velma in the second act. Cue the collective audience head scratch.

Everything ran relatively smoothly until it didn’t. In the last act, the characters Velma and Roxie perform an iconic dance number in front of a long, gold mylar curtain. They wear bowler hats that “magically” disappear in the middle of the song. The “magic” happens behind the curtain where two guys assist in the process. Their jobs are to reach out through the gold fringe, hands only, in white gloves and pick the hats off of the girls’ heads. Lisa’s guy was used to grabbing the hat off a much taller Velma.

Roxie’s bowler disappeared without a hitch. But above the new reduced-sized Velma, a white glove whipped around, frantically grasping the air while searching for her hat. Lisa tried to find the hand without turning back to look at it. She’d move left and the hand would move right. She moved up and the hand moved down. It was like watching a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, where the donkey was blindfolded, as well.

Finally, Lisa just turned around and shoved the hat through the gold mylar. But she didn’t anticipate getting wrapped up in the curtain’s shimmery streamers, and it got worse before it got better. (Okay, I have another confession to make: It only got worse.)

In an epic battle with the mylar tentacles, Lisa tried to break free and eventually fell to the floor, pulling the whole curtain down with her. She could hear one loud gasp from the audience. Apparently, it was more “Razzle Dazzle” than they bargained for.

Lisa exited the stage, dragging the remains of razzle-dazzle behind her, like toilet paper stuck to a shoe. As she passed the stage manager, he looked at her dryly and said, “You were right. They did notice.”


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