Jonathan Hewitt gives a first-hand account of his impromptu performance in the Just So Society‘s The Drowsy Chaperone.
When I was 13, I had the absolute pleasure of being cast as the malevolent child snatcher Rooster (as portrayed in film by Tim Curry – praise and hail his glorious name) in the Shorewood Wisconsin Intermediate School production of Annie. I realise that I may have been flying close to the sun, and in hindsight I do admit that the wax holding my fledgling feathers together may have been dripping slightly from the dizzying height of the SIS stage, but then I was a younger and more foolish man. Anywho, I was also understudying another fellow playing the role of Bert Healy, a radio presenter chap who gives lil’ orphan Annie a voice to find her birth parents and who also sings a jaunty number about toothpaste. The ’30s were a simpler time. The plan was that I would play the role of Rooster for three of our four performances and we would switch parts on the one remaining performance. Unfortunately this other chap did not receive the memo, and on the closing night when he found out that he was not going to be playing the universally lauded role of Rooster Hannigan, but would instead be reprising his part as Bert Healy, he decided to lock himself in a cupboard and refused to go onstage at all. To those who are not well versed in the technical requirements of musical theatre, this was ‘Not Good’. Our dear director then had to ask me to play both roles, which in hindsight was a bit of a doddle, but I bloody well did it. This, accompanied with an exceedingly liberal application of Queen in my formative years, has led to a mature “the show must go on” mentality. The other day, that mentality was called to the fore.
This time the Just So Society presented a magnificent musical titled The Drowsy Chaperone. It was excellent. Unfortunately, a member of cast damaged his knee in a sport injury early in the rehearsal process. (Yes, sport. We theatre-y types can sport too.) He managed to power through and learn the snazzy dance routines required for his role of a Cavorting Gangster-cum-Pastry Chef-cum-Reporter-cum-Vaudeville Performer (complicated show…). Tragedy struck, however, on opening night. Quel drame. The curtain fell, and so did he. He was rushed to A&E where he remained for the night under the influence of some very powerful painkillers. His knee was screwed, ergo, the show was screwed. How can one perform The Drowsy Chaperone without a Cavorting Gangster-cum-Pastry Chef-cum-Reporter-cum-Vaudeville Performer? One cannot.
So, in a state of absolute desperation, I received a frantic string of messages at 12:09 AM from the show’s producer, Lottie Haswell-West, asking me to step in as the wounded cast member’s role. Alas, I, being a jolly dutiful student, was beavering away at some course work and did not notice the message until the following morning. This resulted in a rather sleepless night for her and the show’s sterling director, Kate Kitchens. When I did arise from my slumber I checked my phone and was suddenly struck with a flashback to 2007. Could I go on? Is it possible to learn a show in a day? No bloody clue.
It would be cogent to say at this point that St Andrews theatre is not prepared for this eventuality. There have been points in the memorable past where an actor has been unwilling or unable to perform their part, and the production has taken a notable toll in production value in continuing on in spite of that performer departing. Understudies are used in this case in professional companies, but due to the nature of our performance runs, an understudy would generally never get the chance to perform, and hell hath no fury like an actor scorned. So we do not have understudies. This makes situations like the one which occurred so difficult to manage. Furthermore, the dire nature of the situation will not be evident for anyone who is not quite aware of how musical theatre is produced through the Just So Society. We are an affiliate society of Mermaids, which means we enjoy their insurance, but are financially and creatively independent. This means that due to the fiscally taxing nature of musicals, we generally are only able to do one each term. Obviously we want that one show to do well, and the idea that the one show that we do in a term would fail due to a horrible accident fills me with dread. So, when I was asked to roll up at the director’s flat at noon the day of the show to learn an entire role, I was imbued with a combination of duty and abject fear. What if I did not learn it all? Would I still go on stage? What if I blanked my lines or a dance? Anyone who has ever performed anything has had the nightmare where you appear on stage with no idea what to do, and I was intentionally putting myself in the situation where that was a distinct possibility. I was not so much living the dream as living the nightmare.
I spent five hours in Kate’s living room being tutored by her, the choreographer (Grace Reid), and my co-gangster (Will Costello), and as they drilled six weeks of rehearsal into my brain in a minuscule fraction of that time, the possibility that we might pull it off began to take shape. As we walked from Kate’s to the Byre for call time it was difficult to tell who was more nervous; me or the production team. Despite the fears, concerns and hesitations, we made it through getting in costume, checking microphones, and applying some jazzy makeup and within the space of what felt like a minute, the curtain rose on the second night of The Drowsy Chaperone, and my debut.
Long story short, I did it. I did not forget my lines, I remembered the choreography, and I shared in the absolute pleasure of bowing at the end of a beautiful performance with a beautiful, talented cast.
SO WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?!?!?
1) Understudies are rare in this town, and they are not likely to make much of an appearance because that is not how we do things, and precedence is generally the largest decider.
2) If the production team and cast are dedicated to helping you learn the bits, you can learn a secondary role for a musical within a day. Really. Do not try it, but you can.
3) Musical theatre is amazing. Like the best things in life, it is also terrifying and a hell of a lot of work, but it is so worth it.
So give it a go. Try out for a show. If I can do it in a day, so can you.