TUESDAY: Understudy


Copyright is held by the author.

“ANDREA, YOUR sister’s not going on tonight, goddamn it.”

Only 15 minutes before show time, Mark the stage manager elbowed his way into the crowded dressing room. Andrea and her fellow chorus members were putting final touches to dress and makeup amid aromas of perspiration, greasepaint and general backstage funk.

“Why? What’s the matter?” Andrea asked, all aflutter.

That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Rosie’s been in the washroom for the last half hour, some sort of bug. You’re it my love. Got your Babe costume ready? Let’s move it sweetheart!”

Playing the lead was every understudy’s dream, but 15 minutes notice was going to be a tall order. Amid fist pumps and cries of “Break a leg, Andy!” Andrea’s heart was jumping. She could hear the orchestra begin its overture, a combination of The Pajama Game’s signature numbers: “Racing with the Clock,” “Steam Heat,” “Once a Year Day” and more besides. That always brought on butterflies but these were really big flappy ones, scores of them.

She’d be playing Babe, the pajama factory’s union rep. And part of the reason for the butterflies was that Andrea exemplified that cliché of the showbiz world, involved with the leading man, and for tonight, her leading man.

Michael Rodino was playing Sid, the factory superintendent. In the story, Babe and Sid start out adversaries, but by the finale of course, that changes; it was a Broadway musical after all. In civilian life Andrea and Michael were an item, sort of, but since the show had started its run, with Michael playing opposite her big sister, Andrea had been starting to wonder.

Still, she hoped Rosie was okay, but there was no time to check on her now.

The irony of understudying her sister was not lost on Andrea. She was the younger sibling in their stage-mad family, to a girl groomed for stardom right from grade school. Rosalind was the one to catch the limelight and the one the boys all wanted to talk to, while Andrea became accustomed to the role of taken-for-granted gofer, helper, seat warmer, choose your epithet. Understudy? What else did she expect?

“Oh Andy darling, could you pick up my cleaning; curl my hair; pour me a coffee?” In their shared apartment that was the typical exchange between The Chosen One and the baby sister, the accident, “the afterthought,” as Rosalind had once labelled her. And this rankled because Andrea knew she had, if anything, the better voice, and could dance up a storm perfectly well thank you.

But it was no surprise that after auditions, Rosalind got female lead while Andrea, good old Andy, made it into the chorus. Fair enough. Rosalind had that special sparkle. What Andrea didn’t like was her boyfriend playing Rosie’s leading man. They performed too darn well together.

The opening scenes didn’t go especially well. Andrea knew her lines and her moves, and she was sensing that her fellow chorus members were rooting for her, but the nerves weren’t helping. Her voice sounded flat to her and she came close to fluffing a line. Instead of focussing her whole being on the role, she felt emotional turmoil.

Her first number with Michael was “I’m not at all in Love” and tiny vibes made her wonder if that was true for him. Play the damn part she told herself, sing and act your ass off, dummy. She tried but it wasn’t working.

They got to “There Once was a Man” where the two of them had to protest that each loved the other more, and again that little stab of doubt pierced her gut for a second, even as the two of them acknowledged restrained applause, holding hands at the footlights.

During the interval Andrea’s best friend Pat nudged her as they caught their breath, swabbed their sweaty brows and swigged from water bottles.

“Andy, come on girl, what’s up with you? You can do better than this!”

Then she caught sight of Michael on his cellphone. She edged closer and she heard him say Rosalind’s name. Again that pang of doubt. Was he simply enquiring after his leading lady’s malady, or was it more than that?

Then it was time for the second half and “Hey there, you with the Stars in your Eyes,” the show’s big romantic number, but as Andrea did her best to sing her brains out something in Michael’s expression told her that her doubts were not misplaced. She had lost him, and as she sang the words “Are you too much in love to hear?” she felt tears beginning, not tears of grief but of resentment.

With no warning, deep within Andrea, something rebelled. Life was not going to crush her damn it, and she came to the realization that her years of playing second fiddle to her sister had to end. Now.

Fear and doubt were replaced by determination, and this lent fervour to her performance and poignancy to her voice. Her heart no longer trembled, instead it soared triumphant on wings of song and she knew that she was not the same person, not at all, as the woman who had stepped on that stage two hours before.

The perennial understudy no longer, she felt like a star.

The cast members must have sensed it. Expressions displayed more than the usual animation and their vocals took on a brightness and vivacity she hadn’t heard before, even on opening night.

Standing ovations didn’t mean much these days. Audiences seemed to think they were required at any performance that didn’t totally suck, but this one went on and on, and after six curtain calls Mark signalled enough. Backstage, Andrea got mobbed by the chorus, then as she was being hugged for the umpteenth time, she saw her sister approach.

Rosalind held out her arms and she appeared puzzled, as if she were meeting someone for the first time, yet thought she knew them from somewhere.

“Andy,” she said. “I caught the second act. Who was that out there? You were wonderful!” She hugged Andrea for a long moment.

“Melvin was in the audience tonight,” she said, “he’s looking for the lead for his next show. Sky’s the limit for you, girl. Oh, Andy, I am so, so proud of you!” Were those tears brimming in the eyes of the invariably dry-eyed Rosalind?

As she hugged her sister back, Andrea realized that this was something she hadn’t foreseen, would never have expected, and it meant even more to her than the glow of pride in her performance and the promise of success it had brought.

As for Michael, fair trade she thought, you can have him. I’ll take stardom.

  1. I think this story is better suited to YA, particularly girls.
    And I would change the musical to something like “The Wiz” instead of a 60-year oldie.

  2. Not your best story, Dave. Rather too predictable with a bit too much telling. Unless this was intended as a 500 word piece of flash fiction, the inner and exterior conflicts could have been heightened and escalated. That’s often the way with very short pieces — there is not enough time or space for a decent exposition.

    I remember “The Pajama Game” coming out. But then I am 70. A revival? As JAZZ suggests, perhaps something that has not been buried for the past 60 years might have more appeal to younger (under 70!) readers. We are showing our age.

  3. I agree with you on all points, Michael.
    Must try harder 🙂

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