If the comments coming into this site and the buzz around town is anything to go by, Heather Headley – star of the West End’s new hit “The Bodyguard” – is more likely to be found on Twitter than on the stage of the Adelphi Theatre. What is going on? One understands that a star’s presence in long (or even short) runs is subject to fitness and good health and that winter bugs can cause unavoidable absences, but when a big American star is imported and her fan base – duly reinforced now by the quality of her notices in this show – pay good money to see her in the flesh, the odds should be on her being there. That’s what committing to a Broadway or West End show is all about – and Headley should know that better than most.
I personally think that it is already an affront to the public that a star should do only six out of eight performances a week anyway – and it is cynical, to say the least, to get the buzz going through previews and press nights and then to drop back to fewer performances because – and this is something relatively new in theatre history – the role is too demanding vocally or physically to do two shows in a day. My first experience of this was when Elaine Paige cut back to six-a-week in “Evita” and the dubious innovation of “the alternate” (as opposed to understudy) came to pass. Interestingly enough, Patti LuPone always did eight a week on Broadway in that same role because she owed it to her public, especially having won a Tony Award. Americans accept nothing less – excepts when they are in London, it seems.
Speaking of awards, was it not the beginning of this nonsense being deemed acceptable when Martine McCutcheon was given an Olivier (a low point in the award’s history) for hardly ever appearing in “My Fair Lady”? Let’s face it – she simply didn’t have the chops for it. One thinks of the great Julie Andrews at 20 playing Eliza on Broadway eight shows a week and then in London for YEARS with barely any amplification and rarely a performance dropped. Performers like that are seasoned pros who wouldn’t dream of letting their public down. Ethel Merman was NEVER off. When Gwen Verdon broke her leg during the run of “Redhead” she joined the audience in a wheelchair to lend moral support. But those ladies weren’t the exception to the rule – they WERE the rule.
To be fair, most seasoned stage stars today wouldn’t dream of doing less than the full eight shows and it would take real incapacitation for them to put on the understudy – Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton in “Sweeney Todd” recently – and there are few more taxing roles than those.
It’s not for me to go into the quality of the understudies that have lately been covering for Heather Headley (my message posters have had their say on that front) but the producers of “The Bodyguard” should be concerned that their star is missing for too many performances and that the public are being sold short for their hard-earned cash and they should respond with some sort of public explanation.
When I wrote that Headley was terrific in the show I did so in the knowledge that my readers could pick a performance – ANY performance – and see what I saw. Everybody gets sick and Will Young recently used Twitter to say how wretched he felt at having to miss a week of performances in “Cabaret” because he had no voice. Perhaps Headley should do the same. And PLEASE let’s put an end to this six-shows-a-week-and-two-for-“the alternate” culture. It simply won’t do when West End theatre is struggling to attract and keep its audiences.