Broadway Understudies Are Hired To Take The Stage When A Performer Calls Out, So Why Do Many Broadway Shows Just Cancel The Performance? What Happened To The Show Must Go On?

When Understudies Take The Spotlight

One of the biggest stories to make headlines while Broadway was making its post-COVID comeback was that of the unsung hero: the understudy. Well, prior to the pandemic, understudies might have been literally unsung as they would rarely get to go on but in a world where sporadic cases of COVID aren’t enough to shut down Broadway, producers have been relying on understudies to step into the spotlight.

The Understudies Got Us Through COVID

There was so much good will regarding understudies (as well as standbys, alternates and swings) who could transform into a variety of characters on very little notice. They’ve been considered the first responders of the Great White Way, except without all the esteem.

But 2024 has been telling a different story. While a theatregoer on any given night might find a little white slip tucked into their Playbill with their Broadway tickets, many shows have opted to cancel a performance instead of proceeding with replacements. Three notable examples have made the social media rounds recently.

Mary Jane

On April 7th, 2024 almost a week into preview performances, Manhattan Theatre Club announced that the 7 p.m. performance of Amy Herzog’s new play Mary Jane would be canceled due to a non-COVID related illness. The cancellation did not affect the play’s opening night, which was still slated for April 23rd, 2024.

The dramedy starring Hollywood A-lister Rachel McAdams in her Broadway debut, and directed by Anne Kauffman, is playing through June 2nd at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Ironically, the play centers on a single mother (McAdams) who must navigate the challenging experiences of caring for her chronically ill child. Perhaps this a case of life imitating art?


Another play featuring a bankable star (Sarah Paulson) as well as other familiar names like Corey Stoll and Michael Esper, canceled two performances on February 13th and 14th, 2024. The Second Stage Theater production announced that the reason was due to COVID-related illness among the principal cast, understudies, and crew, so as not to implicate anyone individually.

Appropriate marks Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Broadway playwriting debut, after a successful run of the play Off-Broadway.


Rounding out the trio of recent Broadway cancellations was the anticipated revival of John Patrick Shanley’s seminal work Doubt. The first preview (scheduled for February 2nd, 2024) was postponed a day due to a non-COVID-related illness. But the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production playing at the Todd Haimes Theatre had a major casting shakeup when it announced a few days later that headliner Tyne Daly would be withdrawing due to an unexpected hospitalization.

While the first preview was indeed canceled, Daly’s understudy did perform over the following weekend until Daly’s replacement (Amy Ryan) was able to take over the role for the remainder of the limited run. This is the only case where the understudy actually got to play.

Julie Benko as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl
Julie Benko as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl

Broadway Producers Worry Audiences May Be Disappointed By Understudies

Audience members sometimes feel like they’re getting an inferior experience when an understudy steps in, especially if they were really looking forward to a certain performer. But stars like Shirley McLaine and Sutton Foster stepped into roles that weren’t originally theirs and look how far they’ve come! Funny Girl understudy Julie Benko recently set Broadway abuzz when she took over Fanny Brice for a poorly received Beanie Feldstein.

So, those fairy tale stories are still happening on Broadway but only when producers are fully confident that these untested cast members can hold their own under a high pressure situation. When a show has been running for a while, cancellations are unlikely.

In previews, though, especially for a production of a new work with a smaller ensemble, the show might not go on as planned. At that point, audiences not only have to deal with the disappointment of their theatre plans being ruined but also the inconvenience of exchanging their tickets to another performance.