The understudy are the biggest stars of this year’s West End Live

This weekend saw the return of West End Live, the hugely popular live theater showcase presented by Westminster City Council and the Society of London Theatre. The event, which takes place over two days each year in Trafalgar Square, featured performances from over fifty different shows and bands.

Amid a series of jaw-dropping turns, the emerging stars of this year’s event were the acting industry’s stunt doubles, stand-ins and swingers who featured more prominently than ever. In the months since theaters reopened, much has been said about the tireless and vital work of these performers, including at Broadway’s Tony Awards by host Ariana DeBose and the West End’s Olivier Awards where a special performance of ” Our Time” by Stephen Sondheim” featured cover artists from each of the season’s nominated shows.

As has become a recent tradition for the event, Saturday began with a revival performance of Disney’s “The Circle of Life.” The Lion Kingand soloist Tramaine Lamy set the tone for the weekend when she shared in a later interview that she was a swing in the London production and had been on the show for a decade.

Understudy can often expect to be called in with very little notice and such was the case for Bonnie and Clydeby Lauren Jones, who wowed with a moving rendition of “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad” shortly after fellow voice actor Charlie McCullagh starred, along with second cover for Romeo’s Rhys Wilkinson & Juliet who dueted with Miriam-Teak Lee, the show’s Olivier Award winner. Lauren and Rhys had only learned hours before that they would be performing to the crowds gathered in Trafalgar Square, a feat many described as both formidable and exhilarating.

A standout performance among many exciting offerings came from Emily Benjamin. Covering seven different roles in the multi-award winning new staging of Cabaret including the iconic Sally Bowles, her rendition of the titular song stands squarely alongside those of the two actresses she understudied as a jaw-dropping theatrical moment.

Some of the shows featured have made a conscious choice to platform their covers this year, such as mainstay West End Live The Phantom of the Opera, which sent a trio of Phantoms stunt doubles, Ashley Stillburn, James Gant and James Hume for a special performance of “The Music of the Night”. In the same way, Come from afar have stayed true to their healthy reputation with a dedication to the eight off-stage cast members who round out the entire series and are each ready to play one of five roles each at any time. This was rightly followed by a stunning performance of “Me and the Sky” from the night before Jennifer Tierney.

Sunday’s show slate continued the trend, with Elly Jay fronting cover for the role of Vivian Ward in A pretty womansetting off a storm (although the weather remained uninterruptedly sunny) with “I Can’t Go Back. The same goes for WhatsOnStage and the new Olivier Award-winning musical Back to the Future’ features lead stunt double Will Haswell as Marty McFly to perform one of the show’s most iconic numbers, “The Power of Love.”

Fan favorite Six has long been a proponent of his alternatives and swings and their live performances in the West End over the years have been no exception. A highlight of this year’s event was the show’s unexpected collaboration with former Edinburgh neighbor Fringe, The Man’s Chorus to a choral arrangement of “Heart of Stone”. Although less of a surprise when rehearsed on Sunday, the entry of alternate Jane Seymour, Roxanne Couch, was a thrilling revelation and a phenomenal vocal performance. Likewise, super-swinger Rachel Rawlinson, who was recently cast in all six roles at the Hampton Court concerts last weekend, had taken the helm from Catherine of Aragon to perform ‘No Way’ the day before. They were joined throughout the weekend by more talented cover queens: Paisley Billings, Esme Rothero and Danielle Rose.

If this is to be one of the most public stages in the theater industry, it is only fitting to remind the public of the importance and talent of understudy, backup and swing artists. What better than West End Live for them to be recognized, elevated and celebrated with rapturous applause. If the industry has been able to survive, it is largely thanks to these actors and the debt of gratitude it owes them is immeasurable.


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