Broadway understudies that have gone on to lead roles
Many headlining musical stars got their start as understudies.
It’s always fun to see your favorite actors in a Broadway show. But of course, the top-billed stars need vacations, too, and their alternates or understudies step in to take over the lead roles. If you end up at a performance where an understudy is on, you’re in for a unique treat. You’re getting to see a performance by a talented actor that most audiences don’t get to experience. And if you’re seeing the show for the second or 10th time, an understudy might bring a whole new perspective or energy to the show you’ve never experienced before.
Alternates are trained in one specific role, and they usually have a regular schedule for when they perform that role in place of the main actor. But Broadway understudies’ schedules, in contrast, aren’t consistent. They’re usually in the show as a supporting character or ensemble member most days, but they can go on for a lead part at the drop of a hat. Some Broadway understudies learn multiple roles that they might fill in for, and you can imagine how much talent that takes to keep them all straight!
What alternates and understudies on Broadway have in common, besides their skill, is that they often go on to their own star turns. After serving as an alternate or understudy for a role for a while, they might be the next full-time actor in that very role later on. There are tons of leading actors on Broadway right now that got their start as alternates and understudies — maybe you’ve seen them! If not, learn about them below, and then get tickets to see their showstopping performances.
Ashley Loren in Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Broadway’s got a new sparkling diamond! Well, not entirely new, as Ashley Loren has been the Satine alternate since the show opened in 2019. Audiences at over 100 performances have already had the chance to see her as the Moulin Rouge’s star-crossed showgirl. But when Natalie Mendoza departed the cast on May 8, Loren began officially headlining Moulin Rouge! The Musical.
Emilie Kouatchou in The Phantom of the Opera
Emilie Kouatchou is Broadway’s latest angel of music. She moved from the 2021 Broadway alternate for Christine (then played by Meghan Picerno) to the full-time Christine in January 2022, just in time for the 34th anniversary of The Phantom of the Opera. She also carved a milestone of her own when she did so, as Kouatchou is the first Black actress to star in The Phantom of the Opera as Christine on Broadway.
Brittney Johnson in Wicked
It’s good to see her, isn’t it? When Brittney Johnson changed from the Glinda Broadway alternate to the full-time Glinda in February 2022, she became the first Black actress to star as the Good Witch on Broadway. Johnson quickly became popular with audiences — and for a woman whose social media handles are @sunnybrittney, it’s no wonder she’s wonderful as the bubbly, sweet character!
Nkeki Obi-Melekwe in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical
Nkeki Obi-Melekwe has shaken a tail feather as Tina Turner on both sides of the pond. After Tony Award winner Adrienne Warren left the musical’s original West End production for the Broadway premiere, Obi-Melekwe stepped into Tina’s dancing shoes. She’d later make her Broadway debut as Warren’s alternate, and when Warren departed the Broadway production in October 2021, Obi-Melekwe was there to step up once more. We don’t know what love’s got to do with it, but we know we love seeing Obi-Melekwe up on that stage!
Ben Levi Ross, Zachary Noah Piser, and Sam Primack in Dear Evan Hansen
Ben Levi Ross, Zachary Noah Piser, and Sam Primack have all been found in the title role of Dear Evan Hansen. After Hamilton star Jordan Fisher left the production in February 2022, Ben Levi Ross was the next actor to take over the role full-time. He’d previously starred as Evan on the national tour and was one of the original Broadway understudies for Evan.
Once he departs on May 15, his alternate, Zachary Noah Piser, will become the first Asian actor to play Evan full-time. And in the summer, current Broadway understudy Sam Primack will have his own chance to step into the sun. So whether you see the “official” Evan or an understudy at any given time, you’re seeing a bonafide leading man!
Jewelle Blackman and Lana Gordon in Hadestown
Jewelle Blackman and Lana Gordon were livin’ it up on top this spring playing Persephone, the goddess who brings springtime to life in Hadestown. Blackman has been in the musical’s cast since the get-go as one of the Fates, the three goddesses who guide the musician Orpheus on a dangerous journey to the underworld to rescue his love, Eurydice. If you were lucky, you might have caught Blackman as Persephone before, as she was the understudy for Tony nominee Amber Gray! Now, she plays the role full-time.
In between Gray and Blackman, Gordon played Persephone for a limited time between February and April of 2022 after serving as the Persephone alternate for Gray. If you missed her, though, don’t worry — you can catch Gordon starring as Velma Kelly in Chicago now instead.