The Rise of the Understudies: Two Booker T. Grads Step into the Lights on Broadway

It was a good weekend on Broadway for the Booker T. High School Class of '92. Actors Brian J. Gonzales and Cedric Neal, who graduated the same year from Dallas' performing arts magnet school, both stepped into leading roles in big New York shows on a moment's notice.

Gonzales, understudy for Tony winner James Corden in the hit comedy One Man, Two Guvnors, did the show at Sunday's matinee after the actor fell ill. (Corden, a workhorse performer, hadn't missed any other performances.) Neal, understudy for Tony-nominated David Alan Grier in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, performed the role of "Sportin' Life" Friday and Saturday nights while Grier was off.

The image of the unknown understudy finally getting a shot at stardom is the plotline of plenty of plays and movies, from 42nd Street to All About Eve to Theresa Rebeck's The Understudy (now running at Fort Worth's Amphibian Stage). But the idea isn't to steal the role from the star, say Gonzales and Neal, fresh off their weekend of curtain calls on Broadway stages.

"The job is not to look for any glory whatsoever," says Gonzales, who played big roles in musicals and plays at Lyric Stage, Dallas Theater Center and WaterTower Theatre before moving to New York. "Our job is simply to be there in case the person we're covering needs to call out. We're only there as a backup. For a lot of understudies, there's a good chance you may never go on [in the role]. James Corden doesn't miss at all. He's working on a film right now, but he'll come to the theater, do two shows and go and shoot all night. He's quite the machine. I admire his stamina and commitment."

Gonzales was out on his morning walk Sunday when he got a call saying Corden didn't feel well and might not make the Sunday matinee. The decision was made at 2 p.m. that Gonzales would go on at the 3 p.m. performance in the leading role of "Frances Henshall." The character is the servant of two masters (the show is based on that ancient play) and he carries 70 percent of the dialogue while performing nonstop physical comedy. (Gonzales also has the duty of performing a 10-second bit every night, cartwheeling across the stage in a chase scene as Corden's double.)

Before being called in for the main role on Sunday, "my stage manager and I had just done a line-through rehearsal for dialogue purposes. It was good that it timed out like it did," says Gonzales.

The actor even worked in an ad lib at the top of the show, in case any audience members were disappointed that he, not Corden, was performing. In the show, Frances is always begging the audience for food, so patrons sometimes offer the character snacks. "A lady offered me a Snickers bar in the middle of the opening monologue," says Gonzales. "I took it onstage and pretended she had written a note that said, `Dear Mr. Understudy, please give this Snickers to James Corden.' That broke the ice about the fact that I was the understudy. And I got lucky. The audience seemed to be on my side from then on. I got a very good response."

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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