But history made them stars.
Theater-goers lucky enough to snag a ticket to the hottest show on Broadway will see a new Hamilton in the lead role after Saturday, as Javier Munoz takes over from Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Tony-award winning production.
While Munoz’s rise will no doubt disappoint fans who longed to see Miranda in the role he originated, the understudy brings a swagger all his own to the part of the country’s first secretary of the Treasury. Munoz has played Hamilton regularly at Sunday matinees and has filled in as needed for Miranda during the rest of the week, leading New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley to say of his performance, “Alexander Hamilton is sexy on Sundays.”
In the theater, being an understudy doesn’t necessarily mean you were the second choice for a role. Understudies have a distinct job and are often cast separately from the principal, explains Ilene Starger, a New York City-based casting director and producer. “It’s an incredible skill set,” Starger says. Besides talent to spare, understudies need a tremendous memory (most cover more than one role without much practice), and a highly dependable, team-focused nature.
Every profession has its go-to alternates. Munoz joins understudies throughout history who have been willing to wait for their moment to shine. Despite hard work, some never get their turn in the spotlight—or on the field or in the corner office. Here we salute understudies who got their big break, and who nailed their roles so well that we forgot their humble origins.
Got a favorite understudy-turned-headliner? Tell us at email@example.com.
Before Tom Brady—with his three Super Bowl MVP awards, his supermodel wife, and his raw-food diet—there was Drew Bledsoe. Bledsoe was the face of the Patriots until a serious injury on Sept. 23, 2001, thrust the second-year backup quarterback into the starting role.
Historians credit the 26th president with modernizing the office of the presidency and the country itself. His face is on Mount Rushmore, his name on stuffed bears throughout the land. So it’s easy to forget that vice president Roosevelt only ascended to the presidency after William McKinley was assassinated on Sept. 6, 1901.
As chief operating officer, Tim Cook stepped in for Steve Jobs when the Apple co-founder and CEO took a medical leave in early 2011. Many doubted whether Cook would be able to fill Jobs’ shoes permanently when the visionary leader resigned shortly before dying in October of that year. He’s since proved them wrong, presiding over a 75% rise in Apple’s stock price, diversifying the company’s product line, and increasing acquisitions.
It takes quite a string of cancellations for a ninth alternate to make it into the game. And it takes some magic for that ninth alternate to win it all. That’s exactly what happened in 1991 to golfer John Daly, who joined the PGA Championship at the last minute as the “ninth and final alternate” and walked away with the championship.
Shirley MacLaine’s big break came thanks to the broken ankle of Carol Haney, the actress she understudied in “The Pajama Game” on Broadway in the mid-1950s. Her performance reportedly caught the eye of film producer Hal B. Wallis, who signed her to work for Paramount Pictures.
John Oliver filled in for Jon Stewart during the summer of 2013, when the “Daily Show” host was directing a movie and the race for New York City mayor was reaching absurd heights. Oliver’s success parodying sex-scandal-plagued candidate Anthony Weiner helped execs see the Brit’s hosting potential, and Oliver moved to HBO the following spring to launch his show “Last Week Tonight.”
Leonard Bernstein’s big-time conducting debut came after the scheduled conductor, Bruno Walter, fell ill on Nov. 14, 1943. Then a 25-year-old assistant conductor, Bernstein took over without any rehearsal at Carnegie Hall, and his brilliance prompted a front-page story the next day in The New York Times.