Monday, July 19, 2010

A bait and switch from La Cage aux Folles?

What do you do when the actor you came to see is out of the show? And are the producers obligated to tell you about the absence of a "name above the title" performer before you buy a ticket?

I'm asking those questions because apparently I won't be seeing Kelsey Grammer as Georges in the Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles this weekend. Grammer's understudy, Chris Hoch, posted on Facebook that he'd be performing Wednesday through Sunday.

I found out about it Saturday night, on the Broadway World message board, and contacted Telecharge to confirm. They checked with the Longacre Theatre, which wasn't aware of any absences. I called back this morning and was told that yes, indeed, Kelsey Grammer will be out.

Hoch posted his message on Thursday. That means producers Sonia Friedman, David Babani and Barry and Fran Weissler used Kelsey Grammer's name to sell tickets knowing full well the Cheers and Frasier star would not be appearing.

I know there are no ironclad guarantees. Actors get sick, they have emergencies. I had a wonderful experience seeing Saycon Sengbloh go on for Fantasia in The Color Purple.

But as soon as the producers of La Cage knew about this absence, they should have informed the ticket-buying public. I asked the Telecharge representative why there was no notice online and he said there should have been.) Update: After my call, a note was added.

In contrast, the producers of A Little Night Music made it very clear far in advance the weeks that Catherine Zeta-Jones was going to be out.

We all know that nearly 65 percent of tickets to Broadway shows are purchased by tourists, people like me who plan our trips far in advance, often pay full price and can't return for a second chance.

I was lucky. Most people won't find out about Grammer's absence until they get to the theatre. And by then, it'll be too late to change plans.

In this case, while it would have been nice to see Kelsey Grammer he's not a make or break for me. The question mark is Hoch. I'm sure he's a fine actor but I'm worried that at 34, he's too young to be believable as a man with a grown son.

While I could get a refund, I don't know when I can make another trip to Broadway. I'd still like to see the musical and Tony winner Douglas Hodge as Albin. Telecharge says as far as they know, he's in.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed and I'll be stopping by the theatre a little early just to make sure.

Update: I've posted my review of La Cage aux Folles - I loved it. Both Chris Hoch and Douglas Hodge were terrific. They make such a lovely couple! Hoch was giving 110 percent and I'd see him on stage again anytime. You can hear him, and other performers, talk about what it's like to be a Broadway understudy in this NPR story.


Unknown said...

You're lucky you had any notice, I've been to (and been IN) a couple of productions where even the producers didn't know until hours before the performance that an understudy would have to step in and perform, which is why many cast members also play Swings (learning multiple roles so they can also step in at a moment's notice)as well as understudies.

I think given that there are so many ways someone can buy a ticket these days, inevitably there's going to be a moment (or a few) where patrons are buying tickets without knowing about any replacements, and no matter how hard the producers may try, they're simply not going to get the word out right away. An actor leaving the show like Catherine Zeta Jones (contract ending, see ya later) is much easier to announce ahead of time, whereas an illness, family emergency, or some other reason for needing an understudy to step in is usually unpredictable.

One thing I can say, understudies are not chosen lightly, and are under a lot of pressure to perform more than satisfactorily because of the simple fact that they are the "understudy", a word that immediately makes some people cringe. Sutton Foster was originally the understudy in Thoroughly Modern Millie, had to stand in one day (before Opening), and the producers gave her the role because they thought she was better than the original (whose name I don't know).

I hope that you enjoy the performance, and I hope (as someone who has been an understudy many times, although yet to be on Broadway) that you approach the performance openly and without comparison to Kelsey, who knows, this may be the actor's big moment, and you may be witness to the start of another huge career on stage.

I think you lucked out on this one, because Kelsey is not the only thing holding La Cage up -- the entire ensemble is incredible, and everyone is stellar.

Esther said...

Thanks, Meg. You make excellent points and I appreciate your perspective. It definitely helps. I promise you once the lights go down I will approach the show with an open mind. I've never seen La Cage and I'm looking forward to it.

But what makes me angry is that the understudy knew, all his friends on Facebook knew, everyone knew several days in advance that Kelsey Grammer would be out - except the ticket-buying public. And in my case, that ticket cost me $151.

JK said...


I saw Chris Hoch go on for Christopher Sieber in Shrek, and I couldn't have been happier! He was really funny, comes across as older, and has a great voice.

Like you, I was disappointed to find out that the one guy I really wanted to see wasn't on, but I think you are in good hands with Hoch.


Unknown said...

Definitely agree with you on the Actor announcing it on his social network sites before the public knew -- I would think that something like that would be covered/protected under contract, I guess in this case it wasn't. THAT would irritate me as well, especially depending on the circumstances causing Kelsey's absence.

Esther said...

Thanks, Jeff! That does make me feel better. Although I do wonder why they didn't hire someone more age appropriate to be the understudy. I mean, we're talking a difference of 15 or 20 years!

Esther said...

Hey Meg, well at least if an actor's going to post on Facebook, he or she should learn how to use the privacy settings! It amazes me the number of times people post something online not realizing the whole world can see it. ;-(

Interestingly, Chris Hoch's Facebook page has been deleted. When he announced he was going on for Kelsey, he also made a joke about "get your refunds now." I'm sure the producers didn't like that!

In terms of the circumstances of the absence, it was known for at least 4 days before there was any acknowledgment from Telecharge. (Which only came after my phone call.) So this isn't a case of an actor who gets sick right before curtain time. This was planned several days in advance.

Simple rule: if the understudy knows he's going on for the "star" the ticket-buying public should know, too. Otherwise, you're selling very expensive tickets under false pretenses, IMHO.

Andrew said...

Two points:

1) I have seen this revival of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. It is a good production and by its own merits, is good enough to be seen - and it doesn't matter if the actor is famous or not - as long as the actor properly serves the material and fits the character.

Kelsey Grammer is very good in this role. Personally, I thought he had weak moments, but it worked. He totally "fit in" with the flow. In my opinion, he is the cherry on top of a sundae. The ice cream is there, which is the most important part, there's whipped cream (Hodges) which isn't necessary, and then there's the cherry (Grammer). The cherry, too, isn't necessary to enjoy the ice cream, but it's a nice treat.

2) Yes, it would be very "cool" to see famous faces on stage, especially when they're reportedly GOOD in the role (see Patti LuPone, GYPSY). But shouldn't be THE reason why we purchase a ticket (a sad reality is that it IS a reason why we purchase a ticket).

I once was dropping off a friend to the Walter Kerr Theater to see Christine Ebersole and Mary-Louise Wilson in GREY GARDENS. I saw that production twice earlier and had been hyping Ebersole's performance. In addition, it was the week prior to the Tony Awards, so the her hype was building strong!

Get to the theater, there is a line at the box office. But they were not at the Will Call window, they were buying tickets. Why? Because there was a notice posted onto the windows saying that Christine Ebersole was out sick and that her standby, Maureen Moore, was on. Moore had done the role once before and I had a friend who had seen it who said she was EXCEPTIONAL. So I reassured my friend that I was dropping off that she NEEDS to see this show and it doesn't matter if Ebersole was out.

She got in line, got a refund, and saw a different show instead. I think it was CRY-BABY? Anyway, because the star was out, she wouldn't see it and saw a crappy show instead of a truly brilliant show that should have won the Tony.

When I get to the theater and discover there is an understudy on, I get SO excited!! You are seeing a rare performance of an actor who has prepared so much and has waited for this moment! It's so refreshing to have their new energy brought to a show that has been open for some time. Understudies are what LIVE THEATRE is all about - making the show go on!

So I lied, a third point:

3) What the legit issue is here is that, allegedly the producers knew days in advance that Grammer would be out and didn't report it until last-minute. That is deception, yes, but I would like to refer back to point #1 and as a producer I would hope that people buying tickets to my show are going to see the show and not the name.

It's a business, and if you have a star you'd be a fool not to promote them in your show, so it would only be fair to inform audiences as soon as possible when they're out, right? Yes - but it would be a smarter business practice to wait a bit, no?

Sarah B. Roberts said...

reIf seeing or not seeing Kelsey Grammer is a " not a make or break" for you, then why are you so upset?

Chris Hoch is a stage actor, therefore he will be able to act the role despite his age.

Very few times have I had to see an understudy and it almost never mattered. Only once did I take a refund when Angela Lansbury called out sick right before her run was over in Night Music. In fact, since you mentioned Catherine Zeta-Jones, the producers also gave months of advance notice for Angela's vacation as well.

Esther said...

Hey Andrew, thanks for the comment! You also bring up some great points.

It's not that I'm a huge Kelsey Grammer fan. But I'm offering the perspective of the 65 percent of Broadway ticket-buyers: people who don't live in New York, who don't get there often, who are going to see "one" Broadway show during their visit and who may have picked a show because there's a familiar movie or TV actor in the cast.

I went to my first Broadway show for one reason and one reason only: because Kevin Spacey was in it. I even bought tickets to two performances just in case he was out for one. Of course, he has an impeccable record, so I got to see him twice. But if he'd been out for the whole week, I would have been crushed.

Yes, in theory we should be excited about seeing an understudy. But in reality, if this is your one trip to New York and to Broadway and you can't come back well ...

And I don't see how it could possibly be a good business practice to have hundreds of disappointed Kelsey Grammer fans who are going to go home and tell their friends, family and coworkers about their disappointment.

Also, selling a ticket based on a performer who's not going to appear - I'm not a lawyer but is that even legal? I'm not accusing, just asking.

Esther said...

Hey Sarah, thanks for the comment. I'm upset because I think what the producers did was unethical. The first time I called Telecharge, they didn't even know about the absence.

I'm sure there are some people who are seeing La Cage because of Kelsey Grammer. Sure, they can get a refund at the box office before the show but by that time, will it be too late to see something else?

Broadway depends on tourists. You draw them in with "stars" and then after you've sold them tickets, you say "Sorry, the star's out this week. We knew for days but didn't bother to tell you, even though the understudy was alerting all of his friends on Facebook."

I just think that's treating the consumer - who's spending a considerable amount of money - very poorly.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

It's very possible that once the production knew, it may have relayed what they knew to Telecharge, which could simply have been slow to transmit the message.

I've dealt with Telecharge and Ticketmaster people who don't know which way is up even after receiving e-mails from their services.

Esther said...

Thanks, Steve. I hadn't thought about that. The problem may have been with Telecharge.

I'm still going to see La Cage and I'm looking forward to it. I'm praying nothing happens to Douglas Hodge! I'd actually be more disappointed if he were out because I've heard such great things about his performance.

Sarah B. Roberts said...

I feel like you're quick to jump to conclusions that this is covert some scheme to dupe ticketbuyers out of money. If people are that concerned about spending money - and are buying tickets over the internet - chances are that they would be researching for discounts or other ways to buy either via (yes, there's a considerable discount) or or any of the other dozens of brokers.

I guess I just don't care enough about all of these downtrodden tourists. If they have enough money to come take a vacation in the first place, much less come to to New York, one of the most expensive cities in the world, I'm not feeling too sorry for them. In fact, I don't feel sorry for anybody who gets to take a vacation because in reality, that percentage of Americans who travels for vacation much less has a paid vacation is rather small. Besides, I doubt the average tourist is seeing La Cage anyway.

Also, if the show is good enough, it won't matter who is in it.

(PS Kelsey gave the better performance in my opinion - at least the night Steve and I were both there. At least I thought so)

Sarah B. Roberts said...

PS just go and have a fabulous time - I saw the 2004 revival and apparently, the actor playing Georges wasn't even that good but I LOVED THE SHOW just as I LOVED THIS production. Jerry Herman's show are joyous, no matter who is in them. You'll love it.

Esther said...

Thanks, Sarah! I'm sure I'll have a fabulous time. This will be my first Jerry Herman musical. I've seen snippets on the Tonys and talk shows but I've never heard the entire score. So I'm psyched! And I absolutely agree - a great show stands on its own.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the heads up. I was literally just about to purchase a pair of full price tickets for Saturday's matinee. $300. I'd still go see the show, but with a discount ticket now.


Esther said...

Thanks for the comment, Mattie. From everything I've heard, it's still worth seeing. There is a notice on the Telecharge site about Grammer's absence but you could easily miss it.

Esther said...

I've updated the blog post with a link to my review of La Cage aux Folles. I loved it - Chris Hoch and Douglas Hodge were both wonderful.

But I have to tell you, I was in the third row, center orchestra and there was some grumbling around me from people who didn't know that Kelsey Grammer would be out. Two women next to me got up and left. I wish they would have stayed.

RNL said...

The bait and switch policy at "La Cage" and other shows is cynical, unethical producing. When Michael Ball had weeks off for "Hairspray" in London, all ticket sources and prospective ticket buyers were informed in advance; and the consumer decided whether to purchase anyway.

For an example of responsible producing, see the notice to ticket buyers for "Women on the Verge" performances where Patti Lupone or Brian Stokes Mitchell will be out due to prior commitments before they were cast.

This afternoon, Sunday, September 26th, I sent out of town guests to "La Cage" specifically to see Douglas Hodge's performance, on tickets purchased weeks ago. He was one of 5 (!) slips of paper in the program announcing today's matinee replacements; 5 replacements for a single performance which means that the producers value end-of-the-week Sunday audiences less than they do other audiences. But they don't apparently value their money less!

So, beware theatre-goers. Book Sundays on Broadway only at your own risk of false advertising. As often as not, you'll see a show with no-shows!!

There was no advance notice of Douglas Hodge's absence; no notice on the ticket sites even today; and regardless of the quality of the understudy (that's beside the point),the ticket buyer was duped by false advertising unless there was sudden illness or emergency. In this case, the old practice which some of us remember of a brief, personal announcement to the audience prior to curtain is in order. In other industries, it's called "customer care".

We all love to see an understudy get a chance to turn in a brilliant, career-making performance. But it's not the ticket-buyer's responsibility to subsidize this opportunity.

Esther said...

Thanks for the comment RNL. I definitely agree with everything you've written.

I've seen the notice on the Women on the Verge page at Telecharge and they're doing it the right way. I ended up loving La Cage but I do feel the producers are being deceptive in not telling people when Kelsey Grammar and Douglas Hodge are on vacation. They're banking on most people not asking to get their money back.

It's a bait and switch and I really wonder if it's illegal. I think this is something the New York State Attorney General's Office should look into.