Show and tell: An ode to supporting characters

Anna Hollingsworth 27 April 2016

For years, actors have cried, friendships have been ruined, and dreams have been shattered over not getting the lead role in a play. The majority of actors turn up to auditions with fantasies of themselves performing the monologues and songs of the main characters. But recently I’ve realised that the way to win audiences over, in some cases, is to aim one rank lower; for me, supporting characters are increasingly the brightest stars of theatre.

Let’s face it: everybody loves an underdog and, whilst supporting characters are no less significant in their own life narratives, they are forced to remain in the shadows of the leads around whom the plot revolves. Most plays try to cover as much about the protagonists as two and a half hours of writing allows, yet inevitably you are always left wanting to delve further into the lives of the supporting roles. You get glimpses, teasers, and the odd major scene but there is always more to be explored in the script, illuminated by the theatre lights, and viewed by the audience when it comes to the secondary characters.

My favourite example of a truly fascinating supporting character is Anita from West Side Story. Maria’s bolder companion loves living in the USA and radiates in all of her scenes, filling all stages (Anita was interpreted stunningly by Megan Gilbert in this year’s ADC Lent Term Musical). She sings the audience favourite, America, and, despite helping Maria and Tony, is viciously taunted by the Jets in one of the most tragic scenes in all of musical theatre. Whilst Tony and Maria are written and often depicted as very endearing characters, and their romance tells an extremely important moral tale, they are actually pretty bland and a bit pathetic when put next to Anita.

Their soppy love story withers in the wake of Anita’s fiery presence and their naivety makes their narrative necessary as a lesson in prejudice and acceptance, but unremarkable in comparison to Anita’s confidence and daring moves – eventually leading to her American Dream being crushed by the Jet gang. Maria and Tony tragically live out the timeless, Romeo-and-Juliet-inspired tale of the star-crossed lovers (featuring some stunning duets), but we cannot forget that Anita is living her own tale; she is a superstar trapped in the wrong place, in the wrong era. A more contemporary equivalent of Anita is Angelica Schuyler from the hit musical, Hamilton that is currently storming Broadway. The stoic victim of her unrequited love, Angelica’s boldness in the face of pain and adversity and delightful sass would make her at home in any rendition of America and have earned her a place in my all time favourite characters.

I view Ilse and Moritz from Spring Awakening, which some of you might have seen at the ADC as well, in a similar light. Like Maria and Tony, Melchior and Wendla are at the forefront of a very moving series of events, leaving audiences with a very pertinent message. However, given the chance to rewatch certain scenes from the show, I would never choose theirs. Speaking to people after the Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society production earlier this year, many said their favourite scene was Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind, Ilse and Moritz’s duologue and duet, where Ilse offers Moritz one final escape before he ends his life. The wonder and theatrical beauty of this scene comes from the fact that this is the first time you get a profound view into Ilse’s life, after her brief account of suffering abuse in Act 1.

Up to this point, she is an elusive, ethereal presence, floating in the background, and then out of nowhere she becomes this angelic force of nature, sent to prevent Moritz from killing himself. She possesses a fantastic blend of complicated mystery and blunt transparency that perplexes both the audience and Moritz; we are completely under her control and buy into her every poetic word in this musical scene. She embodies an element of hope and power, somewhat like Anita, that Melchior and Wendla, in their childish worlds could never match and she is the one who declares the final message of hope in her Song of Purple Summer, physically and figuratively emerging from the shadows to deliver the moral of the story.

Moreover, there are some characters who appear on stage for such a limited amount of time that some theatre-goers might wonder why the actor even bothered taking the role. But I maintain that they are a powerful theatrical tool and are sometimes the most engaging aspect of a show. The most recent example of this that I have seen is the Mistress in The Maids, currently playing at the Trafalgar Studios in London, starring Orange is the New Black favourite, Uzo Aduba and Fresh Meat’s Zawe Ashton. The play tells the story of two maids who plot and act out in detail their plans to murder their Mistress, who only enters about half way through the play for no more than twenty-five minutes.

With the two maids having almost exclusively talked about her prior to her entrance, when she finally appears her mere presence is immediately captivating and terrifying, and her formidable effect on the maids’ behaviour is unnervingly jarring, shining a new light on their murderous behaviour in the former part of the play. She fleetingly embodies all that oppresses the working class, elevating the play to a new tense dimension before leaving the stage to let the maids play out the climax. With even less stage time, the last character that I’d like to draw attention to is Perón’s mistress in Evita. Many simply know her as the girl who sings Another Suitcase in Another Hall, one of Lloyd Webber’s best-known songs. This is undoubtedly one of my favourite pieces of musical theatre writing ever. Why give an all but irrelevant character an entire song expressing her anguish at her situation? It makes her dismissal by Eva so much more poignant and for those three minutes, and those three minutes only, we feel enormous amounts of sympathy for her, and then the show moves on and in one swift, symbolic movement, she has left the stage and Perón’s life. A fine example of theatre playing with our emotions like only true works of art can.

I’m not saying that lead characters are always dull and should be disregarded; I know we could all list endless fascinating, inspiring, complex main characters. But whilst principal roles are frequently designed to be the most relatable people on stage, living out universal experiences, they often leave little space for the quirkiness, intrigue and occasional outrageousness of supporting characters who always leave us wanting more. So, instead of sulking, people should rejoice at falling into supporting roles because as far as I’m concerned, they’re some of the best ones out there.


Image: Randy Lemoine