The Understudy

Elayna Hatchell

“I would not get my hopes up too high, dear. I’m here to stay.”

The words struck me like a perfectly aimed dart. I looked down at my iron-clad wrists, sighing. I was led to the back of a black car, not caring to read the lettering on the side, for I knew where this car was going. All of the past events that had gotten me to this point swarmed around in my mind.

I never got what I wanted; not on the first try anyway. My entire life had been an endless world of struggle. Both of my parents were factory employees, working their fingers to the bone. They had suffered through the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Although they survived, many of their friends did not. They had watched in horror as coworkers leapt to their deaths. After going to work at a new factory, they were not paid as much as before.

I grew to learn that money was sacred. My parents spent money on necessities, not on dolls and toys. I was an ambitious child, and would do anything for the sake of our family. When I grew up, however, I desperately wanted to get out of the dead end life of my parents. I did not want to work day and night; I wanted to be someone important. I wanted to be seen in luscious fox furs and diamond earrings.

The stock market crashed in 1929 and it was a devastating blow for New Yorkers such as my parents. I decided to apply for a job, both to provide for my family and as a chance to escape the harsh realities of being poor. I had heard how much some theater companies in the city paid their actresses, so I tried to find more information. I knew I was a good singer. No, not good; great. I would sing in the stairwells of our building to anyone who listened. I had a passion for it, it was in my blood, and I knew I could do it.

“Actresses do not make much money, dear,” I remember my frail mother stating, afraid I would not get paid at all. It was a start, however, and I was very determined. This was how I would achieve all my dreams.

The snow and ice crunched under my feet as I headed towards the brick theater building. The building was covered in crumbling posters of previous shows and some of them had almost become a part of the brick façade itself. The vines twisted around the sides of the building as if to shelter it from the world outside. A car horn blared and startled me as I was staring at the theater. A black Model A Ford drove past me, the driver clearly upset that I was in his way. I made my way to the front door and walked inside, a gust of warm air enveloping me. It was a nice change from the chilly weather outside.

I took off my tattered coat and looked around. The theater, though quite old, was decorated elegantly. I had never seen such finery before! The red-carpeted stairs poured down from the upper levels and evolved into a black and white marbled floor. I looked up and noticed a sparkling chandelier. Once I hung my coat on a nearby rack, I saw the sign I’d been searching for on the door that led into the auditorium: AUDITIONS TODAY. I smiled faintly and nervously walked into the auditorium. I suddenly felt small and meager in this theater, and wondered if I really could pull it off.


The theater was nearly empty except for a few casting directors sitting down front. I looked at the hundreds of seats and counted row after row after row. My palms became sweaty as I neared the front of the stage. I imagined myself onstage with every seat in the house full and shook my head. I handed my information to the nearest casting director, and then I walked to the steps on the side of the stage and slowly made my way up and across it. I looked down at the directors as they cleared their throats.

“State your name please and what piece you will be singing for us,” the first casting director said while peering over his glasses.

“My name is Cecilia, and I will be performing a number from No, No Nanette,” I replied softly.

Another director spoke up while I handed my sheet music to the accompanist, “Just relax and do your best.”

I nodded, took a deep breath, and closed my eyes. When I opened them again there was nobody sitting in the theater, just me and the music. I opened my mouth to begin singing and the words poured out. Singing had always been my passion. I could easily connect with a song and feel the emotions as I sang. In that moment I felt the music take over my body, and a confidence I had never known washed over me and made me belt out the notes, bar after powerful bar.

When the song ended, I could still hear my voice ringing into the balcony of the big hollow theater. I smiled, proud of myself for doing my very best, whether or not the directors thought so.

The directors nodded their heads and thanked me. I quietly exited the stage, but I was clearly beaming. I walked back to the lobby and slipped my coat back on, ready to brave the wintry air outside.

A few days later I received a letter from the theater company. I hurriedly opened it, giving myself a paper cut, but the gasp that escaped my lips was not a result of my careless haste. I had gotten a part in the production! I continued to read about rehearsals and show dates and felt a warm bubbly feeling in my veins. This was only the beginning.

Soon after receiving my letter, I returned to the theater. Many cast members filled the front rows of the auditorium. I sat near a woman with black, shiny hair. I smiled at her and took notice of her hat. It had purple-dyed feathers and gold jewels perched on the side. She smiled faintly and turned back to face the directors. They made their way up to the stage to give a welcome message.

As the directors spoke, I turned my attention back to the woman. She held her nose in the air. I felt I had seen her somewhere before, but I could not place where. She had the type of face that everyone knew, as if she were famous. She glanced at me from the corner of her eye, and I immediately turned my attention to the directors.

“Now please welcome a lovely addition to our cast, Ms. Marie Premont.”

Everyone turned towards us and clapped. I directed my gaze to my right, and realized the famous film star had been sitting beside me the entire time. I stared at her in awe and clapped along with the others. She rose to her feet, nodded politely, and sat back down. I remembered reading that I was to play the lead’s understudy. The thought made me both nervous and excited.  I had yet to find out who the leading lady was.

After the directors gave the welcome, we went onstage, and the crew began handing out scripts. A young blonde girl placed mine into my outstretched hand and smiled. I skimmed through the first few pages quietly. Suddenly I felt someone tap on my shoulder and I turned around.

“Cecilia, I want to introduce you to Marie. You will be her understudy,” the casting director said.

My heart swelled up a bit as I extended my hand towards her. She took my hand in hers. We introduced ourselves briefly before the director walked away.

Marie looked around, then leaned forward until her lips almost touched my ear. “I would not get my hopes up too high, dear. I’m here to stay,” Marie said as her lips curled at the sides into a wicked grin. As I watched her walk away, I whispered in a soft reply, “We shall see.”

Over the course of the next few weeks during rehearsals, I began to collect information on Ms. Premont. She was a twice-divorced woman, and seemingly childless. Her husbands had thought she was too self-absorbed to become a mother. It also came to my attention that she was to be paid more than I, which made my blood boil. We were to play the exact same character, and get paid different salaries. I was appalled, and frankly, I had come too far to allow this to happen. One of the dancers in the show began to talk about how famous directors, actors, and even producers were coming to opening night. Of course, I listened in on the conversation, becoming instantly intrigued. Suddenly, a brilliant idea flashed through my mind. If I was the lead on opening night, I could be noticed by these people. All I had to do was get Marie off stage long enough. But how?

Later that evening I sat at home and began to plot. Soon I became very tired and started to drift off to sleep. I remembered my mother and father coming home after long hours of labor. My mother would fix my father a drink, but she would slip a few drops of something into it while I watched. Milk of a poppy, she had called it. She claimed it would help him relax and sleep well. Of course my father had discreetly gotten it from an old friend of his. Some friend, I smirked to myself. My eyes widened at the sudden realization that I had at last found a solution to my problem. Opium.

“Prohibition” was the word on everyone’s lips. Sometimes it was as a sigh of relief; other times it was like a curse against humanity. There were plenty of speakeasies around New York, and I could easily access them. Women could sneak in with no trouble; it was the men who got patted down or questioned. I knew I was captivating for a girl my age. I had my mother’s features: her long, untamable hair, her innocent eyes framed by a heart-shaped face, and, of course, her curves. It took less than an hour for one of the bootleggers to make his way over to where I sat. I suddenly felt exposed and naked under the gaze of his dark, purposeful eyes. He lit his cigarette and sat down across from me. At times, a woman knows what she needs, and will do anything to get it. I put my hand on his thigh, and leaned over to whisper my need for gin…he put his hand on mine and whispered his need for a woman. A dually advantageous deal had been set in motion, which I would come to regret.

On opening night I took the bottle of gin to the dressing room that I shared with Marie. She was sitting at the makeup table with her face in her hands, obviously trying to focus. I decided to take this opportunity to ask if she needed anything to calm her nerves.

“Can’t you see I’m busy?” she sighed through her hands.

I approached her cautiously and placed a hand on her back. I knew she was stressed, although I had never seen her this way. She lifted her face to look at me in the mirror. I pulled out the bottle of gin from behind my back, her eyes suddenly widening. There was the reaction I yearned for! Two glasses sat nearby on a small wooden table. I began to pour the sacred liquid into the glasses, slipping some opium into hers. Marie’s face seemed to brighten a bit at the thought of having some booze to warm herself. She took the glass and downed it with a gulp, which surprised me. I smirked and drank my own, but at a slower pace. That will knock her out just long enough for me to make a lasting impression on the audience, I thought. Slowly, but surely, Marie fell into a deep sleep. I walked out of her room, smiling and quite satisfied.

Although I had been practicing on the stage for quite some time now, opening night was different. The entire atmosphere changed, it was electrifying. It was as if every nerve in my body was jolted with excitement. The faces of the patrons were awestruck as I sang the ending note. After a dramatic pause, the audience leapt to their feet and presented me with a standing ovation. I got an adrenaline rush when the audience applauded after I finished singing. It was like a drug to me, and I wanted more; I craved it.

Opening night had been a tremendous success. After curtain call, a wave of calm and relief washed over me. Nobody asked about Marie; they assumed the stress from the past few weeks had finally taken their toll on her. I collected my pay, the sound of thunderous applause still ringing in my ears. Numerous cards and flowers had been delivered to our dressing room, all addressed to me. I noticed that Marie had not moved a muscle since she passed out on the couch. I quietly tiptoed over to where she lay and tried to wake her, but she did not budge. I shook her as the panic and fear swelled up inside of me. Wake up! I continuously screamed at her in my head. Horror swept across my face as I realized I gave her too much opium. I let go, her lifeless body falling back onto the couch as I fled the dressing room.

The guilt began to consume me and gnaw at my mind and my conscience. Since joining the theater, I had taken up the habit of smoking occasionally. I quickly fumbled around for a cigarette in my pocket while sitting on the rusty fire escape outside of my family’s apartment.  I lit my cigarette and placed it between my lips, taking a deep drag. The cloud of smoke blown out enveloped me as I tried to calm down, but to no avail. Thoughts of guilt invaded my dreams; I could not escape. Marie’s lifeless body haunted my every thought.  I was trapped like the bird in a cage our neighbor Mrs. Zittleman kept. Maybe if I was lucky, they would claim it was a suicide. After all, the woman had been through two divorces and was childless. I hadn’t really murdered her…..had I? Then to my dismay as I reached into my pocket once again, I realized I had left the opium bottle in the dressing room. I felt my heart sink down into the pit of my stomach.

The questioning began soon after the body was removed and examined. Was this really a suicide attempt? Had she accidentally died of an overdose? Was she alone when it happened? The questions constantly poured out of the mouths of the detective and the policeman. A room search had been ordered by the chief of police, and since I was the only one who shared the room with her, I was called upon to let them inside. Little did I know, the entire room had been thoroughly searched before my arrival. I watched cautiously as they searched high and low for any pieces of evidence. The sound of my own heartbeat pounded in my ears, but I remained calm. The policeman tipped his hat and turned to exit the room, but the detective stopped directly in front of my makeup table. His fingers curled around the drawer handle and pulled it back ever so slowly. There, sitting among a pile of makeup and tissues blotted with lipstick, was the bottle of opium.

“Miss Cecilia, you are under arrest for the possession of illegal substances, and for the suspicion of the murder of Ms. Marie Premont,” The detective said as he took the policeman’s handcuffs.

I looked down at my iron-clad wrists, sighing. I was lead to the back of a black car, not caring to read the lettering on the side, for I knew where this car was going. But then again, they may not know the bottle was mine. They could not tell it had my fingerprints on it. Could they?