Do any of you know any swings or understudies in your favorite musical? Can you name at least five actors that started as understudies or swings and made it to a lead role? (please no sneaking on google!). Don’t worry, you are not alone. Most regular theatre goers focus on the lead roles and the ensemble as a whole, but often overlook the talented individuals without whom a show cannot go on.
“Swings have some of the most mentally taxing jobs in theatre as, by definition, they are responsible for understudying multiple ensemble tracks (sometimes ALL of the ensembles tracks) in a show" (Mo Brady for Playbill). Swings need to be ready to step into any given track on short notice. Most times they have a schedule run, covering vacations, days off, or scheduled swing out dates. Most times, however, they have little time to prepare. A swing may get to the theatre one afternoon to find out that a cast member called in sick, or got sick during Act I. These performers need to remain healthy and in a good state of mind to jump into any character and do a kick butt job every single time. They have the added pressure to ensure that the audience doesn’t notice the difference.
Not everyone wants to be a swing but most importantly, not everyone can do the job. Swings are the most versatile performers you will find on stage. They can sing, act, and dance. True triple threats, swings have to be wicked smart and organized. Any director on Broadway will tell you that swings are the most talented and the most trusted people in the industry. “Anyone who hires swings knows you need them to be true triple threats… You need someone who can lift the girls, carry a scene, dance all the steps, and sing both the high A, the low B. Swings must stay calm under pressure and learn to be in the moment.” (Mo Brady for Playbill)
Two of my favorite swings are Jack Sippel (Gypsy, Newsies, The Prom) and Clay Thomson (Matilda, Newsies, King Kong). I visited NYC with some high school students in April and we had working sessions with these two young performers. They both talked about their roles as swings. They shared with students the importance of the job, the high demands of learning more than one track, and the personal dedication and work ethics required to succeed in the business of being a swing. Both performers agreed that being a swing is not for everyone. It may be a successful career path for those that want to develop the skills because swings go easily from one job to another and can always find work on Broadway. They also dismissed a common fear among aspiring Broadway performers. Being a swing is ABSOLUTELY NOT a career ending role but rather a different path or an entryway into the world of Broadway for those actors that want to put in the work. While directors may choose to replace an actor that leaves the show with a new actor, the job of a swing is in high demand and swings can go to another show as a principal. The main reason why directors may not want to give a principal role to a swing in the cast, is because it is easier to train one person in one track than replace a swing that covers multiple tracks. If you are an upcoming actor that needs to work and wants to make a name for yourself, you should be looking at the role of the swing or understudy as a door to Broadway (if you are good enough for the job, of course). Not to mention that swings and understudies get a base pay plus a swing fee!
Here are a few stories that may help you appreciate some of theatre’s unsung heroes:
In 2016, Natasha Barnes (West End’s American Idiot, Funny Girl) had to step into the role of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre in London, when the lead took a temporary break from the production. Audiences were upset that they couldn’t see the original cast on stage, but as soon as word got out that Natasha was amazing in the role, people embraced her and she was a total success.
Sutton Foster (Violet, Shrek, Anything Goes) got her big break as understudy to Erin Dilly in Thoroughly Modern Millie and went on to win a Tony Award for that performance.
Kate Marilley (My Fair Lady, The Prom) covers four principal roles in the adult ensemble of The Prom. Two days after opening night, Ms. Leavel got very sick, so Kate had to step in. She had not yet had a rehearsal at the theatre (swing / understudy rehearsals are sometimes done after the show has settled a little bit) so she had little time to get a refresh on the role before show time. While she was brushing up on her songs and lines, the costume department was fitting her on the clothes, the dance captain was rehearsing the moves with her, and the rest of the cast was cheering her on! She went on and rocked her debut as Dee Dee Allen, mainly because she is a fantastic performer that paid attention to the principals and took her understudy job very seriously.
In 2018, Steph Parry (West End’s Wicked, Mamma Mia, 42nd Street) was working as an understudy in 42nd Street when she was called to fill in for Donna in Mamma Mia at a different theatre in London’s West End. She had played the role of Donna five years prior so she only needed a refresher, but she only had about 15 minutes to get ready. For some reason, nobody else could step into the role in that short notice. The stage manager remembered that Parry had played the role five years prior, so they called her up. “The production was forced to grind to a halt for 18 minutes, but Steph says the audience were ‘completely on her side’ when the stage manager announced what was happening and she took to the stage.” (Metro UK). As many other swings have done in many shows throughout the history of Broadway and the West End, Parry saved the show from cancelling that evening!
Bernadette Peters (Hello Dolly!, Follies, Gypsy, Annie Get Your Gun) begun as a standby in The Girls in Freudian Slip in the late 60s and won her first Tony Award in the late 80s for Song and Dance. I saw Peters in Hello Dolly! and she blew my mind. I’m sure her humble beginnings as a standby had a positive impact in her life and career and not the opposite as most of today’s young performers may assume about not being a lead from day one.
Gabi Campo (The Prom), a swing and understudy for the role of Emma, had to step into the role half way thru a performance on a Saturday matinee when Caitlin Kinnunen got sick and couldn’t go on. If you have seen the show, you know that Emma is on stage most of the time, so there was little time for Campo to get ready. She seamlessly took on the role and the audience loved her! I’ve seen Campo on stage multiple times and that girl can play any role she is given. She is a true triple threat. You can see Campo next in the revival of West Side Story on Broadway.
Andrew Rannells (Jersey Boys, The Book of Mormon, Hamilton, The Boys in The Band) had his Broadway debut as an understudy for the role of Link in Hairspray. You probably saw him this year during the Tony Awards, he is a fabulous performer that has been in several lead and ensemble roles in his young career.
So now you know and because you do, next time you go the theatre and there is a little paper calling out cast replacements, be happy that you get to see one of these wonderful performers shine on stage. Go ahead and appreciate the swings and understudies because these actors are often the ones that save the show!
Click here for a tribute to swings and understudies because SWINGNATION ROCKS!