Swings Tribute: In Broadway’s Most Underrated Role
As productions battled to stay on stage as the Omicron variant swept through this winter, a spotlight shone on Broadway’s real heroes: swings and stunt doubles. For the first time, the general public learned of their indispensability through newspaper articles and viral videos on social networks. “I’m moved because it humbles me,” Hugh Jackman said in a video-captured recall speech at a December conference music man performance in which swinger Kathy Voytko replaced Sutton Foster as Marian Paroo. “The courage, the brilliance, the dedication, the talent. The swings, the one-liners, they’re the foundation of Broadway.
What does it actually entail to be a swing in a musical? These performers cover up to a dozen ensemble parts (and sometimes main characters) in a musical and take the stage whenever one of these cast members cannot perform due to a illness, injury or vacation. Standard swings need to be in the theater each night ready to fill at any time, while holiday swings are contracted to fill for predetermined periods of time for things like vacations, personal days, and family time off. How often Swingers hit the stage varies greatly depending on the size of the production’s cast, how many Swingers the show has hired, how many vacation days are written into artists’ contracts, and more. – although some swings that had played two or three shows a week-long pre-pandemic report goes more like five or six times a week once the Omicron variant hits.
For this tough job, the swingers earn weekly pay above the minimum wage for the ensemble, per Actors’ Equity guidelines. It’s a niche skill that some artists choose to hone throughout their careers, while others vacillate between swing and non-swing opportunities.
The good, the bad and the crazy
For many swings, the most appealing part of their job is the constant change. “Having to play so many different characters and roles, the job can’t get stale,” says Colby Lindeman, who recently served as vacation swing and dance captain for Bad and had previously performed as a member of an ensemble.
“The shows I do are never the same,” adds hamilton swing Gabriella Sorrentino. “I’m always standing somewhere new, looking at different people’s faces. Each performance is unique and special.
But with these exciting benefits also comes the stress of living in a constant state of surprise. “You don’t always know if or when you’re going to play,” says Lindeman, who has also been a swing in the tours of the Radio City Christmas Show and An American in Paris. “You have to feel comfortable with uncertainty and be prepared for whatever happens.”
Although there are times when the swings are given advance notice, they often find out that they will be taking the stage a few hours before or in the middle of the show without any warning. In 2016, when Sorrentino was a new swing for Broadway On your feet!, once she heard her name blaring over her dressing room loudspeaker during intermission: a dancer had been injured and she had to cover them, although she never did a full part of the part in rehearsal . The other cast members quickly rallied, helping her with her hair and makeup so she could revise, while the dance captains gave her advice and support. “The stakes seemed so high and I was terrified,” Sorrentino says.
“It’s hard to know how to take care of your body in times like these,” says Tilly Evans-Krueger, who is swing for Red Mill!. “It’s like, ‘I guess I’m going to do a few push-ups before I go on stage and start kicking myself?’ ”
Sometimes it gets even more complicated. Once, Sorrentino was on stage to hamilton and in the middle of the performance, another performer on stage started to feel sick and she had to change tracks. After a few minutes this dancer was ready to return and Sorrentino again had to go back to the original track she was playing that night. “I have to know the show so completely that I can compartmentalize the different tracks and not be confused when I go in and out,” she says.
With the pandemic raging, these extreme experiences are happening more often. “We’ve lost so many people that we don’t have enough swings to cover all the roles,” Evans-Krueger says. “We had to split the tracks and rush to change the choreography so the lifts and things worked with less people. It’s a lot.
Be comfortable with mistakes
The whirlwind of swinging is bound to come with mishaps. “There were many times when I went to a track I hadn’t done in a while, forgot the size of the hat I was wearing and hit it so hard with my hand that he flew across the stage,” Lindeman says. So when it comes to professional qualifications, flexibility and a sense of humor are key.
“As dancers, we want to be perfect and do everything right, but there’s so much you can’t control as a swing that you have to be able to move on from mistakes quickly,” says Lindeman. “Most directors, choreographers, dance captains and stage managers understand that it takes a certain type of person to be able to memorize all that information and perform under pressure. It is reasonable to expect errors from time to time. Just do your best and take the time to look back and fix your fixes so you can make improvements in the future.
For Sorrentino, the secret to being comfortable with occasional blemishes is positive self-talk. “As soon as you start doubting and spiraling, those feelings can consume you,” she says. “So I try to stay calm and remember that’s part of the fun of live theater. If I accidentally go out the wrong way, I just write it down so the next time I do that bit, I’m sorry. remember,” she said.
A different kind of essential
To swingers who feel isolated by the incoherent nature of the work, Lindeman encourages a shift in perspective. “Each time I’m called on stage, it’s an opportunity to create new relationships,” he says. When Sorrentino isn’t performing, she likes to sit in a space below the stage where the other cast members walk through the stages and say hello, as she watches the show from a monitor there. “I just try to interact with people as much as possible,” she says.
Still, Evans-Krueger says she doesn’t mind being on the periphery once in a while. “Whenever I’m not performing, I can watch and learn from the most amazing artists,” she says. “What’s happening on Broadway is beautiful – and I know I’m an important part of it.”
Choreography retention procedures:
It can be hard to remember a routine you haven’t done in weeks. Veteran swings suggest performing the show offstage to build muscle memory. “When I’m not on stage, I’ll walk the entire floor up and down, either in the dressing room, the rehearsal room or even in the lobby of the theater,” says swing Colby Lindeman. “All the swings will come together for this and it will become an unofficial swing rehearsal.” Bad takes place in a theater with monitors in each of these places, which makes it easy to follow the progress of the show.
Essential memorization tips
There are often subtle differences in choreography and staging between tracks in a show, and one of the best ways to learn them is to use tracking sheets (think flash cards) with abbreviated descriptions of every artist you cover. Here are some tips for using them effectively:
• Use a tracking sheet medium that works for you and your learning style, whether it’s writing your notes as bullet points, typing them on your iPad, or using photos from the scene to orient you.
• Review your tracking sheets before each show you perform in, as well as backstage between scenes.
• Study your tracking sheets one by one. “I screwed up trying to learn everything as fast as I could,” says swing Tilly Evans-Krueger. “So I moved on to just focusing on one track, and once I continued, all the others I had passively tracked in my mind came together like a puzzle.”