When it comes to “making it” on Broadway, the first thoughts are often of 11 o’clock numbers, Tony Awards, your name above the title on the marquee, and taking the final bow at curtain call every night. While those glamorous rewards can come with the territory, it’s far from the only Main Stem experience. In fact, the majority of performers on Broadway are part of the superhero army of swings, understudies, standbys, and replacements that alone keeps the Great White Way up and running.
These gigs are frequently believed to be a mere breaking-in point to Broadway, the steppingstone to bigger and more principal gigs and originating roles. But that’s actually not true. In fact, many performers spend the entirety of their careers in these positions by choice. Furthermore, these roles are more accurately considered some of the most challenging, not the ones suited for beginners. These are the jobs for theater’s dedicated and strong, and maybe, if you work hard and follow this guide, these are the jobs for you!
What is a Broadway swing?
First things first, swings are not onstage every night. Swings “cover” at least a couple of different tracks, and are ready to step into any of them at a moment’s notice—literally, a single moment.
“A swing is responsible for being ready to go on in a number of given tracks at any time over the course of the run,” says Joseph J. Simeone, a “super swing” in Broadway’s “A Bronx Tale” who once performed three different roles in three consecutive performances. “I have been called to go on in the middle of a show for someone. I have been in the show as the lead for a week or two at a time. On some occasions, I’ve actually been called at half hour to go on for people that I am not ‘paid to play,’ meaning something happens, like someone is delayed in getting there from the airport, and the swing will be asked, ‘Do you know the part? Can you go on?,’ and the swing’s job is to say yes and to make it happen.”
Swings, more so than understudies and replacements, are the most likely to be considered entry-level. But it’s crucial to understand that couldn’t be further from the truth. “As much as people think that being a swing is an entry-level position, the fact of the matter is being a swing is at the opposite end of the spectrum, where the lead is,” Simeone adds. “You have to be ready to carry the show with a moment’s notice and go out there with confidence and bring the show home, whatever role you’re in. That doesn’t happen by working your way up from swing and becoming the lead. That happens on the other way down.”
What is an understudy (and how’s that different from a standby)?
Understudies, unlike swings, are in the show every performance. They are either in the ensemble or play one of the smaller or featured principal roles (in other words, they are not leads). The understudy is tasked with knowing their track, of course, in addition to one of those heftier roles, be it featured or leading. So, to bridge the full circle: When an understudy is called upon to step into one of their bigger tracks, it is then the swing’s job to step into that understudy’s regular track.
On the subject of understudies, an important distinction must be made. There is a sort of understudy-swing hybrid called the standby. Not every show has a standby. These are the actors who, like swings, are not onstage every night. But unlike swings, they cover just one role and it is almost always a behemoth. For example, both of the witches in “Wicked” have a standby (as well as an understudy, who will only be called upon in the event that both the full-time actor and the standby are unable to perform). These actors are required to be within the vicinity of the theater during every performance and able to step into their role—and do it justice, of course—at a phone call’s notice.
What is a replacement?
A replacement is probably the most self-explanatory of these gigs, but to clarify, they step into any given role in a show after it has been vacated by another actor. Replacing is uniquely tough for a number of reasons, no matter how big or small the role. First of all, most replacements will not have the luxury of a full rehearsal process, as one does when mounting a new production. Whether the replacement is going into the ensemble or a principal track, they’ll do most of their rehearsals with an associate director or choreographer in a rehearsal studio, and will have very few “put-in” rehearsals; these are full run-throughs of the show inside the theater with the full cast, though only the replacement is in costume.
Logistical challenges aside, being a replacement—particularly for a well-known role—is challenging due to precedent. Obviously, there is a certain expectation when it comes to many bigger Broadway roles. The new actor has to strike the tricky balance of both paying homage to the original performance while still making the role their own. “It’s the same [feeling] as if an understudy is going on that night, which is, ‘Oh, I’m not seeing the person that originated this,’ ” says Betsy Wolfe, who replaced Jessie Mueller and then Sara Bareilles in Broadway’s “Waitress.” “I’ve seen incredible replacements! I think the most important thing is to say, ‘What are they doing differently, or do I receive this in a different way? Is the truth of the story still coming out? What is the takeaway?’ And then celebrate the fact that different people are going to bring different things to the roles.”
What training and materials do I need to become a swing, understudy, or replacement?
Hopefully, in making the distinction among these different gigs, the materials and training one needs to achieve them are already somewhat clear. But the fact of the matter is, whether you’re pursuing swinging, understudying, or replacing, the means to get there are nearly identical to all routes to Broadway: hard work, luck, hard work, more luck, training, hard work, and did we mention luck? And hard work and training?
- Dance training: This is especially paramount if you want to get cast as a swing. Broadway dancers are some of the best in all of show biz, which means so, too, are their covers. A dancer in the dance-heavy, Justin Peck–choreographed Broadway revival of “Carousel,” Brittany Pollack, tells Backstage how to become a dancer on Broadway. Her main nugget of advice: versatility. “A lot of young dancers today seem to focus on one style of dance,” she explains. “While it is great to excel in one or two, you must be proficient across the spectrum of dance as choreographers and producers look for multidisciplined dancers who can adapt quickly. If not already, I suggest you continue to take classes in all styles. While I consciously made a decision to focus on ballet when I was about 14 years old, I still took late-night dance classes of all kinds. I wanted to be ready and broaden my talent.”
- Acting classes: This should seem obvious, but even if you want to make your career in the ensemble of musicals (meaning very little scene work) you’re still going to be required to act in your audition. Fortunately, because there are somany acting classes out there, you can find one tailored to your needs, meaning specific for your swing/understudy/replacement goals. For the full breakdown on how to find the best acting class for you, check out the Backstage Guide for How to Choose an Acting Class.
- Voice lessons: This, too, should be pretty obvious, but again, even for the less vocally rigorous ensemble roles, you’ll still be required to sing in your auditions. And, as such, if you want to book work, you should of course be taking voice lessons. There are eight tentpoles you should look for in a voice teacher, according to Backstage Expert Arden Kaywin:
- Look for a teacher who has a degree in vocal performance—either a bachelor’s degree or a master’s in music.
- Look for a teacher who has had a professional singing career.
- Look for a teacher who understands the genre you sing.
- Look for a teacher with good ears who is immediately able to identify your bad habits and give you practical tools to undo them.
- Look for a teacher with whom you feel comfortable being vulnerable; working on your voice can be an intense and even an emotional experience.
- Understand what kind of learner you are and keep that in mind when trying out teachers.
- Famous students do not always mean a teacher is good. More often than not, it just means they are expensive.
- If you leave a voice lesson feeling vocally fatigued, that is generally a red flag.
- Headshot: It should come as no surprise that, unless you’re getting offer-only gigs (and even sometimes in that case), you’re going to need a headshot to book a gig on Broadway. Also unsurprisingly, Backstage has lots of guidance on the matter, from finding the photographer to what to wear to the full headshot guidewith everything in between.
- Résumé: Similar to headshots, you’re going to need an updated résumé to land any sort of gig on Broadway. Backstage is here to help you write the most professional résumé possible with our guide on the subject.
What is the casting process?
- Swings and understudies are cast at the start of a production timeline, like all members of the company. The difference is that during rehearsals before performances begin, as well as during previews, the understudies will oftentimes not be rehearsed. (For this reason, performances are sometimes canceled during previews when a principal actor is unable to perform, as their cover hasn’t yet learned the role.) Once the production is up and running, swings, understudies, and standbys will have put-in rehearsals, usually with an associate on the creative team, so they can learn a track. It’s not uncommon for an understudy’s first full-out performance in a track they cover to be the time they actually go on for a performance.
- Replacements are cast as needed. Who exactly will be in the room for their audition is somewhat up in the air. Will Bernie Telsey be on hand to provide feedback for every “Wicked” principal casting, 15 years into the run? Probably not. But will Tara Rubin have a hand in casting the new actors to step into the title role of “Dear Evan Hansen”? It’s certainly likely.
Did any huge Broadway stars start out in these roles?
So many huge Broadway stars have been understudies, swings, and replacements—and not exclusively at the start of their careers.
Tony Award winner (and five-time nominee!) Laura Benanti made her Broadway debut understudying Maria in “The Sound of Music.” Two-time Tony Award winner and star of television’s “Younger” Sutton Foster was a replacement for Sandy in the 1994 “Grease” revival. Two-time Tony winner and 2018 nominee Norbert Leo Butz understudied both Roger and Mark in the original Broadway production of “Rent.”
The list does not end there. Tony Award winner and original “Wicked” star Idina Menzel was a replacement in Broadway’s “Aida” in 2001, after her Tony-nominated role in “Rent.” Speaking of Idina, her standby during “If/Then” was Jackie Burns, who holds the record as Broadway’s longest-running Elphaba (an Idina-originated track), and she also took over for Menzel full-time on the “If/Then” tour. Katrina Lenk won a 2018 Tony Award for her leading role in “The Band’s Visit,” but prior to that she was a replacement Réza in “Once” and a replacement Arachne in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”
And Bernadette Peters (you’ve heard of her?) replaced Bette Midler in her 2017 Tony-winning title role in “Hello, Dolly!” The moral of the story is: You are never “too established” for any of these sought-after gigs. If it’s good enough for Bernadette, right?
Want to learn more? Check out the book: Broadway Swings: Covering the Ensemble in Musical Theatre