BY SCOTT HELLER
it was a Friday afternoon on a two-show day in a nine-performance week, and Angelo Soriano, a cast member in the hit Broadway musical “Aladdin,” was in his sixth-floor dressing room, not yet sure what he might be asked to do that night. Would tumbling be required? Sword fighting? In the exuberant “Friend Like Me” dance number, would he make a comic appearance as a game-show host (in aqua spangles) or be one of the waiters (in red)?0:372:28Soriano and fellow swings demonstrate choreography for ‘‘Arabian Nights,’’ ‘‘Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim’’ and ‘‘Friend Like Me.’’Video by Sasha Arutyunova
As what’s known in Broadway parlance as a “swing,” Soriano is paid to master a head-spinning 14 roles, though he is never certain he will go onstage in any of them. With a 12-member male ensemble powering through aerobic choreography, there will always be injuries. Add in vacations, and the flu, and the complexities of running a multimillion-dollar Disney show, and you need agile replacements who can sing, dance and not trip over one another while brandishing scimitars in one scene, nailing an exuberant nine-minute tap-heavy number the next.
His job is to make that possible, to know — in his head and his body — a dozen dance roles, or “tracks.” Since he joined the cast four years ago, Soriano has been in “Aladdin” for more than 950 performances. “You make yourself invaluable,” he says simply.
One way to do that is to be comfortable with anonymity. Yes, when you’re in the show your name goes up on the board in the lobby (Also appearing in the ensemble: Angelo Soriano). But backstage the track is identified with the performer who handles it regularly (“You still doing Dickey today?” “I’m Dickey both shows”).
If he’s lucky, and things go wrong — meaning right for him — Soriano will get to take on a part with a name in the Playbill, a role with lines that get the audience laughing, like Omar or Iago, the rotund sidekick to the evil Jafar. But that’s not today — at least not so far. He is paid to stay in the New Amsterdam Theater in case he has to go on. He could be texted at any minute to pick up any of the 14 roles. But when that doesn’t happen, he has to stay practiced at another aspect of the Broadway swing’s skill set: waiting.
Inside the New Amsterdam, they call “Aladdin” a “government job,” as it’s still running strong after five years. Disney treats its employees well, and per the union contract, ensemble members earn a minimum of $2,095 a week; swings get $104.75 on top of that.
Soriano, a 29-year-old Californian by way of the Philippines, earned his Equity card performing at Walt Disney World, where he also met the woman who is now his wife. But even after several auditions, he never got a role in the 45-minute version of “Aladdin” that ran several times a day at Disney California Adventure. Which made it sweeter when, after a year on tour with “Flashdance the Musical” and six confidence-testing months of unemployment, he stepped into an audition for the Broadway production and got a job in the musical’s cast. He didn’t know then that Disney wanted him to swing.
“To be a really good swing, you have to have an incredible mind,” Susan Stroman, the Tony Award-winning director, has said. And while several ensemble members marvel at his ability to learn so much material, Soriano doesn’t see himself as remarkable. He’s one of five swings in the show, and he’s always been a multitasker, a visual thinker, a team player. “Put me in, coach,” he’ll sometimes whisper before leaving the darkness of the wings for the spotlight of the stage.
The night before the two-show Friday, he knew his job ahead of time: the track typically handled by Tyler Roberts, who was “swinging out” for one performance to let Soriano refresh his muscle memory on the most athletically challenging of all his possible assignments. He hadn’t done it in nine months. “It’s my asthma track,” he said. “It’s sometimes hard to sing.” That’s no more true than in “Arabian Nights,” the show’s breathless opening number, which would require Soriano to move downstage in a series of choreographed knee slides. Thirty minutes before curtain, he was on the floor in the wings — stretching his legs as wide as he could, bending his torso forward to loosen his hip flexors — while reviewing reference videos on his phone that pictured, from overhead, how the number would unfold. This is where I’ll be. Then here. Now here. Carry the carpet. Exit with the chicken cage. Enter with the pink cart….
He delivered his one line of the night with a comic sneer: “Go away, filthy beggar!” But his star turn came in “Friend Like Me.” With backstage help, he climbed into a turntable lift that twisted upward from below and deposited him, with a pop, into the can-you-top-this choreography. Dance, smile, exit stage left. Off with the crimson waiter’s jacket, on with the gold-spangled one instead. Tap back onto the stage. Grab a cane. Keep tapping. Big finish!
Soriano still goes on auditions periodically so that the industry doesn’t forget about him, but he’s in no rush to find another job. “As an artist, I have an ego, yes,” he admitted. But the needs of the show come first. “If you ask me to lead, I will. If you ask me to stand back and put my feelings aside, I will.” Being a swing, right now, is just fine. “It doesn’t feel like you’re struggling in New York City,” he said. “It feels like you belong here.”
Scott Heller is the theater editor and deputy editor for Arts & Leisure at The New York Times. Brenda Ann Kenneally is a documentary maker, an educator, a Guggenheim fellow and the author of two books, most recently, “Upstate Girls.” Sasha Arutyunova is a Moscow-born, Brooklyn-based photographer and director.
See Angelo Soriano (maybe!) in “Aladdin,” at the New Amsterdam Theatre