A much-deserved spotlight has been shined on the usually unsung heroes of Broadway, who are in the theatre every day, there to save the show. Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster have been at the forefront of understudy praise, each on multiple occasions taking time to give them their flowers, like when Max Clayton played the role of Harold Hill for over a week while Jackman was out sick.
From understudies to standbys to swings, all roles serve an invaluable necessity to a Broadway show, but each job is different. Here’s your guide to the unsung heroes of Broadway casts!
The most well-known term when it comes to Broadway covers, understudies are there to go on for a lead role when the main performer is out of the show, whether due to sickness, vacation, or any other reason. An understudy is often in the show each night as their own role, usually playing a part in the ensemble. Understudies can also sometimes be part of the leading cast, a recent example being the 2021 revival of Company, where Nikki Renée Daniels who played Jenny, and Jennifer Simard who played Sarah, understudied the leading roles of Bobbie and Joanne, respectively. You never know, you could be seeing the next great star like Sutton Foster, who originally started off as the understudy out-of-town in Thoroughly Modern Millie, before it became her Tony-winning star turn on Broadway.
Standbys and Alternates
While these terms can sometimes be used interchangeably, standbys and alternates serve the show as offstage covers, not having a role in the performance nightly, but in the theatre, standing by, if a leading role needs coverage. Standbys are quite notably used at the long-running Wickedfor the leading roles of Elphaba and Glinda, with some of the most recognizable Broadway witches like Eden Espinosa, Shoshana Bean, Megan Hilty, and Brittney Johnson all acting as standbys before taking on the roles full-time. Alternates can also serve as performers who are scheduled to take on the role weekly, like with Christine in The Phantom of the Operaor the title role in Dear Evan Hansen, where an alternate has two set performances each week.
The lead is out! Well, the understudy in the ensemble is going on, but who covers the ensemble member? In come swings! Swings, similar to standbys and alternates, act as offstage covers, often knowing many ensemble tracks to be put onstage in various roles at a moment’s notice.
Through illness and unpredictable circumstances, understudies, standbys, alternates, and swings keep Broadway alive, giving stellar performances and bringing joy to audiences all across the Great Bright Way. Have a great story of seeing an understudy on stage? Share it with us on Twitter!
Last updated and effective as of January 14, 2019
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