[This article was originally published in 2018.]
January 19 is National Swing Day, so in honor of our heroes waiting in the wings, Playbill is celebrating all the wonderful things to know about the role.
Flipping through the section of Who’s Who in your Playbill, you may see multiple cast members credited as “Swing.” 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.
The number of tracks depends on the size and diversity of the ensemble. For example, a male swing on the first national tour of Kinky Boots covered 17 total tracks, but in other shows that number can be more like five. When a swing goes on in place of the regular company member, they must execute the track exactly—so even if the swing typically sings mezzo on their own, if the track is an alto, the swing sings the alto line, they say their lines, execute their choreography.
Remembering all of the lines, blocking, choreography, vocal harmonies, and backstage traffic for numerous roles is the “easy” part; it’s the emotional rollercoaster that makes swings such heroes. While swings often receive advance notice of when they will go on, other times they find out only minutes before heading onstage—just like understudies for principals. The most impressive thing about a swing is the ability to stay calm in a high-stress situation. With so much knowledge in their heads, swings often know the show more intimately than anyone else onstage.
1. There are more swings on Broadway than you think.
As the runs of Broadway and touring musicals have gotten longer over time, the prevalence of swings has become even more important. This is because the longer that a show runs, the more likely that an actor will be out of the building due to vacations, medical leave, or personal days.
As confirmed by Actors Equity Association, during the 2017–2018 season 1,004 performers were contracted as chorus members on Broadway and 323 of them were swings. (Fun fact: Two of those actors have been swings on multiple productions this season: Halli Toland and Michael Williams both worked on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory before joining the casts of Carousel and My Fair Lady, respectively.)
2. Swings often go on for more than one actor at a time.
In an industry where “the show must go on,” sometimes—due to illness, injury, etc.—shows don’t have the correct number of players to fill all of the roles. If there are fewer performers available than onstage tracks needed, swings are required to perform multiple tracks simultaneously. In fact, this is so common that there’s even a term for it: “split track.”
J. Austin Eyer, who literally wrote the book on swings titled Broadway Swings: Covering the Enssemble in Musical Theatre, had to cover for three actors during the same performance of the Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying: “I started off as Mr. Gatch who had a couple of scenes in the beginning of the show and then is fired. Then I switched in the next scene to a different track, Benjamin Ovington, who was hired to replace Mr. Gatch and then is immediately fired—I was fired twice in a matter of five minutes. I’m sure the audience was like, ‘Why do they keep hiring this guy?’”
3. Swings can cover roles originally cast as the opposite gender.
Depending on the show, swings may be needed to cover all of the ensemble tracks of both genders. The seven swings of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 covered all 20 of the ensemble tracks—regardless of gender.
“We covered both genders because the ensemble tracks were interchangeable that way,” says The Great Comet swing Mary Page Nance. “There weren't many moments in the show that were gender-specific.”
4. Swings can be contracted by multiple productions of one show simultaneously.
Universal swings are responsible for knowing ensemble tracks in multiple different companies of the same show. This means they know all of the blocking, dance, vocal parts etc. for all the roles they cover on Broadway, on tour, and even on select international sitdowns or tours.
“I have to know what all of these men do in the show—all of their choreography, all of their blocking, how their set moves,” says Antuan “Magic” Raimone, one of the male universal swings for Hamilton. “I have to know what each of those six men do, and that exists for all the companies. I’m currently in New York, but I could be sent to any of the other three Hamilton productions across the country.”
Though each company technically performs the same show, over time, each of them develop nuances to accommodate a different set size, or ensemblists showcasing various solo moments. Not to mention, tours are notoriously difficult because the show—especially backstage quick changes, prop settings, traffic patterns—adapts to a new space in each city.
5. Swings are among Broadway’s most in-demand performers.
Some of Broadway’s most sought after ensemblists make their careers as swings. Their ability to remember details, execute with precision and safety, all the while giving a top-notch performance render them desirable—and highly employable—company members.
“Anyone who hires swings knows you need them to be true triple threats,” says Eyer in his book. “You need someone who can lift the girls, carry a scene, dance all of the steps, and sing both the high A the low B. Swings stay calm under pressure and learn to be in the moment.”
Mo Brady is co-creator of The Ensemblist.