Four Musical Theater Dancers tell what it's like to be an Understudy, Swing, and Replacement
La Cage aux Folles
Ensemble and Understudy
Night by night, I go to work in Times Square to play Phaedra â€œThe Enigmaâ€ in the Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles (If youâ€™ve seen the show, Iâ€™m the â€œcagelleâ€ with strawberry blonde ringlets Ã la Nicole Kidman.) The cagelles are a group of 12 dancers wearing sparkly costumes and three-inch heelsâ€”and not just to tip-toe around in. You name it, we do it: leaping, turning, tapping, kicking, jumping, splitting, jump-splitting and flying on ropes in the air. Did I mention that weâ€™re boys?
In addition to performing eight shows a week, once a week, I put on slacks to play Jean-Michel, the son who is about to marry the daughter of a moral crusader. Once a week in understudy rehearsal, that is. If the main actor playing Jean-Michel canâ€™t perform, I must be ready to kick off my heels and play the other side of the fenceâ€”though that hasnâ€™t happened yet.
What an Understudy Is
An understudy is assigned to perform a certain role if the original performer canâ€™t do the show. This includes knowing all the lines and blocking and where all that performerâ€™s costume changes occur. The understudy is meant to study the role the precise way the actor who normally plays the part does it. The understudy doesnâ€™t mimic or imitate, but must preserve the integrity of the choices the original actor has made.
The entire cast depends on the understudy to give the same performance that theyâ€™ve been used to. To go onstage and change the timing or acting intentions would throw everyone off.
How to Become an Understudy
When the creators of a potentially long-running show hold auditions, they keep in mind that they will need understudies. Although some show have â€œstandbys,â€ who cover a role without otherwise being in the show, thatâ€™s not financially feasible in most cases, so they often cast some of the smaller parts with actors who can understudy or â€œcoverâ€ the larger parts.
When I auditioned for the show last year, they decided that I might also be able to cover the role of Jean-Michel, so they gave me his scenes and songs to audition with. There were about four callbacks. The final day of callbacks, I had to arrive in high heels, tights, a ballet skirt, a tank top and full makeup. (I was in the ensemble of 42nd Street at the time and the girls helped me out.) I sang two songs, read two scenes, and did three dance numbersâ€”all as a girl. I then had to quickly change back into a boy to read and sing Jean-Michelâ€™s part. I got the job!
Preparing and Waiting
Since we began rehearsals for La Cage last September, Iâ€™ve learned that when youâ€™re an understudy, no one is going to teach you the role. Often, youâ€™re not even able to watch the scenes youâ€™re understudying as they are being rehearsed, because youâ€™re next door rehearsing something else.
As an understudy, though, thatâ€™s no excuse, because most of the audience doesnâ€™t know how much rehearsal you have or havenâ€™t had. Learn the role backwards and forwards. Do whatever it takes to be ready to perform by the first preview, even if you havenâ€™t started understudy rehearsals yet. After all, you might have to perform before you even have one rehearsal. It happened to another understudy in La Cage who had to go on in the middle of the show when the actor couldnâ€™t continue due to a throat infection.
When you are in understudy rehearsal, donâ€™t treat it like a rehearsal, but like a live performance. It may be the only time you ever do the role. I watch Jean-Michelâ€™s scenes from the wings and visualize everything in my head. I still havenâ€™t played the role, but Iâ€™m ready. --Will Taylor
Update: Will is scheduled to play the role of Jean-Michel when the actor Gavin Creel goes on vacation in July. For updates, visit willtayloronline.com.
â€œHello. We are calling to offer you a position on the national tour of Fosse.â€ I was absolutely shocked to get this phone call. I had been on the replacement list for six months and had been asked to come in for another dance audition the day before the call. I had been on so many auditions I couldnâ€™t keep them straight, and since all New York auditions go by the â€œDonâ€™t call us; weâ€™ll call youâ€ philosophy, it seemed like this offer was a dream come true. Little did I know that the following week would be a nightmare.
The call came on a Wednesday, rehearsals started the next Monday, and by the following Monday I was expected to quit my full-time job, sublet my apartment, say goodbye to friends and family, pack up my life, and fly to California.
The Hard Work
Twelve cast members had opted out of renewing their contracts, so I was one of 12 replacements. The week before we left, we rehearsed from 10 am to 7 pm every day. At the time, I was working as an editor at Scholastic Childrenâ€™s Book Publishing and Distribution, and because I couldnâ€™t give my job the courtesy of two weeks notice, I went into the office after hours to get my work done. In the mornings before rehearsals, I went to last-minute doctorâ€™s appointments and pleaded with the passport office to rush my application. (We were going overseas and needed passports to get work visas.) We learned a huge amount of choreography each day, but because I was so exhausted, I had a hard time remembering it all. Luckily, my fellow replacements went over steps with me.
After only six days, we had learned the entire showâ€”19 official numbers plus transitionsâ€”and set formations with just half the cast (the rest of the ensemble was already performing in California). We also had to endure being called by other names and compared to the people who had our parts before us. I was told things like, â€œMoniqueâ€”I mean, Rosieâ€”you should stand over here.â€ Or, â€œRosie, make sure you hold your arm up high. Thatâ€™s the way Sarah always did it.â€ But I didnâ€™t take it personally. I knew they had a lot of work to do in a short amount of time.
We practiced during every break and ate lunch in 15 minutes in order to spend the rest of our lunch hour working on the moves. We even came in early to go over choreography we had learned the day before.
When it was time to leave, I packed my entire bedroom into two 50-pound suitcases, including clothes for places as different in temperature as California and Alaska. As I found out later, I packed way too much.
Once we arrived in California, we ate, breathed and slept Fosse. Every day we rehearsed, and every night we sat in the audience to watch the show. It was thrilling to think that soon I would be a part of it!
We ended up performing sooner than anticipated, because Darren Gibson, the assistant choreographer, felt like we were ready. We were shockedâ€”the cast before us had six weeks to prepare, and we were being thrown onstage after less than two!
The Big Day
On the day of our first performance, we had rehearsal, but without costumes. I was suddenly terrified, because I hadnâ€™t seen any of my costumes since I tried them on the week before. I had no idea how much time I had to change, and I didnâ€™t even know which shoes went with which costumes. The head of wardrobe told me, â€œOh, donâ€™t worry about it. Iâ€™ll be there to help put you together,â€ but he also had to â€œput togetherâ€ 12 other people who also had no idea what they were doing.
As showtime approached, I became more and more anxious. How could they throw us onstage so soon? I wasnâ€™t ready. There was too much to remember. We had never even rehearsed with the stage lights.
Finally, the pressure was so great that I thought I would explode. I was overwhelmed and needed to cry. I looked around at my fellow cast members, but they all looked like they were about to cry, too. I swallowed my tears and finished putting on my makeup.
It was time. I was dressed in classic Fosse styleâ€”all blackâ€”with makeup on and hair done. I put on my bowler hat and looked in the mirror. I couldnâ€™t believe it. I had made it all the way to a tour of a Broadway show! My costume and choreography worries melted away, and I was ready to perform. I took a deep breath and walked onstage to my place in the spotlight. --Rosanne Colosi
Update: After the Fosse tour ended in December 2004, Rosanne moved back to NYC. This month sheâ€™s preparing to play Alice and understudy the role of Miss Flannery in North Shore Music Theatreâ€™s Thoroughly Modern Millie. She has also recently completed her third childrenâ€™s book, titled Best Friends Forever.
About four years ago, after a year at Walt Disney World working as a Kid of the Kingdom, I decided to make the move to NYC. It was time to audition and get a day job to support myself, so I started interning in the accounting department of DS, putting in about eight hours a week. Luckily, the hours were very flexible.
Getting the Gig
To get the part in Wicked, I went to what is called an â€œopen required callâ€ in June 2004. Broadway shows are required by the union Actorsâ€™ Equity Association to hold auditions every six months, even if theyâ€™re not currently seeking replacements. And since I fell in love with Wicked the first time I saw it, I decided to go to every audition they had. Several months after that open call, at which there were about 200 girls, I got called in for the first of many callbacks. Then, at a callback in October, at which there were around 15 girls, we had to dance for the entire creative team: the director, musical director and even the writers. I still didnâ€™t get the job.
Finally, on January 14, I was one of three girls called in to temporarily replace an injured performer. The first step was to try on costumes and see if they fit with minimal, if any, alterations. The day after the fitting, we each had to sing a song from our audition book for the conductor/musical director. It took just 15 minutes, but the next two days (my cell phone not leaving my side) were the longest of my life.
At 7:30 pm on January 17, the company manager called and invited me â€œto join the company.â€ Of course, the first thing I said to her was yes, followed by â€œwould you mind holding for a minute while I jump up and down and be excited?â€ I couldnâ€™t believe itâ€”my Broadway debut! After four years of performing in regional theater, showcases, filing for unemployment, and going on countless auditions, Iâ€™d made it. A college degree in dance from Point Park College (now Point Park University) and the blood, sweat and tears (lots of them) with my family and all my dance teachers had finally paid off.
Life in the Show
During rehearsals before I opened on January 22, I learned what is called a â€œpartial track,â€ or â€œmini-part,â€ which means that I appear in the large ensemble sections, but Iâ€™m not in the bulk of the show. The girl I was filling in for was an onstage swing, so when she wasnâ€™t performing for someone else, she had a mini-part in the rest of the show. If her partial track has to be cut because she needs to swing another part of the show, it isnâ€™t that
noticeable. Since Iâ€™m contracted as a swing, I learn different parts as needed.
After I started performing and there was time, I learned some of the flying monkey tracks. It was so exciting to fly. I had three flying rehearsals for all four of the monkey parts. One monkey flies over the audience and just that part alone took two rehearsalsâ€”one without wings and mask just to get a feel for it, and one in full costume. I ended up getting to perform three of the four flying monkey parts.
It takes so many people to put this show together. We have three dressers in the female ensemble room who do everything for us. There is even someone who puts my wig on me, and takes it off in the wings when the scene is over. We arenâ€™t allowed to handle them at all since they are so delicate and expensive.
A Dream Come True
I grew up in the dance competition circuit, but didnâ€™t realize at the time how important the relationships I formed then would become to me later in life. Both of the dance captains are alumni from studios I used to compete against, and two of the girls in the ensemble were childhood pen pals whom I met at Nationals. One of my best friends whom I met at Disney is also in the show. --Shanna VanDerwerker
Update: After performing a partial track for four weeks, eight shows a week, Shanna was asked to learn five more parts and perform a full track. Her contract ended on May 8th. She is currently with the show as a vacation swing, which is an â€œas neededâ€ position.
Michael Bolton Tour
After living in NYC for over a year, I started wondering when my big break would come. I enjoy classes, auditions and rehearsals, but they donâ€™t compare to performing before a live audience, so I was thrilled to replace one of two backup dancers in the ongoing Michael Bolton Vintage Tour.
While getting ready for a Halloween party on a Sunday in my apartment in Queens, NY, I received a call from Derrick Evans, one of my former professors at Western Michigan University, where I received a BFA in dance. He said that his friend Everice (Monique) Lindesay, one of Michael Boltonâ€™s backup dancers, needed a replacement for her co-dancer. The next show was in Shreveport, LAâ€”in five days.
Neither of the two dancers had missed a show in three years, and the time crunch for finding a replacement was extremely intense, so Monique was entrusted to hire whomever she wanted. If I wanted the gig, I had to act immediately. I hung up the phone, shared a scream of excitement with my roommate, then called Monique. She explained that Iâ€™d have to learn the choreography and lyrics in the next three days and leave for Shreveport on Thursday. I had never met Monique, but she trusted Derrick when he said I could handle the job, and after just a brief phone conversation, I had the gig.
Rehearsal in a Living Room
By Tuesday, video and audiotapes of the concert had been sent to me and Monique had taught me MichÃ¨le Assafâ€™s choreography, and the songsâ€™ lyrics. We rehearsed at Moniqueâ€™s home, which was coincidentally only a mile from my apartment. After six hours in her living room, Iâ€™d learned eight dances for a total stage time of 47 minutes. Then, I went home to soak in all the information, and decided to â€œtestâ€ myself by showing my roommate the choreography. I hardly remembered anything. I was so nervous!
I met with Monique again on Wednesday. After several hours, I felt confident that I would know the show cold by Friday evening.
On Thursday, I flew with Monique and the guitar player, who also lives in NYC, to Shreveport. They had been doing this concert for years, so they both enjoyed teasing me about listening to Michael Boltonâ€™s music during the entire flight. When we landed, we were taken to the hotel, where I rested for the evening. I was the baby of the group, and definitely well cared for.
The morning of the performance I slept in, watched TV and reviewed the choreography and music in my room until sound-check at 3 pm, when Monique and I rehearsed and I adjusted to the large arena. It was going to be a much larger audience than I had ever performed for beforeâ€”made up of several hundred screaming women. The bandâ€”whose members were from all over the countryâ€”played all the songs for me, even though they didnâ€™t need the practice. I left rehearsal feeling energized and excited.
By 7:30, I was ready for the 8 pm show. Michael Bolton arrived, said hello to the band, then warmed up. While he knew about me, of course, I hadnâ€™t met him yet. At 7:58, everyone met backstage for a huddle. Michael walked in, introduced himself to me, shook my hand, told me that he understood I learned a lot in a very short amount of time and that he just wanted me to have fun onstage. Meeting him helped settle my nerves.
The minute I walked onstage, I felt that rush of energy every performer craves. My nerves subsided and I focused on enjoying performing. For the bow at the end of the show, Monique and I were on either side of Michael. As fans cheered, I looked around the arena and marveled at this unexpected whirlwind of an experience. --Tracy Monaco
Update: Tracy is the official understudy for the Michael Bolton Vintage Tour; she also assists Derrick Evans on choreographic projects.