Broadway's Swing Set
Chicago swing Jennifer Dunne (far left) standing in for an ensemble member. Photo by Jeremy Daniel, Courtesy Chicago.
There isn’t a time of year that Jennifer Dunne dreads more than flu season. Inevitably, her fellow Chicago cast members begin sneezing, coughing and wheezing, until one by one, they call out sick, leaving little semblance of an ensemble. By then, of course, she’s caught the bug, too. But while everyone else is at home in bed, she’s busy covering for them, sometimes even doing two tracks in one show. “Of course, swings can take days off,” she says. “But you’re really the last ones standing. There have been times when I’ve been told I have to go on and I say, ‘Fine, but you have to give me permission to leave the stage if I need to get sick.’ ”
Swings may have one of the least glamorous and most stressful jobs on Broadway. They’re required to learn multiple ensemble members’ lines, vocals and choreography—and perform them well at a moment’s notice. And whether they go onstage or not, swings are at the theater six days a week. “I’ve had periods of time where I haven’t been onstage in a month and others when I’m on nearly every day for three weeks straight,” says Pippin associate choreographer and swing Brad Musgrove, who has been with the show for two years and covers 13 tracks. “At the beginning of a new show, everyone is healthy and no one takes vacation. And then you suddenly have to go on and you’ve never had a dress rehearsal.” Yet with the ever-changing routine and adrenaline rush, certain kinds of dancers find that life as a swing is their ideal career.
Jennifer Rias (in blue) goes over notes in the dressing room. Photo by Matthew Murphy for Dance Spirit.
Keeping It All Straight
“The first six months are the hardest,” says Aladdin swing Jennifer Rias, who was previously one in Rock of Ages. “During those preview days you just pray that you don’t have to go on.” When Rias knows she’ll be performing, she gets to the theater at least 90 minutes before curtain to do hair and makeup, warm up and review her notes. Most swings use good old pencil and paper to keep track of each song and scene, with copious details on the back about their lines, vocals, choreography and stage directions. “Sometimes I’m really looking at them,” says Dunne, who has been in Chicago for nearly four years. Other times, she says, it’s just a mental checklist she runs through before a show or between scenes.
Once the curtain goes up, the madness begins. “Your head can become really schizophrenic, especially during those weeks when you’re playing a different person every night,” says Musgrove, who has many stories about singing the wrong harmony and sitting in the wrong chairs. For Rias, the biggest stress happens in the wings. “You focus so much on knowing what’s happening onstage that you suddenly realize, Oh yeah, I have a quick change. Who am I supposed to run to and what am I putting on?” The average Aladdin ensemble member wears four different costumes in the “Prince Ali” number alone; one of Rias’ quick changes is just 10 seconds long. “Every night when I get through that song I feel like I ran a marathon.”
Even more hectic is when there are more empty spots than there are swings, forcing them to cover multiple roles in one show. “I’ve gotten into full hair and makeup to come onstage for 30 seconds,” says Rias, “and then run off to change again to do a man’s part just so I could come out and hold up a prop.”
Then, there’s the issue of physical endurance. “You’re always sort of shot out of a cannon when you go onstage because you don’t know how much energy you need to get through the show,” says Musgrove. “It’s a rude awakening when you’re in the middle of the opening number and you’re sucking wind.” Staying in shape is also important to ward off injury, with risk at its highest when inconsistency and adrenaline are paired. Yet cross-training can present a tricky conundrum: Rias explains she doesn’t want to overwork herself at the gym during the day if there’s a chance she has to take the stage that night.
But for as many days as swings spend running around the theater, they spend just as many sitting backstage. For the first few months, this means watching the show from the audience, tracking one ensemble member at a time or going over songs with the other swings backstage. Eventually, they feel confident enough to relax in the dressing room with yoga or a book. Dunne uses the time to catch up on work from her other job as a photo retoucher. “At first you feel guilty,” says Rias. “But then you think about all those sleepless nights or going over parts in your head.” Musgrove adds, “A lot of times people are like, You make money to sit there and not work? And I’m like, No! You’re paid to know every bit of information.”
Rias warming up onstage. Photo by Matthew Murphy for Dance Spirit.
The Highs and Lows
Swings never have to face the number one complaint regular Broadway cast members have: keeping a role fresh after the 300th show. And with all the stress comes extra pay. Equity base salary is $1,861 a week and swings earn an additional $93.05, plus extra union fees. If they cover an ensemble member with a speaking role, they get a $15 specialty fee; if they have to climb onto a tall set, they get $20 for extraordinary risk. These bonuses are in their paychecks every week if they’re assigned to swing those characters, regardless of whether they perform them or not.
Still, swings miss out on many perks. They rarely get to dig deep into a role artistically. And they aren’t in promotional photos, they don’t get much press coverage and if the show is performing at say, the Tony Awards, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be a part of it. “You want to be fulfilled as an artist, but swings don’t always have that luxury,” says Musgrove. “The majority of the time you don’t feel like you’re a part of the cast. Everyone is having this creative experience and you’re there to know where people stand and what set pieces they push off. Opening nights are especially hard when you’re not on. You feel like a guest at someone else’s party.” Mostly, he says, the key to not feeling left out is to check your ego at the door and not to let mistakes define your performance. “You’re not there for you,” says Musgrove. “You’re there to serve the show.”
Dunne likes to remember that being a quick study and having the guts to play a different character every night is a big resume boost. These aren’t practiced skills every performer can brag about when it’s time to audition again. Although most swings don’t climb the ranks to ensemble and named roles within their own productions, they can market their swing skills as a specialty.
Rias wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. “I’ve swung so much that I feel comfortable there. Part of me says I’d be happy swinging forever.” But she doesn’t deny that, “another part of me says I’d like to feel what it’s like to have a role.” Until then, the show must go on.
Swings? There’s an app for that.
Keeping a list of ever changing notes can get really tedious for swings. Many use the app Stage Write, developed by Jeff Whiting, who was the associate director of Bullets Over Broadway. The program allows users to input stage dimensions, set pieces and furniture so they can visualize the stage and keep notes of exactly where they need to be at all times.
Kristin Schwab is
Dance Magazine’s associate editor.