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While the stars of Broadway settle back into the routine of show openings and media appearances, New York’s legions of actors are returning to off-Broadway productions and new support openings as swings, understudies and standbys. We caught up with actors performing on W42nd Street in Hell’s Kitchen this week to hear about their comeback season.
The Music Man’s Kathy Voytko recounted the fateful day she learned — after 3 preview performances and no understudy rehearsal — “Kathy, you’re on for Sutton”.
Voytko was at a midday costume fitting when she was told by the designer, “Kathy, call your stage manager.” “I had that feeling in the pit of my stomach and I called him and said, ‘Heeeey, Thomas’,” she recalled. When he told her leading lady Sutton Foster had tested positive for breakthrough COVID-19, Voytko voice-texted her husband, “because I couldn’t hold the phone, my hands were shaking too much to text, and I said, ‘Hi I’m on for Sutton, say a prayer, bye!’.”
Voytko powered through a lighting-fast rehearsal for the role — “going through everything only once, we maybe did the tap twice,” before she had to step onstage alongside Hugh Jackman for thousands of eager theatergoers. “Hugh said, ‘Forget about perfection, let’s just have fun’.” Voytko would go on to deliver a star-is-born performance so mesmerizing that it inspired Jackman to publicly congratulate her (and the other understudies, standbys, and swings) at the curtain call.
Over at Theatre Row, the J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company is wrapping up the final weekend of A Class Act, an Our Town-style telling of A Chorus Line lyricist Ed Kleban’s life through his own memorial service. Christina Carlucci and Andy Tighe, two of the principal actors in A Class Act chatted about the strange phenomenon of returning to the production, which was originally scheduled to open on March 12, 2020. “Doing a show here is surreal, cause it’s like, ‘Oh we’re, we’re performing right now on 42nd Street,’” says Tighe, who plays Ed Kleban.
The return to both performing and performing in New York is poignant for both actors, who said that many in the business find the majority of their work outside the city. “I will say that it tends to be, unless you’re one of the lucky few people — I think about 50 people in the industry truly work consistently in New York City,” said Carlucci, leaving the majority of actors to be “in the city to leave the city.”
Tighe noted “it is quieter here and a lot of people have moved,” but there is still a local community of actors auditioning in town, despite the constantly shifting guidelines of virtual and in-person casting calls. Carlucci has since relocated to Florida, but enjoyed the chance to return to New York, saying: “It feels like a regional contract for me without it being a regional contract, because I’m able to be in the city that I lived in for 12 years.”
At the Laurie Beechman, Ben Cameron greeted the sold-out Broadway Sessions crowd with a rallying cry for returning audience members. “When you see those slips of paper that say ‘the role of X will be played by Y’,” said Cameron, “I want you to clap and cheer and scream!”, as rapturous applause broke out from an audience filled with swings, understudies, standbys, and the grateful theatergoers who love them — all gathered to celebrate the unsung heroes of Broadway (perhaps in defiance of embattled Broadway League president Charlotte St Martin).
For these actors — many returning to the shows they played pre-pandemic and others opening brand new productions — there was the additional hurdle of needing to learn (or re-learn) multiple roles. While understudies regularly stepped into shows pre-COVID, the frequency of their performances has exponentially increased as producers try to avoid costly cancellations.
Holly Ann Butler, a standby performer covering multiple roles in the Broadway production of Come From Away told Cameron and the audience of her intense transition from performing in Diana to returning to her previous job. Just days after Diana closed, the stage manager of Come From Away called Butler to see if she would be able to step back into the show…immediately. She quickly relearned several of the roles and rejoined the cast, noting that in one recent performance 8 out of 12 available standbys were on stage.
Carlucci and Tighe were also quick to acknowledge the vital role of understudies and swings in A Class Act. “I think that swings are the most talented people in the business. We didn’t have swings before, and now we have 2 incredibly talented people,” who cover all of the roles in the show, said Carlucci. “I’ve worked in many, many, theaters that don’t have understudies, or it’s ‘Oh we’ll have this person ‘understudy’,” adds Tighe. “I mean, the responsibility that you take on when you are an understudy — people don’t realize that you are just as important as the person playing the role every night. Because if they’re not on, it’s you.”
The pressure for understudies to take on significant acting, singing, and dancing challenges was underscored at Broadway Sessions, where Hadestown swing performer Yael “YaYa” Reich detailed their current duties covering a total of 8 different signing parts and sometimes playing the violin, “which I didn’t play before this show.” Reich’s first performance in Hadestown occurred with no official “put-in” rehearsal (where actors get the chance to rehearse with the rest of the cast) and they would end up playing multiple tracks (including one meant for a tenor) in their debut weekend.
The Phantom of the Opera’s new cast member Lindsay Roberts (fresh off a two-show Thursday!) noted the vast number of roles swing performers are expected to know at a moment’s notice. Roberts covers 6 roles in Phantom alone, and previously covered 7 parts on the National Tour of Porgy and Bess.
The need for performers to have a wide-ranging multitude of professional skill sets has hit home not just across Broadway understudies but in the wider theatrical community, where the prolonged COVID-19 hiatus forced many actors to reevaluate their career approach. Some, like Carlucci — who is pursuing her MBA and working at a consulting firm during the day — have earned secondary degrees and begun parallel careers. Others like Tighe are considering a future that might include artistic directing or opening a theater, but for now have decided to lean back into acting full-time.
“Here’s the thing about actors — we are all business people. We’re constantly making connections, we are constantly being our own marketer, we’re constantly being the face of our own company,” said Carlucci. “We’re a lot more business-oriented than people give us credit for, because we’ve been running successful businesses for 10 years — they just happen to be under our names.”
While the landscape of New York theater and its community has irrevocably changed, Carlucci and Tighe noted that theater makers and audiences both long to revive the industry. “I think people are returning to the theater and a testament to that is that our show is sold out,” said Carlucci. “I think people are excited to come back to the theater and I think people are excited to have more shows in New York City,” she added, noting that the lower cost of producing Off-Broadway productions could lead to a renaissance of shows west of 8th Avenue.
Over at Broadway Sessions, Cameron emphasized that New York’s recent theatrical revival was nothing without the return of hardworking understudies, standbys, and swings, who “have always been keeping Broadway alive, but no more so than in the last 3 months,” said Cameron. “We dedicate this performance to Charlotte St Martin!” he cheered, as the crowd went wild.
J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company, run by Executive Director Jim Jimirro and Artistic Director Robert W Schneider (supported by a starry board of Broadway vets), has two additional shows planned for the spring season at Theatre Row (410 W42nd St — corner of 9th Ave) — A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine running February 24-March 6th and The Baker’s Wife running March 10-20th. Per Jimirro, composer Stephen Schwartz (who wrote The Baker’s Wife among other hits like Wicked and Godspell) will be involved with the production.
Now in its 12th season, Broadway Sessions runs every Thursday at 10:30pm at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in the West Bank Cafe (407 W42nd St — corner of 9th Ave).