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You’ve heard their praises sung at the Tony Awards, dozens of Broadway curtain call speeches, and across New York’s stages — but what does it take to perform as an understudy, standby, or swing? What really goes on between the moment an actor tests positive and that slip of paper arrives in your Playbill announcing a substitute? W42ST spoke with two versatile Broadway performers about the highs and lows of stepping into the spotlight at a moment’s notice.
For JJ Niemann, working as a swing performer — an actor who must prepare to step in as one of several featured and ensemble roles at any given time — was never part of the plan. Niemann, who studied musical theater at Elon University, hadn’t even covered a role in a college production when he got the chance to audition for a slot as a swing in the Broadway company of long-running hit The Book of Mormon. “I didn’t know if I would be good at it,” said Niemann.
“They called the head of my program and said, ‘You know, JJ is only 21 — is he capable of doing this?’ And she told them, ‘Oh, he will be there on day one with color-coded notes — he’s the most on-top-of it person there is,’” he added. “I’m super Type-A organized, and I love being challenged — and so when I got the chance, I said, ‘I will rise to the occasion!’ — even though I didn’t know that I would love it or be good at it.”
Niemann took to the fast-paced, frenetic cadence of swing life, where he covered as many as 10 roles (also known in the industry as “tracks”) in the show for over two years. “I loved the challenge of wearing lots of different hats,” said Niemann. “It took me six full months to become completely comfortable with every track and all of the logistics and costume changes.”
His Broadway debut came unexpectedly, as he was called in to perform the show for the first time a week earlier than initially planned. “It was great to get all of my nerves out before my family and friends flew up to see my debut,” said Niemann.
When veteran Broadway performer Holly Ann Butler first moved to New York, she had a very particular plan in mind. “When I moved here, I realized very quickly — you work a lot more if you’re capable of doing all the things. So I spent a lot of time during my first couple of years trying to make that happen,” she said. “I tried to be the Swiss Army Knife of actors.”
Performers must navigate a seemingly endless maze of similar-but-just-different-enough choreography, harmonies, lines, costume and scene changes as well as the intricate backstage choreography that keeps cast and crews safe — often without the benefit of rehearsing with a full cast, as swings, standbys, and understudies are generally brought up to speed in solo rehearsals with the show’s dance captain.
“Being a swing is one of the hardest jobs for a lot of reasons — and not just for the task of mentally knowing all of those parts,” said Butler. “The other side of it is that you don’t perform most nights — and there is something very challenging about sitting around and waiting for when it’s time. And when it is time, if you do your job well, nobody notices!”
Though every actor has their own personal system to keep them sane and singing, some longtime performers have taken covering roles into the digital age. “Jeff Whiting — who worked extensively with Susan Stroman as an associate director — got tired of all of the erasing and all of the re-charting and all of the things that he was having to do by hand,” said Butler. “So he invented this amazing app called Stage Write specifically to support the kind of work you do as a swing.”
She added: “That said, I haven’t used it because I haven’t been a regular swing since it was invented. When I was swinging, I mostly learned from my crazy little notebooks full of Xs marking where I stood on stage and watching over my shoulder while practicing from the balcony, which is a little chaotic.”
While Butler began her career as a swing in the most recent revivals of Grease and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying — she found that while she was happy to work and loved performing, she gravitated towards digging into the meat of principal roles.
“My brain works really well for swinging — but I didn’t enjoy that setup as much as being an understudy and standby, which is what I do now,” said Butler. Standbys generally cover a single principal role and “wait in the wings” for the call to go on, while understudies will cover multiple principal roles while sometimes performing an ensemble or featured part regularly. “Even when I was a swing, I was still covering many of the principals. I really love getting to solve the puzzle pieces of being in a principal role,” she added. “I personally find the artistic side way easier, because it’s something you can prepare on your own time.”
For Neimann, several years of swinging the show led to the bittersweet decision to branch out and seek new performing opportunities in workshops of new shows and regional productions. He hasn’t quite shed the white button-up, however, having returned to Mormon as a vacation swing — someone who covers tracks for a pre-planned absence — regularly since Broadway’s reopening.
“It feels like coming home,” said Niemann. “It’s a cliché but it really is like riding a bike — whenever I’ve come back I have been so blown away at how much my body and my mind retained.”
Butler had her own recent Broadway homecoming. After closing the run of new musical Diana, she was asked to return to her post as a standby in Come From Away to cover Omicron-related absences — with barely 48 hours notice. “We finished Diana on a Sunday,” said Butler. “On Tuesday night, I got a text from the resident director of Come From Away saying, ‘Hey…realistically, how many days do you think it will take you to be back in the show?’. An hour later he was like, ‘Hey…can you come in tomorrow?’” With one afternoon rehearsal, Butler was back onstage by the evening’s performance.
“Creative teams see that you have swing experience on your resume and they’re like ‘Oh, you’re really useful to us,’” said Butler. “But the other side of it is — a lot of times they won’t bump up a cover to a full-time principal role when there’s an opening, because they’re way more valuable as an understudy to multiple tracks — replacing one part is teaching one person one job, but if they replace an understudy, they have to teach someone four or five jobs.”
“I’m so glad that there’s been such a spotlight on swings and understudies,” said Niemann. “Before the pandemic, many people didn’t even know what these positions were — and now, when you have Hugh Jackman calling out Sutton Foster’s standby and going viral — there are people that will see it and go, ‘Maybe that’s a job that I want to do.’ And it’s proof that being a swing or standby or understudy is absolutely not a lesser job.”
Butler and Niemann are grateful for their experiences as understudies and swings — but how do they carve out the next phase of their careers in an industry where it’s easy to be labeled as a Swiss Army Knife only? Turning down swing and understudy jobs “is a scary thing to do,” said Butler. “We’re taught from the beginning of our careers to say yes to everything, and to get to the point where you can say, ‘No, thank you very much,’ is terrifying.”
Despite the risks, both actors are looking ahead toward forging new creative paths for themselves, where they hope to originate more new roles and be a part of the creation process. In Butler’s case, her skills as a versatile performer already served such a purpose when during the workshops of Diana, the creative team decided to significantly expand her role based on her unique skill set. “I started with one scene, but it was this one scene with these amazing one-liner jokes. And as it grew and they put me in more and more, one of the writers said to me, ‘We knew we had you, so we could keep writing stuff because we knew we could trust you with it,’” she said.
While developing their already impressive careers, both Niemann and Butler have focused on expanding audiences’ understanding of Broadway behind the scenes. Butler has developed a new cabaret (recently debuting at 54 Below) recounting the many adventures she and her coworkers have had as understudies, as well as performing a selection of songs from the roles she’s covered over the years: “I wanted people to see that understudies are kind of these like weird superheroes in our business,” she said.
Niemann is attracting a prolific following on TikTok, where “I’ve been able to pull back the curtain on Broadway” with backstage videos. “I think for a lot of people, theater seems so elite and elusive — I like that I’ve been able to show that Broadway actors are literally theater kids — we’re all nerds, we’re silly, we’re goofballs. Yes, it’s a job. Yes, it’s work. Yes, it’s hard. But it’s also fun!” said Niemann. He’s received many responses from fans who now feel inspired to audition for their own shows. “I like to show people that it’s not untouchable and it is possible,” he added.
They both say the best way to experience the magic of swings, standys, and understudies is to support them when they make a surprise appearance. Butler recalled one evening at the theater where she did a bit of gonzo understudy marketing: “I had a friend who was the standby for James Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors — and though James Corden barely ever missed, I ran to the theater the day my friend was going on. I was standing behind this couple who were debating whether they should try to get a refund or not, and I turned around and told them: ‘You’re going to want to see this show, he’s going to give a great performance!’ And even though they were they maybe a little frightened of me, they found me in the audience after the show specifically to say, ‘Thank you so much for convincing us — he was so good!’ And I was like ‘Yeah, they don’t just hire anybody!’”
Butler added: “I get it — especially with celebrities it’s hard — you go to see Patti LuPone in Company because you want to see Patti LuPone in Company. But you can still enjoy the show, even if you’re sad to miss the star. Even if there is a big star in the role, the understudy will usually be a Broadway star in their own right!”