One thing that you should understand about Broadway is that it takes a lot of well-trained village of craftspersons to make the old mantra — “the show must go on” — actually, go on. And as we all know, it took a worldwide pandemic aka COVID-19, to turn off the lights, with the first Broadway show going dark on March 12, 2020, and it remained dark until it reopened in the summer of 2021.
It’s been a challenging time for all of us, with the Broadway community being hit hard. And just when you thought the virus was under control, the fact of the matter is that many stages on Broadway have been forced to go dark, once more, as the virulent omicron marches across the live theater community leaving producers with the big question — how do we keep everyone safe?
At the time of filing, Broadway wasn’t planning on shutting down ( https://cnb.cx/3sVUQdz) but during the peak, holiday season several shows canceled performances or shut down through Christmas, while at least four — “Jagged Little Pill,” “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” Ain’t Too Proud” and “Waitress” –announced that they were closing for good.
If you’ve wondered how the Broadway community has kept the show running despite the challenges, the answer is simple — it’s because of the swings. What’s a swing? An excellent question — a swing refers to a member of the company who understudies several ensemble roles. These ensemble roles are called “tracks.” The only time a swing performs is if an ensemble member is out of the show or if an ensemble member is covering another role in the show, as many ensemble members also have understudy duties.
Recently the Broadway League President, Charlotte St. Martin had to issue an apology to Broadway swings and understudies for a comment she made in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter (and cited on Playbill, https://bit.ly/3HEaG0A ) about Broadway’s recent COVID-related cancellations, which she suggested were partially due to a lack of “experienced” understudies and swings.
“I sincerely apologize about my recent comments about understudies and swings. I clearly misunderstood and for that I am truly sorry. After speaking with several understudies and swings this morning I realize how this mistake has hurt many people. There was never any intention of disrespect. I do not make theatre but am committed to its success and to acknowledging the immense work of those who bring it to life eight shows a week and 52 weeks a year. Again, please accept my apology,” St. Martin says.
Now, my mind is churning with questions about what it’s like to work as a swing, so I turn my attention to my favorite musical “Hadestown” which reopened on September 2, 2021.
Now, I don’t know what this says about my personality but “Hadestown” is my favorite musical which surprises me, since the story is set around the happenings in the underworld (hell), and the King of Hades (Patrick Page). Maybe it’s the intertwining love stories — that of young dreamers Orpheus and Eurydice, and that of King Hades and his wife Persephone —that pull on my heartstrings. The invitation to venture into the dark, hellish journey to the underworld and back is filled with stirring music by celebrated singer-songwriter and Tony Award® winner Anaïs Mitchell which was developed with innovative director and Tony Award winner Rachel Chavkin. It’s a marvel to watch and the song that knocks me out is “Why We Build The Wall” — sung by Patrick Page. Take a look for yourself fam[ily] as he tears that song up! ( https://bit.ly/3HEqf8i )
To help me understand more about the world of understudies and swings, I connected with swing and dance captain T. OLIVER REID:
, from “Hadestown”, who is also the co-founder of Black Theatre Coalition.
These gfited thespian understudies the roles of Hermes (played by Andre De Shields) and Hades (played by Patrick Page). His other credits include
Kiss Me, Kate; Follies; Thoroughly Modern Millie; Never Gonna Dance; La Cage Aux Folles; Chicago; The Wedding Singer; Mary Poppins; Sister Act; After Midnight; Sunset Boulevard; Once On This Island. TV/Film: The Sixth Reel, “Sex & The City,” “The Blacklist.” Educator @nyugradacting @columbiamfaacting @ridermusicaltheatre @toliverreid
Here’s what T. Oliver Reid had to share about life on Broadway and more. And note, this is his 13th Broadway show.
QUESTION: Congratulations, Mr. T. Oliver Reid on your 13th Broadway show, lucky 13!
T. OLIVER REID: Thank you. 13.
Q: These days, I have to ask. What’s your pronoun? He/Him?
Q: Got it. And besides being an understudy for the role of Hermes (played by Andre De Shields) and King of Hades (played by Patrick Page), you are also the dance captain? Sleep much? I don’t know what it says about my personality but HADESTOWN is my favorite musical.
TOR: (laughing) That makes sense because the music is beautiful. Anaïs Mitchell.
Q: Anaïs Mitchell. My favorite song is WHY WE BUILD THE WALL. (Singing)
Why do we build the wall, my children, my children?
Why do we build the wall?
Why do we build the wall?
We build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free
TOR: Are you trying to audition [Hades]?
How does the wall keep us free, my children, my children?
How does the wall keep us free?
TOR : (laughing) I am actually stepping into that role next week?
Q: OMG. I want to see that. Hey, let me share. During the height of the pandemic when Broadway was closed, and there was no one on the streets of one of the busiest cities in the world, I saw a tall, regal man gliding — gliding down the empty street, not on the sidewalk, in the middle of an empty Times Squares — gliding and it was André De Shields ( https://bit.ly/3GefLwm ) — gliding.
TOR: (laughing) Yes, the thing is that he glides in the street. That’s the thing that gets you because it’s not because there are so many people jostling for space on the sidewalk. He prefers the street and when you see him, it’s like there is inertia behind him. There is this consistent movement. It doesn’t feel like he’s walking. It’s like he has been pulled down the street somehow.
Q: Exactly, nice to know that I am not crazy. So, please share with us what’s the difference between being an understudy and a swing?
TOR: That’s an excellent question and the answer differs depending on whom you ask especially since we’ve had these conversations about the roles over the past couple of weeks.
Q: I know, Broadway League President, Charlotte St. Martin had to issue an apology to Broadway swings and understudies for a comment she made in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
TOR: Swings are, in many ways superpeople.
TOR: Swings are the people who are coming in to drop into [vacant roles] to fix things and that goes for dance captains, swings, and covers [understudies] as well. So many times it’s not only about being able to do your job, but it’s also about being able to do this job, and this job, at a moment’s notice.
Q: Mercy, that’s a lot of jobs.
TOR: Yes it is, and it can be for a myriad of reasons. Things get switched, at the last minute, or people get something as common as a cold. And as a dance captain, I need to make a decision as to how this is going to play out on the stage. Who’s going to handle what, so there are all these puzzle pieces that happen nightly on a Broadway show. Now you add the pandemic and people are literally dropping like flies. Even before the pandemic you would have one person come in with a cold and then suddenly, you have six people with a cold, and now you have to figure out who’s doing what in the show tonight. So many variables that can happen and at the end of the day, it’s going to be the swings and the covers who are your defensive line, in many ways.
Q: As a dance captain, do you take your direction from the choreographer ( David Neumann) or the director ( Rachel Chavkin )? What’s the order of command?
TOR: It’s an excellent question and one that needs to be had with Equity [Actors’ Equity Association – https://bit.ly/3r8fgxA ). I take my marching orders from David Neuman, our choreographer as the dance captain. The dance captain literally teaches the ensemble members, any new coming in, any vacation swings, and any replacements and teaches them the entire show.
Q: WHAT? Color me surprised. Sorry, please continue T. Oliver Reid.
TOR: (laughing) For a show like HADESTOWN it’s from the very beginning of the show musicalized, I usually am teaching everyone that comes into the show. They call me side pony as one of the Fates, I will teach the Fates, and as well as the other principals coming in. Luckily, we don’t have that much [cast] turnover but when we have new understudies coming in, yes, I will be teaching Hermes (André De Shields) and Hades (Patrick Page) and a lot of it is not just teaching choreography, it’s also what some of the actings is. The director, and I, work hand-in-hand, and a lot of that stuff. A lot of this is information that occurred while we were in rehearsal for the original Broadway cast. It was me listening to the conversations that the director, Rachel Chavkin was having with the actors, trying to figure out who those characters were through those conversations, so we can continue to build them when those people were not in the room.
Q: Amazing. A lot of inner work is being done on a Broadway show.
TOR: The dance captain does a lot more than just dance work on a Broadway show.
Q: That’s a lot of work. I was having a conversation about you, with a Los Angeles-based producer, and he jokingly asked me, exactly how many paychecks do you receive for all your work? So — how many — so I can report back?
TOR: (laughing) One and sometimes you have to fight for it sometimes.
Q: Color me, more surprised. Something does not feel right to me.
TOR: The interesting thing now [because of the pandemic] we are having those conversations now. A lot of Broadway stars are standing up and sharing that they were swings and understudies. I like being a swing, it works for my brain. This is my 13th show and at the end of the day, I don’t need to be on anyones’ stage. I’ve done it. I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t need, what so many people need, the applause, and all those things that get us on the stage: I’ve had it for so many years and I love it, and this makes sense for me.
Q: HADESTOWN being your 13th show, what did you want from it going in? Do you remember?
TOR: Well, I knew that I wanted to cover André De Shields (Hermes), I wanted to cover Patrick Page (Hades) which meant that I had to be dance captain of the show as well. And that’s exactly what happened, and it was
André said, that the universe is conspiring with you. Now, back to paychecks. When you get down to the brass tacks of it, many people see swinging as the bottom of the totem pole. When you get great swings, you need to pay them because they are going to save the show. When you find a great dance captain who can keep what a choreographer has put on people but sometimes, also put it to counts.
Q: OMGosh. What kind of brain do you have? Amazing, just amazing.
TOR: Thank you. Listen, I have a confession. I only recently found out about the Black Theater Coalition (https://bit.ly/332zdxB )
TOR: (laughing) Where have you been?
Q: I don’t know.
TOR: Well, it’s only about a year old for the outside world to know about it, so don’t feel bad about that.
Q: The Black Theater Coalition “job is to remove the “ILLUSION OF INCLUSION” in the American Theatre, by building a sustainable ethical roadmap that will increase employment opportunities for Black theatre professionals. Our vision is to reshape the working ecosystem for those who have been marginalized by systemically racist and biased ideology.” That’s from the website.”
TOR: Now you know.
Q: Let’s stop here. I would like to do a piece just on The Black Theater Coalition because we all need to know. Ok?
To learn more https://blacktheatrecoalition.org/
To learn more https://www.hadestown.com/#subscribe
Broadway tickets available at www.seatgeek.com/hadestown-tickets or by visiting the Walter Kerr Theatre box office (219 West 48th Street)