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With COVID outbreaks, Broadway's understudies take center stage

The Broadway cast of <em>Come From Away,</em> which <em></em>had to cancel a week's performances before Christmas due to a COVID outbreak. When it returned, eight out of the 12 actors in the show were substitutes.
Matthew Murphy
© 2021 'Come From Away' on Broadway
The Broadway cast of Come From Away, which had to cancel a week's performances before Christmas due to a COVID outbreak. When it returned, eight out of the 12 actors in the show were substitutes.

After being silenced by COVID-19 for a year and a half, Broadway roared back in the fall — only to be tripped up by the omicron variant in the past couple of weeks. At one point, half the shows on Broadway were canceled. And the ones that soldiered on often did with understudies, swings and standbys: people whose job is to perform at a moment's notice to make sure the show goes on.

While casts and backstage personnel are all vaccinated, wear masks when not onstage and get tested daily, breakthrough infections have been spreading like wildfire. So, it's the subs who are keeping shows afloat, says Josh Breckenridge, dance captain and a standby on Come From Away,one of the shows that has recently used standby performers to fill in for sick cast members.

"A swing is someone who's typically offstage who covers ensemble roles, who's ready to go on for any one of the tracks that they cover in the ensemble," he explains. "An understudy is someone who is onstage in their own track who also covers a role; maybe a supporting lead or a lead that is above them in the show. And then a standby, which is what our show is comprised of, is a principal cover. Someone who is offstage like a swing, who covers all the principal roles."

Hugh Jackman praises "the bedrock of Broadway"

At a recent performance of The Music Man, star Hugh Jackman stopped the applause at the final curtain call to praise the understudies in his show, particularly actress Kathy Voytko, who stepped in for co-star Sutton Foster at the last minute.

"It humbles me," he said, as phones throughout the Winter Garden theater recorded his speech. "The courage, the brilliance, the dedication, the talent, the swings, the understudies. They are the bedrock of Broadway." The audience erupted in applause and cheers.

"I mean, these are unprecedented times," says Kathy Voytko. "Every Broadway show is actually going through something similar to this." Voytko is one of The Music Man's swings, which means she covers eight roles — including Marian the Librarian, the female lead. When she got the call to go on, she had only about four hours onstage to rehearse her part.

She recalls: "Hugh said to me, right when I got to rehearsal, 'Forget about perfection. Let's just go have fun and tell the story.' And that actually took the pressure off, too. And that's what we did, and we actually had a ball." And she adds, laughing: "Except for the blood pounding in my ears and the flop sweat, I actually had a good time."

Meanwhile, the situation got so bad at Come From Away that the show had to cancel a week's performances before Christmas. When it resumed on Dec. 26, eight out of the 12 actors in the show were substitutes.

"It was a collection of people that have never, ever worked together. And so we were all incredibly focused," says Marika Aubrey, who was brought in from the show's touring cast to play the character of Beverly, a pilot, and other roles, while two former actresses from the show returned and all three female standbys went on.

Aubrey says the show is carefully choreographed from moment to moment: "If you drop one ball, if you put one chair on a wrong mark, if you forget someone's costume, it does have a ripple effect on all these other people for another four or five scenes." But, she adds, "oddly enough, it was quite a smooth show in that sense, like, there weren't any train wreck moments, not a lot of lines dropped ... It was very finely focused because we knew we had a very high-stakes job to do."

Producer Randy Adams nervously watched the whole production from the back of the theater. Not only were there eight subs onstage, he says, but there were also some replacement members in the band, and the ushers had to add inserts to all the programs so people knew who was playing what parts. But despite the tumult, the show was a success: "It was everybody pulling together to make it happen," Adams says, "and I have to tell you, it was one of the most joyous things."

And it's a story likely to continue for some time. While some shows have closed because of COVID-19, and some — such as The Music Man and Come From Away — are on hiatus until after the new year, most shows are up and running again because of those subs.

"Understudies, swings, standbys, they are the unsung heroes of every season," says Adams. "I think they are being moved front and center at the moment, and we can never thank them enough for all that they do in order to make a Broadway run on a regular basis. But right now, they are truly the folks who are keeping the lights on in these theaters."

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Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.