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Broadway’s understudies come through in clutch during latest COVID-19 surge

Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster at The Music Man at the Winter Garden Theatre
Photo by Joan Marcus

As positive COVID-19 test results continue to force theatrical performances to be canceled during what is traditionally the highest-grossing time of the year for the performing arts industry, an unprecedented amount of attention is being paid to understudies, swings (who understudy numerous ensemble roles), standbys, dance captains, and the numerous backstage and front-of-house workers who do everything possible for the show to go on – even under the most challenging circumstances.

Theatergoers may feel disappointed when they notice a white slip of paper inside a Playbill alerting them that one or more cast members will be absent at their performance and replaced by others, especially if a major star is out of the show (think Nathan Lane in “The Producers” 20 years ago).

However, over the past two weeks, “coverage” performers and workers have become the heroes of the theater community, and the ones who may be able to prevent a performance from being canceled after so many others have been sidelined after testing positive. On Sunday, eight of the 12 roles in the musical “Come From Away” were filled by understudies, swings, and even a performer from the national touring company.

“Every understudy on Broadway is a star themselves,” “Company” cast member Claybourne Elder wrote on Twitter after he disclosed that he had tested positive and would be temporarily replaced by his understudy, Jacob Dickey. “No one actor is the whole show. And it’s humbling. Because we all want to think that our performance is singular. And while it’s true that we each bring something unique to a role, the offering that every understudy on Broadway is giving is equal to other performers in the cast.”

That being said, longstanding misperceptions still persist. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League (the trade organization which represents Broadway theater owners and producers), suggested that some newer productions had to cancel performances due to a lack of “experienced” understudies and swings. Martin subsequently issued a public apology after her remark was widely jeered on social media.

“The cancelation of shows is absolutely not due to covers not being prepared,” said Celia Mei Rubin, who worked as a swing, understudy, and children’s dance captain on the Broadway musical “Matilda.” “Covers are doing triple the amount of prep work to cover numbers of people dropping like flies, sometimes at the half hour call on testing day. For St. Martin to even consider implying that show cancelations and closures are due to the very people who are the backbone of the industry, especially at this time, shows that she has no awareness whatsoever of how a show runs day in and day out.”

Lauryn Ciardullo, who understudied several roles in the Broadway production of “Aladdin” including Jasmine, agreed that the closures were not due to a lack of preparation on the part of understudies and swings. “I have gone on for multiple tracks in my career without having rehearsal,” Ciardullo said. “It’s part of the job. It’s your responsibility to be ready.” Ciardullo expressed surprise that shows did not hire more swings upon reopening “despite the fact there is a debilitating virus still around.”

Other industry figures have been more appreciative. During curtain call of the fourth preview performance of “The Music Man,” Hugh Jackman thanked understudy Kathy Voytko, who took over for Sutton Foster as Marian Paroo at the last minute, and praised understudies and swings as “the bedrock of Broadway.”

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