With COVID outbreaks, Broadway's understudies take center stage
Breakthrough infections from the omicron variant have been spreading like wildfire among casts and crews, so understudies and swing performers have been helping keep shows afloat.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
After being silenced by COVID for a year and a half, Broadway roared back this fall, only to be tripped up by the omicron variant. At one point, half the shows were canceled. And the ones that ran often turned to the understudies, the actors whose job it is to make sure the show goes on.
Jeff Lunden has the story.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HUGH JACKMAN: It humbles me - the courage, the brilliance, the dedication, the talent, the swings, the understudies. They are the bedrock of Broadway. And I want...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.
LUNDEN: Kathy Voytko is a swing on "The Music Man," which means she covers eight roles, including Marian the librarian, the female lead. When she got the call to go on, she only had about four hours on stage to rehearse her part.
KATHY VOYTKO: 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. Except for the blood pounding in my ears and the flop sweat, I actually had a good time (laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF MEREDITH WILLSON SONG, "SHIPOOPI")
LUNDEN: Omicron has created an all-hands-on-deck situation on Broadway. While casts and backstage personnel are all vaccinated, wear masks when not on stage and get tested daily, breakthrough infections have been spreading like wildfire. So it's the subs who are keeping shows afloat, says Josh Breckenridge. He's dance captain and a standby on "Come From Away."
JOSH BRECKENRIDGE: So swing is someone who's typically offstage who covers ensemble roles, right? An understudy is someone who is onstage in their own track who also covers a role. 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME TO THE ROCK")
JOEL HATCH: (As Claude, singing) Welcome to the rock if you come from away.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (As Company, singing) Hep.
HATCH: (As Claude, singing) You probably understand about a half of what we say.
LUNDEN: The situation got so bad at "Come From Away" that the show had to cancel a week's performances before Christmas. And when it returned the day after, eight out of the 12 actors in the show were substitutes.
MARIKA AUBREY: It was a collection of people that have never, ever worked together, and so we were all incredibly focused.
LUNDEN: Australian actress Marika Aubrey was brought in from the tour to play the character of 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.
AUBREY: 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.
LUNDEN: The night was a success, says producer Randy Adams.
RANDY ADAMS: It was everybody pulling together to make it happen. And I have to tell you, it was one of the most joyous things.
LUNDEN: And the story continues. While some shows have closed because of COVID and some, including "The Music Man" and "Come From Away," are on hiatus, most shows are up and running again because of those subs, says Randy Adams.
ADAMS: Understudies, swings, standbys - they are the unsung heroes of every season. 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 Broadway run on a regular basis. But right now they are truly the folks who are keeping the lights on in these theaters.
LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME TO THE ROCK")
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (As Company, singing) Welcome to the rock. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.