Broadway Lingo, Part 1

Written by Brady

We’ve all been there, sitting in a theater just as the lights go down, incredibly excited to see that Broadway show you just laid out a month’s salary for, only to hear, “Ladies and Gentlemen, in tonight’s performance the role usually played by…”

Oh, the audible groans and rolling eyes, the building thick with the palpable anger and disappointment exuding from every seat in the theater. And it is in this atmosphere of total despair and hatred where the Broadway Standby lives; not necessarily thrives, but certainly must survive.

But beyond even that; the job is impossible.

Oh, to be a Broadway Standby; I’m here to tell you from experience, it is the absolute worst job an actor can have. But it is also the most awesome.

Every actor dreams of one day being in a Broadway show. For most actors, it is the reason we get into this business in the first place. Even Hollywood’s biggest stars “legitimize” their careers by coming to New York and treading the boards of Broadway. I can tell you for a fact that there is nothing quite like being able to say “I’m in a Broadway show!”

However, for the Broadway Standby, it’s not quite that simple. Yes, you can say you’re on Broadway. Yes, you can put it on your resume and boast of being a Broadway actor, but not really. It’s more like; “I’m in a Broadway show, kind of,” It’s as if there is an asterisk next to it. As if there is a caveat that says, yes I’m on Broadway, but I’m not really on Broadway. I am a “standby.”

But “kind of”, asterisks, and caveats aside, I’m here to say that the Broadway “Cover” (the “standby,” and the “understudy”) are the unsung heroes of Broadway, and “swings” are undeniably the hardest working people on the Great White Way.


Being a “Cover”

For those who don’t know, a “cover” is an actor who goes on for another actor in a show when, for whatever reason, that actor “calls out” of the show and there are three types. There is the “offstage standby,” the “understudy,” and the offstage “swing.” On Broadway there are always two covers for every track. (Here’s a little backstage lingo: when talking to other actors or those in the know, the role you play in a show, particularly an ensemble role, is often referred to as your “Track”. When I was in Lion King I was the standby for the Timon, Pumbaa and Zazu, so I covered those three tracks. )

Principle roles (the bigger parts) can have either an “offstage standby” or an “understudy.” An” offstage standby” is just that; they wait offstage and standby until they are needed. An “understudy” is an actor who already has an onstage part, usually a member of the ensemble, who will then “move up” into the principle role when an actor calls out.

A “swing” is someone who goes on when an ensemble member is out or “moves up” into a role they understudy.

A “standby” or “understudy” can cover just one, or many as three, principle tracks. A “swing” by definition swings in and out of multiple ensemble tracks.

And while I have had the great privilege of actually starring on Broadway, I have also had the even greater privilege of having been both an “offstage standby” and an understudy.”

Click here to read Part 2

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