by Sara K. Dean
SBMT Executive Artistic Director

The landscape for theatre has changed drastically over the past year. One of the ways that we at South Bay Musical Theatre have improved our practices is through the inclusion of understudies in all our productions. As many Broadway productions are hit with a wave of Covid, the positions of the understudy, swings, and standbys have been heralded as the “bedrock of Broadway.”

SBMT recruited understudies most recently for Shout! The Mod Musical and Company, and we are building them into the soon-to-be-announced cast of On The Town. Some people refer to understudies as “Wonderstudies,” because they are always ready to go—diligently working on memorization of lines, harmonies, and movements.  It takes a lot of dedication, concentration, and commitment to fully engage as an understudy. 

Natalie To wins Legacy Robe for Shout

Understudy Natalie To (left) is announced as winner of the Legacy Robe Award at Preview Night for Shout! The Mod Musical as her sister Understudies Jessica Whittemore, Mylissa Malley, and Kimberly Kay applaud in appreciation. Photo by Steve Stubbs.

At our final Company rehearsal prior to the holiday break, two understudies stepped in to fill in for absent personnel: Alison Starr ran Act Two in the key role of “Joanne”—and nailed the song “Ladies Who Lunch” without ever having a chance to walk through it previously. She worked on her own, developing her portrayal by attending rehearsals with Director Vinh G. Nguyen and Grace Colón, who will portray the character when the show opens January 29. In addition to serving as understudy for “Joanne,” Alison covers the roles for “Sarah” and “Susan.” Similarly, Leo Lopez, who covers for both “Larry” and “Peter,” ended up stepping into the role of “Paul” for the evening. 

Alison said this about her experience: “It’s really an honor to be an understudy. Such a challenging and exciting process. Every night in rehearsals, I’m always learning something new, ALWAYS!”

Cordelia Larson (our understudy for “Jenny” and “Amy”) said “It’s been an incredible experience every step of the way,” and Lauren Berling (understudy for “April” and “Marta”) echoed with “It’s an absolute honor to be an understudy for Company!

Our cast for Shout! The Mod Musical was the groundbreaking group to cover an SBMT show. It was no easy task, as Shout was all-singing and all-dancing for the entire show! Kim Kay (“Orange Girl”), Mylissa Malley (“Yellow Girl” and “Green Girl”), Jessica Whittemore (“Blue Girl”) and Natalie To (“Red Girl”) were extremely dedicated, and each one had to step in for their roles during the rehearsal process. Natalie commented, “Being an understudy for Shout was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done!” Mylissa added, “I’ve always enjoyed being an understudy/swing, but the prospect of going on is always a terrifying one.” But they were both ready. 

Swing, Understudy, Standby: What’s the difference?

  • A Swing is a performer who covers many different ensemble roles. They do not perform daily in the production, but attend every performance, just in case they need to go on. They must be ready within a few minutes to fill a track. A Swing usually covers four to five ensemble tracks. If an ensemble member gets injured or sick mid-show, the Swing can go on within a few minutes.
  • An Understudy is usually a member of the ensemble that would learn a featured or principal role, and be ready to go on at a moment’s notice. They are required to learn the main performer’s movements, lines, songs, and choreography. Often Understudies will have advance warning when they are filling in, but other times they have little notice. (Once, when I was working on Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the Narrator got sick mid-show, and her Understudy went on—with no rehearsal!).
  • A Standby is a non-performing member of the company and usually learns one to two principal roles. The standby attends all performances and waits just in case a principal role needs to be filled. For example, when The Lion King opened on Broadway, Disney employed two Standbys—one for “Scar” and “Mufasa,” one for “Timon” and “Pumbaa.”  

The shows at SBMT this season are particularly challenging to understudy. Both Shout and Company have challenging harmonies, and—especially if you are tracking more than one character—keeping on top of who sings what takes intense concentration and focus. Company Understudy Don Nguyen noted, “I feel ridiculously lucky to be an Understudy for a Sondheim show at SBMT with Vinh G. Nguyen as the director. He is so innovative, and there’s always fresh staging and ideas at every rehearsal.” We are currently in the process of casting for On The Town, which has extensive dance tracks for many of the characters. 

By the way, many of our key behind-the-scenes players have Understudies, too! Volunteers Barbara Weismann and Reggie Reynolds learned the jobs of follow spot operator and Assistant Stage Manager for Shout.  For Company, Braden Taylor will have the herculean task of learning two Assistant Stage Manager tracks (and how to call the show) while covering for the Stage Manager. Even Debra Lambert, our Keyboardist & Musical Director on Shout, had an Understudy!  

Thank you to all for stepping up this year! While safety is always at the forefront of our choices, having Understudies allows the show to go on. 

(Now, if only I could find a cover for me!)