What Broadway Understudies Can Teach Us

The understudy position is a tradition within the theatre community. An understudy learns the lead role or two, and if the star is indisposed, steps in and performs the part. Some understudies have become stars themselves, among them Shirley MacLaine, Elaine Stritch, Vivian Vance, and Bernadette Peters.

Today the role of understudy is in the spotlight. With the Omicron variant of Covid sweeping through our country, theaters are not spared. Recently Hugh Jackman, starring in a revival of the Music Man, salutedKathy Voytko, who, with eight hours’ notice, stepped into the role Marian the librarian. “The courage, the brilliance, the dedication, the talent,” Jackman said at the close of the performance. “The swings, the understudies, they are the bedrock of Broadway.”

Understudies on stage

Elliott Masie, who produces shows on Broadway,recently penned a piece about the roles of understudies and a term new to me, swings. Swings learn multiple roles and are ready to jump in when needed. 

When Covid struck in March of 2020, Elliott began staging The Empathy Concerts. These concerts have become an avenue for Broadway performers to perform in virtual productions open to the public. It has been an excellent opportunity for singers and actors to keep their craft alive in front of a live (albeit virtual) audience. 

Recently, Allie Trimm, who has performed in an Empathy Concert, assumed the lead role of Glinda in the show, Wicked. As Elliott writes, her parents flew the red-eye from the West Coast to see their daughter perform on Broadway. Thrills for all.

Understudies in organizations

Elliott, who runs a learning, technology, and development company, believes that the roles of understudy and swings have applications to the off-stage world. 

Consider an understudy being groomed for the senior-most roles in the C-suite. Of course, these individuals have to know the business, but they must also possess the ability to lead others, just as an understudy would if she were in a lead role.

Swing performers are vital to the organization because they can move into new roles and responsibilities by virtue of their talent and their capacity to acquire new skills. In addition, they are agile and perfect for a world where change is endemic.

Whether you are being readied for a role in senior leadership or have opportunities to assume new responsibilities beyond your immediate job, the challenge is to be prepared. This commitment to learning requires a willingness to learn and personal growth. Then, like understudies and swings, you learn new skills to assume a new role. 

Understudies in service

There is another aspect of the understudy role: service. Often, an understudy will never assume the lead role, yet as every lead actor knows, someone behind her can step in and do the part. Being an understudy is a commitment to the team. Understudies prepare themselves to step into the role. In doing so, they keep the production rolling, and the audience entertained.

After all, the show must go on!

First posted on Forbes.com 1.29.22