Musical Theater Swings: Hardworking and (sometimes) Under-Represented

Hey! It’s Justin Keats again here to talk to you about a small group of people in the musical theater world that are under represented and in my biased opinion, totally kick ass. I am, of course, talking about swings. *feigns shock* WHAT!? You’ve never heard of a swing before? Well, I’m not surprised. You’ve probably heard of an understudy and think swings are the same thing. Well, in the world of Broadway shows, swings are a little different. While an understudy is a cast member who knows the part of a lead role, the swing is an ensemble member who doesn’t have their own track - a term meaning someone’s role from start to finish of a show - and doesn’t get to perform the show every night. Instead they wait backstage everyday, ready to go on for any of the ensemble members in the show. They can be required to know as few as two or three tracks, or in my case in Paramour (Cirque du Soleil's Broadway show), any of the twenty-seven different tracks I covered. Yeah you read that right, twenty-seven different tracks. But that’s rare (I promise!) and not the point of this article.

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Let’s talk first about what a swing’s job is in a little more detail. A swing usually learns the show with everyone else in rehearsal. As everyone else is creating or learning their one track, the swing is learning all of the tracks in a show at once. Meaning all the choreographic variations for each track, at the same time. They usually aren’t taught each track one at a time in separate rehearsals. This isn’t so tough when a show is already created and it’s being re-staged, like a national tour of any Broadway show.  Let's be clear, I’m not discrediting it, it’s by no means simple; but it’s pretty straight forward. This is because someone else has swung it before and is probably there to help the new swing find all the patterns and differences for each track. But when you’re creating a brand new show, not only are the swing's trying to learn all the tracks in real time but on top of that, they never. stop. changing. Which makes sense, since the show itself is in a state of constant flux.

...we are kind of ensemble ninjas

With the creation of a new show, numbers are being created, recreated and then tweaked everyday until opening. It becomes a game of feeling good about one number, only to have it pulled out from under you the next day. The choreography, the staging, the props, and the scenes themselves change all the time. Even the music in a new show is being adjusted on the regular.  Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned anything about music for swings. Most swings in a Broadway show are required to learn multiple harmony lines. Yeah that’s right. Swings aren’t only doing something new physically on stage every night, but perhaps also having to sing a new part entirely. I’m sure by now your palms are sweating just thinking about the prospect of attempting this and that’s OK; mine are too and I’ve done it.

So how do people get roped into doing this daunting task? Everyone has a different story and most people probably never considered swinging until they were offered it their first time, but I have always known I’d enjoy it. And if people find out you’re good at swinging, you may be able to make a career out of it because a good swing who enjoys swinging is hard to find. I think being a good swing is based off a few specific abilities within their personalities on top of their performance related talents. To me, good swings are fast learners, organized, can see the big picture of the show, can stay calm under pressure, are pattern oriented, and have a good sense of humor. Some of the best swings I know are the most Type A. Because when it comes down to it, you’re in charge of remembering a two hour long show, on average eight different ways and have to be organized and log that info somehow.

Swing track chart

There is no wrong way to log in the info… if it works. Some make track sheets, which is writing out each person’s track one at a time. Other swings use a few notes and primarily videos and some use charts, drawing out each stage picture and formation. I have tried all these methods and the most successful combination for me is to use all three. I make charts on my iPad in real time as we create the show. As I chart I add notes for specific details on each chart, like who carries what or who crosses in front of whom. Then I take a ton of videos for reference and once the show is set, a swing’s favorite day, I spend the time getting to know each track intimately while I write out their track sheets. I’m a bit of an over achiever… but I am prepared!

Some of the best swings I know are the most Type A

I have personally swung four shows - one for Disney, one for Norwegian Cruise Lines, and two on Broadway: Paramour and Escape to Margaritaville - and they have all been very different experiences.

Disney

Swinging for Disney was great because they gave me all the charts and made sure I had tried everything I was required to perform before I went on to do it in a performance. It was like swinging with training wheels.

Norwegian Cruise Lines

When I swung for Norwegian Cruise Lines, I had already done all the shows I was swinging as a dancer with my own track. This made it easier because I didn’t have to focus on learning new choreography. Instead I just had to learn where each guy went. I was silly at the time and thought I could do all of that in my head without notes. It’s a blessing someone left the cast and I just had to go on for him for a short period of time before my contract ended. I was not prepared.

Paramour

Paramour was the first time I had to figure out how to write track sheets. I thankfully got to learn and perform one full track first, making my Broadway debut. From there it was going track by track. Watching videos and performances. Following the guys backstage. Shadowing them to see where they changed and where they got their props from, when they had time for a piece of candy. You know all the important stuff. It was in the middle of this process that I had my first ever mid-show swing on. The ultimate swing litmus test.

I was upstairs in the rehearsal hall studying my fifth track, at that time I was only supposed to learn six tracks (and the story of how I ended up learning so many more is a dissertation all on its own so we won't get into that), when right after the opening number a stage manager ran into the room and said “Someone fell and twisted his ankle. You’re on!” Of course, it just so happened that it was the only track I hadn’t learned yet. As we are running, and by running I mean jumping six steps at a time, down three flights of stairs, he is pulling up a video for me to watch and telling me when they think I’m gonna jump into the track. I start smearing makeup on my face and putting his costumes on and thankfully he pulled through until intermission but I still did his second act that night. Honestly it was all a blur and I am super grateful to those who were helpful onstage and off. Costumers calling me over, stage managers telling me which props to move where. It was madness. Especially since the first thing for that track was to be a statue for over three minutes fighting all the nervous energy. However, the adrenaline rush of doing such a crazy thing, is wildly addictive. I now find mid show madness a stressful mission to complete and crush.

There were many nights at Paramour where I would be on for multiple people creating what’s called a split track. Where I take the important bits of each track and combine them in to a new one. There was one show where I think we had nine people out of the show and I was combining seven tracks together five of which had important moments in one scene. I became a weird savant in that someone could ask me where anyone was at any given point in the show and I could jump into the video in my head and tell them the answer within seconds. I was obsessive.

Escape to Margaritaville

In Escape to Margaritaville, the vibe was much more chill. I still was obsessive, but without the constantly rotating lineup of injured acrobats, I didn’t have to go on nearly as often and there were much fewer emergencies. Though I still did have at least one mid show swing on. The newest challenge with this show for me was the first time I was suggested to learn both male vocal lines as well. I still primarily sang baritone but if needed I could have sang the tenor line. Some of which was honestly way more fun to sing! The biggest challenge for me was that the entire show was prop heavy. Almost every time we entered or exited the stage we took specific tables and chairs with us. It was all meticulously choreographed who took what and exited in what order. It’s these challenges though that keep me interested and active in a show. I don’t ever feel stagnant and I’m never bored.

Justin Keats - Escape to Margaritaville

If, after reading this far, you could see yourself swinging, there are a few things you need to know. I have maybe romanticized it a bit and made it seem like a musical theater adrenaline junkies dream - but the reality is it’s not always that glamorous. It at times feels thankless. Sometimes you have cast members who look down on you because they think swings “weren’t good enough to be onstage every night”... which is of course hog wash. You also sometimes get overlooked by producers. When “the entire cast is performing” on whatever special appearance, that doesn’t always mean you are performing with them. It’s also rare you’re a part of the press photos. This is part of the gig though. You have to know it when you sign your contract that you’re job is not to be the guy front and center, unless the guy who normally front and center can’t do his job that day and you better try to nail it because sometimes people hate when swings go on.

Many performers who are onstage every night get very used to how their show feels; and when a swing goes on, it can affect their usual rhythm. They have to make little changes for lifts or slightly change spacing or forego little moments that they have created with the cast member usually in that part. You also - and this is the hardest for me - almost never have a perfect show. Something small will always go wrong that maybe the audience won't see and I’ll beat myself up over it, but sometimes big things happen. A lift goes poorly, or you exit the wrong wing (nightmare), or you do something to stop animation (full night terror). It’s a tough thing - you’re constantly wanting to be beautiful onstage, but sometimes you don't feel that you are able to because you don’t perform with everyone as often as you would like. Things may not go as smoothly as you hope. That’s why I’m a little insane when it comes to rehearsing myself as a swing.

If the [...] audience didn’t notice a swing was on, then it was a success

Every major show I’ve swung, if I’m not on, the first month or so you’ll find me doing the show backstage with the cast in a different track every night. I also love to play swing games with other swings. I’ll ask at a random moment in the show “Where is so and so right now and what’s their next move?” And they test me in the same way. I’ll also surprise people with cue lines in the halls to see if they can respond to a scene without notice. I need to make sure that I am not going to be the one to bring the show to a stop. I’ve had acrobats yell at me to “MOVE!” as they flipped almost onto me and after that, I vowed I was never gonna be in the way again if I could help it.  

Another one of my favorite stories is when I and another swing were on and mid number we switched tracks by mistake and didn’t realize until we went off at the end of the number, with different partners than we should have been with. This is where everyone has to laugh. Swinging is hard and humor makes it feel doable. If the show doesn’t stop, no one gets hurt, and the audience didn’t notice a swing was on, then it was a success. From a nerdy way of thinking about it, we are kind of ensemble ninjas.

I hope that after reading this, swinging is at the very least something you’re now familiar with if not interested in trying. My biggest hope is that it brings respect to those who are doing it. I’ll never stop being an advocate for swings and for them to be valued by the entire cast and crew. In fact, I made an Instagram account dedicated to swings called @Swing_Sunday If you are a regularly tracked ensemble member, I encourage you to try and be excited to dance with someone new. Be patient when you have to do a lift call before a show. Be encouraging and helpful in a nice way if a swing is in the wrong. Be communicative. Just be aware that while you’re doing what you normally do the swing next to you is thinking non stop about not only what currently is happening but also thinking two moves ahead. Kindness goes a long way and we are all in this together trying to make the most beautiful experience for the audience. It takes all of us to have a great long running show. If as a team we work hard to make the show run smoothly then we are letting an audience witness some true theatrical magic without them even knowing it’s happening. So with that, to all my past, present and current swings, I say, “stay strong and swing on!”

About the author

A competitive dancer for ten years, Keats then made the leap (probably a switch second) to college and after earning a BFA in performance dance from the University of California, Irvine, he made the jump (Sauter de chat for sure this time) from working as a parade performer for the Disney corporation to dancing on cruise ships. After a year at sea, he taught as a guest artist in residence for a semester at Colorado Mesa University. Since moving to New York, Keats has been fortunate to work regionally (Pioneer Theater/ Sacramento Music Circus/ Alabama Shakespeare Festival/ La Jolla Playhouse) as well as performing in New York with Radio City's Christmas Spectacular (fittingly as the Sugar Plum Fairy Bear) and on Broadway in Escape to Margaritaville and Cirque Du Soleil's Paramour. He is a passionate, full out dancer who enjoys cultivating an entertaining life in NYC.