After an unprecedented post-shutdown Broadway season, the theater industry held hope that the Tony Awards would honor the understudies, swings and standbys who keep the industry afloat. Rumors swirled that nothing was going to be done, and Harvey Fierstein even tweeted a tribute for the ceremony to use at will.
Host Ariana DeBose broached the subject about 20 minutes into the ceremony. “I want to give a round of applause to the people who played a vital role in keeping Broadway shows open these past few months: the understudies, the swings and the standbys,” she said.
“And let’s not forget the stage managers and the associates and the dance captains who rehearse them to go on at a moment’s notice,” she continued. “Or the hair and the costume associates who get the looks together or the musicians who, by the way, sometimes play scores they have never seen before — that’s a feat. I could go on and on because a show is put on by many people.”
It was fitting that the ceremony’s mention of understudies (who already perform an onstage role and also cover a major role), swings (who are offstage and ready to cover an ensemble role) and standbys (who are offstage and ready to cover a principal role) was led by DeBose. The actor started her Broadway career as an understudy in “Bring It On: The Musical,” “Motown: The Musical” and “Pippin” before her standout roles in “Hamilton,” “A Bronx Tale” and “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” the last of which earned her a Tony nomination.
“I’m really passionate about this because I was an understudy,” DeBose added. “In fact, most of the dancers in our opening numbers have been going for understudies during the tenure of their careers.” (DeBose’s opening number also included a few lyrical mentions of these performers, with sentiments like, “You know the show would never go on if we didn’t come together as one.“)
Though understudies, swings and standbys usually go unmentioned at the Tonys, this salute was notably brief. “And now I will get off my soapbox,” DeBose then said before introducing the ceremony’s next pair of presenters.
The short shoutout caps an unpredictable season, during which productions have attempted to avoid canceling performances amid emerging COVID-19 variants. Though all actors and arts workers are vaccinated, wear masks offstage and get tested daily, breakthrough infections still occurred and regularly utilized a mix of understudies, swings and standbys. It became common for a group of people who had never before performed together to do so without much warning, even covering multiple roles in a single show for the first time.
Sometimes, the coverage plan was particularly unique. “The Music Man” understudy Kathy Voytko went on for lead actor Sutton Foster with only a few hours’ notice and a single same-day rehearsal; “Hadestown” swing and dance captain T. Oliver Reid stepped in as a Fate, a role not usually played by a male actor. Carla Stickler, a former “Wicked” understudy who has since become a software engineer in Chicago, was flown to New York to play Elphaba for the first time in seven years. Numerous “Moulin Rouge!” cast members who had tested positive for COVID-19 returned from their required 10-day leave early and performed in the musical while masked.
Still, some productions were forced to cancel single and multiple performances at a time, or close altogether. It didn’t help when Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin guessed that “the newer shows maybe have understudies that aren’t as efficient in delivering the role as the lead is.” (Martin has since apologized for her comments.)
Despite the broadcast’s quick hat-tip, numerous winners specifically thanked the understudies, swings and standbys in their acceptance speeches throughout the ceremony. “Take Me Out” featured actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson thanked his understudy Tim Wright by name, and “Company” featured actress Patti LuPone said, “A huge gratitude to all of the understudies across all of the stages in New York, and all of the COVID safety people.” And while accepting his award, “MJ” choreographer Christopher Wheeldon said to the group, “I bow to you, thank you.”
Additionally, presenters Marcia Gay Harden and Skylar Astin read out the Broadway League’s gratitude to productions’ COVID safety managers, 150 of which attended the ceremony as special guests. “It took the entire community to bring Broadway back to welcome almost 7 million theatergoers to a shortened season,” said Harden. Added Astin, “Their diligence made it possible for audience members to feel and be safe, and they continue to keep everyone onstage and backstage able to perform.”
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