‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’ is currently a huge hit on Broadway thanks to an incredible ensemble of talent.
When we attended ‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’ in March, Ashley Loren starred in the leading role of Satine and we thought she was wonderful. At the time she was an understudy, but she’s since assumed the starring role full time, which inspired us to delve deeper into the world of understudies, alternates, standbys and swings and the versatility required by actors who play multiple parts. With COVID still taking a toll on industries across the board, Broadway isn’t immune to staff shortages and occasional absences, making the role of swings, standbys, and understudies more important than ever.
What Is The Difference Between An Understudy, A Swing And A Standby?
Some clarification for the non-theater buffs; there is a difference between a swing, an understudy, and a standby. A swing is an off-stage performer responsible for learning both ensemble and principal roles, so they’re able to step in at a moment’s notice if anyone in the cast calls out. In many cases, a swing will step into a member of the ensemble’s role when that ensemble member has stepped into the more principal role they understudy. An understudy is a performer cast in the ensemble of a musical or play, who is responsible for covering a supporting or lead role. A standby is an off-stage performer whose sole responsibility is to cover the lead in a production. Don’t sleep on any of these, as they speak to the ability to be versatile and often provide a great stepping stone to lead roles!
We chatted with ‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’ cast members Tasia Jungbauer (Arabia/Ensemble + Satine understudy), Keely Beirne (Arabia and La Chocolat understudy) and Bobby Daye (Zidler understudy) about how they stay prepared to step up when the show must go on with or without its leads!
The Life Of An Understudy
“Thankfully we rehearse the roles often so in case you’re on in a moment’s notice you know what you’re doing,” Keely Beirne told BOSSIP about the preparation that goes into stepping into a role she doesn’t perform every night. “One of the roles I understudy is a more physically demanding dance track so I try to stay mindful of my habits and choices to take care of my body. Physical and vocal stamina is just part of the maintenance work you have to upkeep.”
Tasia Jungbauer also agreed that “mindful living,” is an important part of the preparation for understudy life.
“I can never really go out and get wild the night before or stay up too late because you just never know, you could be the leading lady next day and don’t want to do that hungover or not feeling your best,” Jungbauer told BOSSIP. “It’s a lot, but also a great way to instill some great habits for life.”
“I love Pilates and yoga to keep me in shape for the show, walking my dog, drinking lots of tea and water, getting lots of rest. I feel like I live like a nun sometimes,” Tasia added about the steps she takes to ensure she stays prepared to take the stage by storm.
For Zidler understudy Bobby Daye, a strong musical foundation has equipped him with the skills that have enabled him to cover multiple roles.
“I’m a songwriter and write music almost every day,” Daye told BOSSIP. “I think knowing chords from piano playing has been my super power of separating the harmonies in my head of the different characters I’ve played.”
The Pressures Of Being A Broadway Understudy
As you can probably imagine, it’s not the easiest thing to assume a role that you don’t necessarily take on every day, but the ‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’ performers we spoke to all had a great take on how to handle the pressures that come from understudy life.
“There’s certainly pressure but it’s usually self-inflicted,” Keely Beirne told BOSSIP. “There’s always tons of encouragement and support from management and the cast and crew when you’re on. Nobody is perfect and to be thrown into a role you’re not normally performing every night is thrilling and nerve-wracking, but the preparation and work have been put in, so you just have to trust your gut and enjoy the ride.”
“I’m sure it’s different for each person, but for me, there is always the pressure of ‘expectation,'” Bobby Daye added. “The audience somehow feels they are being cheated from seeing the original star so your first moments are trying to win their trust.”
“You want to do everything similar to what the actor who usually plays the part does, so it’s not totally jarring to the other people onstage,” Tasia Jungbauer said. “More often than not you don’t get the chance to do the role that often, or it can be months in between, so you don’t get to build muscle memory as easily, notes from team dance, acting and music are floating in your head. There’s a lot of pressure, but I think for the best performance you have to try and let that go and just be as present as possible.”
Bringing Something New To The Role
Anytime you attend a play or Broadway show, it’s likely there may be an understudy or someone new in one of the roles. This can definitely be exciting for the audience, who will have a chance to witness a little something different than the people who attended a different showing. There’s also the added personal touch that each performer brings to the role they take on. We asked the ‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’ performers about how they go about bringing something new to the role they understudy.
“It kind of happens naturally,” Tasia Jungbauer told BOSSIP. “Everyone is different so everyone is going to bring something new to the role. The lines, staging, and beats have to stay the same, but naturally, I have a different essence than anyone else. It’s fun to play the character with my own intentions and thoughts behind it.”
“I try to put a bit of myself into each of the roles I cover so it’s always uniquely me,” Keely Beirne added.
“I feel my job is to fit in the fabric of the show as seamlessly as possible,” Bobby Daye told BOSSIP. “I’m already given a strong skeleton from the originator of the role. All I have to supply is some meat. Just for the fact that we all bring something different to the plate, once we are comfortable, our own personality interpretation begins to come through. Being relaxed in a role leads to living it better in your truth of it.”
Training That Helps For Understudy Work
All three of the ‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’ understudies we spoke to have strong backgrounds in theater and performance but they each had a different take on whether you can even “prepare” to be an understudy.
“My first tour out of college I was the second cover to understudy the lead,” Keely Beirne recalled. “It was my first time ever understudying and in the most unlikely of circumstances, I did get the chance to perform the lead role. I had never rehearsed the second act, some of my costumes were still being altered, but it happened. From then on I’ve always expected the unexpected and made sure to be prepared for anything. I’ve understudied many times now and have also been a swing. It keeps you on your toes and it keeps you present. But I always recall my younger self being terrified, but if I could do that I can do anything!
“Nothing ever really has prepared me to be first a swing, and now an understudy,” Tasia Jungbauer told BOSSIP. “I have learned so much as I have gone along, I feel like I have learned more these first six months than in four years of college really. But I had experience doing shows for extended amounts of time, and so much of Moulin Rouge and especially the roles I do and cover is about being really fabulous and a bit over the top at times, and I’ve been doing that since I was a kid!”
“Every job before this moment was a lesson,” Bobby Daye opined. “You pay attention to what works and most of all what does NOT.”
Unexpected Understudy Experiences
We couldn’t conclude our interview with the ‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’ understudies without asking about their unique understudy experiences. So much of understudy life is preparation, but we figured some of the best stories had to have come from the times when the performers had to hit the stage unexpectedly.
“My first time on as Satine!” Tasia Jungbauer told BOSSIP. “It was 5 months into the contract so I had lost any sense of like ‘today is the day!’ I just figured I would never have a surprise. But I got the call when I was cooking dinner and I was like… ‘What do I do? Do I go to the theater now?!’ I decided to finish cooking and just try and stay as calm as possible. I knew if I got too excited or saw other people getting excited that I would go on feeling that. And it worked well, just told myself it was any other day, and it couldn’t have gone more perfect.”
“Less than a month ago, due to Covid the national touring company of Moulin Rouge was lacking coverage,” Keely Beirne recalled. “It was 5pm on Friday and I was preparing to leave my apartment to do the show on Broadway that night, I got a call from my company manager asking if I could pack my bags and fly to Chicago to play a role I understudy in New York. I arrived at the hotel in Chicago with my costumes and wigs by midnight and rehearsed at 9am the next morning to perform the matinee at 2pm that same day. And it was my birthday! That was the most unexpected understudy performance to date!”
“When I was in SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE pre-broadway in Los Angeles we’d just started performances and the other stand-by was being prepped to go for a scheduled personal day of the actor he covered,” Bobby Daye remembered. “Not much time was taken with the rest of us because the show was being previewed and changed with the regular cast. There was a rainstorm and one of the actors (whom I covered) wasn’t able to get to the theater because of a mudslide. I was thrust in to go on without much rehearsal or even costumes. Was it perfect? No, but the show never stopped and I learned that I needed my own arrangement of one of the songs [laughs].”
We love these stories and they definitely made for some incredible career memories, right?
Advice For New Understudies
Before saying goodbye to Tasia, Keely and Bobby we had to gather up advice for other aspiring actors and understudies. They each offered some really important things to think about.
“Get really good at studying and observing,” Tasia Jungbauer recommended. “And be self-motivated. People will help you, but a lot of the focus is going to the company who does the role every night. You have to take initiative and start learning and teaching yourself, and being comfortable asking people for help when you need it. You can practice that now even, go look up a YouTube video or listen to a song and teach yourself!”
“Study what is happening on stage each night and know it like the back of your hand,” Bobby Daye agreed. “You have actors that have trusted each other on stage every night and you must EARN that trust as well.”
“Eliminate the word perfection and stay as present as you can possibly be,” Keely Beirne added. “Grant yourself grace and trust that you’ve done your homework.”