Free thoughts on the proceedings of swings, standbys, covers, understudies, and the ensemble… through a Hamil-centric lens
by Hamilcast: A Hamilton Podcast creator Gillian Pensavalle
Hamilton is a phenomenon. That is not hyperbole. What Hamilton has done for Broadway, music, history, casting, design - you name it - is truly phenomenal. The original Broadway cast will go down in history as one of the most iconic casts of all time. Hamilton is such a big hit that the principle cast members in the non-Broadway companies have become celebrities; with people traveling all over the country to see Miguel Cervantes as Hamilton in Chicago or Solea Pfeiffer as Eliza on tour. In fact, it’s such a thing that someone like me can make a podcast about it from my living room (Werk!).
And while Hamilton is one of the biggest things in the world right now, it’s still not very accessible; It’s still in a very limited number of cities, tickets are expensive, and you have to buy them an actual YEAR in advance. So when you finally get in the room where it happens, I can understand why you’d feel disappointed when your Playbill’s insert tells you that the person you’ve waited months to see isn’t on that night. Or maybe it’s not that dramatic. Maybe you’re just bummed you’re seeing a standby play Angelica instead of the usual cast member because of some preconceived notion. Either way, you’re feeling let down. While understandable, I can state unequivocally (and with apologies for my characteristic bluntness) that you are wrong. I maintain that you should be AMPED.
Not unlike when Hamilton went to confer with Burr in the middle of the night, hear me out!
This is going to be specific to Hamilton on Broadway because that’s where my knowledge lies. Granted, I am an actor and lifelong Broadway nerd. But I am also the creator, host, producer, and everything-er of The Hamilcast: A Hamilton Podcast. I have spoken to, interviewed, hung out with, hosted, and worked with dozens of cast members - principles, standbys, replacements, swings - you name it...and I have been fortunate enough to see many of them in various roles and there are three fundamental truths that I realized at the exact same time. Okay, maybe not at the exact same time but I really wanted to use that quote.
Number One: You are the one thing in life you can control.
The point of going to see a show is to experience a living, breathing piece of art and sometimes that means that—somewhere on that stage— you’re seeing a standby. That’s the nature of theatre and whether you realize it or not, the unpredictability of it all is one of the many reasons seeing a live show is so exhilarating. And guess what? These are professional Broadway actors, not inexperienced people the stage manager pulled off the street at the last minute. Every single person on that stage is excellent at their job and worked really hard to get there.
Number Two: History has its eyes on them.
Chances are, especially if this is a new cast member and/or a last minute put in, you are looking at someone who is nervous. Someone who has more to prove. THIS PERFORMANCE means more to them, because they are being watched. Not just by you—creative higher-ups are evaluating their performance to see if they need more work, if they’re being utilized properly, and maybe if they are ready for a more permanent situation in the future. This is just a shade or two removed from “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Except they’re actually singing (and dancing and acting) for their lives, instead of lip-syncing.
Number Three: They’re willing to wait for it (so you don’t have to).
There is only one cast of the show you’re seeing that night. It may never exist in this form again. And your standby or swing or understudy is there, trying to make everyone around them better, and discovering chemistry with the rest of the cast that is (and should always remain) a work in progress. It’s jazz, it’s improv, it’s singular and never to be replicated. It’s the big time! Give them your attention, give them your energy, and yes—even sing along when specifically ordered to do so (like when a certain J.Laurens wants you to “SHOUT IT TO THE ROOFTOPS!”). You just may lend them some of your energy, too. Just don’t start off with pre-conceived notions that may give them an uphill battle before the very first “Dun du du du dun dun dun (do do doooo doooo)…” even starts.
Enjoy every second. I’m excited for you. And…
I have the honor to be your obedient servant,