In early January, as New York’s Omicron cases were climbing, Leroy Church, who has acted in Disney’s The Lion King on and off since 2013, flew back to the city from the show’s tour to find that three men in the Broadway cast couldn’t perform that night. Church would have to fill in for the part of the Bird Man, which involves an elaborate costume and a solo dance. At the hour call before the show, the dance supervisor taught him the choreography. “I’m doing everything I can to be the last one standing,” Church says. “I keep knocking on wood.” So far, he has tested negative.
Church is what is known in theater parlance as a “swing”: an actor who fills in the gaps when other performers are absent. Unlike an understudy, who performs in a musical’s ensemble each night and may step up to a principal role, a swing typically stays offstage until needed. The moment another actor calls out, a swing has to be ready to cover a number of “tracks,” or the set of roles within an ensemble one actor would play in a night (the actor who plays the Bird Man, for instance, will often reappear in a dashiki later in another number, and a swing would do both).
During the Omicron spike, The Lion King’s twelve swings have stayed on alert, ready to play all manner of characters from the savanna as the COVID test results come in each day. Church has also covered the part of a zebra — the very first role he ever played in the show, and the reason he has “zebra-print everything” — and has trained for the part of an antelope. Jacqueline René, a swing who has been with the show since a tour in 2003, typically covers eight tracks, including the principal roles of Shenzi the hyena and Nala the lioness. Like many swings, she has an encyclopedic knowledge of The Lion King: its score, its choreography, and its blocking, which she has refined by skipping between tracks constantly. But with so many absences, even the most seasoned have discovered something new. Before a recent show, René found herself, with a few minutes’ notice, holding Mufasa’s eye onstage for a coup de théâtre in the second act in which the dead patriarch’s face appears in the sky. The part was new to her, and she discovered in the process that the eye puppet, which is attached to a 15-foot pole, is surprisingly cumbersome. “At Lion King, we’re all of it,” she says. “We’re the humans, we’re the puppets, we’re the set pieces.”
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