If you've gone to many big musicals on Broadway or on tour, you've probably seen the term "swing" in the cast list and wondered what it meant.
Connecticut native Caitlin Leary gets that billing in the national touring company of "Beauty and the Beast" that starts a five-performance engagement at New Haven's Shubert Theater on Friday, May 11.
For the 2011 graduate of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, getting hired for a "swing" position in the touring show has been a challenging and exciting start to Leary's professional career.
A swing performer has to be ready to go on in multiple roles in the event that an ensemble member gets sick before or during a show.
"It was really overwhelming at first," the Marlborough native said in a recent phone interview of the job she landed just three weeks after graduating from college last spring.
"I was called on Friday and they said, `We need you in Memphis, Tenn., on Monday,' " Leary recalled of the job that became available when one of the show's swing performers moved up to a role in the company.
"She taught me to cover eight women's roles," the performer said of the actress-dancer she replaced in Memphis. "I learned the whole show in two weeks."
Unlike some understudies who never get to go on because of an unusually fit and determined star -- i.e. Daniel Radcliffe, who never missed a Broadway performance of "How to Succeed in Business ..." -- Leary hasn't spent that much time off-stage.
"Within the first month-and-a-half, I had performed for all eight women," she said, adding that getting off to such a fast start has made the tour more full of fun than anxiety.
She quickly reached the point where "it was not nerve-racking to be told you're on for this person in 15 minutes," Leary said.
In a big and technically complex show like "Beauty and the Beast," performers can run into trouble during a performance and Leary is on call to step in at any time.
"I've gone on after the first song, after the intermission. People get sick or injured," she said.
In addition to her position as swing, Leary is assistant dance captain.
"We make sure the show is running smoothly, that things are clean and precise. Lately, we've been putting in new principals," the performer said of the work she does with the dance captain.
Leary will be leaving the show this summer, picking up where she left off a year ago when she finished college in Philadelphia.
"I'm moving to New York which I was a week-and-a-half away from doing when I got the call to do this show. I'll be going home to collect my things and then head back to New York for auditions and dance classes," she said.
For Leary, the past year has been like a graduate course in theater paid for by the Disney organization.
"I've learned the entire show and I'm the only female swing. And there have been a few times I've had to go on for a guy," she said, laughing.
Meanwhile, when we spoke last week, Leary had 73 friends and family coming to the New Haven performances: "I gotta get that number up to 100!"
Leary is excited that after the Shubert gig, one of her last stands in the tour will be in Philadelphia at the historic Academy of Music on Broad Street.
"That's where I graduated last year, so it's going to feel like coming full circle," she said.
The Shubert Theater, 247 College St., New Haven. Friday, May 11-Sunday, May 13. $92-$35. 203-562-5666. www.shubert.com.
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