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What’s It Like to Be An Unsung Hero of Les Misérables?

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Understudy Superhero
Attention all Glee fans and musical theatre buffs:
Have you wondered what it’s like to be a part of a Broadway musical production? What if you were paid to travel the world and perform nightly for thousands of fans, never staying more than a few weeks in the same city? It sounds like the ultimate dream to anyone in show biz, but for the sixty-seven cast and crew members touring with the 25th anniversary of Les Misérables, it is a thrilling reality.
The universally adored musical kicked off its fourth U.S. tour here in Los Angeles last month to much acclaim. If you’ve never seen the show, (it’s quite a spectacle and highly recommended) it’s exceptionally led in part by the strength and unity of the ensemble. Remember, there are only nine principals in the entire show, and as in many theatre productions, the supporting casts, in numbers, outweigh the leads. But little is known of what it takes to be in the ensemble of a Broadway production. This sparked our desire to pull back the curtain and reveal the roles of musical theatres unsung heroes.
Backstage Directions
We met up with Jason Ostrowski, a cast member touring with the show, to discuss first hand Wednesday night backstage at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, about two hours before show time. Jason is an incredible talent. He’s gracious, humble, and cool. Our chat with him proved to be enlightening and dissolved past assumptions.
jason and les mis poster
“We have stars in our show that are the principals, but the title of our show is “the miserable”; it’s the ensemble that make up the miserable of Paris.” explains Jason. We all know lead roles are important, but of equal value are the actors who embody the understudy, swing, and standby roles. Dividing these roles between the cast is actually common practice, and to have one actor take on several parts is normal.
Jason, who wears possibly the most hats in the entire cast, has his hands full – juggling fifteen roles. At this, the skeptic came out, and we had to ask about the producers’ intentions, alluding that perhaps they were just trying to squeeze as many roles as possible out of one guy. He assured us he’s “compensated well for it.”
Les Mis Group Jason
The many roles of Jason:
– An understudy is usually a member of the ensemble. They’ll have a small role in the play, but additionally rehearse the lines, blocking, and songs of a larger principal role just as if it were their own. This way, if the actor that usually plays the role is out, they jump in.
– When a member of the ensemble is out, a swing swings in. He is responsible for covering the tracks of all thirteen men in the ensemble because at any given moment without warning he could be on. This includes knowing thirteen characters’ places and lines throughout the show, as well as being able to sing their parts and in their key. But generally, a swing sits around and waits to swing.
– Les Misérables doesn’t have too many dance numbers, so as dance captain or “staging specialist”, as he refers to it, he is in charge of blocking whenever the ensemble is on stage. This includes memorizing the tracks of thirty-eight characters.
Jason Ostrowski
In reality, the reason talented actors like Jason are put in these roles as opposed to principals, is due to an uncommon chameleon-like trait. The actor who is skilled enough to swing may never place into other roles because of this ability. The capacity to become several characters and play in to any scene is slightly abnormal, but highly revered, and with Jason’s particular talent it’s already been said that they’ll never let him go. Frankly, Jason’s future in musical theatre is more secure than most others. And it works both ways. When we asked him if he hoped to be moved into a lead role in the future where he may have more stage time, but less responsibility, he replied, “I’m happy with this. I don’t know if I would want to do that now. I just like being involved in the creative field, it doesn’t matter what it is.”
The down side is a swing is never guaranteed stage time, and he’s experienced everything from waiting five solid weeks for an opportunity on stage to the ultimate thrill of improvisationally swinging for two in the same scene at the same time.
For Jason, swinging is worth the time he waits, and as he puts it, “You don’t have time to think about it. You’re just thrown out there, and you go for it, but I love that; it’s kind of sick.” Even in his down time, when everyone’s healthy and things are running smoothly, like a real pro, he’s still jazzed about being a member of the cast. “I could learn another language, with the time I’m being paid to sit around and wait for somebody to twist an ankle or something!”

Trailer for 25th Anniversary Les Misérables production at L.A.’s Ahmanson

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