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Tonight the role of [fill in the blank] will be played by Arlo Hill

After you’ve played a Demon Barber (the titular role in Sweeney Todd), an apprentice to a band of pirates (Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance) and a young man caught up with his love in a family feud (Matt in The Fantasticks) where do you go? New York was the answer for Arlo Hill ’08. Recipient of the Radcliffe Doris Cohen Levi Award (recognizing talent and enthusiasm for musical theater), Hill recently became a “vacation swing” for Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera. Harvard Arts Blog wonders if anyone knows what a “vacation swing” is. Read on.

From Harvard to Broadway: Arlo Hill '08 (click for larger image)

I’m writing this on a Wednesday afternoon after a sudden change of plans. I was to tutor a student tonight for the SAT (tutoring being my primary means of support since moving to New York four years ago to pursue a career in theater). One phone call later, it turns out that instead I will be performing at the Majestic Theater on Broadway. The bother of rescheduling notwithstanding, I have to admit that I am pretty happy with the rearrangement.

Thus, it turns out, is the life of a “vacation swing” in a Broadway show: You never quite know what to plan for. Since making my Broadway debut last month in that iconic ’80s musical The Phantom of the Opera, I’ve already learned five roles and performed three—and am still continuing to learn roles (or “tracks,” as they are known) in the ensemble. A swing is a standby who understudies multiple tracks. Swings show up to the theater every single day to step into one of many possible roles or, as often as not, simply to wait around in case of emergency. As for a vacation swing—well, the name says it: I’m in when someone’s out longer-term.

Arlo Hill gets ready

The funny thing about the job is I am always in some sense redundant. When I perform, there are usually two full-time male swings (who know every single track!) in the dressing rooms just waiting to see if they are needed. They could just as easily be performing in my place, and I could be out on the street. But with a show grossing $1 million a week, the stage managers tend to play it safe: There’s no telling when someone could suddenly become ill, have a family emergency, or get stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel—and, indeed, there have hardly been two performances with the exact same cast, crew and orchestra. Flexibility is essential. And so, I have been amazed in rehearsal after rehearsal when I see the same 30 or so actors shift from role to role, performing a seemingly endless set of permutations. It seems there’s no one who hasn’t performed at least one or two other roles.

Of course, the need for flexibility makes my own position all the more exciting. My first week on Broadway, I played Passarino—singing a few lines as Don Juan’s sidekick in the Phantom’s own show-in-the-show (besides several other appearances, one of which included unrolling a poster with utmost precision and care following a 15-minute note session with Hal Prince, a director as intimidating as he is renowned).

Arlo Hill as Monsieur Reyer

The second week I donned, variously, a drum that I played in the “Masquerade” segment, a mask that left my face dripping with sweat every night, and a lion’s head that made me feel like I had stepped out of that fifth-longest-running Broadway show down the street. Tonight I will play a few scales on the piano (worrisome for a non-pianist), clamber down a 30-foot portcullis (terrifying for an acrophobe) and bring to a halt the opening opera so I can berate the lead tenor for his poor diction (OK, that one’s just fun).

I don’t know yet what next week will hold—to be honest, I don’t even know if I’ll be teaching diction at the Majestic or teaching dangling modifiers on the Upper East Side—but it’s bound to be a surprise.

And, well, I’m not complaining.

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