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5 Essential Broadway Jobs You Never Knew About

Category Broadway

|by Garth Wingfield |

Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes at a Broadway show? You won’t believe who plays key roles in making magic happen

When you see a Broadway show, there’s a lot of talent happening right in front of your eyes. There are the actors, of course, who blow you away with their high Cs and inspired line readings. There’s the orchestra, who plays the composer’s music impeccably, with gorgeous melodies lilting up from the pit. And then there are the set and lighting, where you can get a real sense of the genius that went into transforming a bare space into another world. But that’s only the tip of the Broadway iceberg. There’s a whole crew of insanely gifted folks lurking behind the scenes who also contribute to the spectacle you’re witnessing. We talked to some of the major players to find out what they do, why they love it and how not to freak out when things go seriously wrong.

(Illustrations: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

(Illustrations: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

Property Master
At the end of the first act of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, there’s an astonishingly intricate sequence where Christopher, the young main character who has a condition akin to autism, assembles a train set on the floor of the stage, grabbing tracks and cars from many different cabinets lining the sides of the set. It’s a massive undertaking that involves many different moving pieces. And overseeing the whole endeavor is James Cariot, the show’s property department head. On many shows, this job would also involve collaborating with the creative team to acquire the props and furniture employed in the play, but since this production originated at London’s National Theatre, the entire property package arrived intact, and it was up to Cariot to make sure everything got loaded in correctly and is in place nightly. That means he and his team of four arrive 90 minutes before curtain to strike the remains of the previous night’s performance and to set props all around the stage — in traps within the floor and in drop bags in the rafters, so letters waft down just so when a cue is called. “I don’t know how [the actor playing Christopher] does it,” Cariot says. “It takes all of us seven or eight minutes during intermission to strike what he’s done by himself during the show.”

Broadway shows have become more and more acrobatic over the years. And whenever an actor levitates upward toward a Broadway proscenium, the wires are likely controlled by a storied company called Flying by Foy, which has made Peter Pan soar across the stage and Mary Poppins float over the audience. Right now, this outfit is represented in five different Broadway shows. David Elmer is the head production carpenter who makes sure the Foy vision gets executed to perfection at the musical Honeymoon in Vegas. The show’s most complicated flying sequence involves lead actor Rob McClure, who stands in an airplane with a bunch of Elvises, leaps through the air, is catapulted upward as his parachute opens, somersaults and crashes into a Vegas hotel. Elmer is there every step of the way. “There are two carpenters and two stage managers who watch as he’s being clipped in,” he explains. “And then once it’s all clear and the stage manager who’s calling the show gives the cue, I’m there in the wings operating the machinery.” It’s all handled through electric winches, and the actor can fly as high as 30 feet high. Of course, safety is key. “I have a direct line of vision to the performer to make sure he can take the cues as they’re called.” Scary? Just a little for everyone involved. But it’s also a total showstopper.

Wig Maker
What goes on top of an actor’s head is important to the character as the clothes on their body. For the Broadway production of Les Misérables, hair and wig designer Luc Verschueren decided that some actors needed great haircuts, but most needed custome-made wigs. So he set to work, beginning a very labor-intensive process. It began with creative consultation between the director, costume designer and wig maker. Then Verschueren put together sketches and reference materials from period portraits. Once a look was agreed upon, he met with each of the actors, wrapping Saran Wrap over their head, marking their hairlines and measuring everything with tape. Then, a lace foundation was placed on a wig maker’s block, and actual human hair was tyed in, strand by strand, like a tapestry. Each wig takes roughly 50 hours to construct, and every actor appearing in the production has a custom wig made for him or her, whether they’re a principal, understudy or swing. “It’s why I love working in the theater,” says Verschueren. “We’re all part of this unique process that involves many different people, and it all comes together in this beautiful experience. It’s challenging, yes, but it really delivers.”

Child Guardian
Actors’ Equity Association has a very specific rule: Whenever there’s an actor under the age of 16 in the cast, there has to be at least one child guardian on the payroll. This is a person who takes over once the parents drop off their charges at the stage door, shepherding young thespians through rehearsals and beyond, while coordinating with other backstage personnel, like tutors. Once a loosely defined category of backstage workers, child guardians unionized under Local 764, the theatrical wardrobe union, in July 2012. Caroline O’Connor, a veteran child guardian who has worked on shows like The Lion King and Newsies, knows the territory well. She’s currently the child wrangler, as the job is also sometimes affectionately called, for Finding Neverland. “I’m like [the kids’] adult brain in the show,” she explains. “I track script changes during rehearsals and keep them organized. Then, once the show goes into performance, I’m essentially their shadow backstage. I’m with them with every entrance they make, and then I run around to be there when they exit, making sure they don’t knock into another actor or a piece of scenery that’s in the wings.” She currently overseeing seven young boys in the show. “These are children who have jobs and school and a lot of things to deal with, ” O’Connor says.

They’re called quick changes for a reason. And at most Broadway shows, there’s a whole team of dressers running around backstage with safety pins clipped to their sleeves and a needle and thread in their pockets for last-minute repairs. There are ensemble dressers, who attend to a large group of people, holding up pants while chorus members step into them and swiftly shoving shoes onto feet. Then there are star dressers, who only focus on a leading player. Joshua Burns has been Billy Porter’s star dresser throughout the Broadway run of Kinky Boots. “Sixty percent of what I do isn’t in my job description,” he says. From opening fan mail to preparing the dressing room to digesting information that’s come in about that night’s performance, Burns makes sure everything’s good to go once Porter arrives. Then once the show begins, hold on to your wigs. “Billy has about 12 costume changes, and half of them are quick. And it’s not just me working with him. There are often four people surrounding him — his makeup is being touched up, someone is changing his wig, I usually have an assistant.” There’s also chaos to manage while the show’s going on. “Once his heel broke, and he had to perform a song wearing one shoe. I had to try and figure out how to get a replacement heel onstage to him through another actor.”

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