In the world of theater, Michelle Beth Herman is what’s known as a “swing.” A swing is a performer whose job is to — at a moment’s notice — play one or more roles in the acting ensemble of a show, usually a musical.
A New York-based theater veteran, Herman will be part of the national touring company of the iconic Broadway musical “Les Miserables” that performs at the Hippodrome Theatre from Oct. 9-14. She has been performing with the company since it began its current tour last year.
A singer, dancer and actor who graduated from The Hartt School with a bachelor of fine arts in musical theater, Herman recently spoke to Jmore about what it’s like to be a swing and how she practices Judaism while touring several different cities each month.
Jmore: What exactly is a swing?
MBH: A swing is a person who covers for the ensemble. We don’t cover any leads, we just cover ensemble roles, and I cover eight of the female ensemble women. In this show specifically, I’ve actually calculated it out specifically. That’s about 64 different characters, which is crazy because just the girls in the show average about nine different people in their own show.
So as a swing, when I go on for one person in a show, I need to know basically nine different characters because each scene is ever changing. So it’s a different character in each scene.
How did you get into theater?
We moved from Queens to Long Island, and in order for me to make friends, my mom took me to the Suffolk County Jewish Community Center. Can’t get any more Jewish than that. And without even knowing that my mom was an aspiring performer back in her heyday, she just took me there to make friends and meet people.
And when we auditioned for our first show, it was like, “Who can freeze the longest and has the greatest attention span at seven years old?” And I guess I had a good attention span and some focus, and I got in the show and I never looked back.
What was the show?
It was called “Showstoppers” and it was a mash-up of “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Grease,” “Mame” and “Guys and Dolls.” I was just in the ensemble, no part. But I also knew all the parts because I would go home at night, and I guess I was training to be a swing at the time without even realizing it because I would go home and perform the whole show.
Is “Les Miz” your first national tour?
How does it compare to regional theater?
It’s similar in the fact that you’re doing the same show, but it’s different because we are traveling. We sometimes travel up to two times to four times a month. Some markets, we only stay a week, like Baltimore. Right now, we’re here in Oklahoma City, and we’re only here for a week. Sometimes we’re in a market for three weeks, like San Francisco.
But that’s what’s different. It’s become easier to acclimate to each different market but it’s still difficult to treat it like real life. And you feel the urge to go see different places and go to different museums in each of the cities. And you don’t necessarily have time for that. We have rehearsals, we have shows. So that’s what makes it different than doing regional productions: it’s the constant, constant travel.
What was the audition process like for this show?
I went in for four times. The first time was an appointment that my agent got me, and I went in for Eponine then. And then I was told I was being considered for a swing. And I said, “OK, great,” so I went in again. And this time was a little more intense: they [tested her vocal range] from my lowest notes all the way up to my highest notes. And I was probably in the room for about 10 minutes, which is unheard of. And the third time I went in was a callback and they wanted me to learn Madame Thènardier’s material, just to see if I was capable to do many different ends of the spectrum.
And then the fourth time … all the girls went in as a group and did ensemble work. And they saw how we interacted with each other and were able to work together. And then after we went out of the room, I went back in the room by myself that same day. And that’s when the director pointed to random pieces of the score and had me sing different parts and different harmonies by myself just to see where my voice hit with that.
It was a long audition process; it went from February to April 2017. But after the third time, I was like, “OK, I think this is OK.”
Does your Jewish background intersect your life as a performer?
Oh, it definitely does. It’s something that’s always a part of me. At the [Suffolk County] Jewish Community Center, I grew up singing in the Kol Echad youth choir.
But I also keep kosher. That started my senior year of high school, right before I went to college. … Here are my two loves: Judaism, Israel, all of that, and then performing. And I’m not quite at that level where I can be like [baseball great] Sandy Koufax and say, “I’m not going to perform on Yom Kippur,” you know? I can’t do that — yet. When I win my Tony, I will make sure to put that in my contract.
It’s something that is important to me and I think about it all the time, and I would say the reason I went kosher is so that I have that connection. I might not necessarily go to synagogue Friday nights or Saturday mornings. I don’t get that luxury right now, so I keep kosher as my one connection. So it is still a huge part of me.
Judaism, you grow up singing these tunes and they’re beautiful and they just flow through your blood. And it’s such a spiritual religion and I find that as a performer, I’m always going back to my roots and I’m always thinking of sitting or standing in synagogue and singing those tunes, even on stage.
Why should audiences come see “Les Miz”?
“Les Miserables” is about human redemption and it’s about love and being passionate about something that is greater than yourself. You find that each of these characters is passionate about something. And even though it takes place in 19th-century France, the story’s still very, very prevalent in today’s society.
For information, visit baltimore.broadway.com.
Alex Holt is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.