Unsung heroes: The swings of Once

I had the absolute pleasure of watching the Australian cast of ONCE The Musical strut their stuff at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne this week, and I would be underselling my reaction to say that I loved the show. I was flabbergasted by the show. I adored it. I want it to run in our country for years. I want to send every child to see it so they can be exposed to the magic of music and storytelling. I want it to inspire a stronger and more supported music curriculum in our schools.

The swings of Once. Image by Keegan Joyce
The swings of Once. Image by Keegan Joyce

Beautiful and sensitive, performed with heart, love and passion by a group of actors who not only placed the story-telling first, they also moved set, sang incredible harmonies (in various languages) and provided the ENTIRE musical accompaniment for the show on an array of instruments.

I can’t even find the words to adequately describe just how floored I was with what the cast created as a company.

What was equally as incredible, to my mind, was that upstairs in the green room of the Princess Theatre, was another group of performers, instruments in hand, rehearsing the show at the same time. The wonderful swings of Once.

If you are unfamiliar with the term “swing” with regards to a musical theatre company, let me enlighten you: A swing’s sole purpose in a musical is to save the day. They are the unsung heroes of the musical theatre world, and (in my opinion) not recognised nearly enough in this industry. That’s the short answer.

The long answer is that they are required to learn any number of roles in a show, step by step, note by note, word by word, and perform with the company when another cast member is indisposed. They often spend more time at the theatre than the cast members who play the roles every night, as rehearsals are mostly scheduled during the day when no performances are taking place. They solidify their knowledge during the show’s run time and practice daily to keep their minds working and the onstage (and offstage) traffic fresh in their minds.

On a regular triple threat musical, this requires a special performer who can cover the vocal demands, the dance track and the acting requirements of many. The swings in Once also need to be able to play – expertly – the instruments of the roles they cover to enable the show’s orchestrations to unfold throughout the show.

Just stop and think about that for a second.

The swings of Once. Image by Keegan Joyce
The swings of Once. Image by Keegan Joyce

There are seven swings for a cast of 11 in once. This means multiple covers for many swings. One swing on this show has to know how to play 11 instruments for the 5 roles he covers.

Who do you know that can sing, dance and act while playing any one of the following instruments: guitar, cajon, melodica, harmonica, piano, castanets, bass guitar, ukulele, mandolin, banjo, drums? Paul Watson, super swing. That’s who.

“…which is why it’s extra stressful as a swing/cover trying to slot in ‘seamlessly’. To be offstage for 10-12 weeks and then step in to a fully functioning band is hard. Slotting in as an actor is not nearly as challenging as slotting in as a band member,” said Paul Watson.

I myself have worked as a swing in several major musicals. It is one of the most rewarding jobs in the business and honestly, learning the show plot of 14 different people is something I quite enjoy. But I’ve never done what the swings on Once do. They are superheroes in my mind.

Lisa Hanley, Margi de Ferranti, Stefanie Jones, Matt Hamilton, Paul Watson, Lachlan Neate and Andrew Broadbent are the super swings from Once the musical.

Just a little bit of background on the amount of material covered by these seven performers:

The swings of Once. Image by Keegan Joyce
The swings of Once. Image by Keegan Joyce

For Stefanie, Lachlan and Andrew, who each cover three plots. This means learning 90 show charts. Or, each song three different ways. For Paul Watson, it’s about 150 show charts. On top of that, there are the 23 songs put on rotation in the “pre show” where the audience enjoy a drink on the stage and listen to the cast jam out. Each swing needs to know these songs on multiple instruments, too.

“We’ve set up our own version of the set in the green room to practice”, said Stefanie Jones, who covers violin playing Reza and Ex-Girlfriend and Girl, who plays piano.
“Combined we’ve penned recorded about 10 songs, and Margi (being the only cover yet to go on) has written a cabaret. And we’ve estimated that by the end of the run we will have heard Falling Slowly over the tannoy about 350 times.”

“Every onstage cast member is equally as talented. There are so many people on that stage every night that have many other hidden musical talents that the audience doesn’t see. For everyone – being in a cast like this is extra special. Being surrounded by people every day that share the same love, understanding and appreciation for music as you do is rare.”

Next time you watch a major musical, take a moment to think about the many, many separate parts working together to create the piece of theatre you are watching.

Think about the costume department, the wig department, the creative team, the designers, the lighting team, the sound team, the stage management team, the marketing company, the publicity team and the theatre venue employees.
Then, once you have recognised their work, take a moment to think about the unsung heroes of musical theatre. Those who you may – or may not see – on the stage at any given moment, giving their all in a role they rehearse and rehearse but rarely have the opportunity to perform.

The swings. The legends of the cast. The hardworking, switched on, ready-at-a-moment’s-notice performers who deserve much more praise than they ever receive.

They’re just that good.

Once performs its final show in Melbourne today. Wishing the entire company a wonderful closing performance from the team at AussieTheatre.

The Swings of Once



Role: Girl cover
Instruments required to know: Piano
Previous music history: Already played Piano, also plays guitar



Role: Baruska cover
Instruments required to know: Accordion / Melodica
Previous music history: Did not play either of these instruments before show, Voice is her main instrument, self taught piano player



Role: Female swing covering Reza, Ex-Girlfriend and Girl
Instruments required to know: Violin / Piano
Previous music history: Violin player from age 4, studied Suzuki method, has A.Mus. Did not really play piano before show



Role: Guy cover
Instruments required to know: Guitar
Previous music history: Played guitar previously



Role: Male Swing covering Andrej, Eamon, Emcee, Svec, Guy
Instruments required to know: guitar, cajon, melodica, harmonica, piano, castanets, bass guitar, ukulele, mandolin, banjo, drums,
Previous music history: drums is specialty, could also play guitar



Role: Billy, Da, Eamon
Instruments required to know: Guitar, mandolin, ukulele, cajon
Previous music history: Trombone main instrument



Role: Male Swing covering Bank Manager, Emcee, Svec
Instruments required to know: guitar, cello, banjo, cajon, mandolin, drums, melodica, harmonica, castanets, piano
Previous music history: saxophone / drummer

Erin James

Erin James is AussieTheatre.com's former Editor in Chief and a performer on both stage and screen. Credits include My Fair Lady, South Pacific and The King and I (Opera Australia), Love Never Dies and Cats (Really Useful Group), Blood Brothers (Enda Markey Presents), A Place To Call Home (Foxtel/Channel 7) and the feature film The Little Death (written and directed by Josh Lawson).

Erin James

One thought on “Unsung heroes: The swings of Once

  • Loved this article. Thanks Erin!


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