On a recent visit to Chicago at the Mandalay Bay Theatre in Las Vegas there was a slip of paper in the program announcing that an understudy would go on in the role of Martin Harrison and the doctor, as well as being a member of the hot chorus of dancers. The name ... Randy Slovacek.
I kept an eye on Randy during the performance and he did quite well, so well that when I next visited the show Randy's name was in the program's main credits. And he also receives credit as understudy for Amos Hart, Fred Casely and a number of other roles. I had thought he went from an understudy to being a regular cast member, but then his name disappeared from the main credits in a later visit, but still appeared as swing and understudy. Confused as I was over this very talented actor/dancer I dropped him a note asking if he'd like to have a chat with Talkin' Broadway. A meeting at Red Square, the Russian restaurant at Mandalay Bay, would be the ideal meeting spot.
V.J. Randy! Welcome to Talkin' Broadway.
R.S. Thanks. Great to be here.
V.J. First, let's put me out of my misery. Are you a cast member, understudy or swing? And what is the difference?
R.S. All three, technically. I'm here in Las Vegas as a swing, which means I standby for all the men in the ensemble. I also understudy (standby for principal roles) the roles of Amos Hart and Fred Casely. And of course, I'm a member of the cast ... not the regular playing company but the cast itself. Before joining the cast of the "Velma" company permanently here in Las Vegas, I spent about a year being a "National swing" for all three U.S. companies (Broadway, "Roxie" and "Velma" companies) which basically means I went in and out of those companies as needed. Sometimes for as much as three months, or as little as two weeks. Sometimes as a standby, sometimes as a playing company member.
V.J. Are you required to be at the theatre every night? You seem to be going on quite often
R.S. Yep. I'm required to sign in by half hour like everyone else. But I can leave by the end of "Razzle Dazzle" if I'm not on that performance. And yes, I do go on a lot. Lately there have been vacations and leave of absences that meant I was on. But to be honest, we don't have a lot of people calling in sick or injured much at all in this show. It varies really. I've gone on for three/four weeks straight, and then it's dropped to maybe once or twice a week. I usually am on at least once or twice in a week if not more ...
V.J. Does it bother you to go to the theatre and not go on? What do you do between "All That Jazz" and "Razzle Dazzle" if you don't? I imagine it's pretty exciting when you sign in ... not knowing which role you'll play ... isn't that difficult too, knowing all the roles and being expected to perform them?
R.S. No it really doesn't bother me. Mainly because I spent so much time being on in Chicago before I took the permanent "swing" position, the "chomping at the bit" bug is a bit out of my system. Also, when I'm not on is the time I can watch and see if the guys have "evolved" any of their stuff ... stuff I'm expected to know next time I'm on for them. It's important that I don't get complacent and stop watching because that's when things can "morph" let's say and when I go on I could get surprised by a little detail here or there. And it's pretty much my responsibility to keep up on things.
The first month of covering all seven guys (and Amos and Fred ... ) weighed a bit on me, let's say. But I like the variety, and it does make "going on" more of an event when it's not every night. Plus, going on for different roles all the time keeps you very fresh. I've learned being a good swing has more to do with being "left brained" than singing/dancing/acting skills. You have to be able to keep it in your head, and organized.
Between the opening and "Razzle Dazzle," I watch from different angles, and I go over things in our rehearsal hall (a luxury!). And I read USA Today a lot ... .
V.J. Let's go back a bit. Where are you from and when did the acting or dancing bug bite you?
R.S. I'm originally from Fort Worth, TX, and I've been performing since I was 10. I started out singing and acting and then one day when I was about 15 I was in my first musical, Gypsy, and fell in love with musical theater. And that's when someone mentioned that I "moved well" and I should take a dance class. It's been a career ever since.
V.J. When did you get your first professional break? Was it one of those "God, I hope I get it" moments?
R.S. God, yes! ... I was in New York City for about a year with absolutely NO results. I was auditioning, and auditioning and auditioning ... I'd get down to the final cuts, and not get the job at the last second. I was waiting tables and cleaning apartments, whatever I could to pay the bills. Then I auditioned for a replacement for the 1st National Company of CATS. I didn't get the job, but the casting people called and asked for my picture and resume. Four months later, there was an open call for a NEW company of CATS. So I go down, not waiting for a phone call from the casting people, and auditioned. I went through four auditions over two months ... at one audition the casting people kept dancing three of us one by one, over and over, unable to make up their minds I guess, and when it was over I was cast as "the magical Mr. Mistoffelees!" To this day I remember screaming and crying and thinking my bleak days were finally over. It was an enormous charge for my first big job to be the opening of a big new National Touring Company. It was the first company of CATS to really get to cities like Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Louisville, Providence ... .. So there was always this great excitement when we came to town. I did it for two years and it was terrific. I've never worked harder than those years, and they represent many of my fondest memories in the theater.
V.J. What year was that Randy?
V.J. As much as that was a high for you, and I know you've done other shows, including Hello, Dolly! on Broadway, what was the biggest heartbreak, or disappointment, you've had in the business?
R.S. Twice I was in line to go into a permanent spot in the B'way company of A Chorus Line. The first time didn't happen due to timing -- it coincided with the closing of my CATS company. The second time, it didn't happen due to miscommunication between management. A Chorus Line on Broadway was a dream for me ... one that wasn't meant to be.
Also, while I was still on the road with CATS, I flew in for auditions and callbacks for the "Robbins' Project" (what became Jerome Robbins' Broadway). I hadn't heard anything until right before my CATS company closed. And it was then that my answering service let me know they had an old message (they had lost) from a month or so before from the Robbins' Project about being a part of the skeleton cast which was going to be the basis for the cast. I lost the job when they lost the message. The casting people felt for me when I called, but the job had been given to someone else at that point. They eventually called me in 12 times for any possible replacement. They really tried. Once I even got the job, but the guy leaving the show ended up not leaving. So it never happened. A big disappointment.
V.J. Then you did some other tours?
R.S. Ah yes, I was the touring company king it seemed. After CATS., I did two National Companies of A Chorus Line, a National company of 42nd Street, the pre-Broadway and post Broadway tours of Hello, Dolly! In a span of 10 years I estimate I was on the road for 7 of those years. I went where the work was. It could sometimes get to me because my dream was Broadway and all my friends were getting there, but I was always out of the road and it's difficult to get to Broadway when you're out there. So many Broadway auditions and replacement calls happen in a week or a days notice, and you have to be in NYC and available for all that.
However, I loved the jobs I had and I enjoyed a lot of touring. I also have a theory about touring companies ... not to start something, but I feel the touring company of a Broadway show can in someways be "better" than it's B'way counterpart. In the respect that on Broadway, you open, get reviewed and then (hopefully) run. During a long run, performances can "evolve", let's say, from the creative teams original intents. On the road, however, with a company getting reviewed every week or month, performances tend to stay "tighter" sometimes. Whether it's the road, or the actor's ego, no one likes to get a less than stellar review. Also, on the road, the show is the company's life. You aren't surrounded by your friends, family and homelife which takes a lot of your time/energy/life at home in NYC. So you tend to focus more on the show, in my humble opinion ... Also, by the time a National Tour company comes around, the creative team has often re-thought and clarified some of the details and intentions of the piece.
V.J. And then came Broadway. Being on tour is one thing, but this was the big time. What was it like? You know, the auditions and finally getting it.
R.S. Funny thing about the Broadway thing, when it finally happened it came out of the blue. Hello, Dolly! was my first B'way show. The show was a week from starting rehearsals and had been cast for four months. I hadn't originally auditioned because I had put my foot down and decided to wait for a B'way gig. About that same time Chris Chadman offered me the National Company of Guys & Dolls, but I had to turn it down, holding out for B'way. (Not doing the show was a regret, but he was great about it, by the way ... .) One of the guys set to do Hello, Dolly! got a B'way show and decided to stay in NYC. So an audition was held. It was the day I got my last unemployment check I was going to get on that claim, so I opened the paper, saw the audition and went.
130 guys showed up, and after dancing for an hour, I found out they needed one guy who needed to be 6 foot tall. Well, I'm 5'7", not even close, but you figure you stay and maybe get on file for a future replacement. They cut to about 12 guys, then we all sang and went home. I was at home, contemplating my return to the table waiting scene when I got the call. 6 foot tall or not, I got the job
It was a great job and I can't say enough about working not only with Carol Channing in her Tony Award-winning role, but also with Lee Roy Reams (our director, and a terrific talent) and the great Jerry Herman. It was a tremendous experience all the way to Broadway and I wish everyone could have an opening night on Broadway like we did. When Carol made her first entrance, the whole theater leaped to it's feet. No lie. And when she came down those stairs for the title number, we cried, the audience screamed and cried, and she was everything a legend could be.
V.J. Oh yeah. I saw it and was standing too. It was an unforgettable moment to see Carol at the top of that staircase. In the audience we were in an absolute state of frenzy. I mean, we were just reliving theatrical history. It was amazing.
R.S. The New York Times said "Celebrate her." After Broadway, I was asked by Lee Roy, Jerry and Carol to stage the choreography for the post-Broadway tour, working hand in hand with them. The job was a gift, and a ball.