Behind the scenes with HAMILTON swing, Eliza Ohman

You’ve probably heard of a little show called HAMILTON that’s taken Broadway by storm. The Tony, Grammy, Drama Desk, and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical fuses American history, rap music, contemporary hip-hop, modern-day vernacular, and an ethnically diverse cast and, as a result, resonates with audiences of all demographics and has become the most successful show of the decade.

Jo & Jax got an exclusive interview with cast member, Eliza Ohman, a professional dancer (and Jo+Jax lover) who is making her Broadway debut in HAMILTON. Eliza is a “swing,” which means she understudies all of the female ensemble tracks in the show—no small feat. And what’s more, Eliza is a universal swing for HAMILTON and hops around from Broadway to the touring companies of the production, when she’s needed. Any performer will tell you that being a swing is one of the toughest jobs in show business—mentally, physically, and even emotionally. If you ever wanted to know about life as a swing—especially in the biggest hit on Broadway—keep reading!

JJ: How was the audition process?  Were you familiar with/a fan of the show before you auditioned?

EO: My audition process was fairly involved. I was a called in to audition in March of 2016; fortunately I’d seen the show in January, so I was at least familiar with the vocabulary and style of the movement, but I went in knowing very little. I think in total I had 4 or 5 auditions where I learned chunks of choreography from “Yorktown,” “Room,” “My Shot,” and “What’d I Miss” as well as singing 2 songs from my book and learning pieces of music from the show. I think the whole process from the time I auditioned to finding out I booked the show took about 3 and a half months.

JJ: Andy Blankenbuehler’s aesthetic is such a cool fusion of hip-hop, ballet, contemporary, and more traditional musical theatre dance.  What is it like to dance his choreography?

EO: Andy’s work is so rewarding to perform, but it’s very physically and mentally taxing. I love getting to use every aspect of my training in the show while also challenging myself as a storyteller. Everything Andy does is story driven, so we’re constantly talking about intention and focus. For him, it’s hardly ever about a trick or technique. We’re all trained dancers, so our technique is there to support us, but he would rather see a battement at 45 degrees and our storytelling be true than see flawless technique with zero performance quality.

JJ: Explain the role of a “swing.”  Had you swung before?  What are the challenges and thrills of the job?

EO: A swing is an understudy for the ensemble who are always on call at the theatre to go on if someone is on vacation, sick/injured, on for a principal role they understudy, or gets hurt mid-show. In our show there are 5 ensemble women, so I know each of those girls’ dance tracks and vocal parts. Additionally, I’m a ‘universal swing’, which means I also do the same thing for the 2 touring productions, which are not carbon copies of the Broadway production. Prior to HAMILTON, I’d never swung before, so I had no idea what I was getting myself into—but it’s been an incredible experience. Keeping track of their vocal parts is super difficult because the whole show is sung through and the girls are never singing the same part, but I love getting to perform each track on stage. I never get bored of doing the same thing every night because things are constantly changing. It’s a constant shot of adrenaline.

JJ: You’re not necessarily on stage every night.  How do you stay in shape—both physically and mentally—for going on at a moment’s notice?

EO: This is probably one of the hardest parts about the job. Sometimes you don’t find out you’re going on until 30 minutes before the show, which makes it difficult to know how hard you can push yourself at the gym or in class. I’ve definitely had a show where I pushed myself a little too much in Pilates, walked out of class feeling super sore, and found out I was on that evening. All that to say, I take care of myself the same way I would if I was in a track every night. I try to workout a couple of times a week (I love taking Pilates and hot yoga), I do vocal warm-ups every morning to stretch my range, and I try to eat a fairly balanced diet. I definitely indulge in treats at the end of the week though! Mentally, I made a track sheet for every single one of the girls I cover. If I’m on in a track I haven’t done in awhile, I have a little 8-10 page document I can skim through that reminds me of the idiosyncrasies of that track, where to set/drop a prop, where I do a costume change, etc. It’s an easy refresher that makes sure I’m 100% confident before the show starts.

JJ: Can you describe how it feels to be a part of such a groundbreaking and historical musical?

EO: This is, without question, the most surreal experience of my career. HAMILTON is a once-in-a-generation show. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to describe how special this show is to me, but the memories of being part of it will stick with me forever. It’s been a dream.

JJ: What advice can you give to dancers who aspire to be a Broadway swings?

EO: Never stop training! Even as professionals we’re still regularly taking class and voice lessons. We all made it to Broadway in different ways, but none of us got here without a lot of hard work. Everything happens in its own time, so don’t be discouraged by all the “no’s”—they get you one step closer to that perfect yes!

To learn more about HAMILTON, purchase tickets, or enter the lottery, visit www.hamiltonbroadway.com. For more on Eliza Ohman, check out www.elizaohman.com and follow her on social media—@elizaohman (Instagram/Snapchat) @eliza_ohman (Twitter)

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