So I'm a Swing(er) Now...?
It was the morning of the third — and final — audition for the North American tour of A Charlie Brown Christmas. I was excited, but nervous, as I commuted from New Jersey to New York City to get to Pearl Studios at 10am.
I started out early; I wanted to be able to get to the city with plenty of time to spare. However, NJ Transit had very different plans for me that morning. At the bus stop on this sunny September morning, commuters kept lining up but there was no 116 bus in sight. As the minutes turned into an hour — and, eventually, an hour and a half — I started to panic. The only way I could possibly make it on time was to drive into New York. Where would I park? Was there traffic? Would I still be late? Who knew the answers to these questions, but I had to go. There was no way I'd miss this.
I got into the car, shaking with frustration as I turned the keys in my ignition and cursed NJ Transit for yet another attempt at ruining my entire existence. (I also condemned my career choices, auditioning in general... and the fact that my family didn't conveniently rent me out my own studio apartment in Hell's Kitchen, but that's besides the point.) By the grace of the theatre gods, I made it to Manhattan with just enough time to make the audition; all I needed to do was park and run over to Pearl. After pulling into a lot, I got out of the car and bolted. I checked my phone to make sure I was headed to the right room as I darted in and out of city traffic. "Same place," read the email. "BUT!!! 3rd Floor" (instead of the fourth floor, where we'd been just a few days before).
Panting, I made it to the studio's third floor. I looked at my cellphone. 10:00am. Oh my God, I've made it. But wait... where is everyone? Where is the Charlie Brown holding room? WHAT IS HAPPENING? Oh... we were switched back to the fourth floor? Okay. Cool.
With a line formed outside of the elevator, I opted to take the stairs up. As I exited the stairwell, a group of potential Peanuts were heading into a room to do the dance combination. I couldn't even fathom dancing; I wanted to throw up, as this was probably the most exercise I had done all month. "You're in the next group," I heard someone say to me as the scene around me suddenly became a blur.
I tried to collect my thoughts, but I felt like a complete train wreck as we danced the same combination over and over, the groups getting smaller. My heart dropped when I saw all of the other guys called back for the role of Charlie Brown dance together without me. I had been cut. Dammit.
"Michael Gioia," I heard. "Dance with this group." They were a completely different set of boys, seemingly up for the role of Linus. "Ohhh," I thought to myself. "They could be considering me for the Swing." It was when we were called back into the room in a small group to stand in front of the mirror for the director, A Chorus Line style — with who would be cast as the swings on the outskirts of the group's triangular formation — did I realize what was in store for me.
Swinging is hard. I was employed to learn four completely different roles (but could essentially fill in anywhere at a moment's notice). It is certainly a job I never imagined doing, or something I didn't even know I was capable of. It's really nice to know that you can believably play any of the parts in your show, but at times it can be overwhelming... and then, of course, it can be extremely hard to watch all of your castmates on stage while you're sitting on the bench.
My first performance as Charlie Brown was on Dec. 8, 2019, at the Flynn Center in Burlington, VT. That morning, I exited our tour bus to find myself in the most magical winter wonderland. It was like that moment when Dorothy stepped out into the technicolor land of Oz. The main street was decorated in holiday lights and Christmas trees, and there was a light dusting of snow on the ground. I found a quaint little coffee shop, treated myself to a breakfast sandwich and soaked in the surrounding holiday merriment before our 2pm matinee. I was on the phone with a friend when someone beeped in. Before I even answered the call from my tour manager, I knew it was finally my time. "Michael," she said. "You're on."
With only two hours and 15 minutes before curtain, I had a lot to do. I never swung a show before, and if we're being completely honest, A Charlie Brown Christmas was my first show in years. Only months before, I had left my job as a full-time magazine editor to jump back into the theatrical pond. Swinging felt like quite the undertaking. Did I know all my lines? Did I have all the choreography down? Where is the costume that I'm using? OMG PROPS? Where do they go? When am I taking them on? Where do I put them when I'm done? Am I gonna faint?
Somehow, someway, it all came together. I ran the show with my cast — or as much of it as we possibly could — before I was Charlie Brown for real in front of a full house. I studied as many lines as I had time for. Finding myself oddly calm, I got into costume, applied some stage makeup and took a breath. In just a few moments, I heard that iconic Peanuts jingle and was thrown into the ring.
Going on for the first time as an understudy is very weird. You're literally stepping into someone else's shoes. You're trying to remember everything you've studied and learned, but you're also trying to remain present and be an actor. As you're saying the lines, your mind is already on the next scene (or two or three scenes ahead!). You're trying to remember the harmonies, but you're harmonizing with someone else's musical line that you also had to learn — SO WHICH IS THE RIGHT ONE?!
I guess I'm sappy in my old age (#30s), but the entire day (I performed both the matinee and the evening shows) was truly magical. I felt so accomplished. I even got teary eyed on stage holding that little Charlie Brown Christmas tree with only a few branches on it. There may have been one section in the second act where I had no idea what to do — it was only 30 seconds of music, but it felt like an eternity — but otherwise, I think I killed it. At least to me I did. Before this show, I hadn't auditioned in years. I still performed in occasional concerts or readings, but it was my first full-blown production in at least three (?!) years. Booking the gig was already monumental; successfully swinging it was the icing on the cake.
After one of the shows in Vermont, a few audience members said how wonderful it was as we exited through the front of the building, and one of my cast members replied: "You came to a special show. It was Michael's first performance as Charlie Brown!" They said: "We never would have known." What seemed like such a huge deal on my end was not even noticed by those in the audiences — and that, truly, is the biggest compliment a swing could ever receive.
We celebrated with fried food, drinks and karaoke... all the way up until bus call!
A Charlie Brown Christmas taught me a lot of things about myself. I learned to trust myself and the process. I really didn't know if I had it in me to swing a show. Over the course of our run, I had to jump into random roles, situations or scenarios to make the show succeed. I also learned how to live with 11 other people on a tour bus, which — let me tell you — is a trip and a half. We slept on the bus, we ate on the bus, we brushed our teeth with water from water bottles, we watched movies, snacked on way too many Doritos and chocolates, had deep conversations and did lots of laughing and sometimes even cried talking about loss, grief and struggle. It was hysterical and amazing, at times a challenge and, overall, completely unforgettable.
I visited incredible places. Chicago. Niagara Falls. Toronto. West Palm Beach. Museums. Monuments. Book stores. Karaoke bars. I ate lots of good food and had so many tasty drinks. I gained a few pounds, but also gained some lifelong friends and unforgettable experiences. I celebrated Thanksgiving with a whole new family and spent Christmas by a pool. I'm glad I was asked to swing the show. I mean... who doesn't want to be the star? (Do you even know me?) But I also love a challenge... and lemme tell you... quite the challenge it was! I'm gonna go ahead and say that I succeeded.
(Flip thru the pics below to see our adventures on tour!)