How To Get Cast on Broadway

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Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

Theater actors the world over aspire to work under the bright lights of a Broadway stage. Landing a job in a Broadway show is incredibly competitive, but if you know what to expect from a Broadway audition, you’ll easily navigate the process. We’re here to answer all your questions about auditioning for—and getting cast on—Broadway.

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What is Broadway, exactly?

Broadway is a group of live theater venues in New York City that produce professional stage plays and musicals. You might be surprised to learn that Broadway theaters are defined primarily by their seating capacity—500 or more seats, and the theater is Broadway; 100 or more, and it’s Off-Broadway. Theaters with fewer than 100 seats are typically considered Off-Off-Broadway. 

Most of Broadway’s 41 theaters are owned by three companies: 

The Shubert Organization is the largest group by far. They currently operate 17 Broadway and six off-Broadway theaters. The Nederlander (pronounced need-er-lander) Organization runs nine Broadway houses. Jujamcyn (pronounced joo-jam-sin) Theatres has five Broadway venues in their portfolio. 

These three companies don’t own every Broadway house, though. Smaller, subscriber-supported theaters include the Roundabout Theatre Company (which owns the American Airlines Theatre and Studio 54), Manhattan Theatre Club (the Samuel J. Friedman), and Lincoln Center, which boasts one Broadway theater, the Vivian Beaumont.

What’s the best place to train to be on Broadway?

Rigorous acting and musical theater schools are the best places to train for a career on Broadway. On the Broadway circuit, the “big three” when it comes to collegiate training are:

  • Carnegie Mellon University: Considered by many to be the top dog for Broadway training, CMU’s School of Drama emphasizes established practices integrated with innovation to produce timeless and forward-thinking artists. Musical theater students are required to take the same acting classes as dramatic actors to ensure well-roundedness. Alumni include “Wicked” and “Smash” star Megan Hilty, two-time Tony winner Christian Borle, “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom, Jr., “Book of Mormon,” and “Frozen” star Josh Gad, and “Kinky Boots” Tony winner Billy Porter.
  • University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music (CCM): The oldest musical theater program in the entire country, CCM is widely recognized for its triple-threat approach to training. This program has produced tons of Broadway talent. Alumna Betsy Wolfe has played the title role in “Waitress,” Christy Altomare also starred in the title role in “Anastasia.” Faith Prince, Aaron Lazar, and “Hamiton” stars Karen Olivo and Andrew Chappelle are also CCM graduates. 
  • University of Michigan: Michigan’s theater and dance department places equal importance on academic excellence and professional training. Darren Criss of “Glee” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” stardom is a 2009 alum, Gavin Creel (who won a 2017 Tony Award for his work in “Hello, Dolly!”), and 2019 Tony Winner Celia Keenan-Bolger are also Michigan grads.

Graduating from one of the “top” schools may help give you a leg up, but there are great musical theater programs and acting schools all across the country. Graduating from one of these institutions isn’t a guarantee of work, however. And there are many Broadway actors with brilliant careers who never graduated from college: Sutton Foster, Nathan Lane, Noma Dumezweni, Stephanie J. Block, and John Gallagher Jr. are just a few.

What are the requirements to be on Broadway?

One of the baseline Broadway requirements for performers is a membership in the Actor’s Equity Association (AEA), the actor union that represents stage actors. Since all Broadway theaters operate with union contracts, there are virtually no exceptions. The AEA (also called Equity) has represented every performer you have ever seen on Broadway. 

Beyond your Equity card, the materials you’ll need to get cast on Broadway are a headshot, résumé, and demo reel.  All actors use these materials to submit to auditions and book gigs. The only difference for Broadway actors is the addition of musical performance. If you’re hoping to break into musicals, specifically, your reel should include musical excerpts alongside your acting clips. For guidance, see Backstage Expert Tim Grady’s five most valuable tips for creating a strong musical theater reel and advice on recreating the audition room’s energy.

And, finally, it doesn’t hurt to have a Backstage membership! Many, many Broadway stars used Backstage to find roles in the early stages of their careers. Rachel Bay Jones, who won a 2017 Tony Award for her role in “Dear Evan Hansen,” says she “lived by Backstage religiously when I first moved to the city.” Broadway icon Beth Leavel also used Backstage at the onset of her New York tenure and tells us she “felt like I was a part of the club when I had my Backstage in my hand.” Veteran theater actor Brian d’Arcy James, most recently seen in “Hamilton,” also says he feels “like it was yesterday when I was going to open calls and looking at all the columns in Backstage.” And this doesn’t just apply to Broadway vets. Anthony Rosenthal, the young actor who starred in last season’s Tony-nominated “Falsettos” revival, also used Backstage when he was getting started. 

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How do I get my Equity card?

There are different ways for actors to get the coveted Equity card: by landing an Equity contract, becoming an Equity Membership Candidate (EMC), or joining through a sister union. 

  1. Get an Equity Contract. When a union contract is leftover with no union member to fill it, the contract is bestowed upon a qualified non-union actor. That actor is then paid union wages and— more importantly—  becomes eligible to join Equity during his or her term of employment. Hired as non-union but interested in joining? Particularly with larger companies, it may be worth asking for one or two contracted weeks as part of your negotiation process.
  2. Become an Equity Membership Candidate. The EMC program is a great way to work towards union membership while gaining valuable early career experience. Mimicking an age-old theatrical apprenticeship model, Equity allows candidates to earn their eligibility through 50 weeks of work in participating theaters. Once enrolled in the program, candidates earn one point for every eligible week worked; 50 points (and 50 weeks) later, EMC actors are welcomed into the union.
  3. Join Through a Sister Union. Equity is a member of the  Associated Actors and Artistes of America  (4As), alongside sister unions SAG-AFTRA, AGMA (the American Guild of Musical Artists), AGVA (the American Guild of Variety Artists), and GIAA (the Guild of Italian-American Actors). Actors who are members in good standing of one of these sister unions can join Equity. You’ll need to provide proof of membership (and good standing) along with at least $600 towards the Equity initiation fee—which currently stands at $1,700.

As with SAG-AFTRA, joining Equity is a big decision and a big commitment! Equity actors are barred from taking non-union contracts, so non-union tours, certain Off-Off-Broadway companies, and some small regional theaters may be off-limits to members. On the brighter side, Equity actors enjoy tons of perks like salary protections and healthcare and a community of 50,000 talented fellow members.

What types of roles can I audition for on Broadway?

Broadway productions and Equity contracts operate with strictly defined performer roles. You should familiarize yourself with these roles before walking into your first Broadway audition. 

  • Swing: Frequently regarded as the most challenging gig on Broadway, swing actors are not actually in the onstage cast for most performances. Instead, they cover multiple tracks in a show. That means a swing learns several different principal or ensemble roles and, if an actor is out of a performance, he or she steps in at a moment’s notice.
  • Standby: Like swings, standby performers are not actually in the onstage cast. Standbys stand by in case a principal actor cannot perorm. Generally, standbys are only for the meatiest roles where a traditional understudy may not suffice, and they only cover one role in the show. “Wicked,” for example, has standbys for both witches.
  • Understudy: Speaking of understudies, you probably know at least vaguely what they are. What separates understudies from swings is that understudies are in the show. However, they also understudy a more prominent principal role. If the principal actor is unable to perform, the understudy steps in. From there, a swing will likely step into the understudy’s usual role.
  • Ensemble: The ensemble, less politically correctly referred to as “the chorus,” is the onstage performers and dancers who support the principal cast. Ensemble members are similar to background actors in television and film. They fill scenes and dance numbers and serve as a literal chorus in musical numbers.
  • Principal: Finally, principal actors play characters with names. They play the lead and supporting roles, and their headshots appear in the program.  If they are well-known to the public, they may even see their name above the title on the theater’s marquee.

What should I expect at a Broadway audition?

You can expect Broadway auditions to operate under Equity guidelines, just as Broadway productions do. The guidelines can seem complicated, but they are designed to give the most actors a chance to be seen. 

Every production with a negotiated Equity contract must hold audition calls where Equity actors can sign up and audition with or without representation. These auditions fall into two categories; Equity Principal Auditions (EPAs) and Equity Chorus Calls (ECCs). EPAs are held to cast a production's major speaking and singing roles, while ECCs are used to cast non-speaking roles. 

There are two different types of ECCs: those for singing and those for dancing. The theater will specify the designated type in the audition listing.  But most actors bring their book and dance clothes to either ECC, as casting directors often ask actors to stay and dance or sing in a later time slot. 

An Equity monitor runs all Broadway auditions. The monitor arrives an hour before the posted audition start time and signs in performers based on order of arrival and union status. Full Equity members have priority, followed by Equity Member Candidates. If there are any slots left, non-union performers can take them. 

Auditions are scheduled in 20-minute time slots, with six performers in each slot. EPA breakdowns usually request a two-minute monologue, a 32-bar song, or some combination of shorter song and monologue. ECC calls typically teach a dance combination for dance auditions and request a 32-bars for a vocal audition.  Equity rules require that actors have a minimum of one minute per audition, so you’ll have at least 60 seconds to show your best stuff. 

During New York’s prime audition season, actors line up several hours before the AEA monitor arrives. Sometimes all time slots are filled in a couple of hours. If it’s a hot project with numerous roles, expect a heavy turnout and arrange your schedule accordingly.  If you receive a slot, you must check-in at least 10 minutes early. If you are not present when the AEA monitor reads off your name, you’ll sacrifice your audition time to an EMC or non-union actor on standby.

Naturally, your first few Broadway auditions may be intimidating. To fully prepare for your first Broadway audition, be sure to read these nine essential things to know before stepping into the room. For a detailed procedural breakdown of Equity auditions, check out the Actors’ Equity’s official website, which has all the information you need.

Which Broadway casting directors should I know?

The three names synonymous with Broadway casting that you need to know are Bernard “Bernie” Telsey, Tara Rubin, and Jim Carnahan. 

In its more than 20 years in the industry, Telsey + Co has cast everything from “Rent” to “Wicked” to a little show called “Hamilton.” Tara Rubin Casting is right on Telsey’s heels, though.  The Rubin team cast Tony-winning best musical “Dear Evan Hansen” and the perpetually-running “The Phantom of the Opera.” In addition to these two powerhouses, Jim Carnahan, whose Carnahan Casting is responsible for casting at the prestigious Roundabout Theatre Company, is rapidly gaining notoriety. 

It is important to know the major casting directors and what they like to see in an audition. If you impress a casting director, they will bring you in for future auditions, which can greatly impact your career. Just look at Bernie Telsey’s impact on Idina Menzel; Telsey + Co cast her in all three Broadway roles she originated. 

For more on the prominent—and up-and-coming—casting talent, check out our guide to all the industry players in New York City you need to know.

Do I need an agent to get on Broadway?

You do not need an agent to get cast on Broadway—but having one helps. Unrepresented actors can scour casting notices for advertised auditions. If you’re Equity, you can sign up for ECCs and EPAs. But many Broadway gigs are not publicly posted and instead are cast exclusively through agent submissions. Just having an agent increases your industry cachet, making you a more desirable candidate for any Broadway gig.

Just because your chances of finding and booking a gig are higher with an agent than without one, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. “Some actors will tell you that it’s not worth your time to go to an EPA or Open Call, that we’re not really looking, or only seriously seeing agent/manager submissions,” says JV Mercanti, a Backstage Expert and head of acting for the musical theater program at Pace University’s School of the Arts. “I can tell you that when casting the Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘The Woman in White’ many years ago that seven of our ensemble members came from the EPA. Musicals and shows requiring younger people (think “Spring Awakening”) especially use these calls to find young, unrepresented talent. For plays, understudy roles can often be cast from these calls.”

Ultimately, if you decide an agent is the right path for your career, actually getting one will be an additional journey. Learn more about the process with our in-depth guide to getting an acting agent.

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What Broadway terms should I know?

Do you know what it means to go up on your lines or to be off-book? What about the difference between a production stage manager and an assistant stage manager (neither of which should be confused with the production assistant)? Are you going to understand what’s required when your sitzprobe is scheduled, or what a 10 out of 12 will entail?

It’s okay if you answered “no” to any of the above—for now. Broadway has a ton of lingo that may sound foreign to someone not in the know. But if you plan to be on Broadway, you should study up:

Head over to Backstage’s casting calls to see our hosting opportunities!

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
See full bio and articles here!

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