Theater actors the world over aspire to work under the bright lights of a Broadway stage. Landing a job in a show is incredibly competitive, but if you know what to expect from the audition, you can easily navigate the process.
- What is Broadway, exactly?
- What’s the best place to train to be on Broadway?
- What are the requirements to perform on Broadway?
- How do I get my Equity card?
- What types of roles can I audition for on Broadway?
- How much do Broadway actors make?
- What to expect at a Broadway audition
- Major Broadway casting directors
- Do I need an agent to get on Broadway?
- What Broadway terms should I know?
- Famous Broadway actors
Broadway refers to 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 a theater is considered 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. It currently operates 17 Broadway and six Off-Broadway theaters. The Nederlander Organization runs nine Broadway houses. Jujamcyn Theaters has five Broadway venues in its portfolio.
These three don’t own every Broadway house, though. Smaller, subscriber-supported companies include the Roundabout Theatre Company (which operates three venues); Manhattan Theatre Club (the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre); and Lincoln Center, which owns one Broadway theater, the Vivian Beaumont.
Rigorous acting and musical theater schools are the best places to prepare for a career on Broadway. 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 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, Tony-winning “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom Jr., “The Book of Mormon” and “Frozen” star Josh Gad, and “Kinky Boots” Tony winner Billy Porter.
- University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM): Home to the oldest musical theater program in the country, CCM is widely recognized for its triple-threat approach to training. This program has produced tons of Broadway talent, including Betsy Wolfe (“Waitress”), Christy Altomare (“Anastasia”), Tony winner Faith Prince (“Guys and Dolls”), Aaron Lazar (“Les Misérables”), and “Hamilton” stars Karen Olivo and Andrew Chappelle.
- 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” fame is an alum, as are Tony winners Gavin Creel (“Hello, Dolly!”) and Celia Keenan-Bolger (“To Kill a Mockingbird”).
Graduating from one of the “top” schools may help give you a leg up, but there are plenty of other great musical theater programs and acting schools across the country. Graduating from one of these institutions isn’t a guarantee of landing work, however; 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.
“The Lehman Trilogy” Credit: Craig Schwartz Photography
One of the baseline requirements for Broadway performers is membership in Actors’ Equity Association, the union that represents stage actors. Since all Broadway theaters operate under Equity contracts, there are virtually no exceptions.
Beyond your union 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. If you’re hoping to break into musicals, specifically, your reel should include musical excerpts alongside your acting clips. For guidance, see Tim Grady’s five most valuable tips for creating a strong musical theater reel and advice on creating the energy of an in-person audition on camera.
There are multiple ways for actors to obtain a coveted Equity card:
- Land an Equity contract. When a union contract is left over with no union member to fill it, the contract is bestowed upon a qualified nonunion actor. That actor is then paid union wages and, more importantly, becomes eligible to join Equity during their term of employment. Hired as nonunion 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.
- Become an Equity Membership Candidate. The EMC program is a great way to work toward union status while gaining valuable early career experience. Mimicking an age-old theatrical apprenticeship model, EMC 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, these actors are welcomed into the union.
- 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). Members in good standing with one of these unions can join Equity. You’ll need to provide proof of membership (and up-to-date payments on your dues), along with at least $600 toward the Equity initiation fee—which currently stands at $1,800.
As with SAG-AFTRA, joining Equity is a big decision and a major commitment. Equity actors are barred from taking nonunion contracts—so nonunion tours, certain Off-Off-Broadway companies, and some small regional theaters may be off-limits to members. On the other hand, Equity actors enjoy perks like salary protections, health care, and a community of 50,000 talented fellow members.
“Aladdin” – Photo by Deen van Meer
Broadway productions and Equity contracts operate with strictly defined performer roles. You should familiarize yourself with these before walking into your first Broadway audition.
- Swing: Often regarded as the most challenging gig on Broadway, swing actors are not actually required to be onstage during most performances; instead, they cover multiple “tracks” in a show. That means a swing learns several different principal or ensemble roles so that if an actor is out during a performance, they’re prepared to step in at a moment’s notice.
- Standby: Like swings, standby performers are not actually in the onstage cast. Standbys quite literally stand by in case a principal actor cannot perform. Generally, standbys are only hired for the meatiest roles, where a traditional understudy may not suffice, and they only cover one part in the show. “Wicked,” for example, has standbys for both witches.
- Understudy: What separates understudies from swings is that the latter are actually in the show. However, they also understudy a more prominent principal role. If the regular 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—or the chorus, if you want to be old-fashioned—is made up of the onstage performers and dancers who support the principal cast. Ensemble members are similar to background actors on television and in film: They fill scenes and dance numbers, and serve as the chorus in musical numbers.
- Principal: 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.
“Hadestown” — Photo by Matthew Murphy
According to Comparably, the average Broadway actor’s salary is $144,128 in New York City.
Equity guarantees minimum salaries for performers working under union contracts. Under the production contract, Broadway actors receive minimum earnings per week, with additional earnings depending on the requirements of the role. For example, chorus members with extra roles receive additional earnings, as do understudies for principal roles, dance captains, and actors performing with a show for over a year.
Broadway auditions operate under Equity guidelines. Though these rules can seem complicated, they are designed to give the highest number of actors possible a chance to be seen.
- Every Equity production must hold calls in which 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 nonspeaking 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. 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.
- Equity monitors run 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, nonunion 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 a shorter song and monologue. ECC calls typically include learning a choreographic combination for a dance audition; for a vocal audition, you will be asked to prepare a 32-bar song. Equity rules require actors to have a minimum of one minute per audition, so you’ll have at least 60 seconds to show off 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 Equity monitor reads off your name, you’ll sacrifice your audition time to an EMC or nonunion actor on standby.
Naturally, your first few Broadway auditions may be intimidating. To prepare yourself, read these essential things to know before stepping into the room. For a detailed procedural breakdown of Equity auditions, check out Equity’s official website.
“Dear Evan Hansen” — Photo by Matthew Murphy
The three names synonymous with Broadway casting are Bernard “Bernie” Telsey, Tara Rubin, and Jim Carnahan.
In its more than 20 years in the industry, the Telsey Office 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 musicals “Dear Evan Hansen” and the perpetually running “The Phantom of the Opera.” In addition to these two powerhouses, Carnahan, whose Carnahan Casting is responsible for putting together ensembles for the prestigious Roundabout Theatre Company, is rapidly gaining industry renown.
It’s important to know the major casting directors and what they like to see in an audition. If you impress a CD, they will likely bring you in for future auditions, which can greatly impact your career. Just look at Telsey’s impact on Idina Menzel; the Telsey Office cast her in all three Broadway roles she originated.
For more on prominent—and up-and-coming—casting talent, check out our guide to the industry players in New York City you need to know.
You don’t need an agent to get on Broadway—but having one helps. Unrepresented actors can search casting notices for advertised auditions. If you’re Equity, you can sign up for ECCs and EPAs. However, many Broadway gigs are not posted publicly; instead, they’re cast exclusively through agent submissions. Having representation increases your industry cachet, making you a more desirable candidate for any Broadway gig.
But that doesn’t mean booking Broadway roles without an agent is 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 or manager submissions,” says JV Mercanti, an associate professor of musical theater at Pace University’s School of Performing Arts. “I can tell you that when casting the Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘The Woman in White’ many years ago, seven of our ensemble members came from the EPA. Musicals and shows requiring younger people—think ‘Spring Awakening’—use these calls to find young, unrepresented talent. For plays, understudy roles can often be cast from these calls.”
If you decide that getting an agent is the right path for your career, actually landing one will be an additional journey. Learn more about the process with our in-depth guide to finding an acting agent.
Do you know what it means to go up on your lines or 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 entails?
It’s OK if you answered no to any of the above—for now. Broadway has a ton of lingo that may sound foreign to someone who isn’t in the know. But if you plan to make it to The Great White Way, study up.
Here’s a very small sampling of some of the most famous Broadway performers:
- Julie Andrews: Deemed a Dame for her contributions to the performing arts, Andrews starred in the original Broadway productions of “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot,” and has won multiple awards, including three Grammys.
- James Earl Jones: The voice of Darth Vader and two-time Tony winner has appeared on Broadway in plays including “Of Mice and Men,” “Othello,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Great White Hope,” and “Fences.”
- Patti LuPone: This Tony and Grammy winner has performed in “The Robber Bridegroom,” “Evita,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “War Paint,” and most recently, the latest revival of “Company.”
- Lin-Manuel Miranda: As if creating “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” weren’t enough, Miranda also performed in the Broadway smash hits and has won multiple Tonys and Grammys.
- Idina Menzel: Voicing Elsa in “Frozen” made her a household name, but Menzel has long contributed her talents to Broadway in productions including “Rent,” “Wicked” (for which she won a Tony), and “If/Then.”
- Billy Porter: Tony and Grammy winner Porter has performed in “Grease,” “Kinky Boots,” and “Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.”
- Ben Platt: After making his Broadway debut as Elder Cunningham in “The Book of Mormon,” Platt starred in “Dear Evan Hansen,” which won him a Tony and Grammy.
- Barbra Streisand: EGOT winner Streisand broke out in the 1960s in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” and “Funny Girl.”