In the summer of 2018, Broadway dancer Maria Briggs had a jam packed schedule. On one particular July day, Briggs spent the morning in a costume fitting for her forthcoming turn in the musical Anastasia, rehearsed for Disney’s Frozen, and took the stage alongside Bette Midler in the evening performance of Hello, Dolly!.
Fifteen months later, the 29-year-old Minnesota native has made a name for herself as a top Broadway commodity: the swing—the cast member who masters multiple roles and steps in as any character when a regular ensemblist calls out.
Last season, Briggs performed in more Broadway shows than anyone else in the business: Frozen, Hello, Dolly!, Anastasia, and Mean Girls, where she is currently a swing.
“I’ve been told that if [casting directors] know you're a good swing, people will be asking for you,” Briggs tells Playbill.
Briggs covered 10 tracks in Frozen, understudied multiple roles in Anastasia and Hello, Dolly!, and now covers eight in Mean Girls. As fate would have it, her contracts with all four shows aligned so that she transitioned out of one show before tackling the next. She did double duty for two weeks of each, in rehearsals for her upcoming show during the day, and onstage in a different musical that night.
“The Anastasia, Dolly, and Frozen auditions were all within a week-and-a-half of each other so it was a very stressful time,” she says. “At [the audition for] Frozen, we sang and danced all day then I went to a physical therapy appointment afterwards and got the call that I was starting rehearsals [for Disney] the next day.
In April, Briggs “was learning 10 Frozen tracks and I still had the two auditions for the other shows coming up that week, so it was a lot of info all at once, I had to stay very focused on one thing at a time,” she continues.
Fast forward to August. “Towards the end of my run in Anastasia, I auditioned for Mean Girls on a Tuesday then found out two days later I was starting rehearsals the next week, so I was in the show at night and learning Mean Girls tracks during the day. There was definitely a moment of like, ‘OK, let’s find some extra space in my brain for this.’”
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Briggs moved to New York more than a decade ago to pursue theatre studies at The American Musical and Dramatic Academy and The New School. As a dancer who performed in the ensemble of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, Briggs hadn’t necessarily set her sights on Broadway, let alone swinging.
“The first time I swung was at Goodspeed (in Connecticut) when I did Carousel. It’s a completely different mindset and different tools that you need to have, so that’s where I really learned how to do it well,” she says.
“Then back in New York in 2017, Cats was looking for a vacation swing [who goes on only when regular ensemblists and swings are on vacation] and I ended up booking it. I played four different cats for six months straight, then they made me a permanent swing and I learned more tracks.”
In rehearsals, Briggs will take down notes as the choreographer teaches her first track, focusing on all the small details of that one role.
“Then it’s easier to get that next track because you're like, ‘Oh I already know this traffic from that other track,’” she says. A “homework person,” Briggs keeps all of the individual tracks on note cards to study, which is crucial. In some cases, Briggs will only get one rehearsal before taking the stage in a particular role, including the demanding Act 2 ballet solo in Anastasia.
“I’m dyslexic and I think that's one reason why I do succeed,” she says.
“I have these mental pictures in my head. When I was younger, I was getting straight A’s [because] I had figured out a way to work through a [school] system that worked completely different to the way I think. That's part of what swinging is: coming up with solutions.”
Covering so many roles, there are weeks when Briggs will perform a full eight shows.
“Everybody jokes about it like, ‘Oh you had three shows off, we thought you took a vacation,‘” she laughs.
“I actually ended up going into Mean Girls before my ‘put-in,’ which is like a dress rehearsal … I was literally thrown on stage and did my first 50 shows in 40 days,” she says.
“My craziest experience was this one performance of Cats: Victoria, the White Cat, was on vacation and Rumpleteazer was injured. I covered both, but the other White Cat cover was sick and the other Rumpleteazer cover had no voice. I ended up doing a split track, which is where you combine two tracks, and these were considered the two hardest female tracks in the show.
“So I started off dressed as the White Cat, then had to put the Rumpleteazer unitard over the top, and then for their features they wear something else, so I'm wearing three different unitards, my face was white, but I wore the Rumpleteazer wig. I did the feature, came off, ran around the stage, had to quickly undress and had enough time to run on and dive off the stage as the White Cat.”
Briggs says her key to success as a swing has been “opening up her toolkit” because each show demands such a variety of skills.
“When I have an audition coming up I’ll be like, ‘Okay I need to be able to sing the highest C, I know I have the range for that,’ so I would go to voice lessons every single week, if not a couple of times a week,” she says. “The dance styles in each show are so different, as well, so it’s about opening up my tools and trying to be more diverse. Anastasia has more ballet and Mean Girls has more hip-hop, so I’ll take classes to brush up.
“Now that I’ve been in a hip-hop–based show for a while, I try to take more ballet classes to balance everything out.”
With each show, Briggs also gets to learn from a new set of masters. “Working with both Bernadette Peters and Bette Midler was incredible, but my family are huge Frasier fans so working with David Hyde Pierce was really awesome,” she says of her time in Hello, Dolly!.
And audiences have begun to recognize Briggs from show to show. “Our fan base in Anastasia was really big, they were such huge superfans, so every time I do the stage door in Mean Girls people are like, ‘I saw you in Anastasia!’ It’s really sweet.”
Of course, there are challenges that come with the job.
Briggs can feel the pressure of coming into a show other ensemblists have been working consistently—though her casts have been welcoming. The most obvious challenge is keeping it all straight. Over the course of four shows, Briggs has covered over 30 tracks.
“There are definitely those moments in the middle of a performance where you’re like, ‘Where am I? Who am I?’ and in a show like Cats you can look down at your costume and know who you are, but it’s harder Mean Girls where I wear the same thing,” she says. “Or when they’re all really similar like in Frozen, it’s actually harder because the muscle memory is harder to find.
“In Cats it was so clear and so distinct what was happening, but in Mean Girls where you’re doing the same choreography it becomes more about your placement and memorizing where you’re meant to be.”
But Briggs tackles her job with grace and style. “My parents were in town last summer and Dolly ended on July 29 so they saw me in that show July 28 then they saw me in Frozen on July 31,” she says. “That was so awesome, I mean how often does something like that happen. This business is so crazy because sometimes you wait months and months for it to happen and other times it literally happens overnight. I’m incredibly grateful.”
Here are some of the tentpole dates in Maria’s chaotic season.
Briggs sings and dances all day, then leaves for a physical therapy appointment where she receives a call saying that she will begin rehearsals for the Disney behemoth the next day.
Briggs begins Frozen Rehearsals
Briggs goes on in Frozen for the first time
Hello, Dolly! Audition
Because Briggs was only on a short-term contract at Frozen covering medical leave, she continued auditioning for other shows.
Briggs begins Hello, Dolly! Rehearsals
Final Frozen Performance
First Hello, Dolly! Performance
Final Hello, Dolly! Performance
Second Run in Frozen Begins
Before she finished her first stint in Frozen, she was asked in advance to return for a second stint in order to cover for ensemblists who were on vacation. She knew she’d be done with Dolly! by then, but she didn’t know she’d be cast in Anastasia.
Anastasia Rehearsals Begin
As her second, and last, stint in Frozen wrapped up, Briggs began rehearsals for her third Broadway show of the year.
Briggs' Final Frozen Performance
Briggs' First Anastasia Performance
Mean Girls Audition
After Anastasia announced its March closing, Briggs went back to the audition room.
Briggs begins Mean Girls Rehearsals
Briggs had less than one week between her audition and the beginning of rehearsals.
Final Anastasia Performance
First Mean Girls Performance
Briggs continues on as a full-time swing at Mean Girls’ August Wilson Theatre.