Following her Southern California appearances in All Shook Up, Hairspray, Hello! My Baby, Monty Python’s Spamalot, Oklahoma!, and more, Carly Weilstein returns to her SoCal home turf as Swing and Dance Captain in the 2013-2014 National Tour of the international smash Mamma Mia! We caught up with Carly at the tour’s current San Francisco stop to catch up on what’s been happening over the past half year or so.
Carly, you grew up in Sacramento and studied to be a ballerina. Can you talk a bit about growing up there and how you first got bit by the musical theater bug?
I was born in Davis California, which is actually the bicycle capital of the country, and moved to Sacramento when I was three. When I was seven and my sister was four, my mom put us both in ballet and basically we were hooked. We danced together our whole life—which is part of why I love it so much—with a series of prestigious ballet studios in the Sacramento area and went on to dance in many ballets with The Sacramento Ballet.
And how did you as a young ballerina start doing musical theater?
One summer when I was fourteen, my mom enrolled my sister and I in a children’s theater production of Godspell. Aside from school plays, this was the first time I’d ever done a full-blown musical. I was just enthralled with the whole thing. I even got a part and had a solo! From that moment I knew that I loved to dance and I loved to sing and act.
Did you switch right away from ballet to doing musicals?
I stayed with ballet professionally for several more years and did as much theater as my mom could find. I went to college at California State University, Fullerton, and studied in their BFA Musical Theatre program. There I found that all of my technical studies as a dancer were a major asset in helping me find my place in this industry.
Since both you and your sister are dancers, I’m wondering, do you come from a showbiz background?
People always ask if my parents were dancers, the answer is no! They’re both therapists, and they are the sole reason that my sister and I are both professional dancers. (My sister is an internationally ranked ballroom dancer). They started us in dance and have never stopped believing in dance and theater as a viable career. That can be unfortunately rare, so I feel so blessed that they have never missed a single opportunity to watch us perform.
That’s really wonderful, and as you say, often not the case for parents whose children want to pursue careers in entertainment. What was your favorite role or production before joining the Mamma Mia! tour?
I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve ever been in, so this is a tough one! But if I have to pick one, then I would say my first professional job, The Rocky Horror Show. I was one of the dancers and it was an exceptional production directed by Michael Laughlin and choreographed by Katy Durham. I was so thrilled to be there and working and the dancing was fierce and sexy. I still remember the choreography years later! But like I said, I’ve thoroughly loved every job I’ve ever had!
Can you talk a bit about the audition process for Mamma Mia! Lots of callbacks and suspense?
I love that you asked this question because I like my story! So, my audition process was quite different then the majority of my cast. Joy Dewing Casting along with WorkLight Productions did most of their auditioning out of New York City. My cast members from there tell me their process was nearly nine months!
I was seen at the Agent-Invited Singer Call where we sang Sophie “sides.” Typically I would have preferred to be seen at a dancer call first, but this was how they were seeing women because they weren’t holding a dance call for women in L.A. When I finished singing, the casting director told me she’d noticed that I’d written down that I was interested in the role of Dance Captain. I said, “Yes… I’m a really good dancer and I think you should she me dance.” She looked at me and said “Okay, come back on Monday to dance at the callbacks.” A total risk being so bold, I know, but I said that because I knew I wasn’t right for Sophie but that I was right for the show. I didn’t want to be counted out before they saw my strongest suit.
Smart move, I’d say.
So I came back the following Monday and danced with the boys, which was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. They kept me around for a few hours reading and singing some more sides and then asked me to come back the following day to dance again and do some more sides. The following Monday, two weeks from my initial audition, my agent called and informed me that WorkLight was offering me the job of Dance Captain/Female Swing!
You must have been elated!
I screamed and ran outside and told my mailman because I was home alone! Then I called my mom, my boyfriend, and each family member. We were all crying and laughing! So by the end of May I knew I was going on tour.
As you say, you’re both Dance Captain and Swing in Mamma Mia! Can you explain to anyone who might not be familiar with those terms the roles that each of those play in a musical?
I love this question because it’s like learning about an untold role in our industry. A swing is a performer who covers, in other words who understudies, multiple ensemble tracks and has to be prepared to go on anytime. In Mamma Mia!, the other female swing and I cover the seven female ensemble women. One of the male swings covers seven ensemble males and the other male swing covers seven ensemble males and the role of Pepper.
So how does the role of swing differ from that of understudy?
The difference between a swing and an understudy is that an understudy is an ensemble member who’s responsible for knowing one or two featured or leading roles as well as their primary ensemble track. A swing has to cover the entire ensemble. The understudies in Mamma Mia! are all in the ensemble of the production every night and the other swings and I are not. We’re always available to go on if someone is out of the production for any reason.
And do you get warned in advance when you’re going to go on?
That can happen with plenty of notice or even after the show has already started.
That sounds like a tough assignment!
Being a swing is definitely a tricky job, but I think if you have the right brain for it, it becomes a blast and you feel like you can accomplish anything!
How do you keep the various ensemble tracks you cover separate in your mind?
We all have methods of remembering the different tracks. I have a huge binder that is my lifesaver. It’s color coded, has all sorts of charts and diagrams, and is written in a language I’m sure only makes sense to me.
Have you had plenty of chances to go on over the course of the tour?
I’ve had the opportunity to go on over thirty times, which I am thrilled about. Early on in the tour, a cast member had a family emergency and had to leave for a bit. The other female swing took her track for a couple of weeks. During that time I had to cover all the other parts; in four performances one weekend I played four different roles. We call that “Track Attack”…your brain gets confused as to which part you are playing!
What happens if for some reason more than one ensemble member is out of the show?
In that case, swings have to do what is called “Split Tracking.” That means if three girls are out for any reason, the female swings will each cover one role and then split the remain role(s) between us. It’s a crazy rush and puzzle!
So I take it you enjoy your role in the show as swing.
I love being a swing! The show never gets old to me and my cast loves when we go on because we bring new energy to the show.
You’re also Dance Captain. What does that mean?
Being Dance Captain means that I’m in charge of all things “dance” in our production: clean-up rehearsals, weekly notes, problem solving, leading warm-ups, and teaching the show. I take notes often and my job is to uphold the integrity of the choreography.
Any other Dance Captain duties?
On the road each venue can be so different that I’m also responsible for assisting in any changes that might need to happen to accommodate the space. I also run put-in and understudy rehearsals. So although I swing seven roles, as the Dance Captain I must know all of the roles as it is my job to teach an understudy or a new cast member any role in the show.
Has this happened often on the tour?
So far I’ve taught the show to two replacement ensemble performers and one principle. That’s a really amazing part of my job as it’s fast-paced and crazy. We close ourselves into a room and we just jump in as fast as we can. Typically once the show has opened anyone who has to come and learn it has to learn it fast, so when they make their debut it’s just thrilling to watch! The same goes for an understudy! Being the Dance Captain/swing for this show is the best thing that has ever happened to me!
What’s the high spot of the tour so far?
A few things actually. I’ve had the privilege of being asked to teach all over the country as we travel, so that has been inspiring! I’m actually teaching a master class at my alma mater Cal State Fullerton. That’s pretty cool. We also had the opportunity to meet Senator Gabby Gifford in Arizona when she came to the show, so that was just unreal. I particularly loved Savannah Georgia, Pittsburgh, and of course performing anywhere in California is amazing.
You’re in San Francisco right now, so that must be fun!
Yes, since we’re playing San Francisco, I’m able to perform twice for my family and childhood friends! Performing at The Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco is a dream come true for me. My parents both have already seen me in the show, but my sister gets a chance to see me with them in San Francisco. She’s my world and a huge inspiration to me as a dancer, so that’s probably the highlight of tour, getting to perform for her.
To what do you attribute the phenomenal success of Mamma Mia!?
I think there are a multitude of things that make this show so successful, one being the music! It’s ABBA and it’s awesome! The story supports the music and we always say that you’ll know at least five songs even if you didn’t know ABBA had sung them. The way we sing the songs is exactly how they sound on the albums, so if you’re an ABBA fan, I’d like to think you’ll think we’re doing them justice.
Another thing is that this is a cross-generational story about strong, independent women, love, and lifelong friendship. We, the audience can relate to the characters and it stays relevant throughout the years. Also, it’s the kind of show whole families can enjoy. By the end everyone is up on their feet singing along to “Dancing Queen”! Plus, the movie’s release brought the story and music directly to the people.
What do you mean by that?
When you go on tour, you realize how many people don’t always have access to theater, however the movie made it possible for kids and adults alike to learn and love the music. I might be biased, but I think it’s successful because the people behind the scenes and on the stage deeply love the story they’re telling, so it’s still as exciting as when it first opened!
What are your feelings about being back in Southern California for this latest Mamma Mia! stop?
Oh my gosh! I am so excited to be back in Southern California! This is my home so I get to be with my amazing show and sleep in my own bed! It’s always exciting to bring your show to a city where you have so many people you love there to support you! It’s exciting to be able to show my friends and family what I’ve been experiencing for nearly a year. Also it’s warm here! I love the sunshine. The winter has been terrible on the east coast and Middle America, so a break from snow is wonderful! I am a California girl for sure and the cast knows it.
Thanks so much Carly! I can’t wait to see you on Opening Night!
Click here to purchase tickets to Mamma Mia!, playing April 8-13 at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts, Costa Mesa.
Carly’s Mamma Mia! bio:
Carly Wielstein (Swing, Dance Captain) is thrilled to be a part of this amazing production! Originally a classical ballerina from Northern California, Carly now resides in Los Angeles where she has been seen as a featured dancer for the 64th Creative Arts Emmys and the 64th Primetime Emmys, the world premiere of Hello! My Baby, The S.T.A.G.E Benefit, Spamalot, Oklahoma!, The Vagina Monologues, CASH, All Shook Up, Rent, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Hairspray, and Cats.