Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of the documentary THE STANDBYS
I never said it would be easy. I only said it would be worth it. — Mae West
As someone who experiences A LOT of theatre, I’ve rarely had reason to consider the lives and passions or the trials and tribulations of many of its contributing cast members, as my sole purpose in being there is, as expected, for my own enjoyment. I personally love live theatre as well as film and all other forms of entertainment media, because for me a story (real or fiction) transports me to some other place and frankly, out of my own, very overloaded head. Further, when I attend theatre, notably Broadway, I’m additionally thrilled – bordering on intoxication – that it often means I’ll have the opportunity to see these stories played out by well-known actors and celebrities.
Whether before a show, during intermission, or after the curtain, I do always take time to review my Playbill/play program and I’m especially fond of reading about actors’ past credits and where they’ve been trained. But admittedly, there are lines in the program that I generally gloss over which come below all of the celebrated superstars and the rest of cast members’ names; and those areas notate a hard-working, shadowy club of less familiar, virtually anonymous people who are known as the “standbys.” I suppose I do this because I’ve never really understood what or who they are – and I’ve also been somewhat befuddled by other related monikers like “understudy” and “swing.”
And so it was that I found myself completely fascinated, even beguiled, while watching the hour-plus documentary called The Standbys, directed by Stephanie Riggs for Sunchaser Entertainment. Featuring three enormously talented individuals who have found themselves in the vastly underappreciated roles of a standby in such major productions as Shrek the Musical, The Addams Family, and Bette Midler: The Showgirl Must Go On; it was through this skillfully executed vehicle that I gained a new admiration for ALL of a show’s members, even those whose names and faces I do not recognize, and whom I may never get to see perform.
To clarify, a standby is an immensely talented performer who is hired as a substitute, invariably for a leading role; they essentially wait in the wings “on standby” should the actor be unable to perform. They must learn the entire role, including the main actor’s every nuance, but they do not have an opportunity to perform unless extreme circumstances arise – which, sadly for them, seldom do. Standbys are paid, regardless, but rarely, we learn, are they included in special appearances, cast events, and of course, they get almost no stage time. They also receive little if any recognition. They’re the unsung heroes of the theatre business.
The Standbys features married father of two Merwin Foard, who at the time of filming, was a standby for Nathan Lane’s Gomez Addams. With a voice which reportedly is among the biggest and best on the Great White Way (and I must agree), Merwin was content to provide stability for his family, and the role of standby allowed him to do so – not that he wouldn’t have taken on a principal role if offered! With a career spanning decades, he’s also had the opportunity to be a featured performer as well as an understudy in various other productions. “Understudies” most often have smaller stage roles, commonly in the Ensemble, but they also are hired to learn the role of a lead should they be needed. In some productions, they are a “standby for a standby.” Additionally, a “swing” is a multi-talented, highly diverse individual who must learn numerous roles and who may be tossed from character to character from performance to performance. Some swings may have to learn dozen of different roles or “tracks” – in fact, they often step in for the Ensemble member who as an understudy stepped in for a principal. (Whew, my head is spinning just thinking about all that switching it up!)
Aléna Watters at the time of filming had been cast as a “harlette” in Bette Midler’s show, but experienced the harsh disappointment of the industry, in that if anything can change, it often will. Frustrated and defeated, she bounced back by staging a one-woman show, which later served as a means to propel her career forward. Ben Crawford, a standby for the lead in Shrek who later took on the role, also experienced the highs and lows of the Broadway life. Enormously talented, he may have been the one to receive the biggest punch in the proverbial gut of the trio.
These three, as we see have many occasions to see in the documentary, are just incredibly, ginormously talented. In fact, if I were a casting director, I’d snag them all as principal for just about any production (they also had great chemistry as they swapped war stories)! But they, like so many others who find themselves in these same fallback positions, have had to develop a tough skin. Equally as endowed as many of Broadway’s heavy-hitters, they don’t yet have the name recognition and in this competitive business, it matters. It requires hard work, determination, countless disappointments, and a whole lot of luck to land the role of a lifetime and the career of one’s dreams. That, and the chutzpah to keep plowing through.
Interspersed among the stories told by Merwin, Aléna, and Ben are anecdotes from some notable personages; among them, Bebe Neuwirth (who also starred in The Addams Family as Morticia opposite Lane and on those rare occasions, Merwin), Sutton Foster (who played Fiona opposite Ben in Shrek), David Hyde Pierce (maybe best known for his role as Niles Crane in Frasier, but who also has played countless roles on Broadway), John Leguizamo (prolific stage and screen actor, comedian, screenwriter, and playwright), Bryan d’Arcy James (stage actor and the original Shrek), Zachary Quinto (actor/producer, known for the film Star Trek and TV’s Heroes and American Horror Story) and even Merwin’s wife, stage actress Rebecca Baxter (they met, where else? on stage). They each shared some of their own harrowing experiences (many of them started also as standbys) which fortunately for them, were a distant memory.
The Standbys also highlights the harsh realities of auditions, the cutthroat attitude of casting directors, and living hand to mouth in New York City. Merwin, Aléna, and Ben were quite candid about work and life. There were times their personal stories actually brought me to tears. I can imagine so many young actors (my husband and I have worked with many) have experienced situations like these, and it’s far simpler just to give up. But, while the three realize success on many levels, not everyone will. For any young up-and-coming actor, a film like The Standbys would be both educational and inspirational. And for anyone who has a love for theatre, it gives a well-deserved nod to the underappreciated, often unknown, and the immensely unrealized potential of all of the denizens of Broadway’s stages, back stages, and lonely green rooms.
COSMO KRAMER: [has just learned Jerry’s girlfriend is Bette Midler’s understudy in the Rochelle, Rochelle musical] Understudies, now they’re a shifty bunch. The substitute teachers of the theater world.
JERRY SEINFELD: I’m glad that she’s an understudy. This way I avoid having to go backstage and think of something to say. – From Seinfeld “The Understudy” (TV Episode 1995)
It was the 1970s and I prided myself on being a young culture vulture. Back then there was not the proliferation of media that there is today; mostly movies, TV, and theatre. But even back then I had seen quite a bit of theatre. I saw Richard Burton in Equus and Camelot, Marlo Thomas in Thieves, Frank Langella in Edward Albee’s Seascape and later in Dracula, Liza Minelli in The Act, Bette Midler and The Harlots at Carnegie Hall – and countless other legends and icons.
And, if truth be told, I was a theater snob. It was 1975 and George C. Scott directed and was starring in Death of a Salesman at Circle in the Square on Broadway. Imagine actually seeing the great American actor (Patton himself) as Willy Loman! I bought tickets far in advance and counted off the days. I remember it was a beautiful sunny day and the best I could get were tickets for a matinee. I arrived early and was immediately caught up in a melee that had erupted right outside the box office. George C. Scott was sick and his standby, Roy Poole, was going on in his place. The theatre was giving the option of returning your money (yes, back them they did that). Who was Roy Poole anyway? The standby? I came to see George C. Scott. And so I cashed in my ticket. Of course, much to my chagrin, I later found out that Roy Poole was a fabulous actor in his own right with more legitimate credits than Al Capone’s rap sheet. To add insult to injury, there was an up and coming actor in the play in the part of Happy and his name was Harvey Keitel. If I could only go back in time…
I am older and wiser now, but still a culture vulture, and as media reviewers my wife and I see an incredible amount of theatre and film. We just saw the National Tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime in which an understudy filled in for one of the leads and he was simply knock-down-drag-out amazing.
Understudies, standbys, and swing people in theatre are the unsung heroes and nowhere is this brought to the forefront better than in The Standbys, a documentary directed by Stephanie Riggs. The film clarifies once and for all the distinct differences between the aforementioned terms. Understudies are actors who have parts on stage but are ready to fill in for larger parts should the need arise. Standbys are exclusive to one role and wait back stage should something happen to the lead. Swing actors are those that are familiar with all of the parts in the show (mostly in the Ensemble) and can fill in at a moment’s notice.
The story focuses on the trials, tribulations, and struggles of three very talented actors waiting in the wings for their big break: Ben Crawford, Aléna Watters, and Merwin Foard. At the time of the documentary, Mr. Crawford is the standby for Brian d’Arcy James who plays Shrek in Shrek the Musical; Ms. Watters is in the background vocal group as a harlette who perform with Bette Midler; and Mr. Foard is a standby for Nathan Lane who plays Gomez in The Addams Family. Sprinkled throughout the production are cameos by such theatre notables as Sutton Foster, Jonathan Groff, Brian d’Arcy James, Bebe Neuwirth, Zachary Quinto, and many others who share advice and amusing anecdotes about the business.
All three actors who are the main focus of the film are staggeringly talented. They give new meaning to the word triple threats and it’s positively sacrilegious to see that amount of talent wasted backstage. While it’s true that some actors can make a nice living as standbys (just as there are tons of script re-writers in Hollywood who make six figures and never see anything they write on the big screen), it is hard to understand how such enormous talent can be so easily repressed. But that’s why they call it show business and not show art.
Having written, produced, and directed documentaries, I know how hard it is to do a film like The Standbys. (In many ways, documentary filmmakers are as underrated and thankless as the understudies, standbys, and swings.) Ms. Riggs has done a masterful job interweaving the three actors’ quests for the stardom and the limelight. The result is an engaging mixture of the ups and downs, zeniths and nadirs, and occupational hazards along the yellow brick road to fame and fortune. Like Shrek’s onion metaphor for ogres, Ms. Riggs peels back the top layers of the onion to reveal a deeply personal look at the lives and careers of these unsung heroes – and that is what they truly are in every sense of the word. All three undergo extreme hardships in order to pursue their dreams. Why? As the late Alan Rickman once said (which is the perfect motif of the film), “[a]cting touches nerves you have absolutely no control over.”
In pulling back the proverbial curtain, Ms. Riggs does allow us to see each of the three principals get their fifteen minutes of fame (or in this case 25 minutes since the film is 75 minutes long). Mr. Crawford does eventually take over the role of Shrek on Broadway (only to lose the National Tour to his standby later on; Ms. Watters does become one of Bette Middler’s harlettes (only to be knocked down to a standby position when a former harlette returns); and Mr. Foard does get to play Gomez in The Addams Family when on a rare occasion Nathan Lane cannot make the show.
The Standbys is an engaging, educational and, at times, winsome look at one of theatre’s little known and best kept secrets. It should be required viewing for every drama, acting, and musical theatre class in the country. When I go to the theatre, I’ll take special note in the cast masthead of understudies, standbys, and swings.
It’s interesting to note that when Hugh Jackman appeared on Broadway in The River, his two female co-stars had understudies, but Mr. Jackman did not. If he had had one and the understudy was going to perform on the day that I went to see the show, would I have stayed? Even after watching The Standbys and having a new appreciation for them, watching Mr. Jackman alone on stage filet an entire fish for twenty minutes was tedious enough to get through – watching another actor who I didn’t know do it? Hmmmm…I would have to think long and hard about that one.