“The Standbys” is a documentary about the actors who wait in the wings, prepared to go on stage at a moment’s notice if a regular cast member cannot perform.
Filmmaker Stephanie Riggs spent two years following three Broadway actors who have been standbys – husband and father Merwin Foard, who has practically made a career as a standby, including a stint for Nathan Lane as Gomez in “The Addams Family” musical; Ben Crawford, who was a standby for lead actor, Brian D’Arcy James, in the musical “Shrek”; and Alena Watters, who was a standby for the revival of “West Side Story.”
The film also includes interviews with star actors like Daniel Radcliffe, Bebe Neuwirth, and David Hyde Pierce, who show their appreciation for the performers who support them from the sidelines.
I had a fun conference call with Riggs and Crawford about the film during a snowy New York day.
Riggs told me she wanted to show the behind the scenes life of these unsung actors who sit backstage in a complex emotional state of both frustration and gratitude. “With each of these – with Alena, Merwin, and Ben – each of them are incredibly grateful for all the opportunities they’ve had, but they also want more,” she says. “I tried to reflect that and show both the harshness of their situation and how hard it is for them to do this, as well as the love of what they do.”
A standby does not get to perform at all unless the regular cast member doesn’t go on. For some standbys, this means never taking the stage in a particular show. This job differs from that of an understudy, who is in the cast and on stage every night but is also ready to take over one or more leading roles, while someone else takes over their usual, smaller role.
Still another “in the wings” job is that of a “swing” – someone who must know a host of roles and be ready to do any of them at the snap of a finger (or the cough of another actor).
Crawford says that as an understudy, you are part of the energy of the show every night, which helps you to maintain a certain momentum and connection to the rest of the cast. You don’t have that luxury if you’re a standby.
“The neat thing about the understudy is that you’re on all the time, and you feel that pulse,” he says. “The standby thing can be a little frustrating because you’re so close and you are on Broadway, but you’re not performing. And that’s what we want to do – perform on Broadway.”
“I remember a breakdown moment I had where I was like, ‘I’m not complaining at all because I love my job, but it’s so weird because I’m so close to it every night but I don’t do it.’ Just being a young performer, that was a big frustrating thing for me, but I understand it,” he says.
The versatility of these actors can be both a blessing and a curse. Crawford had the chops to understudy both Valjean and Javert in the last revival of “Les Miserables,” and you’ll hear him perform a kickass R&B version of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” in “The Standbys.”
Actress Alena Watters laments in the documentary that she had become known for her ability to be a swing – someone capable of not only recalling all of the female roles but managing the acting, choreography, and vocal ranges of all of them. No mean feat! As a result, Watters struggled to get starring roles that were meant just for her. She was too valuable, in a sense, being left off stage a lot of the time.
All three of the performers had to lay themselves bare in the film to a large degree. “One of the main challenges was finding actors who would be open and honest about the reality of being an understudy or a standby or a swing,” Riggs says. “It goes all the way back to people not even wanting to put ‘understudy’ on their resume because they don’t want to get pigeon-holed. To be in a film where you’re [showing yourself as] a standby or an understudy or a swing takes guts.”
She found plenty of actors who were unwilling to talk about the most difficult aspects of their jobs. “This is a tough industry, and nobody wants to say anything bad,” she says. “There were lots of stories that I was told off-camera that nobody would repeat on-camera about being an understudy and the producers not giving them the chance to bump up because they didn’t want to have to replace the very expensive costumes for both the lead and the understudy.”
“So, they left the understudy or the standby in their standby role and just replaced the lead. It was a financial decision,” she adds. “But people don’t want to say that. They don’t want producers to think that they have a bad attitude or that they aren’t appreciative of the opportunities that they have.”
As a standby, Crawford says, it’s up to the actor to stay in shape for the role each night. Since much of the job involves sitting backstage and waiting, staying in shape includes doing more of a physical and vocal warm-up than you might normally do.
His most recent job was a pivotal role in the Broadway musical, “Big Fish,” as Don Price, but he also understudied the lead played by Norbert Leo Butz. Right after the opening of the show, Butz became too ill to perform, and Crawford had to take over.
“I went in, put the costume on during intermission, and jumped on for the second act,” he says. “And my buddy, Preston Boyd, who was one of the swings, got to do his debut that day. He went on for my track. It was very cool to jump up and do it…. This is our job; this is what we do. We’re prepared at a moment’s notice to go on stage and do it.”
These actors also have to contend with the disappointment of audiences when the star is unable to perform. Crawford said that when he went on as Shrek, his parents came to see the show, and a man sitting next to them complained loudly that he wouldn’t get to see Brian D’Arcy James perform that day. Crawford’s father had to prevent the actor’s proud mother from telling the guy off. Afterward, the complaining audience member was complimentary about Ben’s performance.
“I understand it. I get it,” Crawford says. “The problem is when people think the show is going to be terrible. There are people like me ready to prove you wrong. I may not be at the same point in my career as Norbert or Brian, but I still do this. And I do it well. So, don’t throw me out completely. Give me a chance.”
He says having an understudy, standby, or swing take over can invigorate the rest of the cast. “It’s refreshing. It’s just a little different take, and when an understudy goes on, they’re prepared, and they’re excited. Everyone is supportive, and it can create a magical show.”
Riggs says that one of the most rewarding aspects of showing the film is that it has changed some people’s attitudes about the actors who take over roles for the “stars.” People have come up to her after seeing the documentary and said things like, “After my recent trip to New York, I waited by the stage door and told the swing how much I loved what they did and how hard it must be.”
Toward the end of the documentary, Crawford goes through a bitter professional disappointment. I asked him if it was hard to have that experience disclosed on film. “No, because it’s all about money. That’s all it is. It’s one of those things that as an actor, we look at show business as this amazing life, but really, it’s a business that puts on shows…. And I think as an actor, it’s very important to understand that because once you do, you just realize that a lot of things make sense in the show business world.”
Then, he adds, philosophically, “The only thing we can control is ourselves.”
Next up for Crawford is a starring role as the Lord of the Underworld in a musical called “Jasper in Deadland” at New York’s West End Theatre, running March 16-April 13, 2014. A contemporary retelling of the tale of Ulysses, the musical’s music and lyrics were composed by Ryan Scott Oliver, and the book was written by actor Hunter Foster, who is currently on Broadway in “The Bridges of Madison County.”
Besides planning to make more films, Riggs is developing a stage musical version of “The Standbys.” “You’ve got the behind the scenes, but the story is really about underdogs and about perseverance and about passion. And I think those are universal themes,” she says. The composer for the musical is Jonathan Dinerstein, who also composed the music for the documentary. They are still gathering funds for the musical, so if you’re interested in investing, contact Riggs through “The Standbys” website.
Meanwhile, I highly recommend watching “The Standbys.” It’s a fascinating look at a little known aspect of the world of Broadway. If you’re in New York, the film will have an exclusive engagement at The Quad Cinema February 21-27, 2014. Watch for opportunities to see it in your area, and we’ll publish a story when it’s available on VOD and DVD.