film

event musings: the standbys

2012 Tony Awards Film Series:
The Standbys
Stephanie Riggs, Merwin Foard, Ben Crawford, Aléna Watters
Saturday, May 12, 2012 at 2pm
The Paley Center for Media, 25 West 52nd Street

  • “We get paid for the groan.” (Aléna  Watters on the typical understudy theatre greeting.)
  • “You insinuate yourself as seamlessly as possible.” (Merwin Foard)
  • “Did you get the shoes? You have to take the shoes.” (Cady Huffman and Katie Finneran to Aléna  Watters on her brief standby West Side Story experience — end of story is she did NOT take the shoes.)

Poster, Paley Center Main Theatre May 12, 2012. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

As the audience excitedly assembles in the largest Paley screening room in the Manhattan facility’s lower level, a buzz is both audible and palpable.  People vaguely familiar looking occupy much of the center seating section, initially reserved for the filmmaker, her subjects, and a large number of Tony Awards associated folks. The air of friendly familiar fame is so much in the air that  when taking his seat my neighbor (another civilian Paley member) asked me with a smile, “You aren’t somebody famous, are you?”

We are treated to introductory and post-screening remarks by the filmmaker, and after the film she is joined by the trio of standbys whose stories are told in the film as well as a pair of current Broadway stars with standby experience.  Pre-film, we learn from filmmaker Stephanie Riggs that her blast of inspiration for the film came in 2008 during a black box theatre one-off event she directed cast completely with standbys from other shows.  An evening of cabaret performances.  She was haunted by the pent-up talent she observed in the performances she witnessed  in that small space, and she wondered about the lives of the performers themselves.  How do they live with the day-to-day realities of knowing a role, living to perform, yet in the end being paid to stand by, always the bridesmaid but with the sense that one could at any moment be the bride?

After interviewing a number of individuals for their stories, their willingness to be followed for a number of months (to let the filmmaker in so to speak), she settled upon the lives of three performers to follow through short term and long term standby experiences: Ben Crawford (standby for the title role in Shrek), Merwin Foard (several long term gigs discussed, as well as his role as husband and father of two), and Aléna Watters (several gigs observed on stage, with Bette Midler, in a self-produced showcase).  We learn the distinction between “understudy” and “standby” — the understudy has other roles in a production and is ready to step into another role while the standby has no other job than to be prepared to step in to one of the roles, if needed.  (We also learn that Actors Equity doesn’t recognize the difference in the roles but rather uses the langauge of “performing understudy” and “nonperforming understudy.”) Merwin describe himself as a “professional standby” and the course of this film is to unpack the nature of this niche professional role, the toll it takes on lives, how some people are just not cut out for it, and the essential place held by these unsung heroes of the stage.

The lasting impression: these are incredibly talented, exceptionally smart professional singers, dancers, actors.  As Cady Huffman (star in The Producers from 2001 to 2003 and other Broadway roles) remarks in the post-show panel conversation — she was terrible as a standby.  It for her was psychological terror to be in the haunting position of “you might go on.”  She also said she wasn’t able to do it all (know all the blocking and lines and be able to drop in to an existing flow) the way the stars of this documentary can.  “These people can do anything,” she noted. “So that’s why they get put in this terrifying position.”  Katie Finneran (who starred in the 2010 revival of Promises, Promises) speaks of the sense of family among all show people and her embrace of her understudies.  “It’s a brotherhood, if you’re from this world. There’s a certain generosity.” Jerry Zaks from the audience adds his appreciation of the film and of the standby role. “I love what these folks represent … the dedication … [the sense that] I’m going to go on and show them.”  He goes on compliment the film and the standby stars — “You bring great honor to Broadway and the mission of spreading joy to audiences.” David Hyde Pierce and Bebe Neuwirth, on screen, have nothing but awe and respect for understudies and standbys. There are other lovely and sometimes annoying cameos — I’ll allow you to discover them for yourselves.

The standby performers retain their love of the art form and their membership in the performing family — we learn at the end of the movie where they have “landed” as of a few months ago and we learned at the Paley Center of a few updates. All good.  All is well.  As film, as storytelling, especially knowing the director’s entre into the story (remember that black box cabaret event that started it all) — perhaps my favorite sequences in the movie are three extended song performances, one by each of our standbys, in a simple spotlight in a blackened space.  Just delivering the story in a song.  One full song for each of them, with the camera still, square on their faces. In those moments we feel what our director felt and what clearly animates her energy in giving us these lives on film: performers aching to give their art to an audience will find their way, in some way.  You leave this documentary and these lives feeling richer, knowing you have traveled a real journey.

And I shall never look at the little piece of paper in a Playbill in the same way again.  You know the little slip (or the announcement or the sign outside the theatre): “Today the role of X will be played by Y.”  In that moment, forever more, I shall remember the words of David Hyde Pierce in this documentary. “This is an afternoon for you,” he reflects, “and this is their life.”  My perspective has permanently shifted now from disappointment in that moment of missing an expected performer to the anticipation of the possible discovery of a brand new talent.  Because, who knows, perhaps that person sitting next to you at the theatre could indeed be someone famous, soon enough.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 22, 2012)

1 reply »

  1. Martha,

    Thank you so much for your article about “The Standbys.” My wife and I cannot help but ride the roller coaster with our son , Ben, (who actually weathers the ups and downs much better than do we). We are very much looking forward to our chance to view the documentary.

    When were at the Broadway theater for one of Ben’s performances, prior to him taking over the role of Shrek, there was a very openly disappointed young man sitting directly in front of us. He went on and on about how he did not pay to see some standby in the lead. My wife and I kept quiet for a time – and never did address this young man directly – until we were able to share with the couple next to us about the fact that Ben was our son. They were very excited for us and told us several times how well he had performed. I’m certain they had heard the rantings of our young fellow patron. The experience opened our eyes to the climate in which Ben works.

    Your article, and the comments from David Hyde Pierce and Bebe Neuwirth (both of whom I greatly admire), make me all the more proud of Ben who is already a terrific young man.

    Thank you again for dignifying Stephanie’s work and the work of her subjects!

    Tom Crawford

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