There cannot possibly be any other job in show (or any other) business where you need the patience of a Saint, be as tough old nails, and as resilient as a rubber band whilst possessing enough talent to substitute for a Broadway Star at the drop of a hat. This is of course the role of a Standby who spends their whole careers in the wings looking at the spotlights that may never ever shine on them.
Stephanie Riggs’s moving and fascinating documentary follows the heartbreaking stories of three such performers who have made careers out of just waiting to go on. There is Merwin Foard, a good humored seasoned actor, with his amazing deep baritone voice, who gets his chance one afternoon to play Nathan Lane’s role in The Addams Family. He goes on stage to the customary groans from the audience when they realise they are not going to see the ‘star’, to wowing them all with his performance and earning a standing ovation by the end. Foard has been at this profession for 25 years now and has been in 14 Broadway productions, nearly always as the standby, but it has at least allowed him and his family to have a comfortable life. He considers himself one of the lucky ones.
Young Ben Crawford was the standby for Brian d’Arcy James who had the title role in ‘Shrek the Musical.’ His Agent had procured him a Contract that gave him the right to take over when the Star eventually left, and that’s exactly what happened. Crawford got to wow audiences with his own take on the role and received some really good notices for his performance. He felt secure in the knowledge that he had finally ‘arrived’. Then as the show was set to close on Broadway, the producers of the national tour asked Crawford to audition for the role he had already played so well for months. They also asked his standby too, and in a cruel twist of fate, gave the role to the new man instead.
The third actor was Aléna Watters whose roller coaster career was the hardest to witness. She got her big break appearing as one of the Harlettes who were the backing group for Bette Midler. After a short stint in Bette’s Show in Las Vegas, the producers called Aléna and without warning told her she would be replaced by one of the original Harlettes was returning. She was told that she could remain as ‘the Swing’ who would understudy for all the girls, which cushioned the bitter blow slightly. But then a month later and a second phone call, and she was laid off from that ‘due to budget restrictions’. She was devastated, as are we watching this all unfurl.
All three performers were generous enough to allow Riggs and her cameras to follow them around for a couple of years and show all of their daily tribulations. She in turn does at least allow them a moment to showcase their talents with a song or two. As Bebe Neuwirth, herself once a standby said, that if it wasn’t for Broadway’s obsession with filling the stages with big celebrities these were the real performers who should be starring in these roles’.
And it’s left to another ex standby David Hyde Pierce to sum it up so succinctly about when they actually get to go on… ‘for the audience it’s just yet another afternoon, but for that performer it could the highpoint of their entire life.’
A must view for anyone who ever dreamt that they could or should have won a Tony or Olivier
Available to buy / view on: Amazon