‘The Standbys’ Puts Unknown Actors in the Spotlight

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‘The Standbys’ Puts Unknown Actors in the Spotlight

By Kimberly Lightbody

May 8, 2012


Photo by Standbys
When director Stephanie Riggs attended a concert series of Broadway understudies and standbys a few years ago, she was blown away.

“Their voices were so powerful, and they were so talented,” recalls Riggs. “And then they would tell these horrific and hilarious stories.”

She immediately saw the potential for a film, and set to work on a documentary that would shed light on the unrecognized and unnoticed performers of Broadway. The result is “The Standbys,” which premieres on May 12 at the second annual Tony Awards Film Series. Both humorous and heartbreaking, the documentary follows Merwin Foard, Aléna Watters, and Ben Crawford, three performers who work as understudies, standbys, and swings, as they try to land lead roles on Broadway.



For many Broadway hopefuls, working as a standby can be thrilling at first. Watters, who Riggs describes as the documentary’s “ingénue,” earned her first Broadway credit as a temporary standby in “West Side Story.”

“It didn’t matter to me that it was a standby,” says Watters in the documentary. “Because it was for a principal role on Broadway.”

The job can be disheartening, though, as actors anxiously wait, night after night, for a chance to perform. Foard, who has spent much of his career as an understudy, and most recently was Nathan Lane’s standby in “The Addams Family,” says that staying optimistic is important.
“If you’re negative about what it is you’ve signed on to do, then you’re doomed,” he says.
Understudies and swings usually perform onstage regularly in smaller parts, but are prepared to take over a lead role if necessary. Standbys, on the other hand, only perform when they are needed; when they’re not, they spend the nights waiting backstage.

“It’s a very complicated job, to understudy,” says Bebe Neuwirth, who performed alongside Foard in “The Addams Family,” in the documentary. “It’s hugely challenging, because you have to be ready to give a fantastic performance at a moment’s notice.”








Understudies, standbys, and swings often have to be familiar with multiple roles as well, another challenge for actors. When Watters was a swing for “The Harlettes,” Bette Midler’s famous trio of backup singers, she had to learn three different harmonies for each song.
“Being versatile can be a trap, if you become a swing,” she says in the documentary. “If people know that you have that mind and you have range… then you’re a hot commodity. And I can do it, but I hate it. It’s not what I want to do.”

When an actor is understudying for a famous performer, the job becomes even harder. Foard says that Nathan Lane was the first significant, above-the-title star that he had covered.
“When you’re the guy who’s not Nathan Lane, that’s a lot of pressure,” he says.

Since he received his Equity card 30 years ago, Foard has been an understudy and a standby more often than not. In 2005, when he was a standby for the lead role in “Sweeney Todd,” he didn’t go onstage once. Still, he’s satisfied with his career. To date, he has worked as an understudy or a standby for more than 27 Broadway actors.

Foard hopes, however, that eventually he’ll land a principal role. The other actors in Riggs’s documentary are also continuing to pursue their dreams. Watters is currently performing in the ensemble of “Sister Act,” and Crawford, after briefly taking over the lead role in “Shrek The Musical,” is now performing in regional theater.

Riggs is still in awe of the understudies’ talent, and hopes that “The Standbys” will bring attention to the often-ignored experiences of people like Foard, Watters, and Crawford.
“Their lights shine so bright, and they are so deep in the shadows of Broadway,” says Riggs. “It’s unbelievable.”

“The Standbys” premieres on May 12 at 2 p.m. as part of the Tony Awards Film Series at The Paley Center for Media. The screening will be followed by a talkback panel with Cady Huffman, Katie Finneran, director Stephanie Riggs, Ben Crawford, Merwin Foard, and Aléna Watters. “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life” and “Oklahoma!” will also screen as part of the series on May 13, starting at 12:15 p.m. For more information, visit www.tonyawards.com.


‘The Standbys’ Puts Unknown Actors in the Spotlight

By Kimberly Lightbody

May 8, 2012


PHOTO CREDIT
Standbys
When director Stephanie Riggs attended a concert series of Broadway understudies and standbys a few years ago, she was blown away.

“Their voices were so powerful, and they were so talented,” recalls Riggs. “And then they would tell these horrific and hilarious stories.”

She immediately saw the potential for a film, and set to work on a documentary that would shed light on the unrecognized and unnoticed performers of Broadway. The result is “The Standbys,” which premieres on May 12 at the second annual Tony Awards Film Series. Both humorous and heartbreaking, the documentary follows Merwin Foard, Aléna Watters, and Ben Crawford, three performers who work as understudies, standbys, and swings, as they try to land lead roles on Broadway.



For many Broadway hopefuls, working as a standby can be thrilling at first. Watters, who Riggs describes as the documentary’s “ingénue,” earned her first Broadway credit as a temporary standby in “West Side Story.”

“It didn’t matter to me that it was a standby,” says Watters in the documentary. “Because it was for a principal role on Broadway.”

The job can be disheartening, though, as actors anxiously wait, night after night, for a chance to perform. Foard, who has spent much of his career as an understudy, and most recently was Nathan Lane’s standby in “The Addams Family,” says that staying optimistic is important.
“If you’re negative about what it is you’ve signed on to do, then you’re doomed,” he says.
Understudies and swings usually perform onstage regularly in smaller parts, but are prepared to take over a lead role if necessary. Standbys, on the other hand, only perform when they are needed; when they’re not, they spend the nights waiting backstage.

“It’s a very complicated job, to understudy,” says Bebe Neuwirth, who performed alongside Foard in “The Addams Family,” in the documentary. “It’s hugely challenging, because you have to be ready to give a fantastic performance at a moment’s notice.”








Understudies, standbys, and swings often have to be familiar with multiple roles as well, another challenge for actors. When Watters was a swing for “The Harlettes,” Bette Midler’s famous trio of backup singers, she had to learn three different harmonies for each song.
“Being versatile can be a trap, if you become a swing,” she says in the documentary. “If people know that you have that mind and you have range… then you’re a hot commodity. And I can do it, but I hate it. It’s not what I want to do.”

When an actor is understudying for a famous performer, the job becomes even harder. Foard says that Nathan Lane was the first significant, above-the-title star that he had covered.
“When you’re the guy who’s not Nathan Lane, that’s a lot of pressure,” he says.

Since he received his Equity card 30 years ago, Foard has been an understudy and a standby more often than not. In 2005, when he was a standby for the lead role in “Sweeney Todd,” he didn’t go onstage once. Still, he’s satisfied with his career. To date, he has worked as an understudy or a standby for more than 27 Broadway actors.

Foard hopes, however, that eventually he’ll land a principal role. The other actors in Riggs’s documentary are also continuing to pursue their dreams. Watters is currently performing in the ensemble of “Sister Act,” and Crawford, after briefly taking over the lead role in “Shrek The Musical,” is now performing in regional theater.

Riggs is still in awe of the understudies’ talent, and hopes that “The Standbys” will bring attention to the often-ignored experiences of people like Foard, Watters, and Crawford.
“Their lights shine so bright, and they are so deep in the shadows of Broadway,” says Riggs. “It’s unbelievable.”

“The Standbys” premieres on May 12 at 2 p.m. as part of the Tony Awards Film Series at The Paley Center for Media. The screening will be followed by a talkback panel with Cady Huffman, Katie Finneran, director Stephanie Riggs, Ben Crawford, Merwin Foard, and Aléna Watters. “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life” and “Oklahoma!” will also screen as part of the series on May 13, starting at 12:15 p.m. For more information, visit www.tonyawards.com.
 
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