Alena Waters (The Showgirl Must Go On) In Tne Documentary “The Standbys”

The Wall Street Journal
Is ”˜Smash’ Real? Broadway Actors Weigh In
May 13, 2012

NBC’s “Smash” has taken every Broadway cliché and thrown them into one season, New York performers said during a panel discussion Saturday afternoon as they deplored the “animosity and cattiness” of the characters in the TV show about the creation of a new musical.

The discussion came after the world premiere of a documentary called “The Standbys” at the Paley Center for Media in New York.

“The Standbys,” directed by Stephanie Riggs, follows for several years three performers who work as standbys on Broadway shows.

Standbys are actors who do not perform unless the person in a particular role is unavailable for a performance. Standbys, who are backstage at every performance, differ from understudies, who perform in the show and are prepared to do another role if that performer is unavailable. Swings, who usually perform in the show, are prepared to replace performers in a number of roles.

Broadway director Jerry Zaks, who was in the Paley Center audience, saluted the three standbys in the documentary for their dedication, talent and “determination to make something of what you have.”

He also praised panelist Katie Finneran, who starred in the 2010 Broadway revival of “Promises, Promises,” for saying she tries to befriend her standbys, telling them to “steal everything they want.”

Zaks pointed to the “generosity of spirit” found among Broadway performers and noted that it has been ignored in the ABC series.

Finneran admitted, “I have shamelessly watched every episode” of “Smash” and said she welcomes anything that brings more attention to Broadway.

Cady Huffman, who starred in “The Producers” on Broadway from 2001 to 2003, said she had rarely found understudies to behave as they do in the TV show. Usually, the lead actor of a show sets the tone for how the rest of the cast behaves, she noted.

Huffman said her next Broadway job after she was nominated for a Tony Award for “The Will Rogers Follies” in 1991 was as an understudy for two female leads in “Steel Pier” in 1997. “What helped me was knowing how talented I had to be to cover both,” she said.

She said she was a terrible understudy, recalling that when she went on for one performance in “Big Deal” in 1986, she forgot to turn on her body mike when she sang.

The actors agreed that the scarcity of Broadway roles and the thousands of performers competing for each one make even a non-performing role “a privilege.”

Finneran noted the need for standbys to be psychologically strong as they wait for a chance to perform–if they get one. “You don’t get the rush of performance, you don’t get the satisfaction of completing the story,” she said. What hangs over every moment of a standby’s life is the thought, “You might go on,” she added.

Riggs said “The Standbys” will be shown at the Seattle International Film Festival in June, and she is seeking a distributor.

The documentary tells the stories of Merwin Foard, standby for star Nathan Lane in the now-closed “The Addams Family”; Ben Crawford, standby and eventual replacement for Brian d’Arcy James as the green ogre in “Shrek The Musical”; and Aléna Watters, who briefly was standby for the role of Anita in the recent revival of “West Side Story” and was a swing for Bette Midler’s backup singers in her Las Vegas show.

The film depicts their highs and lows as they win and lose jobs as well as their interactions with family, friends and “significant others.”

There also are interviews with performers such as David Hyde Pierce, Bebe Neuwirth, Cheyenne Jackson and Jonathan Groff, who share their memories of working as standbys or understudys.

Foard, who also was a standby in “Sweeney Todd” and “Kiss Me Kate” and has performed in 10 other Broadway shows, said standbys must do 99% of their preparation on their own.

The film shows him rehearsing lines with his young daughter and follows him on a Sunday when he learns that he would be playing the lead role in “The Addams Family” on Broadway that afternoon. “The Standbys” includes interviews with audience members outside the theater before and after that performance.

During the panel discussion, Foard described a nine-hour crash course that he received from stage managers and others before he replaced Lane, sick with bronchitis, for three performances during previews of the pre-Broadway run in Chicago. Before that, he had watched Lane perform the role, which required 10 songs as well as tango dancing and fencing, but had not participated in any rehearsals.

Watters said she learned the role of Anita in one week and said she was grateful to get a Broadway credit though she was a standby for only 2½ weeks. The performer, who has been in “Sister Act” on Broadway for the past year, said she decided not to accept standby or understudy jobs after Midler’s show.

Crawford, who has been performing in regional theaters since “Shrek” closed in January 2010, recalled forgetting all his lines one time during that Disney musical. He has never done that again, he added.

Watters called it an honor “to be able to share the behind-the-scenes story” of Broadway in the documentary. She hopes it may change theatergoers’ attitudes when they see a small white piece of paper in their program announcing a standby will be going on for a star at that performance.

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