BY GARY M. KRAMER | In the Broadway world, arguably one of the most difficult jobs is that of a standby. Not an understudy, who plays a small role in an ensemble and might take over a bigger role in a pinch, a standby is someone whose job is specifically to wait in the wings during every performance, prepared to take over a lead part if an actor cannot go on.
Stephanie Riggs’ celebratory documentary “Standbys” honors these unsung heroes of the theater, showcasing three performers as they experience success and failure. The film follows a typical showbiz arc, one that harks back to the plot of that musical theater chestnut “42nd Street,” as each actor/ singer is given a chance at greatness. How they handle it is where the film’s dramatic tension lies.
Ben Crawford is introduced first. Standby for the title character in “Shrek: The Musical,” he plays video games waiting for his chance to take the stage. Ben has the pipes to perform, and “Standbys” features him singing a soulful rendition of “New York State of Mind.” He finally gets his chance to wear the green makeup when headliner Brian Stokes Mitchell decides to leave the show. Suddenly, the standby’s name is on the poster. But will this opportunity be his big break?
Stephanie Riggs’ backstage documentary examines pros who keep the curtains raising on time
Aléna Watters is the film’s featured female standby. She understudied “Annie” as a young performer and was bit by the acting bug. She recalls, in one anecdote that sums up the life of those in her job, that she was once a standby for Maria in “West Side Story’ for two and a half weeks. However, had she been standing by the Saturday performance after her contract ended, she could have gone on stage. Such is Aléna’s luck.
When she gets an audition to be a Harlette, one of Bette Midler’s backup singers, Aléna weighs money versus dreams, most performers aspiring, however uncertainly, to the Broadway spotlight despite the benefits of a regular paycheck. After several nerve-wracking turns, she gets the job, only to soon be recast as a swing — a standby who must know all the parts in the show to fill in anywhere. Such versatility, Aléna suggests, is valuable, but it is also exasperating to learn multiple roles and never have a chance to perform them. Her way of dealing with career disappointment is to work on a one-woman show.
Merwin Foard rounds out the documentary’s subjects. He has been performing as a standby for three decades, and describes the countless sacrifices he has made for his family by waiting in the wings. At the time “Standbys” was filmed, he was in the green room waiting to replace Nathan Lane as Gomez in the musical “The Addams Family.” He too, gets a solo number in the film, singing “Happy/ Sad” from the show and proving he could hold his own on the stage if given the chance. Merwin has accepted his career niche. He enjoys running lines with his daughter, but also misses his kids’ school plays and other activities. Still, the money he earns “not working” supports his family.
“Standbys” emphasizes that the job is a lonely one, respected by theater folks but underappreciated by audiences. There are several nice moments in the film where Ben, Aléna, and Merwin sit together and chat about their work. One big unpleasantness is hearing audiences groan when they are told a name star is being replaced by a standby. Merwin talked about being confronted by audiences “wondering how Nathan [Lane] would have done that bit.”
Another downside is the reluctance of stars to give up the reins, even when they really should. Exercising her contractual rights, Christina Applegate performed “Sweet Charity” with a broken foot, much to her standby’s chagrin.
Like a chorus performer’s dance number, too much of this documentary is step and repeat. Over and over, the three actors express their frustration that they never know if or when stardom will happen. Will they build a career as a standby, as Merwin has? When Ben is asked to audition for the role of “Shrek” in the national touring company, it is an insult to his work as a Broadway lead taking up from where Mitchell left off. But the chance he is given is one that his own standby, Eric Peterson, covets.
The film also includes wry observations from Broadway veterans, including “The Addams Family” star Bebe Neuwirth, who describes the “waves of hatred” from audiences when the celebrity is not performing. David Hyde Pierce makes a wonderfully apt observation that standbys are like soldiers “waiting to die suddenly” until they are “thrust into the line of fire.” And Jonathan Groff has a funny story about being a standby, which appears in the film’s closing credits.
“Standbys” will resonate with actors and other theater professionals who respect the hard work it takes for these performers to do what they do. If this documentary is a little too inside baseball, it still humanizes the hard work and heart that go into achieving success. When one of the standbys makes it in the film’s end, it is gratifying to see the effort they put into their dreams pay off.
STANDBYS | Directed by Stephanie Riggs | Sunchaser Entertainment | Opens Feb. 21 | Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th St. | quadcinema.com