Film Reviews


By • May 26th, 2012 •

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THE STANDBYS is a paean to the “nonperforming” Broadway actors; the ones who stand backstage, night after night, waiting to see if they are going to have to suddenly fly out from the wings in order to replace an ailing Kristin Chenoweth, Jonathan Groff, Sutton Foster. Director Stephanie Riggs says she was inspired to make the film when she attended a concert series called “At this Performance. . .” All the performers were people who’d worked as standbys, covers, understudies, or swings, and Ms. Riggs was knocked out by their talent and intrigued by the hilarious and heart breaking stories of their lives in show biz. So she decided to make a documentary about them and in the course of doing so, she interviewed quite a few people who formerly labored in this obscure corner, including: Brian D’Arcy James, David Hyde Pierce, Bebe Neuwirth, Joel Grey, Sutton Foster, etc. Watching this movie made me want to go back and peruse my collection of old Playbills, searching the understudy credits for the at-that-time undiscovered stars lurking there.

But Ms. Riggs was particularly interested in tracking the narratives of standbys who haven’t “made it” yet. And before I go on, I should make clear the difference between a standby and all the other words I used synonymously in the previous paragraph. The standby’s job is unique. Those covered by the other monikers (understudy, etc.) are in the show–maybe they have a small part, or they’re in the singing, dancing ensemble–and in addition, they are prepared to take over another role, should it become necessary. Standbys do not perform in the show at all–unless the (usually major star) performer they are subbing for is not able to go on. So, sometimes they do an entire run of a show and never make it onto the stage once.

Ms. Riggs chose to follow three actors. Veteran standby Merwin Foard covered for Gomez throughout the run of The Addams Family, and figures he has covered twenty-five roles in his twenty six year career. Ben Crawford, a young actor who understudied Brian D’Arcy Jones in Shrek, took over the lead right before the show closed in New York, and then lost out on the national tour of the show, because the role was given to his standby. Singer/dancer/actor Aléna Watters was on a roll when she landed a “temp” job standing by for Anita in the 2009 Broadway production of Westside Story, followed by the opportunity to be a “swing” Harlette in a tour of Bette Midler’s The Showgirl Must Go On–until she was summarily fired.

I felt a lot of warmth for the subjects of this documentary, who come across as freakishly talented, dedicated, and down-to-earth people. I certainly saw it under the warmest of conditions, a premiere screening at the Paley Center, the audience packed with fans and family. And yet, I had a couple of problems with the filmmaking. First of all, the way in which the three separate narratives were woven together made the timeline confusing. Each performer’s tale was told through a combination of informal conversations, narrative voiceover, interviews with friends and colleagues, and actual footage of events as they occurred. The technique the filmmakers used to stitch together these disparate tales was to let them bounce off each other; letting one person’s story go along until it hit a crisis point, then cutting and picking up where someone else’s story last left off. Unfortunately, because of this the forward motion of the stories was sometimes lost, and as a viewer I lost track of time. When exactly was Aléna hired to understudy Anita in Westside Story? And how exactly does that relate, time-wise, to her work with Bette Midler and the Harlettes? How do the actual years spanned by each of the three narratives relate to each other?

Sometimes the footage that is used, in conjunction with narrative voiceover, muddied my sequential sense, as well as my sense of reality. When Merwin Foard talks about having to go on for Nathan Lane as Gomez, and the camera gets into the car with him, we assume he is driving into the New York City to perform. Later, in the talkback, Mr. Foard mentioned covering for Mr. Lane during the Chicago run of the show. So, in the end, I was confused; was the car trip for real, or were the filmmakers taking poetic license and mocking up reality?

There are similar incidences with Ms. Watters. We hear her explain, in voiceover, what a sad and angering experience it was to be fired by Midler, and how, almost immediately thereafter, she and her up-until-then supportive boyfriend broke up. On the screen, we see Aléna slumped over, her cell phone glued to her ear. Was the filmmaker really there to capture the moments at which this double whammy of rejection took place, or is this moment of dejection a “dramatic recreation.” I know creative screenwriting has been used in documentaries since NANOOK OF THE NORTH, but I think maybe we’ve gotten a little too comfortable with the conventions of re-staging and milking dramatic events, because of reality television.

I also thought that there was either too much or not enough background about each of the standbys. We learn something iconic about each–Ben had a brother who died as a teenager, Aléna had a supportive long-term boyfriend, but the theater is more important to her than marriage, Merwyn’s salary supports a traditional suburban, church-going family of mom and two daughters. When I summarize it like this, it seems like a good starting place for distinguishing between what makes these characters tick, but in actual context, it isn’t enough. It’s the one personal thing that we learn about each character and it’s repetitively reaffirmed in all the personal footage we see of them. I would like to have seen more of the struggle of their professional life, if I am going to be denied a more thorough biography.

During the talkback following the screening, we learned that the filmmaker was sort of forced to make the editing decisions that she made because of the kind of access she had. In the beginning, she’d really wanted to follow each of these standbys at his or her big moment, when that call came through that Ben was going to have to step in for Brian D’Arcy Jones, for example. In an ideal world, Ms. Riggs could have created a real-life version of 42nd STREET (1933)–“you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!”: the back breaking, all night rehearsals, the frantic finishing touches, followed by the triumphant stage debut of the understudy. Unfortunately, she was unable to do that, because there are seventeen unions that have control over what goes on front and back of house at a Broadway show. She had to have permission from all them to shoot backstage, not an easy thing to get. And then, even when she did get permission, she was never allowed to film anywhere inside the theater after half hour (“half hour” is the call made by the stage manager–you guessed it–one half hour before the curtain officially rises). That meant she couldn’t capture the breathtaking moment when the understudy goes from that last second of backstage darkness to that thrilling instant of being onstage.

Then again, 42ND STREET, for all its tough talking bravado, is a fairy tale, an escapist fantasy for filmgoers from that other big Depression back in the 1930s. How much star wattage will the audience ever see in the standby, when they’ve come to see the person whose name is emblazoned above the credits, not the guy whose name is written on a paper insert in the program? As Merwyn Foard says, “When you’re the guy who’s not Nathan Lane, that’s a lot of pressure.”

At the talkback following the screening at the Paley Center, the Tony Award winning actresses Katie Finneran and Cady Huffman spoke about their experiences as standbys. Huffman remembered standing by for both Karen Ziemba and Debra Monk in Steel Pier–“two actresses who are nothing like each other, and I am nothing like either of them.” This was, Huffman reminded the audience, after she’d already been a Tony nominee for her work in The Will Rogers Follies. This reminded me that I edited a book a few years ago, which was ultimately titled Making It on Broadway: Actors’ Tales of Climbing to the Top. I remember an anecdote from that book that goes something like this: still flush from her success in A Chorus Line, Donna McKechnie found herself out on the audition circuit again. She was invited to audition for a role that was listed as requiring a “Donna McKechnie type.”

Shoo-in, thought Donna.

No thank you, sorry, said the casting director. You are too Donna McKechnie.

I should add that the authors had originally wanted to call the book The Bottom of the Tony is Plastic, but that title was nixed by my publisher as being too negative. However, when you look at how very ephemeral being on top is in the Broadway world, how un-linear the rise and fall and fall and rise of careers appears to be, my authors’ first choice for a title, if a bit sour, is the more accurate one.

And yet that’s the thing about these performers; there is no off-odor emanating from them, in spite of all the hard knocks and crushing disappointments, they seem as enthusiastic about the Broadway dream as they ever were. In the talk back, Katie Finneran enthused that there is no other group of actors in the performing arts who have the generosity of spirit of the Broadway community: offering their talents, gratis, on their days off, to sing and play for various charities. Having been to several Actors Fund and Broadway Cares benefits where the actors danced, fiddled, and collected money in the aisles long after the paid part of their gigs had ended, I tend to agree. And, in spite of my quibbles with some of the ways in which THE STANDBYS was constructed, I have to say that the talent, spirit, and determination of these people shines through.

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