Every night hundreds of performers stand backstage, ready to go on at a moment’s notice. We followed three of them for over two years – through their ups and downs, struggles and triumphs, onstage performances and private lives.
The inspiration for this film began when I attended a concert series called “At This Performance…” that a friend of mine was performing in. The ninety or so seats in the audience were filled mainly with theatre enthusiasts and other performers supporting their friends who worked on Broadway but rarely get to go onstage: the understudies, standbys, and swings. I had heard of understudies, but I had no clue about standbys or swings. And I certainly was not prepared to hear the sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrific stories about what went on backstage or onstage when they would be thrust into the spotlight to save a show. They told tales of performing for an audience of thousands – without a single rehearsal, coming perilously close to losing body parts to automated scenery, and being booed off stage by an angry audience who felt they weren’t getting what they paid for. And yet night after night, and sometimes show after show, they went back for the chance to do it again.
Not only were their stories incredible, their performances were moving and exciting. Their voices were powerful. Their presence filled the theatre and wrapped around the audience as much as any Broadway performer I’d ever seen. Yet, I had never seen these understudies.
I researched to find out more… but there wasn’t a lot to find. These ubiquitous performers were rarely highlighted even though the list of one-time Broadway understudies includes Natalie Portman, Kevin Spacey, Glenn Close, Sigourney Weaver, Bruce Willis, Wesley Snipes, Danny DeVito, and Sarah Jessica Parker. The best description I could find was a story in the New York Times calling them the “ultimate underdogs… Cinderella’s forced to wait in the wings for a chance that may never come.” These Cinderella’s had been part of Broadway since it first began, and yet no one had brought them into the spotlight. There had been a couple of fictionalized stories (“All About Eve”, “The Understudy”), but to me, this was a case of truth is stranger than fiction. I knew this could be an inspiring and unique documentary… if the right players to tell the story could be found.
When I started crafting “The Standbys”, I knew I wanted an “ingenue” – a wide-eyed newcomer who wanted to be successful on Broadway more than anything else in their life. Someone whom audiences new to Broadway could experience this world through their eyes. Someone would give up their holidays with their families – not even to perform, but to be backstage in case the opportunity for them to perform finally came. I spoke with and went backstage with many understudies. But finding someone who was both talented, overlooked, dedicated, and right for the camera was a challenge. One night as I lay awake mulling over the many understudies and standbys we’d interviewed, it came to me in a flash. The friend who had first invited me to the understudy concert originally and who had blown me away with her talent. Aléna Watters. She had already been working for many years, but her love for the stage was fresh and her determination was fierce. Every action in her life supported her goal of becoming a leading player on Broadway. Even better, she was genuinely a kind and loving spirit. Aléna is a beautifully alive and passionate person, in addition to being an outstanding talent that hadn’t had the chance to shine. She was perfect.
I also knew I wanted a “professional” understudy or standby. Someone with the unique perspective of what it takes to always be #2 and keep your head held high, who had been able to maintain a career by being versatile enough to fit into a variety of characters, sounds, and styles. When I was introduced to Merwin Foard, I instantly knew I wanted him in the film. Not only did he have an astounding resumé having had 25 Standby roles on Broadway (the most of anyone, to my knowledge) – he was direct and honest about where his career had taken him. There is a warmth and kindness to Merwin that you could feel whenever you’re in his presence that I very much appreciated. When I met his wife, Becky Baxter Foard, who had been a performer herself before stepping away from the stage to raise their two daughters, I was beyond impressed. This was a couple who had supported themselves financially for decades on one performer’s income, and they had made it work not because they were famous or living off five-digit residuals, but because they truly loved the art form and each other. Even though their lives may not have turned out the way they thought it would when they were the new kids on Broadway, they were still a vibrant part of Broadway.
Finally, I needed someone in a unique understudy / standby situation that was about to unfold. Someone essentially in the “Act Two” of the understudy story I would be following. At the concert series a young performer named Ben Crawford had done a breath-taking rendition of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind”. At the time, Ben was the Standby for Brian d’Arcy James for the title character in “Shrek the Musical”, but Brian would be leaving the show and Ben had been given the opportunity to step up and become Shrek when Brian left. For a guy only a few years out of college, this was an incredible opportunity. For someone about to have his name on the marquee next to Sutton Foster’s, he was surprisingly humble and truly grateful for the chance he was about to be given. As I got to know Ben more, I came to appreciate where that groundedness came from and also to enjoy how ridiculously funny he is! A better break couldn’t be happening to a nicer, more talented guy – this was going to be exciting to witness.
It has been an honor and an inspiration to get to know Aléna, Merwin, and Ben. I am thankful for their willingness to share their lives – both onstage and off, and I am honored to now share their stories with you.
I also interviewed almost 40 other understudies and standbys – from the classy and eloquent Bebe Neuwirth and insightfully hilarious David Hyde Pierce to people you probably have never heard of in order to tap into the endlessly challenging circumstances and unbelievable situations these performers endlessly endure. They were performers, agents, directors, producers, and stage managers. Their stories were bizarre, frightening, ridiculous, and heartfelt. I am grateful to each and every one of them who shared also their stories for this documentary.
While “The Standbys” follows three Broadway performers and has the backdrop of the Great White Way, it was important to me that the documentary speak to audiences who don’t live in that world or may never have seen a Broadway show. Ultimately this isn’t a film about Broadway – it’s about each one of us who has been the person supporting the “lead”, who has worked tirelessly without acknowledgement from anyone, and who has a dream that we worry may never come true. These “Standbys” represent the passion, the fear, and the hope in all of us who do so much more than just stand by.