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posted: 3/1/2014 5:45 AM

Film 'The Standbys' probes quirky Broadway part

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  • Actor Merwin Foard is dressed as Gomez for "The Addams Family," in a scene from the documentary "The Standbys." Foard is a top standby, an actor hired to wait in the wings of Broadway shows each night, ready in full costume, just in case the star of the show gets injured or sick.

      Actor Merwin Foard is dressed as Gomez for "The Addams Family," in a scene from the documentary "The Standbys." Foard is a top standby, an actor hired to wait in the wings of Broadway shows each night, ready in full costume, just in case the star of the show gets injured or sick.
    ASSOCIATED PRESS/SUNCHASER ENTERTAINMENT

  • Actor Ben Crawford studies lines in the documentary "The Standbys," about actors who are hired to wait in the wings of Broadway shows each night, in case the star of the show gets injured or sick.

      Actor Ben Crawford studies lines in the documentary "The Standbys," about actors who are hired to wait in the wings of Broadway shows each night, in case the star of the show gets injured or sick.
    ASSOCIATED PRESS/SUNCHASER ENTERTAINMENT

 
By Mark Kennedy
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Merwin Foard has one of the oddest jobs on Broadway: He gets paid not to perform.

Foard is a top standby -- an actor hired to wait in the wings of Broadway shows each night, ready in full costume, just in case the star of the show gets injured or sick. If all goes well, the audience will never see the standby.

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"It is a tricky thing. You have to eat a lot of humble pie," says Foard, who is currently a standby in "Aladdin" at the New Amsterdam Theatre. "You can't have an ego. And you have to look at the bigger picture."

This month, Foard finally gets his own starring part, but in a film: "The Standbys," a documentary by director Stephanie Riggs that tells the professional and personal story of three Broadway standbys.

Unlike understudies or swings, who both perform in the ensemble, standbys only get onstage if there's been a disaster. It is not uncommon to hear an audience boo when it is announced they'll be going on.

For 2½ years starting in 2009, Riggs followed Foard, who was backing up Nathan Lane in "The Addams Family" and Ben Crawford, who covered the title role in "Shrek the Musical." She also watched Alena Watters, a standby in "West Side Story" who includes a harrowing story about the life of a backup in a Bette Midler touring show.

"I wanted to find some people to follow and see the world through their eyes and see what they go through," says Riggs. "Just because they aren't onstage every night doesn't mean that they aren't incredibly talented and incredibly gifted and worth supporting."

The filmmaker also has included interviews about standbys with Zachary Quinto, David Hyde Pierce, Bebe Neuwirth, Brian D'Arcy James, Cheyenne Jackson, Sutton Foster and Katie Finneran.

The film, whose original release last year was hampered by Hurricane Sandy, opened Friday for a run at the Greenwich Village's Quad Cinemas and is now available streaming on demand.

Foard, married with two girls, allowed a camera crew into his dressing room and home life. Though blessed with a tremendous voice and tons of versatility, most nights he's often sitting quietly only a few feet from the stage.

"If I was in that situation, could I do that?" asks Riggs. "Could I watch someone else do a job that I am fully capable of doing? And yet stand on the side and watch somebody else do it? I was inspired by them."

Foard, currently celebrating his 30th year in show business, has been the understudy or standby for the likes of Brian Stokes Mitchell in "Kiss Me Kate," Michael Cerveris in "Sweeney Todd" and Shuler Hensley in "Oklahoma!" He's been a standby for King Triton in "The Little Mermaid" and Oliver Warbucks in "Annie."

While he naturally would love to share his natural gifts with theatergoers, Foard has a family to support and can't always give up steady work to wait for a starring part.

"I turned down a role in a Broadway musical that is now in previews that I would have had a lead role in because it would have meant that I had to wait six months for that show to happen. And I couldn't do that. I knew that my family could not have that drought in our income," he says.

The irony is not lost on Foard that, after the release of the film, he may be more famous as a movie star than a theater performer. "The idea that more people will see me via this film than have seen me onstage in any capacity is kind of staggering," he says, laughing.

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