There's a chameleon lurking in the wings over at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. No, I'm not talking about the Basil Twist creature that lives under Pugsley Addams' bed.
Eight times a week this chameleon, known as actor Merwin Foard, sits patiently backstage, prepared to step in for Nathan Lane's Gomez or Terrence Mann's Mal Beineke — just in case anything goes wrong with either performer.
Foard, a longtime musical theatre vet, has spent the last few years standing by for some of Broadway's biggest stars, from Michael Cerveris' Sweeney in Sweeney Todd to Brian Stokes Mitchell's Fred in Kiss Me, Kate. Foard's new home is now with The Addams Family.
"I arrive at the theatre an hour before curtain and go to the green room, where we have a video screen of the stage," said Foard during a recent matinee. "Once the performance begins, I watch the monitor and check for differences in choreography and blocking. Physically, I perform the show with the performers while watching it on the screen." Unlike a typical understudy in a Broadway musical, who also appears as a minor role in the show or in the chorus, Foard is called a standby — a role that demands an actor to literally stand by — in case a leading performer needs to miss a show or leave mid-performance.
"It's a tricky thing to take on," added Foard. "You have to do it all on your own. You're subject to watch the rehearsal...but you're rarely physically on your feet...so it requires a lot of homework you need to do privately."
That homework came in handy out of town last fall in Chicago, where The Addams Family had its world premiere.
"It was Thanksgiving weekend and Nathan came down with bronchitis," said Foard. "I had no rehearsal and we were in previews. All the rehearsal time had been afforded to the actual cast, so when it was announced that Nathan was going to have to miss a show, we all went into emergency mode."
He added, "I worked with our musical director, choreographer and director to get me as physically prepared as I could be in a rehearsal studio so that I could do the next three performances."
As for his initial reaction when he was told he was going on for the first time as Gomez? "Shock. It was so early on in the process and you can't fault Nathan for being ill. I got into this laser focus. You say to yourself: '[I] have to do it' — because the only other option is to cancel the performance."
It also helps to get support from the show's leading lady, Bebe Neuwirth. "Bebe was fantastic. She was there to rehearse scenes and choreography."
And while this chameleon, who calls himself "the Swiss army knife of Broadway," has made a career of standing by for some of Broadway's finest, he says he hopes to continue to shed layers, looking forward to new experiences on The Great White Way.
"Of course it's nice to be thought of as a dependable back-up. But I'm anxious to have a role outright and not have to split focus."
(Frank DiLella is the theatre producer for NY1 News.)
Check out the earlier Understanding Broadway feature about replacement actors.