The life of a standby on Broadway comes with its own unique set of challenges. This stalwart group of people has been hired specifically by their respective shows to come to the theatre every day in case one of the lead performers is unable to perform. If the lead is out — due to illness, injury, or scheduled vacation — the standby is usually on. Otherwise, they're backstage in their dressing room, at the ready, in case of emergency.
Standbys are slightly different from understudies and swings. While understudies are performers in the show who also cover lead roles and swings are hired specifically to cover ensemble roles, standbys are hired on a principal contract like any of the other leads even though they'll spend most of their time waiting in the wings.
Playbill.com recently had a chance to speak with five standby performers on Broadway who shared their stories. For these more-than-capable actors, their daily routines are very much like that of any other actor, but the stumbling blocks and rewards of life as a standby are based on a unique spectrum of emotions that they face.
"You have to flush a lot of ego," says Merwin Foard, a 32-year veteran of Broadway currently covering his 29th and 30th actors — Jonathan Freeman (Jafar) and Clifton Davis (the Sultan) in Aladdin — in his 16-show run on Broadway. "I'm not always good at that. When they need you to save the day because the guy's out, oh boy do they need you. But then, when the guys are in, it's like 'Are you still in this building? My God, I haven't seen you in weeks.'" When standby performers do go on, there can sometimes be incredible pressure. Foard's fellow standby at Aladdin, Michael James Scott, who covers the roles of the Genie (James Monroe Iglehart) and Aladdin's friend Babkak (Brian Gonzales) says, "There is that thing that you don't want to feel like the show is falling short. There is a little bit of pressure that you are going to be driving the ship that night."
Timothy Ware, Billy Porter's standby as Lola in Kinky Boots, adds, "It's that fear of not screwing up the rest of your cast mates. They're used to a certain pace and a certain call-and-response between actors on stage, and here I am, a new body, a new energy that they have to adjust to, and you want to make sure that you hit your mark and that you don't mess up their show. You become just as concerned of not screwing them over as much as you are about not screwing yourself over."
Of course, every standby's job is slightly different. For Tiffany Haas, the standby for the role of Glinda in Wicked (currently played by Kara Lindsay), the pressure is alleviated by the fact that she performed the role in the show's national tour for a year. "I've always felt like I have a great sense of ownership of the role," she says, "and I think a lot of that is due to time and being a part of the show for so long," though she did add, "I'm sure it would've been different if I'd have stood by for Kristin [Chenoweth]."
That pressure to stand by for a well-known name, like Billy Porter or Nathan Lane (whom Foard stood by for in the Chicago and Broadway companies of The Addams Family), is one that several of the standbys interviewed can attest to.
Foard felt that pressure most acutely during his opening moments in The Addams Family. "The family, the Addamses, are gathered in a clump behind the gates to a cemetery when the curtain goes out and then Gomez steps downstage as the first person to address the audience, and you can feel that, 'You're not Nathan Lane. What are you doing on stage? Where's Nathan?'"
He understands the disappointment to a degree. "Broadway's not cheap," he says, "and they've saved up, and they've planned, and they've worked a weekend out of it, and they got a babysitter, and they paid for dinner and parking and all these things — and that person that they hoped to see is not there. And, yes, you fully get that, but at the same time you want to be relaxed in your performance so that at the end, during your bow, you can feel the love. And when you're signing autographs and people are really sweet and complimentary, that's great. That's what you do work for. The bittersweet of that is that, when you're not on, you've got to just climb those steps up to your little perch."
Jackie Burns, Idina Menzel's standby as Elizabeth in If/Then, feels somewhat differently. "Honestly, I wouldn't have taken this job if it weren't to stand by for Idina. There's nobody I would have taken this job for other than her, so I knew what I was up against." For her, the opportunity to stand by for Menzel was a full-circle moment in her career, particularly after playing the role of Elphaba on Broadway and accumulating her own mounting fan base. "When my agent called me saying that David Stone had asked if I would come in and be interested, I took it as the biggest compliment in the world. I think that's epic, and I think that's probably why I'm very proud to say that I am Idina Menzel's standby. If my 18-year-old self watching Wicked, if someone had said, 'Hey, you're going to be standing by for this woman in ten years, I would be like, 'Oh, my God.'"
Still, she acknowledges that "you are a disappointment, and every time no matter what when I go on, people are going to feel gypped no matter how good or how bad I am, because they're not seeing the person that they came to see." A turning point in her outlook came for Burns when she went on for Menzel early in the run midway through a performance. She hadn't had her put-in rehearsal yet, so the pressure was extraordinarily high. As the announcement went out in the house that Menzel's role would be played by Burns, she stepped on the stage to a huge ovation. "It was a very magical moment, because you're the underdog, and I think everyone feels for you. I wanted to stop and say, 'Thank you!'"
Two standbys, Scott and Ware, are covering for Tony winners in their respective roles of the Genie and Lola. Both were quick to dismiss the idea that the award had added significant pressure to their jobs. Ultimately, Scott told me, "It's amazing, because the energy of that helps the standby as well." The role of the Genie, he says, carries its own expectations independent of the performer, something that he and Iglehart have discussed throughout the show's run thus far.
Ware made an artistic comparison to explain the differences between Porter's Tony-winning performance and his own. "Billy's going to bring his interpretation to the role of Lola, and me as an individual, I'll bring my interpretation within the constraints of what I've been directed to do. It's kind of like a coloring book to me. Billy might take a purple crayon and color inside a box, and I might take a blue crayon, but I'm going to stay within the lines, but at the end of the day it's still my picture."
Haas echoed that sentiment. "I would like to think that there are numerous people who are capable of playing roles," she says, "and it just so happens that the way timing works out and what someone is wanting to hear and see at this moment in time is that person, and what they want to stand by for them is this person."
Many standbys also hope their roles will be a stepping stone to other opportunities. Scott, who feels a sense of freedom from his director, Casey Nicholaw, to create his own version of the Genie rather than merely mimicking Iglehart's, hopes that his dedication as a standby might pay off. "I just hope that I'm always on my gig and I'm always prepared so the team knows that in the future, if something comes up wherever there's another Aladdin that if they need a reliable guy, that I'm the guy, that I can do that for them. That to me is worth all of the disappointment of not being on stage right now in this process." Most actors recalled their first time going on in their respective roles as a particular highlight, mostly because of the adrenaline rush that comes from that first time on stage with costumes, sets, and lights. "Getting through 'Friend Like Me' the first time was as if I had won the election of being president," Scott said. "It felt like the craziest thing, because it's such an insane marathon."
Foard recalls going on for Nathan Lane during Thanksgiving weekend of the Chicago out-of-town tryouts when Lane was ill, very early in the run of the show. His family was in town for the holiday, and he remembers going out to eat with them after a show, looking across the table and asking, "Can somebody tell me what just happened?" He described that first string of performances, for which he underwent "a crash course in all things Gomez" as a "miraculous blur."
Several of those interviewed made sure they kept other creative outlets close at hand. Haas, who uses some of her backstage downtime to design a forthcoming line of bags called FullBeat, is happy to have other pursuits. "When I was on tour," she says, "I never had a bag that could carry all of my cosmetics, and my brushes, and everything to travel with, and so I started designing them myself, and that became a fun project [that] turned into a little business." Ware, who is also a writer, is working on an original musical, A Taste of Chocolate, that will have a developmental reading at Amas Musical Theatre. He uses his time backstage to hone the material.
Haas, who's leaving Wicked soon for other opportunities, including Lady, Be Good at City Center's Encores! series, keeps a sunny and upbeat attitude about her time as a standby. Crew members and house staff backstage at the Gershwin Theatre are quick to praise her talents. Still, the disappointments of the job aren't lost on her. "You can't get a momentum when you're a standby. It's kind of like, 'I'm ready! Does anybody want to see me go onstage? No? No, okay, all right, okay.'"
She recalls an earlier stint at Wicked years back as a swing covering multiple ensemble tracks. "It's just a full-circle dream," she says, "because when I was here as a swing I would look up and see the bubble — if I was standing in the wings, supposed to be looking at the tracks I had just learned — I would stand and look at the bubble."
The bubble is a kind of symbol for her, signalling that despite the challenges of the job, she's on Broadway playing a great role — well, at least occasionally. On those nights when she's on, she's hooked into that floating set piece off stage right moments before the opening chords are struck and the show's first song begins. The bubble descends, and Haas — riding on a high for the night — speaks her first line: "It's good to see me, isn't it?" Richard Patterson is a critic and editor for Exeunt Magazine as well as a playwright and lyricist-in-training. Visit him at therichardpatterson.com and follow @broadwaygayby on Twitter.