In the super-hyped world of so-called “reality” TV shows, the most talented singers, dancers and entertainers always triumph at the end of the day. The unsuccessful contestants on everything from America’s Got Talent, The Voice and any number of similarly-scripted shows, are either not talented enough or just not ready for stardom.
But what if someone told you that some of the most talented don’t get a starring role despite constant rehearsals and being extremely good at their craft? What if the some of the best singers, dancers and the most versatile performers were actually closeted away backstage during every Broadway show?
This is the intriguing idea behind the documentary “The Standbys” which puts forward a convincing case that those anonymous standbys, understudies and “swings” (ready to perform any number of the roles at any time) behind the scenes at every single show playing video games and waiting patiently for their time in the limelight, are actually some of the biggest talents. Their reasons for choosing this path are wide and varied.
As you watch the three people profiled in this documentary, you’ll have no trouble accepting the premise.
Ben Crawford was the standby for Tony Award Nominee Brian d’Arcy James’ Shrek. He finally got the opportunity to step into the role full-time–only to find out the show was closing and going on the road–but without Crawford in the lead role.
Merwin Foard was the standby for Tony Award Winner Nathan Lane in “The Addams Family” and finally got his opportunity in the spotlight. But, will his determination to feed his family on the reliable standby income mean we don’t see him on stage as much as we should?
Alena Watters was a backup singer and then, the “swing” for Bette Midler’s Harlettes before being let go and eventually realizing that playing “second fiddle” was destroying her personally. She decided to pick herself up after a painful breakup with her boyfriend and go solo.
All three have amazing talent and as the documentary explains, have to be so in order to be chosen to take on the responsibility of standby. Unlike understudies, who will play another character until they are needed to fill in for one of the lead roles, the standby is expected to sit backstage and be prepared to go on at any time. It takes a special kind of performer to forever sit off, waiting and willing to go on at a moment’s notice. Watters was chosen because of her incredible vocal versatility and many of the standbys are exceptionally good at memorizing multiple musical roles in a single script. All must be generally unshakeably good at performing under pressure. In a nutshell–they are so good they find themselves relegated to a position of emergency backup. It’s a new way of looking at standbys.
In Foard’s case, his desire for stability and a steady income (standbys are paid whether they perform or not) to support his family, is what led him into this less than ideal, behind-the-scenes role. For Crawford, he was grieving the loss of his younger brother when he found himself in the standby role. The safety of the sidelines was good enough for him as he committed to stay by his parents’ side during a difficult time. By the end of the documentary, it’s clear that his intention is to move on and away from his parents in order to find a role better suited to showcasing his significant talent.
Watters’ decision to write and produce her own show is a bittersweet victory for this powerhouse singer, actor and dancer, as she finds herself working closely with her ex-boyfriend, even though he has moved on to a new relationship.
The audience in Calgary was captivated by this documentary as they rode the roller coaster lives of this threesome. Director Stephanie Riggs is a skillful storyteller and a wonderful filmmaker. A thoroughly entertaining movie that’ll make you rethink your ideas of what it takes to be a star and who might be waiting in the wings for their turn.
The Standbys plays again at the Calgary International Film Festival on Monday, Sept. 24 at 2:15 p.m.