Understudies and Standbys Talk About Their Often Thankless Job

actorsFor Broadway audiences, there might not be anything more disappointing than an announcement that one of the main cast members of the show you’re seeing has been replaced for the performance you are seeing.  It’s particularly frustrating when the cast member being replaced is the major star that convinced you to buy the ticket in the first place.

In fact, the actor who replaces that actor might be dreading it as much as you are.  As Stephanie Riggs, the director of the new documentary The Standbys, points out, that replacement actor knows how the audience feels: “When that piece of paper falls out of the program, there’s a definite sense you’re not getting your money’s worth.”

As such, being an understudy or standby (an “understudy” is an actor who is already in the cast in a smaller role, while a “standby” is a replacement actor who has no other role in the production except to go on when the primary actor cannot) can seem like a thankless job.  Then again, stars such as Dustin Hoffman, Bebe Neuwirth, David Hyde Pierce, James Gandolfini, Natalie Portman and Britney Spears have spent time as understudies and standbys, meaning that it could be a steppingstone to a leading career.

In other cases, it’s a lucrative experience.  Actresses Elaine Stritch and Danielle Skraastad served as standbys for Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam and Katie Holmes for All My Sons, respectively, and neither star ever missed a performance.  Stritch recalls, “It was the greatest vacation I ever had in my life.”  Skraastad reveals that Holmes was generous despite the fact that she didn’t have take any of her workload, saying, “Katie gave us all presents for the first preview, a nice gift for opening, and for closing, I got a cappuccino machine.”

For others, being an understudy was an intimidating, but rewarding experience.  Jeffry Denman, who was Matthew Broderick’s understudy for The Producers, remembers his first time stepping in for Broderick to “star” alongside Nathan Lane.  His book A Year With the Producers recounts, “No entrance applause. Good, I didn’t expect it. I was prepped for that. Just move on. Say the lines… I gave Nathan the cue to erupt from the newspapers, and he scared me to death. Of course, I knew he was there, but my adrenaline was pumping so high, I completely lost it for a good three seconds. Nathan came over to me with his [lines], ‘Who are you? What are you doing here? Speak, dummy, speak!’ The rest is a blur. At 11p.m., I was at the other end of one of the best performances of my life. The audience was tentative about me at first, but I felt I won them over. I stepped on two of Nathan’s laughs, but I knew I could fix that. At the intermission, Nathan turned to me and said, ‘You’re doing a great job,’ and smiled broadly. That was all I needed.”  Denman later went on to star in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, so he obviously didn’t stay a standby forever.
As for other understudies and standbys, the chance to one day become a leading actor is more than enough promise to keep them waiting in the wings.  And who knows?  They might end up getting a cappuccino machine from Katie Holmes as part of the deal!

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