The Standbys: Film Review

Enjoyable doc celebrates theater pros who rarely see the spotlight

Stephanie Riggs introduces three Broadway actors who spend most of their jobs offstage.

It may not be 20 Feet from Stardom, but in its modest way Stephanie Riggs's doc The Standbys is as illuminating for theater fans, introducing the gifted and dedicated actors who, though dreaming of having their own names up in lights, take jobs as the back-up performers waiting in case the star takes "break a leg" too literally one night. Enjoyable and benefiting from a well selected trio of subjects, the film will please drama buffs and aspiring thespians who find it in niche bookings and should have a healthy life on video.

Riggs introduces us to three actors of obvious talent: Ben Crawford, standby for the title role in the musical Shrek; Merwin Foard, the lantern-jawed backup for Nathan Lane in The Addams Family; and Alena Watters, who's been at it since getting $300 for a standby gig at the age of ten. The vets sit together in a dressing room, swapping tales of near-misses when they almost got to fill in — as it turns out, "most stars would rather die than have the understudy go on" — and admit to feeling unappreciated by most of a production's cast and crew. It's probably easy to take somebody for granted when, after learning all your lines and blocking, he spends most of every night playing video games in a little-used room while waiting for a call that never comes.

Riggs also follows each actor individually, and (though the chronology isn't clear) spent enough time making the film to catch dramatic events in each performer's career. Gigs are offered, leads get sick or leave the show, big breaks go poof. The filmmaker was either very lucky in her choice of subjects, whose experiences complement the others' and offer a nice dose of backstage drama, or she followed many more actors than the three who made the final cut.

The doc is peppered with appearances by stars -- Bebe Neuwirth, Zachary Quinto, Cheyenne Jackson -- who've either been standbys themselves or are sensitive to their plight. As eager as they are to get to play the part, after all, it's no fun to know that the day you get to go on is the day the audience dreads. "You get paid for the groan," we're told, referring to an audience's disappointment when the big name they paid such outrageous amounts to see is out with a cold. David Hyde Pierce tries to put things in perspective for the disappointed theatergoer: "This is an afternoon for you. For them, it's their life."

Production Company: Sunchaser Entertainment

Director: Stephanie Riggs

Producers: Stephanie Riggs, Blair Erickson

Executive producers: John A. Pinckard, Lily Fan

Directors of photography: Tom Hurwitz, Julia Dengel

Music: Jonathan Dinerstein

Editors: Blair Erickson, Emma Joan Morris

No rating, 76 minutes