You shouldn't groan when you open your theater program and you see a little slip of paper announcing that at this performance, the role normally played by your favorite star will be played by someone you've never heard of. You should see it as an opportunity to discover a new favorite star. That's the biggest takeaway from director Stephanie Riggs' documentary The Standbys, which will begin an exclusive engagement at New York City's Quad Cinema on February 21. The film follows three Broadway standbys as they learn all the music and blocking for a lead role in a big show…and then wait in a small lounge for the star to call out sick. Rarely do they actually get to perform, but when they do, it's the stuff of Broadway dreams.
TheaterMania spoke with Riggs and one of her subjects: Ben Crawford. Crawford was the standby for Brian d'Arcy James in the original Broadway run of Shrek The Musical. He took over the role of Shrek when James left the production in 2009. He also recently understudied for Norbert Leo Butz in Big Fish in addition to playing the role of "Don Price." First, here's a glossary of terms:
Standby: This person learns all of the lines, songs, and blocking for one or two lead roles in a show. They usually wait around backstage during shows and perform only when the star calls out. Producers will usually hire standbys only for big, challenging roles (e.g. Shrek).
Understudy: Not all shows have standbys, but most big shows have understudies. Understudies appear in every performance in a minor role, but they also learn one of the lead roles just in case the star cannot perform. When that happens, another understudy or a swing usually assumes the role normally performed by the understudy.
Swing: A musical-theater ninja, a swing is responsible for learning several roles in the show, usually ensemble and supporting parts. They often sing in several different octaves and can dance like a maniac.
Now, on with the interview:
What attracted you to the subject of Broadway standbys?
Stephanie Riggs: I have a background in theater. I studied directing at Carnegie-Mellon. I attended a concert called "At This Performance." It's just Broadway understudies, standbys, swings. They go onstage and perform songs from their shows and tell stories. They had crazy stories about being thrown on in the middle of shows without any rehearsal. I sat there and said to myself, This is a story that needs to be told.
Is that how you met Ben?
Stephanie Riggs: Ben happened to be at that concert. I was looking to follow someone...where something was about to happen to them. Ben was the standby for Brian d'Arcy James in Shrek. Brian was about to leave the show and Ben was going to take over. That's when I approached him.
Did you worry that being the subject of a film about standbys would pigeonhole you in that role forever, Ben?
Ben Crawford: Hahaha. Not really. I've always told myself it's more about having a career than being a star. I want to be able to do this until I'm older. If you go that star route, it can also pigeonhole you in certain ways. I was actually quite excited about doing the film because it's this chance to give a genuine and real look at what we actually do.
It must be intimidating to go into a show when people are expecting someone else.
Ben Crawford: As an understudy, you can't compare yourself with them. There's a reason they're doing that part and there's a reason you're the understudy. A lot of times they're well known and they're going to put the butts in the seats. From a business standpoint, that makes sense. As an understudy you have to make it your own. But your job is to make sure the show goes on and the story follows the same line [so the audience] still sees the show the way they were supposed to. In Big Fish, I had to go on in the middle of a performance. Poor Norbert hurt himself and couldn't continue. The audience is cheering for you because it's such a crazy thing to happen in the middle of a show.
That's insane. What happened?
Ben Crawford: He had been really sick throughout press week. I heard him coughing during the matinee and I'm sitting in my dressing room and here comes the assistant director [in the middle of the matinee] and he says, "You're on." So you go and do it. That's how it is. The funny thing is, the next day the stage manager comes up and tells me they would have had to cancel the show if I couldn't do it. That's why they pay you to understudy. In situations like that, it is going to come down to you.
So who played your role?
Ben Crawford: My buddy Preston Boyd was a swing and he made his Broadway debut that day in my part.
Is there such a thing as a swing trap? Can you be too talented in too many ways and get stuck being a swing forever?
Ben Crawford: There's this motto: "Once a swing, always a swing." It's not true. It is such an incredibly difficult thing. I don't know if I could ever do it. In shows like Shrek or Big Fish, where it's so physical and you have people calling out, swings are not only responsible for four ensemble roles, but also four secondary roles. God forbid you're a girl and you have to go on for a guy track. Guess what? They're putting you in a costume and you're going on.
You've been touring this show around to festivals for a couple of years now. What has the response been like?
Stephanie Riggs: The coolest thing for me was getting e-mails from people saying, "I was a person who would boo when the standby went on and that piece of paper fell out of my [program]. Now, when a swing goes on I go back and wait for them after the show at the stage door to congratulate the performer and say how much I appreciate what they do." That shift in audience mentality is great for Broadway, tremendous for these performers, and that's what the film is out there to do: embrace these underappreciated performers and give audiences a reason to cheer for them.