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Pinch-Hitting on Broadway

Standing by for a star is not an assignment for the faint of heart.

By New York City
David Masenheimer (right) understudiedMandy Patinkin (left) in The Wild Party
David Masenheimer (right) understudied
Mandy Patinkin (left) in The Wild Party
Standbys and understudies are heroes. Like firemen, they rush in to save a show on a moment's notice. The three actors interviewed for this piece have (or recently had) the responsibility of covering for stars: Jack Davidson for Roy Dotrice in A Moon for the Misbegotten, David Masenheimer for Mandy Patinkin in The Wild Party (now closed), and Karyn Quackenbush for Bernadette Peters in Annie Get Your Gun.

These pinch-hitters have their own impressive credits. Davidson has worked on Broadway, at Lincoln Center (Twelfth Night, Ah, Wilderness!, The Little Foxes, A Fair Country), the McCarter Theatre, and the Berkley Repertory; he has a major role in a new film, The Autumn Heart, opening this fall. Masenheimer has been seen and heard on the Main Stem in Les Misérables (as Javert), Ragtime (as Henry Ford), Side Show, and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Quackenbush's credits include Broadway (Blood Brothers), Off-Broadway (I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change), film (Isn't She Great), and TV (Law and Order). "Good understudies are hard to find, says Quackenbush. "You need someone consistent, who enjoys the job and has the spirit for it." According to Masenheimer, "Being a standby is like, bang! You're shot out of a cannon. And, when you get to the end of the night, you're fried. It's a wild ride."

On TheaterMania's behalf, I spoke to these intrepid performers about the plusses and minuses of their situation.

********************

TM: What exactly is your job as a standby?

DAVIDSON: I'm hired to be able to go on in case of an emergency, to do a credible job, and to keep the show going for the other principal actors so it doesn't lose texture. I have to be able to step in for Roy Dotrice when needed, and do it well enough so that people aren't screaming for their money back.

TM: What was it like the first time you went on?

QUACKENBUSH: It was March 14, my husband's birthday. We were at the Hourglass Tavern on West 46th Street. I had my beeper on me. Ten minutes after nine, the beeper went off, because Bernadette Peters had gotten sick in the middle of the show. I got to the theater in two minutes, and 20 minutes later began the second act. It's the best way for a standby to go on: The audience got to see Bernadette, and they also got to participate in a backstage drama.

MASENHEIMER: Mandy Patinkin did seven previews and injured his vocal cords. I had never had a rehearsal; I'd seen only one run-thru. They were in tech, so I sat for 13 days and watched them set the lights. I had no sense of continuity. They had a put-in rehearsal for me, and I went on that night. I knew the words, but I had never sung it.

DAVIDSON: I was understudying two parts in The Price at the Roundabout Theater. I had been there only one week. One of the actors wanted to save his voice for opening night. There was no rehearsal, but they said that I had to go on. I said, "Put that thing in my ear." It's a radio device that's connected to the stage manager; he recites your lines to you, and you act them. It was thrilling. Arthur Miller came to me afterwards and said, "Oh my God--it's like the pilot died, and you, the passenger, flew the plane and landed it." That actor never missed another performance.

TM: Did you feel prepared, terrified--both?

QUACKENBUSH: I'd been rehearsing the show and watching it once a week for eight months. I said to myself, "You know this. The only difference is that there are going to be lights, an orchestra, and 1500 people." The first time the beeper went off, I was sick to my stomach, but you get over it. You go on.

DAVIDSON: Standing by is a dangerous thing to do. I don't think I'll ever feel prepared, but I could go on if I had to. I know this part now.

MASENHEIMER: I heard the audience react to not seeing Mandy, saying, "Oh no, this is fraudulent! They can't do that." I could have reacted to their disappointment, but I simply didn't let myself go to that place. I had my hands full with things to concentrate on. I didn't have time to doubt myself, because I'm out there with some heavy hitters: Eartha Kitt and Toni Collette. You gotta put out.


Karyn Quackenbush
Karyn Quackenbush
TM: Tell me about rehearsals. Who helps you?

QUACKENBUSH: You can ask questions; but, most of the time, it's your job to figure it out. You don't have the luxury of a six-week rehearsal process where you talk to the director. The stage manager gives you the blocking and the basics, and it's your job to come up with it on your own. If they see that something is missing, they will give you notes.

DAVIDSON: They brought in the standbys when A Moon for the Misbegotten began previews. We rehearse with our stage manager on Thursdays and Fridays, from 1 to 5pm. We don't use costumes or properties, we don't sit around discussing the play. There's no feedback. Our job is to get up on the part so we can go on.

MASENHEIMBER: None of the rehearsals are about acting. It's all about logistics.

TM: How do you make the role your own while satisfying the needs of the other actors?

MASENHEIMER: I try very hard not to imitate Mandy. But it's written for him, with his voice in mind; I can only be myself to a certain degree. You have to be in the right place because of the lights, and you have to follow the same tempos because of the orchestra, and you have to keep similar rhythms in the scenes because you don't want to mess up anybody else's show. Meanwhile, you try to be yourself. It's crazy.

DAVIDSON: A standby never owns a character, because it belongs to someone else. I'm not going to be Roy Dotrice, although I'll be close to what he's doing. I watch the show, hear his rhythm.

QUACKENBUSH: It's difficult. You watch the show and, almost by osmosis, somebody's line readings can get into your body without even wanting them to. You have to fight against it. In the rehearsal process, little by little you start to find your own.

TM: How do you keep your performance energy ready when you're not on every night?

QUACKENBUSH: When that beeper goes off, something clicks in.

MASENHEIMER: I was out on my balcony in shorts painting a piece of furniture. It was 6:30, I hadn't shaved in two days, hadn't had dinner. The phone rang and they said, "You're on." I had paint on my hands; I had to shave, shower, and warm up, run through the show in my head and get to work. If you do a show every day and you're playing a role, your whole day is based on that eventuality. Somehow, your energy follows a certain arc to get there. So this is odd, because you don't want to put yourself on that arc if it's not gonna be the destination. You can't build up all that energy and then have to go sit in the basement of the theater.

TM: Why do you stand by?

MASENHEIMER: It's full of frustration. It's not easy. I never get warning. But it's George C. Wolfe and Michael John LaChiusa. It's completely an honor. Standing by for Mandy Patinkin is not too shabby.

DAVIDSON: I'm working on Broadway. I'm getting a decent week's pay that counts for my pension and unemployment. I also do it because I want to get close to a part that's great.

QUACKENBUSH: I miss doing eight shows a week and creating something from the beginning. Yet it's a great part. Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun--it doesn't get much better than that! Every time I go on, it's a rush.


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