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.