Disrespected by both audiences and the headliners who they’re hired to step in for at a moment’s notice, Broadway understudies get their own brief moment in the spotlight in The Standbys.
Director Stephanie Riggs’s brief, amiable documentary focuses on three subjects, a wisely narrow gaze that affords genuine insight into the aspirations, struggles, and fleeting triumphs and failures of Ben Crawford, Merwin Foard, and Aléna Watters.
From stories about siblings’ deaths and sleeping on couches to tales about being snubbed by producers who tend to forget they even exist and stars who’d do anything to avoid ceding the stage to a backup, the film captures the unshakable grip live performing has on these musical theater-lovers, as well as the personal and familial sacrifices that come along with their in-reserve roles.
Through interviews with relatives, friends, producers, critics, and Broadway luminaries (Bebe Neuwirth, David Hyde Pierce), The Standbys conveys the brutal instability of a vocation in which opportunities to use one’s talents are scarce and, even when momentarily achieved, disappear after curtain.
Short and sweet, it’s an empathetic and affecting tribute to the great — and vital — artists who all too rarely receive a center-stage encore.